Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Cobalt Reveries: Reflections on the Paintings of Michael Davidson

Magistrati show, 2016, Herringer Kiss Gallery, Calgary, Alberta.

All the photographs in this piece are courtesy of Michael Davidson.

 

"In the pandemonium of image, I present you with the universal blue. Blue is an open door to soul. An infinite possibility becoming tangible."
– Derek Jarman, 1993.

Loneliness is the cloak you wear
A deep shade of blue is always there
– Scott Walker, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, 1966.

Michael Davidson is a painter of atmospheres, of emotional weather, of liminal portals and of frozen music. Sometimes the interface of images, words and music becomes a very active one, a sort of chemical reaction which seems to occur in vivid immediacy, and also one which engages the eye and the brain in a new and novel mode of elevated or enhanced expression. The responses can be new but this intermedia mode is not; it is, in fact, quite ancient in origin and sends its shimmering shadow to us all the way from the long-lost classical world. The almost-forgotten tempus fugit before our civilization entered a state of collective amnesia known as the Medieval period, and prior to the rebirth of knowledge salvaged from the earlier thousand-year darkness. The word for this kind of interactive relationship between images and words is ekphrasis.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Nomadland and Never Rarely Sometimes Always: Small Potatoes

Frances McDormand in Nomadland (2020).

Fern (played by Frances McDormand), the protagonist of Nomadland, loses her job and her home in a Nevada company town after the 2008 financial downturn and takes to the road in an RV, traveling through the west to wherever she can find work. The writer-director Chloé Zhao, dramatizing a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder (its subtitle is Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century), initially presents the character’s itinerant lifestyle as an economic necessity that she makes the best of. But in the second half of the film, when we see her pass up two offers (of different kinds) to settle down, we learn that she’s always been resistant to staying in one place – that she only lived for years in tiny Empire, Nevada (which ceased to exist after the company shuttered), because her husband, now dead of cancer, loved it so much. The movie seems to be moving in two different directions at the same time – to be commenting on the way the downturn uprooted the lives of many working-class people and to be promoting the nomadic lifestyle as a viable choice. Dramatically it’s confused.

Monday, February 15, 2021

“Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you”: Our Town and Another Day’s Begun

Eric Stoltz and Penelope Ann Miller in Gregory Mosher's production of Our Town, 1989.

I’ve been living with Our Town for more than half a century, so I was startled to discover, in the interviews Howard Sherman conducted with (mostly) actors and directors for his new book Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century, that so many theatre people were unfamiliar with the play when they signed on to participate in contemporary productions of it. I encountered Our Town in a literature class during my senior year of high school, and I recall vividly sitting in the front row, rapt, as my teacher read the third act out loud – and struggling, probably pathetically, to hide my tears as Emily, who has just died in childbirth, returns to relive her twelfth birthday but, overcome with the anguish of seeing her precious past from the perspective of one who knows the future, begs the Stage Manager to take her back to her grave on the hill. I fell completely in love with the play – and with Thornton Wilder, who had recently published his penultimate novel, The Eighth Day, which I subsequently devoured. (I reread The Eighth Day a couple of years ago; it really is the masterpiece I took it for at seventeen.) Wilder won the National Book Award for that book, four decades after he’d taken the Pulitzer Prize for his second book, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. He also won Pulitzers for Our Town and for The Skin of Our Teeth, and he had considerable success with The Matchmaker, which most people know in its musical-comedy adaptation, Hello, Dolly!. Plus he penned the screenplay for one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies, Shadow of a Doubt.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Strictly Conventional: Alex Winter's Disappointing New Zappa Documentary

Frank Zappa. (Photo: Roelof Kiers/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

I have been listening to a lot of Frank Zappa's music of late, everything from The MOFO Project/Object: The Making of Freakout! (2006), a double-CD documentary look at his first (1966) album (with The Mothers of Invention) to Make a Jazz Noise Here (1993), highlighting his 1988 band – one of the final discs to come out during his lifetime – the last group he toured with before he was diagnosed with cancer. (He passed away in 1993 at age 52). Most recently, I purchased and thoroughly enjoyed the posthumously released Halloween 81 highlights CD (2020), featuring Zappa at, perhaps, his live best. (The 6-CD box set of three 1981 New York concerts is too pricey, however.) So, being immersed in this genius's oeuvre, I was quite psyched to see Zappa (2020) the latest documentary on the man.

Alex Winter's is actually the second documentary about Frank Zappa to reach our screens in the last five years. But whereas German filmmaker Thorsten Schütte's Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (2016) was an effective, compelling look inside the world of Zappa, filtered solely through interviews given by Zappa himself, news accounts on him, and various of his musical performances around the world, Winter's Zappa is a more conventional affair that, at best, offers a glancing and superficial view of why Zappa mattered.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Divergent Genius Who Finds Without Seeking: Simon Baron-Cohen's The Pattern Seekers

Simon Baron-Cohen, author of The Pattern Seekers.

"Philosophers have long posited self-knowledge as a foundational necessity for a moral life. But what if that goal is not merely illusive but impossible? The very notion of a self may be a comforting fiction, a tale we tell to mitigate our fear of mutation, even dissolution. 'We are merely ashes,' Pessoa writes in The Book of Disquiet, 'endowed with a soul, lacking any shape, not even that of water, which takes the shape of the glass containing it.'” – Nolan Kelly, Hyperallergic

Simon Baron-Cohen’s excellent new book, The Pattern Seekers: A New Theory of Human Invention, is based on a shockingly simple premise. The reason we humans are unique among sentient beings and distinct from other creatures which lack (supposedly) language or intellect, is the prevalence in our consciousness of a single special trait: our ability to look for and discern, identify and widely co-distribute patterns. The most important pattern formation, for Baron-Cohen, is also the simplest one, what he calls the “if-and-then” pattern. This he considers the ability to surmise that if so and so might be true or possible, then such and such is the predictable result. This notion is so basic and elemental that it has the charm and beauty of being a revealed truth all on its own, especially since many such results are in fact inherently unpredictable.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Simply Sondheim: Breaking Through

Emily Skinner and Solea Pfeiffer performing "Losing My Mind" and "Not a Day Goes By" in Simply Sondheim.

Stephen Sondheim’s oeuvre has generated more musical revues than that of any other composer or lyricist in the history of the American theatre; I’ve seen at least eight of them. Simply Sondheim, which the Signature Theatre is streaming through the end of March, is the freshest, the most spirited and perhaps the best performed. Under the direction of Matthew Gardiner (who also choreographed), it’s presumably a necessarily pared-down version of a Signature production that Arlington, Virginia audiences saw in 2015, but it’s not on Zoom – it’s enacted on the Signature’s Manhattan stage, with musical director Jon Kalbfleisch conducting a small band behind a dozen singers. Its unadorned quality, in tandem with the presence of the camera, works to showcase the singers, not one of whom is less than admirable. Sondheim is famously demanding on vocalists, and a revue setting, where the numbers have been removed from their dramatic context, places an even tougher burden on them because of the complexity of the material and the intricacy of its link to its source. You don’t need to see South Pacific to understand the meaning of “This Nearly Was Mine”; it’s self-explanatory. But “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George or “The Worst Pies in London” from Sweeney Todd doesn’t stand alone, so anyone who performs it in an evening of Sondheim selections needs considerable acting skill to make sense of either of these songs for theatregoers. The knowledge of the legion of loyal Sondheim fans can only extend so far – and of course everyone in the audience isn’t likely to be an aficionado.

Monday, February 1, 2021

One Night in Miami: Show, Don’t Tell

Leslie Odom Jr.as Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami (2020).

Kemp Powers adapted the screenplay of One Night in Miami from his stage play, and though he and the director, Regina King, have tried to open it up – especially in the first half hour – it still feels like a play, essentially locked into its motel-room setting even when the camera ventures away from it. I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem: the enforced insularity of the Sidney Lumet movie of Long Day’s Journey into Night enhances the intimacy, and the fact that we don’t leave the house where Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles takes place helps to escalate the dramatic power of the text (and of the performances). The problem is that One Night in Miami is a bad play.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Prescriptions for Melancholy: Rachel Blum and Paul Celan

Paul Celan (1920-1970).
“I can swim like everyone else, only I have a better memory than them. I have not forgotten my former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it, my ability to swim is of no avail and in the end I cannot swim.” – Franz Kafka, Notebook, 1920

One thing an art and literary critic, or any cogent observer really, never wants to do if they can help it is to compare a contemporary painter to Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman, compare a contemporary musician to Brian Eno or Terry Riley, compare a contemporary playwright to Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter, and especially not to compare a contemporary poet to Paul Celan or W.S. Merwin. Poets, and the rest, hate being compared to giants in their field, even if it’s meant in the most complimentary way, since it taints their work with unfairly gargantuan lauding, the weighty shadow of which might be too much for them to comfortably bear. And yet, that last poetic reference is exactly the aesthetic crime I’m compelled to commit in this assessment of two new and recent books, one by and the other about, two poets of sterling caliber. 

Monday, January 25, 2021

Neglected Gem: Friends with Benefits (2011)

Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis in Friends with Benefits (2011). (Photo: David Giesbrecht)

The title is a cliché, and there are half a dozen other movies with the same one. But the movie itself, a romantic comedy co-starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, is a charmer with a distinctive voice. Will Gluck made it in 2011, the year after he released Easy A, a startlingly fresh teen comedy that featured one of Emma Stone’s first major roles. Stone plays Olive, a smart, imaginative young woman attending high school in Ojai, California who is overlooked by most of her peers until her best friend (Aly Michalka) insists that she must have lost her virginity while her parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) left her alone for the weekend and, weary of denying it, Olive pretends it’s true. The head of a Christian group (Amanda Bynes) dedicated to preserving their and their classmates’ chastity overhears the conversation and spreads it around, and suddenly Olive finds herself with a scandalous reputation she hasn’t earned. To complicate things, a gay male classmate (Dan Byrd) begs her to pretend she’s gone to bed with him, too, to put an end to the torment he puts up with at school.  Witty and savvy, Easy A is one of the best teen comedies of the last twenty years, and it feels as if Gluck and the screenwriter, Bert V. Royal, have shaped it around their charismatic star.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Master Acting Classes: The Right Stuff (1983)

Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Scott Paulin, Ed Harris, Charles Frank, Scott Glenn and Lance Henriksen in The Right Stuff (1983).

In The Right Stuff, writer-director Philip Kaufman pulls off the near-impossible. Not only does he find a deeply satisfying way to dramatize Tom Wolfe’s cheeky, novelistic non-fiction chronicle of the development of the NASA space program, but in the course of three hours and fifteen minutes he moves from satirizing it to celebrating it. He does it with the aid of his brilliant collaborator Caleb Deschanel, whose astonishingly varied cinematography moves from a replication of the velvety, myth-bound westerns of John Ford in the thirties and forties and George Stevens in the fifties through a wide, muted yet clear-eyed reflection of the late fifties and early sixties in New Mexico and Florida to a gloriously trippy depiction of John Glenn’s triple orbit around the earth in the Friendship Seven in 1962. And he does it with the aid of one of the most thrilling ensemble casts ever put together – almost all of whom were relative unknowns in 1983.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Denise LaSalle: The Other Queen


Faraway places with strange sounding names 
Far away over the sea
Those faraway places . . . are calling, calling to me.
They call me a dreamer, well, maybe I am
But I know that I’m burning to see
Those faraway places with the strange sounding names
Calling, calling to me . . .

– Joan Whitney Kramer

The struggle for the spotlight. It can be a perilous challenge in any business, but it’s especially precarious when there actually is a spotlight, but one mostly flooding a few entertainment titans with glory, while those talents mere inches away from its treacherous grasp are left to fend for themselves as best they can at the edges of that global stage dominated by figures such as Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner. The Denise LaSalle story, billed as the autobiography of a southern soul superstar, is titled Always the Queen, but it could just as accurately be called Almost the Queen. “Missed it by that much,” as the old Maxwell Smart quip had it.

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Traitor: The Best Movie of 2020

Pierfrancesco Favino in The Traitor (Il traditore), directed by Marco Bellocchio. (Photo: Laura Siervi/Sony Pictures Classics)

The Traitor is a lush, big-boned, two-and-a-half-hour Italian Mafia epic, dense with characters, that transpires over the course of the last two decades of the twentieth century, with flashbacks to 1963 and 1974. It was released on this side of the Atlantic early last year and though it received good reviews, it didn’t make the splash it deserved to make, and by now it’s probably been largely forgotten. At least it opened here; the work of its director, Marco Bellocchio, often doesn’t. Bellocchio has been turning out movies since the mid-sixties, and often they’re astonishing, but outside Italy – or perhaps outside the European arthouse scene – he’s virtually unknown. He established a cerebral, visually daring, highly modernist style with his second and third feature-length pictures, Fists in the Pocket (1965) and China Is Near (1967), and his wit, his startlingly confident cinematic adventurousness and his left-wing politics begged comparisons with Godard, but he’s never received the recognition he’s earned. I adore those movies and the one that followed them, In the Name of the Father (1971). But after the iconoclastic bravado of those early efforts he didn’t exactly relax into bourgeois complacency; movies like Leap in the Void (1980) and The Eyes, the Mouth (1982) tease the brain and surprise the eye, and the performers – especially Michel Piccoli in the first and Angela Molina in the second – reach for complex emotional states, for effects that, perhaps, no one has caught on camera before. Since he hit his sixties (he turned eighty-one last November) it seems to me that he’s become, if anything, more ambitious and even more of a master. His 2003 Good Morning, Night, a dramatization of the Aldo Moro kidnapping by the Red Brigades (which is, for Italians, a historical black mark comparable to the JFK assassination for Americans), told from the point of view of one of the kidnappers, is one of the great political movies, and like Louis Malle’s 1974 Lacombe, Lucien, it transpires at the meeting point of history and philosophy. Vincere (2009), which focuses on Ida Dalser, Mussolini’s secret, abandoned wife (a magnificent performance by Giovanna Mezzogiorno), is as staggering a piece of expressionist filmmaking as anything that came out of Ufa Studios in Berlin in the 1920s.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Bad Date: The Prom

Meryl Streep and James Corden in The Prom, now streaming on Netflix.

Early on in The Prom, director Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix movie musical based on the modest Broadway hit, Andrew Rannells, playing a Juilliard-trained actor who bartends between gigs, hears a bunch of kids singing “Day by Day” from Godspell and promptly vomits into a bucket. I had a similar impulse throughout The Prom. It’s cheap, nasty, badly cast, assaultive in its songs, choreography, and camera work, and so awash in sentimentality you could fall into a glycemic coma. In other words, perfect fodder for Ryan Murphy, whose work (Glee, Hollywood, American Horror Story) revels in the mean and the sappy.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Stage to Screen: The Father and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in The Father.

Florian Zeller’s play The Father, about an aging man sinking into dementia, opened in Paris in 2012 and premiered in London at the Tricycle Theatre, in a Christopher Hampton translation, three years later. I saw it there and was impressed by it, and by Kenneth Cranham in the title role. The play is a tricky piece of work: it’s from the point of view of André, the father, whose daughter Anne is struggling to take care of him as he quarrels with one caregiver after another, so we experience the world as he does, even when he doesn’t recognize her or her husband (thus the actors who play these parts are sometimes replaced by other actors), even when the information she gives him seems contradictory because his memory is fading and time, as he perceives it, sometimes doubles back on itself. Yet the style isn’t expressionistic, as one might predict; it’s theatre of the absurd that presents itself as realism. That is, each scene plays as perfect realism; it’s the juxtaposition of scenes that doesn’t make realist sense. (Guy Hoare’s lighting, the only element of the Tricycle production I didn’t like, kept violating this idea by bridging the scenes with blinding flashes of light.)  Watching the play, which transferred to Broadway the following season with Frank Langella as the father, I thought of Arthur Kopit’s 1978 play Wings, which is from the point of view of a woman who has had a stroke, and also of fragments of old Twilight Zone episodes and of Pinter’s plays, especially the early ones. The difference between Zeller’s approach and Pinter’s is that Zeller isn’t reconfiguring banal conversation to reveal the cracks underneath in order to suggest the absurdity of human interaction; the cracks in The Father address a more essential – less manufactured – mystery, that of a consciousness coming apart.