film/TV/images

A moral master of prose style

April 25, 2017 | 11 Comments

A story structured in shards

March 8, 2017 | 24 Comments

Natalie Portman’s inspired performance and its complex layering of time frames distinguish the film Jackie.

Portman nails Jackie’s breathy finishing-school voice—you imagine it began as an instructed affectation, as an adaption to a wealthier milieu, or as an ambitious adoption that became her. She also conveys Jackie’s sincerity, her flashes of insecurity, her fidelity to duty, and ultimately her pain. After the horror in Dallas, she plans Jack’s funeral, even as she medicates herself with alcohol, comforts her two young children, and oversees the packing of her family’s possessions for their abrupt exodus from the White House.

The movie opens after all that, scant days after the funeral, with Jackie being interviewed. She wants to further her husband’s legacy by cementing his image as a noble leader, as an aristocrat who loved the people, as a demigod. This foreground frame (or recurring braid, if you choose) grounds the narrative. Otherwise a succession of flashbacks, not always linear, the segments reflect Jackie’s PTSD and the nation’s disorientation.

Like many a boomer, I carry memories of November 22, 1963, when Kennedy fell in Dallas and Jackie scrambled briefly onto the car’s trunk: to retrieve a piece of his skull, the movie affirms, not to flee, as it appeared to many at the time. Then, as we watched: Oswald’s killing and JFK’s funeral and John-John’s brave salute. But I’d never contemplated Jacqueline Kennedy’s grief, much less her PTSD.

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The power to charm

January 20, 2016 | 4 Comments

Anthony Lane’s irreverent reviews for the New Yorker of Hollywood blockbusters make me laugh. He’s fun, quite cheeky. But I’m always pleased when he casts his wit and his elegant sentences toward what he admires. Such as his recent appreciation of Todd Haynes’s film Carol about forbidden love between two women in 1952 America. Less than 20 years after that repressed era, David Bowie, with his androgyny and his openness about his bisexuality, helped usher the shift in consciousness that has culminated in America in marriage equality. Among last week’s many tributes to Bowie, surely there wasn’t a finer one than Lane’s for his fellow Brit, “David Bowie in the Movies.”

For a brief essay, Lane’s reflects deep processing and manages a thrilling range of considerations. Like Bowie’s work, Lane’s delights in its own performance but hits you with unexpected emotional force.

If genius is brilliance plus output, Bowie certainly qualifies as one. Even among superstar performers, that rarified group, he seemed one in a million. In an ultimately soaring appreciation, Lane takes a measured view of Bowie’s film work. Most of Bowie’s roles were in minor films, Lane says. He doesn’t crown Bowie as a great movie actor, while noting his performance instinct and impact.

Art is made of emotion and it’s about emotion. Lane’s essay showcases perhaps the highest role of the critic, to be emotionally responsive in turn to art.

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Practice, said the maestro

November 20, 2015 | 6 Comments

The classical pianist Seymour Bernstein says he didn’t feel comfortable on stage for most of his career. Terror and horror swept him, he fought blocks, felt inadequate. He increased his practicing from four hours daily to eight. This “integrated” him as a person and artist. As a result, at last he felt fine on stage, at age 50. He secretly arranged a farewell concert. Held at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City, his last concert was in 1969. It was hailed as a triumph, and he exited public performance for good. He kept playing, practicing, and teaching. He simply quit the strain of the stage, and poured himself into his students.

This is the paradox and the man, now in his late eighties, explored in actor Ethan Hawke’s new documentary, Seymour: An Introduction. I streamed it on Netflix. In taking the title of a J.D. Salinger novella, Hawke alludes to Salinger’s decision to stop publishing, though Salinger lived on for fifty years as a recluse in a fenced compound. Bernstein has lived quietly but socially for 57 years in the same one-room apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan, sleeping in a hideaway bed. Like Salinger, Bernstein separates the practice of art from its public airing. There’s a lesson here for writers, loathe as most are to view any composition as mere practice or for its own sake. Publication is the thing!

Hawke, suffering a five-year bout of stage fright and a general artistic malaise, met Bernstein at a dinner party and adopted him as a mentor. “I have been struggling recently with finding why it is that I do what I do,” Hawke explains. “I knew that the superficial things—material wealth, the world thinking you are a big-shot—I kind of knew that that was phony. That that was inauthentic to build a career on. But I didn’t know what was authentic.”

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Ode to joy

October 21, 2015 | 2 Comments

Mad Men captured the excesses and brio of the late 1959s, the 1960s, and the early 1970s. As I explained in 2012 when I drifted away, its fitting climax seemed to be when its main characters formed their own Madison Avenue advertising agency. That’s when a respectable novel would’ve ended. But I drifted back, partly because Don Draper and his times reminded me of my father. Now I’ve watched the rest, and binged on the seventh and final season. I found the show’s last year riveting—especially once the principal players of Sterling Cooper Partners were absorbed by the mother ship, sent to McCann Erickson, which had since bought a majority interest in the scrappy underdog.

Even by the sexist standards of the time, McCann Erickson is a dreadful place for the women, and controlling and soulless for everyone. But the Sterling Cooper partners will become millionaires if they can hang on for four years and fulfill the basic terms of their contract. Can they? One by one, the answer is, basically, no. As they choose their fates, I was reminded of the famous ending of Six Feet Under, which flashed forward to the characters’ deaths. For these Madison Avenue men and women, however, they get another chance.

How satisfying to see Pete Campbell, head of accounts, who’d been humbled by his own meanness, insecurity, and egotism reconcile with his wife and fly off to a spiffy new career with Lear Jet. Instantly I remembered him at his worst, when he tried to destroy Don by revealing Don’s tawdry past and assumed identity. This in turn emphasized how the two later became allies and even friends in the show’s long arc.

As Sterling Cooper’s brilliant creative director, Don is McCann Erickson’s big prize and great hope. He’s been handed their Coke account! At first he plays along, but then takes a road trip and disappears. Is this one of his periodic battery-recharging hegiras or is he finally self-destructing for good?

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A seer of art

August 13, 2015 | 8 Comments

Almost everyone consumes art in some form—it’s hard not to. Which means almost everyone has an opinion. Then there’s Sister Wendy. A nun who spends her days in silent, ego-less contemplation and prayer, the former English major emerges to take in the occasional art gallery. She has a gift, it turns out, for seeing deeply into paintings and their painters.

In the YouTube clip with this post, Wendy discusses “Stanley Spencer, Self portrait with Patricia Preece,” 1936. She comments that the woman’s hair is “unconvincing” though her pubic hair is “lovely and fluffy.” So the novelty effect here is high, but Wendy is no joke. She focuses on how “his art understands—he doesn’t understand,” and she leaves “Feeling vaguely unsatisfied, though I’m not sure why I should be.”

Wendy intuits and appreciates the artist’s effort. At the same time, she is so sensitive that she senses and analyzes where he may have in some way failed. She is positive even in this. What she is saying is Art is a handmade thing and never perfect. I think we love any work of art for its perfection but also for its heightened quality, its attempt at perfection. Art is handmade and there will be flaws. Perhaps the critic must help her audience see places that might be uneven, especially if they’re either a fault of soul or the dark side of a virtue.

I love sister Wendy, a seer of art. She shows how creative criticism can be. Her ability to receive and to feel is amazing and inspiring.

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Tidings & sightings

December 24, 2014 | 12 Comments

A child’s birth ushers into being a new, wondrous, and blessedly humbling era. Which my wife Kathy and I seem more consciously aware of as we celebrate the arrival of our first grandchild, Kathy Jane Knight-Gilbert. “We named her for two strong women,” our daughter announced from her hospital bed. Claire and David honored Kathy—surprise!—and his grandmother. Kathy Jane was born Monday, December 15. Adding to the merriment, within days she received a letter provisionally admitting her to my and Kathy’s place of employment, Otterbein University, Class of 2032.

And then a mysterious, ugly, and clearly wicked Creature appeared from the woods nearby.

Kathy Jane’s namesake spied the beast first. Just after first light, returning from a foraging expedition to WalMart, Granny Kathy saw “It” quartering across a clearing near the house. She telephoned me, but I was in the shower. So she snapped a few pictures with her iPhone and burst into the house. I got a quick glimpse of the beast before it disappeared into the woods.

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