Archive for the ‘Film & Theater’ Category

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Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Launches New Blog: Something Is Going To Happen

May 16, 2012

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine launched a new blog last week dedicated to “suspense, short stories, and the mystery-fiction scene.” It’s called Something Is Going to Happen, a title which editor Janet Hutchings explains in her introductory column. I was very flattered — and a little intimidated — to be asked to write the first guest post for the blog, and somewhere in between those responses, I managed to get something written. My contribution, “‘The Moment of Decision’ — Perched on the Edge of What Happens Next,” begins with a discussion of Stanley Ellin’s stories, takes a quick look at a short story criteria sketched out by John Updike, and then considers the idea of the open-ended story (in several of its permutations and levels of open-endedness).

Also this week, First Person Plural, the blog for The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, featured a preview that I wrote for an upcoming BookTalk on Double Indemnity, both the original novel by James M. Cain and the upcoming stage adaptation at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre. That event takes place on Sunday, June 10, at 12:30 p.m., and the feature includes some comments from Blake Robison, producing artistic director for Round House, as well as several of the panelists: novelists Megan Abbott and Con Lehane, and National Public Radio and Washington Post critic Maureen Corrigan. Also participating on the panel will be Eleanor Holdridge, director of the new production. I’m serving as the moderator. — Art Taylor

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Best of the Decade? (Five Books, Five Movies)

January 1, 2010

I’m not the best at Top 10 lists — partly because my reading and viewing habits are less comprehensive than I’d like and I never feel like I’m caught up on the latest hot topics. But looking back at the double-oughts, there are a number of books and movies that have stuck with me for various reasons. These aren’t meant to be the “best of the decade” as so many lists are being touted these days, and with the films at least, I guarantee that I could find “better” ones; A.I., in my opinion, is fundamentally flawed and uneven, but it hit me hard when I saw it and that feeling has stuck with me. So basically these lists are something more personal: The books and films that have meant something to me for one reason or another. Call it “Navel-Gazing Part II” after yesterday’s post.

Five Books That Stuck (chronological):

  1. Atonement, Ian McEwan (2001)
  2. Mystic River, Dennis Lehane (2001)
  3. Phone Calls from the Dead, Wendy Brenner (2001)
  4. The Human Stain, Philip Roth (2003)
  5. In The Woods, Tana French (2007)

Five Movies That Stuck (and often troubled)

  1. Memento, Christopher Nolan (2000)
  2. Artificial Intelligence: A.I., Steven Spielberg (2001)
  3. Dogville, Lars Von Trier (2003)
  4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michael Gondry (2004)
  5. Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney (2005)

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D.C. Events: The Glass Menagerie

June 2, 2009

Last week, I had a rare opportunity to see a mid-morning production of a play — the Olney Theatre’s production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. But while sneaking out of work for a half-day brought a sense of clandestine fun, the chief pleasure was the production itself, a fine and notably intimate staging of Williams’ great early play in the smallest of Olney’s three stages. All four of the performances were top-notch with particular kudos, in my opinion, to both Michael Kaye’s performance as Tom Wingfield and to the way director Jim Petosa keeps Kaye hovering at the edge of the action, around corners or perched on the edge of a balcony, watching, waiting, his own reactions sometimes at odds with what’s happening on stage; even at the main action’s lightest, sweetest moments, Kaye’s expressions and reactions remind us of the undercurrent of melancholy and of trouble still to come.

If I had one trouble with the production, it was that the play’s considerable humor, albeit it dark, didn’t seem to spark much laughter in the audience — whether the fault of presentation, of the smaller audience that morning, or of the fact that it was only 10:15 a.m. when the play started, I’m not sure.

Still: Highly recommended. And be sure to check out today’s Washington Post review of the production too.

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Stumped By Stoppard

May 19, 2009

While I’ve written several times about plays on this site, I have to emphasize that I’m not pretending to be a theater critic by any means. In my opinion, being a good critic requires some extensive background on the subject at hand, background which might offer a broad perspective and context and therefore greater authority  for analyzing a single work of art. All that in mind, I’m a theater-goer, not a theater critic, and whatever I write here should be taken as such.

So take it with a grain of salt when I say that I loved everything about the new production of Tom Stoppard’s Rock’N’Roll at the Studio Theatre in Washington, DC — everything, that is, except the play itself. 

I’ve never seen nor read a Stoppard play before, I’ll admit it, but Tara and I went to this show with high expectations. Peter Marks at the Washington Post had given the production a rave review, and when I posted a quick status update on Facebook that we were going to see it, several friends piped up with envy and encouragement, touting it as one of Stoppard’s best and asking that we update them about how it was. 

Update we did, and what follows here is a version of an email I’d sent to all who asked: 

Stoppards play was occasionally as opaque as this image from the Studios production

Stoppard's play was occasionally as opaque as this image from the Studio's production

I have to admit, I’ve never read Stoppard — and didn’t know this play at all except from a quick description and the Post review — but I’m intrigued to hear all the enthusiasm for it. Not that I wasn’t impressed by the play; the acting, staging, etc. were all top-notch. But I recognized quickly how lost I would’ve been by all of it if I hadn’t reviewed the chronology of historic events that was included in the program and if I didn’t already know at least a little something about Czech history, etc. Even with looking through some of that, Tara said she was almost completely lost at some points and felt that the political talk overshadowed the personal interactions. 

“Too intellectual at the expense of the story” was her verdict, and while I was more generous toward it, I could see what she meant. The story of the two lovers seemed like backdrop to the debate, and I didn’t really feel like we had a real sense of any attraction between them, much less love; while it had been mentioned that she’d offered him her virginity years before, for example, I didn’t get the sense that that adequately indicated the foundation of a love that would span decades of absence.

That said, I still admired it all, and as someone who’s trying to weave together the political and the personal in my own novel-eternally-in-progress — AND trying to navigate time in interesting, productive ways — it was interesting to see some of the techniques Stoppard used here and how it all worked.

As a follow-up to that quick email, I’ve reread Marks’ review in the Post and see that he embeds a couple of warning words/phrases in there to alert folks what to expect: “thinking man’s play” is one; “exotic, even opaque” another. While I don’t at all think that playwrights or any writers should pander to audiences, I do think that there’s something potentially amiss when a primer on Czech history and Marxist theory seems a prerequisite for accessing a play. And I know that other plays we’ve seen have handled potentially obscure subject matter with a greater sense of easing the audience into it: Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations at Arena (and now nominated for Tony on Broadway) comes to mind among recent plays, with its glimpse into a minor work of Beethoven’s, and Tara mentioned Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen as well in this regard and I recall fondly David Auburn’s Proof several years ago. 

Again, I speak here not as a trained critic but just as an audience member, but in my opinion, what it boils down to is a question of balance and of how well a playwright invites us into his or her world. Even in a play of ideas or a novel of ideas, it’s the people, the characters, that should come first; Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being jumps to mind here — another work which deals with a love story and with Czech politics/history and with some pretty dense philosophy, and yet which engages readers (at least this one) on a emotional level as well as an intellectual one. Stoppard had the opportunity to do the same thing, and for some viewers, that may have been the experience; in his review of Rock’N’Roll, Marks writes that in Act Two, “the effect of Rock’N’Roll migrates fully from the head to the heart.” But neither Tara nor I fully felt that “migration” — a necessary one, I think, for the success of the play. No fault of the production but of the script itself, in my opinion. 

In short, we weren’t just stumped by Stoppard, but occasionally stopped short by his choices, even as we admired the ambitious nature of what he was trying to do.

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Crimes Stories: From Page To Screen

May 8, 2009

Earlier this week, I mentioned two articles on romantic crime films that I’d written for the current and upcoming issues of Mystery Scene, but I’ve also been thinking about crime films in another direction recently. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been finishing up a course proposal for George Mason University tentatively entitled “Crime Stories: From Page to Screen,” an idea that was first suggested to my by my good friend and fellow writer and teacher John Copenhaver, who will be teaching a similar topic at a local private school this fall. He and I are diverging a little in the books and films we’re considering for our respective courses, but the thrust of the course is the same: to look at film adaptation as an act of interpretation (just as many of our students interpret texts themselves) and to examine both the thematic and stylistic choices that each author or director makes and the different tools available in each form/medium.

The first book/film combo that jumped to my mind for this was The Long Goodbye — Raymond Chandler’s longest book (and some might argue, his best) and then Robert Altman’s delightfully different take on the book, updating a ’50s hero to the early 1970s and making some significant changes not just to the tone and the character but to the plot itself in the process. Another good combo that boasts different treatments of the story is In A Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, which got a reworking as a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, and I personally would love to discuss the two different treatments of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley: Rene Clement’s Purple Noon and then the Anthony Minghella version with Matt Damon in the title role. And Memento is a must, of course, looking at how an unpublished short story (from a college course!) became an instant classic. 

Other lists of pairings soon started popping to mind, as John and I talked:

  • An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, and A Place in the Sun, George Stevens’ 1951 film
  • The Big Sleep: Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel and Howard Hawks’ 1945 film (and maybe a slightly postmodern treatment of Chandler style stories, Brett Halliday’s 2005 film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, or Rian Johnson’s 2005 film Brick?)
  • Strangers on a Train: Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film
  • Pop. 1280, Jim Thompson’s 1964 novel, and Coup De Tourchon, Bertrand Tavernier’s 1981 film
  • In Cold Blood: Truman Capote’s 1966 book and Richard Brooks’ 1967 film

Even Bonnie and Clyde would offer some interesting possibilities, maybe looking at original newspaper accounts and what the screenwriters did with those “texts” to write Arthur Penn’s 1967 film.

The key, to my mind, is not just to find a book that’s been made into a film — there are a blue million of those out there — but rather an adaptation that does something significantly different in “revisioning” one text into a new medium.

Any other suggestions?

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Good Ol’ Girls Premieres Wednesday On UNC-TV

April 21, 2009

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Good Ol’ Girls, a musical inspired by the stories of Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle, premieres on UNC-TV on Wednesday, April 22, at 9 p.m. As most of us know, the musical has been touring around the southeast here and there for many years (I mentioned it in Metro magazine as early as 2003, and that was a returning tour through the area), and the show’s history features a distinguished group of writers, songwriters and musicians, including many Tar Heel talents: Matraca Berg, Marshall Chapman, Paul Ferguson, Bo Thorp, Mike Craver, Joe Newberry, Julie Oliver… the list goes on.

If you’ve missed it before, be sure to tune in Wednesday. And check out UNC-TV’s web site too for complete information, photos, songs, quotes, recipes, and more.

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Tennessee Williams’ Small Craft Warnings

April 17, 2009

Three things drew Tara and me to the Washington Shakespeare Company’s new production of Tennessee Williams late play Small Craft Warnings, and maybe it says something about us that one of the chief draws was the bar. The company has reversed the architecture of the Clark Street Playhouse in Arlington, VA, turning the traditional theater into a cavernous welcoming area and then setting up the stage and a small number of seats in what had been the lobby. Theatergoers can grab a drink, take a seat, and get up close and personal to the action — very up close, as one man found out when one of the actresses sat on his lap and as we found out when two of the performers huddled into the corner near our own barstools and started making out. The bar is, to some degree, a working bar, where the audience can get beer and wine at intermission (we had one of each, plus cashews and peanut M&Ms), and the bartender, Monk, picks up the audience’s empties as he delivers his lines. A little gimmicky? Sure. But the set-up caught our attention and lured us in to see how it works. 

The other two draws were related to the play itself. I’m a Tennessee Williams fan, I’ll admit — perhaps by virtue of my general interest in Southern literature. I’ve taught Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a number of times at George Mason, and a few years back, during a weekend in New York, my mom and I all but overdosed on Williams, catching Christian Slater in The Glass Menagerie and John C. Reilly and Natasha Richardson of A Streetcar Named Desire within a 48-hour span and never getting tired. So the chance to see one of Williams’ more rarely-produced plays seemed an opportunity not to be missed. 

And Tara and I were particularly intrigued by the structure of the play, which lacks a clear narrative arc but instead seems to just listen in on a night in a Southern California bar — literally so as each patron (a hard-edged beautician marking the death day of her brother, a brandy-sotted doctor called to deliver a child, an aging homosexual reflecting on the loss of amazement, a muscle boy who likes to roll queers, etc.) at some point takes his or her turn in the spotlight to deliver a dramatic monologue, a little glimpse into their hopes and fears and sorrows.

The set in the WSC’s production is an enchanting piece of craftsmanship (though in the performance we saw the technical staff may have taken too literally Williams’ instructions that the bar “should have the effect of fog rolling in from the ocean,” leaving the set so misty at one point that it obscured the view). And the performances were generally pitch-perfect, though Leona often seemed a little shrill (whether because of the actress playing her or because of the character itself, neither Tara and I were entirely sure). And we found ourselves quickly pulled into the spirit of the play. But some of it’s rough going, I’ll admit, and not always easy to watch. In his “Notes After The Second Invited Audience: (And a Troubled Sleep.)” — reflections on early previews of the original 1972 production — Williams admitted  to being inclined to say, “My God, this is a play about groping!” and urged the cast and crew about “the necessity of building up those elements  in the play not concerned with the groin and the groping so that the audiences will recognize that this is not a sordid piece of writing.” Yet here in this new production, we see a drink- and drug-addled Violet giving hand-jobs to two men at the same table at the same time, and in keeping with the illusion that the audience too is in the bar, the men’s room had Playboy centerfolds and other pin-ups affixed to the walls. And there’s a general sense of moral squalor here that may leave few folks really liking many of these characters.

Still, amidst that occasional leaning toward the sordid that Williams wanted to avoid and mired in a setting  that we might not actually spend too much time in ourselves (Tara turned to me at one point and whispered something like, “Let’s not ever go to this bar in real life”), those monologues help to give both the characters and the play itself a sense of lyricism, not necessarily redemptive or even uplifting but certainly beautiful in its own way. 

All in all, a play we would both highly recommend. As a quick preview, here’s a sample from Monk’s monologue that I found particularly compelling (and kudos to actor John C. Bailey for so fully inhabiting the role):

I’m fond of, I’ve got an affection for, a since interest in my regular customers here. They send me post cards from wherever they go and tell me what’s new in their lives and I am interested in it. Just last month one of them I hadn’t seen in about five years, he died in Mexico City and I was notified of the death and that he’d willed me all he owned in the world, his personal effects and a two-hundred-fifty-dollar saving account in a bank. A thing like that is beautiful as music. These things, these people, take the place of a family in my life. I love to come down those steps from my room to open the place for the evening, and when I’ve closed for the night, I love climbing back up those steps with my can of Ballentine’s ale, and the stories, the jokes, the confidences and confessions I’ve heard that night, it makes me feel not alone….

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