An easy, breezy interview with the late Sam Shepard

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Sam Shepard, who died last week of Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 73, was a consummate actor, all crinkled deep-West cool, and a groundbreaking, Pulitzer-winning playwright. He was also hell of a good sport during my interview with him in Austin, Texas, in 2006. He laughed off my blind spots, stuck with me, and seemed to have a good time. But who knows? Shepard was also something of a mystery man, solo, soulful, if often smiling.

In a small tribute to the artist, here is our interview:

Sam Shepard laughs more than you’d think he would, considering the actor-playwright’s sun-crisped cowboy persona, which dons the dusty, romantic despair of a desert loner.

Namely, Shepard laughs at me. He has a great dry chuckle that heh-heh-hehs whenever I demonstrate my sweeping ignorance of things cow, horse, rope and ranch. This happens often.

Best remembered as Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff,” Shepard was in Austin to screen his film “Don’t Come Knocking” during South by Southwest. He was disappointed that the movie wasn’t playing at the grand Paramount Theatre.

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it,” he says in a soft drawl. “That beautiful big theater.

“Instead,” he laughs, “it’s in some stockyard theater.” (It screened at the Alamo South.)

Shepard co-wrote “Don’t Come Knocking” with director Wim Wenders, their second collaboration since “Paris, Texas” in 1984. Shepard stars in the film with longtime partner Jessica Lange.

Tall, lean, with striking blue eyes, Shepard, 62, cuts a suave figure in a black leather blazer, blue jeans and fancy cowboy boots. He sits down in the Four Seasons hotel bar and orders iced tea. He has written dozens of plays, including “Fool for Love” and “True West,” and acted in more than 40 films.

One of those films is Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.” Shepard was having dinner with Malick and Wenders that night. I ask if I can come. He just laughs.

Q: Yesterday I interviewed John C. Reilly. He says hi. Do you have any words about him?

SS: He’s here? I didn’t see him. He’s a remarkable actor. We had a lot of good fun doing “True West” together (in 2000 on Broadway, with Philip Seymour Hoffman). It was unique in that he and Philip would switch roles every two nights. The transformations were amazing. Philip just won the Academy Award, bless his heart.

Q: How does “Don’t Come Knocking” fit into your body of work? It’s set in a familiar world of yours with a familiar character, but it’s steeped in valediction and redemption much like Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.”

SS: I really don’t think about any of my work like that. I don’t know how to categorize it. I just go instinctively with certain ideas and allow those ideas to play themselves out. Because I’m the same person, obviously there’s going to be similarities with what’s done before. But if anything, Wim and I were trying to avoid similarities to “Paris, Texas.”

Q: Yet there are thematic similarities between the two films.

SS: Of course there are. The main characters share the same sort of alienation and strandedness and remoteness.

Q: Is that where the wide-open settings come into play, as metaphors for the characters’ predicament?

SS: Yes. It’s interesting to set characters like that against an overwhelming landscape, almost like he’s lost in the ocean.

Q: What kind of boots are those?

SS: Leddy.

Q: Leddy? Is that a famous brand?

SS: Yeah, man! Where you from? (Laughs) These are made in Fort Worth. They’re belly ostrich.

Q: That’s ostrich? I notice your belt buckle’s kind of elaborate, too.

SS: I have cutting horses. I won this.

Q: You won that? It’s like a trophy?

SS: Yeah. WHERE are you from?

Q: Can you tell me what cutting is?

SS: It’s an activity with quarter horses where you go in and separate cattle and keep the calf from getting back into the herd. It’s an old art form.

Q: You do that?

SS: Yes.

Q: The buckle says you won it in 2003. Is it gold, some valuable item?

SS: It’s Montana silver.

Q: What’s next for you?

SS: I’m in the middle of a play right now.

Q: One of yours that’s currently being staged or a new one you’re writing?

SS: I’m writing a play. I’m a playwright.

Q: I know. (He laughs.) Your (Pulitzer-winning) play “Buried Child” is being staged right now.

SS: It’s a workshop production that I didn’t even know about. And someone’s doing “The Late Henry Moss.” And I’m acting in a new film in Shreveport. You follow horse racing at all? Probably not. There was a famous filly called Ruffian in the ’70s, an extraordinary horse. Every time she ran she broke a track record. She died in a match race against a colt, snapped her leg. I’m playing her trainer.

Q: Sounds perfect for you. Who’s directing?

SS: A guy from Quebec. I don’t really know his name. (Laughs) A French guy.

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Gross anatomy: the marvelously macabre Mütter Museum

Pathologies are my thing. Twisted limbs. Fleshy protrusions. Faces swathed in nappy hair, Chewbacca-like. Conjoined twins. Horns curling from foreheads. Extra heads — those are always fun.

I don’t revel in the maladies of others; I revel in the Other. People are fascinating. People are more fascinating with three legs.

This foible of mine, this adorable morbidity, came early on, delighting my parents, who stood back, weighed adoption strategies and ever so gingerly catered to my wiggier curiosities. For my eighth birthday I requested and received the illustrated book “Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves and Triumphs of Human Oddities.” Since then, many have believed I belong in this book.

These outré fascinations have grown to include death and the dead, and have led me to abnormal forays in my frequent travels. There I was at the Royal London Hospital, sleuthing with the grace and aptitude of Inspector Clouseau for the skeleton of Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man. (Mission: failed.) At the Golders Green Crematorium in London I witnessed roaring ovens and jars of fresh ashes, some heartbreakingly labeled “baby.”

There was the blech-fest of the Meguro Parasitological Museum in Tokyo, where all squirm and squiggle of microbe-y monster were displayed in clear, fluid-filled cases, sometimes feasting on animal innards.

At the Museum of Forensic Medicine in Bangkok, medical students dissecting cadavers giggled when they saw me spying in the doorway, pointing my camera. I repaired upstairs to the musty exhibit of bottled fetuses, crumbling bones and full-length cadavers floating in dishwater liquid like humongous pickles.

My two noble efforts to see the freak show at Coney Island were thwarted by poor timing. Yanking on the bearded lady’s follicular abundance will have to wait.

Yet, for a constant traveler of my tastes and temperament, the Taj Mahal of the morbid has long been the famed Mütter Museum, a repository of anatomical horrors and shrine to primitive, rusty-tooled medicine in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. It is where, at last, after years gazing at its web site, I recently visited. Disappointment was not in the cards.

Part edifying scientific journey, part powerful appetite suppressant, the Mütter is smack in Philly’s city center, a brisk walk from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Inside, once through the deceptively donnish foyer, the museum is cool and musty, packed with old wood and glass cases revealing the historically pertinent — Florence Nightingale’s sewing kit — and the surgically slimy — a mammary tumor afloat in liquid, resembling a buttery dessert.

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Human skulls — some intact, some cracked or bullet-pocked — checker an entire wall, each tagged with the cause of death, be it hanging, suicide or disease. The brownish heads came to the Mütter from Central and Eastern Europe in 1874, a major acquisition for the medical institute, which boasts 62,000 visitors a year, many of them children on school field trips. (I want to go to their school.)

Founded in 1849 and named 10 years later for surgery professor Thomas Dent Mütter, the museum throws open in graphic, naturalistic detail the ranging possibilities of the human body, and the havoc that can befall it from within and without. Diseases, injuries, birth defects — it’s an elaborate temple to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Much of it is not pretty. This is a given. It can be ghastly, grisly, unimaginable. (The “wet specimens” section is home to a jar labeled “Moist Gangrene of the Hand.” In it sits a human hand rotted black, the skin tattered like a torn leather glove, bones poking from the wrist.)

But to merely recoil at the exhibits is to shut out a world of contemplation, and to allow an emotional reflex to override a rare opportunity for understanding.

Not that emotions wither in the objective, secular hothouse of science and medicine. We are human, after all. And the museum unpeels the tangible layers of our humanness, down to the bones in many cases.

Strolling the more than 3,500 square feet of tidy halls and floors, I experienced kaleidoscopic feelings, be it excitement or queasiness or, in the presence of deformed human fetuses, such as the child with “46 twists in the umbilical cord,” great sadness at life so cruelly muffled before it even whimpered.

The upward of 1,700 sticky specimens — a sliver of John Wilkes Booth’s thorax; a full skeleton encrusted in its owner’s ossified sinew and organs — and 20,000 objects — an archaic penile syringe, leech jar and bleeding bowl — demand gawkers to question our flesh-and-blood frailty and peer across the accepted borders of what constitutes normalcy.

Some guests will ponder God’s inscrutable will and the crap-shoot of birth; others might mull our fleshly finiteness, staring at them at every turn, and thank their lucky stars.

“The museum challenges visitors in a way that few American museums do,” says Dick Levinson, Mütter spokesman. “It’s impossible to visit here without confronting issues of sickness, mortality and human sexuality. We’re the museum young people love because we don’t preach, we don’t sugarcoat and we have no agenda except for allowing the voice of science to speak.”

That voice speaks loudly, but with fitting respect and as much dignity as a naked cadaver can possess. There’s humor in the macabre, as horror movies show, so a giggle of shock or a throwaway quip (“Hey, Tom, that skull has your cheekbones”) won’t ruffle the contemplative oxygen of the galleries. It eases the mood. Remember, school kids come here. By now, them bones and body parts understand the various responses of the living to the so forthrightly dead.

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Some of us get giddier than others at such places. I was most thrilled that the autopsy of the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, was performed at the Mütter in the 1870s, and that the museum kept some nifty souvenirs for display. I examined the plaster cast of the twins’ bound torsos and, below it, their connected liver, a chalky, scabby island bobbing in a pan of fluid.

That’s an island this world traveler and seeker of the strange calls one thing: paradise.

What’s so strange about ‘Stranger Things’? Not much.

When people ask what I think of the sci-fi Netflix series “Stranger Things”the hot streaming show last summer — my guard goes up, I tense a bit and, mealy-mouthed, I say it’s OK, not bad, pretty good.

In truth, I want to say it’s not that great, it’s overpraised, it’s kinda, well, meh. But I don’t. It’s exhausting being that guy, the crossed-arms critic who can’t “let go” and “enjoy.” (Brother.)

(I bring up the series because the trailer for “Stranger Things 2” is now out here. Season 2 arrives on Netflix, four days before Halloween.)

I didn’t not enjoy the show, he said defensively. It’s entertaining, vivid, sporadically funny. And yet — and this is vital — it’s almost never scary. As much as I stuck with it and went along for the ride, I wanted it to be less of a wholesome family show and more of a spooky supernatural thriller, which is what its premise — a boy is abducted by unknown forces and the fraught search for him is aided by a mysterious girl with psychokinetic powers — promised.

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With its largely youngster cast, “Stranger Things” reminds me of a glorified version of ‘90s kiddie show “Goosebumps,” a would-be creepy anthology series that supplied as many chills as a camp-fire spook. Not much is chilling in the Netflix show either, at least nothing you haven’t seen in superior movies from which the Duffer Brothers, the show’s twin-sibling creators, poach and pilfer. The result, as many have noted, is a studied pastiche of ‘80s supernatural thrillers, horror, sci-fi and scrappy kid adventures like “E.T.,” “Poltergeist,” “The Goonies,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Stand By Me.”

Set in 1983, the show looks good, persuasive in its (at times ham-fisted) period detail, murky cinematography and all. But the Duffers don’t seem to know where to go with their fetishized homages, from obvious period pop tunes and a tinkly synthesizer score worthy of John Carpenter, to apt fashions and hairdos. They coast on the easy fumes of nostalgia that GenXers and retro-mad millennials are so eager to huff.

What plays like a rote missing-persons drama, with bonus scenes of sinister figures in hazmat suits and a slimy monster-thingy, finally feels empty, clunky and too familiar. The show never brushes the sophisticated originality or creep-outs of, say, “The Twilight Zone.”

The Duffers also over-emphasize how cute the boys are with their dweeby tween banter and precocious smarts of incurable nerds. That said, all of the young actors, even the mysterious girl who’s mostly a saucer-eyed cipher (Millie Brown), are quite good.

What actually is scary in “Stranger Things” is ‘80s screen queen Winona Ryder as the missing boy’s shaken mother. Locked in hyperventilating hysterics, she’s strained and haggard, like she might be hurting herself. Shrieking and puffing a cigarette with a quaking hand, it’s a repetitive performance and, if it wasn’t so irritating, a risible one.

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Winona Ryder … berserk.

Never mind all that for a moment. “Stranger Things” is critics’ catnip. It’s racked-up several Emmy nods and enjoys a 76 out of 100 score at Metacritic and a 95% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. I stand baffled, if not bowed.

Again I feel like the ornery outlier, the curmudgeon who won’t play along, lean back, pull out the popcorn. But as a teenager tells his younger brother in the show, “You shouldn’t like things just because people tell you you’re supposed to.”

Like most of the series, it’s not an original idea, but it’s one I’ll stick by.

Metallic memories

I was 14 the first time I saw Metallica in concert. It was 1983 in a tiny nightclub called the Keystone Berkeley, in Berkeley, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Metallica was formed and where its members still reside. The club, a bona fide hole, was famous for showcasing the Grateful Dead in its heyday. I won’t mention that again.

Metallica was plumping its debut album, the indie-label thrash classic “Kill ‘Em All,” and was sandwiched on a bill between locals Exodus and headliner Raven, a so-so British metal act with a singer that shrieked like a banshee, screeching songs like “Hell Patrol” on an album called (sigh) “Rock Until You Drop.” (After Metallica’s epic, local-heroes set, Raven finally hit the stage at 1 a.m., well past my bedtime. We split.)

Before they went on, the four members of Metallica hung out in the clammy, smoke-swirled venue, drinking beer and flirting with female fans. I snapped a few pictures of the band, using a now-obsolete Vivitar pocket camera with a 110 film cartridge and a mighty flash. I’m sure they were thrilled.

Here’s singer-guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich:

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James Hetfield and friend.

 

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Drummer Lars Ulrich, making silly to the kid with the camera.

What’s nuts is how young they were, how young we all were. Hetfield and Ulrich are five years older than me, making them 19 or 20 at this show. Hetfield still had zits. Ulrich, at 5-feet-6-inches, looked like a little kid. And yet, though we didn’t know it then, despite the universal excitement over their first record (and we’re talking vinyl record), these guys were about to break big, over the decades becoming one of the most significant arena rock bands of its time. (Hetfield’s reported net worth today: $300 million. Back then: $21.50 and a scuffed skateboard.)

I have more of a visual than aural memory of the concert, but it’s safe to say Metallica mostly played songs from the 10-track “Kill ‘Em All” — “The Four Horsemen,” “Seek & Destroy,” “Whiplash” — plus their usual encore of Diamond Head’s catchy “Am I Evil?,” which was a huge influence on Ulrich.

It was, of course, a sweaty, head-banging affair, the lip of the micro stage a crush of raging, testosteronic catharsis. The band matched the fury, hair-lash for hair-lash, so much so that teeth-gnashing bassist Cliff Burton was taken off stage for a lengthy breather. The rumor was that he almost passed out. It was that kind of show.

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Cliff Burton in one of his better moods.

 

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A mid-set break backstage. Hetfield gives me the peace sign up his nostril and Burton relaxes as best he can. Burton was killed three years later in a tour-bus accident.

In a six degrees of Metallica trip, I eventually learned that Ulrich and I shared the same drum teacher, an affable, infinitely tolerant 25-year-old named Jeff Campitelli, who also happens to be a spectacular musician. (In 2008, Rolling Stone named him one of the 50 best drummers.) To Jeff’s dismay, neither Ulrich or I knew the drum rudiments, which, says one pro, “are the building blocks for every drum beat, fill, or pattern that you could ever play.” We were not highly evolved drummers.

At the time, Jeff was in a Bay Area pop trio called The Squares, whose guitarist was none other than Joe Satriani, who has, of course, gone on to guitar-hero megastardom. Among other big-time gigs, Campitelli still plays with Satriani, whose former guitar pupils include Charlie Hunter, Steve Vai and a fellow named Kirk Hammett. 

Hammett, you may know, plays the axe for a little band called … Metallica.

 

 

 

Eric Wareheim and Nina Arianda are the funniest people on ‘Master of None’

Perhaps it’s sacrilege to say, but the funniest, most outstanding performances on Aziz Ansari’s great Netflix series “Master of None” are by Eric Wareheim and Nina Arianda. (Yes, by two white people on a brown person’s show. Deal.) I’m talking funny factor and acting wattage. Ansari is himself a crack comic actor — a laser-witted, rubber-faced, helium-voiced mensch, remarkably sensitive, graced with an unassuming authenticity. Wareheim and Arianda are better. They’re eccentric, wild, take more comedic chances. They’re sort of bonkers.

While Wareheim appears in most of the 20 episodes in the show’s two seasons, Arianda was a one-shot guest star in a single episode during season one titled “Hot Ticket,” a masterwork of comic ingenuity, including Ansari and a fine cast spritzed by the deadpan Lena Waithe and the wry and dry H. Jon Benjamin (who also, btw, provides the voice of Archer).

One episode! And she’s practically the best thing that’s ever happened on the show. Arianda makes her blowzy mark during roughly six minutes of screen time. She’s like Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glen Ross” or Gene Hackman in “Young Frankenstein,” stealing the show with a fizzy vigor that throws the whole affair off its axis.

Let’s be clear. “Master of None” is consistently good and frequently superb. Following the professional vagaries, friendships and turbulent love life of 30-ish Dev (Ansari) in New York, the show throbs with feeling, a millennial “Seinfeld” but with pathos, whose observational insights are both funny and socially and racially attuned. Excellent episodes abound — season two grazes Woody Allen heights of romantic complication — but I find myself returning to “Hot Ticket,” which gets funnier on each viewing.

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Eric Wareheim. Don’t ask.

Wareheim — half of the gloriously deranged “Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” — plays Arnold, Dev’s best friend, a 6-foot-7-inch bearded man-baby. Rather thick in the head, Arnold provides uproarious seasoning to Dev’s occasional blandness. With his adenoidal voice and pursed lips, he often traffics in dry, surreal laughs. (Note in “Hot Ticket” his query to his pals: “What if someone sent you a picture of a turtle climbing out of a briefcase?” Believe me, it’s a gut-buster.) When Dev, Arnold and pals gather to watch the BBC’s “Sherlock,” Arnold has to hush them up. “Dudes, can we please not talk during the show? Respect my Cumberbatch!”

Wareheim’s Arnold is reliably present on “Master of None,” yet always a treat. Arianda, who plays a waitress named Alice in “Hot Ticket,” is a novelty to be savored. Her big scene comes when Dev invites her to a VIP concert. He barely knows her, but that changes fast as she performs loud impersonations of Cartman from “South Park,” demands Dev take obnoxious Vines of her, dares herself to give a stranger a blowjob in public and tops things off by stealing a girl’s jacket, then proposes they do some coke and play laser tag. She a gorgeous nightmare, and all Dev can do is watch horrified before running for his life.

Arianda is so good as Alice, she shakes all of us up. A Tony-nominated Broadway performer (“Venus in Fur”), with roles in films like Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” the actress has a scratchy voice and elastic facial features. She’s pretty and protean, and her Alice might be one of her most off the hook turns. Season three of “Master of None” is a done deal. We can only hope she didn’t scare off Dev too much.

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Nina Arianda and Aziz Ansari, just as she starts getting … whack. Notice his wax-museum smile. 

Filming life in fascinating fragments

Too many worthy films flitter aimlessly in the ether, small and micro titles that never reach the local whatever-plex and go straight to DVD or get lost in streaming’s infinitely accommodating democracy (see, for one, Joe Swanberg’s hidden comic gem “Win It All” on Netflix). Sometimes the films get lucky, becoming cult revelations (“Wet Hot American Summer,” anyone?). Yet so often they go poof, vanishing into cinematic oblivion.

One of those small movies is “Cameraperson,” Kirsten Johnson’s transfixing, deeply personal free-form documentary, which is doing quite well, thank you. The 2016 film, peculiar and pretty wonderful, played minimally, and then, oh-so sneakily, debuted on DVD.

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I don’t even remember how I heard about “Cameraperson.” It’s that kind of discovery, unique and hushed, like a hot, under-the-radar new restaurant, or a monkey’s paw. Remarkably, I located the movie at the library, just sitting there patiently, new, unsullied, waiting to be taken home like a shelter dog.

But “Cameraperson” is no mistreated mongrel. In fact, it’s laureled with widespread acclaim, earning a 99% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and shiny critical bouquets like “brilliant“ and “masterpiece.“ And none other than The Criterion Collection (which takes such good care of its superbly tasteful catalog that I bought a t-shirt) issued the DVD and Blu-Ray of the film. That’s prestige.

But what is “Cameraperson”? It’s a curio of whole-cloth originality, a globe-hopping cinematic scrapbook assembled from Johnson’s 25 years as a non-fiction cinematographer for other directors. She shot, among many docs, Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour,” both of which won Oscars for best documentary.

But this is her movie, so personal that she calls it “my memoir.” It could also be called a vivid, living career diary, a collage of unvarnished outtakes from numerous docs that she handpicked and wove together with a crazy-quilt method that’s not always obvious.

Zigzagging and hopscotching from subjects and locations, a visual essay emerges. Artful connections and startling juxtapositions happen. Panoramically, with spare narration — her debt to Frederick Wiseman is palpable — Johnson captures multitudes: from a mossy-toothed shepherd strolling with his wooly charges, to bristling backstage drama at a Brooklyn boxing bout; from a fraught Nigerian maternity ward complete with yawping, slime-coated newborns, to shots of lightning in rural Missouri, punctuated by Johnson’s own camera-shaking sneezes. “These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still,” she says in the film’s opening note.

There is so much more.

Jumpy Liberian street scenes. Interviews with former rebel warriors who give testimonies of combat horrors. A panning shot of a Yemen prison for Al-qaeda fighters. A rickety, joyful Ferris wheel ride in Kabul. Grim visuals of Guantanamo Bay, Wounded Knee and Tahrir Square, places far removed from peace. A Christian-themed ballet performed by little girls in Colorado Springs. Far-flung centers of protest and massacre, mass rape and public executions. A visit with Johnson’s mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Chirpy frolics with Johnson’s adorable twin toddlers, who are enthralled by a dead bird.

Though beauty abounds — there’s even splendor in a Bosnian martyrs’ cemetery — not all of Johnson’s shots are the master compositions you’d expect from a seasoned camera artist, and that might be the point. Many of the visuals are haphazard, shaky and seemingly random, like she’s busy setting up a shot or gathering all-important “coverage.”

You might also say the pictures are achingly authentic, quivering in the raw, glinting moment; that they are human, all too human.

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Kirsten Johnson and friends

Turned on by Turner

Two of my favorite J.M.W. Turner paintings reside in museums not far from me: the harrowing “The Slave Ship” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the thrashing, splashing “Whalers” at The Met in New York. Both are masterworks by the 19th-century British artist, who began his career on a crest of acclaim only to come crashing down, relegated to solitary ignominy.

The disgrace was a direct result of Turner’s artistic magnificence. His unyielding depictions of roiling landscapes and maritime dramas revealed a radical stylist, whose fevered visions and intoxicated abstractions alternately pleased and repulsed.

Turner’s credo was “Never settle for the charming or the pretty,” says historian Simon Schama in his BBC series “The Power of Art,” a master class of lyrical, mind-stretching erudition that I cannot recommend more.

“This is what drives the very greatest art  — contempt for ingratiation,” Schama notes in the episode about Rembrandt, a sentiment that clearly applies to Turner.

Early on, Turner could do little wrong, producing glittering, golden landscapes composed of, says Schama, “fairy dust.” The tableaus are electric storms of color — earth of blazing blood-reds, skies of bedazzling golds. Technically unconventional, his scribbly, smeary works were a bridge to Impressionism, a vital crossing between the Romantic and the modern.

He enjoyed early hits like 1812’s crowd-pulling “Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps,” which I recently saw at the Tate Britain. The picture is so epic, it’s almost literature.

But Turner felt the tug of the pure artist. He wanted more. Ambition hurled him forth into novel spheres of creativity and he evolved into a “painter of chaos, conflagration and apocalypse, wild and ambitious,” Schama says with a barely veiled grin.

This later period culminated with what Schama calls “the greatest British painting of the 19th century” — the dreadfully majestic “The Slave Ship.” Awash in horrors, the picture, based on a historical episode, depicts a ship in the distance and, closer to us, its human cargo — African slaves who have been thrown overboard — bobbing in the sea.

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“The Slave Ship” (1840)

Critics hated the painting, controversial for its divisive subject and flamboyant technique, though Schama considers it Turner’s “greatest triumph in the sculptural carving of space.” It is a masterpiece.

“Whalers,” from 1845, was also not an immediate hit, though it’s one of the works I most seek out at The Met. Its violent subject matter, rendered with aggressive abstraction, proved slippery to viewers. At first blush — squint your eyes —  it’s difficult to figure out what you’re looking at. I see a ship, but what’s that dark glob?

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“Whalers” (1845)

Allow novelist William Thackeray, Turner’s contemporary, to clear things up:

“That is not a smear of purple you see yonder, but a beautiful whale, whose tail has just slapped a half-dozen whale-boats into perdition; and as for what you fancied to be a few zig-zag lines spattered on the canvas at hap-hazard, look! They turn out to be a ship with all her sails.”

Yes! Of course. And this sudden clarity irradiates what is already a clear, uncontested tour de force, a painting that may have baffled for all its surpassing beauty.

Samuel L. Jackson, film’s charismatic Old Yeller

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Samuel L. Jackson is a yeller. A growler. Part human, part pouncing jungle cat.

He scares the shit out of everyone.

When I interviewed him way back when for “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” I noted: “Samuel L. Jackson enters a room the way you’d think Samuel L. Jackson would enter a room — with velocity, fury … ,” and there memory fails me. But fear not, because you can fill in the blanks, envisaging the long coat fluttering in a gust, his hello more of a guttural emission than a salutation.

I had to laugh.

But do we still laugh? The actor, bad, bald and raging, has a persona to maintain, and, yes, its tongue remains deeply in cheek. His is a cultivated act, swathed in black leather, engined by a scolding severity, and leavened by a scratched baritone laugh that could go either way: sinister or Santa Claus. (It’s almost always the former.)

Jackson, with a strenuous wink, even tries to intimidate us, if just a little, in his “What’s in your wallet?” Capital One commercials, some of which are humorously doctored by those who want their hero reliably profane. He prowls the screen with proprietary confidence, his spokedude’s blandishments quite uncompromising. (Use this card. Or else.)

He’s got it down: the self-parodic scowl and growl, eyes popping, mouth a lion’s maw, the apoplectic human megaphone. We’d have it no other way. He’s modern movies’ go-to badass, the man you call when, in the face of ineptitude and criminal folly, glowering gravitas and debonair menace are demanded.

That voice. The earth rumbles.

In this former film critic’s review of the 2008 thriller “Lakeview Terrace,”  in which Jackson plays a toxic cop, I wrote that Jackson’s “roiling, rhythmic voice is an instrument of interrogation and intimidation. It barks, recoils, then rears up and roars. He has a rapper’s control of tone and timbre, turning passion and ire into a kind of sociopathic backbeat.”

In my take on his 2000 “Shaft” reboot, I went on:

“Samuel L. Jackson speaks like a building storm; his words have lightning jags in them.

“When he taunts his quarry, which he does with great frequency, his throat tightens, throttling syllables. His voice kicks up a few octaves until words sing with angry strain. Expletives fly in shrapnel sprays.

“‘What’s my name? What’s . . . my . . . name?’ shouts Jackson at a preening dope dealer as his pistol forges an elaborate imprint on the pusher’s cheek.

“In his crime-dude roles, in films like ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘The Negotiator,’ Jackson is pure gale-force attitude and wrath-of-God fury.”

Jackson’s breakthrough role, and arguably his most popular, is Jules Winnfield in “Pulp Fiction.” Slick in a bespoke black suit, head crowned with a Medusa nest of glistening Jheri curls, and with scary Bible verses at the ready, he’s all grooving fire and brimstone, an apocalyptic preacher-man with a very large gun and a very short fuse.

Jules showcased Jackson’s range, which is more faceted than the picture painted here of an implacable, one-note Angry Man. Jackson is a genius at outrage, explosive outbursts of verbiage and violence. But his Jules also revealed he’s an expert comedian, with a gift for brilliant badinage, not to mention a penchant for brooding, sometimes profound introspection. He’s proud but protean.

Jackson doesn’t need to yell to get our attention. His seething charisma is all it takes. It’s the aura of a star, some kind of supernova, that snags us in his thrall. He’s the real deal. Just don’t piss him off.

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“It’s the one that says ‘Bad Mother Fucker.'”

The playful elegance of Irving Penn’s photos

I’ve recently done some traveling to Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal and London, art-encrusted metropolises boasting drop-dead, world-class museums, from D.C.’s National Gallery to London’s twin Tates and the mighty Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was spun around (picture Mary Tyler Moore giddy and agape in the big city) by the sheer voluminous quality around almost every corner, be it the say-what size of the magnificent Turner collections in London or the rare “Chagall: Colour and Music” show in Montreal.

Yet, for all that sublime perambulation, meandering among masterpieces, the best art show I’ve seen in a spell, hands-down, is the Irving Penn photography exhibit at The Met in New York. “Irving Penn: Centennial” features over 200 photos — glamorous portraits of writers, artists, actors, dancers and other outsize personalities; insane food still lifes; leonine fashion divas; and worlds more. It’s an exhilarating joy.

Avers the show catalog: It’s the “most comprehensive retrospective to date of the work of the great American photographer,” who, after a sensational stint at Vogue, died in 2009. “Penn mastered a pared-down aesthetic of studio photography that is distinguished for its meticulous attention to composition, nuance, and detail.”

Yes, but there’s so much more than that clinical description suggests, and you can see it in the work itself. (Time is of the essence: the exhibit closes July 30. The Met has posted a nice video preview of the show here.) A smoky elegance and playful naturalism imbue the hugely influential pictures — hello, Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz — whose complexity and sophistication are on full display, if rarely peacocky.

Below are a few of Penn’s famous black and white celebrity portraits — some of my favorites — lucid, lush, deceptively simple images that pierce into the personalities to become indelibly iconic. (Try and identify the subjects.)

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The 10 best movies of the year, so far

What’s usually a Christmasy pastime, the year-end best-of list, is happening now, today, amidst the gruesome swelter of mid-summer. Movie best-of’s are mostly tiresome, self-aggrandizing exertions, but they seem worthwhile now because the year has already produced a trove of must-sees, pictures that are, largely, detergents to summer’s franchise flotsam.

So this one-time film critic has compiled a litany of bests, even if it’s strictly provisional. For instance, I haven’t seen — and I’m in no rush to see — “Wonder Woman,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “War for the Planet of the Apes.” I’ve also, with regret, missed “Baby Driver,” “Raw,” “It Comes at Night” and “Graduation.” They’re in my crosshairs.

Meanwhile, from what I have seen, here are the top 10 films from the first half of 2017:

  1. “Maudie” — Richly idiosyncratic and unbearably poignant, Aisling Walsh’s intimate biopic about an arthritic Canadian folk artist (played by an avian Sally Hawkins, who’s so fragile she seems made of twigs) and her unlikely marriage to a brusque fishmonger (the macho Ethan Hawke excelling out of his element as a human cinder block with jelly inside). A miniature about art and love, it’s simple, slow, aching, beautiful. (More about it here.)        maudie_film_still.jpg
  2. “John Wick 2” — Oh. Yes. An explosion of Hong Kong-stylized mayhem, fueled by revenge and the ability to look impeccable while dispatching a fleet of attackers with the elastic, tentacular ease of the guy in “Oldboy” (who did it with just a hammer). Über-assassin John Wick (a simmering, sneering Keanu Reeves) is on another tear, engaging in non-stop, surgically choreographed street fighting and bullet ballets — Astaire and Rogers with knives and Glocks. Exhilaratingly bloody and pornographically suave, this exercise in arms and Armani is about as good as the first one. And, yes, Wick has another dog.john-wick-2-guns.jpg
  3. “The Wedding Plan” —  After her fiancé abruptly dumps her, 32-year-old Michal, an Orthodox Jew, decides, demands, insists that she is going, God willing, to get married in 30 days — with or without a groom. A series of comic blind dates, goosed by bumbling despair, is a showcase for Jewish rituals and mating rituals, not to mention an array of sparkling performances. An American director would muck it all up with farce and bathos, and despite the rare feel-good sop, the film, by Rama Burshtein, stays true as a serious, delightful peephole into faith, Orthodoxy and the universality of companionship. A find. wedding plan.jpg
  4. Get Out” — A scathing op-ed about American racism and race relations disguised as a bloody horror-thriller, Jordan Peele‘s ingenious what’s-it follows the relationship of Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) as it graduates to her bringing him home to meet the ‘rents. Hitch: They don’t know Chris is black. Rose assures her nervous beau that it won’t be an issue. Right. Peele keeps the boat rocking, with discombobulating tonal shifts and shocking reversals, as well as jabs of genre-apt violence. This disturbingly original movie also killed at the box office.  get-out-jordan-peele.jpg
  5. “A Quiet Passion” — A fine-grained Cynthia Nixon, alternately pinched and forthright, is 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson in cinema bard Terence Davies‘ lushly elegant biopic of the reclusive writer, who deflects the twin tyrannies of sexism and religion with vocal mutiny and bridling impiety. Far from musty, the movie is an epigrammatic delight. Austenian, even Shakespearean, repartee festoons the crackling script about a bitter, celibate, sequestered genius who considers hers a “minor” life. “I would like some approval before I die,” she says. The world’s response is, well, heartbreaking.
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  6. “I Am Not Your Negro” — Raoul Peck’s cool, contemplative doc is based on a manuscript by James Baldwin about the lives and back-to-back assassinations of his close friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. (He left the manuscript behind when he died in 1987.) Read by an eerily hushed Samuel L. Jackson, the material, catalyzed by riveting archival footage, traces all that was going down in the heat of the Civil Rights movement. The movie’s timely racial resonance makes it an excellent companion piece to last year’s astonishing “O.J.: Made in America.”james.jpg
  7. Personal Shopper” — This offbeat drama is a risky mash of tones and genres, but out-there auteur Olivier Assayas is a daredevil, one of our most fascinating filmmakers, and he achieves wonders. He elevated Kristen Stewart in the entrancing “Clouds of Sils Maria,” and made the callow actress fly. Here she soars. This singular and sometimes freakily supernatural thriller about, yes, a personal shopper, boils down to: Kristen Stewart, Kristen Stewart, Kristen Stewartpersonal shopper.jpg
  8. “Okja” — A Netflix flick by South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Snowpiercer”), “Okja” is a weird, witty and wild action-fantasy about a girl and her pig (think “Charlotte’s Web,” with a dash of “King Kong.”) The titular creature is a ginormous swine that looks more like a galumphing hippo. It has floppy elephant ears, nubby teeth and a tongue that flaps like a beach towel. Okja is a soulful pig, playful and protective, like a child’s canine BFF. But that’s where the joy ends. See, she is a genetically engineered “super pig,” bred by an American corporation for her delicious meat. And the company wants her, now. The spunky little girl who raised Okja for years is having none of it. Paul Dano sympathetically plays an animal liberation leader and Tilda Swinton is splendidly venal as the corp head. Jake Gyllenhaal? He’s the best human cartoon you never saw on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” The candy-colored affair is a harrowing, heart-cracking moral tale, whose message is: Free the pig!
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  9. “Logan” — Logan’s the non-mutant name Wolverine goes by, so you know heading into this Marvel Comics marvel that fearsome knuckle talons will retract like 12-inch switchblades and baddie flesh will be slashed and perforated. Logan (a ruffled, ripped Hugh Jackman) is in a pissy mood, a worn and torn X-istential hero who’s had it up to here. This is all he needs: A little mutant girl who happens to be blessed (cursed?) with the same weaponized fists — a distaff Wolverine who’s also a murderous wildcat when danger strikes. (Unfortunately, she forgoes Logan’s luxurious facial fur.) Writer-director James Mangold aspires to an impressive hard-R grit and gore and an almost “John Wick”-ian body count (impaling! beheadings!) in this bruising X-Men installment. The complexion is dark, the tenor aggrieved, yet there’s no lack of the bonkers excitement that galvanized “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The story is unencumbered by fussy superhero mythos, focussed more on family and past, with a bold stroke of unexpected sadness. This one’s for the grownups.

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10.  “Dunkirk” — Certain to go down as the most fulsomely praised picture of the year, Christopher Nolan’s alternately epic and intimate WWII drama isn’t quite as singular or special as you’ve been led to believe. Pity the poor war movie, which has to transcend hoary combat clichés while delivering the bloody, kablammy goods; which has to strive for rigorous tough-mindedness while furnishing the hokey uplift of victory to swelling orchestral strains. Nolan does his best with his mostly gripping, always picturesque telling of the celebrated rescue mission of some half-million Allied troops out of Nazi-surrounded Dunkirk, but convention gets in the way and a you’ve-seen-this-all-before mood settles in. Canned heroics and schmears of sentimentality lard the third act. But Nolan finally prevails for an impeccably staged war rattler of intermittent intensity. Yet let’s not get carried away. Some are calling “Dunkirk” Nolan’s masterpiece. It’s not. Both “Memento” and “The Dark Knight,” er, blow it out of the water.

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  • Honorable mentions: “A Ghost Story” — One of the most wildly original films I’ve seen in ages, this elusive drama about a ghost (a touching Casey Affleck, wearing, yes, a sheet with eye holes cut in it) who haunts while mourning for his still-living wife. Shot in dreamlike ultra-long takes and nearly wordless, David Lowery’s challenging, sensitive love story is a vision, and visionary. … “The Big Sick” — Not bad, not spectacular, Kumail Nanjiani’s smile-making rom-com with a dark undertow, featuring a fine Zoe Kazan and Holly Hunter, is worth a look, and a chuckle. (More about it at the bottom of this post.)
  • Overrated: “The Beguiled” — Sofia Coppola’s uneventful snoozefest has the bounding verve of a somnambulist. Its 94-minute run time is a godsend.