Tuesday, November 29, 2022

An African Rite of Spring

Photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele

Within seconds, Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring has you by the throat, not letting go for close to 40 minutes of breathtaking dance. First created in 1975 and having since become one of the late German choreographer’s most celebrated works, it eviscerates themes of gender dynamics and social control with a blunt force that makes it hard to resist, or ever forget, once you’ve experienced it in the flesh. The pounding rhythms heard in Stravinsky’s 1913 score drive the choreography relentlessly forward, into a potently imagined ritual of human sacrifice as an act of creative renewal.

That sense of continuity is heightened with the work’s resurrection by Senegal’s remarkable École des Sables, among the first ensembles permitted to perform one of Bausch’s richly poetic dance dramas outside the Tanztheatre Wuppertal Pina Bausch. Co-artistic director Josephine Ann Endicott is an Australian-born former Pina Bausch dancer who performed in the original cast. Together with the school’s founder Germaine Acogny — known as the mother of contemporary African dance — Endicott has assisted in a restaging of Rite of Spring that doesn’t just reassert the visceral power of the original. It takes it to a new level.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Portrait of the Artist, Part I: The Fabelmans

Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryan and Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans.

The fallback of filmmakers who dramatize some version of their coming-of-age stories is to sentimentalize them. What goes wrong with Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, which he co-authored with his favorite writing partner, Tony Kushner, is more complicated. The story Spielberg wants to tell is a saga. It focuses on the breakdown of the family of his alter ego, Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), when his brilliant engineer father Bert (Paul Dano) relocates them from Phoenix to northern California to take a better job offer and his marriage to Mitzi (Michelle Williams) disintegrates. It also includes Sammy’s encounter with anti-Semitic jocks at his new high school. The movie goes on for two and a half hours, far longer than a movie of this kind warrants, and it feels more attenuated as it unspools. I don’t think that anyone but Spielberg could get away with this kind of self-indulgence: a growing-up story and family drama that’s also a grandiose Hollywood period piece.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Dylan in Winter, Part I: The Philosophy of Modern Song

Bob Dylan performing in stage in Los Angeles in 2012. (Photo: Chris Pizzello)

I.

Each of the 66 chapters in Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song (Simon & Schuster; 339 pp.) is devoted to a single musical composition, and almost all are split into two parts—a second-person monologue, which reviewers are calling a “riff,” inspired by the song; and a slightly more sober and pedantic critical-historical essay. The playlist (obscure Fifties rock, some R&B and soul, a lot of country, some European imports, pages from the Great American Songbook) is various and appears whimsical. Many songs seem selected as the excuse for some tangent—on money, drugs, women, crime, divorce, our treatment of the elderly—that Dylan has been wanting to deliver. Everyone knows his head is stuffed with songs, and these only scratch the surface of the surface. On a different day he’d surely list other songs, launch other tangents.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Political Theatre for Pre-Programmed Audiences: Parade and Straight Line Crazy

Micaela Diamond and Ben Platt in Parade at New York City Center. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The 1998 musical Parade, written by Alfred Uhry (book) and Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics), dramatizes the notorious case of Leo Frank, who was framed for the 1913 rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old who worked in the factory he superintended in Marietta, Georgia. Frank was a Brooklyn Jew who went South to marry and manage his father-in-law’s business. His trial, manipulated by anti-Semitic forces, ended in a guilty verdict and a death sentence that was commuted to life in prison by the governor, John Slaton, in view of evidence that the prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, had coaxed witnesses to lie on the stand. But Frank didn’t live to see that new evidence generate a new trial – he was lynched in 1915. Historical scholarship points to Jim Conley, a Black janitor in the factory who provided the most damning testimony against Frank, as the likely killer.  The Frank case had the ironic double effect of reanimating the KKK in Georgia and giving birth to the Anti-Defamation League. (And Dorsey followed Slaton straight into the Governor’s mansion.)

Monday, November 7, 2022

Music Men: Almost Famous and The Music Man

 Casey Likes and Solea Pfeiffer in Almost Famous. (Photo: Neal Preston)

Affable and well-acted and entertaining as it is, I’ve always thought that Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, from 2000, was something of a crock. Crowe’s first career was as a rock journalist; at fifteen he got to travel with The Allman Brothers. So the picture, about a San Diego teenager named William Miller whose writing impresses Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres sufficiently to persuade Fong-Torres to let him go on the road with a band called Stillwater and write a profile on them, is autobiographical. And it must be the most romanticized coming-of-age memoir any writer has ever shaped. Crowe’s baby-faced protagonist (appealingly played by Patrick Fugit) never really falls from innocence. William’s possessive mother – his only surviving parent – drops her son off at the stadium for the Stillwater show she cries after him, “Don’t take drugs!,” and she repeats her warning when she takes him to the tour bus and in every one of her hysterical phone calls. It’s a culture joke: she’s meant to represent every parent in 1973 who ever feared losing her child to the rock ‘n’ roll vampires. But William takes her seriously. He travels all over the country with Stillwater, hangs out with them between shows and with the ebullient groupies known as the BandAids, and he never even smokes a joint. Crowe seems to be looking at his own adolescence through a haze. William eventually loses his virginity, but it doesn’t seem to alter him in any way. He counsels both his hero, the band’s guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), and the leader of the BandAids, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), Russell’s girlfriend on the road and the object of William’s first serious crush, liberating her and making him into a better human being. And in the end the kid’s story gets on the cover of Rolling Stone. William is a juvenile version of the knight whose purity of heart is rewarded at last.

Friday, November 4, 2022

Seven Doors on One Side, Seven on the Other: The Revolver Box

The Beatles in Abbey Road Studios during filming of the "Paperback Writer" and "Rain" promo films. (Photo: Apple Corps)

A pitfall of trying to understand history is the narrative fallacy. It means deciding, often on scanty evidence and against opposite indications, that things happened a certain way for certain reasons, and then revising every conclusion to fit that faulty or incomplete picture. An example is the still-common characterization of The Beatles1968 White Album as a study in dissolution because a) we know the group were having difficulties at the time, and b) John Lennon decided to describe it that way: “It’s like if you took each track off it and made it all mine and all George’s . . . It was just me and a backing group, Paul and a backing group.” There’s no reason not to hear the 1966 Revolver likewise, as a collection of solipsistic fragments. But we never have, because the dissolution narrative doesn’t commence until later—after Brian Epstein dies, Magical Mystery Tour bombs, and Yoko arrives. In fact, Revolver has long been held up as the summa of the group’s creative unity, despite being as diverse and divergent as the White Album

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Bystander Effect: The U.S. and the Holocaust

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, via PBS.

Ken Burns’s newest film, The U.S. and the Holocaust, is the most timely, dark, and politically charged of his career. It takes as its subject the restrictionist policies of the U.S. government toward immigrants in the decades leading up to the Second World War, and the country’s refusal to provide safe harbor for scores of refugees who sought asylum from Nazi eradication. Well aware of the hatred and persecution Jews were suffering at the hands of Hitler, the federal government—and the public-at-large— remained opposed to any exceptions to the quota system that had effectively closed America’s borders since the 1920s. Not until late into the war did the U.S. initiate a coordinated effort to rescue people trapped in Europe. By then, almost all the victims of the Shoah had been murdered. With trademark craftsmanship and respect, Burns sheds light on this overlooked episode of the country and the genocide. The three episodes leave you enlightened, distraught, and deeply anxious.

I.

Over the course of thirty-five pictures, Burns has achieved elevated stature as a chronicler of American history. His audience at PBS consists of a distinctly middle-brow type—educated, liberal, critical of the country yet committed to its inherent goodness. It’s a viewership who believe that the arc of the United States—not just the universe—bends toward justice, that the nation can bring about a more perfect union if only it can recover its founding ideals (which are read as endorsements of progressive politics). In this, they echo the views of Burns himself. At 69, the New Hampshire native has maintained an almost willfully naive belief in the American Dream, precious (one might say embarrassing) for a man of his years. His vision of our shared narrative—etched onto the collective consciousness through films like The Brooklyn Bridge (1981), Lewis and Clark (1997), and The National Parks (2009)—is essentially a liberal’s guide to American exceptionalism.

Born of the optimistic side of the Civil Rights movement (the MLK of 1963, not 1968), this story basically holds that while America has had troubling, even wicked, episodes, they’ve been overcome to yield a better future. It preaches “a kind of baseline optimism, expressed in complex accounts of contested and contingent events that ultimately lead to progress,” as historian Matt Karp puts it in Harpers. “In lesser hands,” he continues, “the liberal narrative can slide toward complacency—or worse, the construction of an American story in which each act of brutality (colonization, slavery, Jim Crow) somehow only sets the stage for the triumphant advance to come (nationhood, emancipation, civil rights).” Such a construct is under assault today from two sides: the fascist nightmare of the Trumpian right, in which America was born perfect (read, white Christian) and has gotten better ever since; and its doppelgänger on the woke left, in which America was conceived in racial sin, about which we’ve done little and from which we can never escape. Though not morally equivalent, both challenge the assumptions of the dominant liberal discourse (while refusing more broad-minded alternatives like Colin Woodard’s American Nations thesis).

Opposed to the growing influence of these contenders, Burns’s documentaries are a bulwark of whiggish history for the upper class. After all, what could be wrong with a five-part, ten hour documentary on PBS, that most venerable of institutions? The credibility and authority of these pictures derive from the director’s patented (and much imitated) aesthetic: poetic closeups of photographs; stentorian narration of august scripts; notable actors voicing the departed; and the imprimatur of handsomely-filmed historical contributors. Burns earns his influence by how his films feel as much as by what they say—the romantic mystique they exude that seduces your senses and your reason.

And it’s this romanticism that makes them so dangerous. His schoolboy infatuation with the country frequently gets the better of him, the earnest innocence often turning (as in his 1994 film Baseball) maudlin and bathetic. He’s said that critics take issue with his movies for their lack of irony. But that’s not the problem—the problem is their bias. As historian Timothy Snyder puts it, every nation develops a myth about itself that it teaches as historical fact. Most people living in this version of Plato’s cave never escape. At his worst, Burns is one of them. His commitment to American grandeur easily leads to whitewashed, if comforting, portrayals of the past.

Take, for example, the series that made him a household name (and about which Ive written before): The Civil War (1990). Thanks in large part to the prominence it gives to novelist and Confederate sympathizer Shelby Foote, the film trafficks in Lost Cause tropes, omits Reconstruction, and indulges a nostalgic tone that redescribes what was an existential conflict between vastly different societies over into a tragic story of the fracturing of the white American family (one in which Black folks play little part). In this it comes close to the revisionist views of historians like Charles Dunning from the turn of the last century. The Civil War was a catastrophic success, the film says—not because it freed 4 million souls from bondage, but because it resulted (illogically) in a unified nation on its way to greatness. In fact, the series was so troubling that Columbia University’s Eric Foner—dean of Civil War historians and one of the many scholars Burns didn’t interview—put together a volume of critical essays in response. Yet to this day, the director sticks to his discredited thesis: that the war was caused by a blundering generation’s failure to compromise (rather than the anti-slavery movements success at changing Northern opinion).

The Civil War is the most egregious example of Burns’s temperamental issue, but hardly the only. The same sentimentality undermines 2007’s The War, where he peddles nostalgic notions of the “Greatest Generation” and its “Good War,” popularized by Tom Brokaw and Steven Spielberg in the previous decade. And it makes for a noticeable flaw in his 2017 picture, The Vietnam War. As our late friend and editor Kevin Courrier wrote, upon viewing it you find yourself “so emotionally devastated by the experience that you won't find it easy to sum up its impact.” Yet bookending the series are dubious claims that the U.S. began its involvement in Vietnam “in good faith,” and (more shockingly) that the war’s rectitude is still an open question. The first of these might be up for debate, but the second?

Burns puts contrasting judgments of the conflagration side-by-side in a strained attempt at evenhandedness. But that’s like airing competing assertions about climate change—1) it’s real and catastrophic vs. 2) it’s sensationalized and trivial—and pretending they enjoy equal weight in the scientific community. Fortunately, the first-person accounts of participants keep these films tethered to the ground. In The War, this effect comes through the philosophical erudition and realist (even jaundiced) perspective of Paul Fussell and Sam Hynes—veterans and scholars of the literature of war. Likewise, The Vietnam War is anchored by gut-wrenching interviews with subjects on both sides of the conflict, including soldier/writers Karl Marlantes, Tim O’Brien, and Bảo Ninh.

The best films of Burns’s oeuvre, in fact, have emerged from topics that defy his melodramatic tendencies and elicit the very irony he combats. The Tenth Inning, his 2010 epilogue to Baseball, dropped the mawkish tone and mysticism of the original as it peered into the sport’s doping scandal (while still recreating the drama of the Yankeesdynasty and Red Sox’ glory). The Central Park Five (2012), which he made with his daughter, combines a hip street vibe with moral outrage at criminal injustice. For once, his point of view is from the margins. And in The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014) and last year’s Hemingway, he isn’t afraid to take the audience to the shadow side of his subjects.

The leaders of German American Bund give the Nazi salute, August 1937 in Yaphank, New York. (Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS)

II.

With his latest picture, though, Burns plumbs the depths of human depravity—and American shame—as never before. Just when you think you can’t possibly learn something knew about the Holocaust, this three-part series (co-directed by Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein) proves otherwise. It’s chief contribution is to connect the domestic politics of the United States in the 1930s and ‘40s to Europe’s—to demonstrate how the xenophobia and antisemitism of America allowed, in part, for the murder of some 6 million men, women, and children. Such bigotry, rather than a mere aberration, goes to the core of our national character. “I think Americans have a very hard time deciding what kind of country they want to have,” historian Peter Hayes says at the outset. “We all tend to think of the United States as this country with the Statue of Liberty poem, ‘Give me your tired, your poor.’ But in fact excluding people—shutting them out—has been as American as apple pie.”

For most of its history since 1776, the film relates, the U.S. had open borders—migrant workers came and went freely. Hayes observes that when his Irish patriarch arrived in Boston in 1860, he filled out a simple landing card and was on his way. Most newcomers were from northern and western Europe until that time. After the Civil War, however, the exodus shifted to the south and east, as cheap American wheat (and the Panic of 1873) undercut global markets and drove farmers into indigence. Between 1870 and 1914, 25 million people arrived from countries like Italy, Poland, and Russia, driven by economic and political insecurity. Among them were 2 million Jews.

The first episode traces the backlash to this flood of arrivals. Prejudice against Blacks, Asians, Catholics, and Jews pervaded society in the Gilded Age—from Southern good ole’ boys to Yankee WASPs. Burns treats the rise of eugenics, germ theory, and social Darwinism as the intellectual cover for state-mandated sterilization and fear of demographic contagion. This nativist wave crested with the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, which established strict quotas, required immigrants to obtain entry visas, and made no exception for refugees. The film draws attention to how American racism inspired its European counterpart—including a failed Viennese art student named Adolf Hitler.

The former German Army corporal saw the displacement, killing, and internment of Native nations by the United States (not to mention its enslavement of millions of Africans) as a model for his own dystopia. His dream, spelled out in Mein Kampf, involved a similar racial subjugation—of the east, though, not the west. Once in power, the Nazis modeled their 1935 Nuremberg Laws on the Jim Crow statutes of the deep South. Their regime “saw us as a model of how racial superiority is supposed to work—the superior race exterminates the lower,” explains Snyder. “If anything, Hitler’s attitude toward the U.S. before the war was one of admiration.”

Burns underscores that Americans—not just their government—had information about Nazi policies from the start. Over three thousand stories of the crackdown in Germany ran in American papers in 1933 alone. Yet public opinion remained opposed to asylum seekers in general, and Jews in particular. The far right surged at home, led by demagogues like Fr. Charles Coughlin, William Dudley Pelley, and Charles Lindbergh. Burns shows just how much the famed aviator and his America First movement rivaled Franklin Roosevelt for influence. As Snyder says, FDR was a globalist presiding over an isolationist society. Lindbergh’s wild conspiracy theories about attempts to lure the U.S. into another world war met a ready audience.

Others denounced the President’s “Jew Deal” and tagged him “Frank D. Rosenfeld” because of the many Jews he placed in his administration. In Europe, meanwhile, tens of thousands of desperate people applied for refuge in the United States to escape the German vice, their wait times growing to three years thanks to Johnson-Reed. Yet even after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, Congress refused Roosevelt’s request to increase the quotas—in fact, it preferred to eliminate immigration completely. When he called for a “quarantine” to stop the march of fascism abroad, his opponents demanded his impeachment

Against this torrent of intolerance, Burns showcases the everyday Americans who came to the aid of Nazi targets. Rabbi Stephen Wise of the Reform Free Synagogue in Manhattan organized relief efforts and held mass rallies in Madison Square Garden (as did, however, the fascist German American Bund). Political leaders such as the Irish Catholic Al Smith spoke in support. As one country after another fell to the Werhmacht in 1939 and ‘40, Jewish organizations like the National Refugee Service and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society coordinated loans, procured tickets, and landed jobs for thousands of asylum seekers. They worked alongside the YMCA, the Unitarian Service Committee, and the American Friends Service Committee. In 1940, journalist Varian Fry founded the Emergency Rescue Committee with the support of the First Lady. Along with the American vice consul in Marseille, Hiram Bingham, he rescued some two thousand people from Vichy France—until Secretary of State Cordell Hull put a stop to it.

German soldiers check identification of a Jew in the Kraków Ghetto.

III.

The situation changed drastically, however, with the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. In a span of weeks, millions of Jews living in Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Russia proper fell under the German jackboot. The series puts these regions at the center of the narrative, thanks no doubt to the contributions of Snyder. In his seminal works Bloodlands (2010) and Black Earth (2015), the Yale scholar gives prominence to the Nazis’ obsession with the east. Hitler imagined the earth as a cramped space of limited resources, with races locked in an eternal struggle for survival. Jews were not a race but a subhuman pestilence that sapped the strength of every nation in which they lived. “Hitler says Jews are responsible for any idea that allows us to see ourselves as people,” Snyder tells Burns, “rather than members of a race.” Concepts like God, conscience, and human rights were—according to the dictator—alien ideas with which Jews had infected the world.

His vision, such as it was, involved a war in the east at once colonial and anti-colonial—colonial in that the Germans would subjugate the Slavs, anti-colonial in that they would overcome the Jews (whom he fantasized leading a world order both capitalist and communist). Just as white Americans had raised their standard of living through territorial conquest and ethnic cleansing, so too the Germans would win Lebensraum for themselves by invading the U.S.S.R. The plan had four parts: First, a lightning victory would destroy the Soviet state, after which some 30 million people were to be starved in a “Hunger Plan” (inspired by Stalin’s famine in Ukraine, with the English-made famine in Ireland during the 1840s as another touchstone). Jews, on the other hand, were to be removed from the continent; survivors would be killed or enslaved. The regime would then raze all cities and industrial centers to the ground and settle the lands with Germans. As the late Tony Judt argued, there was nothing original in Hitler’s proposals—empires had carried out programs of colonization and genocide for centuries. The novelty lay in applying such policies to Europeans, in their own homes.

With Operation Barbarossa, this nightmare began to take shape. Burns doesn’t directly address the debate around the origins of the Holocaust—the “functionalist” vs. “intentionalist” theses. But the film suggests a combination of both. The elimination of the Jews from their midst was the animating principle of Nazi ideology from the beginning, Hayes says. By expanding eastward, however, the Germans ensured they would absorb millions of such people into the Reich. What to do? Thousands of Poles had already been shot over the previous two years by the Nazis and Soviets, the country’s Jews herded into ghettos. But the occupation there at least had some semblance of order. In contrast, Hitler considered the Soviet republics to be lawless lands presenting no juridical barriers to his barbarism. Within days of the June invasion, the film states, Hermann Göring asked SS leader Reinhard Heydrich for an overall “solution” to the Jewish question.

Because of Britain’s control of the sea, the original plan (from May) to deport Jews to Madagascar was scrapped. Containing them in a colony inside Poland or Siberia was also deemed impractical. Mass killings began shortly thereafter, with Einsatzgruppen, gangs of locals, and German order police shooting tens of thousands of Jews in places like Babi Yar. Over the coming months, some 2 million would be massacred. Burns tends to this event with great care, guided by writer Daniel Mendelsohn, whose 2006 memoir The Lost chronicles the tragic fate of his relatives in the east. His uncle, Shmiel, and cousin were hidden by a schoolteacher, while Smiel’s eldest daughter joined a band of partisans in the forest. All were eventually discovered and shot. Mendelsohn bemoans the collective loss of their memory and that of everyone who died in the “Shoah by bullets.”

In his books, Snyder argues that the gassing of the rest of Europe’s Jews was a perverse consolation prize for the Nazis once they realized—with the shocking Soviet counter-offensive in December 1941—that they couldn’t win the war, nor carry out the full extent of their program. But the film claims otherwise: that the Final Solution was decided by September and October of that year, as experiments with mobile gassing vans took place. Here it stands in agreement with historian Christopher Browning. (Curiously, though, Browning was not interviewed, nor Nazi experts Richard Evans and Ian Kershaw.)

Browning explains the drive towards industrialized killing as the result of Germany’s premature euphoria the previous summer, when its blitzkrieg captured or destroyed entire Soviet divisions. (Some 3.5 million Soviet prisoners would be starved or shot over the ensuing years, in a modified version of the Hunger Plan.) Drunk on the prospect of victory—especially once they took Kyiv and encircled Leningrad that October—the Nazi high command lurched from elimination to extinction. German Jews began to be deported to the east. The building of the first death camps started on November 1. Chelmno commenced operations a month later.

The film also makes clear that Hitler did not opt to murder the Jews in revenge over America’s entry into the war (as the deluded blogger Michael Tracey has been arguing). The infamous Wannsee Conference (dramatized to chilling effect in the 2001 film Conspiracy) had been scheduled to occur just two days after the surprise attack on Hawaii. And when it finally took place on January 20, 1942, it merely coordinated plans that had been hatched the previous fall. Far from enraging him, Pearl Harbor delighted the Führer, who’d pressured Japan to attack so as to tie down the U.S. in the Pacific. Weakened by Jews, Blacks, and love of lucre—and facing an invincible foe—the Americans would be unable to fight on two fronts.

Henry Morgenthau and Franklin Roosevelt.

IV.

He was wrong, of course. But three-quarters of his victims were murdered before a single G.I. set foot inside Europe—all in a span of just twenty months. Ninety-percent were killed in the northeast quadrant of the continent, out of reach by Allied aircraft until 1944 (the series takes an agnostic view on whether the Allies should’ve bombed Auschwitz at that point). The film’s contributors stress that the U.S. could easily have publicized information, organized resistance, and launched rescue operations. For almost a year and half after learning of Hitler’s plan, though, the government sat on its hands—even longer since reports of atrocities appeared in newspapers during the spring of ‘42.

Much of this negligence was due to the machinations of the State Department. Under Hull and Assistant Secretary Breckenridge Long, it quashed reports of Nazi intentions and lied to prevent agitation on the subject. Yet blame went all around. The administration believed any relief operation would detract from the war effort, and the virulence of American bigotry cowed FDR from giving even the appearance of sympathy for Jews. Far from fighting to stop the genocide, military personnel were kept in the dark about it, lest the knowledge somehow damage morale. And even as they waged war against the racist German regime (in segregated units, no less), Roosevelt interred their own Japanese American countrymen in camps. “We do rally as a nation to defeat fascism,” Daniel Greene tells Burns. “We just don’t rally as a nation to rescue the victims of fascism.”

It wasn’t until January of ‘44 that Roosevelt, at the urging of his Hyde Park neighbor and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, created the War Refugee Board—the only government agency instituted to save Jews by any of the Allied nations. Led by John Pehle of Treasury, it engaged in myriad clandestine operations. Aid packages were sent to Europe, licenses streamlined, and millions of dollars transferred to procure guns for the resistance and bribe border guards. Its greatest success came in Hungary, where some 120,000 Jews were rescued through a coordinated international campaign that involved the military, the press, and foreign envoys like Swedish attache Raoul Wallenberg. Almost all the major rescuers in the Holocaust, Snyder points out, were diplomats. Jews living in places where the state provided a buffer between them and the German occupiers had higher rates of survival. Bureaucracy enabled the Nazis’ plan. It also thwarted their success. A piece of paper from a routine functionary meant the difference between life and death.

Given the state’s capacity to obstruct the machinery of death, America’s refusal to help, an evil all ours, is more than a blot on our national record. It’s an oil spill. While the U.S. welcomed more refugees from Hitler’s Europe than any single country—some 225,000—and saved thousands more from the grave. But the fact is that in the two decades leading up to the war, it could’ve taken in more people by orders of magnitude. As Deborah Lipstadt (current U.S. Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combatting Anti-Semitism and subject of the 2016 drama Denial) tells Burns, the time to stop a genocide is before it happens. Our complacency “is not one of the things that will go down in the long annals of good things America did,” she says. “It goes in a different book.” Indeed, scholar Nell Irvin Painter reminds us (as images of the Klan, MLK’s assassination, and Civil Rights riots flash before our eyes) that white supremacy and anti-semitism form a major current of American history: “The stream is always there. And we should not be shocked. We should not think, ‘This is not America.’ It is.”

Jewish refugees aboard the St Louis as it docks in Antwerp, Belgium, 1939.

V.

The failure of the U.S. to mitigate the Holocaust becomes all the more unconscionable when you hear the stories of survivors. Burns selects five eye witnesses to history’s greatest crime, who represent distinct types of victims. Sol Messinger grew up in Berlin and was a passenger on the ocean liner St. Louis in May of 1939. Along with his family and nine-hundred other refugees on board, he was denied entry into the States and was forced to return to Europe. While he did eventually make it over, all of his cousins perished during the war—just a few of the 1.5 million children who were killed. Susan and Joseph Hilsenrath, brother and sister from Bad Kreuznach in Germany, on the other hand, got sponsored to come to America. Joseph’s tearful description of seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time—after years of fleeing Nazi goons—will move even the most hardened cynic. 

Günther “Guy” Stern grew up in Hildesheim to a cultured, literary family. After Brown Shirts assaulted his father, he was sent to relatives in the States in the fall of 1937 with the help of a merciful American consul. From there, he hoped to secure papers for his parents and siblings. But no one would hear his plea. In an astonishing reversal of fortunes, he returned to Europe as an Army intelligence officer and interrogator, and in that capacity was present at the liberation of Buchenwald. As he put it, he fought two wars against the Nazis: America’s and his own.

But the most harrowing testimony belongs to Eva Geiringer. A native of Vienna, she watched in terror as her neighbors greeted the arrival of the Germans with ecstasy. Her family managed to get to Holland, where they lived on the same block as Anne Frank. Like the Geiringers, the Franks had applied for visas to the United States. None came. Instead, they were all deported to Auschwitz. Her account of survival is shattering, her soft voice and gentle countenance contrasting with the inky images of the camp that Burns provides. When she describes climbing into a bunk with her sick mother to huddle against the cold, it shatters you.

Even after the camps were discovered and stories like Eva’s made public, a quarter of a million Jews languished without a home for years—as late as 1952. When asked whether the U.S. should allow more refugees in than it had before the war, only five percent of Americans said yes, and more than a third said the number should be fewer. The quotas continued to be enforced until 1965, when Lyndon Johnson signed a new immigration law that abolished them. Burns rightly celebrates the millions of newcomers who’ve journeyed to these shores since.

But as he points out, the generous policy has never applied to migrants from the Americas, nor to refugees.

And he omits more damning data. Deportations of undocumented workers have trended upward since the Reagan administration, including over 3 million under Barack Obama. Even before Donald Trump instituted a ban on Muslim emigrants and his cruel family-separation policy, the United States let in a pitifully low number of asylum seekers, fewer than 100,000 on average each year. Through the entirety of the Syrian civil war—during which some 5 million souls fled the country—America welcomed only 18,007 of them to its shores. This amounts to less than half the number of Canada, and a drop in the bucket compared to Germany.

Likewise, the film’s treatment of the Nuremberg Trials and other tribunals that brought war criminals to justice is too narrow. Burns secures an interview with the American lawyer Benjamin Ferencz and highlights his prosecution of twenty-two commanders of the Einsatzgruppen. While he was successful, the series leaves out some inconvenient truths: That most perpetrators of the Holocaust (like the leaders of the Confederacy) died in their beds. That the U.S. is one of just four countries to declare that it never intends to become a party to the International Criminal Court, which Ferencz helped set up. And that Ferencz himself has argued that George W. Bush and his administration committed war crimes in Iraq. This kind of American exceptionalism Burns is reluctant to discuss.

The defendants in the dock at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. (Photo: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of John W. Mosenthal)

VI.

The sheer fact that survivors like Stern and Geiringer are still with us, and in good health, unnerves you. A full human lifetime has barely passed since the Holocaust. Yet at this moment, the nations of the world are again falling to fascism—Italy, Brazil, even Sweden. It’s here that we can take Burns in for a tougher critique. The series provides some context for the rise of the Nazis: humiliation from defeat in the Great War, the instability of Weimar, and the scourge of the Depression. It points out that Hitler was offered the chancellorship by conservative elites as a way to crush the Left (which he promptly did). “The people who brought Hitler to power,” Snyder says, “were conscious and aware and desirous of doing away with democracy.”

Burns fails, however, to explain the elements of fascism as a political ideology and psychological disposition, what its adherents say and do. He focuses on Hitler’s specific beliefs, which are important, but doesn’t draw out the parallels between his movement and similar ones, like Mussolini’s. This oversight is conspicuous, since the series wants us to recognize the parallels between the populist movements of the 1930s and now. Any honest observer can see them, but many people refuse because today’s far right doesn’t look, talk, or act exactly like the Nazis. An expansive taxonomy of fascism, like Robert O. Paxtons, would’ve sealed Burns’s argument. At one point, he includes an excerpt from a letter by a G.I. telling his father that it’s not enough to defeat fascist regimes—their philosophy itself has to be eradicated. How can we do that if we aren’t taught what it is?

Any successful film about the Holocaust leaves you with emotions you can’t resolve. Burns’s picture is no different—it gets under your skin, haunts your mind, and robs you of sleep. He takes us to the edge of the abyss, thanks in large part to the staccato strings that play on the soundtrack like a horror movie. Yet the film, in the end, lacks the requisite righteous anger, and he pulls back from contemplating the enormity of 6 million murdered Jews—not to mention the the 6 to 8 million others killed by Nazi policies. Whether this is to prevent emotional numbing (an understandable concern) I’m unsure. Nevertheless, as the series progresses with its weighty inevitability, you feel a gnawing sense of the familiar.

History does not repeat itself, the saying goes, but it does rhyme. Godwin’s Law not withstanding, the siren songs of the 1930s and our own time rhyme too well. The conspiracy theories of Lindbergh more than echo ours, the insidious arguments of America First matched by today’s apologists for Putin and his rape of Ukraine. Florida governor Ron DeSantis’ recent dumping of refugees onto the streets was a page right out of the fascist playbook. Mendelsohn reminds us that the conventions of civilized behavior are fragile. The perpetrators of Nazi depravity were ordinary men and women, no different from us: “You look at your neighbors, the people at the dry cleaners, the waiters in the restaurant. That’s who these people were. Don’t kid yourself.”

Burns ends the final episode with an explosive montage, shots of Charlottesville, the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, and January 6 cascading together in a deluge of fear. Trump’s face never appears, but his voice—mixed as a demonic cacophony—hangs ominously in the air. The Holocaust is a story of the recent past, the sequence suggests, and a warning of a possible future. Snyder in particular emphasizes this lesson: “If we’re going to be a country in the future, then we have to have a view of our own history which allows us to see what we were. Then we can become something different. And we have to become something different if we’re going to make it.” That’s a tall order, based on what Burns reveals. For once, he finds no silver lining, and refuses cheap succor. “We have seen the nadir of human behavior,” Stern says, “and we have no guarantee it won’t recur.” After the screen faded black, I lay in bed a long time, staring into darkness.

– Nick Coccoma is a writer and culture critic. His newsletter, The Similitude, is available on Substack and you can follow him on Twitter @NickCoccomaHis essays on movies, religion, and politics have been featured in Full-Stop MagazineNew Politicsand The Washington Examiner. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as a teacher, hatter, and chaplain.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

The Best of Times: A Dynasty Thwarted

14 Back: Hate, Fate, and the Summer of 78 (2018) takes us back to the 1978 World Series.

After four championships this century, explaining the angst of the 1970s Boston Red Sox fan is difficult. After all, Nirvana – World Series championships for Boston in 2004, 2007, 2013, and 2018 – has been attained four times. But this neglected documentary, 14 Back: Hate, Fate, and the Summer of 78 (2018), from filmmaker Jonathan Hock, might do the trick.

Monday, October 31, 2022

On Beckett: The Bill Irwin Show

Bill Irwin in On Beckett. (Photo: Craig Schwartz)

At the top of On Beckett, the one-man show Bill Irwin brought to Boston last week in the Arts Emerson series at the Emerson Paramount Theatre, the star tips and slightly rumples his bowler, bends his knees, throws his weight onto his ankles, stoops, leans forward and bears down on his left shoulder. All of these adjustments take merely a few seconds, yet he’s transformed utterly, and you think you’re in for a mesmerizing evening that brings together this actor’s clown gifts and his profound understanding of Samuel Beckett, whom he has been studying for half a century and whose work he famously takes tremendous pleasure in performing. I saw Irwin play Vladimir in a revival of Waiting for Godot on Broadway in 2009, opposite Nathan Lane as Estragon, and he was brilliant; the whole cast was. (John Goodman and John Glover played Pozzo and Lucky.) So these preparatory moments, after a somewhat overlong introduction, filled me with happy anticipation.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Outlier/Indweller: Writing as Walking

Milkweed Editions, 2022.
 

“The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods.” – Cheryl Strayed
In her 2012 memoir called Wild: From Lost to Found, the American writer Cheryl Strayed recalls taking herself off on a thousand-mile hike of self-discovery, observing, “I’d finally come to understand what it had been: a yearning for a way out, when actually what I had wanted to find was a way in.” She was also sharing her experience of wanting per se, almost as a location in space and time, one she could arrive at by escaping from its insistent desire, even comparing her wanting to a wilderness she needed to be liberated from. Unfettered physical space and its traversal are frequently perceived as a conduit to expanded consciousness, but the latter is, however, not the only way to free oneself from the sense of confinement which often ironically accompanies a heightened sense of self-awareness.

The Canadian poet and visual artist Adam Wolfond’s new book of mesmerizing poems, The Wanting Way, is perhaps an ideal example of how effectively a being who at first glance appears to occupy a profound sense of confinement can, upon reflection and closer observation, reveal himself to be freely traversing interior expansive landscapes of exquisite beauty with a charming sense of humility and grace. He has, in fact, clearly documented, in his own inimitable style, how he manages to travel as an exceptionally gifted poetic flâneur and arrive at an often poignant way out of the woods of wanting and also to arrive at a way into self-expression of a truly extraordinary sort. He explores an interior wilderness.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Leopoldstadt: Jews in Vienna

A scene from the London production of Leopoldstadt, now on Broadway. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

With a cast of twenty-six actors of all ages playing thirty-seven characters in a family saga – two hours and a quarter without intermission – set in Vienna in 1899, 1900, 1924, 1938 and 1955, Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt is undoubtedly the biggest non-musical play on Broadway. (It opened in London in January 2020, shuttered during the pandemic, and reopened a year and a half later.) It follows the fortunes of a wealthy Jewish family – the neighborhood Leopoldstadt was the center of Jewish life and culture before the Holocaust – most of whom wind up dead in the late thirties and forties. (One survives Auschwitz, and a few lucky ones manage to escape to London or America.) It’s a hefty hunk of a play that Stoppard, a Jew who got away from Europe as a child and was raised in England, has studded with elements of his own Czech family. Leo (Arty Froushan), a writer of comic short stories who was raised by his stepfather, an English journalist (Seth Numrich), and who remembers his early years in the stripped-down family mansion after the Nazis moved in only in the final moments of the play, is Stoppard’s fictionalized version of himself. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

42nd Street: Tapping Their Way to Glory

Carina-Kay Louchey and Max von Essen lead the cast of 42nd Street in the "Lullaby of Broadway" number. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

You know you’re in for a bright evening when, immediately after Adam Souza and the band finish the overture for the Goodspeed Opera House’s production of 42nd Street the curtain rises just high enough to reveal the legs and fervently tapping feet of a dozen or so expert chorus girls and boys. The opening was the inspiration of the show’s original director-choreographer, Gower Champion, and if the dancers are skilled, a mood of impending joy descends on the audience at the outset. In this case, the dancers are marvelous, and the show that follows in their wake is a first-rate entertainment.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Hamp Rising Up: Bracing for Stiff Headwinds

Hampshire student Rhys MacArthur stands in front of the image of Hampshire College President Miriam “Mim” Nelson and talks about the protest. If she weren’t at Hampshire, she says, “I’d probably be sitting on my stoop at home smoking cigarettes.”  

Those of us worried about the future of American democracy might do well to take a look at a new documentary that chronicles a smaller but no less perilous experiment in governing. The Unmaking of a College (2022) tells the story of Hampshire College, a small liberal arts school in Amherst, MA that, just before the pandemic, nearly closes. Hampshire has a radical philosophy of education. Professors don’t lecture; they advise. Students design their own curriculum. There are no grades. The school boasts alumni like Jon Krakauer, Liev Schreiber, and Ken Burns. 50 years old, its endowment is only $54 million, which pales in comparison to older institutions like nearby Amherst College, with a treasure chest of nearly $3.8 billion. As a consequence, over the past few years, Hampshire began operating on a shoestring budget. One trustee began writing personal checks to cover shortfalls. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Frozen Music: The Celluloid Dreams of Richard Kerr

All images courtesy of the artist.

“Now, why should the cinema follow the forms of theatre and painting rather than the methodology of language, which allows wholly new concepts and ideas to arise from the combination of two separate concrete objects?” – Sergei Eisenstein

The elegant artifacts crafted in this time-tapestry originate in a mythical country I like to call Analogos. This land is the opposite of the digital world we currently occupy and harkens back to an era when the image ruled its optical kingdom in a nearly sacred dance of montage assembly and patterned sequence. This limited-edition artist’s book, as a kind of guidebook for tourists traveling in time, captures moments from a celluloid dream world that is anti-Hollywood and pro-haptic: it privileges a domain where physical touch was much more important than cerebral reflection. And yet much of its basic content also references the very dream factory that it also seeks to escape from, plunging us fully forward into the realm of experimental cinema and celebrating cinema itself as a kind of music for the eyes.

Kirk Tougas, the founder of Cinematheque in Vancouver, which traces its own origins way back to the land of Analogos in the early pre-digital 1970’s, has often cautioned me about using the word experimental to describe films which provide alternatives to linear entertainment and take us on a fabulous flight to the outer edges of visual art. Experiential, he has helped me realize, is often a more accurate term to characterize those filmmakers, such as the Canadian Richard Kerr, who wants us to experience and explore his works as paintings that move, or don’t move at all. Hence, perhaps, Kerr’s primary notion of a project which utilizes a haunting inventory of images solely as the raw material, the paint of light and time, so to speak, in a weaving motif which arrives at a core moment of inherent stillness: when time stops and looking starts.

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Coming Around Again

David Adkins, Corinna May, Tim Jones and Kate Goble in Seascape.

This article includes reviews of Seascape, Persuasion, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris and Sing Street.

Edward Albee’s Seascape first appeared on Broadway in 1975, in a production he directed that featured Barry Nelson, Deborah Kerr, Frank Langella and Maureen Anderman. Its run was short – a couple of months – but it won Albee the second of his three Pulitzer Prizes. (The others were for A Delicate Balance and Three Tall Women.) Though it’s a marvelous work, but it seldom comes up for revival, presumably because it’s such an oddity. It’s about a meeting between a middle-aged couple, marking retirement with a beachside vacation, and a pair of lizards, also a couple, who have come up from the sea; Albee, taking the special poetic license reserved for absurdists, has conveniently allowed the lizards to converse in English. With its taste for revisiting plays, mostly American, that have fallen into obscurity, Berkshire Theatre Group has just opened Seascape at its Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge. This is only the second time I’ve seen it performed. Mark Lamos staged a dazzling production in 2002 with a flawless cast – George Grizzard, Pamela Payton-Wright, David Patrick Kelly and Annalee Jeffries; I can still remember the costumes Constance Hoffman designed for the lizards. Lamos remounted it at Lincoln Center in 2005 with Grizzard, Frances Sternhagen, Frederick Weller and Elizabeth Marvel.

Monday, September 19, 2022

The Church of Baseball: How to Work a Miracle

“Making a good and successful movie is a minor miracle every time.” – Ron Shelton, The Church of Baseball.

I love Ron Shelton’s movies the way I love those of the legendary 1940s filmmaker Preston Sturges. Both are quintessentially American writer-directors with a wild sense of humor and a gift for using language in astonishingly fresh ways. Both work intimately with hip, canny character actors to create small worlds that are somehow simultaneously wittily devised and vividly familiar. Sturges may be more off-kilter (though Shelton can be just as nutty) and Shelton less skittish about betraying emotion (though he’s never sentimental), but both come to their material with an attitude of wry amusement and sublime common sense   You can trace both men’s approach to the same master comic voice: Mark Twain’s.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Anything Is Possible Once the Sun Goes Down: Au Revoir Taipei (Yi Ye Taibei / 一頁台北 2010)

Chun-Yao Yao in Au Revoir Taipei (Yi Ye Taibei / 一頁台北 2010).

Writer-director Arvin Chen’s feature debut, Au Revoir Taipei (Yi Ye Taibei / 一頁台北, 2010) – the Mandarin title is a pun on “one night in Taipei” – is a whimsical and slightly farcical romantic comedy that I believe could only have been made in Taiwan, and it’s on YouTube. The key to its tonal success lies in the characterization. It’s my favorite Taiwan film.

In Taiwan, we have this thing we do in social situations: we play dumb instead of taking the initiative, lest we propose something that someone doesn’t want to do, but would go along with anyway just to be polite. The film captures this idea perfectly, which is why it’s one of the few contemporary films to nail a natural-sounding Taiwanese Mandarin. In fact, almost the entire film features characters who don’t know each other very well sharing a scene, and playing dumb describes most of the dialogue.

Monday, September 5, 2022

The Importance of Being Earnest and Too True to Be Good: The Gift of Gab

Martin Happer and Julia Course in The Importance of Being Earnest. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

Tim Carroll’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Shaw Festival is no doubt giving pleasure to a great many theatregoers this year.  No one has ever, to my knowledge, written a funnier play than Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comedy of Victorian manners, and Carroll’s mounting honors both the wit and the style of the text. It is also – thanks to Gillian Gallow’s set (with its multiple frames), Kevin Lamotte’s lighting and especially Christina Poddubiuk’s costumes – lovely to look at.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

So it Goes: Accommodating the Sublime

W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.

“Having looked at a work of art, I leave the museum or gallery in which it is on display, and tentatively enter the studio in which it was made. And there I wait in hope of learning something of the story of its making.” – John Berger

Where to begin with the two greatest English landscape painters in history? So great that even an art critic is challenged to find the most accurate ways to extol their truly magnificent achievements? Well, in a diversionary tactic during which I can gather my far-flung thoughts into something resembling coherence, I may start by mentioning that persistent readers of Critics At Large, or even occasional readers with a canny eye, will notice that I have long been intrigued by dualities, polarities, alternates, dichotomies, parallels, binaries, opposites and what Dr. Jung called synchronicity. Far from being merely coincidence, or even what the good doctor called meaningful coincidence, he further explained that synchronicity occurs when two archetypes (images or ideas shared by all of us in the collective unconscious) arise at the same time in roughly the same place.

And so it is with two great painters, Joseph Turner (1775-1851), more commonly identified by the way he signed his works, J.M.W. Turner, and John Constable (1776-1837), the paired and most recognizable icons of landscape representation and also the two most daringly innovative risk takers in the history of painting. That history contains a basic template for presenting images to our insatiably hungry eyes: portrait (close to), still life (nearby), landscape (far from). But in the case of these two exemplars, both of whom were surprising emissaries for a fledgling modernism just then on the cusp of occurring with the advent of the French invention of the camera in about 1839, and the resulting plunge into overall pictorial abstraction continuing to this day, we have a unique case of merging the three formats into one single vertiginous entity.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Silver Screen Time Machine: Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2020)

Tosa Kazunari in Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2020).

Somehow, Kato doesn’t freak out.

The essence of time travel is narrative. Like the unread pages of a good book, the future has already happened; it just hasn’t yet happened to you. The metaphor applies doubly to filmmaking, which usually takes a narrative and shoots it out of order. Continuity must be maintained, and character and emotional arcs made convincing. If they aren’t, paradoxes manifest, the cinematic world collapses, and viewers branch off from the storyworld prematurely, each into their own individual lifeworlds.

2020’s Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (ドロステのはてで僕ら “We at the End of the Droste”), director-cinematographer-editor Yamaguchi Junta’s feature debut, realizes this metaphor in the most direct way. Beyond is shot to look like it was done in a single take, using just one phone, tripod, boom mic, the world’s longest power cord, and lots and lots of stopwatches. To give you a sense of its flavor, it was inspired by One Cut of the Dead (カメラを止めるな! “Don’t Stop the Camera!”), Ueda Shinichiro’s 2017 smash hit about a group of people tasked with making a one-shot microbudget zombie film. There are cuts in Beyond – of course there are cuts; it’s a time travel film – but to keep up the illusion, the requisite plot complications have to develop organically from the situation the characters find themselves in, and from who they are as characters, as people. Writer Ueda Makoto does a hell of a job in just 70 minutes.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Crowd Pleasers: Damn Yankees and Gaslight at the Shaw Festival

Jay Turvey with the Ballplayers in Damn Yankees, at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Richard Adler and Jerry Ross might have entered the pantheon of Broadway songwriters if fate hadn’t extinguished their star so fast. Adler was thirty-one and Ross twenty-eight when George Abbott commissioned them to write the score for The Pajama Game (1954), adapted by Abbott and Richard Bissell from Bissell’s novel 7-1/2 Cents, about the tensions between labor and management in a Midwestern pajama factory. It was a legendary show: Abbott and Jerome Robbins co-directed, a young Bob Fosse staged the dances, and it ran for three years. (A boisterous movie version in 1957, helmed by Abbott and Stanley Donen, captures the spirit of the original, with all but two members of the Broadway cast reprising their performances.) In 1955 lightning struck again for Adler and Ross with Damn Yankees. Adapted by Abbott and Douglass Wallop from Wallop’s book The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, Damn Yankees was as big a hit as The Pajama Game. But six months after its triumphant premiere, Ross died suddenly of lung disease. Adler never had another success, alone or with a collaborator, though his lovely score for the South Africa-set musical Kwamina, which he wrote for his wife, Sally Ann Howes, is ripe for rediscovery. (Its interracial love story was undoubtedly too controversial for 1961.)

Monday, August 15, 2022

Revisiting Stratford: The Miser and Girls & Boys

Colm Feore, Lucy Peacock and Qasim Khan star in The Miser, at Canada's Stratford Festival. (Photo: David Hou)

This summer I was able to cross the Canadian border for the first time since COVID, on a trip framed by brief visits to Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, home of the Shaw Festival. Regrettably, my timing at Stratford didn’t allow for the chance to see All’s Well That Ends Well, a problem comedy I love that gets produced only infrequently. But I did manage to check out artistic director Antoni Cimolino’s production of Molière’s 1668 prose comedy The Miser (at the Festival Theatre) in a contemporary adaptation by Ranjit Bolt that has been embellished further with Ontario references. In Bolt’s version Molière’s title character, Harpagon, is called Harper, and his children, Élise and Cléante, who desire to marry the people they love without risking being disinherited by their parsimonious papa, are called Eleanor and Charlie. The director’s note in the program argues that the subject of greed and the generational tensions make The Miser relevant to a 2022 audience. Of course you can make that case for any of Molière’s best satires; human nature, after all, hasn’t changed much through the centuries. I’m not sure, though, that the present-day setting adds anything to the play or sharpens its thrust.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Getting Gerried by Nature: Gerry

Matt Damon and Casey Affleck in Gerry (2002).

This review contains major spoilers for Gus Van Sant's Gerry (2002).

In 2002, Gus Van Sant followed his aggressively mediocre Finding Forrester (2000) with the aggressively experimental Gerry (2002). It doesn’t have opening titles, and for most of its 103 minutes the only two people we see are Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who both play guys named Gerry. (I’m going to use the actors’ names to avoid confusion.) There’s even a running joke about how the name “Gerry” gets turned into a vague, all-purpose word. (Affleck, Damon, and Van Sant co-wrote as well as co-editing.) A few examples: “I crow’s-nested up here to scout-about the ravine ’cause I thought maybe you gerried the rendezvous”; “We could have just bailed early, you know. There were so many gerrys along the way”; “And then we gerried off to the animal tracks.” The first 20 minutes are just long takes of Matt and Casey driving and then walking in the California semi-desert with minimal dialogue.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Shining On Brightly: The Power of Sharing the Spotlight

(W.W. Norton Press)

“The Beatles, like Duke Ellington, are virtually unclassifiable musicians.” – Lillian Ross, writing in The New Yorker in 1967.

How can one possibly explain the majestic presence of music such as Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn’s  “Lush Life” and “Chelsea Bridge”? Or the shimmering beauty of Lennon/McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home” and their entire “Abbey Road Medley”? What secret alchemical equation is behind the binary Odd Couple Code in the creative arts that makes such great collaborations so fruitful? A team of rivals, often incompatible and yet somehow incomparable, whose rivalry makes the team grow stronger and succeed far in excess of what either competitive team member could achieve alone, is an often mystifying but vastly entertaining cultural phenomenon. As long as they maintain the precarious balance required to equally channel their dramatically opposite energies in the same direction, that is.   

Help!: The Beatles, Duke Ellington and the Magic of Collaboration, the wonderful book by Thomas Brothers from W.W. Norton, is one of the most informative and inspiring places to begin examining this remarkable ability for two artists to meld into a unified field, a single creative force in tandem. The odd-couple metaphor of a relational golden mean suggests something hidden but potentially profound, something we could even call reciprocal maintenance. This arrangement of forces basically requires both partners to take turns, maybe even alternate, at being the dominant prevailing portion of the whole, pivoting frequently to allow the opposite partner to assume the same majority role as often as possible.