Friday, October 18, 2019

Fleetwood Mac’s Frozen Love: Ryan Reed’s Chronicle

Fleetwood Mac (from left, Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, Mick Fleetwood, and John McVie, pose with their awards at the 1978 Grammys after winning Album of the Year for Rumors. (AP Photo)
“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past” – William Faulkner

“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.”  – Christine McVie
This is a good opportunity to re-examine the long strange trip of a truly phenomenal pop band. Fleetwood Mac was originally formed in 1967 by blues genius Peter Green, long before they morphed into one of the most successful rock outfits in music history. And they refused to break their chain.

Each segment of this band’s incredible saga has been focused on a brilliant guitarist: first Peter Green, then Bob Welch and finally Lindsay Buckingham, all so different and yet all possessed of the necessary ingredient to serve as a pivot for fine vocalists and the superior rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. In the interest of what I guess people call full disclosure, it’s hard for me to believe that it’s already been twelve years since I published my own book on the weird evolutionary leaps of this band from gritty British blues to shiny Californian pop and yet, incredibly, it’s true. Back then, in 2007, it was merely the band’s 40th anniversary, hence my title 40 Years of Creative Chaos, but now suddenly I’m delighted to report that Ryan Reed has updated their insanely twisted saga to mark a shocking full 52 years of survival as rock and pop behemoths.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Cemetery of Splendour (Rak Ti Khon Kaen / รักที่ขอนแก่น, 2015)

A scene from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour (Rak Ti Khon Kaen / รักที่ขอนแก่น, 2015)

Last night, my sleep was filled with a series of vivid dreams, featuring the appearance of abundantly metaphorical imagery and almost-forgotten figures from my past. It was a deep and continuous sleep, and long. The evening prior, I finished myriad small but important tasks that I’d either forgotten or been putting off, and I did so with a vigorous energy previously hidden by layers of lethargy and procrastination. That afternoon, I watched Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour (Rak Ti Khon Kaen / รักที่ขอนแก่น, 2015).

Monday, October 14, 2019

Rosmersholm: The Pitfalls of Idealism

Hayley Atwell and company in Rosmersholm. (Photo: Johan Persson)

The idealists in Ibsen’s plays invariably end badly – sometimes by destroying the lives of others (Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck is the salient and most shocking example), but almost always by destroying themselves. In Chekhov, as in Shakespeare, human folly is the inescapable verity that always undermines the noble talk, though both these playwrights handle the fools with pity and compassion because they know in their hearts that we’re all fools. Ibsen is less pitying. In his 1886 Rosmersholm, which received an exquisite production in the West End under Ian Rickson’s direction early last summer, almost everyone on stage claims to be living according to an unassailable set of principles. John Rosmer (Tom Burke) is a one-time pastor who abandoned God after the suicide of his invalid wife Beth, but the freedom he asserts he has found is limited by his inability – like, apparently, all his ancestors, whose portraits hang on the walls of his house, Rosmersholm – to express emotion, especially sexually. (This is perhaps Ibsen’s most damning depiction of Scandinavian-Victorian coldness.) Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell), who loves him and lives at Rosmersholm with him though she does not share his bed, credits him with having brought her to enlightenment, but late in the play she confesses that she helped to drive his wife, whose caregiver she was, to her death. Rosmer’s main adversary is his brother-in-law Andreas Kroll (Giles Terrera), the local governor, who represents the forces of conservatism and, like all of Ibsen’s conservatives, is certain that his politics are the bedrock upon which civilization must stand if it is to survive. Kroll’s bugbear is Peter Mortensgaard (Jake Fairbrother), who runs a liberal newspaper; Rosmer, who has not forgiven himself for his unkind treatment of Peter and his now-dead lover (another suicide) in his days as a man of the cloth, offers to support his bid to displace Andreas, only to find that a man who has lost his faith is of no political use to Mortensgaard.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Cult of Rock and Roll: Six Degrees of Art, Poetry and Music

William S. Burroughs (right) with Jimmy Page, guitarist/composer of Led Zeppelin.

A writer with the incredibly apt but real name of Alexander Kafka, who frequently writes about literature for The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Chicago Tribune, penned what I’ve long felt was an ideal characterization of beat legend William S. Burroughs: “Burroughs was an ethereal intermediary between here and the fiery beyond, pausing to give us the purgatorial skinny.” That skinny was transmitted, of course, in haunting and disturbing novels such as Junky, Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. However, it is through his influence on every other aspect of 20th-century culture in all media that his spectral presence as a witness was most perhaps most long-lasting.

Music for instance. What do Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Kurt Cobain, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa, Jim Carroll, Jerry Garcia and a few even more disparate musicians all have in common? William Burroughs. Kafka cleverly referred to them all as the writer’s amped-up apostles, and indeed they were, chiefly as a result of his outlaw status but also partly because of his unique and innovative literary techniques. All of the above musical artists, to one degree or another, were influenced by not just the Burroughs style and ethos but also the surreal potential to manufacture new and fresh meanings as the result of aleatory alignments of thought, image and text.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Judy: Finale

Renée Zellweger and Finn Wittrock in Judy.


Renée Zellweger gives a fierce, fearless performance as Judy Garland in the new film Judy. She’s the movie’s Atlas, carrying it on her back; it’s not much good otherwise but you wouldn’t want to miss what she does in it. Adapted by Tom Edge from a play by Peter Quilter and directed by Rupert Goold, Judy is set in 1969, at the twilight of Garland’s career – when, bankrupt in her mid-forties, notoriously unreliable and fighting her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) for custody of their two kids, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), she goes to London to perform at the nightclub Talk of the Town. At first you might think, as I did, that what Zellweger is offering up is a brilliant impersonation, that it lacks the spooky lived-in feeling of Judy Davis’s version of Garland in the 2001 TV movie Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. (If you haven’t seen it, I recommend tracking it down: it’s the most amazing thing Davis has ever done, which means that it’s one of the greatest pieces of acting on record.) But when she finally gets up to sing – Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s singular paean to the power of loneliness, “By Myself,” with the lyrics altered to give it a personal slant – Zellweger’s portrayal takes hold. She gets all the elements of the singer in those late, hanging-on-by-her-fingernails days: the ironic, is-that-all-you’ve-got tone, matched to a widening gaze, as if she’s daring whatever monster she’s confronting to do its worst; the broadening of the cheekbones and the space between her eyebrows and her eyelids as she rides a song like a rollercoaster that threatens to jump its track; the way she uses those fragile shoulder blades, the bones practically bursting through the skin, to express sadness and defiance, sometimes simultaneously; the stiff, stick-like left hand, chopping at the air; the reckless belt in her voice that uses the little bit she has left of her range for an assertive thrust; the slurred final consonants; the self-deprecating pout and the half-closing of the eyes to signal defeat and resignation; the tough-broad, take-it-or-leave-it finish as she takes that weird, marionette bow. Zellweger captures Garland’s sardonic quality – part of her survivor’s apparatus – and the gallantry that made diehard loyalists out of her fans (especially gay men, who identified with her).

Friday, October 4, 2019

A Living Cinematic Fossil: Angel Has Fallen (2019)

Gerard Butler in Angel Has Fallen (2019)

You don't need me to tell you that Angel Has Fallen (2019), directed by Ric Roman Waugh, is pretty shitty. The incoherent action sequences (edited by Gabriel Fleming), including one that's so underlit it’s literally incomprehensible (cinematography by Jules O'Loughlin), is par for the course in today's action blockbuster (or "blockbuster") landscape, but you know something's really wrong when even the dialogue scenes are confusingly shot. Secret Service agent extraordinaire Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) returns for another round of mayhem in this third installment of a franchise whose first installment (Olympus Has Fallen) was already inferior to another film released around the same time and with the same premise, White House Down (2013). I wish Jamie Foxx had gotten the threepeat treatment instead.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Struggles and Thrills: What the Jews Believe and Passengers

Benim Foster and Logan Weibrecht in What the Jews Believe. (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

Mark Harelik’s ambitious new play, What the Jews Believe (Berkshire Theatre Group), juxtaposes three religious positions. Dave (Benim Foster) insists that his twelve-year-old son Nathan (Logan Weibrecht) prep for his Bar Mitzvah, though they are the only Jewish family in a small Texas town and the nearest rabbi – Rabbi Bindler (Robert Zukerman), who married Dave and his wife Rachel (Emily Donahoe) – is in El Paso and can come to tutor the boy only infrequently. Dave has the cockeyed notion that somehow Nathan can learn his Torah portion from recordings made by Dave’s grandfather. His idea of Judaism is inextricably bound up with his feeling about family – his determination that the influence of his father shouldn’t die out, especially in a place where everybody else is Christian, even though (somewhat unconvincingly) the family doesn’t appear to observe any other Jewish customs. Dave’s holding onto this plan, despite the apparent hopelessness of the boy to learn the Hebrew, appears to be connected to the fact that Rachel is dying of cancer. She takes advantage of Bindler’s visit to express her despair over her condition and query him about its spiritual meaning. When he tries to present a Jewish philosophical stance on suffering and faith, Dave hustles him out of the house; his answer to her anguish is to comfort her with love – that is, again to substitute family for what a traditional Jew would see as faith. It’s her Aunt Sarah (Cynthia Mace), a convert to Christian Science in childhood as a result of, she believes, a miracle that saved her life, who offers Rachel an alternative, and overnight Rachel, too, becomes a Christian Scientist.