The Crown Season 1: I am absolutely ashamed by how much I loved this show. I'm no fan of monarchy, I'm no fan of any ideology it propounds, and my natural interest in the extremely dull and rather stupid people who occupy the throne would be next to none if their incompetence and venality were not significant to history. But it is the very weight of the office and the significance with which we have, against our better angels, to treat it, that makes this show so compelling. Whether or not we like Monarchy, the English Monarchy is as important as it is absurd, and the decisions of its occupants carry real weight in the world.
Like The Godfather or Mad Men or The Great Gatsby, we have entered a repressive world with its own restrictive rules and customs followed by people we should find repulsive, but the tale is told so thoroughly from their point of view that we can't help but become sympathetic to them, perhaps even complicit in their sins.
The writer is Peter Morgan, writer of Frost/Nixon and The Queen, and a better writer about politics than any current American. I can understand why people might find his writing to be monarchist propaganda, but he documents its absurdity so thoroughly that I find that charge almost completely specious. And even if it weren't, an assertion that the contemporary monarchy ain't so bad is nowhere near as sinister an implication as another rousingly fascist Aaron Sorkin speech that immediately unites a patriotic fictional public.
What makes Morgan's writing so incredible is its plausibility. His ability to impersonate historical figures - get inside their heads and make them say things which completely resonate with both our historical images of them, and the historical record, is unparalleled. And never moreso has he passed this test than in the most acid test of his career, to plausibly render Winston Churchill. John Lithgow's Winston Churchill is wonderful, even if there's a mild whiff of Lithgow simply being John Lithgow imitating Churchill, if Lithgow's Churchill seems more successful than it is, then it's because of Morgan's extraordinary writing.
We now see, as no play or screenplay ever could, how well Morgan manages the evolution of characters. Thus far, he seems as virtuosic a manager of changing character as he is of character itself. In the span of a season, Queen Elizabeth went from overwhelmed, to underconfident, to steely confident, to oppressively arrogant. It is a virtuoso feat of writing, and hardly less of Clare Foy's acting. Princess Margaret is hardly less difficult to manage - who has to go in the span of a season from the girl everybody falls in love with (the princess next door) to a sad drunk. But no royal makes the impact of their uncle, the abdicated and viperous King Edward VIII, played with the seductive venom of a snake-in-the-grass by Alex Jennings. Edward is simultaneously a man of dignity caught in a situation of terrible pathos, a connivingly hateful and petty man, and a complete upper class twit. Jennings aces all three facets.
I have no idea if The Crown's achievement will stay at this lofty peak, but this is as strong a first season as any TV show I've ever seen. It is a show in which the full weight of history is felt upon our backs, as we watch The Crown, we truly feel as though this is how it was made. Stranger Things Season 1 and Westworld Season 1: Stranger Things seemed to be the biggest show since Sliced Bread until the Westworld juggernaut completely subsumed it. I find that to be a shame, because Stranger Things is a better show - both much funnier, much more moving; and however surreal they both are, much more true to life.
It seems odd to think that we're now so far away from the 80's that the the spirit of the 80's requires a revival. Spielberg and Stephen King are still alive and working, so are Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford. Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy are only 55 now and could still have another forty years. John Hughes is dead but his teens barely look any older: Molly Ringwald and Mia Sara are still beautiful and not even fifty yet, Matthew Broderick is pushing 55 but he looks as though Ferris Bueller could still pass for a high school senior skipping class, Fred Savage barely looks any older than 12. Michael J. Fox is thankfully still around and Danny DeVito's still a major TV star. Whitney and Michael and Prince and George Michael are all dead, but Madonna still performs, so does Bruce and Bon Jovi and U2. Even Journey still hobbles around, however much a shell of its former self. I needn't even remind you who's to become our President, nor do I need to remind you which President made him possible.
In spite of Reagan's presence, the eighties were a decade about youth. The Baby Boomers now had children, and true to their generation's good intentions and terrible follow-through, Baby Boomers wanted to give their children a childhood as idyllic as their own. They completely succeeded, and only forgot to give us an adulthood as well-provided. The nostalgia of Stranger Things is not only Generation X's nostalgia for their lost innocence, it's a nostalgia for a completely lost America. When millennials watch Stranger Things, they have no memory of a secure middle class and small town America where the sense of community was unassailable. When childhood was an innocence corrupted neither by the internet or too many safety rules, and the only part of the world that was dangerous to explore was the human imagination, which created Stephen King-like horrors because the real world was so banal. To Generation X, the 80's is nostalgia for a time when America promised the world to them. To Millennials, the 80's are nostalgia to a time when America thought it could promise the world to them.
Stranger Things is the fantasy of a smart 11-year-old boy. Disappearing and reappearing friends, alternate dimensions, beastly monsters, hurting bullies, fighting evil adults, mysterious slightly older girls who are dependent on him. It's the TV show Spielberg would have made. The horrors are surreal enough that they could never happen in real life, but just as in Spielberg, and occasionally even in Stephen King, what makes it moving is the vivid depictions and yearnings of the American idyll. The scares of Spielberg and King are the scares that pop up from the rumbling unconscious of an untroubled youthful mind. What makes people return to ET and Carrie and Close Encounters and Indiana Jones is not their surreal thrills, but the so plausible grounding in reality that guarantees the thrill. The suburban renderings of the first three are a small community America that very much existed until recently where love for your neighbors was something completely implicit, while Indiana Jones and Star Wars were precisely the kind of escapist sci-fi entertainment that young people of Small Town America consumed - not just in the 1970's, but in low-budget sci-fi fare of the 50's and 30's, and even in dime-store science fiction novels of the late nineteenth century. When we continually watch products like Stranger Things, we're not just buying them to be thrilled, we're buying into an entire disappearing way of life, and even though we know it never will, we're desperate for it to return.
Westworld is without any sentimental illusions that any sort of innocent modus vivendi will ever return, it plunges us headlong into stewed corruption and projects something like the trajectory of exactly where the world seems to be headed by the end of the 21st century: with a superclass of privilege able to rule a new race of automated people created entirely for their own pleasure. It's a tornado of sex and death intermingled with one another, and astonishingly gloomy viewing. I'm not sure it makes for entertainment that's nearly as enjoyable as Stranger Things. But even if Westworld is not particularly enjoyable, it is completely essential to see. It is a piece of devilish entertainment that springs from the dark well of our worst fears.
Where can this possibly end but that these superior beings overthrow their corrupt and inferior masters who've ruined their planet and establish a new, more considerate form of life on planet earth? Any other ending to Westworld would feel false. What is so disturbing about Westworld is how thoroughly it seems to give up on humanity. The fact that we may deserve to be given up on makes the show all the more troubling. It's impossible to do any more than guess what Westworld holds for the future, but to pull any punches after raising issues so troubling in the first year would be to give a false sense of security for humanity's future. Tampopo at the Charles Theater (December 29th): I had no idea, none at all, about this movie which is now one of my favorites. Now that I've seen it, I have no idea if this is one of the greatest movies I've ever seen or simply one of the weirdest. What I do know is that it is now a personal favorite of mine. It is funny, it is moving, it is bizarre, it is sexy, it is appetizing, it is disgusting, it is utterly avant-garde, it is grounded in realistic characters and uses its humanity to branch out into the strangest possible directions. It is everything a great work of art should be.
It is, to put as simply as possible, about the search for the perfect Ramen dish. Anyone with a mania for a particular subject can completely understand this. So much of my life has been devoted to finding the perfect recorded performance of various pieces of classical music, for others, it might be the perfect double play, or the perfect slice of pizza. Whatever the subject, the passion which it can provide in those it absorbs can be all-consuming.
From this subject, the movie takes us in a hundred different directions, breaking off from the main narrative for ten minutes at a time for a long series of vignettes about what it means to be passionate about food. There is no demarcation for why film chooses to go off-topic, it simply does it and expects you to go along with it. From there, I still have no idea how to describe it except to say that it's a film that I find difficult to speak of because the cinematic dialect with which this movie speaks is so far removed from every other movie that I have no idea how to speak of it.
The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam at the Kennedy Center (November 30th) Mahler 5 and some piece by Detlev Glanert...: Both Anne Midgette and Charles Downey fell into raptures for this appearance of the alleged world's greatest orchestra. My response was quite a bit more lukewarm. What is the point of technical excellence without personality? The Concertgebouw is an orchestra that Willem Mengelberg literally tailor made for Mahler and Strauss, and yet in the last 30-or-so years, most of the individual sound that made them so perfect in Mahler has vanished - with only an oboe and trumpet remaining of that once glorious Concertgebouw timbre. What remains is another generically excellent orchestra whose soul seems to long since be absent. An artist's 'mistakes' are how they reveal their priorities, and when every detail is so incredibly refined and polished, there is no artistic profile except for a vapid perfection we're supposed to admire. What lies between them is the difference between a perfectly realistic painting and a great work of art. Even Marin Alsop conducting our modest Baltimore Symphony in Mahler 5 was more enjoyable than this.
(from the Amsterdam days when Mahler was Mahler, the Concertgebouw was a group of musicians rather than an Orchestra with a capital O, and Bernard Haitink was interesting)
The lionizing of Semyon Bychkov becomes ever more mystifying to me. The point of those rambling first three movements of Mahler (and Mahler is never more Mahler than when he rambles) seemed to pass him by completely. Bychkov wanted to create something coherent out of musical forms for which coherence is antithetical to Mahler's spirit. Matters finally improved in the Adagietto, Bychkov is clearly at his best in moments of great musical beauty, and there is no finer outlet for such instinct than Mahler's F-Major bliss. Perhaps it's the astringently tight musical argument of the final, fifteen minute fugue, but the performance finally snapped into focus, with humor and pathos and sincerity which the first fifty minutes lacked completely.
In the first half, we heard a performance of Detlev Glanert's Theatrum Bestiarium. Not knowing too much of Glanert's music, I'm in no position to judge, but even if I'm stupefied in admiration at his orchestration, I doubt Glanert is a truly great composer. Glanert was, supposedly, trying to capture the spirit of Shostakovich - but the spirit was much closer to the Five Orchestral Pieces of Schoenberg and the Three Orchestral Pieces of Berg. One needn't imitate Shostakovich's tonal harmony to stay true to Shostakovich's spirit, but if a composer wants to imitate Shostakovich's spirit, he should probably go back to Shostakovich's sources - Russian folk music and literature and Orthodox church choirs and Soviet military marches - and base it, at least in part, on a new rendering of them. To me, the spirit of Shostakovich was only captured in the contrasts of its decibel level.
(Markus Stenz conducts the world premiere - needless to say to those in the know, he's faster than Bychkov)
See Book Review of Reinhold Niebuhr's Children of Light, Children of Darkness in next week's Jewish Times column.