Saturday, February 13, 2010

One Night of Sin

Although Elvis died over thirty years ago, he’s still very much alive in many parts of the popular culture and always turning up in the most interesting ways. Whether he's brought up in comparison to Michael Jackson’s recent death, or alluded to in television dramas, novels, songs and visual art, Elvis continues to mutate into every kind of wish fulfillment. He never really left the building.

The list of pop culture references is too long to indulge here, but one notion clearly fascinates me. I always think of Elvis in relation to Marlon Brando. While both emerged out of the rebellion of the ‘50s, they also embodied America’s noblest democratic principle, the idea that a man can make of himself anything he desires. With that goal, or course, comes the eventual failure to live up to that quest for pure freedom that both men created in their work. Their failure to do so came, in part, because of our need to tame in them what we loved most in their distinctiveness; that is, we sought to make them ordinary, to be more like us. But their failure is also due to their own inability to maintain their distinctiveness, the very quality that attracted us to them in the first place. Although both became iconic figures in mass culture, they each ended up horribly isolated and trapped. They even at times became parodies of themselves as if to deny that iconic status, as if to mock it and make it less real. Perhaps that why it’s no accident that these charismatically handsome men would, in succumbing to those pressures, eventually become bloated.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Plague of Digital Cinematography

Is digital photography the wave of the future for all motion pictures? I, for one, hope not.

My point of view has changed over the last nine years after having an initially favourable reaction from seeing my first digitally shot motion picture in 2001 -- Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Set in the Arctic at a time well before the arrival of the white man, Atanarjuat tells the slow, but very compelling story of an evil spirit making mischief for an Inuit warrior as he tries to return to his family and break the spell the spirit has inflicted upon them.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Of Schulberg and Hughes

Budd Schulberg
Within 24 hours last summer, two very different Hollywood legends passed away. Novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg (What Makes Sammy Run, The Disenchanted, On the Waterfront), who died peacefully at the age of 95, was one. The other was John Hughes, writer and director of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, who had created a veritable industry of teen comedies during the ‘80s. Both men became part of very different Hollywood zeitgeists.

Schulberg invoked an age and political climate still left fully unresolved. The era of the Hollywood Blacklist and McCarthyism, where both he and Elia Kazan (who would direct Schulberg’s script of On the Waterfront) would testify before the House of Un-American Activities. The notion of ratting on your friends, the theme of Waterfront, was key to understanding a time where McCarthy’s virulent paranoia was destroying lives and turning the Red Menace into a careerist’s game of watching some backs while knifing others. Yet there were those, like Kazan and Schulberg (as well as many others), who had earlier been part of the Communist movement with its hopes of fighting injustice at home and fascism abroad. But they came to see its true face in the ideology of Stalinism. In that moment, some of these same idealists quickly became realists. But the question arose, to paraphrase Victor Navasky (Naming Names), of what is the greater sin: Stalinism or McCarthyism? Some chose Stalinism as the bigger evil because they watched writers, composers and artists whose work they loved testifying at show trials and often later being executed. The American version of show trials, they felt, was certainly destructive, but ultimately not as lethal. In any event, choices were made and the era was challenged by men like Budd Schulberg.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

New Orleans: August 29/05 Destruction, February 7/10 Resurrection

Can something as simple as a football game save the psyche of a city? After Hurricane Katrina came and laid New Orleans low there was talk, a lot of talk, of not rebuilding her again, of just letting her go. Was it worth it, the talk went, to spend millions, nay billions to rebuild a city that was likely to be flattened again at some point in the future? But there is something about the resilience of people, even after the worst catastrophe. They bury their dead, treat their wounded, clean up and start again (just ask Haiti, right now).

Spike Lee's brilliant four-part documentary, When the Levees Broke, about the aftermath of Katrina, outlined this harrowing story with an eye so clear that you can forgive its occasional lapses into proselytizing. In the film, we are introduced to a group of people from all walks of life who tell their story as honestly as they can. At the end, even as the city still lies in ruins, you get a hint of hope; a hope that by the end of 2005 seemed terribly misplaced. But it was there nonetheless.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Israeli Cinema: Anything But Propaganda

The recent Oscar nomination for the Israeli drama Ajami marks the third year in a row that a movie from Israel has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film award. (Beaufort and Waltz with Bashir were the other recent nominees.) That’s pretty impressive for such a small country, a testament to the quality and vitality of recent Israeli cinema.

In truth, Israeli films have been nominated for Oscars before; six of them, including good movies like Sallah, The House on Chelouche Street and Operation Thunderbolt, received nods between 1964 and 1985. Those nominations, however, came about at a time when far fewer foreign language films were submitted to the Academy – sixty five such movies were entered this year – and, I suspect, were also the result of a favourable bias towards Israel,  which used to be viewed a lot more sympathetically around the world than it is now. The current crop of nominations for Israeli films is more a recognition of just how good Israeli cinema has become of late.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Broken English (2007)

I can't think of another movie where a woman's desperate need for a relationship is dealt with both comically and painfully quite like Zoe Cassavetes’ Broken English. There is probably no other actress, either, better than Parker Posey who could delicately negotiate the shifting mood swings that such anxiety inspires. Broken English, which had a very limited release in 2007, isn’t simply about the neurotic funk of being lonely. It’s about an attractive and intelligent woman whose ability to find a passionate and compatible relationship gets impaired by her rash decisions to mate. Cassavetes, who is the daughter of the late actor/director John Cassavetes, has definitely inherited her father’s love of actors but (thankfully) without imposing all his heavy-spirited psycho-dramatics on the picture. Broken English comes closest to invoking the suffused moods of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, or maybe Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (to which Cassavetes pays tribute here).

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Understatement: Jason Schneider's Whispering Pines


“There is no music that you can say, ‘Oh, that’s Canadian – know what I mean? It’s North American music – different countries, but you hear the exact same music, from blues to cowboy. So rather than talking about Calgary or Montreal, we talked about places that we played in.”

--Robbie Robertson quoted in Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music.

It’s been commonly held for years that Canadian musical performers only achieve their due recognition when they go south of the border. While that remains something of a simplification, there are still many examples to choose from – Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, just to name a few. Fortunately, in his recent book Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music…From Hank Snow to The Band (ECW Press, 2009), author Jason Schneider develops a more substantial rendering of this phenomenon. By examining the Canadian songwriting tradition as a national narrative, he’s able to illustrate how our musical artists subtly permeate the American experience rather than seek out our neighbour’s validation. In a series of essays that chart the careers of Hank Snow, Wilf Carter, Ian & Sylvia and Leonard Cohen, Schneider (Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance) draws a delicate map of our cultural influence in popular music. He doesn’t so much examine how our identity as Canadians is felt in American music, but rather how American popular music has been enriched by our Canadian sensibilities.