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Cogito: John Branch

October 23, 2014


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The Peripheral: Futures Imperfect

The future has been worrying us lately. A good deal of conversation has taken place online about how it looks to us, in fact as well as in fiction, and how that matters. A smart example is Virginia Postrel’s 10/08/14 post on Bloomberg View, though it’s not, and doesn’t pretend to be, comprehensive.

William Gibson’s new book has something to add to this. After working with the future in his early fictions, he steadily moved his settings closer to the present, and his previous three books (sometimes called the Bigend trilogy) took place more or less in the here and now. In a move that seems remarkably well timed, Gibson has returned to the future in The Peripheral, and what he finds there isn’t likely to please those who are afraid of the dark.

The story is a doozy, a complex and elaborate version of athe peripheral basic thriller scenario: Somebody saw something happen, and someone else is now after them because of it. The task for the main characters is to figure out what they’re mixed up in, and Gibson aligns our interest with theirs by giving us a similar experience, requiring us to make sense of what we’ve gotten into. There are no thumbnail sketches of characters as we meet them, no explanatory descriptions of world elements as we encounter them. The novel employs a tactic of indirect and delayed exposition that begins with the first sentence: “They didn’t think Flynne’s brother had PTSD, but that sometimes the haptics glitched him.”

We soon learn a little about Flynne’s brother. But who is Flynne herself, whose point of view we follow in the first chapter? Who is Netherton, the man with a hangover whom we follow in the second chapter? What kind of world does he live in, where phone calls seem to present themselves directly to his eyes and ears? What’s the connection between these two? Scores of pages pass before we can work that out, although a parallel between them soon emerges: Flynne witnesses a death in what she believes to be a game-world version of London, Netherton witnesses a death on a strange island of repurposed plastic in the Pacific, and each of them ends up in trouble because of it. But who died, and why, and who’s after them? As the novel’s short chapters (averaging 3.9 pages each) alternate between these two, tentative answers arrive, the picture develops, and further questions accumulate.

Gibson’s method is fascinating and is one of the book’s major pleasures. It shares something with noirish fictions of the past in which the truth about the nature of things takes time to emerge, but the way Gibson proceeds has more in common with a modern-day style in which interpreting the story is a game of collecting and connecting numberless bits of information.lost The TV series Lost may be the most extreme example: that was a hugely baroque exercise in casting the viewer as Tantalus, for whom a coherent and comprehensive explanation always eluded his grasp. Lost piled up perplexities, but you won’t find them in The Peripheral; Gibson isn’t interested in bafflement. Bit by bit, with many small, deft moves, a large structure is assembled before your eyes—much like the way 3-D printing operates.

That’s not to say that everything is explained. A degree of uncertainty is part of the game. Indeterminacy litters the story, in such statements as these:

Something flew into [the woman’s] mouth.”

Looks like the thing we’re printing is for doing something that something a lot more evolved could do a lot better.”

Netherton…looked like he was standing in the back of something’s throat, all pink and shiny.”

Something stilled the part of him that knitted narrative…”

In a way, Gibson is again dramatizing what the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry for him (speaking of the Bigend trilogy) called “the indecipherability of the real world,” though the real world in The Peripheral is in the future.

Actually, there are two plotlines and two futures in The Peripheral. One of the futures—I’ll call it Neartime—is a pretty recognizable extension of our present and takes place in an economically depressed, small-town region of the American South. Here, gaming for pay is one way of making money—Flynne did it in the past but gave it up for work in a 3-D print shop, and her brother’s been doing it lately—but most people earn their living from illegal drugs, manufactured by way of nanotech, and drug money has corrupted the county political system. Gaming now relies on a form of virtual reality, but phones are still, as in our world, separate objects. That’s no longer the case in Fartime, the second plotline, which is situated in London 70-odd years later. Here, “phones” include video and have been integrated into people’s bodies, controlled with a tongue tap on the roof of the mouth, and that’s just the beginning of the differences.

In a sense, this is the future of Neartime, but in another sense it’s not. Gibson proposes that someone in Fartime has figured out how to communicate with the past but that, once you establish a connection, that entire world branches off, detaches itself from your history, goes its own way. You can tinker with one of these stubs, as they’re called, all you want without affecting your world; doing so is one of the hobbies of Netherton’s idle-rich friend, Lev, a scion of the Russian kleptocracy, which wields much influence here. What’s more, because communications with that past world are two-way, someone in your stub can employ a form of telepresence and participate in your world.

gibsonThat summary says very little about the novel, but it includes an important point. Gibson has always been concerned with the blurred boundary between the virtual and the real. In The Peripheral we have two entire worlds that are, to some extent, unreal to each other. From the standpoint of characters in Fartime, Flynne’s world exists and must be dealt with (they need her help in solving the murder she saw), and yet that world doesn’t matter in that it has no other bearing on their present. They’re connected with a past that was, but no longer is, their own. Similarly, Flynne and the others in Neartime come to know the future to which they had been headed, but they still can’t know where they’re going instead. The people of The Peripheral are detached from both past and future, stuck in the volatility of the now.

As is his wont, Gibson reverts to convention when it comes time to resolve the story. The habit upsets some readers. “I don’t like novels that end happily,” says Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest, Act II. “They depress me so much.” Likewise, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry remarked of Gibson’s work that his tidy plot resolutions “[diminish] the impact of his harsh visions.” It should be remembered that Cecily’s complaint leads to Miss Prism’s oft-quoted observation, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” This entitles us to regard an ending as a mere matter of form and to look elsewhere for the substance of a story, which is how we can best judge The Peripheral. In this work, the weight resides, not in the neatness of its final chapters, but in all that comes before, where tech junkies will find much to get high on, and where readers sensitive to Gibson’s immense craftsmanship will discern much to worry about.

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Cogito: John Branch

June 28, 2014

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Halt and Catch Fire

Remember when Mickey and Judy decided to put on a show? That happened in the 1939 film version of Babes in Arms, which launched the career of an entire stock plot. The characters in these stories often have personal goals Mickey-Rooney-and-Judy-Garland-in-Babes-in-Arms-1939
Mickey and Judy want
to prove themselves as performers
—and beyond that there’s always an urgent rescue mission, whether it’s saving their parents from bankruptcy (as Mickey and Judy must do), or saving the orphanage (like John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd in The bluesbrothers_0Blues Brothers). The creators of Halt and Catch Fire, a new hour-long drama on AMC that began June 1, may be surprised to hear it, but they’ve set up the same kind of situation.

At the outset, its three enterprising heroes are in need; Joe has a vision he needs help pursuing, Gordon is drifting and needs halt and catch fireto be galvanized, and Cameron just needs a job. By the end of the first episode, they’ve come up with a project–just in time, because the company where they work needs to be saved. The difference between Halt and Catch Fire and its predecessors is that in this show, instead of making a new piece of theater, our heroes set out to make a new computer. That’s a pretty big difference, yes, but the new series, like the old films, is still about saving something by making something.

And it’s still basically a backstage drama we’re watching. That brings with it a high chance of discord: scheming, differing aims, clashing personalities, simmering resentments. But there’s also a potential for moments of music or dance, either literally (in the case of the movies) or figuratively (in TV dramas like this), where the characters’ work may include spells of harmony and collaboration. The premiere of Halt and Catch Fire doesn’t skip either opportunity.

My aim is only to discuss a few aspects of the show, not review the entire pilot (or the next three episodes, which have now aired). So I won’t describe what I just called the discord. But the pilot’s approach to music deserves to be pointed out. Roughly halfway through, Joe and Gordon hole up in a garage to figure out something about IBM’s recently launched PC.
We see signal probes halt and catch fire1
held to integrated circuits, sine waves registering on an oscilloscope, LEDs glowing on a breadboard. Cryptic letters and numbers are recited, written down, typed up, and printed out. The look of the scene is chiaroscuro, darkness pierced with gleams of light. Hours may be passing, or entire days, as Joe and Gordon labor to extract forbidden knowledge from the thing on their workbench. They could be alchemists of a past age.

The scene may strike some viewers as mere geekery, with nothing of music in it, and old-fashioned to boot, because all this is happening back in 1983. Step back and you can see more. Joe and Gordon’s work in the garage suggests the ancient human quest to figure out how something works and gain control over it; at the same time, the montage has a gently lulling rhythm and lyrical quality. There’s no clash of characters here; all is concord. Either I’ve missed a lot or this is an unusual thing. A common prescription for
writers is that your every scene needs conflict. The creators of
Halt and Catch Fire,Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, halt-and-catch-fire-season-1-christopher-cantwell-christopher-rogers-325are pretty young—they’re both in their early 30s, according to a Wired article—but they’ve clearly grown past that “rule.”

Along with the backstage-musical parallel, which I admit is a bit fanciful, there’s another. AMC is running the show in the Sunday-night time slot that was just vacated when Mad Men went on midseason hiatus. Like Matthew Weiner’s much-discussed and much-admired series, Halt and Catch Fire is a workplace drama, a show about a particular industry, and a period piece that’s capable of raising discussion about historical issues. What’s more, the character of Joe will probably remind viewers of Don Draper. You think you can see who he is—he can turn on the charm, he’s got a bit of a temper, he has daring ideas—and yet there are mysteries about his past. I’m not sure the comparison between the shows will help Halt and Catch Fire, but its creators seem to have invited it, and so has AMC.

I’m concerned about the nature of its truth as well. The show lists two technical consultants in its end credits. One of its creators grew up in Dallas, where the show is set, and his father worked in the computer business there. Two or three people on the show’s production staff expressed, in that Wired article, a high concern with accuracy. Despite all that, the pilot is sprinkled with technical, geographical, and social details that are likely to trip anyone who knows computers or the Dallas area (I grew up there). I’ll skip the technical matters and give other examples. There’s an armadillo in the opening sequence. Later, in the same episode, one of our central characters rides a bus near downtown; in a single shot, we see a familiar landmark called Reunion Tower and a group of longhorn cattle. The top men at the company we’re following have a twangy accent and a folksy way of expressing things.

dallasWhat’s wrong? There are twangers in Dallas, some of whom may run midsize companies, but I never worked for one—the accent is a class thing. I never saw or heard of a ’dillo within the city limits, except one that some friends put on a leash and walked through the Highland Park Village shopping center. And I’m pretty sure that the only urban cattle in the region have been those passing through the Fort Worth stockyards. What
Halt and Catch Fire has done is the Dallas way of presenting Dallas. It’s far from the Mad Men way of presenting Manhattan.

So what’ve we got here? A rather hard-edged drama with a few doubtful notions that’s willing to relax and sing now and then. I don’t know whether to applaud the things that it has done well or fear for its ambition and its creators’ relative lack of experience. But for now, there are reasons to keep watching.

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March 11, 2014


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 Open Door to
Open House.

o'neillWhat to do about the American family? Depending on where you stand, the poor thing needs to be either preserved in its traditional form or extensively modernized. And what about the American family drama? Admittedly a less pressing concern, it too is defended from one side and decried from another. At least one critic I could name millerfeels the family drama was okay for Eugene O’Neill, began to wear out its welcome with Arthur Miller, and was completed, perfected, and finished off in Sam Shepard’s Buried shepardChild (1978), only to return as a theatrical version of the undead.

The solution, for both family and family drama, may be to get rid of them. That’s essentially what Will Eno does in an anarchic and deliciously clever play called The Open House, currently at the Signature Theatre. As it begins, we see what looks like a family, embroiled in will enowhat seems to be a drama, but those impressions change. The show can be read as a comic reversal of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which the pod people come first and are gradually replaced. The five family members we meet at the outset are creatures of habit and genetics, stuck in their ways. The father either dominates by sniping at everyone else or withdraws into silence; his wife tries to be supportive and conciliatory, etc. Dad is literally stuck—he’s confined to a wheelchair—and the other four remain nearly as frozen in place as he is.

In a way, they’re soulless or dehumanized. None of them refers to one another by name; even the pooch who runs off at the beginning is mentioned only as “the dog.” Nor is the location identified. Although you might, by the end, see a resemblance to the estate in The Cherry Orchard, it’s basically an Everytown USA, as universally American as Grover’s Corners in Our Town.

The original quintet also lacks shoes; Dad’s in slippers, the kids are in their socks, etc. This may be a nod by Eno oliver_butleror by the show’s director, Oliver Butler, to a recent fad in Brooklyn (where Eno lives) but is probably just one of the few signs that these people actually feel at home and at ease.

It’s hard to decide how much to say about The Open House. When there’s pleasure to be had in any work of art or entertainment, part of it usually comes from discovering how the experience unfolds. That’s especially true for this play, which is why I’ve avoided being very specific. If you think I’m being cryptic, you should see what Signature says about it in the overview on its website.

Here’s an example of the show’s humor. When Dad’s brother declares, “They said I was a fool to study Latin, but where are they now?,” he’s promptly quashed by Dad’s answer—“Probably at work.” That’s a snappy comeback, but it carries a little jolt of pain.

Eno is working with the comedy of discomfort, which at any given moment—and probably from one performance to the next—can be awful, hilarious, or an open houseuneasy mix of the two. Maintaining a flexible tone and pace that allow for all these responses is the challenge that faces the five players, Hannah Bos, Michael Countryman, Peter Friedman, Danny McCarthy, and Carolyn McCormick. Under Butler’s guidance, they bring it off masterfully. If the typical family were so smoothly functional, or the typical family drama were this imaginativebut that’s like saying, “If pigs had wings…”

(Signature Theatre, through March 30)

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November 20, 2013


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New Tricks for an Old Dog

One evening in early November, the BAM Harvey Theater resounded to an electric guitar, a few American pop-rock songs including Bowie’s “Changes,” the splat of paint-filled balloons hurled against the walls of the set, and the words of an incendiary political text published recently in France. For a while, voices from the audience were heard as well, challenging one of the characters on stage or supporting another. There was even a trained dog, though she wasn’t the one with the new tricks. It may sound like a crazy anarchist circus or even a rally for the Occupy movement—and in a way it works as either or both. But the occasion was a performance by Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz of a 131-year-old play by Henrik Ibsen: An Enemy of the People.

ibsenIbsen’s original tells of a doctor in a spa town, Thomas Stockmann, who discovers a pollution problem with the water supply feeding the baths. Determined to announce this as a prelude to getting it cleaned up, Stockmann finds and then loses backing in one quarter after another—from the mayor to the opposition press—and he ends as a radical idealist, refusing to compromise with anyone, dismissing virtually the entire town as corrupt enemies of truth. Apart from an ironic shadow in the final moment, Ibsen’s Enemy of the People shows the playwright at his most intemperate. (He wrote it as a heated response to the hostile reception of Ghosts.)

Having been thoroughly renovated by company dramaturg Florian Borchmeyer (credited with preparing this new version) and the Schaubuhne’s artistic director ostermeierThomas Ostermeier, the play is now performed in modern dress, is garlanded with comic bits, and feels quite contemporary. The doctor, his wife, and one of their newspaper friends launch into a band rehearsal at one point, which the wife soon interrupts for a spat with Stockmann; a couple of laptops appear in another scene. The play now hits a different target, too. Instead of attacking conventional morality, it decries the ills of modern democratic capitalism.

Florian_Borchmeyer_u_ber_Jodorowsky_101675966_thumbnailBorchmeyer hasn’t merely modernized Ibsen’s text; he has rewritten much of it, eliminating minor characters and a lot of secondary discussion, and even rejiggered the plot. Anyone who knows the original—which is indeed something of a dog—will be repeatedly surprised by the Schaubühne’s version, and yet in retrospect it’s much the same, simply displaying some new and pretty stunning tricks. (The company is no longer in in the U.S., but for anyone yet to see it in another country, the rest of my text contains spoilers. It will be performed in five more cities on the company’s current international tour.)

Ibsen’s Stockmann convenes a public meeting to reveal his discovery but is pretty quickly voted off his own stage; after some further maneuvering, the play ends with his ringing declaration that “The strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone.” He’s surrounded by his family at the time, thus hardly alone—the ironic shadow I mentioned. The new Stockmann never says anything of the kind, and at his meeting he speaks at length, moving from a bit of Ibsen’s text to a series of sometimes abstract, sometimes trenchant remarks that Borchmeyer has borrowed from The Coming Insurrection, published in France in 2007. The line that most struck home when I attended was “The economy is not in crisis; the economy is the crisis.” Soon after we hear that, suddenly and very smoothly, another surprise develops: the meeting is thrown open to comments and questions from the audience, with prompts and replies, even provocations, from the characters—all in English, whereas the play itself is presented in German with English supertitles.

The speech and the discussion are potent moments, wvolksfeind02hile they last, though they raised a suspicion for me: this isn’t the same as being given a greater voice in the affairs of the land. But the evening isn’t over yet. The scripted play resumes its course and shows us two things. One, in the current order of things, we, along with the new Stockmann, will face endless temptation, like Jesus in the desert.  Two, our resistance may call for consultative, group action. Interpretations will vary, but the latter is how I read the final moments. There, we see Stockmann weighing the next move with his wife, whereas he had always made decisions on his own before.

Stefan Stern plays Stockmann with the air of a man who keeps getting knocked down and keeps getting back up. He’s not the kind of guy who does well in a fight—he’s reckless, not very observant, and even trips over himself at one point—but he refuses to stay down and is somehow invigorated by opposition. The rest of the seven-person cast is equally excellent. There are no star turns here, not even in that long speech. Everything is focused; nothing is overstated. This is vital and purposeful theater;  the Schaubühne’s Enemy of the People is a perfect example of its kind.

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November 2, 2013

Film, Books

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A Text to Rally the Troops

In the 2012 film This Is 40, a woman approaching middle age who has two bickering children 40already and whose household finances are none too secure discovers that she’s pregnant. No one asks whether she should have the child. (If that’s married life at 40, I’m glad I missed it.) A few other films, I think, have taken the same stance: pregnancy is unquestioned, while contraception, adoption, and especially abortion, are unmentionable.

Those issues are heatedly discussed elsewhere in our cultue, just as gun violence is. Yet firearms aren’t kept out of movies for fear of troubling the audience. Is someone trying to keep the A-word off the screen?

notorious lifeThe word itself doesn’t turn up very often if at all in My Notorious Life, a historical novel by Kate Manning (published in September by Scribner in the U.S.; in June by Bloomsbury in the U.K.). That’s only because its first-person narrator, telling her tale from around the end of the 19th century, doesn’t share our direct way of naming such things. The book grapples wholeheartedly with abortion and a group of related issues—when they arise in the course of its story. And they often do.

The narrator is Anne Muldoon, the oldest of three children of Irish immigrants in New York, called Axie by her mother “because I was forever axing so many questions.” The life she recounts ranges from New York tammanyhallCity to a prairie settlement in Illinois and back, from 1860 to 1880, and from a destitute existence on the streets to a mansion on Fifth Avenue, as its narrator grows from untutored adolescence to settled adulthood. Her account is bedecked with lost lingo, little history lessons, and reminders of times past—in the first three pages, victoria carriages and omnibuses and Tammany Hall.

Axie’s life is a coming-of-age story, and it’s also a genuine rags-to-riches tale surprisingly like those spun by Horatio Alger except that it’s written for adults. There’s even a villain, whom Axie calls “my enemy”: Anthony Comstock, a moral crusader who’s a real historical figure.

kate manningManning uses a flash-forward opening chapter to let us know the crisis toward which the plot will build, and she introduces the character of Comstock 79 pages in, though he doesn’t enter the plot until later. Nearly everything in the book, in fact, leads to or supports the central issues. The action, characters, situations, and themes have been woven into a kind of spider’s web: touch it almost anywhere and the vibration registers elsewhere. The world of impoverished immigrants, for instance, in which the story begins, includes many children who are orphaned, abandoned, or can’t be cared for (Axie is one); those children partly explain the concern, on the part of Axie and others later, with preventing or controlling pregnancy. Axie’s discovery of the physical and emotional lure of sex also figures into that concern, as do the rigors and risks of childbirth.

The heart of her tale is her career. Having been taken in by a women’s doctor, Axie learns to make and dispense medicines that “regulate” a woman’s cycle and relieve “blockage”; these must be early-stage abortifacients. When she’s married and needing extra income, she sets up a business purveying these medicines, and later she becomes a midwife as well, which, along with the medicine and advice she dispenses, earns her a surprising amount of money. Eventually, she sometimes does the dangerous work of terminating a later-stage pregnancy, which sounds like what we now call a D&C except without anesthesia. This aspect of My Notorious Life—the nature of Axie’s work, why she does it, why there’s a need for it, why some people oppose it—arouses the strongest feelings, and it’s why the book could become a text for the troops to rally around. (I hope the troops include a lot of men.) Katha Pollitt gives a great account of it from this angle here .

As a novel, it could be called unsubtle, but that’s not a criticism when its effects are achieved so carefully. And as an argument, Manning’s book is the most subtle and convincing kind: one that views moral and legal questions in the light of human desires, feelings, and experience.

Axie is a strong female character and was considered as such in an October 30 event at New York’s Center for Fiction. Part of her story is true, too, including her unlikely-seeming financial success; Axie is derived in part from a real person, Ann Trow Lohman, also known as Madame Restell. How much these things matter will vary from reader to reader, though.

Whatever it means to be strong (capable? madamerestellarrestedbulldog-persistent? courageous?), Axie goes beyond it. She’s funny, she’s compassionate, she’s got native smarts, she remains determined to reunite her scattered siblings (though she’s endlessly thwarted,) she has trouble trusting men, and she’s burdened by the weight of losses already endured and the fear of others that may come. What’s more, the story gets at some conflicts and home truths in 19th-century American life—some of them still current—that don’t depend on Axie’s real-life model: science versus superstition in medicine; materialism versus Protestant and Puritan theology; the near impossibility of a woman finding anything to do other than work in service or marry; the rule of men over virtually every realm of life…

Still, in Kate Manning’s seamless stitching together of fact and fiction, part of the thrill of the tale is knowing that this—or something like it—really happened.
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October 22, 2013

Film, Books, Science

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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.

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September 15, 2013

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Fearless Predictions

Fetch Clay, Make Man (through Oct. 13, New York Theatre Workshop), It’s 1965 in the United States. Vietnam, Civil Rights, Black Power, the Nation of Islam—all that was in the air as Muhammad Ali, whom some sportswriters still insisted on calling Cassius Clay, prepared to fight Sonny Liston in a heavyweight-championship rematch. As playwright Will Power tells the story, Stepin Fetchit (real fetch13f-2-webname Lincoln Perry) known for his black-caricature film roles, was one of Ali’s guests. The tale is improbable but in some sense true. I haven’t checked the details, but Ali did in fact get to know Fetchit. Based-on-fact stories are common these days in fiction, film, and theater; they’re often problematic. I’ll leave that to be addressed by others. Having seen a preview, I can say the design, direction, and performances add up to a work of power and precision.
NYTW: Web site

Mr. Bengt’s Wife (Sept. 13–29, August Strindberg Repertory Theatre. The only strindbergknown quantity here, for me, is Strindberg. This company launched itself in May 2012, but I learned of it only recently. And I’ve read or seen only a few of Strindberg’s works, of which Mr. Bengt’s Wife is not one. He was the most restless of playwrights, “perpetually dissatisfied,” as Robert Brustein wrote, experimenting with Naturalism, Expressionism, and a good deal more—including comedy, as Strindberg Rep showed in its debut production, Playing With Fire. Yet he may be also the most neglected of the Modernist masters. This company intends to produce his lesser-known plays (which is almost all of them) as well as the familiar. Bravo for that.
Strindberg Rep: Web site

emmysPrimetime Emmy Awards (Sept. 22 at 8 pm ET, CBS): One big question, which for me is the big question, is whether a company that never produced TV before the 2012–13 season—namely Netflix—will be among the winners. Indulge me in a quirk for a minute. All seven of the nominees for lead actress in a drama series—to use that category as an example—clearly did excellent work; will it make sense to discard six of them and recognize only one as “outstanding” (that’s the official Emmy language, not “best”)? Not for me. But most people like seeing awards as a game that can have only one winner, and when they disagree with the outcome they like disputing it. The industry cares who wins, and the viewers care, so I too am going to care how well Netflix does. It has a total of 13 chances.
Nominations: list

PinkMartini_StormLarge_photocredit-James_Chiang_1Storm Large and Pink Martini (Sept. 22, Beacon Theatre. Many people who become pop celebrities don’t find it difficult to try out new lines of work. Heiresses land on TV, comics take up film acting, actors tackle singing. You might suspect that Storm Large, with her made-up-sounding name and a reality-TV show in her background, lacks credibility. You’d be wrong. She began by singing rock music, she has sung with the genre-crossing group Pink Martini since 2011, and last spring her native talent took her to Carnegie Hall, where she sang Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Writer Elissa Schappell, who worked with her once, told me she’s a “force of nature.” By the way, her name is real.

You can stream part of the spring concert, or buy tickets for the upcoming evening: stream

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August 26, 2013

Film, TV, DVDs, Books, Magazines

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On Watching TV:
The Long and the Short of It

Last year, Jennifer Egan wrote a piece of short fiction for The New Yorker, called “Black Box,” eganthat she designed for Twitter. link Beginning on May 24, TNY’s fiction department tweeted the story in 10 nightly installments before printing it complete in the magazine. I hadn’t read any Twitter fiction but admired Egan, so I sat down the first night to watch. The six opening tweets hooked me. Wondering what to call the experience (punctuated unfolding?), I followed avidly to the end and re-read “Black Box” as soon as I received the printed magazine. Surely something was new about this, my overexcited brain proposed.

Was I right? As Kirby used to say in the Hertz car-rental ads, “Not exactly.” If you close one eye and hold your head just so, you can see parallels for this in earlier times, and even in other media today.

sterneWay back in 1759, Laurence Sterne began publishing Tristram Shandy in parts. Apparently he wrote and published a volume or so whenever he felt like it; the novel eventually ran to nine volumes released over about eight years without ever reaching a conclusive ending. At almost the same time, Tobias Smollettismolle001p1 (a name that begs to be re-used) began serializing his novel The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves in a monthly magazine he had just launched. Fast-forward a few decades; in the 19th century, serialization became quite the thing. Charles Dickens first published all of his novels dickensserially, from The Pickwick Papers (begun in 1837) through Our Mutual Friend, the last one he completed (published in 1864–65). Wilkie Collins did it; Henry James did it. joyceEven James Joyce did it, publishing Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man serially (1914–15) and doing it again with Ulysses (1918–20).

Fast-forward again. The new serial forms of the 20th century, in particular the TV series, were for the most part simple, morally unambiguous, and open-ended. How hard was it to star trekdrop into any of the Star Trek shows and find your footing? It did matter a little what happened along the way, as with Dallas (1978–91), or at least at the end, as with The Fugitive (1963–67); the ravening desire to learn who shot J.R. infiltrated a ballet audience I was part of one night. But to be snooty about it—which I can do because I watched some of that stuff myself—these were pretty shapeless tales, which as much as anything else satisfied a compulsion for repetition.

Eventually, the idea of doing more and better dawned on the creators of TV shows. Since sometime in the 90s, the most ambitious of these men and women have been charting the path of characters, situations, and themes across multiple story arcs (episode, season, entire run) and employing what writer Steven Berlin Johnson concisely called “complex, multithreaded storytelling.”

Writing in the mid-naughts, Johnson was describing sophisticated and elaborate TV programs such as The Sopranos and Lost. These shows get serious attention in academia. Mad Men, for instance,mad men inspired an excellent book of critical essays, link and also a blog from the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. link They’re among the popular entertainments that Johnson wrote about in his 2005 book, Everything Bad Is Good for You, which argued that the best TV series and video games don’t dull your mind but cultivate it. In a way, these shows are the new novels.

Almost all of them have been hour-long dramas, although New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum recently made a strong case for including HBO’s 30-minute comedy Sex and the City among the pathbreakers. link They’ve mostly been on cable, not broadcast networks, in part because the FCC’s onerous constraints, sex and the cityintended to keep the public airwaves clean enough not to shock time travelers from Dickens’s era, don’t apply to cable networks.

One thing about the novelistic shows—and other successful TV series—might be recognizable to the Victorians: their delivery. The tale is told first in serial installments, which are then gathered into a whole. In Victoria’s time, serialized novels were gathered into books; in our time, TV shows are collected into boxes of DVDs or Blu-ray disks. The main difference is that with TV the process repeats for subsequent seasons. (Sadly, if there’s no second season, there’s typically no DVD release either. AMC’s fine conspiracy drama, Rubicon, is now gone unless you’re willing to use “enhanced acquisition techniques”—that is, downloading a torrent file.)

I don’t want to read a novel as if it were a TV show, in weekly nibbles across a long span of time. I don’t even want to watch TV—the better shows, that is—on TV, in bits and bites. (No doubt the challenge of keeping track of things for months is part of what’s good for you, but I’m lazy.) Charles McGrath tipped me to an alternative with a 2006 article in The New York Times, in which he reported discovering that “DVD…seems the best way to watch any of the new, extended-plotline series: not just ’24,’ but also ‘Lost,’ ‘Alias’ and ‘The Wire.’” But the value of this didn’t register with me until early 2010, when a former colleague in the TV business persuaded me I had to watch Mad Men. For a few weeks as its disks came and went in the mail, my head was dizzy with the developments in Mad Men’s first two seasons, which had taken nearly a year and a half to reach cable viewers.

Even better than DVDs is Netflix streaming. (Other sources exist, but Netflix is tops in my book.) This is bingeing par excellence. No fussing with disks; just push a few buttons and away you go. Netflix is so sure you’ll want to watch multiple episodes that it keeps ’em coming—you have to tell it to stop. This is very modern, except that it’s exactly what happens when you pick up a novel. I saw the first four seasons of Breaking Bad this way; I think it took me about 10 days.

Tradition dies hard; until this year, TV always parceled out its series at one-week intervals. That changed on February 1, when Netflix released 13 episodes of House of Cards all at once. It was popular and also well-regarded; the show earned nine Emmy nominations. house of cardsOther Netflix streaming productions earned four more. At last, conditions were right for a serious-minded, novelistic TV drama to be released as though it really were a novel: in one piece. I watched the whole batch over the course of four days; some viewers saw it all within about 24 hours. It left us hungry for more. Luckily, there will be at least one further season of House of Cards.

A final thought: The Netflix House of Cards was based on a BBC mini-series of the same name. And what was it based on? A novel.

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June 4, 2013


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If You Build It, They Will Come

Yes, The Master Builder is one of Henrik Ibsen’s great plays, but why? The simplest answer may be this: If you see it, you’ll know. A fine production is running at BAM’s harvey theatreHarvey Theater through June 9. Here’s your chance; as this blog always hopes to be able to say, “Don’t miss it.”

No doubt it helps to have a sensibility that’s attuned to the kind of music an artist’s late style can produce. Beethoven’s final quartets aren’t for everybody, nor are Henry James’s last novels. It also helps to be prepared.

ibsen1Ibsen’s work can be divided into three phases; the Ibsen that’s most often produced is the middle-period author of realistic prose dramas, running roughly from A Doll’s House (1879) through Hedda Gabler (1890). He had been writing for almost 30 years before Nora slammed the door and continued for nearly 10 after Hedda last took up her father’s pistol. Allowing for Ibsen’s long apprenticeship, one can still wish to see some of the wild poetic dramas of the first period, in which God himself can be heard to thunder (in Brand, 1866). He again unleashed his imagination in his third period, in which harps sing in the air, a folktale-like character lures a child into the sea, and the dead speak. These final plays are attempted now and then, but—maybe because of their skipping relations with objective, external reality—not very often, and even less often with success, it seems. Thus I’ve never seen The Master Builder (1892) before.

master builder setOrdinarily, it’s in this play that the harps sing. That’s what Hilde Wangel heard 10 years ago when she watched Halvard Solness climb daringly high up a ladder to hang a wreath atop a church steeple. Because of that, and because of a careless promise he made to her—she’s a mere child (he thought) and won’t remember—she has sought him out now. She puts herself squarely in the middle of Solness’s unhappy home life, which has suffered from his relentless dedication to work, and the unsettled circumstances at his office, where he fears being supplanted by someone younger.

The past hangs heavy over the present (as had been the case in Ibsen’s plays at least since Ghosts); what has already happened is as much a question, while we watch the play unfold, as what is going to happen. Ibsen had already mastered the drama of triangular conflicts and here uses nearly every possible triangle among the seven characters: among others, Solness and Aline (his wife) and Hilde, as well as Solness and Ragnar (his young assistant) and Knut Brovik (Ragnar’s father, whom Solness had forcibly replaced years ago). The word “conflicts” may be too strong where Hilde is concerned, however. With her girlish enthusiasm and her mix of dreams and physical appeal, she’s like the warm light of the Mediterranean magically let into a dour Scandinavian church; she tantalizes and revitalizes Solness, and she seems to open up everyone else in the play, although for the most part she shows them up as well.

I could discuss the characters and the uncanny elements of the drama at more length than I ought to take here. It may suffice to recall that critic Robert Brustein called The Master Builder “a great cathedral of a play, with dark, mystical strains which boom like the chords of an organ.”

At BAM, the first thing you’ll notice, before the play even begins, is Santo Loquasto’s set design masater builder 3doing its part to foreshadow events by placing some elements at an uneasy tilt. In David Edgar’s translation of the text, Hilde’s reference to harps in the air is gone, and the other “mystical strains” are played down, though the play still rises above ordinary notions of reality. And as always it belongs mainly to Solness and Hilde.

The main accomplishment of Andrei Belgrader’s direction is that it allows the apparent simplicity of their drama to stand clear, in the persons of John Turturro and Wrenn Schmidt. The title character is far less at the mercy of events than some of Turturro’s screen roles have been; in a way, Solness is at the mercy of his own desires instead, and as Turturro plays him you’re both afraid of the character and afraid for him. schmidt turturroAs Hilde, Schmidt seems at first almost impossibly girlish but also too obvious in her come-ons, yet she soon won me over and left me absolutely fascinated. (As I confessed on Twitter, the character intruded on my dreams that night, which says something for Schmidt but even more for Ibsen’s potent creation.)

There’s never any better reason for going to the theater than simply to see what’s there. As I said before, such works as The Master Builder aren’t for everybody, but if you go to BAM it’s quite possible that you’ll feel you’ve witnessed something titanic, even mythic.

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May 21, 2013


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Chaos to Couture
at the Costume Institute

In January 1978, the Sex Pistols came to Dallas, Texas (my home), and played a concert in an eclectic, edge-of-downtown, barnlike sex pistolsvenue called the Longhorn Ballroom. According to a trusted acquaintance who was there (Jeffrey Liles, who’s still involved in music and nightclubs all these many years later), maybe as many as a thousand people were present, but that was less than half the capacity of the place. Oddly, the number seemed to grow as time passed. In the early 80s, the Pistols’ show began to acquire the patina of legend, and more and more people claimed to have seen it.

As I headed into the Metropolitan Museum’s Punk: Chaos to Couture show, I half expected to find that fashion had glommed on to Punk in the same after-the-fact manner. Au imagesCA9I5GU1contraire: the show reminded me that packaging had always been involved with Punk, in a couple of ways. First, the look was part of the message. Defiant slogans and gestures, spiked hair, graffiti-like splashes of color, ripped or degraded fabric sometimes held together with safety pins, collars and other objects borrowed from bondage wear, outfits decorated with or even built from garbage bags: this was Punk to many people. The look was a marker of group identity, a rejection of other youth-culture styles such as the Hippie look and the glitter of Disco (fashion writer Amy Fine Collins pointed this out to me in an email), an expression of feeling damaged or cast off, a flip of the finger to the social order and the ruling class.

Second, especially in England, marketing and design played a role in Punk from the start. Two figures dominate this part of the story. mclaren and westwoodMalcolm McLaren, a musician, producer, impresario, and all-around spirit of the age, who was regarded as a hustler by some and a genius by others, influenced almost every aspect of the Sex Pistols; as the band’s manager, he booked it on that American tour in 1978, which ended with the band’s breakup in San Francisco. McLaren had earlier joined forces with designer Vivienne Westwood; the two of them pretty much created the look of British Punk and sold it through a London shop on King’s Road.

The Met’s Costume Institute show, which was curated by Andrew Bolton, displays many of Westwood and McLaren’s creations, but seeing them all on mannequins leaves the Punk period (roughly 1974–79) feeling less than fully fleshed out. Photos supplied to the press do it better, just by capturing Punk styles on people such as John Lydon of the Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer of the Clash, Richard Hell of Television and other bands, and Gary Wilson, a musician and performance artist who used dry-cleaning bags in his look. (You can see these, paired with modern versions on models, here.)

Considering the title’s reference to chaos, this exhibition might also seem to be lacking in grime, disorder, and vomit. Critic Suzy Menkes complained (in an IHT review here) that the Punk background it presents is “sanitized and bloodless.” It’s odorless too, and as James Wolcott recently reminded Vanity Fair readers (see article), CBGB was a decidedly odoriferous place. But I’m unsure how much we’d like to be reminded of any of that.

CI punk show, May 2013: Zandra Rhodes & her dressesWhat do we have of Punk’s origins? There are many rebellious T-shirts by Westwood and McLaren and a few of their ensembles using bondage pants, furry sweaters, and the like. Also on display are a couple of 1977 Zandra Rhodes dresses that strike a lovely balance between distress and composure; Rhodes stationed herself in front of them for interviews during the press preview. Punk’s original habitats are evoked by two physical spaces that recall the Metropolitan’s other period rooms: a recreation of the CBGB bathroom from 1975 (sans odor), and a duplication of Westwood and McLaren’s boutique on King’s Road. The CBGB urinals remind others of Marcel Duchamp; I thought the scene needed a note reading “This is not a bathroom” (à la René Magritte). Rounding out the source material are video excerpts from various period films, including footage from that Sex Pistols show in Dallas, running on screens placed throughout the exhibition. But all the video is silent—the music we hear comes from other sources—and has a hard-to-read, throwaway feel. (Presumably the figures shown, and the rationale for which gallery they appear in, are more recognizable to others than they were to me.) In the DIY: Bricolage room, one of the large video screens worked better as a garish light source than as anything to ponder.

Where the curator has harvested a real bounty is in the recent borrowings from Punk. Spread through the galleries are dozens of pieces, both ready-to-wear and haute couture, for men and women. Knowledgeable commentary on these works is easy to find elsewhere. I’ll just say that it’s surprising how many design responses can be traced to the short-lived outburst that was Punk.

CI punk show May 2013: Fashions in the bricolage roomThere’s an energizing tension between the look and the feel of the show. The gallery layouts are symmetrical, classical (some use Roman-style niches), elegant, composed… almost serenely seductive. But when a crowd is on hand, the music is pumping, and ever-changing light dances from the videos, the show can feel like a nightclub—which, in case you don’t know me, I mean as a good thing. The experience is a fantastical one, in which you the viewer mingle, on entirely comfortable terms, with the chicest of the chic, who remain on their platforms like Patience on a monument.

Indulging the club feel will be a mistake if you fail to balance it with careful observation. I know I missed things in my larking CI punk show May 2013: Bullet-wound shirtabout. The gunshot-wound shirt by Hedi Slimane is eye-catching; less so is the intricate detail work in a mohair knit-and-crochet ensemble from Rodarte and the delicate beauty of Ann CI punk show May 2013: Ann Demeulemeester dressDemeulemeester’s “quotation dress” (my term), embroidered with Patti Smith text. The parting nod to Punk’s defiance is obvious too; more obscure is just where one could wear this mannequin’s barely-there evening dress, from Maison Martin Margiela.

The show concludes with a fine irony: the “no future” declaration, which originated in a Sex Pistols song, now marches proudly across the wall of the last gallery, negating itself by its very CI punk show May 2013: Maison Martin Margiela evening dresspresence. Punks either died or moved on, but their style had a futureit’s here.

Through August 14, 2013, at the Metropolitan Museum:

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