The Arts Desk’s weekly picks for television, movies, books and music
By JACOB ANDERSON — email@example.com
Movie: “California Split” dir. by Robert Altman (1974)
Coming off the magic of 1973’s “The Long Goodbye,” Robert Altman’s fast-moving, casual chaos proves an immaculate fit for the anxious world of compulsive gamblers. The infinitely charming Elliott Gould, also returning in a lead role from the aforementioned film, plays a wry and energetic gambler who joins forces with a reporter and fellow addict, played by George Segal, to maximize the good times. The movie is a hedonistic tsunami: The changing fortunes and sleepless euphoria of prospective Big Wins trap the characters inside with no apparent means of escape. Altman’s signature overlapping dialogue and an ambiguous sense of time make the viewer feel as exclusively obsessed as the protagonists.
Elliott Gould’s unreplicatable magnetism is at its peak in this film, second maybe only to “The Long Goodbye.” His monotonic persuasion, lithe drifting and dry slang, all slightly inhuman, compose the alien appeal. (His smooth, trollish stoner’s face is the coup de grâce, of course.) Gould is adept casting here, and through him, the film succeeds at making the viewer feel as much as understand the nature of these gamblers.
Book: “Masks” by Fumiko Enchi (1958)
This is a short and stunning novel by one of Japan’s greatest postwar writers. Saturated by the ominous suggestions of spirit possession in literature and the venerable style of Noh theater, the novel concerns a love triangle between two men and a young widow named Yasuko, but it becomes clear as the novel progresses that control of the situation belongs not to any of the parties involved, but to the honorable and enigmatic mother of Yasuko’s dead husband. A dense and elusive mystery unfolds, with nearly every page involving some manner of indirect suggestion, invoking the artistic and spiritual to deep and multifaceted ends. Despite its slim word count (under 50,000), the novel grasps a shocking volume of depth through its concise, self-referential and layered structure.
Album: “The Art of the Trio, Vol. 2: Live at The Village Vanguard” by Brad Mehldau (1998)
Ex-child prodigy Brad Mehldau re-invented and epitomized the piano jazz trio in the mid-late ‘90s with a precise and technical style that suggested the likes of legends Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans. In the second volume of his “Art of the Trio” series, his style becomes more individualized: overtly melodic movements have been transformed into lengthy and constant roads of sound, traversing similar ground with an unvarying cadence that suggests the endless fall of rain or the undulations of a machine. The result is a selection of idiosyncratic and complexly interesting 10-plus-minute tracks that represent a skillful intrusion into the underbelly of an already well-developed genre.
Some sections may not be quite as remarkable as those found on the first volume of “Art of the Trio,” but the sacrifice of some amount of immediate appeal is more than compensated for by the new shapes discovered.
TV Show: “On Death Row” by Werner Herzog (2012)
The legendary indie pioneer Werner Herzog takes his arid and strange style to a series of interviews with U.S. death row inmates. Through a series of interviews with lawyers, other parties involved with their crimes and the inmates themselves, Herzog paints a straightforward and crushing picture of each crime and the person who may have perpetrated it.
As interesting as the horrible stories and fates of these individuals is Herzog’s awkward and flat demeanor, which seems to have nonplussed his interviewees with amusing regularity. Herzog himself is, to some degree, the antidote to the difficult subject he portrays: he makes no secret of his feelings regarding the death penalty in the U.S., and his attitude toward his subjects betrays sympathy and personality uncommon in documentaries and saves the content from becoming dryly horrifying.
While Herzog makes the series less demanding on the viewer, it still remains a very taxing watch. The details of the crimes are not made more palatable by his presence. Viewers would be wise to watch piecemeal rather than all at once.
Written by: Jacob Anderson — firstname.lastname@example.org