Archive for October, 2013

Apollos Girl

October 30, 2013

Film, Lots of It



One Fearless Prediction, One Festival
Coming Up…


Before getting into the recent New York Film Festival at 51, I have an urgent bulletin: the Film Society of Lincoln Center is doing all of us an enormous favor by presenting a week of Harold Pinter’s Comedies of Menace and Quiet Desperation. Made over a three-decade period of creative fever, Pinter’s pinter3-460_1212041c films are in a category by themselves. Not only menacing and quietly desperate, but (although often funny) also heartbreaking. They have remained in memory all these years, waiting to be revisited, or shared with friends who weren’t lucky enough to see them when they were new.

These ten classics, reflecting an infinite landscape of imagination, are still fresh, powerful, and guaranteed to knock your socks off. If you’re smart, you’ll get tickets to all of them (with discounts for three or more). For most, there are multiple screenings, from November 22 – 28. Just go to ; you will be stunned by the Who’s Who of directors and casts and realize you’re getting a bargain. And yes, you may thank me afterward.

And, while you’re there, check out FSLC’s Next Big Thing: Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema, November 30 – December 3. It showcases Bucharest’s best and brightest, notably Corneliu Porumboiu, who will present When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism for the closing night. But he’s also the subject of a retrospective featuring police adjective(my favorite!) Police, Adjectiveseen twice, with pleasure – now it’s your turn. Be sure to take it. 

And now…

captain phillipsBecause this year’s NYFF marked a transition from Richard Peña’s 25-year reign as artistic director (more foreign films), to Kent Jones and a new direction (more domestic), there was a distinctly different vibe for its opening night, centerpiece, and closing night selections. (Captain Phillips; Secret Life of Walter Mitty; Her). All secret-life-of-walter-mitty-posterthree were impressive, but Spike Jonze’s Her retained a whiff of the European hersensibility for which the NYFF was once famous. And, with three cinemathèques to fill with more screenings, sidebars, and conferences in addition to the main slate at Walter Reade, it was a non-stop binge for cinephiles. No matter; there were plenty of serious contenders from abroad, including 12 Years a Slave (a UK/USA production), now in wide release, surely barreling toward a multi-Oscar sweep. 

Slave is not the first film to deal with the subject, but is surely the most devastating. Credit Steve McQueen’s direction, meticulous and passionate, and a brilliant cast speaking, for once, credible 19th-century American English. 12 yearsNothing is held back, and the emotional impact of every scene, hard to bear, doesn’t let up for a second. Because the cast makes the characters indelible, they don’t disappear at the end of the film. For a fascinating account of what happened then, see

Of course, these recommendations are entirely personal, and perhaps idiosyncratic. But the major releases have had, and will get, tremendous publicity; others, less mainstream, may not. So that’s where this post is heading: First, Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun (Dir: Nancy Buirski); it will turn up later this season on PBS’American Masters. Le Clercq le clercq2cast, and still casts (in this film), a spell. Even in many archival excerpts in grainy black-and-white kinescope, her singular, angular grace and unconventional beauty are an odd parallel to Audrey Hepburn en pointe, forevershadowed by the cruelest of fates. Just before leaving on a tour with the New York City Ballet in 1956, Le Clercq refused to get a polio shot and got, instead, the disease itself, becoming paralyzed for the rest of her life. It was tragedy on a Greek scale foreven though her then-husband (GeorgeBalanchine himself), family, friends and colleagues surrounded and supported hershe was unable to dance, or even walk, afterwards. Grainy kinescopes or even still photographs notwithstanding, we will not see her like again. See this in a theater or on your home screen to   capture briefly, her real, enduring magic.

What Now? Remind Me…(Dir: Joaquim Pinto)

In describing his own film as “…the notebook of a year of clinical what nowstudies with toxic, mind-altering drugs as yet unapproved,” Pinto does not do himself any favors. But then, this rara avis with extraordinary sensibilities and a profoundly generous heart has chosen to share both with everyone who sees the film. Pinto and his life partner (Nuno Leonel) are Portuguese, in Spain not only for the clinical studies but to return to and farm the land, explore the local caves (full of prehistoric artifacts), visit antiquarian archives, listen to every kind of music, cook, connect, and keep a record of their time together. Every minute of it is precious, and intensely lived. 

what now2Pinto has had a long career as a sound recordist for great directors, and has made (with Leonel) many films of his own. Sound is important to him; its use, along with his choice of music and visual effects enhance the film; the sensual rhythm of the editing and cinematography will have you rushing to pack and catch the next plane to Iberia. Despite his physical discomfort (and his occasional inability to deal with it bravely), Pinto is someone you’d love to know: reflective, raucous, lyrical, wickedly funny. You will meet him and Leonel, their four rescue dogs and their friends, and come away wanting more. His has been a life well-lived to the hilt, savored, and offered as a gift . You will have to look for ways to find What Now? Keep trying!

 Burning Bush (Dir: Agnieszka Holland)

If you don’t have HBO, get a subscription before Burning Bush is broadcast. The only catch: for now, it has to be HBO Europe…
burning bushBut, also for now, you can at least see a five-minute trailer that might inspire you to bombard HBO with emails suggesting a westward Atlantic passage for this gorgeous mini-series (originally the Czech nominee for Best Foreign Film, later disqualiied because it appeared on TV before its theatrical release). It’s top-of-the-line filmmaking from a director known for atmosphere, probing character studies, and seamless blending of
sound and image, who was studying in Prague in 1968 when the events took place.

Nominally a true story about a young Czech’s self-immolation in protest of the Soviet occupation of his country, it begins as authorities investigate his death, determined to prevent other protesters from following in his footsteps. Gradually, as the investigation broadens, the film becomes a mirror of the forces working at cross-purposes behind the scenes, following activists, heroic jurists, the secret police, and government officials as they ensnare and oppose one another over a period of twenty years. It’s a twisty, enthralling tale, with the darkness hollandof the 60s and 70s giving way, color by color, to the the light of the post-Glasnost conclusion.
There is nothing, by now, that Holland doesn’t know about how to balance action, issues, and emotion. The script (by
Štĕpán Hulík) is a marvel of complexity made crystal clear, perfectly enhanced by Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz’ subtle music. This is a haunting, yet fast-paced thriller that digs deeply into the bleak realpolitik of postwar Eastern Europe without dropping a stitch. The press screening of the entire series (in one gulp) lasted almost four hours. No one talked, no one texted; we were pinned to our seats the entire time.  How can you see it? Do something! 

Jehane-Noujaim480-w_-cameraThe Square (Dir: Jehane Noujaim) Currently at the Film Forum.
Noujaim has received many awards for her films, often for their penetrating views of difficult subjects. But the one award
she hasn’t received (because it doesn’t exist yet) is for absolute fearlessness. The Square is a film in progress, i.e. it was begun in 2011 and shot continuously, updated as events prevented any conclusion to the story of Egypt’s revolutions, deposed rulers, and political future.the squareIt’s all there: the factions, the economic woes, the uncertainty as to who, and what group, will prevail.  She and her crew think nothing of wading into huge demonstrations that crackle with danger, often turning violent in an instant. Her six protagonists include members of the Muslim Brotherhood,  and many Muslims determined to support democracy and prevent an extremist Islamic state. Their opinions evolve over time, but quickly. Noujaim’s fluent Arabic and encyclopedic knowledge of these complicated and volatile issues make The Square an essential primer to the as-yet unfinished narrative, and to the future of the Middle East.

inside llewyn daviesInexplicably absent from NYFF’s three featured slots, the
Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis was definitely a Festival favorite. Yes, tongue-in-cheek (one of many selections in that category, which wears well over time), and right on the money, but always affectionate. Oscar Isaac’s mournful folksinger is a brilliant turn, matched by John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Stark Sands (of Kinky Boots fame), Carey Mulligan and (I think) several marmalade cats playing one on whom the plot depends. (Could (s)he be 2014’s Uggie?) And, of course, assorted characters  you could encounter in those days at any coffee house or dinner party.  

Like most of the Coen brothers’ films, there is a gentle, persistent rhythm,
an inspiredcoens conspiracy of image, sound, and music that starts with the first scene and lasts til the last, and you are part of its deliciousness. And for those who’ll get them: a few memorable Early Music jokes that really hit home. Opening in December nationwide. If you want to see a movie that you’ll walk out of smiling (and who doesn’t love to smile?), make room for
Inside Llewen Davis. It will do the job.

only loversThen there was the Festival’s polished shot at the current vampire epidemic, Only Lovers Left Alive. Like Inside Llewen Davis and Spike Jonzs’ Her, Only Lovers keeps its tongue (and its fangs) firmly in its cheeks. It’s a paradigm of controlled perfection from Jim Jarmusch, with Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, John Hurt, and Mia Wasikowska not so much playing their elegant roles as timelessly  inhabiting them, offering us a dark and original view of history among the undead. What makes it go every minute is the celestial pitch-perfect tone sung by everyone involved, all crowding on to the same page at the same time, never straying from it. Like a kind of deadpan chamber music made visible. Huge plus: it’s also literate. Be grateful! 

Finally, there’s…..Her (Dir: Spike Jonze)Very much today, but even more tomorrow, it’s Artifical Intelligence evolving faster than a flu virus. Voiced by Scarlett Johannson, its easy to think of Her scarlet(Samantha) as a lot more than an operating system that can improve and co-opt your so-called life before you can say R2D2. In the same class as Inside Llewen Davis and Only Lovers, Her is a deadpan (though a bit mournful) pushback to the mediated lifestyle, defined by electronic hard-and-jonzesoftware, that has become today’s normal, tomorrow’s necessity. Jonze has his hands firmly, but delicately, on the reins all the time. You’ll have to wait until January to see (and hear) Her, but in the meantime you can have all the quirky fantasies you want to decide what you’d do in Joaquin Phoenix’s place. 

So having stepped up to the plate to identify some of the NYFF contenders (I did pretty well last year), and trying to describe the kind of shift in focus that they represent, let’s say that the emphasis on European and/or foreign films that was once NYFF’s hallmarkat least for its three top slots—has been changed to feature American product.  

Though all three examples were well-chosen, there is something else on the horizon: three films that are also all-American, masterpieces of deadpan art and craft (from the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, and Spike Jonze).  Each relies on tone, texture, and the delicate tongue-in-cheek understatement that satisfies and delights, while bearing the unique stamp of its particular filmmaker.  A new category, perhaps? Watch this space to see what happens…

Cooper’s London

October 23, 2013

Big Cities/Big Books




The Pleasures of Reading
and Walking Around



Lucy Inglis,Georgian London: Into the Streets. Viking (an imprint of Penguin Books)

If you want to learn a lot about London, are the mood for an endless stream of amusing and informative anecdotes, or want to find the perfect book to keep on a bedside table for your guests, then a good choice for all the foregoing would be Georgian London: Into the Streets lucy inglisby the redoubtable Lucy Inglis. Having started a blog a while back devoted to highlighting the lesser known aspects of London during the eighteenth century when it was, effectively, turning into the city we recognize today, she has now gathered materials into an endlessly beguiling, entertaining and educational survey. It’s arranged by area and set out a bit like a guide book tour.

Do you want to know about Soho and why it got that name (South of bedlamHolborn!), prostitution in Covent Garden, madhouses as places for entertaining anyone who could pay a penny to see the loonies on show; how Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduced inoculation against the smallpox into England, the founding of the Foundling Home or of the Bow Street Runners (the first police) or the postal service? It’s all there in this book. The stream of information is swift, sure, thoroughly researched and bound to make you want to get a host of tomes about individual subjects that catch your fancy as you take this guided tour of the city of the past. And—given the pace of big-city demolition around the globeit’s amazing how much of London’s past is recognizable and survives today, starting with the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral beginning in 1675.

great fireEssentially, this is a well-written collection of swiftly told tales about how London started to become the city we know today from the time it was leveled by the Great Fire through to the time of the Napoleonic Wars. From Clive of India’s living in Berkeley Square (in a building where all those car showrooms are today) to tales from south of the River Thames to a heartbreaking story about the death of a chimney sweep, the book not only takes you back to the eighteenth century and its life but also informs your contemporary wanderings and wonderings about the city. Once you read this book, walking through every district of London will never be quite the same. Georgian London also makes a thoughtful present for friends who are about to visit it for the first time. I recommend it highly and suggest reading it slowly and savouring this collection of fascinating information.

London's-poor-street200As the Financial Times said in its review: “[Lucy Inglis’] focus is very much on everyday life, with thoughtful insights on immigrants, women and the poor. The result lies somewhere between a map and a serialised chronicle, full of neat character portraits and engaging plots.” I give it five full stars out of five and if you love London, its history, its characters, its growth, I could not recommend it more highly. I found it thoroughly engaging and un-put-down-able from first page to last. A most special and unusual book, to be treasured and kept, or given for a special occasion.

Sudhir Venkatesh, Floating City: Hustlers, Strivers, Dealers, Call Girls and Other Lives in Illicit New York. Allen Lane (an imprint of Penguin Books)

The hidden message in Lucy Inglis’s book about eighteenth-century London might be: “Your neighborhood is your fate.” Further, your life story hinges on many factors that you are born into, avankateshnd sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh showed this with frightening clarity in his best-seller Gang Leader for a Day, about the crack gangs of Chicago. Now he has moved his x-ray eyes to New York to expose its broken and dysfunctional bones.Only this time, instead of neighborhoods, it’s the whole city that meshes into various networksand your connections are absolutely key. The publisher’s blurb is accurate: the book covers everything in underground New York today “from a Harvard-educated socialite running a high-end escort service to a Harlem crack dealer adapting to changing demands by selling cocaine to hedge fund managers and downtown artists.”

In the process, Venkatesh questions his own reasons for going deeper into this world, and discovers something truly unexpecteda real sense of connection and community. floating cityThis decade-long study of the call girls, drug dealers, illegal immigrants and ambitious strivers throughout the entire social spectrum gives you radical insights into what might be termed the underground economy. This is thought-provokingand covertly highly political stuff. We are invited to enter a parallel universe, another New York from the familiar tourist-friendly buzzing metropolis; and Venkatesh is a knowing guide. This is a strong book, well-enough written, and one that might just be a source for a future Lucy Inglis who wants to let people know what it was like to wander those mean streets of an extraordinary city early in the twenty-first century.

What was it about Oxford?

Alister McGrath, C. S. Lewis: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. Hodder and Stoughton

Both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were Oxford dons and scholars who are now mainly famous for writing fantasies. In the case of Tolkien, the scholarship into old myths of the North and the Norse shows through and one could argue you have to be a bit older and more sophisticated than a child to be able to appreciateor even carry on all the way throughhis Lord of the Rings sequence. But Lewis’s Narnia books are a whole other matter, truly something narniayou can read to your children from a fairly early age and yet enjoy yourself! They are a sequence of seeming superficialities that become more complex and fascinating with every re-reading; they have a context in the life and thought of the author that McGrath sets out most meticulously. On top of that he has compiled a comprehensive bibliography of other C. S. Lewis books, including things like The Screwtape Letters, that address questions of religion and spirituality and the malaise of our times.

McGrath’s book is timelyit marks the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s deathand his new look at Lewis is, at times, not only shocking but far more frank and questioning than anyone else has dared to be before. It’s full of endless pleasures that come from unexpected detaillike the poet Lewis’s dislike of T. S. Eliot and an attempt to perpetrate a failed hoax on the older man. There is a lot of new material; especially about his sexual predilections and his romances; but the whole life is presented with warmth and concern for the subject and with cs lewismarvelously evocative portraits of his friends and family. The writing throughout is lucid, easy to read and it makes the subject throughly accessibleboth when exploring the darker side of Lewis’s psyche and when explaining and charting how he became one of the most important apologists for Christianity.

This biography is both illuminating and penetrating and a real tribute to the eccentric genius who gave us both Narnia and some of the most provocative and theological writings of the last century. McGrath’s analyses and opinions are always thought-provoking and helpful and drive you back to the writings of Lewis every time, shedding new light on the man, estimating his work intelligently and making an important contribution to Lewis scholarship (including a re-dating of his conversion) while constructing a book that is provocative, readable and entertaining. It ranks Lewis high and is totally convincing in doing so. Very highly recommended and a good potential Christmas present (especially for adults with children)!

Cogito: John Branch

October 22, 2013

Film, Books, Science

JB photo-painting by RC 2

Defying Gravity

In Children of Men (2006), adapted from a children of mennovel by P.D. James, changed extensively by five screenwriters, and  directed by Alfonso Cuarón, the sociopolitical element of James’s novel has been subordinatedto the central character’s progress from detachment to purpose. The entire film carries a blunted impact, because much of the story’s context is blurred or has been dissolved away. At times it’s hard cuaron2to understand or even to believe what’s going on. At least Clive Owen’s character has a life history and relationships, and the challenge he reluctantly adopts catalyzes the stages of his development.

Children of Men represents a species of anti-realistic filmmaking in which people are abstracted from much of their world, leaving a presumed essence: someone facing the situation of the moment, which can be rendered as virtuosically as desired. In one unbroken sequence, a car in which the central characters are riding is attacked on a country road for no apparent reason except that, gosh, the world has become a bad place, and besides, something needs to happen for the sake of the plot. The scene is nearly pointless but also a true technical marvel.

Cuarón has taken that abstracting process much further in Gravity (in general release). Here he works again with cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki, from a script he wrote with Jonás Cuarón, his son.

The world has now literally been removed to the background, along with all but two specimens of humankind. The film transpires in orbit, with the great globe itself (to borrow from Prospero) not dissolved but put firmly in its place, as Cuarón seems to think, somewhere beneath us. The situation is simple but desperate: two astronauts, deprived of their shuttle-shelter, must find a new vehicle that can take them home. As in the road sequence of Children of Men, bad things happen; reasons are given, which appear to satisfy many viewers, but they’re almost all scientifically dubious. The real reason for what happens is, again, that Cuarón and Lubezki want a chance to show some tricks. They can make you believe that they do impossible things before breakfast. But their movie is little more than a kinetic thrill ride, the newest thing in an amusement park.

In Gravity, Sandra Bullock doesn’t play a traditional action hero—bullok clooneyshe doesn’t wield a kick, a punch, a head-butt, a knife, a sword, a crossbow, or any form of firearm, for which I’m grateful—but she gets knocked around a lot all the same. In fact, she and George Clooney are bounced about like ballsin a pinball game. For much of the movie, these two capable and respected actors are reduced to the status of mere moving masses.

The movie is only 91 minutes long but is so short on ideas that it keeps repeating itself. A cloud of orbiting malevolent debris keeps trying to kill our heroes. They keep jetting off to a new refuge and finding, so to speak, no room at the inn. Sandra Bullock keeps opening an airlock from the outside and being caught off guard by what happens. The film even shows us its title three separate times. Mostly, it keeps indulging in a mechanistic orgy of things, including people, getting flung around.

Imagine a scene set on an ice rink, with Sandra Bullock standing on the ice and holding the rail at the side of the rink. If George Clooney went whizzing by her, and she managed to grab his tie, he’d come to a stop, right?You know that if you know anything about ice rinks, and you know that if she then released his tie he’d stay put. Now imagine a scene set in Earth orbit, in which Bullock is essentially attached to a space station, so she’s stationary. When Clooney passes by, she grabs a tether that’s attached to him. This is exactly how a scene in Gravity begins.

gravity5What happens next? Clooney comes to a halt, but the movie shows that some mysterious force keeps trying to pull him away. The zero-G environment is irrelevant (though the eminent Neil deGrasse Tyson implied otherwise); this wouldn’t happen on an ice rink any more than it would happen in space. The mysterious force pulling on Clooney is only the screenwriters, who want to force a climactic decision on him. Many more absurdities having to do with physics and astronauts working in space occur in Gravity. And that’s only one category of its problems.

In a way, it’s naïve to complain about Gravity’s scientific-technical cheats. But some remarkable works with which it might be comparedfor instance the novel Moby-Dick (there’s a fine LA Review of Books essay here, though I disagree with it) and the movie 2001: A Space Odysseyhave told their astounding 2001--A-Space-Odyssey-the-60s-701989_1024_768tales without abandoning realism. Yes, 2001 turns mystical at the end, but as long as it’s operating in the known universe, it follows the rules of physics. Fact need not be opposed to enchantment.

Gravity is like a bad horror film crossed with a bad disaster film. It keeps throwing shocks and threats at its characters simply to keep things happening. It wouldn’t exist without science and technology. Its making required them; the situation it shows—people and machines in Earth orbit—depends on them. Yet it frequently violates science. This encapsulates an ongoing mystery of American life: our culture depends on the fruits of science and technology but disdains both and would rather believe in angels. Curiously, Gravity includes an angel, in a manner of speaking.

As far as I know, only a few people share my overall distaste for this film: the friend with whom I saw it—we could be dismissed as crackpots—and New Yorker critic Richard Brody, who cannot.

Follow John Branch:

On Facebook On Twitter

On Google+ On Goodreads

Apollo’s Girl

October 15, 2013



A Little Music, and a Whole Lot of Film

tallisThere’s a trip you have to make before December 9: it’s to the Cloisters, to hear Thomas Tallis’s 40-part motet (Spem in alium) before it departs for its next stop. Created by Janet Cardiff, it consists of a recording of the motet, played back through 40 high-fidelity speakers arranged roughly in a circle, each one devoted to the voice of a single performer as he, fuentidena chapelor she, sings his part. But that doesn’t begin to reveal what happens as it floats past you in the Fuentidueña Chapel.

The speakers have been designed to reproduce the piece either whole (if you stand in the center of the circle) or in part (if you stand directly in front of one of them). So you can choose to pretend you’re the conductor by standing in the center, or Thomas Tallis himself, walking around the installation, hearing each voice of his 17th-century masterpiece as it takes its place in the aural tapestry of his weaving. We were told that this Spem in alium has been on the move since its debut in 2001; most of its appearances have been in galleries or museums in basically white spaces. In the case of the Cloisters, however, there is no doubt that here site equals sound. And if you’re open to an utterly simple, yet utterly transcendent, experience, the tears will come.

virgin and childAnd don’t forget to visit the Cloisters’ Treasury, where you will find a sublime mother and child to end your journey. To learn more, and to hear a bit of the splendor, visit the Met’s Web site museum And to learn even more about Tallis (as well as see a page of the 40-part score): petzold It will prepare you for your visit.



To See, To Think About

After Tiller is currently playing in Austin, after tillerso haste must be made before it moves on. But November Films has picked it up for early 2014 theatrical release in the UK, and for iTunes and Netflix thereafter, so it will be available one way or the other.

This excellent documentary about what is the hottest-button topic of our time (Congress’ dysfunction and its looming consequences notwithstanding) is a must-see. There are now only four physicians in the United States who perform late-term abortions; the violence directed toward their colleagues over time has made the practice literally life-threatening george tiller(George Tiller’s clinic in Wichita was fire-bombed in 1986; he was shot in both arms in 1993, and murdered while attending church in 2009.)

Whatever your convictions about the subject, After Tiller avoids sensationalism to present the arguments for both sides. But it’s hard to disparage the bravery of the four practitioners who continue to face the real dangers that confront them, or the equally real thought and emotion they devote to each patient before agreeing to undertake the procedure. Or to condone those pro-lifers who oppose abortion on moral and/or religious grounds, who justify crossing the line from protesting to killing to express their opinion. This is not an easy film to watch, to absorb, or to ponder. But it touches on some very fundamental, and very important, issues that need to be faced. Directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson have collaborated on a haunting portrait.

Salinger is in national release, and playing catcherlocally at the Paris Theatre, too. Long researched by filmmaker Shane Salerno (its creation took about a decade, and included a 700-page biography co-written with author David Shields), and long awaited by fans of Catcher in the Rye, the “true story” about J. D. Salinger’s mysterious private life and decades of literary silence opened in September. The critics were not kind; attendance fell off and there were rumors that the Weinstein Company had recut the film during its first run and was sending copies of the new version to replace the original. video

True or not, the film is a compilation of 150 interviews, reenactments, rare stills and archival footage. While almost everyone credited in the cast list on IMDb is a white male, the film tries manfully to include the stories of the many women who were fascinated by Salinger, and whom (especially when they were barely pubescent) Salinger was fascinated by. As they recount their experiences, a lifelong Peter Pan emerges; known for creating one of the most appealing adolescents of all time, the author is no doppelgänger of Holden Caulfield, but a far darker and more complicated grown man. He died in January of this year at the age of 91.

The realities of the marketplace are such that Salinger suffers from overkill to keep its audiences’ attention, stuffing it with personalities and events and way too much music. Individually, they are interesting but, taken together, tend to blur into a zoetrope of images that beg JD-Salingers-home-001for deeper inquiry. In fact, inside Salinger there is another leaner, more satisfying movie waiting to get out. The mystery of why an American soldier who visited the death camps of World War Two would marry a Nazi is quickly passed over. But Salinger’s decision to relocate to rural Cornish, NH, deserves more than a recitation of incidents, or a list of the journalists and photographers who camped out nearby for a glimpse of the “recluse.” The question that remains unanswered is: what happens to an artist when he chooses to live away from the forces that have not only shaped him, but inspired his work?

glenn_gould%20(2)The parallel with another 20th-century genius is hard to ignore: Glenn Gould, pianist supreme, essayist, and occasional composer. (In fact, his recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is used in Salinger to accompany a photograph of the author writing Catcher in the Rye.) Like Salinger, Gould did not withdraw into total isolation; both he and Salinger continued to see, write, and call colleagues, friends, and neighbors and to sally forth from their private lairs in Toronto and Cornish, NH while carefully orchestrating publicity and public access. Similarly, both retained a mindset that was rooted in versions of eternal youth, more easily sustained in a controlled environment, long after they had ceased to be young. Yet artists can be inspired by the very things they seek to avoid. So, while civilization and its discontents may be painful to great sensibilities, they often catalyze the creation of great work.

Of course Gould was primarily an interpretive artist, and Salinger a generative one. Canadian journalist Michael Clarkson, inner life of glenn gouldwhose investigations into Gould’s life eventually led to the film Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, not surprisingly turns up in Salinger, poking about for a glimpse of the author, or any bits of information that might escape from behind his fenced-in cabineven better, some encouragement for his own literary aspirations. His reward is a live encounter with his prey, who firmly discourages him from lurking about or pursuing literature, ever.

Salinger continued to labor in the wilderness. While we will have to wait another few years to read what he wrote during his long absence (it has surfaced and is due to be published between 2015 and 2020), or to see how it compares with his early work , we can listen to Gould’s Goldberg Variations. The first version is from 1955; the second from 1981. In between, Gould withdrew dramatically from live performance and vowed to remain in Toronto for the rest of his days, serenely dealing with the world on his own terms. In 1955, his was a young man’s vision. By 1981, his vision had changed. However brilliant, Peter Pan had become a middle-aged man.

Cooper’s London

October 3, 2013

Theatre, Travel





The Young Vic is, I would bet, about to hit a roll. For those of you in New York, the wonderful production of A Doll’s House directed by Carrie cracknellCracknell that they produced last year

and which is now having a very successful season as a transfer in the West End, will be heading for New York to BAM with the West End cast. That’s hattie morahanthe one where the set is actually a blown-up doll’s house, and Hattie Morahan’s portrayal of Nora Helmer has already won her the Critic’s Circle Best Actress award, among others.  I don’t know that she will win a Tony; but I would sure bet heavily that she’ll be nominated.  Be alert and buy the tickets while there are still some left.

Highlights of the upcoming season in London at the Young Vic will now include:

  • A production of the Kander and Ebb musical The Scotsboro Boys directed by Susan Stroman from 18 October 2013
  • A pre-Christmas production of Beauty and the Beast that sounds funky and fascinating and will be in the tiny Maria Theatre, an experimental space
  • Gillian Anderson undertaking the role of Blanche DuBois in a new production of A Streetcar Named Desire to be directed by Benedict Andrews
  • Juliet Stevenson as Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s intense and surreal masterpiece Happy Days
  • peter brookPeter Brook bringing a newly conceived show (The Valley of Astonishment) that, says the preview note, “mixes neurological research and Persian verse”. Well, it is Peter Brook …

If you’re looking for a Christmas present for someone who lives in London and loves the theatre, you might want to get them a season ticket or a subscription.  For the foreseeable future the Young Vic is one of the most consistently exciting, reliable and stimulating places to get your bit of a theatre-night-out.  And the restaurant still does the best hamburgers in London.

To give a gift, or to “friend” the theatre, (includes the perk of priority booking for any or all the above):

On the Road, Part Two: O, Canada!

Who says you can’t go home again? I’ve just spent over a month in my home and native land and I have to tell you that after a couple of weeks exploring banffthe Rockies in Alberta, Jasper, Banff, Edmonton, and Calgary and its stampede, my wife was asking why hadn’t we brought up our kids there instead of England? All that space; all that clean air; so few crowds. Then, after three days in Toronto with my family, she said: Now I know why we stayed in the UK. It takes an ocean between us to dilute some of the intensity!

Still, we enjoyed the whole experience, including my somewhat time-consuming but very loving family. Canadians are, by and large, rather keen on local culture – from totem poles and local food festivals to work for local actors, directors and scenic designers. There were lots of arts events to choose from: fringe plays in Edmonton that were stimulating and in really interesting small spaces; brilliantly performed Fiddler on the Roof and  Shakespeare in Stratford, Ontario; a terrific production of Tom Stoppard’s Utopia in Niagara-on-the-Lake that sold out in about three seconds flat. I’d have recommended them all, but alas, they are all gone with the summer festival season . But the most surprisingly Anything Goes Tourenjoyable show I saw was Anything Goes in Toronto, with the irrepressible and totally compelling Rachel York as Reno Sweeney, worth the pricey tickets even though it was the same production I had seen in London a few years ago. 

So next year, if you’re going to Canada to enjoy the scenic splendour, do also google the festivals in places like Stratford, and Niagara-on-the-Lake and book early, because both are popular and reliably first-rate. I think that I’d actually want to live in Niagara-on-the-Lake, it’s so lovely; or somewhere in Eastern Ontario like Port Hope.

All this, however,  was overshadowed by encounters with bears, chipmunks and elk in the Rockies and family visits and reunions in Toronto. The farmers marketcity was lively and the weather was lovely; the cafés were full and the farmer’s markets dazzling. And I found some wonderful book stores too! I simply basked! In Toronto you want to visit Bloor Street near Brunswick Avenue/Bathurst Street and look, on the south side, for BMV and Book City. Just make sure you have a large, really strong cloth bag with you and lots of time for exploring. You will then be able to enjoy your finds over some of the best coffee in town.  One of the weddings I went over for was a Fiddler on the Roof meets Las Vegas floor show—great entertainment, and too much food as well. My sore legs the next day told me in no uncertain terms that my dancing days were over.

I came away feeling there’s a lot to do in Canada; I’m more eager than ever to get back to revisit the places I’ve been and also, once more, Quebec City, Montreal, ottawaOttawa (the most underrated city beautiful in North America, ed.) and, finally, Vancouver. Next time I may even take the cross-country train. It takes about five days and offers spectacular vistas 24/7.

%d bloggers like this: