For the most part, works of art that come with the additional baggage of critical adulation in the form of industry awards amount to little more than self-aggrandizing pats on the back by fellow travelers. Not that an Academy or Grammy award nomination makes one immediately dismiss said work of art, but a huge Newbury emblem or “based on the acclaimed bestseller” caveat can cause one to be somewhat dubious. After all, it is human nature to want to watch or listen to something simply to ensure that it can’t be as good as “they” say.
That all being said, when certain books, movies or recordings succeed in meeting — or dare I say surpassing — such sycophancy, it is indeed something to shout about. That brings me to this week’s Page Stage and Screen picks — each of which is available at your local Stark and Summit County library branches. And, in the spirit of artistic blarney, we begin at the greatest chimera on earth — the circus.
Screen: As simple, sweeping Hollywood movies go, “Water for Elephants” (Fox 2000, 2011), based on the novel by Sara Gruen, is a knock clean out of the park. In terms of storyline, cinematography and heartfelt (at times heart-stopping) acting, the movie is an utterly un-corny return to the reason people used to go to the movies to begin with. So, of course, it begins with a flashback.
As a precursor to the fabulous performances that eventually come from Robert Pattison, Reese Witherspoon and Christopher Waltz, Hal Holbrook’s cameo appearance as the elderly Jacob Jankowski, who shows up at a local circus grounds after “wandering” away from a retirement home, is marvelous, if brief. The movie takes off with Holbrook telling the circus manager the story of the “big life” he has led.
Pattison turns in an equally understated but commanding performance as the young Jankowski, who leaves Cornell University following a family tragedy. In the midst of the Great Depression, Jankowski begins what he thinks will be a walk to Albany, N.Y., to find work. When he hops a passing freight occupied by a band of “hobos,” he soon finds he has accidentally boarded a circus train.
The film wonderfully depicts the crowded living conditions, colorful characters and camaraderie of the golden age of traveling circuses, as former veterinary student Jankowski meets and eventually wins over borderline bipolar circus boss August Rosenblum (Waltz), a man who has no qualms about tossing employees off a moving train if the circus fails to bring in enough box office receipts to pay them. Rosenblum vows to show Jankowski “a life most suckers can't even dream of,” but young Jacob also inevitably meets Rosenblum’s star attraction - his wife Marlena.
The circus’s fortunes grow with the discovery of Rosie, a brilliant elephant trained in Jankowski’s native Polish. But, of course, so does Jacob and Marlena’s forbidden romance, leading up to one of the most dramatic circus tragedies in history and an ending that would make Mitch Albom proud.
Page 2 of 2 - While the film adaptation of “Elephants” takes a number of artistic liberties - most glaringly the amalgamation of the novel’s characters of animal trainer August and circus manager Uncle Al into one mega-mixed up fellow - the end result is a more succinct, but equally moving telling of a beautifully grand American tale.
Stage: First forays into solo artist territory are notoriously sketchy for former members of bands. When that band happens to be one of the most recognizable of the seminal two-piece rock group wave of the early 2000s, going solo is never more treacherous. What, pray tell, is said artist going to bring to the table that we haven’t heard before - other than junk we never want to hear again? In the case of the three-time Grammy nominated “Blunderbuss” (Columbia, 2012), White Stripes co-founder Jack White's answer is “plenty.”
The disc opens with somewhat typical White Stripes fare - referred to by at least one of the members of my household as “drunken gibberish.” Ah, but what wonderful examples drunken gibberish songs like “Freedom at 21” and “Missing Pieces” are. The latter, in spite of White’s final verse metaphoric clarification, even makes a date-night dismemberment sound darkly delightful.
And while tunes like the title track, “Hypocritical Kiss,” “Weep Themselves to Sleep,” and “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” give an over-the-top obvious nod to an equally seminal departure from previous form, “Led Zeppelin III,” it remains White’s creepy-but-compelling kid you knew in high school persona in songs like the crushing “Sixteen Saltines” (“She's got stickers on her locker and the boys’ numbers there in magic marker/I’m hungry and the hunger will linger, I eat sixteen saltine crackers then I lick my fingers”) that ends up winning the day.