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.

Friday, September 12, 2014

An Epic Sans Nostalgia: Yves Beauchemin’s Charles the Bold

One of the most fascinating dimensions of Canadian history, at least for those of us who did not grow up in Canada, is the history of Quebec and its relationship to the rest of Canada. While those south of the border are aware of Montreal as a cosmopolitan, French-speaking, “European-style” city that doesn’t require a trans-Atlantic flight and where the legal drinking age is 18, a deeper appreciation of Quebec – and the economic, religious, political, and cultural transformations it has undergone in the last 70 years – is much more rare. One way to cultivate such appreciation is certainly reading some of the numerous and fascinating histories that are available. A difference approach is available in Yves Beauchemin’s multi-novel series, Charles the Bold (Charles le téméraire).

Beauchemin is the premier Quebecois author of our time: his most famous novel, Le Matou (1981: translated into English in 1986 as The Alley Cat and adapted for film in 1985) is also the most widely-translated work of French Canadian literature of all time, currently available in more than 16 languages. He has received numerous literary awards in both Quebec and France, and the University of Bordeaux organized a colloquium on his work in 2000. Born in 1941, Beauchemin has a degree in literature and art history from the Université de Montréal, and has worked as an editor, journalist, and a researcher. Charles the Bold is not an autobiography, but Beauchemin’s familiarity with the places and communities present in his work make them richer than they might be otherwise, the streets, cafés, and bars as multi-dimensional as the characters.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Happy Valley: Do You Know Where Your Children Are?

Sarah Lancashire as Sergeant Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley

As Catherine Cawood, a police sergeant in the West Yorkshire valleys in the six-episode TV series Happy Valley, Sarah Lancashire gives a performance that’s part kitchen-sink drama, part hard-boiled noir. (The show, which aired on BBC One this past spring, is now available for streaming on Netflix.) It’s the kind of full-bodied, lived-in acting that brings the viewer so close to the character that you may feel that you can smell the cigarette smoke in her hair. The weary, middle-aged Catherine lives with her sister Clare, a recovering drug addict played by the wonderful Siobhan Finneran, whose own hair is a messy rat’s nest that sometimes looks like a bad wig, and is still more flattering than the tight wicked-stepmother ‘do she wore as the conniving servant O’Brien in Downton Abbey. Catherine is also taking care of her small grandson, Ryan (Rhys Connah), who has a perilous habit of asking questions for which there are no simple answers.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Neglected Gem #61: Cadillac Man (1990)


As Joey O’Brien, the down-on-his-luck car salesman in Cadillac Man, Robin Williams has a slightly greasy mustache and the sickly complexion of a third-rater who can’t even pump energy out of his sleaziness any more. He can still pull off something nervy, like working a broken-down funeral procession, trying to sell both the besieged undertaker and the grieving widow (Elaine Stritch), but he looks fatigued from trying so hard. And when he arrives at work late, and the boss’s son, Little Jack Turgeon (Paul Guilfoyle), tells him he’s going to lose his job unless he sells a dozen cars by the end of the weekend, his face is an alarmingly clear map of his feelings: terror and failure are written all over it. Joey used to be a hot-shot, and he spent his money faster than he could make it – on women, mostly – and now he’s way behind. He owes money. His ex-wife Tina (Pamela Reed) is pressing him to contribute to their teenage daughter’s college fund and provide the kid some kind of paternal moral support. His married girl friend, Joy (Fran Drescher), is contemplating leaving her husband (Zack Norman) but isn’t convinced Joey will be as good a provider. And his other girl friend, a would-be designer named Lila (Lori Petty), wears him out, dragging him to clubs where she wants her ridiculous creations to attract attention.