Monday, March 28, 2011

Book Review: Solar, by Ian McEwan

Article first published as Book Revew: Solar by Ian McEwan on Blogcritics.

Solar, Ian McEwan's 2010 darkly comic novel about global warming and human failure is now available in paperback from Anchor books. Although its reception on its original publication was somewhat mixed, and it is probably not the best-selling author at his best, Ian McEwan at half speed is still a better bet than more than a few of his contemporaries. Not only does he deal with important themes without facile oversimplification, but he does so with a humor, a wit and an ironic eye that skewers the inadequacies of those supposed to be the best and brightest among us.

Michael Beard, the central figure of the novel, is a Nobel Prize winning physicist who has accomplished little since his award. As the novel opens he is approaching his sixties. He is balding and short and overweight—tubby is the descriptive term McEwan uses. He is on his fifth marriage, none of which, including his latest, he seems to have taken very seriously. He is a man unable to control his appetites. He is an inveterate womanizer. He is slovenly and lazy. When it comes to food, he can't avoid a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips at the airport. He gorges on smoked salmon hors d'oeuvres to the point of vomiting. He drinks himself into drunkenness. And despite his less than leading man good looks he manages to find more than his share of women to satisfy his lustful behavior. If you think of the seven deadly sins, Michael Beard is a man who seems to be guilty of most, if not all of them.

In a fairly complicated plot, that involves broken marriages, an accidental death framed as a murder, the expropriation of another man's ideas for the development of solar energy, McEwan guides the reader through one very flawed man's attempt to profit from the catastrophe of global warming. There is a lot of science, but not so much that it should frighten readers away. Scientific ideas are used mainly for a sense of realism. This is, after all, a book about a physicist, a man who won a prize for his elucidation of the Beard¬-Einstein Conflation (notice whose name comes first). Besides it is not as if the scientific theories about solar energy discussed in the book are intended as actual solutions to the problems of climate change, whatever validity they may or may not have, this is not after all a scientific treatise.

More interesting to the scientifically challenged reader are some of the other themes developed in the book. There are some interesting scenes dissecting the conflict between the hard science belief in the observable fact and the soft social sciences' post modern relativism. Beard gets into trouble, for example, when he tries to assert that genetic differences in the sexes account for the scarcity of women studying physics. A section describing an expedition to the Arctic with a group of artists suggests that ice sculpture and dance may not be the best way to deal with global warming. Poetry, as Beard demonstrated in attracting the first of his wives, is most effective as a means of seduction. Most thought provoking is the ironic notion that for those engaged economically in the solution of the problem, the threat of catastrophe is essential to their goal. As Beard tells his business partner in developing a process for cheap solar energy when he begins to worry that there is some question about the reality of the problem: "It's a catastrophe. Relax!"

McEwan has written a novel that will have you thinking one minute and laughing out loud the next. He has created a self absorbed, self indulgent protagonist who is as much a villain as he is a hero. Michael Beard is not a man the reader is ever going to feel sorry for. He is a man who deserves everything that happens to him. There may be some question about what all these women see in this short, fat bald man who doesn't age gracefully. He is at best a most unlikely romantic figure. Indeed that may be the most difficult thing in the book for the reader to accept. On the other hand if you can buy into that and don't trouble too much over the science, Solar is a book, you should find entertaining.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Book Review: Music on Film: Amadeus, by Ray Morton

Article first published as Book Review: Music on Film: Amadeus by Ray Morton on Blogcritics.

The Music on Film series from Limelight editions is a series of pocket sized studies of individual films where music is a central element. Some have been studies of musicals: West Side Story and Cabaret. Some have dealt with films that have significant musical components, but are not what you would call musicals: This is Spinal Tap and the forthcoming, A Hard Day's Night. Ray Morton's study of Peter Schaffer's Amadeus is in the latter category. His study focuses less on the music than it does on the film, its sources and its production. Like other books in the series, it provides an information packed introduction to a work of cinematic importance in a bite size portion. It is not quite what you would call a scholarly work. It lacks the documentation that the Cabaret volume has, but it does have a bibliography and an index. Still, it does not short the reader on detail.

There is biographical information on both Mozart and Salieri, not comprehensive biographies, but enough information to give readers an adequate idea of the real men portrayed in the film. There is also biographical information about all the major players in the production of the film, the playwright and eventual screen writer, Peter Schaffer, the director, Milos Forman, producer, Saul Zaentz, as well as the featured cast members, F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce. Although I question the relevance of much of the information about these lives that Morton sees fit to include, it is usually interesting information and never becomes obtrusive. At worst it seems like filler.

More germane is his commentary on the themes of the play and the movie and his discussion of the changes Schaffer and Forman agreed upon to transfer the play from the stage to the screen. Schaffer, Morton tells us, was interested in writing a play not so much about Salieri's war with Mozart, as he was with Salieri's war with God. Schaffer created in Salieri an artist who had dedicated his life to virtue and looked to God to reward him with genius, only to discover that virtue wasn't always rewarded. The Mozart Schaffer created on the other hand is a silly immoralist on the one hand, and a musical genius on the other. Virtue, indeed even wisdom, it seems has nothing to do with artistic merit. It is a truth worth parsing. Schaffer uses rumors of Salieri's involvement in Mozart's death to develop his tale, and while significant changes were made in the revisions of the play for the film, the basic theme remained the same, and in a sense became even more emphatic.

The film makes much greater use of Mozart's music than the stage version. Schaffer, Morton tells us, felt that too much music in the theatre has the feel of a concert. Sir Neville Marriner, perhaps the era's pre-eminent interpreter of Mozart's music was engaged to record the music, after it was agreed that the music would be used the way it was written, and not rejiggered for dramatic purposes. Actors had to learn to play instruments and conduct so that their movements would look realistic on the big screen. Period instruments were not used because Marriner felt they were unreliable, and wouldn't provide the kind of sound the film needed.

Filming was done in Czechoslovakia, despite the fact that Forman who had left the Communist controlled country and become an American citizen, had not been allowed back in the country. It seems the Communists couldn't see their way to turn down the millions of dollars the film's production would bring to their economy and allowed him to return to make his movie. Prague was chosen because it still had the kind of eighteenth century architecture prevalent during Mozart's lifetime. The Communist regime had never had the means to modernize the city. Besides it was cheaper to film In Czechoslovakia. There were problems, secret police embedded in the crew, poor food, cultural differences, but these faded in the light of budgetary considerations. After all, it turns out the Czech crew will work late for a ten dollar bill or a pair of designer jeans.

This is the kind of detail that brings life to Morton's book. There are many others. Margaret Thatcher objects to Schaffer's play because she feels that Mozart could never have been that way. Hulce deliberately drops lines in the scene where the dying composer dictates the Requiem to Salieri. Meg Tilly has to be replaced at the last minute because she is injured playing soccer with some children. Elizabeth Berridge, her replacement, is told she got the part because the other actress being considered was too pretty. Al Pacino, among others, was interested in playing Salieri. These are just a few examples.

Morton has not written a pedantic study. This may not be a book for all readers, but it is both lively and engaging. Film buffs will find it fascinating. Theatre lovers will love it. And the general readers, if by chance they happen to pick it up, they will happily find much to entertain them.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Hamilton CaseThe Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While the book begins with the compelling narrative of the central figure Sam Obeysekere who functions as a typically unreliable narrator, it loses momentum when it switches to other points of view—his wife, his mother—in the second part. It comes back into focus at the end when it begins to offer other possibilities for the solution of the Hamilton murder. Then when it refuses to certify any one of the solutions as the truth, it raises the interesting philosophical question of whether truth is ever possible. There is also an interesting idea in the assertion that people's actions are determined by their narrative expectancies. This would be true of the Hamilton murder, but true of the novel itself. Sam is the person he is because of what the narrative expects of him. In a sense, he is a symbol of the man who creates himself in the image of what he thinks the world expects him to be.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Music Review: Ray Charles: Live in Concert

Article first published as Music Review: Ray Charles, Live in Concert on Blogcritics.

Jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues: Ray Charles," the genius," can do it all, and do it all he does in his 1964 concert at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles originally released by ABC-Paramount in 1965 as a twelve song album and now reissued by Concord Music Group on a nineteen track, seventeen song CD, Ray Charles: Live in Concert. There are some performers who seem uncomfortable outside the recording studio; live audiences are inconveniences that have to be put up with. There are some performers who always seem to manage a little something extra in live performance; audiences energize them. Not only is Ray Charles in this second group, he may well be at the head of the pack. The audience is having a good time; he is having a great time.

Whether he is taking a hoary old standard like "Margie," and making it his own, or rocking out his own chart topper, "Hallelujah, I Love Her So," this is a singer who has his audience in the palm of his hand. He begins with two big band jazz instrumentals: "Swing a Little Taste" and "One Mint Julep." The band has a brassy vibe that someone like Count Basie would have been proud of. On the first of the two you can hear Charles' patented growl over the piano. Original liner notes indicated that the fifteen piece band included a dozen horns featuring sax players David "Fathead" Newman, Hank Crawford and Leroy "Hog" Cooper. This is a band that can swing with the best of them. (As an aside, I recently heard "Fathead" Newman's "Hard Times" on an old time rock podcast, and if you've never heard it, you can download it from his web site.

The set includes a remarkable bluesy "Georgia on My Mind" with a flute and organ accompaniment that unaccountably didn't make the original album. Whoever decided to leave it out should have his head examined. It is one of the singer's finest moments. Lillian Fort joins him in a duet on "Don't Set Me Free." "I Got a Woman," a Charles standard, begins with a playful shout out to Chopin and then morphs into the blues. Other Charles favorites in the set include "In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)" with some really nice interaction with a solo trumpet, an eloquent "You Don't Know Me," and a rocking version of "What'd I Say" as the concert's finale.
Of the repertoire not normally associated with the singer, the jazzy "Makin' Whoopee" highlights the singer's versatility. His sly suggestive take on the song will make you forget bouncing Eddie Cantor's bulging eyes; that is of course supposing you're old enough to member who Eddie Cantor happens to be. Liner notes by Bill Dahl point out that the song was an "off the cuff" addition with improvised accompaniment by Wilbert Hogan's drums, bassist Edgar Willis and Sonny Forriest on guitar. In contrast there is a passionate heartfelt version of "That Lucky Old Sun" that could well be a definition of soul. There is a swinging "Baby, Don't You Cry" and a comic change of pace with "Two Ton Tessie." Here, indeed, are the many moods of Ray Charles.

There are nineteen tracks because the first cut is a short introduction and the last is a little joke with the audience added as a kind of coda to the evening's entertainment. "What'd I Say," in a nearly five and a half minute version is the real climax of the concert, and rightly so. It is everything that is great about Ray Charles and it is a fitting ending for an exciting night of music. For those of us around back in the day, Ray Charles Live in Concert will bring back a lot of wonderful memories. For those not quite that old, it may just give you some idea of what you missed.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser

This is an older review I did for The Compulsive Reader. I'm just getting around to reading The Hamilton Case:

It is no accident that Tom Loxley, the Indian-Australian professor who is the central character in Michelle de Kretser’s third novel, The Lost Dog, is writing a scholarly discussion of the work of Henry James, nor is it any accident that of the many individual James’ stories she mentions, one that seems to get a greater emphasis is "The Turn of the Screw." "The Turn of the Screw" is perhaps the most controversial of all the stories that the American novelist produced, the one that has produced the most critical polemic. The bulk of the story is the first person narrative of a governess who is entrusted with the care of two small children who she claims have been corrupted by the ghosts of two ex-servants. The crux of the critical argument is whether or not she is a reliable witness. Are there really ghosts or are they simply a figment of her imagination? What is reality? Where is truth? Readers have been able to find textual support for both of these positions; but no critic has managed to convince the other side. In the end, any universal agreement unlikely, many have opted for none of the above: in effect saying that ghosts or no ghosts; that is not the question.

The problem in The Lost Dog is not the question of supernatural presences; it is not a question of a reliable narrator. The problem is much akin to the problem of the critics and readers of "The Turn of the Screw." In the light of the limitations of human understanding can one determine truth is situations where the evidence is not always black and white.

Loxley is holed up in a friend’s cabin in the Australian bush finishing his book, and just before he is about to leave for home, his dog breaks loose and runs off still tethered to a long rope lead. Loxley chases after, to no avail. He searches for day or so; but needing to return to the city, he asks the neighbors to keep an eye out, leaves out some food, and plans to return in a few days. When he does return, it is with Nelly Zhang, a Chinese-Australian artist who owns the cabin, and for whom he has developed a passionate romantic attachment. Nelly is an enigma. There are some significant questions about an earlier marriage and what may or may not have happened to her first husband. We learn parts of her story through flashbacks over the course of the novel, bits and pieces from her friends and people who know of her, from microfilmed news reports, her own account of events, but much of what we learn is simply gossip and much contradictory. It is up to Loxley to wade through this mess of information and try to establish some sense of what might be truth. Loxley, unfortunately for him, is in the same position as the reader of "The Turn of the Screw." . He must make a judgment on the basis of inadequate and perhaps unreliable information.

Yet this is after all the enigma of all of life: judgment must be made on the basis of information that is often incomplete and even when complete open to interpretation. Late in the novel, Loxley thinks back to a time in his childhood in India, when in his innocent religious zeal he tried to convert a young playmate to Christianity by showing her a stained glass depiction of Christ’s crucifixion. "She, however, had no means of understanding these things, let alone the allegory of suffering and redemption portrayed before her. And so she screamed and, covering her head with her arms, dashed in terror from the place." He, on the other hand "beheld the sacrifice that illustrated his god’s infinite compassion, and saw, also, a man whose broken white body and crimsoned wounds the light endowed with awful verisimilitude." His conclusion is a formula for the problem we all face: " That a sign might proclaim a truth as well as its opposite was in itself a disturbing magic."

The book is replete with analogs–signs that "proclaim a truth as well as its opposite" and thus create a "disturbing magic" that at the very least confuses the perception of reality and truth.

These analogs run the gamut from what seem to be obvious misperceptions about the physical world like Loxley’s aging mother’s constant fear that she is falling whenever she moves to misjudgments about others, like his expectations of how both his mother and his ex-wife will react to the news of the lost dog. There are misjudgments about motivation: is the relationship between an older male art dealer and a younger man a homosexual affair or is it something else? Are the charitable actions of an older aunt really simply an opportunity to oppress the less fortunate? The signs can be comic: Loxley’s mother wants to know how little fish will be able to take over the office when she loses her job because of "microfish," The signs can contain an element of tragedy: the infant Loxley’s attitude towards excrement as opposed to his mother’s set against the reversal of that attitude and her embarrassment at her inability to control her bowels in her dotage.

One of the more interesting signs of this "disturbing magic" is the installation art which is associated with Nelly. She is constantly collecting found objects, the detritus of the city. She has draws filled with material, a room full of yesterday’s electronic discards. Walking on the street she stoops to pick up coins, a plastic fish. From the trash of others, she creates art. She fills printers trays lined with jeweler’s felt (indicating the value of what they contain) with swizzle sticks and condom wrappers. She photographs them to emphasize the value therein. After all we photograph what we privilege. The addition of images from advertising ( perhaps the cultural detritus of a society in its ephemerality, if nothing else)–the logo of Skipping Girl Vinegar most particularly–is simply a further extension of this theme.

This perplexing character of reality and the difficulty individuals have in reading it and coming to terms with it is the essence of the riddle that lies at the heart of the novel, for its protagonist and for its reader as well. Both live in a world that requires action based on signs that are at the least open to more than one reading.

Like "The Turn of the Screw," The Lost Dog packs its thematic concerns into a haunting suspenseful tale that comes at the reader in maddeningly tiny atoms of information which expand and grow in significance as we learn more and more about Loxley and as he learns more about Nelly. A bit of information will be presented: Loxley overhears an older man makes a comment to a younger at an art gallery. It seems little more than a random detail. A name is dropped, not even in a sentence. Posner. It seems to come from nowhere, mean nothing. But slowly piece by piece the details fill in the narrative. They are discovered as clues are discovered in a detective story, they just never seem to add up quite as neatly as they do in the hands of Agatha Christie.

The story begins with the loss of the dog and goes back in time to give the reader the back story: Loxley’s parents, his childhood in India, the immigration to Australia, his meeting with Nelly, his academic life. All of this is interspersed into the search for the lost dog coupled to the search for the solution to the puzzle that is Nelly Zhang. The trouble is whenever a solution seems about to emerge something new comes up to complicate the issue and keep the pages turning.

Not only does Michelle de Kretser tell a suspenseful story, she does it with the pen–or more probably the laptop–of a poet. Her prose crackles with sensuous imagery, often draped in alliteration: "The pale pillar of Posner was rising from the black scoop of a chair. For a large man, he moved as if oiled." The sight sends a "dribble of dismay down Tom’s spine." Or, "Flowers were everywhere, fat spillages of cream and pink, belled blue spikes, frothy lemon, Leaves and grasses moved, the scene shaking in light." She revels in figurative language. One man "resembled a hinged ruler, his long body forever obliged to fold itself into deficient spaces." Tom is "stabbed" with impatience. Birds fly our of "the muscled mauve arms of a eucalypt: a Fauve canvas come to life." Darkness spreads "like leaves." Sometimes the language moves into the allegorical: "Love was represented as a load; one saw tiny figures broken-backed under monstrous cargoes." Her language is rich and lush, at times filled with the flora and fauna of the Australian bush, at times the plastic and concrete of the city.

This sense of place is central to the novel. Whether she is talking about India or Australia, the author is always speaking in the idiom of the place. Unfortunately for a botanically/zoologically illiterate North American like myself, too often she sent me to an inadequate dictionary for help in identifying some probably not very obscure bush or bird. Yet this seems a small price for the intimacy of the detail and the evocation of locale. The same can be said for her use of local products, brands and advertising. The interesting thing is how she manages to infuse the realism of her local color with the sense of magic, or perhaps to infuse the "disturbing magic" with the realism of everyday.

One is reminded of the explanations Wordsworth and Coleridge have given about what they were trying to do in the poems of the "Lyrical Ballads." Wordsworth aimed to paint the marvel and mystery of the real world, Coleridge, the reality of the marvelous and mysterious. I t is almost as though there was a truth that lies somewhere in the combining of the two. Here is de Krester describing the thoughts of Thomas Loxley: ". . .he thought it was an error to equate authenticity with even tones. Existence was inseparable from tragedy and adventure, horror and romance; realism’s quiet hue derived from a blend of dramatic elements, as a child pressing together bright strands of plasticine creates a drab sphere."

Michelle de Kretser has won numerous awards for her prior work. Read The Lost Dog. You will understand why.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Book Review: Music on Film: Cabaret

Article first published as Book Review: Music on Film: Cabaret by Stephen Tropiano on Blogcritics.

Stephen Tropiano's Music on Film: Cabaret is the latest in a series of pocket-sized paperbacks that provide a comprehensive survey of everything that went into the making of some of the more musically significant cinematic treasures. Past volumes have dealt with West Side Story and This is Spinal Tap. This volume, about the length of a novella, runs just over one hundred pages in text and has eight pages of photos, a list of Cabaret related productions ( titled a "Cabaret-ography"), a fairly extensive section of documentary footnotes, and a convenient index. If it doesn't tell you everything you ever wanted to know about Cabaret, it tells you as much as much as anyone could expect from such a slim volume, and as anyone apart from the occasional scholar could desire.

Beginning with the original source of the material, the short Christopher Isherwood novel, Goodbye to Berlin, which along with the earlier novel, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, had been collected under the title The Berlin Stories. These were based on the novelist's experiences during a three year stay in Berlin through early 1933. In a chapter called "Sally Bowles," he describes a young British cabaret singer with limited talent perhaps most notable for her green nail polish. If her vocal performance was in any way effective, it was probably more from her appearance than for her voice, the narrator opines. Her lack of talent, Tropiano explains, was later to become an issue in casting a singer for the original Broadway production.

Isherwood's novels were adapted for the stage by John Van Druten in his play, I Am a Camera which was later made into a movie, both of which starred Julie Harris. Van Druten's play was the basis of the 1966 musical with a book by Joe Masterhoff and music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Produced and directed by Harold Prince, this production went on to win the Tony Award for the best musical of the year. With many changes, including cutting nine of the songs from the original and getting rid of a romantic relationship between the elderly landlady and her Jewish suitor, the musical was adapted for the screen under the direction of Bob Fosse in 1972. Although the film failed to win the Academy Award that year, it did garner Oscars for Joel Grey, Fosse and, of course Liza Minnelli. Making sure to bring everything up to date, Tropiano goes on to talk about Broadway revivals as well.

For the non-scholar, perhaps the most entertaining parts of the book are the little anecdotes and tidbits of trivia that fill the pages. Walter Kerr's three word review of I Am a Camera is an example: "Me no Leica." Fosse's attempt to get prim reactions from actress Marisa Berenson by whispering crude remarks in her ear is another. Fosse, he tells us, was unable to sit down during the film's editing because of an epic case of hemorrhoids. While these kinds of things may not be as significant for the student of film or theater as his explanation of why Hal Prince chose Jill Haworth over Liza Minnelli for the original Sally Bowles, or his comparison of the performances of Joel Grey and Alan Cummings as the Emcee, they are the kinds of things that stick in the mind of the casual reader.

Still more than likely, this is a book that will appeal to a limited audience. Film buffs, Broadway musical mavens, Liza Minnelli fans: this is a book for you. For the more general audience, in spite of the entertaining bits and pieces, it may be a case of more than you really want to know.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

DVD Revivew: Heart, Night at Sky Church

Article first published as Music DVD Review: Heart - Night at Sky Church on Blogcritics.

If the March 2010 Heart concert, Night at Sky Church now available on DVD is any indication, the seventies rocking sisters may be showing their age, but they can still rock with the best of them. Ann Wilson's voice can be as thrilling as it ever was, and Nancy is equally adept playing the band’s hard rock standards as well as its softer departures. The eighty eight minute concert features a nice mix of the group's classic hits and new songs from their 2010 album, Red Velvet Car, along with a guest appearance by blue grass diva Alison Krauss. Besides the Wilson sisters, the band includes Craig Bartock on guitar, Kristian Attard on bass, Debbie Shair, keyboards, and Ben Smith on drums.

They open the set with a hard driving "Baracuda" followed by "Never" and close with a crowd pleasing trio of their other major hits: "What About Love," "Alone," and "Crazy On You." They save "Magic Man" for the last of two encores. The other encore is "Sand," a quiet duet for Ann and Nancy which was written back in the '90's for the sister's acoustic group, the Lovemongers and is included on the new album. Earlier they had played four other pieces from that new CD, the title song, "Red Velvet Car," "WTF," "Hey You," and "Safronia's Mark." Alison Krauss and Ben Mink joined with the band on the fiddle on the last of these. Krauss comes on to sing Heart's "These Dreams" and then they back her up in a high powered rendition of her own "Your Long Journey." "Straight On" and "Mistral Wind" from the Dog and Butterfly album and "Love Alive" complete the concert. There are two bonus songs: "Back to Avalon" and "Kick it Out." Both seem to have been shot from the concert and I'm not clear about why they were separated. The first features a vocal by Nancy. The second is a rocker for Ann.

Highlights include "Mistral Wind" which begins with a discordant guitar solo introduction and a soft folksy vocal and builds to a hard rocking crescendo, and the ballad "Hey You" which features Nancy Wilson singing and playing the autoharp. Ann's work on the classic hits is electric. It is impossible to single one or two out for praise. Each one is better than the other. She has a voice that thrills and the concert audience eats it up. It is clear why Heart was so popular back in the day; it is clear why they are so popular still. Krauss, as one would expect, does a beautiful job with her two songs.

There are those concert films that are very static. It is as though it were simply enough for a camera or two to be pointed at the band on the stage to capture the essence of the performance. Night at Sky Church is not one of those. The camera work here is in a word fantastic. There is constant movement, movement that echoes the excitement of the music and the excitement of the audience. The camera moves between long shots of the band to close ups of individual musicians. Camera angles change: they shoot from above, from below, from the side. They zoom in; they zoom out. There are split screens and super imposed shots. It is camera work that truly enhances the experience of the concert and the two men credited with the photographic direction, Champe Barton and Steve Gibby, deserve some love.

Publicity for the DVD release includes this from pop singer Katy Perry: "Ann and Nancy have always been and continue to be the best female rock vocalists I've ever heard live. They could sing the phone book, and I would still listen." Perry is right. This concert is proof. Get out the Yellow Pages and let's see what these hard rocking ladies can do.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ursala LeGuin's Lavinia

Story of the woman Aeneas marries on his arrival on the Italian peninsula after leaving Dido. Virgil merely mentions her name. This novel becomes a first person monologue describing her life up to and through her marriage and the raising of their son after the death of Aeneas.

The most interesting part of the novel is her mystical meeting with the spirit of the poet who functions as God or fate by forecasting her future and the future of Rome. In a sense this parallels the actual function of the artist who does indeed function as a God or fate for the characters in the work of art.

Monday, March 7, 2011

DVD Review: Gauguin: Maker of Myth

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If, like me, your introduction to the artist Paul Gauguin was the 1919 novel based on his life by W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence, which focused on the morality of the artist's mid life decision to change careers, abandon his wife and children and pursue his vision of art, you may find that the National Gallery of Art's documentary, Gauguin: Maker of Myth fails to deal with the central question raised by the man's life. It is not that the film fails to talk about the crucial act of the man's life, it could hardly do that. It is simply that it never gets at the ethical issue. It is discussed as an aesthetic question. Gauguin in pursuit of an aesthetic ideal of purity walked away from what many if not most people would have considered his more fundamental obligations. Rather than dealing with the conflict between ethics and aesthetics, the film simply acknowledges the decision, explains its aesthetic basis and goes on to illustrate the results.

It is as though success justifies the act. That Gauguin, in fact, went on to produce universally acknowledged great works of art seems from the point of view of the filmmakers to justify his choice, and perhaps it does. Nevertheless, it does seem to be a decision that warrants greater scrutiny. What if it had turned out that he never produced anything of value? Would his choice then be justified? Indeed, even if it is true that he has produced great art, is that justification for his act? Do aesthetic values outweigh moral obligations? These are significant questions raised by Gauguin's life, moreover they are interesting questions; unfortunately they are questions this film really never asks. It simply reports the fact and moves on from there.

Given that caveat, the half hour documentary does an excellent job exploring Gauguin's aesthetics. It points to his desire to go beyond naturalism, his passion for vibrant color, his enchantment with the primitive closeness to nature. It points out his debt to the tradition of the noble savage, and details his search for the essential truths obscured by civilization first to the coast of Brittany and finally to the island of Tahiti. It analyzes and explains the various artistic influences on his work. And everything is illustrated with wonderfully detailed reproductions of the artist's work. Whether his many self portraits or his famous paintings of Tahitian natives, the film is filled with examples of the man's greatness. While the documentary does give the basic information about Gauguin's life, it really devotes its attention to his work. And since it could be argued that it is only because of the work that we are interested in him in the first place, this makes sense.

The DVD is narrated by Willem Dafoe. Alfred Molina does the voice of Gauguin in several readings from the artist. It is interesting that unlike many documentaries, there is no reliance on talking heads. Academics and art historians are conspicuous by their absence. It is not that the film lacks scholarly credibility; it is simply that the scholarship has been integrated into the narrative.

Bonus material is limited. There is a short film about folk traditions in modern Brittany which includes some of the painter's work for comparison. There are some young women in 19th century costume and a bagpiper, but the film itself lasts only a few minutes and really adds little to the understanding of either the painter or the locale. There is also a gallery of the artist's work, which provides a nice overview of the art.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

DVD Review: Napoleon & Love

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Napoleon & Love, a nine part 1974 BBC dramatic series, will be available March 1 in a three DVD set from Acorn Media Group. The episodic series which recounts the many love affairs of the French general as he powers his way through the armies of Europe to an Emperor's throne only to lose it with his ill advised Russian campaign stars Ian Holm as Bonaparte and Billie Whitelaw as Josephine, the greatest love and greatest disappointment of his life. Written by Philip Mackie, it focuses on the man's personal life with some attention to his political intrigues; oddly it pays little or no attention to the warrior's battles; indeed the only battle scene in all of the nine episodes deals with the Battle of Waterloo, and that lasts little more than a moment or two. The focus of the series is clear from the fact that eight of the nine episodes takes its title from one of the women in his life at the time: "Rose" (one of the names associated with Josephine), "Josephine," "Pauline," Georgina," "Eleonore," "Marie Walewska," "Maria-Luisa," and "Louise." The final episode reiterates the theme: "The End of Love."

It is Holm as the mercurial Corsican who holds the series together. He begins somewhat shakily as the young general ambitious but lacking in funds, and not all that convincing as the naïf duped by the sophisticates in Paris into a marriage to an older woman with a reputation who has no love for him. As the character grows older, and the actor sheds his youthful wig, his performance becomes much more believable. He rants; he raves, but most of all he commands. He sees what he wants and takes it. If at times he is almost absurd in his relations with the fair sex, one must remember this is Napoleon as portrayed by the Brits. It is not likely to be a heroic portrait. His chemistry with Whitelaw as at first she plays with him and later finds herself falling in love with him as he turns away from her to the other women lights up the screen. Whitelaw herself is bewitching as the tempting woman of the world, who knows her man, and knows how to get what she wants from him. One can well understand why she was Samuel Becket's favorite actress.

As we have come to expect from these British dramas the supporting cast is excellent, although one has to wonder why it is that some play with accents and some don't. Of course, no one attempts a French accent. As in the contemporary Les Miz, the French all seem to prefer British accents. Peter Bowles turns in a gem as the ridiculous ladies' man and Cavalry Captain, Murat. Peter Jeffrey is convincingly subdued as the scheming Talleyrand. A ridiculously young Tim Curry appears as Josephine's son from her first marriage, Eugene. Sorcha Cusack is her devoted daughter, Hortense.

Unlike the more recent British costume dramas which are shot outdoors and on location as well as in studio, back when this was shot they relied much more on the studio. This gives the production more the feel of a stage performance than the kind of film we get today. More often than not the scenes are confined to interiors, sumptuous interiors, but interiors and confining nonetheless. Costumes on the other hand are lavish and carefully integrated with character. Murat is dressed in clownish finery, while Talleyrand is more restrained. Napoleon appears as he does in some of the many portraits, but it is to the ladies that the truly beautiful couture is given, beautiful women are dressed beautifully.

Although each of the three discs includes a disclaimer noting that the development of video recording may have caused some problems with the rerecording of the older audio and video, I didn't notice anything awry in any of the episodes. Both video and audio quality were quite acceptable. Extras included on the final disc, include filmographies of some of the major cast members and a short time line of historical events during Napoleon's reign. While I would have liked some program notes along with the set, more often than not these sets don't bother with them. One can only hope.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

DVD Review: The Norman Conquests

This article was first published at Blogcritics

One of the most prolific British playwrights of this or any other era, Alan Ayckbourn is noted not only for his comic sensibility, but also for some of the quirky structural elements he likes to play with. In How the Other Half Loves, for example, he uses a set that combines two different apartments and has two separate sets of related events going on simultaneously. Intimate Exchanges has a beginning scene and then offers different choices for what follows with many possibilities, two new ones following each choice made. House & Garden consists of two plays going at the same time in two different theaters, with the actors leaving one scene in one theater only to enter a scene in the other.

The Norman Conquests, a televised version of which is set to be released on DVD on the first of March, is another in this string of formal experimentation. Nominated for an Emmy for writing in 1978, it is a set of three plays, all covering the same period of time and the same six characters from three different points of view. The three plays are written so that they can be viewed in any order or independently. The plot of all three deals with the problems that arise in a dysfunctional family as the result of a planned weekend assignation that goes awry. Norman, played by Tom Conti, has arranged to go off for a romantic get away with his sister-in-law Annie (Penelope Wilton). Reg, Annie's older brother and his wife, the tightly wound Sarah, unaware of who Annie is going with, arrive to care for their invalid mother while Annie is away. The whole scheme blows up when Annie has second thoughts, Norman arrives unexpectedly and Sarah discovers what's going on. When Annie's erstwhile beau, Tom, a clueless veterinarian show up, and finally Norman's wife is added to the mix, all the makings for a raucous weekend are in place.

Table Manners, the first of the plays, is set in the dining room of Annie's country house. The second play, Round and Round the Garden takes place in the garden and Living Together, the last of the trilogy, in the living room. Since all the plays are designed so that they can be understood individually, there is understandably some repetition, but this is kept to a minimum, and more often than not the playwright's cleverness with these echoes become part of the fun. It is almost akin to dramatic irony as if the audience has been let in a joke, not everyone is privy to. While the production does move the camera around quite a bit, it makes no attempt to open up the staging beyond the specified sets, as televised versions of stage plays often do. The garden scene offers the best opportunity for variety. Other than that there is a much greater use of close up camera work than one usually gets in TV comedy.

And with this cast, close up camera work pays off with laughter. Tom Conti especially has a face made to fill a screen. Heavily bearded with a head of flowing black hair, his shaggy appearance, to say nothing of his soulful eyes, underscores the many references others make to his dog like eagerness to be loved by everyone. But he is not alone, expressive faces abound. David Troughton, the hapless Tom, is a master at physicalizing his social ineptitude. Richard Briers as Reg and Penelope Keith as Sarah are both masters of the significant look. Penelope Wilton's Annie channels both sweetness and frustration. It is an impressive ensemble, and they provide some hilarious moments. I mean, truly laugh out loud moments. They do Ayckbourn proud.

The three DVD set allows each of the plays to be presented in its entirety on one disc. Total running time for all three is a bit over three hundred minutes. There is little in the way of extras. The first disc includes a short prose biography of the playwright and the second has some background about the trilogy.