Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Prescriptions for Melancholy: Rachel Blum and Paul Celan

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

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

Monday, January 25, 2021

Neglected Gem: Friends with Benefits (2011)

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

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

Monday, January 18, 2021

Master Acting Classes: The Right Stuff (1983)

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

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

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Denise LaSalle: The Other Queen


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

– Joan Whitney Kramer

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

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Traitor: The Best Movie of 2020

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

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

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Bad Date: The Prom

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

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

Monday, January 4, 2021

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

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in The Father.

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