Friday, September 19, 2014

All That Is Old Is New Again: On the Current State of Doctor Who

Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, on BBC's Doctor Who

This past winter, my wife knit a Tom Baker-era Doctor Who scarf as a birthday gift for a friend. It turned out my friend has been wanting one since he was a kid, and could not have been more thrilled with the gift. He proudly wore the 12-foot scarf, its colourful tassels dragging along the streets of Washington, D.C., for the remaining cold days of the year, and even beyond them. Recently he told me a story: while walking to work on one such day, he crossed paths with a young boy (perhaps nine-years-old) and his mother. The boy, on seeing my friend, began jumping up and down and pulling at his mom's coat, yelling with delight: ""Doctor Who Scarf! Doctor Who Scarf!!!"

I tell this story, not only because of the profound pleasure the incident provoked in my friend, but because it reveals something I've long believed about Doctor Who as a televisual and cultural phenomenon. Even after 50 years and over 34 seasons, the show appeals across cultures, continents, and generations. (Tom Baker stopped wearing that scarf more than three decades before that young American boy was even born!) I loved the show as a child, when episodes of Peter Davison's Doctor aired on my local PBS channel, and as an adult the relaunched BBC series has topped my list of favourite shows since the show appeared in 2005.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Taylor Swift's "Shake it Off": It's Only a Dance Party


Like, something kinda awesome happened this summer. On August 18, Country music superstar turned pop idolette, Taylor Swift, released a dance video in support of her latest single, "Shake It Off." The video, still in circulation, shows the young superstar in a self-parodying comedic romp through a wide range of dance styles: ballet, b-boy, emotive modern dance, Lady Gaga-esque robotic show dancing and twerkingframed by competitive rhythmic gymnasts leaping through their ribbon spirals and squadron of cheerleaders. The premise of the video is that these athletes and performers represent a closed society of hard-bodies and high achievers to which the deliberately self-deprecating Swift remains an outsider. She is a klutz. She falls when she attempts a ballerina’s curtsy. She can’t even make ribbons look pretty. It’s quite funny, a true satire with dance, in all its many-genered splendour, at the centre. Which in itself should be something to smile about. But instead the innocuous dance numbers, although joyously and satirically presented, have provoked controversy.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Not a Contender: The Drop

James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy in The Drop

When The Godfather opened in 1972, Pauline Kael wrote of the terrifying light it shed on the dark underbelly of American society. Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) had got it wrong, she remarked—Terry Malloy didn’t clean up the docks, after all. The mob had only gone into hibernation, gestating into the new and more virulent mutation that Coppola unleashed two decades later. But though The Godfather and Kazan’s film each concerned itself with organized crime, their characters and setting couldn’t differ more. Coppola treated his gangsters as patrician nobility; Kazan’s were street toughs and longshoremen. Michael Roskam’s new picture, The Drop, draws a closer connection, conjuring up Kazan’s milieu on the gritty, befogged docks of Brooklyn. And he’s even resurrected Terry himself in the person of Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), the bartender of a watering hole used to stash the Chechen mafia’s dirty money. But despite its feel of authenticity and enticing beginning, the movie’s ultimately undone by writer Dennis Lehane’s damnable propensity to preposterous climaxes and deflating character revelations.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Blazing the Trail: Gaming’s Emergent Genres

Bungie's Destiny is just one of the gaming industries new offerings this fall. 

Few industries move at the ferocious clip of the gaming industry. Seas change with dizzying frequency, and like any art form it has both a commercial and an experimental side – but what makes gaming unique is that everyone, no matter where they sit on the spectrum, are changing what gaming is. Gaming is reliant on technology, and as technology’s exponential growth surges forward, games ride along in that wake. While well-established gaming genres are enjoying a hedonistic expansion in terms of scope and polish, with AAA titles becoming bloated to the size of Hollywood blockbusters, there are innovators working diligently on the fringes to deliver experiences that will push the entire medium in new and untested directions. Gaming hasn’t seen such a wild, untamed frontier since the 1990s – and what we’re seeing now puts those breakthroughs to shame.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Shaw’s Early Shaw: Arms and the Man & The Philanderer

George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man (photo by Jim Poston).

In George Bernard Shaw’s early comedy Arms and the Man, Bulgaria is at war with Serbia, and the heroine, Raina, the daughter of one major and the fiancée of another, glories in the excitement of the conflict and the swashbuckling self-presentation of the latter, a handsome warrior named Sergius who marches into the fray like a character out of a Walter Scott novel. But on the last night of battle, a Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbs, Captain Bluntschli, slips into her boudoir to escape from the Bulgarians, and she doesn’t have the heart to give him away. She even feeds him – chocolate creams, his favorite. (She nicknames him her “chocolate cream soldier”; hence the title of the Oscar Strauss operetta version of the material, The Chocolate Soldier.) Bluntschli’s conduct offends her notions of how soldiers should comport themselves, but he and not Sergius is a professional soldier; he finds Sergius’s heroics ridiculous (not to say dangerous). But while Bluntschli undercuts Raina’s schoolgirl notions, he also wins her heart; Shaw’s play may burlesque the romantic temperament, but it’s a romantic comedy and one of his most lighthearted works. It’s also, not surprisingly, one of his most frequently produced plays.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Talking Out of Turn #35: June Callwood (1984)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was radically starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions who were only concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone) which made it look as if they hadn't read the outline. Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be simply a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews a couple of years ago, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large


author and activist June Callwood.

One of the book's chapters, The Arc of the Cold War, dealt with both its peak and decline since the Soviet Union would dissolve by December 1991. The interviews in this chapter, which included SF author Frederik Pohl on his novel Chernoybl and spy novelist Fletcher Knebel's Crossing in Berlin, provided a cross-section of observations about the psychology of the Cold War rather than detailing the different aspects of it. In their film, Seeing Red, documentary filmmakers Julia Reichert and James Klein examined the early years of the American Communist movement, its beginnings in the Thirties, its rise in the WW II years, the later disillusionment with Stalin, and then its legacy in the Eighties. Author June Callwood was (until her death in 2007) a Canadian journalist, activist and author, who wrote Emma: The True Story of Canada's Unlikely Spy (Stoddart Publishing, 1984). It was the story of Emma Woikin, the daughter of a Doukhobor family in Saskatchewan and a child of the Depression years, who became a spy for the Soviet Union. Woikin's life was complicated by a husband who committed suicide and her losing her only child at birth. When she left the prairies to work in Ottawa, she became entangled with Soviet agents and was arrested, along with thirteen others, in the Igor Gouzenko affair in the fall of 1945. Gouzenko had escaped the Soviet Embassy with over 109 documents that proved there was an existence of a Soviet spy ring in Canada. Emma Woikin would eventually come to serve three years in prison. These revelations and arrests contributed to the beginning of the Cold War.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Drama of History: The 40th Anniversary of Randy Newman's Good Old Boys


"It's hard to hear a new voice, as hard as it is to listen to an unknown language," D.H. Lawrence wrote in Studies in Classic American Literature (1924). "We just don't listen." Lawrence wasn't just talking about something as basic as the fear of something new. New ideas, as he later suggested, can always be pigeon-holed. "The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything," Lawrence explained. "It can't pigeon-hole a real experience. It can only dodge. The world is a great dodger, and the Americans the greatest. Because they dodge their own very selves." Lawrence was addressing here the varied works of American writers James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. A panoramic and illuminating study, the polemic examines how a number of gifted writers were coming to terms with the experience of a young country still in the process of finding its identity. For an artist who has barely registered on the public's consciousness, except in his movie music and his songs for Pixar pictures, singer/songwriter Randy Newman could be one of Lawrence's great dodgers – an Artful Dodger – and one who deliberately creates paradoxical narratives in his songs. And his music, like the writers of the previous century, has also been on a comparable sojourn. For almost half a century now, the country he depicts with both love and devotion is also riddled with broken promises, violence, paranoia, superstition and arrogance.