Monday, March 4, 2013

The Wrath and Art of Harlan

There are some artists who not only don't compromise in their work, they don't even feel comfortable being accommodating  Shlomo Schwartzberg, writing in Critics at Large, examines the work of one of those iconoclasts, Harlan Ellison.

Writer Harlan Ellison: He Has A Mouth, and He Will Scream

Writer Harlan Ellison turns 78 today and if you don’t know who he is, you should. I mention his birthday, as well, because he’s dying, or at least that’s what he told The Daily Page in an interview in September 2010, just before his appearance at a science fiction convention in Wisconsin, reportedly his last public appearance. "The truth of what's going on here is that I'm dying," says Ellison, by phone. “I'm like the Wicked Witch of the West – I'm melting. I began to sense it back in January. By that time, I had agreed to do the convention. And I said, I can make it. I can make it. My wife has instructions that the instant I die, she has to burn all the unfinished stories. And there may be a hundred unfinished stories in this house, maybe more than that. There's three quarters of a novel ... When I'm gone, that's it. What's down on the paper, it says 'The End,' that's it. 'Cause right now I'm busy writing the end of the longest story I've ever written, which is me."

Now it’s not for me to question Ellison’s comments – as of this writing, he’s still around nearly two years later – and his health problems are likely quite serious – he had a crucial heart bypass operation in 1996. Nor has he published an original collection of stories since Slippage in 1997 (Troublemakers, his 2001 collection was mostly made up of previously published material with new introductions aimed at a younger demographic who likely didn’t know his work.) But this is not what this post is all about. It’s a celebration of one of America ’s most unique, uncompromising and fascinating talents, who’s been a constant in my life since high school.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Pods Revisited

While Invasion of the Body Snatchers has a plot with a choice metaphor that has allowed it to be relevant to a number decades since the first film in the Fifties, the most recent version was the most maligned in the press. David Churchill, in Critics at Large, however thought that many rushed to judgement.

When the Real Pod People Intrude: Oliver Hirschbiegel's The Invasion

In my last post, I talked about the two-dozen plus DVDs I picked up for a buck each at the Rogers rental shutdown. As I stated, a few of the films I grabbed I assumed would be pieces o' crap, such as Oliver Hirschbiegel's The Invasion (2007 - starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig) which I had heard nothing but bad things about. It was the fourth version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so I bought it for $1 to watch at some point just to complete the “collection.” So imagine my surprise when, except for the completely destroyed ending and idiotic bits here and there throughout the film, I found The Invasion well-acted, credibly made and far more pointed than I was expecting it to be.

In the first two versions, the invasion was literally a space-born spore that came to earth (never explained in the Don Siegel's effective 1956 version; carried to our planet on the solar winds in Philip Kaufman's brilliant 1978 version). Abel Ferrara's weak 1993 Body Snatchers also left it unclear where the spores came from, but suggested environmental problems – not space spores – on a military base caused the pods to evolve and take over people. In Hirschbiegel's version, spores have attached themselves to a returning space shuttle which experiences a catastrophic failure. When the shuttle breaks up on re-entry, it spreads the spores across the US (especially around Washington, DC, where most of the film is set) attached to the shuttle's wreckage.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Revisiting Rubber Soul

It's been over half a century since The Beatles recorded and released what many consider to be their masterpiece. Kevin Courrier, in Critics at Large, not only examined what made the album their best, but the progeny that came in its wake.

A Masterpiece and its Spiritual Cousins: Rubber Soul, Pet Sounds and Aftermath

Over 45 years ago,The Beatles released Rubber Soul which is arguably their best album.While taking over 113 hours to record, compared to the one-day they took putting together their debut Please Please Me (1963), Rubber Soul was startlingly innovative taking the R&B genre beyond its purist roots. Unlike many other white pop artists, especially the ones who merely paid reverence to the style and attitude of black blues and R&B, or channelled the essence of the form (as did Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac), The Beatles sublimated rhythm and blues into their continually expanding musical fabric. And the record would irrevocably change the direction and sound of pop music.

With a densely intelligent collection of love songs, Rubber Soul confronted a variety of issues: the cost of romantic desire (“I’m Looking Through You”), the power of love to heal (“The Word”), as well as to hurt (“Girl”); contemplation (“In My Life”); and the deep regrets of loss (“Nowhere Man”). On the record, The Beatles broadened their musical identity, too, by introducing an original interpretation of classic R&B (specifically the Memphis Stax soul sound) while refusing to become defined by black music (as many other British blues bands had). The Beatles instead defined their own interpretation of American black music.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Tragic Ballads of Eugene O'Neill

If there was a playwright whose plays could open up wounds (and sometimes provide the salve to heal them), it was Eugene O'Neill. Nick Coccoma, in Critics at Large, examined the nature of those wounds while exploring the Catholic themes within them.

Prodigal Son: The Catholicism of Eugene O’Neill

Eugene O'Neill
A few years ago, filmmaker Ric Burns released a documentary on Eugene O’Neill for PBS that featured several notable screen actors performing excerpts from the playwright’s works. Among them was Christopher Plummer, who confesses to Burns onscreen that he hadn’t always had a passion for the writer. “I felt,” he explains, “that he enjoyed being indulgent – there’s a great indulgence in him.” Plummer felt drawn to the British playwrights instead, preferring their understated approach to O’Neill’s sturm und drang. But the latter bled Irish blood, and while the English may button down their emotions and their prose, the Irish are the people who throw back a Jameson, break into ebullient reels, and then slay you with a tragic ballad. Weighed down with collective psychic baggage accrued over centuries of suffering, they let alcohol uncork their pent up agony into an aesthetic emotional flood they’d readily drown in. Plummer’s observation is right on one level, and O’Neill did in part cultivate and relish his image as a tortured artist. But this truth, as Plummer himself admits, misses the bigger point: that O’Neill’s indulgence inevitably bowls you over, the way Plummer’s performance of James Tyrone from Long Day’s Journey into Night does over the documentary’s next few minutes, or Jason Robard’s ones, or Vanessa Redgrave’s. O’Neill plumbed the depths of his haunted soul with a naked vulnerability that demands respect – it may be shameless, but it’s remarkably ambitious in its insistence to be heard. He single-handedly took American theater from the basement to the rafters, and grabs you by the throat in the process. When you listen to it, his language becomes, as Plummer put it, “uncannily one’s own.”

Dorothy Day
And his anguish was real, after all. Scarred by his mother’s morphine addiction, he, like the other men in his family, struggled with severe alcoholism. Tuberculosis nearly killed him and he took to the seas to escape his inner demons. As a young man carousing about the bars of the Lower East Side, he would regale his friend and sometime-sweetheart Dorothy Day with drunken recitations of Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.” He “would sit there, black and dour,” she recalls in her autobiography The Long Loneliness, “his head sunk as he intoned, ‘And now my heart is as a broken fount, wherein tear drippings stagnate.’” The poem’s theme – of God’s ceaseless pursuit of the fleeing sinner – fascinated the (at the time) agnostic woman. Elsewhere she describes holding him in bed as he shivered into intoxicated sleep. He, in turn, urged her to read St. Augustine’s Confessions. The effect it had on her was undoubtedly more than he imagined – Day, of course, had a major conversion to Catholicism and became famous as the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Her communal life of prayer and works of mercy with the poor of New York – and the national movement it sparked – led historian David O’Brien to dub her “the most influential, interesting, and significant figure in the history of American Catholicism,” and the Vatican to open her cause for canonization.