I’m Not There? – I’m Not There, Man

I'm Not ThereA lengthy and elegant mess of a film, Todd Haynes’ not-so-experimental I’m Not There is nonetheless a beauty of a wreck, a “non-biopic” about Bob Dylan that mainly ignores that facet of Dylan that always hides in plain site when analysts look for meaning in the minstrel poet’s own life – his music.

Oh, there are plenty of songs in it – originals and those recorded by a variety of artists for the inevitable soundtrack. Some interesting choices too. But the story never connects to the songs, the movie’s plot arc of Dylan’s life – told in six intertwined parables with six different actors portraying Dylan-like characters – doesn’t account for the music, for the brilliant synthesis of American music that makes Dylan the most important singer-songwriter of the last half century.

What we get, in amazing photography and some fine performances, is pretty much a glorified and well-shot episode of Behind the Music, the old hackneyed story of every star: the backstory, the self-invention, the rise, the drugs, the women, the fall, the comeback, the discovery of faith…and so on. At the end of it, we’re all wowed by the detail and the ambition of it, but we don’t know any more about Bob Dylan than we did going in – or about ourselves, for that matter.

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Westminster Soap Operas: New Labour, Ancient Power

The DealLast summer, another occasional blogger on this site gave me a sterling backstage view of Parliament, a thoroughly enjoyable excursion through wood-lined passages and old stone arches, into robing rooms and vaults and the like. So I was thinking of that very tour as The Deal unfolded on my screen recently – a tight, well-acted bit of British political drama in Westminster that follows the rise and rivalry of a pair of prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in their evolution from old Labour back-benchers to New Labour Titans.

The Deal, written and produced by Peter Morgan, came to America via HBO (I Tivo’d it) and was directed by Stephen Frears, who brought us The Queen in all its Mirrenesque splendour (yes, I’ll spell it that way, thank you) and it stars David Morrissey as Brown and Michael Sheen once more as Blair. Indeed, I wondered momentarily if Frears and Sheen filmed it as part of The Queen set-up, the way Peter Jackson did The Lord of the Rings trilogy in one, long shoot.

In the same week, I also watched the conclusion of a bit of mildly entertaining fluff from BBC One called The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard, about the unlikely rise of a middle-aged woman from supermarket manager to Number Ten on the back of a purple women’s revolution. It aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater, which has really stretched its modifier in recent years – this was no master work. Just a Parliament-based soap opera with a fairly dour, depressive cast. Nothing like the fabulous House of Cards, for instance, a 1990 series that chronicled the rise of a ruthless British conservative to power in a post-Thatcher Britain. The Andrew Davies script of a Michael Dobbs novel was written for Sir Ian Richardson, who inhabited the Shakespearian villain, Francis Urquhart, to a rapacious turn. They don’t do Whitehall like that any more. Continue reading

Editor’s Note: Updates and Blogathon Notes

I’m still laughing. Or perhaps cackling, chortling or guffawing. Engaged in mirth. And thanks to co-organizers M.A. Peel and Jason Chervokas, newcritics’ first-ever blogathon went off spectacularly last week. I’ve been under the weather, so this note is a bit late – but how great was that blogathon? Great, great posts from some many bloggers here and lots of wonderful links out in greater blogland. M.A. kept the round-up here. And please take another look at these epic posts – an impressive line-up: Continue reading

The Comedy of The Office: Humor, Familiarity and Ambition

The Office

When it arrived on NBC three years ago, The Office seemed certan to be a soft and slender knock-off of its British ancestor, the riotous and brilliantly cruel Ricky Gervais combination of mockumentary and sitcom set in the non-careerist backwater of Slough, an exurb of London. The UK Office denizens sliced and diced the various British working castes, and made the social climbing and career grasping of David Brent the comic fulcrum of the series.

It was funny just on the writing and the brilliant performances; but it was deadly if you got the inherent British disapproval of social and economic ambition.

Bringing it to America presented problems with the premise. We’re supposed to adore ambition, and reward it with fame and fortune in our media channels. Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, the manager of a dismal regional sales operation for a second-rate paper company, was sketched as ambitous, hard-working, sales-oriented, and wiling to do almost anything to succeed. A hero, in the conventional wisdom of the American national character. We’re supposed to love guys like Michael Scott, whose ambition makes our economy grow.

But Michael Scott is a hilarious, pitiable character – the middle manager we ridicule with joy every week – and the conventional wisdom with regard to our societal love for ambition is wrong. Continue reading

Dirty Streams and Broken Towns: Richard Russo’s Upstate Social Order

Richard Russo

There is a moment in Alan Bennett’s wonderful novel in miniature, The Uncommon Reader, recommended here by Maud Newton, when the royal literary figure in question realizes the joy of discovering a favorite writer has been hiding in plain sight, awaiting only discovery and a hundred or so quiet evenings. A few years ago, I had that delicious immersion in the work of Richard Russo, a famous modern writer whose work I’d lazily ignored since his first novels of the 1980s.

Discovered, the Russo canon became a sprint through the lives of drifters and losers in a string of upstate New York towns, a pleasure-filled reading dash along the broken-down mainstreets of Mohawk and North Bath and Empire Falls. Russo used the economically-depressed real world of upstate to craft his entirely fictional alternate universe, where seemingly minor happenings become major events in the lives of his compelling characters. Some public building was always burning, some love affair was ending, some failed, hard-drinking son was fighting with his failed, alcoholic father. And the mill was always closing down.

Yet these small lives had meaning in Russo’s literary vocabulary; they amounted to nothing, barely a headline or two in the local weeklies and never registered to the fast set in the world capital down the Hudson. But Russo dressed those lives in detail, in connections, in the creation of small societies of men and women. So too do they still matter in Russo’s epic Bridge of Sighs, in many ways his most ambitious novel, which occasionally wanders to New York and Long Island and even Venice – but whose beating heart remains in Thomaston, New York, another failing town where the tannery has poisoned the water and boosted the rate of deadly cancers. Continue reading