Wednesday, December 24, 2008

007: Moonraker

Grade: B+

I don't imagine Fleming wrote a better 007 novel. Three volumes in, he's now comfortable enough with the formula to deviate from it in inspired ways. Here, he shows a "typical" working week for Bond. He also stretches himself in his ultra-romantic depiction of espionage. He's still conflating sex with torture, indulging in monographs on high-stakes gambling and automobiles, & staging violent scenes of derring-do. But he also hints at the real dullness of spycraft (Bond spends Mondays going over govt. memos). And for the first time, he includes the truly absurd plots that the movies have propagated.

(Thankfully, Moonraker bears no resemblance to the 1979 film, which is arguably the worst in the series.)

The book begins with the humdrum office work, but quickly moves beyond. M asks Bond to bust Britain's top rocket expert for card cheating at his gentleman's club. Fleming loves cardplay, but this book's game of bridge isn't nearly as much of a knucklebiter as Casino Royale's baccarat. The plot revs up though, when Bond is tasked with investigating a murder that ties in with the prototype rocket itself. Turns out, the project is a front for unreformed Nazis, funded by Commies, who plan to nuke London!

So the book climaxes in a farfetched, highly entertaining bit of action, as well as the rescue of yet another comely ingenue. It all happens within a week in southern England; the novel benefits from this concision and unity. The arc from mundane to fantastical is tight, thrilling, &, given the genre, plausible . Fleming has found his stride with Moonraker. This is quality pulp fiction, probably Fleming's "masterpiece". It's rejuvenated my interest in the Bond books, & I'll give the next two a try.

date: 1955
writer: Ian Fleming

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Recent DVDs

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead – *** – A conventional crime drama: mismatched bros jack up their parents' jewelry store. Fine actors & workman Lumet execute the flick's zigzag structure & family dynamics w/ professionalism but not insight.

Tropic Thunder – *** – Stiller & co. sic the sacred cow of celluloid heroism. I only wish the plot (ego actors stumble into "real" Vietnam warfare) was as subversive as the approach. But blackfaced Downey is genius.

The Wire: season 5 – ***** – When a show is this superb, the occasional bum note is jarring but forgivable (ex.: the unsubtle newsroom subplot). It's a brilliant finale, bringing 5 seasons to a satisfying but downbeat conclusion.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

American Buffalo; or How I Didn't Mind the Bomb

playwright: David Mamet
director: Robert Falls
date attended: Nov. 15, 2008 (evening)
venue: Belasco Theatre

Having caught the Broadway production of American Buffalo, I was sad to read the caustic reviews of the show on Monday, & even more sad to hear that it's closing this Sunday. Closing a week after opening night is
pretty much a bomb. But this show wasn't terrible (or phenomenal), it was just mediocre. But that's not good enough in this terrible economy, so American Buffalo joins the pile of Broadway dead.

It's too bad, because the show had good things going for it, starting with the casting. Not the cast (which was uneven) but the color-blind approach that the producers took. It updated the play invisibly, though it lost some of the specificity of the 1970s lower-class white Chicago setting. Other than the milieu itself, there's nothing intrinsically white about these characters. And by casting a Hispanic & an African-American in these roles, it underscores how American the play is. I hope that other producers follow Buffalo's lead: this production's casting seemed forward-looking, like Obama's victory.

In fact, I got a lot more from it than I did from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof last summer. The script's a real classic, & like Shakespeare's plays, it can stand mediocrity (whereas Williams' drama could not). Cedric the Entertainer ("Don") was great, & he should do more stage work -- his deep, resonant voice fits well in a Broadway cavern. He lived his words, giving a seemingly-spontaneous performance. I can't say that about John Leguizamo ("Teacher") or young Haley Joel Osment ("Bobby"), neither of whom seemed wholly comfortable with the language -- & Mamet performances live or die in the delivery.

Really, the problem with this production American Buffalo (& few reviews said this) was that Robert Falls' direction was superficial. Mamet, who in this play waves his Pinter influence like a flag, is deeply ironic and ambiguous. But Falls was content to show the mere action, without a sense of dramatic irony. It felt like a simulation of Mamet's play, not a performance. Which is okay -- as I said, a great script can withstand a mediocre production -- except that these tickets cost more than a C-note. American Buffalo is one more victim of the economic downturn, an irony that Mamet might appreciate even if his characters probably couldn't.


Photo from American Buffalo's website

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
This novel is simply astonishing. Set in the Mexican-American war around 1849 (& based on a historical incident), it's one of the most violent books I've ever read. A paramilitary band of Americans butchers their way across the American Southwest, paid by the scalp. The main character's the Kid, who's subtly set apart from the rest by a twinge of mercy. The antagonist, the Judge, is an incredible creation: a deeply troubling engine of chaos who gets all the best speeches in the book. It's worth reading just to see this character who stinks of brimstone.

McCarthy takes a lot from Moby Dick: the doomed team on an unholy mission; non-psychological characterization; realism based in the quotidian details of a bygone era; a godless, fatal Nature. The commodious vocab includes specialty words on breech-loading guns & horse riding, but it goes much further too. McCarthy is also heavily influenced by Billy Shakes, Milton, King James as well. The style is wonderful -- tho' not good for subway reading -- with sentences so long & labyrinthine that they need to be read twice.

Okay, so Blood Meridian is terribly dark & even horrifying. It's apocalyptic & vaguely medieval, like a painting by Bosch. It's hard to get through. Its unrelenting pessimism ends on an equivocal note. But despite the noble antecedents mentioned above, it's a unique American novel. McCarthy sustains a level of artistic excellence that kept me reading for weeks. I'm looking forward to reading it again someday.

View all my reviews.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Third Stages (or, Losing my Journalistic Virginity)

I wrote this article for Metromix two weeks ago, only to get it sent back with edits requested. You can see the new version, about 1/3 the length to give space to an EW-style bullet point FAQ. My first journalistic compromise, after a year of editorial carte blanche! It only hurt a little. This piece is out of date, but it's good enough that I wanted to post it. Thanks go to Paige Evans, my former boss; I'd hoped to steer audiences to "Clay", her inaugural production at LCT3. It was fun, it was fine, I'm sad this didn't run in time. Anyhow, on with the show:


Last week, the theater world got a bit of good news: the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced that it would award $10 million to subsidize new playwrighting. Some of the money will go to organizations like New Dramatists (a local writers' workshop). But the lion's share will go to companies here in New York and across the US to stage more plays by young writers.

Plenty of Gotham's smaller companies have been supporting young playwrights: 13P, for example, was founded by a baker's dozen of writers who were tired of seeing their plays go unproduced. But it's the larger companies, like Roundabout and
Lincoln Center, who have the space, money, and organizations to develop relationships, provide connections, and get the word out.

Even before they heard the Mellon announcement, both the Roundabout and Lincoln Center announced their own initiatives, “Roundabout Underground” and “LCT3” [Q: can anyone find LCT3's official web-page?]. These programs turn their third stages into incubators for the next generation of theater artists – and of audiences. In an interview, the excitement of Paige Evans, Director of LCT3, is contagious. The most exciting aspect of the project, she said, is bringing new artists and audiences to Lincoln Center Theater.

Lincoln Center's share of the Mellon money – around $1 million according to the New York Times – will help support the LCT3 program, whose goal is nurturing young playwrights. “Through LCT3, we hope to bring in new generation of artists who will make Lincoln Center Theater their artistic home,” said Evans. “We plan to produce and cultivate new artists’ work at LCT3 and then, in time, these artists have other work produced at the Newhouse and Beaumont.”

More importantly, LCT3 and Roundabout Underground both make theater accessible to twenty- and thirty-something audiences. Don't want to spend $100 or even $75 on one of their mainstage shows? Tickets to their shows are only $20. While that leaves less money to spend on spectacle, Evans rightly points out, “in theater, budgetary limitations can inspire creative solutions and innovation.” Anyway, it's not just the artists who are young: the works themselves feel fresh and contemporary. LCT3's current offering, “Clay”, is a one-man hip-hop musical about escaping from suburbia.

As Metromix mentioned last month, even the most established companies are letting youngsters into the clubhouse. Manhattan Theatre Club joins LCT3 and Roundabout Underground in producing a play on their third stage by a writers who's around 30 years old and whose directors aren't much older. The Public is playing host to mid-30s monologuist Mike Daisey and his collaborator-wife, Jean-Michele Gregory. Adam Rapp, the writer/director whose “Kindness” is at Playwrights Horizons, is a geezer at age 40. Autumn 2008 is turning out to be a banner season for young playwrights. With the funding coming through and the theaters rallying behind them, all these young artists need are the audiences.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sarah Kane and "Blasted"

I caught Blasted last week, and posted an introductory analysis (*not* a review) on Metromix. But it's the sort of drama that lingers in your mind long after you've left the theater. Inspired by a long, fascinating thread on Parabasis, I've decided to add my two cents.

In my view, Sarah Kane is a genius – not one in potential but cut off before her prime, but one who produced a fully-formed masterwork in her first at-bat. Whether it's to your taste or not, Blasted is an intelligent work that extends many of the dramatic experiments of the 20th century. She goes further than anyone before her in the modernist tradition of frustrating the viewer's expectations and denying us closure.

She does this on several levels. The most obvious is the in-yer-face shock of several rapes (man-on-woman and man-on-man), humiliations and horrors, eye-gauging and cannibalism, and so on. But get past that. On the level of character, Kane creates a wholly unsympathetic protagonist, Ian, then humiliates him to the point (well past the point?) of earning our sympathy. Most importantly, the style and structure of the play, like an embryo developing then losing gills, evolves through every stage of modern theater history, starting with traditional chamber-drama naturalism through episodic, expressionistic, & absurdist drama.

Critics make a lot out the connection that Kane drew between Blasted and Bosnia. Watching the production at Soho Rep, I also read it as a 9/11 play from a prescient leftie Brit. Read Ian as colonialist America and the soldier as al Qaeda hijackers. I don't like to reduce the play to political symbolism. But I think there's a connection between the European sense of surprise and horror at the Balkan violence and the American freak-out after the attack within our borders. When genocide and terrorism happens somewhere else, it's seen as mass dementia or inherent barbarity; when it happens to you, it's not so easy to dismiss. Kane's trying to shock the audience into seeing itself as Ian.

So, to get back to Isaac's question: what's the value in putting yourself through the play? Like other radical dramas (Woyzeck springs to mind), it shocks you out of complacency. It displays human behavior shorn of all Romantic trappings. It absolutely resists convention and cliché. It expands your conception of what it's possible to show and do onstage.

Finally, it's a work of art, because it presents a coherent vision of human affairs in the world. But I don't think it's a nihilistic one – no more so than that of Euripides or Beckett, at least. The last beat of the play sees Cate give water to Ian, who earlier had violated her but who, in the final analysis, is simply a dying blind man. There's hope, forgiveness, and compassion in that last gesture.