Thursday, June 28, 2012

DVD Review: Gray's Anatomy (Criterion Collection)

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Perhaps the central problem inherent in adapting a theatrical production to film is overcoming the limitations of the stage and opening it up for the big screen. This would be problem enough with the normal stage production, how much worse when dealing with a single actor seated at a table with a glass of water spouting a ninety minute monologue. So when an award winning director like Steven Soderbergh commits to taking on a property like Spalding Gray's Gray's Anatomy, the first thing he has to think about is how to translate the monologue's static claustrophobia into something that will play on the screen.

In a short commentary included as part of the bonus material in the new Criterion Collection of Soderbergh's film, he explains some of his thinking.  First of all, concerned with distinguishing his production from other films of Gray monologues like Jonathan Demme's Swimming to Cambodia, he decided to eliminate the audience.  Since a large part of Gray's appeal is his ability to play off the audience, this would seem to be the equivalent of a fighter tying one hand behind his back.  That Soderbergh is able to get away with it, and for many viewers he is able to get away with it, is testimony to his talent as a filmmaker. 

Instead of the audience, he has Gray play to the camera, and he uses the camera as a dynamic force. The actor may be seated at his table, but the camera moves actively—different angles, changing heights and distances.  He can even move the actor in his chair to create action. Soderbergh talks about linking the visual environment to the content.  He does this with backdrops; he does it with creative use of lighting.  In the end he comes up with a visually impressive adaptation.

His inclusion of interviews with a number of men and women who had suffered from a variety of eye injuries from an embedded wire to a spray of oven cleaner was, as he explains, necessitated by the fact that the material he had filmed with Gray after the original monologue had been cut down was too short.  Of course, the fact that the interviews both opened up the film a bit and added other voices, to say nothing of their dramatic nature simply demonstrate that necessity may also be the mother of serendipity.

The monologue tells the story of Gray's struggle with a vision problem which is eventually diagnosed as macular pucker.  He talks about his fears when he learns about the surgery necessary to correct the condition, his experiences with alternative medicine, and expands consideration of his own illness to a meditation on illness and the human condition. Whether he is describing a Native American sweat lodge, a Christian Scientist healer, or a Philippine psychic surgeon, he looks at his attempts to deal with his problem with a sardonic eye.  Even without an audience, Gray manages to project the power of his personality.  It takes a special talent to hold the screen for seventy minutes and Gray has it—both as a writer and as an actor.

Aside from the film and the Soderbergh interview,  the first of the two disc Criterion Collection set includes an interview with co-writer and ex-wife Renée Shafransky, 16 minutes of silent footage from Gray's actual eye operation called Swimming to the Macula, and the film's trailer.  The second disc contains a ninety five minute video of Gray's monologue, A Personal History of the American Theater produced by the Wooster Group in 1982.  Shot before an audience with none of the production values of the Soderbergh film, it makes an interesting comparison with what the director has accomplished.  Although A Personal History of the American Theater, which chronicles the various stage productions Gray took part in over his career to that point is entertaining and witty, it does lack the depth of his later monologues.  Nonetheless it is a welcome bonus.  There is also an informative essay on Gray and his work by film  critic Amy Taubin.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Book Review:Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Just in time for the scheduled May premiere of the first adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road at the Cannes Film Festival, Penguin books is reissuing Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee with a short new introductory essay by Gifford.  The 1978 biography combines commentary from the author's friends and lovers, the famous and the notorious, most of whom had found their way thinly disguised into Kerouac's published work under pseudonyms with connective tissue provided by Gifford and Lee.  If Kerouac's books taken altogether form one long narrative ("one vast book") of his life as he saw it (an idea he often seems to have expressed in conversation), Jack's Book creates a portrait of that life as those around him saw it.

Gifford points out that when Allen Ginsberg read the galley's of the book his first thought was: "My god it's just like Rashomon--everybody lies and the truth comes out."  The idea that people view the world subjectively and truth is relative is not particularly new, nor is the idea that something closer to the objective truth can emerge from the collection of these subjective truths.  These people all knew Kerouac, but in a very real sense they knew the Kerouac they wanted him to be.  Just as he created a mythic figure out of a womanizing, petty car thief, they created a larger than life genius tormented by demons, a dark soul too beautiful for the world. This would seem to be the collective truth that emerges from those who knew him; readers will have to come to their own conclusions.

Gifford also points out that this book not intended as a definitive biography.   Much of his life—the early days in Lowell and the last years--is covered very sketchily.  There is some conversation with his boyhood friends, but nothing in the kind of detail devoted to his arrival in New York to attend Columbia University and his friendship with Neal Cassady.  In fact, there are long passages where Cassady is really the center of attention and Kerouac almost forgotten.  To the extent that Kerouac turned Cassady into one of the iconic figures of 20th century literature the attention is certainly merited, but it does reinforce the notion that Jack's Book is something other than the last word on the life of Jack Kerouac.

What the book does best is provide insights into what a wide variety of people saw in him.  John Clellon Holmes, author of Go calls Kerouac somewhat paradoxically "a terribly simple and conventional genius."  Musician David Amram remembers Kerouac telling him "a writer should be like a shadow, just be part of the sidewalk like a shadow."Gore Vidal, obviously less taken with Kerouac talks about his bisexuality and claims he "was not above using it, and his physical charms to get his way." Ginsberg saw him as more Puritanical about his sexuality.  William Burroughs and Gregory Corso describe the way he wrote, intense periods of composition with the words seemingly pouring out of him in a Thomas Wolfe kind of rhapsody. 

Some people object to the way they were portrayed in his writing, taking the opportunity to tell their side of the story.  It is understandable considering that it has been very easy for readers to identify most of the real life models for Kerouac's characters and they are not always pleasing portraits.  His publishers were often concerned about the possibility of legal action as a result of some of the unflattering material. Interestingly, Gifford and Lee provide an appendix identifying the fictional counterparts of many of those who appear in the book for.

 Jack's Book is an impressive picture of Kerouac and his relations with those around him. He was many things to many people, but there were few who failed to be captivated by his dynamism and passion.  While it is probably true that the more familiar a reader is with Kerouac's work, the more meaningful this book will be, there will as likely be a good many  that will be led to read those books they have  yet to read as a result of meeting the man who wrote them.   The Kerouac of Jack's Book is much the dark romantic genius (simple and conventional as that might seem to some) burning as many ends of life's candle as he could manage. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

DVD Review: Harold and Maude Criterion Collection

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If over the years since its initial release in 1971, Harold and Maude, Hal Ashby's portrait of, if not the most controversial love affair to hit the big screen, certainly one that belongs in the top three or so, has grown in reputation exponentially, its current release as part of the Criterion Collection is a clear justification of that growth. Back then, the very idea that there could be a romantic relationship between a woman of 80 and a youth of 20 was at best farfetched, at worst perverted. Times have changed. Many of those, I suppose, who would have been horrified by the idea of a marriage between an 80 year old woman and a 20 year old boy are now so busy defending marriage from the gay attack that their horror might have dissipated.  Many of those who would have found it farfetched may well have come across contemporary examples on the internet.  At any rate what was shocking in the 70s has lost much of its shock value in the new century. 

The romance between the octogenarian survivor of the Holocaust with an almost insane passion for living every moment and the youthful loner who can only express himself in elaborately staged suicide attempts has become for many an emblem of the victory of the counter cultural values of the 60s over conventional social values.  Ruth Gordon's performance as the vibrant Maude is masterful, and the baby faced Bud Cort matches her as the depressed young man who blossoms under her influence.  There is an on screen chemistry between the two that makes the May December relationship not only credible, but inevitable.  That an introverted young man obsessed with death might well be seduced by the intensity of her life force is not even strange.  She is a dynamo charging everything and everyone in her path.

The Criterion Collection's DVD is a new digital restoration with an optional remastered stereo soundtrack.  Bonus material includes an audio commentary by Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and producer Charles B. Mulvehill, a 2011 interview with Yusuf/Cat Stevens whose songs, including two new ones, were used in the film, and audio excerpts from American Film Institute seminars with Ashby (1972) and screenwriter/producer Colin Higgens (1979). Both are illustrated with candid still shots often from the set of the film.  The Ashby commentary focuses on his general ideas about filmmaking, but he does talk about the casting of Cort and the film's central relationship.  He also talks about the Cat Stevens music. The Higgens commentary talks about how he managed to sell the script and has quite an interesting discussion of the how he got the idea for the film's opening sequence, surely one of the most creative film openings you're likely to come across.   

There is also a booklet with a critical essay by Matt Zoller Seitz, a 1971 profile of Ruth Gordon from the New York Times, and excerpts from interviews with Cort and cinematographer John Alonzo in 1997 and executive producer Mildred Lewis in 2001.  The Seitz essay is an impressive piece of film criticism that attempts both to explicate themes and ideas and to locate the film in the social context of the period.  The Gordon profile emphasizes the quirkiness of the actress, a quirkiness that shines through on the screen. 

If only for Gordon's enchanting performance, Harold and Maude remains a film to be savored, and Criterion's DVD offers the best way to do so, absent access to the big screen. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Music Review: Cynthia Felton - Freedom Jazz Dance

This article was first published at Blogcritics

The first time you hear Freedom Jazz Dance, the latest album from Cynthia Felton you will be impressed by the purity of her vocals and her command of the jazz idiom. The more you listen, the more impressed you will be. This is a vocalist steeped in tradition.  She understands the contributions of the ladies of past generations, and she understands the need to build upon them.  She understands that the true artist needs to find her own voice. And if Freedom Jazz Dance is any indication she has found it, and jazz fans are going to be very glad she has.

The album's 12 tracks, she tells us in the liner notes, are a "collection of my favorite standards to sing."  It won't take long for them to become a collection of your favorite standards to listen to.  She starts with an impassioned a cappella version of the spiritual "Oh Freedom" in a nod to the gospel roots of jazz, before morphing into innovative takes on the Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck classic "Take Five" and the Rogers and Hart perennial "My Funny Valentine." "Take Five" features some nice tenor sax work from Ernie Watts, and "Valentine" opens with the solo trumpet of Wallace Roney and features some interesting bass 'improv' from Robert Hurst.  A variety of different musicians accompany the singer on the various tracks.

"Better Than Anything" is one of the less well known pieces on the disc; it gives the singer the opportunity to swing the blues and add a little scat. Cyrus Chestnut adds a sweet piano solo and Nolan Shaheed is on the trumpet. "My Love Is" and Charles Mingus's "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love" two more less familiar tunes follow, and Felton's performance has to make you wonder why they aren't heard more often. 

"Close Your Eyes" opens lullaby-like with Hurst's bass and Felton's soft vocal, before she begins to swing with a straight ahead vibel leading to a guitar solo from Ronald Muldrow, and some additional scatting.  The old Nat 'King' Cole hit "Nature Boy" gets a little Latin American vibe from Felton. Patrice Rushen handles the piano and Terri Lyne Carrington the drums. Felton comes in at the end and wails to a dynamite climax.  It is one of the album's many highlights. The Kurt Weill classic ballad "Lost in the Stars" gets a dynamic treatment from Felton.  This is followed by a wild romp through Ray Noble's "Cherokee" accompanied by Edwin Livingston's bass and Nolan Shaheed's trumpet.  The Bergman Legrand ballad "What Are you Doing the Rest of Your Life?" follows and the album ends with its title song, "Freedom Jazz Dance." The first gets an eloquent atmospheric treatment from the singer; the second is a rhythmic celebration with some strong piano solo work from John Beasley. Lorca Hart drives it forward on the drums.  It is a real tour de force.

Cynthia Felton's Freedom Jazz Dance is as fine a jazz album as you're likely to come across for the rest of the year.  She is the kind of singer that can take a great song and make it her own.  Listen to her version of "Cherokee," and if it isn't heresy, it may well make you forget Charlie Barnett.  Her "Nature Boy" will give the 'King' a run for his money.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Music Review: Rachel Sage - Haunted By You

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Rachael Sage is not your run of the mill June/moon singer songwriter. You hear a line like "today is the first day of the rest of my. . .;" and if you're expecting the cliché, forget it, not going to happen. Sage is a poet. The ordinary image is not where she's going.  For her ideas and emotions, she needs "bittersweet Swarovski," "a big old purple sequin. . . tearing up" her art, "one speck of mica shining on the ground." In a lover's touch she hears the "Song of Solomon. She searches for meaning in a "dead sea of ill-fated dreaming." Without love you're "one mitten in Grand Central's lost and found."

Luckily, Sage's latest album Haunted by You comes complete with a full set of lyrics for the 12 original songs. You'll want them. Listening won't be enough, you'll want them in front of you to ponder while you listen and think about long after. Not that there's anything wrong with the music: she has created a passionate song cycle that plumbs the emotional depths of love found and love lost. “I fell recklessly in and out of love multiple times while writing this record," she explains on her website. "I broke a couple hearts…and I also had my heart broken pretty badly.” Broken hearts have long been the stuff of pop music; Sage's gift, and she has one, is to take "what oft was thought," as one poet past has put it, "but ne'er so well expressed."

Whether she's indulging in the kind of arcane allusions and metaphors reminiscent of the Metaphysical Poets—a lover's touch is a "Kabbalistic mystery," she can't be "the only Catherine wheel," or looking at love with a grittier eye—"I'm not just a girl you held one night in an Austin motel," there is an emotional honesty in her music that comes through clearly in her vocals. She is able to sell lyrics that might come across to some as esoteric or academic as expressions of sincere feelings. She can be vulnerable; she can be strong. She has her moments, at times hopeful, at times bleak, but always sung with truthful sensitivity. Always open about her own sexuality, some of the songs state it explicitly "Confession," "Abby Would You Wait;" most are generic expressions applicable to both sexes.

The album opens and closes with the paradoxically titled "Invisible Light," which highlights the desire for someone who really understands her. She calls it her favorite song on the album and points out how different the arrangements are. Dar Williams, Seth Glier and Joshua Leonard contribute background vocals on the reprise track. She says that "Abby Would You Wait" is about a long conversation shared one night after a show. Like "Invisible Light." It seems to be looking for that special understanding that binds two people. The cleverly titled "Soulstice" captures a moment of joy in passion, and the resignation that comes with the understanding that it is fleeting:  "Can't we just agree that I love you and call it a night." She is joined on the track by Kelly Halloran on violin, Jack Petruzelli on guitar, and David Immergluck on mandolin. 

Her own band The Sequins consists of Quinn (drums and percussion), Russ Johnson (trumpet and flugelhorn), and Dave Eggar (cello). Sage plays piano, wurlitzer, rhodes, harmonium, percussion and acoustic guitar.

"Haunted by You," the title song is one of a string of bleak laments on unrequited love, including "California," "The Sequin Song" (a metaphoric tour de force), and the truly black "Performance Art."   In "Confession," on the other hand, she takes the blame for love's failure on herself: "I took you for granted every day of my life."Contrast these with the artist's more hopeful expressions:  "Everything," for example, where "faith has a way of giving you what you need," and "Hey Nah," where she has "elected to be happy all" her days. "Birthday," while keeping to the cycle's central themes manages to throw in a little shout out the singer's Jewish roots, an indulgence she seems to relish both on the stage and on her website.