Monday, September 1, 2014

Sean O’Casey’s Tragicomedy at the Shaw: Juno and the Paycock

Corrine Kolso, Mary Haney, Jim Mezon and Benedict Campbell in Juno and the Paycock (Photo David Cooper)

My introduction to Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock came when I was an undergraduate at Brandeis University through a memorable black-box production where the audience sat tennis court-style on either side of a long, rectangular playing area. I recall being continually caught up short by the tonal shifts and amazed by the depth of the tragedy undergirding the domestic comedy: the battles between the long-suffering working-class Dublin housewife Juno Boyle and her indolent husband – known as the Captain because of a brief stint he spent on a ship, which he’s fanned into a romantic tale of maritime adventure – who fakes pains in his legs whenever the chance of a job rears its ugly head, preferring to spend his hours tossing back pints at one of the local snugs with his neighbor Joxer. These two incorrigible codgers are the only ones left on stage at the end, when the Boyle family has been torn apart and the creditors have claimed the furniture; they stumble onstage drunk out of their minds and pass out, in a moment that looks forward to the final curtain of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (where the stage is littered with aging, hopeless dipsomaniacs). In the Brandeis production, one of the pair rolled a whiskey jar to the dead centre of the stage; for the final stage picture, the lights faded to a single special on the empty jar.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sober Realism: A Most Wanted Man – From Novel to Film

Robin Wright and Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man
Forget blackmail, I said. Forget the macho. Forget sleep deprivation, locking people in boxes, simulated executions and other enhancements. The best agents, snitches, joes, informants or whatever you want to call them, I pontificated, needed patience, understanding and loving care.
– John le Carré, speaking to cast members of the film adaptation on the art of spycraft.

In John Le Carré’s 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man, which addresses the war on terror and its attendant abuses, Gunther Bachmann, head of a semi-official, Hamburg-based anti-terrorism unit, has been whisked home after suffering a debacle in Beirut that still weighs heavily upon him. Hamburg, home to a large Islamic community and the city that played host to at least six of the 9/11 conspirators, is ten years later a source of angst and embarrassment to German and American intelligence officers. Given their failure to derail that catastrophic attack they are scrambling to disrupt any further terrorist operations. But their methods differ: Bachmann believes that rendition, waterboarding and extrajudicial killings should be jettisoned in favour of relentless surveillance, recruiting and running secret agents to ensure that the suspected targets are actually guilty – a process that takes time and patience. He might be described as a cynical idealist, a post–Cold War, post–9/11 George Smiley figure who understands that espionage often consists of performing the diligent, unheroic and often entirely pointless work of covert politics. His impatient German rivals and superiors, and their counterparts in the American and British secret services prefer to snatch-and-jail every low-level operative rather than wait-and-see in order to uncover a network of jihadists.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Neglected Gem #60: Rough Magic (1995)

Bridget Fonda and Russell Crowe in Rough Magic (1995).

One of the most charming unheralded movies of the eighties was Clare Peploe’s High Season, a high comedy set on a sun-soaked Greek island. It took Peploe – who is married to Bernardo Bertolucci and sometimes gets screenplay credit on his movies – nearly a decade to be able to make another picture. Rough Magic came out early in 1997 after sitting in the can for two years, opened in very few cities and received mostly dismissive reviews. But it’s one of the oddest and loveliest comedies of the mid-nineties. Adapted by Robert Mundy, William Brookfield and Peploe from a James Hadley Chase novel called Miss Shumway Waves a Wand and set in the fifties, it’s a cross between a screwball comedy and a magic-realist fable.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Order and Ambiguity: The Alex Colville Exhibit at the AGO

Seven Crows, by Alex Colville (1980)

In 1983 the Art Gallery of Ontario presented the first retrospective of Canadian artist Alex Colville. David Burnett who met the artist at his home in Nova Scotia curated the exhibit. In his book Colville [McClelland & Stewart, 1983] that accompanied that show, Burnett was particularly apprehensive of the job, saying that “to present the work of a living artist is a special responsibility that must rest upon a relationship of openness and trust between artist and curator.” I would be curious to know Burnett’s opinion of the new Alex Colville exhibit that opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario on August 23rd. For this exhibit, the artist, who died in 2013, was not part of that 'special relationship' of which Burnett puts much importance.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Limbo: Rectify and The Divide

Aden Young stars in Rectify, on the Sundance Channel

There’s a consensus opinion that we’re currently well into a Golden Age of creatively ambitious TV comparable to the movie renaissance of the 1960s and ‘70s, and maybe there’s evidence for that in the success and acclaim enjoyed by some of the most pretentious recent new series. Pretentious TV is nothing new, but in previous decades, “experimental” gobblers like Larry Gelbart’s United States (1980) and Jay Tarses’ The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (1987-1991) were seen as network tax write-offs, indulgences bestowed upon successful veteran TV creators who wanted the chance to sound like auteurs in interviews with The New York Times. After a brief spell, these shows were cancelled or, in the case of Molly Dodd, shuffled off to die a lingering death on cable.

Nowadays, cable is where the action is, and viewers and critics are so eager to show that they’re up to the demands of this challenging medium that when a flawed show that’s clearly straining to join the pantheon arrives, they’ll give it a leg up and even fall over themselves concocting helpful theories explaining why what appear to be its biggest problems are actually the proof that it’s a masterpiece. If, for example, you got a little weary of the overcooked philosophical-hogwash that Matthew McConaughey was obliged to spout throughout True Detective, you may find it reassuring that some reviewers heard the same stuff and reached the thrilling conclusion that McConaughey’s character is not just full of shit but, as Isaac Chotiner insists in The New Republic, “borderline insane.” If this is right, then, when you combine it with the fact that McConaughey’s character is also a master detective whose view of the world seems to be that of the show’s itself, then what we seem to have here is a shiny new TV series modeled on all those dusty old counterculture movies, from Morgan! and King of Hearts to Werner Herzog’s films with Bruno S., in which the insane person is the only one who can clearly see what’s in front of him—unless what’s in front of him is the tall, scar-faced man he’s searching for, if the man happens sitting down in a flattering light. I’m not convinced that the bloviating hero of True Detective really is meant to be cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, but the basic point remains: this could be a great time for people looking to build strong artistic reputations by spinning TV shows out of ideas that were done to death in movies and books and the theater decades ago.

This “what the emperor was wearing when today’s smart cultural gatekeepers weren’t born yet” theory may be the best explanation for the otherwise inexplicable success of Rectify, which has just completed its second season on SundanceTV and has a third one already lined up. SundanceTV started out, back in the late ‘90s, as the Sundance Channel, a broadcast arm of the Sundance Film Festival; it used to show wall-to-wall independent movies, including some real obscure winners that had failed to achieve theatrical distribution or even a DVD release, such as The Target Shoots First, Christopher Wilcha’s funny, eye-opening documentary about his experiences working for the Columbia House mail-order club during the rise of alternative rock. Nowadays, SundanceTV plays pretty much the same roster of well-known “indie” movies as the similarly gelded Independent Film Channel, with commercial interruptions, while aiming to impress with such original TV programming as Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake and the excellent French series The Returned. Rectify was created by Ray McKinnon, a Georgia-born actor familiar for his roles in such movies as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Take Shelter, and Mud, and as the gently unstable minister who Al Swearengen put out of his misery on the HBO series Deadwood; in indie-movie/art-TV circles, he, as Holly Hunter’s daughters said of his character in O Brother, is bona fide.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Where Anything is Possible: A Trip to Green Gables

L.M. Montgomery Museum (Photo by author)

Thirty years ago, my wife and I drove to Prince Edward Island with our two year old son. We took the Wood Island Ferry, stayed in a lovely B&B just outside of Charlottetown and saw very little of the tourist traps that are everywhere nowadays. I recall driving to Cavendish Beach and parking very close to the sand, no charge, and a short walk over the dunes to the ocean. On the way back to the car I lost my pen knife in the sand. Every time I have heard of someone visiting PEI since then I’ve suggested that they check out Cavendish to find my knife. Last week my wife and I drove to PEI again. No ferry this time, we crossed at the Confederation Bridge, a marvellous 10 minute drive across the Northumberland Strait. We stayed in a cottage on the Northumberland Strait near Bedeque. Over a couple of days, we saw every imaginable place that Lucy Maud Montgomery lived, worked, taught or remembered in her book[s] about little Anne Shirley. It was a real Green Gables vacation.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bleached Blood – Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba in Sin City A Dame to Kill For

A vacation in Sin City is a mixed blessing. Robert Rodriguez’s original 2005 film of the same name was a bold and vivid nightmare, offering pulpy cliché in a hyper-stylized noir setting. It was a fascinating place to visit, but you certainly wouldn’t want to live there. Nine long years later, the local attractions that used to seem so quaint have begun to grate on the senses. I was happy to return to the monochrome alleyways of the grittiest city in cinema, but the second time around, it’s really just not the same. A Dame To Kill For, based on the lesser-known (and little-loved) leftovers in the Sin City graphic novel canon, again weaves together several short stories all set in the same grimy, rain-slashed streets. It’s a scattershot experience, with less structure and purpose than the original film, and it makes me wonder why this sequel even exists after so long a sojourn in the sane, healthy world of real life.