Monday, September 18, 2023

Oppenheimer: The Center Does Not Hold

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer.

Christopher Nolan makes his bid for movie posterity with Oppenheimer. His three-hour biographical epic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist known as the father of the atomic bomb, is culled from a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, and transpires over more than three decades (from the mid-1920s through the late 1950s). Many of the roles, both major and ancillary, are taken by familiar, talented actors, and the film, shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema, who has lit all of Nolan’s films since Interstellar, is beautiful to look at. Oppenheimer is a serious effort but not, I have to say, a very good picture, though it contains one section, focusing on Trinity, the first detonation of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1945 – the culmination of the research conducted by the Manhattan Project under Oppenheimer’s direction – that belongs in a good picture: it’s taut, gripping and suspenseful.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Tom Lake: Life Lived Under the Stars

Ann Patchett's new novel Tom Lake was published by Harper in August 2023. (Photo: Emily Doriot)

“There are the stars – doing their old, old criss-cross in the skies. Scholars haven’t settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk – or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself.”

                                                                                         –  Stage Manager, Our Town, Act Three

When I think of Ann Patchett’s literary virtues, the one that stands out is her gift for storytelling. She has the jigsaw-puzzle magic for putting together plots that we associate with the nineteenth-century writers (especially, of course, Dickens). You never know where you’re going to wind up in a Patchett novel, but when you get there you think, “Aha! Of course.” By time she’s worked her final twist – she has a genius for devising endings – the reader is so deeply emotionally invested in the fates of the characters that, in my experience, closing the book takes an act of will. I’ve read almost all of Patchett’s novels (as well as Truth and Beauty, her heartbreaking account of her friendship with the late writer Lucy Grealy), and the only one that has ever felt rigged to me is her 2021 The Dutch House. I just didn’t believe in the actions of the characters – the mother who wanders away from her children for decades, the son who forces himself to attend law school, the daughter who is so fixated on the loss of her childhood home that she drags her brother back there over and over again to look at it from the perspective of an exiled voyeur. The book felt rigged, though she managed to produce her usual exquisite finish. In her new novel, Tom Lake (Harper, 2023), not a single moment feels less than absolutely authentic.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Fond Farewell: Alan Arkin (1934-2023)

Jeff Bridges and Alan Arkin in Hearts of the West (1975).

Alan Arkin died on June 29, two years after he was killed off on his penultimate gig, the Netflix series The Kominsky Method, where he played Michael Douglas’s agent and best friend, Norman Newlander; the show had begun, movingly, in 2018 with Norman mourning the loss of his wife from cancer. (Arkin’s official final employment was a voice job on the animated film Minions: The Rise of Gru.) Arkin dropped out of Bennington to perform in a successful folk music combo, The Tarriers, for which he co-wrote “The Banana Boat Song” – a calypso hit for The Tarriers but a bigger hit for Harry Belafonte. Then he trained in revue-sketch comedy with Second City before breaking through on Broadway in 1963’s Enter Laughing, for which he won a Tony Award. He launched his movie career three years later with the affable Norman Jewison farce The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, where he gave a very funny – and almost demonically controlled – performance as a Russian navy lieutenant who sets out to find a way to liberate his submarine when it runs aground in Gloucester, Massachusetts without igniting an international incident. Within the next few years Arkin was everywhere – in Murray Schisgal's The Love Song of Barney Kempinski on the TV anthology series ABC Stage 67; as the sociopathic killer who menaces blind Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark; as the deaf-mute protagonist of an adaptation of Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; as Yossarian in Mike Nichols’s film of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22; in Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders, which he directed himself.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Being the Best: Pop Journalism Comes of Age

Hachette Books, 2022; Hachette Books, 2022.

“How does it feel, to be on your own, a complete unknown, with no direction home . . .” – Bob Dylan

I suppose I’ve always been mystified, in an entertaining way, with our culture’s virtual obsession with the best this and the best that, as if selecting from the taste menu in arts, letters or music actually meant “I’ll have what everyone else is having.”  Maybe it does. Academy Awards, Tony Awards, Nobel Prizes, Grammy Awards, best car, best restaurant, best fashion, best wine, best hotel, and so on forever. Generally, of course, such a designation usually refers to most popular, and nowhere does popularity often equal quality as it does in the rarefied world of pop music. How it could it be otherwise, since the very name says it all? But I’ve never believed that pop meant disposable or frivolous; far from it, since pop, and especially great pop music, is quite often the most accurate gauge of what the French call mentalité, the state of mind of a culture. And pop, at the virtuosic and technically complex level of The Beatles, The Stones, Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys, or The Mamas and the Papas, is obviously an art form demonstrating admirable aesthetics. High-quality pop is invariably a mirror of our reality, regardless of how distorted or clouded by various biases that mirror may be. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

All Hail the Comic Muse

Mike Nadajewski and Kristi Frank in On the Razzle. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

This piece includes reviews of On the Razzle, Blithe Spirit and Village Wooing.

This summer the Shaw Festival has been bowing to the comic spirit. In addition to Shaw’s The Apple Cart and The Playboy of the Western World, which mix serious and humorous elements, the roster has included productions of four comedies from different eras: Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance (1730), performed outdoors in an improvised version – the only one of the quartet I didn’t get to; Shaw’s Village Wooing (1934), this season’s lunchtime one-act; Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1941); and Tom Stoppard’s On the Razzle (1981). In truth, the last of these can claim connection to several periods. It began in 1835 as a one-act English play by John Oxenford called A Day Well Spent, which the Viennese playwright and actor Johann Nestroy adapted seven years later as Einen Jux will er sich machen (He’s Out for a Fling). Thornton Wilder reworked it for Broadway in 1938 as The Merchant of Yonkers – a failure, despite direction by the legendary Max Reinhardt – and then again in 1955 as The Matchmaker, which altered the story about shop clerks out on the town by inventing the assertive, charismatic title character (played by Ruth Gordon on Broadway) and reconfiguring the play around her. It was filmed the following year with Shirley Booth in the role and featuring three talented young performers early in their careers: Anthony Perkins, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Morse. In 1964 The Matchmaker became the musical Hello, Dolly!, which, of course, ran for years. On the Razzle is Stoppard’s rewrite of the Nestroy, not the Wilder, so there’s no Dolly Gallagher Levi dashing around in aid of the young lovers while manipulating her sour-faced client into marrying her rather than the widow he’s after or the fictitious millionairess she’s promised him.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The Playboy of the Western World and The Apple Cart: Flying High at the Shaw

Marla McLean and Qasim Khan in The Playboy of the Western World. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

In the preface to his 1907 masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World, the Irish playwright John Millington Synge writes, “On the stage one must have reality and one must have joy . . . In a good play every speech should be as fully flavoured as a nut or apple . . .” This dictum explains the play’s unusual style and texture, realism folded in with folk-fable imagination and humor and language so musical that it sings in your ears even when you’re just reading the text. Synge claims that he owes both the wildness of the narrative and the richness of the vernacular to his close attention to the way rural working-class Irish people speak (or did around the turn of the twentieth century).

Monday, July 31, 2023

Summer Musicals: Summer Stock and Gypsy

Corbin Bleu and the dancers in Summer Stock. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Summer Stock, released in 1950, followed a particularly unhappy time in Judy Garland’s life and career – after the deterioration of her marriage to the director Vincente Minnelli, after she made her first suicide attempt and was committed to a rehab center, and after M-G-M replaced her on Annie Get Your Gun with Betty Hutton. Yet it feels like a breather for her: though her weight fluctuated during the filming (in her last big number, “Get Happy,” she’s strikingly trim), her performance is ebullient and unstrained. It was her third and final pairing with Gene Kelly – the others were For Me and My Gal in 1942 (his film debut, after he’d conquered Broadway in Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey) and The Pirate, for Minnelli, in 1948 – and his warmth and virility, his earthiness and easy jocularity, always brought out an appealing vaudevillian quality in her. None of her other co-stars was so ideal a vocal match for her, and though it’s great to see her with Fred Astaire in Easter Parade (1948), especially in the “Couple of Swells” number, when she and Kelly dance together they seem to belong to the same club. Summer Stock (which Charles Walters directed) is lightweight, and there’s nothing much in the George Wells-Sy Gomberg script that hadn’t been done in previous backstage movie musicals like the ones Garland and Mickey Rooney co-starred in, or Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn. Garland plays Jane Falbury, who’s struggling to keep her farm from going under, and Kelly is Joe Ross, who persuades her to let him produce a show in her barn. But it never pushes the sweetness or the rural Americana, it has a fine supporting cast (except for Gloria De Haven as Jane’s self-centered sister: her acting is really awful), and Garland and Kelly’s scenes together are endearing.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Shy: The Life of Mary Rodgers

Carol Burnett and Joe Bova in the original Broadway production of Once Upon a Mattress (1959).

Mary Rodgers, the daughter of the legendary Broadway (and occasionally Hollywood) composer Richard Rodgers, wrote the music for the 1959 musical Once Upon a Mattress. Aside from The Mad Show, a downtown revue she contributed to that ran for a year, Mattress was her only hit show, but she worked on many other stage musicals that flopped (often out of town) as well as a handful of TV musicals. She also wrote the Freaky Friday children’s books, assisted Leonard Bernstein on the Young People’s Concerts on TV, chaired or served on the boards of many schools and other organizations, and raised five kids; a sixth died tragically in childhood. (One of them, Adam Guettel, is the composer-lyricist of The Light in the Piazza, which I join my Critics at Large colleague Joe Mader in calling the best musical written in the twenty-first century.) This life, which Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell would have pronounced “crowded with incident,” is memorialized in Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers  (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022), which Rodgers co-wrote with the current New York Times theatre critic Jesse Green and on which he provided the finishing touches after she died, at the age of eighty-three, in 2014. (Green was then reviewing plays for New York Magazine.)

Friday, June 30, 2023

Shining Through: Encores’ The Light in the Piazza

Anna Zavelson and Ruthie Ann Miles in The Light in the Piazza. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Director Chay Yew provides The Light in the Piazza, the final offering of Encores’ 2023 season, a slight spin on the 2005 original by casting the two lead roles with Asian-American actresses. Margaret Johnson, the role that won Victoria Clark a Tony, is now played by Ruthie Ann Miles, while her daughter Clara, a luminous Kelli O’Hara in the original, is newcomer Anna Zavelson. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Plays with Music: Brokeback Mountain and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – and a Brief Farewell

Mike Faist and Lucas Hedges in Brokeback Mountain. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Receiving its world premiere at London’s compact, comfortable new Sohoplace in London, Brokeback Mountain, Ashley Robinson’s ninety-minute dramatization of the Annie Proulx story most people know through the 2005 film, is a trim, skillful production. Jonathan Butterell has staged it effectively in the round on Tom Pye’s pared-down set and Mike Faist and Lucas Hedges, the two actors succeeding Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger in the roles of the young Wyoming cowboys embarking on a forbidden, tragic gay romance, are both excellent, especially Hedges as Ennis Del Mar, the more inexperienced of the two lovers. The problem is that damn material, which is meager and phony and keeps striking the same mournful note over and over. The show includes a small band playing country-western ballads (mostly) that merely replicate the mood. You walk out of the theatre starved for a little variety – and, God knows, an ounce of humor.

Monday, June 19, 2023

Shakespeare in London

The closing image of The Comedy of Errors at the Globe. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

One of the consequences of Covid and its attendant economic challenges for London theatre is the shortage of classical English productions this summer – even, and most glaringly, Shakespeare. This is the only time I’ve ever been in London at this time of year when the National Theatre isn’t mounting a single play by Shakespeare. All I’ve managed to see are The Comedy of Errors (his first comedy) at Shakespeare’s Globe and Romeo and Juliet (his earliest tragedy) at the Almeida.

Friday, June 16, 2023

Parallel Forces of Culture: Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan

Hachette Books, 2022;  Hachette/Back Bay Books, 2021.

“I never wanted to be a 60’s artist, but to be an artist for all time. If it’s not for all time it’s not worth doing. My mind works in a timeless way. 1966 might as well be 2090—it’s all the same to me.” – Robert Zimmerman

“There’s two things that a man must know in order to get closer to himself, to be a man. One is mathematics, since everything is controlled by numbers; the second thing is money.” – Chuck Berry

These two titanic musical artists were two parallel storms that first ripped across America’s unsuspecting 50’s and 60’s heartland, and then rapidly tore across the whole planet earth with a ferocity only matched by The Beatles. Ironically, the first artist, Chuck Berry, inspired The Beatles, who then were creatively reborn themselves once inspired dramatically by Bob Dylan, along with every other singer-songwriter on the convulsing planet of pop culture. Both from Hachette Books, these books are also an ideal tag team match for taking the full measure of true innovation and influence within their respective fields. In a very real sense, there was popular music before Chuck Berry and then after Berry, just as both folk and rock can only be fully appreciated if assessed both before Dylan and then after his astonishing ascent. RJ Smith’s biography of Chuck Berry, Chuck Berry: An American Life, can rightfully be called the definitive one in a prior flock of works of varying degrees of serious intent: the most serious, the most revealing (often embarrassingly so) and also easily the most readable for both music devotees as well as the general public with a curiosity as to how rock and roll music was born and how it grew into its adulthood as rock. One of his most ardent fans, the equally accomplished pop musician John Lennon, once quipped that if you wanted to give rock and roll another name, you might just call it Chuck Berry. While this is technically true, and quite touching, I’d point out that you could also call it Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Louis Jordan, both of whom were active for a full decade, making the kind of jump rhythm and blues that white folks (most notably the disc jockey Alan Freed in about 1951) eventually called rock and roll. Add into that heady mix Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner and his Rhythm Kings, whose 1951 hit “Rocket 88” was technically the earliest song we can identify as full-blooded rock.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Saint Infidelity: The Circle and Yours Unfaithfully

Clive Francis and Jane Asher in The Circle. (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

The two most interesting plays I’ve encountered in London over the past two weeks are century-old high comedies by English playwrights that challenge sexual mores. Both are receiving admirable productions. The Circle by W. Somerset Maugham was first produced in 1921 and long ago vanished from the repertory; it has been taken up by the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, with Tom Littler directing. (The last Broadway revival, in 1990, starred Rex Harrison, who died during the run.) Yours Unfaithfully was penned in 1933 by the actor and writer Miles Malleson but remained unproduced until Jonathan Banks, the artistic director of Mint Theater Company, staged it in New York in 2016. He helms the current edition at the Jermyn Street Theatre, with a British cast.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Water in the Desert: Summer, 1976 and Good Night, Oscar

Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht in Summer, 1976. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Almost every straight play I’ve seen in the last two years has either infuriated me or made me feel desperate about the state of the American theatre. It’s partly the result of the Covid shutdown, partly the elevation of identity politics as subject matter, partly the pushback against the old priorities, like structure and narrative logic and character development – which is, of course, a form of the rejection of professional expertise, now considered a cover for racism or sexism or homophobia. But after you’ve sat through Fairview, POTUS, The Minutes, Straight Line Crazy and A Prayer for the French Republic (some of which were written by playwrights with some talent), you might long for a display of skill the way a stranded traveler in the Gobi Desert longs for water.

Monday, May 29, 2023

New York, New York: Stepping Around the Heart of Scorsese’s Movie Musical

 The wonderful "Wine and Peaches" number in New York, New York. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Martin Scorsese’s 1977 New York, New York, perhaps the only Big Band musical film after the collapse of the Big Band era, is about the meeting – collision is more accurate – of two young musical hopefuls in Manhattan on V-J Day, both newly out of the service. Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro, at the end of his astonishing early career – the year after Taxi Driver) is a relentlessly confident saxophonist and Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli, in her least-known great performance) is a vocalist. He keeps asking her out; she keeps telling him no. But his persistence, obnoxious as it sometimes gets, is inseparable from his charm, and though she tries to resist she ends up acceding to every one of his demands. She does go out with him, she lands him a job by performing a duet with him at an audition – it’s “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me,” and they’re a knockout together (Georgie Auld, who plays a supporting role, dubs Jimmy’s sax) – and they become lovers, then husband and wife. You’d have to be De Niro to pull off this part. The marriage is a disaster, because Jimmy is demonically focused on his career and professionally competitive, and when Francine doesn’t – or can’t – do exactly what he demands of her, he steams. And he cheats on her. The divergence in their careers – she becomes a star of stage and movie musicals, he becomes one of the inventors of bop – operates as a symbol for all the ways in which their relationship is unworkable.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Tina Bids Farewell: The Exuberant Buddhism of the Late Tina Turner

Tina Turner, in 2018. (Photo: Charles Gates)

“The Buddhist concept of changing poison into medicine works. My life has proven it."  – Tina Turner, Living Buddhism, July 2018.

As a Buddhist, I don’t, of course, believe in the customary concepts of heaven or hell, since as fellow practitioners well know, we humans do a pretty good job of manufacturing our own versions of those two domains right here on earth while we’re alive in this material world. Like many of you, though, I do, however, believe in reincarnation, and that’s where my mind first went when I learned of the passing of the great Tina Turner at the age of 83 at her home in Switzerland on May 23, 2023, with her beloved second husband Erwin Bach at her side. Her first husband, the notoriously abusive Ike Turner, whose sole role in history has become his introduction of a shy sixteen-year-old girl named Anna Mae Bullock to the recording industry and his transformation of that girl into Tina, the larger-than-life talent we all came to adore, has drifted off into whatever hellish domain awaits the cruel and inhuman among us. But Tina, she might well have gone elsewhere.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Making the Myth True: The Fisher King on Criterion

Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King.

Around the turn of the millennium, the director Terry Gilliam struggled to bring an updated Don Quixote to the screen; the documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002) chronicles the breakdown of the project after bad weather and the illness of his Quixote, the French actor Jean Rochefort, threw it into financing hell. When he finally released a version of it called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in 2018, he’d lost the momentum. Really, though, he’d already made his Don Quixote, back in 1991. In his best movie, The Fisher King, written by Richard LaGravenese, two men strangely bonded by a tragedy heal each other through a crackpot mission to locate the Holy Grail, devised by one of them, a schizophrenic (Robin Williams) who used to be a Hunter College English professor named Henry Sagan, and carried through by the other, a one-time radio talk host named Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) whose life has become meaningless. The tragedy is a mass shooting at a popular bar called Babbitt’s perpetrated by a lunatic who has received encouragement for his paranoia by Jack, whose favorite targets is the yuppies who frequent Babbitt’s. Jack’s spleen isn’t real; his diatribes are cynical inventions to entertain his listeners and fuel his career. Until the killer strikes, it never occurs to him that there might be consequences to his habit of revving them up. Afterwards, shattered by what he’s brought into being, Jack goes into retreat, drinking and hiding from the world while his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) shelters him and lets him help her manage the video shop below her apartment.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Gypsy at the Goodspeed: The Vaudeville Spirit

Talia Suskauer and Laura Sky Herman in Gypsy. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

You know that Jenn Thompson, the director of the Goodspeed Opera House’s production of Gypsy, has a steady hand on the wheel right from the opening scene. It’s an audition for child acts in a dilapidated Seattle theatre in the grim last years of vaudeville, when the talkies dealt it a long, painful death that coincided with the Depression. The stage is crowded with kids in a variety of garish get-ups and their mothers until Uncle Jocko (Edward Juvier), the ulcerated, borderline creepy, far-from-unbiased comic hosting the variety show, banishes the latter. Then Rose (Judy McLane), who is promoting her little girl, Baby June (Emily Jewel Hoder), bulls her way down the aisle; the rules don’t apply to her. June has a head full of blonde curls and an affected squeal; she’s a nightmarish proto-Shirley Temple, flanked by her awkward older sister Louise (Cameron Blake Miller). Thompson’s staging picks up the show-biz chaos, its comedy and preposterousness and desperation, which finds its most feverish embodiment in Rose, the quintessential stage mother – perhaps the greatest and most original creation in the history of musical theatre.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Reveries Unlimited: The Razor’s Edge Stories of Karl Jirgens

Porcupine’s Quill Press, 2022.

"There is something missing . . . if I knew what it is then it wouldn't be so missing . . . " – Hans in The Recognitions by William Gaddis (1955).

No, Reveries Unlimited is not the corporate name of a company specializing in providing services related to waking dreams, dreams we have with our eyes wide open while engaging in psychological wanderings. I’ve coined this hopefully supple phrase to encapsulate the kind of author who prompts, encourages, inspires and otherwise seduces us into sharing his or her narrative roamings through a past, present and future which collide, intersecting gently in a series of gently linked stories. Such is the service provided by Karl Jirgens in the recent collection called The Razor’s Edge, from Porcupine’s Quill Press, which subtly touches upon Maugham’s classic tale of a search for the meaning of life, in which we often feel as if we were walking on that precarious edge, posed between transcendence and a fall into oblivion.

Monday, May 8, 2023

Air: The Spirit That Moves a Business

Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) gives Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) and Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) a first look at the Air Jordan, in Air. (Photo: Ana Carballosa)

Ben Affleck’s roisterous comedy Air may be the most unconventional true-story sports movie ever made with the exception of Ron Shelton’s Cobb. (And Cobb is a masterpiece that transcends its genre.) Air’s focus isn’t exactly on a sport or a heroic player, but on the birth of a business decision and a company’s effort to turn it into reality. Moneyball veered off the genre’s beaten path by choosing a protagonist, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), who made baseball history not by harnessing the spirit of a downtrodden team or devising a strategy to turn them into triumphant players but by choosing his recruits through computer-generated analysis. Its twenty-first century brand of pragmatism – the fact that it celebrated virtues that have nothing to do with the romantic vision baseball lovers cling to of their favorite sport – gave Moneyball a new kind of sharp edge. But the protagonist of Air, set in 1984, isn’t a professional athlete or someone whose job it is to make champions. It’s a businessman, Sonny Vaccaro (played by Matt Damon), who works as a talent scout for Nike, unearthing young players on the hopeful cusp of basketball careers whose endorsement of the company’s basketball sneakers might make it competitive with Converse – whose shoes carry the imprimatur of Magic Johnson and Larry Byrd – and Adidas. (Nike’s runaway success in selling sneakers has markedly failed to extend to the basketball market.) Air is about Vaccaro’s courtship, over the reluctance of the company’s CEO, Phil Knight (Affleck), of eighteen-year-old Michael Jordan and the creation of the Air Jordan.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Double Vision: Beyond Binary Art History

Princeton University Press (2022); Princeton University Press (2022)

“We have arrived at an era of humans and their doubles. We no longer need mirrors in order to talk to ourselves.” –Jean-Luc Godard, 1965.

Polarity, duality, dichotomy, opposition, contradiction, mutuality: these art books run the gamut of this spectrum.

As almost always in my case, synchronicity appeared to be at play (in its usual subterranean manner) with the arrival of two remarkably insightful books that explore our binary condition and what lies beyond it, each in its own distinctive way, but both in shared terms of expanding our appreciation for art and cultural artifacts which transcend outmoded definitions of traditional media disciplines and aesthetic values. Global Objects: Towards a Connected Art History, by Edward Cooke, and The Double: Identity and Difference in Art Since 1900, by Peter Meyer, are excellent in-depth explorations of how contemporary art provides a mirror of reality, even when that mirror is clouded by myth or fixation. Both are released by Princeton University Press and both approach the polarities of art versus craft and the dichotomies of singular self, with a deft command of their subject matter and theme.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Musical Revivals II: Sweeney Todd and Camelot

Annaleigh Ashford and Josh Groban in Sweeney Todd.

Despite the intermittently brilliant Stephen Sondheim score and a superb cast headed by Len Cariou and an unforgettable Angela Lansbury, I had a medium cool experience with the original 1979 Broadway production of Sweeney Todd. It felt inflated, overproduced (a response I have had to a few other Prince shows), and determined to make a statement competitive with that of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, which was the obvious inspiration for Sondheim, book writer Hugh Wheeler and Prince. But the material, a grisly horror derived from Christopher Bond’s 1973 rewrite of a mid-Victorian melodrama, is thin. At the end of the first act, thinking he’s missed his chance to murder the  corrupt Judge Turpin, who trumped up a charge against him and had him transported so he could get his mitts on Sweeney’s innocent wife Lucy, Sweeney, “the demon barber of Fleet Street,” sings “Epiphany,” in which he decides that he’s going to visit his frustrated revenge on his customers because “they all deserve to die.” And Mrs. Lovett, his landlady, who runs a pathetic pie shop with the only stringy meat she can afford, comes up with the scheme of using the corpses to make her wares sweeter and juicier.  Todd loves the idea, so they become business partners. In the first-act finale, “A Little Priest,” he argues that since society is built on men devouring each other, he and Mrs. Lovett might as well make the metaphor literal. “A Little Priest” is a wonderful burlesque-style novelty number constructed on a series of increasingly funny puns about their imagined victims. But it’s not exactly “The Second Threepenny Finale” (“What keeps a man alive? He lives on others”). Sweeney Todd is a cleverly devised penny dreadful, not a social satire.

What turned me around about the musical was the 2005 Broadway revival, directed by John Doyle, which had begun life in the West End. Starring Michael Cerveris as Sweeney and Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett, it was leaner and tighter than the original, with ingenious Brechtian effects – and it made no attempt to sell itself as profound social commentary. The new Sweeney Todd, directed by Thomas Kail, with musical direction by Alec Lacamoire – both Hamilton alumni – is almost as good as Doyle’s. And it has an even better Mrs. Lovett than LuPone, Annaleigh Ashford, whom I loved in Dogfight and the 2014 revival of You Can’t Take It with You (with James Earl Jones) and the 2017 revival of Sunday in the Park with George (where she played opposite Jake Gyllenhaal). She’s amazing. Slighter and more kinetic than her predecessors, Ashford looks like a devilish rag doll, and every physical choice she makes – and many of her vocal ones (like switching keys twice in the middle of her show-stopping first song, “The Worst Pies in London”) – is inspired. When she played this role Lansbury embodied the play’s music-hall origins, while LuPone’s numbers were like Brecht and Weill done as punk rock. Ashford is lighter on her feet and loonier, and her performance harks back to revue comedy – specifically to Imogene Coca, who partnered Sid Caesar so sublimely in the live TV days.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Musical Revivals I: Funny Girl and Dancin’

Lea Michele in Funny Girl. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The Broadway revival of Funny Girl is a hit, but its path has been slippery. Michael Mayer’s production started in London, opening at the Meunier Chocolate Factory in 2016 with Sheridan Smith. But when it transferred to the Savoy Theatre in the West End, Smith dropped out due to stress and exhaustion and was replaced by her understudy, Natasha Barnes. That’s when I caught it, and without a luminous Fanny Brice to anchor the musical that made Barbra Streisand famous – and vice-versa – it wasn’t much. The modesty of the staging and designs was just over the line from looking seedy, and since the cast was so small, the supporting players as well as the chorus had to join in the dances that bridged – somewhat desperately – the many scenes, Funny Girl being a representative of the last successful decade of large-scale Broadway musicals.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Tár: Vitriol

Cate Blanchett with Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist in Tár.

Todd Field’s Tár is one of those self-important, self-promoting movies of the moment that might as well be waving a banner that proclaims, “You’d better take me seriously.” It’s angry but the anger is generalized, and though it takes on the hot-button topic of celebrity sexual misconduct, it doesn’t present a coherent argument. Field must believe that if it did, it couldn’t pass itself off as complex and provokingly unresolved. Tár reminded me of a number of movies I despise:  Sidney Lumet’s alleged attack on television, the 1976 Network (screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky); half a decade earlier, Mike Nichols’s alleged critique of the superficiality of American sexual relationships, Carnal Knowledge (screenplay by Jules Feiffer); two decades earlier than that, Billy Wilder’s puffed-up indictment of tabloid journalism and the callousness of the American public, Ace in the Hole (screenplay by Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman). All of these films substituted bitterness and cynicism for character logic and used them as battering rams, and Tár follows suit. The discomfort they heap on audiences is supposed to be an indication of profundity, proof that they’re revealing ugly truths that only morally committed filmmakers would have the courage to put on the screen. But there isn’t a convincing moment in Tár. It’s two hours and forty minutes of foul-smelling hot air. No wonder Field – who both wrote and directed – hasn’t made a movie in sixteen years. (His debut feature, the shallow, manipulative In the Bedroom, came out in 2001; his second, Little Children, a saga of paralyzed suburbanites that flatters the audience by putting us in a position from which we can look down at the pathetic characters, followed in 2006.) It takes a long time to store up so much rancid baloney.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Haptic Happiness: Analog as Allegory

“Ever since Adam, who has really gotten the meaning of this great allegory—the world?”
– Herman Melville, 1851

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
– Arthur C. Clarke, 1968

In “The Machine Stops,” a short story written by E.M. Forster in 1909, the famed novelist surprised the many lovers of his compelling but still conventional fiction, highly regarded tomes such as A Room With a View, A Passage to India, Maurice, and Howards End, by taking a radical detour into the kind of speculative fiction most often associated with science and its limits. He went on a similar jaunt in 1914 with his collection of stories called The Eternal Moment, which explored parallel science fiction themes and supernatural speculations. Throughout his lengthy writing career, during which he lived long enough to witness humans landing on the moon, he frequently alternated between entertaining social observation writing and the vividly imaginative ideas he explored in his wildly cerebral Celestial Omnibus. In fact, “The Machine Stops was so utterly astonishing largely due to its surmise, nearly a century before the internet even existed as a concept, that we might eventually occupy, via technics (the original and official word for technology), a world where we are interconnected through a threshold-breaking mechanical means which starts out as a benevolent helper but invariably ends up virtually colonizing our very definition of reality.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Marlowe and Boston Strangler: Mythologies

Jessica Lange in Marlowe.

The Irish writer John Banville’s The Black-Eyed Blonde, published in 2014 and the source of the new Neil Jordan picture Marlowe, is a Raymond Chandler reset of no special distinction except a rather puzzling one. (Banville’s other output is divided between high-flown literary works like The Sea – an exquisite piece of writing – and a series of mysteries, written under the pen name Benjamin Black, that feature a pathologist named Garret Quirke.) At the climax of this tale, set in late-1950s L.A., of the disappearance of a shady Hollywood agent named Nico Peterson, which Peterson’s lover, the wealthy Clare Cavendish, has hired Marlowe to solve, a potent figure out of the gumshoe’s past, a drinking buddy named Terry Lennox, resurfaces. Lennox is the pivotal character in one of Chandler’s later books, The Long Goodbye, which begins with Marlowe’s agreeing to drive him to Tijuana, no questions asked, after the murder of his wife, and ends with the detective’s helping him to establish a new identity in Mexico. The point of The Black-Eyed Blonde, as far as I can tell, is to punish Terry – to turn him into a thoroughgoing villain. But Robert Altman and his screenwriter, Leigh Brackett (who had collaborated with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman on the most famous Marlowe film, The Big Sleep), already did that in the brilliant 1973 movie of The Long Goodbye, where Marlowe is played by Elliott Gould and Terry by the ballplayer Jim Bouton, and where the story ends very differently.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Neglected Gem: The Suspect (1944)

Charles Laughton in The Suspect (1944).

Robert Siodmak began his filmmaking career in Germany, hot-footed it to France when Hitler came to power and wound up among the many German émigrés in Hollywood, including his friend Billy Wilder, who had co-written his first two films, People on Sunday and The Man in Search of His Murderer. (Siodmak was on the last ship to America before the Nazis marched on Paris.) His American career never made him as famous as Wilder or Fritz Lang, but he made some very good pictures, including The Spiral Staircase, The Killers and The Crimson Pirate. Perhaps the best of them is The Suspect, adapted by Bertram Millhauser and Arthur T. Horman from a novel by James Ronald, which Criterion Channel is showcasing this month.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Ahab and Quixote: The Endless Search

(Courtesy Ecco Press/Harper Collins);(Wordsworth Editions)

“Tell me your company, and I will tell you what you are.” – Sancho Panza, Don Quixote.

“Call me Ishmael.” – Nameless narrator of Moby Dick.

Certain pieces of great writing seem to haunt us throughout our lives. It’s almost as if their authors are stalking us and offering up new reasons for rereading and rediscovering whatever it was about them that mesmerized us during our initial encounter. Of course, which pieces and which authors vary from person to person: for some it’s King Lear or Jane Eyre or For Whom the Bell Tolls (all of which leave me utterly cold, despite the fact that I appreciate their greatness). Such recursively magnetic books might be touchstones from our youth, such as On the Road or Howl, for me, or they might be lighthouses that show us the way out of some dark storm or other, such as all of the poetry ever written by Wallace Stevens.

It often appears as if some people will literally find any excuse at all to read once again and then write again about two groundbreaking novels in particular, Don Quixote by the Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes and Moby Dick by the American Herman Melville, and I readily admit to being one of those people. But I also claim that my excuse is a valid one (don’t we all?) and situate them in a parallel track which becomes obvious once the reader temporarily accepts my obsession with both. I’ll go so far as to claim (almost) that they are the same novel in some salient ways, and that the twisted times we currently are living through contain psychological and even spiritual echoes of each in the same way that Melville himself evokes Cervantes for me.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Martin McDonagh, Almost Reformed: The Banshees of Inisherin

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in The Banshees of Inisherin.

Set on an island off the coast of Ireland in the early 1920s, the era of the original “troubles,” where the locals can hear the gunshots marking the violence of the virtual civil war from the mainland, Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin is a portrait of Irish life in a goldfish-bowl community. The two main characters, Colm Doherty (Brendan Glesson) and Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell), are buddies who have been drinking together regularly in the local pub. But one day, when Pádraic comes by to pick up his friend at home for their daily pint, Colm refuses to answer the door. He’s decided that he doesn’t like Pádraic anymore – that he’s a dullard with nothing to say for himself and that Colm, who leans toward melancholy, no longer wants to waste his time hanging out with him when he could be focusing on writing music and playing it with enthusiastic graduate music students.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Empire of Light: Something Remains

 Olivia Colman in Sam Mendes's Empire of Light.

In Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light, Olivia Colman plays Hilary, the assistant manager of an old-fashioned moviehouse called the Empire in Margate, England in 1980 and 1981 who is sleeping with her married boss, Donald Ellis (Colin Firth). When Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young Black man, joins the staff they become first friends, then lovers – and then Hilary, who is prone to schizophrenic episodes, breaks down. Mendes, who also wrote the script, overloads the picture – with Hilary’s psychological struggles and Stephen’s encounters with the National Front and a layer of trite sentiment about the ability of movies to keep up our faith and hope when life seems most dire. Following The Fabelmans, this is the second recent picture by a well-known director to throw a load of symbolic weight on the idea of movies. (It doesn’t help that the movies Mendes chooses to embody the salvific quality of movies are hardly inspiring; perhaps that was his intention, but if so it doesn’t accomplish what he wants it to.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Literary Remakes: Pinocchio, All Quiet on the Western Front and Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Federico Ielapi as Pinocchio and Marine Vacth as The Blue Fairy in Matteo Garrone's Pinocchio (2019).

Those with fond memories of the 1940 Walt Disney Pinocchio are likely to respond to last year’s two screen incarnations of Carlo Collodi’s story – published in serial form in 1881 and 1882, and as a novel in 1883 – with some combination of bafflement and irritation. The Disney crew softened the original and bled out the folk-fable elements, but it’s gorgeous to behold, and the writers (seven credited, two uncredited) and supervising and sequence directors (seven, including one who signs himself “T. Hee”) and animators (too many to count) modeled the humor on a combination of vaudeville and silent-film comedy. (I chuckle whenever I think about the scene in the ocean where a school of fish swarm Jiminy Cricket and try to eat his umbrella.) And the Pleasure Island sequence, where Pinocchio, led astray by a cadre of schoolboys lured by the promise of an endless holiday, turn into donkeys fated to be put on the market is one of those genuinely terrifying set piece sequences that dot the early full-length animated Disney features. I tend to be wary of Disney cartoons, but this is one of the few I genuinely like.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: An Interview with Charles Taylor

Author and film critic Charles Taylor. (Photo: Lelia McCabe)

I've long been a fan of 1970s American movies, a time when American cinema mattered and when it was a far cry from the mostly bland, pallid fare on tap in America today. Films from that era – The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Nashville, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Conversation, Carrie, The Sugarland Express, Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, The Last Picture Show, Blue Collar, The Landlord and many more – were nuanced, complex, often morally ambiguous, and reflected the breadth and depth of American society and the issues of the day that mattered. And the many talented filmmakers making those movies, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Hal Ashby, Arthur Penn, Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Mazursky, strived both for relevance and for impact but also displayed a sheer excitement in making movies that translated to the screen and the audience's enjoyment of what they were seeing.  For that reason, that thrilling era of moviemaking has also been the subject of a favourite course, American Cinema of the '70s: The Last Golden Age, that I have taught over the years and that I'm constantly tweaking – and, hopefully, improving – with each iteration. When Charles Taylor's superb book Opening Wednesday at a Theater Or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s (Bloomsbury USA) came out in 2017, I was so impressed that I switched things up and made it the subject of one of my classes. 

Monday, February 13, 2023

Some Like It Hot Refurbished, and a Brief Word of Farewell

Christian Borle & J. Harrison Ghee in Some Like It Hot. (Photo: Marc J. Franklin)

The best romantic comedy released in the early fifties, William Wyler’s Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, was about the impossible romance of a princess and a reporter; it was a cross between a genteel version It Happened One Night and a reverse Cinderella story. But then Hollywood romantic comedy degenerated into sex cartoons with Jayne Mansfield at one end of the spectrum and mechanical farces at the other. One might have feared that the form was dead, until Billy Wilder’s divine Some Like It Hot came to the rescue at the end of the decade. It wasn’t remotely like any previous movie in this genre. (But then, Wilder’s The Lost Weekend hadn’t been like any other social problem picture or Sunset Boulevard like any other film noir.) Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond took a page from Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies and then doubled it. When two jazz musicians witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre they run like hell, straight into drag. They figure their only retreat from the gangsters on their tail is to vanish into dresses and wigs and join an all-girls’ band. Tony Curtis’s Joe, a.k.a. Josephine, falls for the lead singer, Sugar (Marilyn Monroe at her most sublime), and chooses a second disguise – a millionaire named Shell Oil Jr. who entertains her on a borrowed yacht, where Curtis draws her in with a dead-on Cary Grant imitation. Jack Lemmon’s frantic Jerry/Daphne finds himself the object of the yacht’s actual owner, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) – a courtship that Wilder and Diamond leave up in the air when the rest of the plot is resolved. The final line – spoken by Brown – when Jerry reveals his true gender to Osgood is one of the two best curtain lines in American romantic comedy. (The other concludes Charade, with Hepburn and Cary Grant, which followed Some Like It Hot four years later.)

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Outside Looking In: The Seriously Funny Life and Work of George Carlin

“Comedy equals tragedy plus time.” – Dorothy Parker (among others).

“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” – George Burns (on his deathbed).

Having previously penned an excellent reappraisal of the consummately eccentric Frank Zappa, unique American composer and creator of the Mothers of Invention rock band, John Corcelli was perhaps ideally situated to undertake this new tome released by Applause Books in which he skillfully explores the similarly exotic outsider status of renegade comedian George Carlin. In his absolutely perfectly titled Outside Looking In: The Seriously Funny Life and Work of George Carlin, he lifts the curtain on the complexities of our mirth, and most importantly for such a delicate mission behind the front lines of laughter, he is sharp enough to appreciate the complex art of stand-up comedy but clever enough to know that it’s much easier to write about it than it is perform it. He leaves that to the experts, while still conducting a master class in how they do what they do. He did, however, study improv at Second City, thus certifying some of his credentials as a keen-minded participant in truly arcane craft.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Art of Burning: The Dilemma of Ideas

Adrianne Krstansky (far left), Michael Kaye, and Rom Barkhordar (far right) in The Art of Burning. (Photo: T Charles Erickson)

Kate Snodgrass’s play The Art of Burning, in production by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion, opens with an exchange between Patricia (Adrianne Krstansky), an artist who is in the midst of a divorce, and Mark (Michael Kaye), who seems to be acting unofficially on behalf of both her and her husband Jason (Rom Barkhordar). I never figured out that part, but the dialogue is tart and witty. Snodgrass has a gift for high-comic repartee and she excels at two-character scenes. The best one is between Mark and his wife Charlene (Laura Latreille), Patricia’s best friend, who has been cheating on him. He’s found out about the affair, she’s put an end to it, and he’s struggling to believe her claim that it won’t happen again. It’s as good a piece of dramatic writing as I’ve heard in the last several years.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Glorifying Intolerance: The Sad History of Banning Books

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Art censorship, especially in cases that did not involve printed books, also once again reveals the limitations and often fortuitous nature of the whole Index project. Condemnations were often delayed for years or even centuries, or omitted altogether, as censors struggled to keep up with the constant flow of publication and creative works. They instead targeted individuals on a selective and often somewhat random basis, according to what came to their attention. Montaigne was quite dismayed by the close expert scrutiny his Essais received on his arrival in Rome, and it must also have been a hawk-eyed reader indeed who managed to pick out a single offending passage in the hundreds of pages of Cervantes’s Don Quixote.
– Robin Vose, The Index of Forbidden Books: Four Centuries of Struggle Over Word and Image For the Glory of God.

Alas, the history outlined in Robin Vose’s harrowing new study of institutionalized intolerance, The Index of Forbidden Books (Reaktion Books, distributed by University of Chicago Press), often veered all the way to the extreme right and even included, on special occasion, bonfires built to incinerate ideas which were deemed too dangerous, or sometimes just too alternative to orthodoxy, to be permitted on the open market of human consciousness. You can imagine how afraid the powers that be must have been around the turn of the first millennium, when the paranoid forces of paralyzing superstition were simply not enough and they needed to resort to more stringent methods of control, such as the complete non-existence of alternate perceptions of reality that ran counter to their own strategic plan for managing moral behaviours and belief systems. The one key ingredient they never quite clarified or explained, of course, was just why the supreme Deity they worshipped, and whose psychic persona armor they were obsessed with forcing down the throats of the entire population of the world, would ever need to be “glorified” in so crass a manner. 

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Lost in Translation: Wayne Mcgregor’s MADDADDAM

Siphesihle November and Jason Ferro in Wayne McGregor’s MADDADDAM. (Photo:Bruce Zinger; Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

"But the people couldn’t be happy because of the chaos.” It’s a line uttered during the course of MADDADDAM, and it comes close to summing up reaction to a ballet where the dance got in a swirl of virtuosic theatrical effects. Based on a trilogy of dystopian novels by Canada’s Margaret Atwood, British choreographer Wayne McGregor‘s lavish three-act adaptation for the stage, a co-production of the National Ballet of Canada and England’s Royal Ballet, commission of The National Ballet, confuses and disappoints. It doesn’t tell a story that’s easy to follow, and it doesn’t use the art of dancing that measures up to the soaring imaginative peaks of Atwood’s speculative prose. Where her novels feel futuristic, McGregor’s ballet, whose world premiere took place at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre at the end of November, appears curiously anachronistic, being more concerned with scenography – a hallmark of the early-20th-century Les Ballets Russes – than with pushing classical dance into brave new territory.

Monday, January 23, 2023

In Passing

Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton and Viggo Mortensen in Thirteen Lives.

This piece includes reviews of Thirteen Lives,The Good Nurse,Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery and The Pale Blue Eye.

At the outset of Thirteen Lives, Ron Howard’s dramatization of the 2018 Tham Luang Cave rescue in northern Thailand, we see the twelve pre-teen and teenage football players and their coach enter the cave and then the monsoon begin to batter it. But then Howard and the screenwriter, William Nicholson, make an unconventional choice: they don’t show us the trapped souls again until, about halfway through the picture, the British divers, Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), come upon them near the mouth of the cave twelve days into the ordeal, when many participating in the story or following it on the news fear they must be dead. Naturally the filmmakers understand that presenting the facts of the narrative from the point of view of those outside the cave is dramatically effective, but I think there’s an ethical dimension to their showing us what Stanton and Volanthen discover as they discover it. Howard and Nicholson strive to avoid melodrama; they don’t want to rev up the audience by cutting back and forth between the deprivations the footballers are suffering and the efforts of the crew – a wide, disparate combination of divers, Thai Navy SEALS and other military, police officers, volunteers of every stripe and the representatives of about a hundred government agencies – to track them down. They are resolute about draining Thirteen Lives of sentimentality; I wouldn’t say there’s none at all, but given the nature of the material there’s remarkably little. It’s a film of great integrity as well as tremendous skill. And the subject matter is so gripping that you’re grateful for the foreknowledge that the coach and all the kids got out alive. (One of the SEALS, Saman Kunan, played by a charismatic young actor named Sukollowat Kanarat, did not survive the operation, and another died a year and a half later of a blood infection he contracted during it.)