Today at the DBR: A few word about the elating new drama from Britian, Call the Midwife.
Archive for the ‘Lively Arts’ Category
What struck me first, when Winter’s Bone came to an end, was that Americans don’t make pictures like this. Largely silent, intently focused, and hugely reliant on the viewer’s empathy, it is one of those movies about common, even primitive people that are doomed to find their most appreciative audience among metropolitan types. When they succeed, as Winter’s Bone certainly does, it’s in the teeth of a defiance that’s aimed mostly at the hero’s adversaries but also in part at the audience, forbidding it to condescend.
This is a movie without a background; aside from some vaguely-sketched family history, time exists only as the medium in which the story is told. But the story begins with the wreckage wrought upon the heroine’s family by a plague of methamphetamines that began long before the she was born, and Debra Granik, who has no intention of cluttering her spare film with generalizing backstory about the plague, leaves it to us to make sense of the wreckage. From Nick Reding’s inestimable Methland, I had learned that methamphetamines, like all opiates and their synthetic kin, destroy families in two ways. The drug itself is toxic to character, but so is the traffic. The money that sprouts in the corruption of drug-dealing seems almost an embodiment of the euphoria that spurts amidst somatic degradation. What distinguishes methamphetamines from so-called “recreational” drugs is that it begins as crutch for overworked laborers, enabling them, initially at least, to put in enough hours to put food on their families’ table. The irony of this metastasized work ethic is crushing.
The story that Winter’s Bone has to tell is very simple. Jessup Dolly, a crack methamphetamine cook, has pledged his home as collateral for a bail bond — and then disappeared. This home is all that Ree, his seventeen year-old daughter, has in the world, which would be bad enough if she did not have the care of her broken-minded mother and her two younger siblings, both still children. Her only other resource is her extended family. But the ties that bind this clan have been corroded by drugs. Ree needs to find her father, dead or alive, in order to keep a roof over her charges’ heads, but her cousins are conflicted about helping her. It’s never spelled out why they’re conflicted; that would only make for more clutter, distracting us from experiencing Ree’s ordeal as closely as she experiences it as possible. Old people might be interested in long-standing grudges, but young people find family history suffocating. Ree couldn’t care less about her father’s fallings-out. She doesn’t care very much about him. All she wants is a home for her family.
Ree’s doggedness eventually creates a scandal: why is no one helping the poor girl? That one of her aids is the woman who has subjected her to a savage beating isn’t at all, by the time it happens, surprising. Warned off from the search for her father, Ree isn’t the slightest bit pig-headed, but she has no other options. And she has never been in a position to compromise — she has never had any negotiating chips. Her father’s improvidence gives her her first counter in the wearying game of dead-end adulthood: she can give up on her mother, her brother, and her sister. Her refusal to do so eventually reminds everyone else of what’s good about the human heart.
Ms Granik’s cast is never less than persuasive, but to assist her young star, Jennifer Lawrence, she has two fantastic supporting actors, John Hawkes, as Ree’s uncle, Teardrop; and Dale Dickey, as Merab, the most baleful challenge to Ree’s ordeal. Ms Lawrence’s performance is so transcendent that it withers the full bouquet of laudatory adjectives. That’s part of the un-American-ness of Winter’s Bone: it demands an un-American reticence.
Possibly because Michael Caine referred repeatedly to Gran Torino in a recent Talk of the Town item, I expected Harry Brown to be a very different picture from the one that I saw this afternoon. The actual movie is far more interesting, more engaging, and even more beautiful. It was vastly less noisy and explosive, and there was none of that “Make my day!” fury that Clint Eastwood gives off like the heat of a sun-baked sedan. The first third — perhaps the first half — of Harry Brown is extraordinarily quiet, right out there with the meditations of Ingmar Bergman for contained feelings.
Harry Brown becomes a widower early in the movie; a daughter died years ago, in childhood. Harry’s only companion is Len Attwell (David Bradley), another resident of the council estate that has seen better days and that has been terrorized by thugs and drugs. Lynn, whose flat overlooks the subway (underpass) entrance where the boys hang out, has evidently had more than a few rude encounters, culminating in a smoky blob of burning matter pushed through his letterbox. Len tries to enlicit Harry’s support in an unspecified bit of vigilantism, but Harry very calmly tells Len that, when he got married, he boxed up his memories of serving in the Royal Marines in Ulster, and is no longer a fighting man. Exasperated, Len assaults the gang with a bayonet. He does not survive the incident. Harry finds out when DI Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and DS Terry Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles) pay a call.
The dreariness of these scenes is visually unrelieved, but it is redeemed by Harry’s palpable mindfulness, and by Alice’s not very hopeful conviction that the police ought to do a better job of protecting people like Len. (Alice’s personal gravity makes her almost unsuitable for police work — one can imagine Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison losing her patience with this woman.) The camera shots are so beautifully composed that they transfigure the sepia-toned environment in which Harry spends his days and nights. Mr Caine is at times part of this decor; his eyes, once scornful pits in a smooth face, brim with a vitality that has nothing to do with “twinkling.”
The violence, once it starts, is both thrillingly imaginative and wholly unpredictable. Suffice it to say that Harry knows how to unbox what he learned in the marines with thorough dispatch.
There’s a first for eveything: saying this is how we package experiences that we’d never imagined.
I went to Carnegie Hall this evening to hear an Orpheus Chamber Orchestra concert, the last of the season. The beautiful performances were not, as you can well imagine, the new experience. On the program were Stravinsky’s Octet for winds, Bruch’s First (and only famous) Violin Concerto, and Beethoven’s Second. If you have to ask, “Second what?”, send me an email.
There were two new experiences, although they were both of one kind. In the first, I listened to Stravinsky’s very playful chamber music as if my grandson Will were on my knee. Rationally, I understand that the music would not have appealed to any four month-old baby. Stravinsky did a good job of tempting me to think otherwise. Even Kathleen thought so.
Then, at beginning of the slow movement of the Bruch, Ryu Goto’s stroke of firm crescendo was as gentle as my grandson’s skin. That is really what I thought as I heard the sound — a first in my long history of responses to music. Skin!
If Orpheus’s performance of Beethoven’s Second failed to rouse any reminders of Will, that’s undoubtedly because I’d had a very early lunch, and nothing to eat since. Just at the time when I’d ordinarily be enjoying an afternoon snack, I was in a taxi bound for Will’s house in Alphabet City. His father was taking his first business trip qua pops, and his mother, I thought, could use a few moments of supporting staff. So I popped into a taxi, in tie and blazer, daring to be spit up upon (Will rose to the challenge!), and spent an hour with mother and child before heading uptown. I was so freaked about the uncertainty of snagging taxis that I arrived and departed early. I’m sure that I was of no real help to Megan at all. I’ll try to make up for that tomorrow.
But “they can’t take that away from me”: the memory of a smile that makes life not so much worth living as simply imperative.
Watching DVDs in the middle of the day is usually a bad idea, but I was dying to see Peter Richardson’s Churchill: The Hollywood Years, a movie that to the best of my knowledge has never been shown on this side of the Atlantic. The premise of the farce is that, far from being a portly, middle-aged gent with a plummy English voice, Winston Churchill was a studly American Marine. With the brave, romantic aid of Princess Lilibet, this swaggering action hero squelched the occupation of Buckingham Palace by Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels. Then he flew off into the Battle of Britain and died a hero’s death. (Not shown.)
Even with Christian Slater as Churchill, the romp is nowhere near as bad as you might think. Harry Enfield’s George VI is an atomic hoot, trust me. Antony Sher and Miranda Richardson completely refresh the look and feel of the funny-Adolf-and-Eva shtick. Jessica Oyelowo plays Princess Margaret as if she were Ava Gardner — let’s see more of her! The nicest performance, though is the one that points, inadvertently, to precisely what’s missing from Churchill. Every once in a while, Neve Campbell seems about to burst out of her Princess Elizabeth impersonation and into a fit of giggles. This makes you remember The Carol Burnett Show.
What made the sketches in Carol Burnett so much funnier than anything that anybody had ever seen before was the principal performers’ bold but somehow helpless flirtation with Losing It. The jokes were completely trumped by the agony crimped into the faces of Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, and Vicki Carr as they struggled not to break character and laugh their heads off.
The rule against spluttering laughter on stage is dictated by the quality of the comedy. If there’s no quality, there’s no rule. The Carol Burnett troupe turned this around. Their trembling jaws signaled their awareness that they were putting on tripe, but the signal itself transmuted “acting” into “improvisation” — even though, for all we know, the breakdowns were as rehearsed as the blocking.
Christian Slater’s problem, in Churchill: The Hollywood Years, is that he’s aware that his comic-book antics and shoot-em-up bravado are ridiculous. Aside from a few almost unwatchable “sincere” shots, he smirks his way through the entire picture. But it’s not the right smirk. It’s the smirk of the Big Man on Campus who’s being required by the Dean of Students to do something un-cool. Hey, his smirk says, I’m only going through the motions here. Think Eddie Haskell.
Carol Burnett never smirked. She threw herself into her preposterous roles with with the passion of an operatic diva. So did Harvey Korman. They vied for preposterousness. It was inevitable that one of them would sooner or later surprise the other with a stupendously preposterous bit, causing the predictable audience reaction right up close. (I seem to recall that Korman had a knack for strutting so strenuously that he would flub his lines — a doubly whammy for his colleagues.) Harold Bloom might say that our laughter is overdetermined.
Churchill: The Hollywood Years left a mystery in its wake: would it be best to watch it before Inglourious Basterds or after? See what Mr Teasy-Weasy does with the Führer’s hair before you answer that one.
¶ Prime: David Segal’s update on the failure to reform the ratings-agency biz in any meaningful way suggests that the conflict has little to do with lobbying (for once) but reveals a clash of visions, between bold (reckless) and cautious (ineffective). (NYT)
¶ Nones: The opera buffa in Honduras too a turn for the seriously dramatic on Tuesday, with the assassination General Julian Aristides Gonzalez, the Honduran drug czar. The crime opens a window on our view of the local economy. (BBC News)
¶ Matins: In an extremely thoughtful piece that may alter the grain of your thought — or, as it our case, highlight the way in which you’re already inclined to think — Tony Judt asks us to consider why it is that, in the Anglophone world, we reduce all political questions to economic equations. He proposes a very persuasive, historically-bound answer to the question. Don’t miss it. (NYRB)
¶ Lauds: Judith Jamison is looking to trade in “artistic director” for, perhaps, “Queen.” Those of us who were lucky enough to see her dance Revelations know just how aptly that very popular ballet is titled. (New York; via Arts Journal)
¶ Sext: The things that Choire Sicha digs up on the Internets! From a blog called firmuhment, a thoroughly wicked “imagineering” of Zac Efron’s newfound, post-Orson intellectual sophistication. (via The Awl)
¶ Nones: More Honduran predictability: the Congress declined, by a very large margin, to re-instate Manuel Zelaya in office for the weeks that remain to his term. The voting, 111-14 against Mr Zelaya, suggests that the ousted president is not a character worth fighting for. (NYT)
¶ Vespers: In a backlist assessment that has the whole town talking, Natalia Antonova convinces us that she loves Vladimir Nabokov’s best-known book not in spite of her history as the victim of abuse but because of it. (The Second Pass)
¶ Compline: Because it’s the weekend, we offer Ron Rosenbaum’s long and “Mysterian” query about consciousness and other unsolved mysteries as a way of killing time in the event of any dominical longueurs. Although we agree with his assessment of the the “facts” (ie questions), we do not, so to speak, share his affect.
While we recognize — insist! — that the universe remains profoundly mysterious, it doesn’t bother us in the least, because, really, it’s much too interesting to live with the mysteries that aren’t so profound. The profundity that Mr Rosenbaum highlights for us is the connection between adolescence and all forms of metaphysics. (Slate; via Arts Journal)
¶ Lauds: Terry Teachout really likes The Starry Messenger, Kenneth Lonergan’s new play. As the author of a hit book at the moment, Mr Teachout is probably going to garnish somewhat more attention than he might otherwise do. Bravo!
¶ Nones: We thought that the Irish priest problem was dealt with ages ago. Apparently not. My good Catholic wife is mad as hell at Benedict XVI, and contrapuntally so. First, of course, this ought to have never happened. Second, what a distraction it all is from caring for the poor and hungry.
¶ Matins: Is Bob Cringely mad? His vision of the future, “Pictures in Our Heads” — well you can see where he’s going. (“And the way we’ll shortly communicate with our devices, I predict, will be through our thoughts.”) But it’s the beginning of the entry that caught our eye. The power of Mr Cringely’s assumption (with which we’re ever more inclined to agree), that the iPhone/iTouch is today’s seminal device, from which everything in the future will somehow flow, seems to mark a moment.
¶ Lauds: Isaac Butler outlines just how very hard it is to apportion praise and blame in the highly collaborative atmosphere of the theatre. Mr Butler winds up by pointing out how much easier it is to judge the performance of a classic play, because one of the variables — the text, usually unfamiliar to premiere audiences — is taken out of the problem. (Parabasis; via Arts Journal and the Guardian)
¶ Prime: Jeffrey Pfeffer discusses the “Sad State of CEO Replacement.” His remarks prompt a question: Is the typical board of directors a band of masochists in search of a dominator? The minute a self-assertive bully walks in, they tend to submit with rapture. (The Corner Office)
¶ Sext: Adam Gopnik addresses the evolution of cookbooks, from aides-mémoire intended for professionals to encyclopedias for novices, and beyond. Oakeshott and gender differences are dragged in. The recent fetish for exotic salts is explained. (The New Yorker)
¶ Vespers: Our favorite literary couples, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, sits for an interview with the Wall Street Journal. We knew the basics. But it’s nice to have a bit of detail. (Who knew that Pasternak’s style is “studied”?) (via The Second Pass)
¶ Compline: At NewScientist, a slideshow taken from Christopher Payne’s Asylum: Inside the closed World of State Mental Hospitals. The show, presumably like Mr Payne’s book, ends on a guardedly positive note. (via The Morning News)
¶ Matins: Monica Howe writes about a problem that appears to be on the increase: drive-by porn and its variants. You’re sitting in some sort of traffic, minding your own business, when the guy next to you…. (Washington Post; via The Morning News)
¶ Lauds: Yasmina Reza, in town to promote her directorial début, Chicas, with Emmanuelle Seignier — and to catch the first cast’s final performance of God of Carnage — talks to Speakeasy about all of that, and her friendship with Ms Seignier’s husband, Roman Polanski.
¶ Prime: Felix Salmon continues the debt-bias discussion, evaluating two reasons not to tax interest payments, and, not surprisingly, dismissing them even when he agrees with supporting arguments. (That’s what makes this discussion so interesting.)
¶ Vespers: Terry Teachout encounters a stack of his new book(s), Pops, at the Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. He registers his reaction as closer to Mencken than to Hindemith. (About Last Night)
¶ Compline: Two lawyers from the Genomics Law Report consider the “intriguing question” of how personal DNA data might be handled in the event (an event in Iceland) of a direct-to-consumer’s genomics company’s going bankrupt. (Genetic Future; via Short Sharp Science)
¶ Compline: A tale that seems to come out of Dickens or Trollope or perhaps even Cruikshank or Rowlandson: while Simmons Bedding faces bankruptcy, the private equity investors and the former CEO walk away will amply-filled pockets.
He’s sleeping on chairs, and he claims his throat is sore from toxic gases and “Israeli mercenaries” are torturing him with high-frequency radiation.
We’re not making this up! (via The Awl)
¶ Sext: It’s a bit early for us, but our cousin Kurt Holm will be on the Early Show tomorrow morning, and CBS Studios at 59th and Fifth will be the place to hang out. (Between 7:15 and 9, I’m told.) This week at notakeout: Mark Bittman guests!
¶ Nones: Yesterday, we were reminded of Il Trovatore. Today, it’s Rodelinda. How did Manuel Zelaya get back into Honduras? The sort of question that never comes up in genuine opera seria. Maybe this is opera buffa.
- Picking up nickels in front of a steamroller
- Don’t try this at home.
¶ Prime: Over the weekend, Times columnist Joe Nocera raised the “what if” question about Lehman, speculating that “it had to die to save Wall Street.” James Surowiecki isn’t so sure — and neither are we.
¶ Vespers: Richard Nash writes about Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print. The book, which assesses the history of publishing and bookselling in clearly commercial terms, sounds compelling, but the review is an absolute must. (Grocery stores?)
¶ Matins: The nation of which Amsterdam is the capital is rightly considered to be one of the most densely-populated sovereignties in the world. But it’s as empty as Arizona when compared with the former New Amsterdam.
¶ Prime: Bob Cringely reconsiders the virtual university, and obliges us to do the same. What seems at first to be an unlikely monstrosity may indeed provide the most effective education for most students.
¶ Tierce: Assault By Actuary: the Bruce Schobel Story. Or not, since, perhaps for legal reasons, Mary Williams Walsh never does describe the crime of which the (then teenaged?) in-and-out president-elect of the American Academy of Actuaries was convicted.
¶ Compline: In a Talk piece from this week’s New Yorker, ”Zoo Story,” Lauren Collins registers the general public’s dislike of the seating arrangements in Times Square, as well as its approval of the Thigh Line and the Eyeful Tower.
¶ Sext: Choire Sicha deconstructs — no, “annotates” — Saki Knafo’s Times Magazine piece about the epic struggle behind the making of Where the Wild Things Are. If Spike Jonze thought that he was beleaguered before…!
If classical music is dying, as we’ve been hearing for years, why are so many rock clubs suddenly presenting it? And why are so many people, with the young outnumbering the old, coming to hear it?
¶ Prime: How about some advice? We may not follow it, but we’re always interested in hearing what someone else considers to be good advice. Especially when it’s phrased as a reminder: “My needs don’t motivate anyone.”