Friday, May 8, 2015

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, Illustrated by Jim Kay

"Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary.  And your mind will punish you for believing both."

The Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is not the only children’s novel we have read recently; this week we have also finished A Monster Calls, a magnificent novel by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay.

A Monster Calls is a perfect example of a children’s novel that is also a work of art – through written for young people, it can be savored by adults with relish.  More important, A Monster Calls is a profoundly moving book, which left Your Correspondent in tears upon its conclusion.

The novel concerns the trials of Conor O’Malley, a young boy struggling to find peace as his mother slowly dies of cancer.  He is shuttled off to a seemingly uncaring grandmother, alternately pitied or bullied at school, and virtually ignored by a father who remarried and started a new family in the United States.

At the height of these crises, he is visited at night by a monster, who looks like a wild and gigantic willow tree.  The monster alternately menaces and amuses Conor, telling him a series of stories.

Before the reader shrugs this off as so much Scheherazade-In-A-Fright-Wig for children, it’s important to note that the stories the monster tells are not simple morality tales.  Rather, they are fairly grim and gritty stories that illustrated human duplicity and self-delusion, as well as an examination of the deep wells of anger and sadness that come with adulthood.  One tale leaves Conor dazed in the ruins of his grandmother’s home after he trashes it in a fit, and another lead to his assaulting the school bully.  In every respect, A Monster Calls is a profoundly adult novel.

A Monster Calls was originally started by author Siobhan Dowd (1960-2007) who could not write the novel because of her own, eventually fatal bout with cancer.  The book was picked up (and extensively revised) by Ness (born 1971), who made the story his own.  It is written with greatly humanity and insight, as well as subtlety of line.

And speaking of subtly of line, the book is graced with magnificent illustrations by Jim Kay.  These dramatic, surreal and often nightmarish imaginings are an essential component of the book, and it would be difficult to gauge the ultimate efficacy of the novel without them.  After finishing the novel, I returned to it several times in the succeeding days, simply to look at the illustrations.  It’s not that they are beautiful – though they certainly have a wild grandeur – but they are powerful and provocative.  It is important to note that both Ness and Kay won the Carnegie Medal and the Greenaway Medal in 2012 for A Monster Calls, the only books whose author and illustrator, whether two persons or won, have won both medals.

A Monster Calls will not be to all tastes, simply because it does not take any easy outs, and maintains a tragic note throughout.  But this is a particularly human monster, one that underscores the sad fact that pain is a constant part of life, and that not all stories end happily.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, by David Benedictus with Decorations by Mark Burgess

Regular readers of The Jade Sphinx know of our deep and abiding respect for that extremely difficult art form, children’s literature.  Those who neither understand nor respect this exacting art form do not appreciate just how difficult a task it is.  However, when children’s lit is touched with something like genius, then the result is something that can be savored by children and adults alike.

Critics cite the Winnie-the-Pooh books by A. A. Milne (1882-1956) as the last great contribution to the first wave of children’s classics; a period ranging roughly from the Victorian era through the early 1920s.  Milne approaches something close to the sublime in his stories – they are delightful nonsense that, upon reflection, actually make a great deal of sense.

Milne’s genius was to take the stuffed animals owned by his son, Christopher Robin, and create a whole imaginary world in which they could live.  The animals, Pooh, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, and Kanga and Roo, all have well-defined personalities and (sometimes obsessive) character traits.  There is a distinctly … English flavor to the Pooh books, almost as if Milne brought a child’s-eye view to one long, summer tea party.  In the hands of any other less-gifted author, Pooh would be too sweet and indigestible by half; but Milne creates a world of remarkable charm, gentle kindness and great humanity.  In the simplicity of Pooh and those around him, we often see the best (and most ridiculous) parts of ourselves.

Milne was blessed in his illustrator, E. H. Shepard (1879-1976), who created a series of delicate and subtle drawings to enliven the corpus.  Those who know Pooh only through the sometimes garish Disney interpretation are missing the subtlety and quiet of the originals.  Shepard also drew the definitive illustrations for Wind in the Willows, so he was instrumental in the success of two great classics of the genre.  (Sadly, later in life, Shepard thought Pooh overshadowed his more serious work…)

Milne ended the Pooh books with a beautiful coda of Christopher Robin growing up, and putting aside childish things while promising to always have a special place in both his heart and his memory for the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood.  It was a masterful way to preserve the integrity of his creation, while assuring that it would also always be alive to anyone who could open themselves to childish wonder. 

So, it is with a bit of surprise that the Trustees of the Pooh Property Trust would think that a sequel, some 80 years after the fact, was either necessary or desirable.  But in 2011 the Trust entrusted the property to author David Benedictus (born 1938), and the illustrations to Mark Burgess (born 1957), who sought to emulate Shepard’s style.  The results were, at best, mixed.

Pastiche is a ticklish thing to pull off.  (Your Correspondent has been guilty of literary pastiche himself.)  While it is possible to imitate a voice, it is nearly impossible to imitate genius.  As a result, the new writer seeks to introduce something new and original to separate the new work from the original; but then … when individuality is introduced, there is no longer any point to the pastiche.

Benedictus is tasked with having Christopher Robin return from boarding school (fortunately, there’s no mention of the 80 year lag; Robin must be the most abominable student!), and beguiling a summer idyll with his old friends at the Hundred Acre Wood.  Now older, he involves his friends in a spelling bee, cricket, and playing school.  This is all right in-and-of-itself, but where Benedictus fails is that his work is Milne and water: sometimes he gets the tone just right, but when he doesn’t the whole enterprise comes crashing down. 

Not that there aren’t moments to savor.  I had a smile for most of the reading, and found much of Return to the Hundred Acre Wood charming.  However, Benedictus bows to contemporary tastes a little too often, and the note is jarring. 

For example, he introduces a new character, Lottie the Otter, clearly as a sop to political correctness, seeing that the only other female in the tales is the motherly Kanga.  Lottie never works for a moment; she is too contemporary a creation to blend seamlessly with Pooh and company, and the character is fairly obnoxious, to boot.

So, despite many inspired moments (Benedictus seems to understand both Owl and Rabbit very well), we often feel that someone is trying to breathe life into a creation not their own.  And while the drawings by Burgess are certainly serviceable, but no one would mistake them for Shepard.

Pooh buffs should stick with the originals; but for the casual reader, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is undemanding fun.

Here is an except from the opening:

Who started it? Nobody knew. One moment there was the usual Forest babble: the wind in the trees, the crow of a cock, the cheerful water in the streams. Then came the Rumour: Christopher Robin is back!

Owl said he heard it from Rabbit, and Rabbit said he heard it from Piglet, and Piglet said he just sort of heard it, and Kanga said why not ask Winnie-the-Pooh? And since that seemed like a Very Encouraging Idea on such a sunny morning, off Piglet trotted, arriving in time to find Pooh anxiously counting his pots of honey.

“Isn’t it odd?” said Pooh.

“Isn’t what odd?”

Pooh rubbed his nose with his paw. “I wish they would sit still. They shuffle around when they think I’m not looking. A moment ago there were eleven and now there are only ten. It is odd, isn’t it, Piglet?”

“It’s even,” said Piglet, “if it’s ten, that is. And if it isn’t, it isn’t.” Hearing himself saying this, Piglet thought that it didn’t sound quite right, but Pooh was still counting, moving the pots from one corner of the table to the other and back again.

“Bother,” said Pooh. “Christopher Robin would know if he was here. He was good at counting. He always made things come out the same way twice and that’s what good counting is.”

“But Pooh . . .” Piglet began, the tip of his nose growing pink with excitement

“On the other hand it’s not easy to count things when they won’t stay still. Like snowflakes and stars.”

“But Pooh . . .” And if Piglet’s nose was pink before, it was scarlet now.

“I’ve made up a hum about it. Would you like to hear it, Piglet?”

Piglet was about to say that hums were splendid things, and Pooh’s hums were the best there were, but Rumours come first; then he thought what a nice feeling it was to have a Big Piece of News and to be about to Pass It On; then he remembered the hum which Pooh had made up about him, Piglet, and how it had had seven verses, which was more verses than a hum had ever had since time began, and that they were all about him, and so he said: “Ooh, yes, Pooh, please,” and Pooh glowed a little because a hum is all very well as far as it goes, and very well indeed when it goes for seven verses, but it isn’t a Real Hum until it’s been tried out on somebody, and while honey is always welcome, it’s welcomest of all directly after a hum.

This is the hum which Pooh hummed to Piglet on the day which started like any other day and became a very special day indeed.

If you want to count your honey,
You must put it in a row,
In the sun if it is sunny,
If it’s snowy in the snow.

And you’ll know when you have counted
How much honey you have got.
Yes, you’ll know what the amount is
And so therefore what it’s not.

“And I think it’s eleven,” added Pooh, “which is an excellent number of pots for a Thursday, though twelve would be even better.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Encores! Presents Zorba!

Life’s what you do while you’re waiting to die.

That’s the opening line of Zorba!, and Your Correspondent felt the same way through the length of the show.

We here at The Jade Sphinx are consistently delighted with Encores!, which is dedicated to recreating vintage musicals that have not seen the light of day for decades.  The team, led by Jack Viertel, seeks out the original book, orchestrations and choreography of vintage musicals, and the result is often nothing less than magical.
So it is a dour climax that they close the season with a revival of Zorba!, with a book by Joseph Stein (1912-2010), lyrics by Fred Ebb (1928-2004) and music by John Kander (born 1927). Zorba! was adapted from the 1952 novel Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, and 1964 film it inspired.  Zorba is about the friendship between Zorba and Nikos, a young American who has inherited an abandoned mine on Crete, and their romantic relationships with a French woman and a local widow.

The original production premiered in 1968, and was directed by Hal Prince (born 1928), garnering a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical (and losing to 1776).  It ran for 305 performances, and the 1983 revival with Anthony Quinn (1915-2001) ran for 362 performances. 

Well … where to begin?  It is perhaps essential to confess upfront that Zorba! is filled with so many of the things that Your Correspondent finds objectionable:  ethnic shtick, unpleasant peasants, religious hoo-haw, preening machismo and cheap schmaltz.  Like Fiddler on the Roof and other such happy-peasant, God-it’s-great-to-be-stupid confections, I found it completely indigestible.

The conceit of Zorba is that an American waif Nikos (Santino Fontana) inherits a mine in Greece.  There is he befriended by ‘man’s man’ Zorba, who teaches him the joys of living for the moment.  Yes, it’s Mame on a testosterone high; but where Mame manages to be sweet, engaging, funny and emotionally involving, Zobra is merely a slog.  More importantly (if we continue with Mame for a moment), unlike everyone’s favorite Auntie, no one in Zorba grows, changes, or has any significant insight by the time the curtain mercifully descends.

It is not helped that the cast – with two notable exceptions – cannot breathe life into this torpid stew.  Zorba is supposed to be a manifestation of the life force, and should be played with energy, brio, panache and a touch of arrogance.  Sadly John Tuturro barely registers as a presence.  Add to the fact that he can neither sing in pitch or in tune, and one wonders what he is doing there.  When explosives are needed, Tuturro provides only firecrackers.

Because this is a ‘Greek show,’ there has to be a ‘Greek chorus,’ that narrates the proceedings.  Marin Mazzie fills that role with all the vengeful energy of one of the Greek furies; one gets the feeling that perhaps she has seen Elektra one time too many.  She is a powerful presence, but after a while one feels that she is simply waiting to spit at us.

Fortunately, two cast members stand out above rest.  A benediction upon Zoë Wanamaker, as Hortense, an aging seductress.  Her number, No Boom Boom, is the absolute highlight of the show; and her death song, Happy Birthday, is equally energetic and delightful.  At this point looking rather like Mother Riley from the old British comedies, Wanamaker is a delight to behold.  She has more energy, fire and comedic zest than anyone else in the show.

A close second is Santino Fontana, as the shy intellectual Nikos.  Fontana is one of the most appealing leading men currently on Broadway, with a high octane smile, a winning personality and a beautiful singing voice.  Who put him in a show where he does not have a solo number?

The rest of the cast sinks rapidly from memory.  Zorba! was choreographed by Josh Rhodes and directed by Walter Bobbie; these are extremely talented men, but one suspects that it would take a minor miracle to make a purse out of this sow’s ear. 

Usually we leave Encores! enchanted, enriched and delighted.  After seeing our ingénue murdered, our leading man bereft, the one comedic character part die only to have rapacious peasants ransack her house, let alone see workers stealing lunch from a disabled man, I went home and kicked my dog.

Oh, well.  Kicking the dog is what you do while you’re waiting to die.  Or something.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Consolations of Junk Art, Part IV: The Cinema of James Bond

Moore, Being Puckish

How fitting to end (for now) our mediations on the consolations of junk art with one of the most successful manifestations of junk in cinematic history – the James Bond movies.

No one in their right mind would, for a moment, argue that James Bond films are, well, in a word … good.  They are not real in the sense that things happened to the protagonist that change him internally or externally, and certainly not real in the sense that it is possible to make any emotional investment in them.  The vast majority of Bond films are laughably terrible, pandering to our cravings for sex, sadism and snobbery – three preoccupations of his creator, Ian Fleming.

The reasons for the sheer awfulness of the Bond corpus are many.  The short list would include: Bond is never really a character, but merely a good suit and a set of attitudes; the plotting and scripting of the films often disregard any sense of narrative cohesion, probability or good taste; aside from many of the villains, the acting is uniformly bad; and, finally, since they are all commentary upon current issues or obsessions of the time in which they were made, have aged very poorly indeed.

They are irresistible.

While I enjoy most of the Bond films, Your Correspondent must confess a preference for the Roger Moore films.  “Real” Bond fans are already throwing up their hands in exasperation, as the Moore performance is the most deprecated, despised and dismissed of all the big-screen Bonds.  “Real” Bond fans are wrong (more on that later), and, in fact, Moore is the only actor who really understood the role.

Bond is not the nicest of men, and most of the Bonds – Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnon, Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig, especially – have captured that facet of his limited personality fairly well.  But real killer instinct is missing from Moore’s Bond, mainly because Moore, a limited if effective actor, has too much generosity of spirit and genuine goodwill to pull off Bond’s hard edges.  Most important – Moore gets the joke.  The inherent absurdity of the whole idea is best expressed by the phrase world-famous secret agent.  (A neat trick, that.)  The notion of an indestructible lady-killer in a dinner jacket is catnip for a man with Moore’s sense of the absurd.

An excellent and skilled light comedian, Moore made the Bond films something closer to the imaginings of author Ian Fleming, who once admitted to never reading his own Bond books, least he give up on them because of their preposterous nature.  In Fleming’s mind, Bond’s world was part spoof from the get-go.

That is one of the many reasons I’m always amused by adult-adolescents who want a “serious” Bond film (an absurdity equal to the ponderous “adult” Batman films); there is nothing adult about the Bond canon to begin with.  Fleming himself saw them as a means simply to make ready cash, and anyone who doubts that should remember that he tried to cast both David Niven (as Bond) and Noel Coward (as the title character) in the film adaptation of Dr. No – because they were his friends.  (This is no less risible than Fleming’s earlier attempts to cast Susan Hayward … as Jane Bond.  Fleming thought it would be good box office.)

As Fleming himself wrote: I don’t regard James Bond precisely as a hero, but at least he does get on and do his duty, in an extremely corny way … My books have no social significance, except a deleterious one.

Enter Moore, who, with is infectious insouciance, sends up the already absurd.  He is, to date, the only Bond who smiled readily, and actually enjoyed his line readings.  For those who want to revisit the Moore Bond, I recommend the DVDs with his voice-over commentaries, which are infinitely more entertaining than the movies.

When do the Bond films work?  Or, to rephrase it, when are they good?  The Bond films, like the 1960s from which they sprang, are best appreciated when the politics, aesthetics and morals are never seriously considered, and when we can consume their empty calories guiltlessly.  When we think that amoral characters like Bond (and the political structure he supports) would actually work for the common good, and we think global peace hinges on the correct tailor and the right cocktail.  They work best, in short, in the undemanding tatters of our tired imaginations.

I find great consolation in the lightest of Bond films, because here are great resources harnessed for a fully tongue-in-cheek enterprise.  I am also tickled at Moore, once one of the world’s biggest box office attractions, carrying the weight of a multi-million dollar film franchise as if he were carrying the mail.