Lookback: a movie you’ll never see

LOOKBACKFrom 2004:

In Network, the American public is so hungry for the spin-free frankness of a seemingly honest man that it embraces a TV anchorman who goes off his rocker in the middle of a newscast. (That’s what makes the film so provocative, by the way. In the hands of a West Wing-type screenwriter, the anchorman would have been presented as a Christ-like figure, but Chayefsky leaves us in no possible doubt that Howard Beale really is off his rocker.) Imagine, then, a film about a present-day public figure who screws up in a big way, calls a press conference, admits his errors, and throws himself upon the mercy of the public….

Read the whole thing here.

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Almanac: Walker Percy on the passage of time

INK BOTTLE“As you begin to get older you begin to realize the trick time is playing, and that unless you do something about it, the passage of time is nothing but the encroachment of the horrible banality of the past on the pure future.”

Walker Percy, Lancelot (courtesy of D.G. Myers)

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It isn’t even past

franksplaceTwenty-seven years ago next month, a black-themed half-hour comedy series called Frank’s Place made its debut on CBS. I tuned in the first episode solely because I’d been a fan of WKRP in Cincinnati, one of whose cast members, Tim Reid, was the star of the new show, which was set in modern-day New Orleans. But I liked what I saw very much, and continued to watch Frank’s Place throughout its run.

Except for the racial angle, the premise of Frank’s Place was simple to the point of obviousness: Reid played a middle-class black academic from Boston who inherited a Creole-style restaurant from his father and decided to move to New Orleans to run it. The show itself, however, was radically different in style and tone from most of the other popular sitcoms of the day, WKRP included, for it was an unusually well-written single-camera “dramedy” without a laugh track. Such series are common enough now, but they were rare in 1987, and the fact that Frank’s Place had a mostly black cast made it rarer still.

7b3603e86284a020c7e7f37ce0f4141fNot surprisingly, Reid understood full well what he’d gotten himself into. “Hugh, I think this is brilliant, but it scares hell out of me,” he said to Hugh Wilson, the show’s creator. “I’ve never seen this on television. I’m not sure television is ready for this.” Nor was it: Frank’s Place was cancelled after a single twenty-two-episode season, and today it is known only to TV historians and aging fans.

Frank’s Place has never been released on DVD, but several episodes can now be viewed on YouTube. One of them, “Frank Joins the Club,” in which Reid is invited to join an upper-middle-class social club for light-skinned black men, has remained clear in my memory ever since it originally aired:

So far as I know, this episode of Frank’s Place was the first time that the near-unmentionable topic of intraracial prejudice was discussed with any kind of candor on network TV. While I’d read about it in books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, it wasn’t until I saw “Frank Joins the Club,” which was written by the playwright Samm-Art Williams, that I became aware that it still existed in the black community, and began to grasp how it affected the everyday lives of black Americans.

satchmofeat26Needless to say, I had no earthly idea back in 1987 that I would someday write full-length biographies of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington that dealt with intraracial prejudice, much less a one-man play about Armstrong and Joe Glaser, his Jewish manager. Still, I rather doubt that I would have written the following speech from Satchmo at the Waldorf in quite the same way had I not seen “Frank Joins the Club”:

Down in New Orleans, them light-skin colored, them Creoles, they think they hot shit, look down on the rest of us like we was dirt. Jelly Roll Morton, he like that. Had that diamond in his front tooth. Used to swan around saying, “Don’t call me colored—I’m one hundred percent French.” But you know what? He still had to eat out back in the kitchen, just like me.

That why I call myself “Louis,” not “Louie.” Mr. Glaser, he call me “Louie.” White folks all call me “Louie.” The announcer here, he call me “Louie” every night before the show. That’s O.K., call me what you want, but I ain’t no goddamn Frenchman, ain’t no Creole, ain’t no “Lou-ie.” I’m black. Black as a spade flush. Woke up black this morning, black when I go to bed, still gonna be black when I get up tomorrow. Don’t like it, you can kiss my black ass.

I’ve never before had occasion to write about Frank’s Place, mainly because it wasn’t until those episodes made it to YouTube that I was able to confirm the accuracy of my faded memories of their quality. Truth to tell, I was a bit afraid to watch “Frank Joins the Club” for fear of being disillusioned. But it turned out to be as good as I remembered, and now that I’ve finally seen it for a second time long after the fact, I want to pay a debt. Thank you, Tim Reid, Hugh Wilson, and Samm-Art Williams, for teaching me a lesson about the complexity of race relations in America that I took to heart and never forgot. I hope you get to see Satchmo at the Waldorf someday and find out what you wrought.

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To read Dave Walker’s 2002 New Orleans Times-Picayune feature story about Frank’s Place, go here.

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A pair of aces

In today’s Wall Street Journal I review two New York revivals, A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters and George Kelly’s The Fatal Weakness. Here’s an excerpt.

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You know a playwright has really arrived when he has plays simultaneously running on and Off-Broadway. A.R. Gurney, Terrence McNally and Tom Stoppard are all being so honored this fall, and it’s Mr. Gurney who’s getting the fanciest treatment. While “The Wayside Motor Inn” is currently being performed by Signature Theatre, “Love Letters,” his perennially popular two-character epistolary play about a pair of aging childhood friends who should have been more, has just received its first Broadway revival since the original 1989 production, with Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy leading a roster of nine stars who will rotate in and out of the show during its five-month run.

BxwClM8CIAA3kJLOne reason why “Love Letters” is so frequently produced is that it’s written in such a way as to facilitate both come-and-go celebrity casting and bargain-basement staging. Not only is there no set, but the actors sit together at a table and read from scripts instead of memorizing their lines. But the enduring success of “Love Letters” is far more than a mere matter of logistical convenience. It’s one of Mr. Gurney’s best plays, a tender study of thwarted love….

While Mr. Dennehy may not have been born to play a WASP named Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, his bluff, heartfelt simplicity of manner leaves little to be desired. Unlike him, Ms. Farrow has done comparatively little stage acting, and so the quivering intensity of her fearlessly projected, fully involved performance (you’d never guess that she hasn’t appeared in a commercial Broadway play since 1980) is the most gratifying of surprises…

The Mint Theater, which has a near-perfect track record of exhuming forgotten plays of the previous century that deserve a happier fate, has gone back to the well with George Kelly, the once-famous author of “The Show-Off,” whose “Philip Goes Forth” the Mint produced to brilliant effect last season. This time around it’s “The Fatal Weakness,” an identically impressive play by Mr. Kelly that opened on Broadway in 1946, ran for three months and thereafter went unseen until now.

No doubt the ambiguity of “The Fatal Weakness” explains its initial lack of success. It’s a smart, polished not-quite-comedy about the high price of adultery whose upper-crust characters are unlikable and whose moral—if you care to call it that—is uncomfortable. Though no one mentions World War II, not even in passing, Mr. Kelly was surely out to show how it triggered a convulsion in American mores, which gives the laughter an astringent sting…

* * *

To read my review of Love Letters, go here.

To read my review of The Fatal Weakness, go here.

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So you want to see a show?

Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

BROADWAY:
Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, some performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, some performances sold out last week, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)
Tavi-Gevinson-and-Michael-Cera-in-This-Is-Our-Youth-Steppenwolf_thumbThis Is Our Youth (drama, PG-13, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)

IN NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONTARIO:
Arms and the Man (comedy, G/PG-13, closes Oct. 18, reviewed here)
The Sea (black comedy, PG-13, closes Oct. 26, closes Oct. 12, reviewed here)
When We Are Married (comedy, PG-13, closes Oct. 26, reviewed here)

IN SPRING GREEN, WIS.:
American Buffalo (drama, PG-13, closes Nov. 8, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN SPRING GREEN, WIS.:
The Doctor’s Dilemma (serious comedy, G/PG-13, closes Oct. 3, reviewed here)
Travesties (serious comedy, PG-13, closes Oct. 3, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON OFF BROADWAY:
The Wayside Motor Inn (drama, PG-13, closes Oct. 5, reviewed here)

CLOSING SATURDAY IN SPRING GREEN, WIS.:
The Seagull (drama, G/PG-13, reviewed here)

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Do you know who your kids are?

Ghost_worldIn 2001 I wrote a review of the film version of Daniel Clowe’s Ghost World that was published in Crisis. I recently had occasion to think about the film, and thought it might be interesting to post what I wrote about it thirteen crowded years ago.

For the record, I wrote this review immediately after having seen Ghost World for the first time, and there are a few details that I probably would have changed after seeing it again. Nevertheless, I feel the same way today.

* * *

Good art, like grace, sometimes comes in peculiar-looking packages. Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, a screen version of the underground comic book by Daniel Clowes, is a bleakly melancholic comedy about a pair of foul-mouthed teenage girls. You wouldn’t expect it to be much more than a symptom of the degraded state of postmodern American life—but you’d be wrong. Not since Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful You Can Count on Me last year have I seen a movie that cuts as close to the bone. It is by far the best American film of the year to date and among the finest of any kind to be released in the past decade.

Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), Clowes’s anti-heroines, have spent the whole of their short lives trapped in a grubby pop-culture hell of strip malls, convenience stores, and round-the-clock Muzak. Their only defense against this smothering tackiness is to embrace it with a sneer, hanging out in faux-Fifties diners and mocking everything they see and everyone they meet. They are best friends—indeed, they have no other friends, except for Josh (Brad Renfro), a hapless boy whom they delight in tormenting—and it soon becomes apparent that much of their contempt is defensive, for nobody else seems to like them.

As Ghost World begins, Enid and Rebecca have just graduated from high school and are looking for an apartment to share, having decided to skip college and go to work. For all her seeming alienation, Rebecca turns out to be perfectly willing to swallow her disgust, get a nine-to-five job at a coffee bar, and become a reluctant member of the “ghost world” of adulthood. Enid, who is both brighter and more idealistic than Rebecca, is looking for something different, and she finds it in the unlikely person of Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a buck-toothed, middle-aged corporate wheelhorse who collects old blues 78s, loves W.C. Fields movies, and hasn’t been out on a date in four years.

Enid takes it upon herself to find him a girlfriend, explaining to the mystified Rebecca that even though he is a “clueless dork,” he is also “the exact opposite of all the things I hate.” In time, their mutual misanthropy draws them closer together, and Enid, whose own father (Bob Balaban) is pathetically prissy and ineffectual, comes to see the self-loathing Seymour as a kind of role model, a man of taste who has found a way to live in a tasteless world without compromising his bumbling integrity.

If that were as far as Ghost World went, it would be nothing more than a smart teen-angst flick with a keen satirical edge. But Zwigoff and Clowes take another, far riskier step: Enid seduces Seymour, an act of terrible irresponsibility to which she is driven less by lust than loneliness. Though she fantasizes about running away with him, their friendship is shattered by this brief sexual encounter, and the movie comes to a sad and ambiguous close as she boards a bus and departs on a solitary pilgrimage to parts unknown, leaving behind the wreckage of her lost youth.

ghostworld4Thora Birch, a raven-haired nineteen-year-old who plays Enid with a heartbreaking combination of cynicism and fragility, also appeared in American Beauty (1999). Ghost World may seem at first glance to echo that smug film’s unearned contempt for suburban life. But American Beauty offered easy answers to loaded questions (that’s why it won so many Oscars—Hollywood gives prizes only to movies that tell us what it wants to hear), whereas Ghost World is a movie without any answers at all. That is the source of its pathos. Like every teenager, Enid longs to be shown how to live, but the ghostly adults who drift in and out of her unhappy life offer her no counsel. Instead, she has been set adrift on the sea of relativity, looking for a safe harbor on an uncharted coast.

Walker Percy once pointed out that a visit to the neighborhood theater is for many Americans “maybe the only point in the day, or even the week, when someone (a cowboy, a detective, a crook) is heard asking what life is all about, asking what is worth fighting for—or asking if anything is worth fighting for.” Out of that insight grew The Moviegoer, a novel about a man who goes to the movies in order to narcotize himself against the shallowness of American life, unaware that by doing so he has embarked on a search for meaning that will ultimately end in his embrace of Catholicism. As improbable as it may sound, Ghost World reminded me quite strongly of Percy’s great novel. To be sure, Enid lacks the spiritual consciousness that helped Percy’s protagonist, Binx Bolling, find his way out of the slough of despond, but she is just as surely going forth on a similar quest, and the fact that she is doing so without benefit of moral guidance makes her plight all the more moving.

I could go on and on about Ghost World, and I do want at least to mention Steve Buscemi’s uncanny performance as Seymour—it is so true to life that it will make you squirm in your seat—and David Kitay’s wistful score, which serves as a quiet reminder that Enid and Rebecca are far more vulnerable than they pretend.

By now, though, I suspect that more than a few people are reading this review with raised eyebrows, to which I can only reply that Ghost World is so good that it caught me off guard. It has been a frightful year for American movies, especially those aimed at adolescents, and the last thing I expected from Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes was a film full of felt life and exactly rendered social observation (though one of the most striking aspects of Ghost World, as it happens, is the subtle way in which Zwigoff has imported the exaggeration and semiabstract simplicity of comic-book art into a cinematic context). You may find it uncomfortable, but you will also find it revelatory.

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