I’ve been a fan of prize-winning British novelist Alan Hollinghurst since I read his debut volume, The Swimming Pool Library, and admired its beautifully crafted sentences, its confident multiple narratives, and its homoerotic frankness. The Line of Beauty had all that and more – a remarkably intimate depiction of Thatcher’s England from inside the Iron Lady’s social circle. Hollinghurst’s latest, The Stranger’s Child, is exponentially more ambitious even, with all of the writer’s qualities burnished with an impressive Henry James-like mastery. Divided into five parts that unravel over the course of the entire 20th century, it revolves around an invented cast of literary characters: a young Wilfrid Owen-like poet whose death in World War I transforms him into a national legend, a Bloomsbury-like circle of aristocratic and self-mythologizing artists, and the industry of academic archivists, scholars, and biographers who feed on their remains.
From the very beginning, Hollinghurst sets up a skein of sexual secrets that the characters play cat-and-mouse with the full length of the novel, some of which never make the surface again. It’s dense, fiendishly clever, and emotionally absorbing. I am apparently not the only reader who recognized it as a fictional corollary to a non-fiction volume that came out the same year (2011), A Book of Secrets by the distinguished biographer Michael Holroyd, who is wittily name-checked or rather mis-name-checked in The Stranger’s Child – one of many delicious tidbits the author drops along the way. Not exactly light summer reading, but it kept me absorbed on two train trips across Italy and a long plane ride home.
It’s impossible to watch 5 Broken Cameras, the Oscar-nominated documentary by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, and not feel a mounting outrage at the situation it depicts. Burnat, a Palestinian farmer in the West Bank village of Bil’in, acquired a camera to film the birth of the youngest of his four songs, which coincided with the beginning of weekly protests against Israeli forces that seized land, bulldozed olive groves, and built a barricade to make room for a new Israeli settlement. Drawn to start filming everything that happened in the village, Burnat became an activist documenting the increasingly brutal and unjust behavior of the Israeli army, who attack the ragtag protestors (armed with nothing more than stones, drums, and pride) with tanks, gas grenades, and lethal bullets. It’s a crude but effective microcosmic portrait of the heart-sickening ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can stream the whole film on YouTube here.
Paul McCarthy WS at the Park Avenue Armory is a big, expensive, puerile, idiotic conceptual art piece that I guess makes the case that most Hollywood movies are big, expensive, puerile, idiotic fairy tales. WS consists of eight hours of film in which McCarthy plays Walt Disney shooting a live action version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with most of the characters sporting prosthetic noses, eating junky food, and cavorting orgiastically with toy-balloon genitals and cake-frosting jizz. The main film sequences are projected onto two banks of screens at either end of the Armory’s cavernous space. In the middle of the space stands a reconstruction of the sets used for the film – a plywood simulation of a suburban tract house and a plastic jungle for the forest sequences. Additional film sequences screen in a series of galleries off to the side.
All the advertising and signs all over the place warn “This exhibition contains explicit imagery and mature content. Admission is restricted to audiences over 17 years of age.” So of course viewers can’t wait to find the naughty bits – I stumbled across one of the side galleries where a naked pomaded porn star was alternately stroking his hard cock and poking it into a mannequin lying on the fake-forest floor. McCarthy seems to be one of those artists whose work is more interesting to talk about and read about than actually to experience – see Holland Cotter’s thoughtful review in Friday’s New York Times.
It’s a big week for remembering Kate McGarrigle – two memorial concerts at BAM coincided with the opening at the Film Forum of the documentary film Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You, directed by Lian Lunson (who made the excellent concert film Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man). And Nonesuch Records put out the 2-CD set Sing Me the Songs featuring a stellar crew singing songs by and associated with her: Kate’s kids, of course, Rufus and Martha Wainwright; her sisters Anna and Jane; the extended McGarrigle family (Anna’s partner Dane Lanken, their daughter Lily, old friend Chaim Tannenbaum); and a passel of guest stars including Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Richard, Linda, and Teddy Thompson, Justin Vivian Bond, Antony, and Broken Social Scene. The songs that Kate and Anna recorded together can’t really be topped by anyone else, so for my money the treasures of the album are the many previously unrecorded or unreleased songs. Best among them: “I Am a Diamond,” sung by Martha and Rufus.
Richard Greenberg has written many plays, but The Assembled Parties (produced by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel Friedman Theatre) is a rare convergence for him: it’s a thoughtful, dramatically ambitious script that receives a perceptively detailed staging by director Lynne Meadow with the help of an excellent cast, all the artists involved doing things that are more difficult than they look. What looks like a pretty standard New York Jewish family play – the secrets! the matchmaking! the lovable alter kockers! the wayward children! the worried mothers! – turns out to be much more of an impressively novelistic enterprise that’s less about the story and more about creating intricate character studies. Many of the Henry Jamesian qualities I admired about Alan Hollinghurst’s novel show up here, including the willingness not to announce what it is about but to let the audience put some pieces together itself. Also the narrative confidence – the two acts take place in the same apartment 20 years apart, but the sets look entirely different for each act, two actors in major roles don’t return for act two, and Jake Silbermann plays one character in act one and his younger brother in act two.
Judith Light (above right) won lots of awards playing the loud and lovable Aunt Faye (a variation on the role she played last season in Other Desert Cities – both performances more than a little redolent of the great Linda Lavin), and Jessica Hecht (above left) deservedly drew critical praise for authentically inhabiting the complicated, deceptively cheerful former actress around whom the play’s activity revolves. But really I admired all the actors equally – Lauren Blumenfeld as the self-admittedly dim bulb Shelley, Jeremy Shamos as the outsider who works overtime to ingratiate himself with the family by serving as unofficial spy, Silbermann as elusive Scotty and socially awkward Tim, and Jonathan Walker and Mark Blum as the husbands who are sociable in company and adversaries in private.
As a film 20 Feet from Stardom, Morgan Neville’s documentary about rock and roll’s backup singers, is somewhat shapeless, repetitive, and meandering. But for diehard music fans like me who spent formative years studying the credits in fine print on record albums, it’s an enjoyable opportunity for face time with the people who, as someone in the film points out, sang the parts of hit songs that most listeners love singing along to. The movie showcases a selection of legendary backup singers – most notably Darlene Love (whose leather lungs sang the hell out of early ‘60s Phil Spector hits that came out with other artists’ names on them, like the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel”) and Merry Clayton, who earned a spontaneous round of applause in the movie theater after we heard the track of her climactic performance in the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter” without the band. Almost worth the price of admission alone! Other singers featured include Claudia Lennear, Gloria Jones, the Waters Family, David Lasley, and two singers new to me, Judith Hill and the truly amazing Lisa Fischer. Aside from rummaging around inside rock ‘n’ roll nostalgic trivia, the movie does ponder the somewhat melancholy question: how come some incredibly talented singers never make it as solo performers, while many mediocrities become rich and famous?