Saturday, December 18, 2010

Music From the Other Side of the Fence: Remembering Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) 1941-2010

Avant-garde artist and musician Don Van Vliet, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart, died early Friday at the age of 69 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. The news was broken by the Michael Werner Art Gallery, which exhibited his abstract paintings after he left the music business in the early 1980s. With a gravel voice and a musical style that blended jazz, blues and abstract expressionist rock into a surreal blend, Captain Beefheart was hardly popular but he was one of the most original voices in popular music.

I first discovered him in 1969 through my love of the music of Frank Zappa. Zappa would produce Beefheart's atonal masterpiece Trout Mask Replica. Although quite a contentious album, this 1969 two-record set had far ranging influence in both punk and alternative rock. Back in 2007, I was fortunate enough to have written a chapbook on Trout Mask Replica for the Continuum Press 33 1/3 music series. As a way of paying tribute to Beefheart, here are some edited passages from that book - which is still available at better bookstores:

Friday, December 17, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #7: D.M.Thomas (1981)

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 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 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). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be 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 recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large

The conventional biography was subverted in different ways during the eighties. Wallace Shawn, for example, with playwright Andre Gregory and film director Louis Malle concocted My Dinner with Andre (1982), a film about two men having dinner and discussing philosophical issues set in the dramatic context of a performance piece. Author David Young, in his book Incognito (1982), stumbled upon a box of old photographs that he found in an attic of an old house he purchased. He decided to write a fictional biography based upon the sequence of photos he discovered. Thriller writer William Diehl (Sharky's Machine, Chameleon), a committed pacifist, wrote lurid pulp as a means to exorcise the violence within himself. What many of these artists in the eighties were attempting to do was to link to their work to a larger collective memory; a shared mythology enhanced by an expansive popular culture.

author and poet D.M. Thomas
In 1981, poet and novelist D.M. Thomas worked with historical fact to create a vivid and powerful work of fiction that would link the psychological insights emerging in the work of Sigmund Freud with the terror of the Holocaust during WW II. He did it in a novel called The White Hotel. The White Hotel was broken into three movements opening with the erotic fantasies of Lisa, one of Freud's patients, which overlapped with the convulsions of the early part of the 20th century leading to the Holocaust. Over the years, many film directors including Terrence Malick (The New World, Tree of Life), Bernardo Bertolucci, David Lynch (even Barbara Streisand) have attempted to put The White Hotel on the screen. But its dreamy horror has yet to be fully conceived as cinema. In one of my first professional radio interviews at CJRT-FM, D.M. Thomas explained how he created such a potent fiction out of this unsettling reality.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Waterlogged: Julie Taymor's The Tempest

Helen Mirren and Felicity Jones in The Tempest
In the Shakespearean canon, The Tempest, reportedly his last written play, stands out as one of his weakest works. It’s essentially a simple tale about Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, who’s been exiled to a deserted island for over a decade with his daughter, Miranda. As The Tempest opens, by use of magic, Prospero has stranded his enemies – who usurped his post – and some others, on various parts of the island. There, they endeavour to make their way back to civilization even as Prospero instructs his child on life and love, and commands the resentful half-man/half-monster Caliban and the loyal sprite Ariel to torment their reluctant guests. It all builds to, not a climax, exactly, but a mild confrontation between the parties concerned, and then a flat and dull happy ending. Slapdash, superficial and thin, The Tempest, even when staged well, as it was at Stratford this past summer (see my review here), cannot surmount its many failings and shortcomings. But when you let a talentless filmmaker like Julie Taymor (Titus, Frida) tackle the project, the results are considerably worse.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ten for 2010: The Best Music of the Year

As the year winds down, I'd like to add my top 10 list to the pile of so many lists that we, in the media, love to prepare. It gives us the opportunity to distinguish good work and remind loyal readerslike youof some high quality art. In my case: music.

First, a word about how I created this list: Music is my religion. I judge it based on the following criteria: interpretation, sound quality, and the element of surprise, focus and the producer. What follows is a list of ten albums for 2010 that distinguished themselves. All of them have been reviewed in Critics At Large. (Click on the album title to read the full review.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lost in Transit: The Tourist

Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in The Tourist
In the opening scenes of The Tourist, based on a little seen 2005 French film, Anthony Zimmer, a mysterious elegant woman, Elise (Angelina Jolie), is seen walking through the streets of Paris while she is being followed by a group of men who work for the International Police. After she sits down at a cafe, Elise gets a letter from a equally mysterious man named Alexander Pearce, who is identified as a former lover of hers. He tells her to board a train and pick out a man who resembles him and make the police believe that this individual is the true Pearce. The guy she picks is a self-effacing American tourist, Frank (Johnny Depp), a math teacher and spy thriller buff, who gets in over his head when he becomes almost immediately smitten with her. By the time they arrive in Venice and he shares her hotel room (but not her bed), Frank gets targeted by some gangsters that Pearce robbed of a sizable sum of money. Before long, Frank is running for his life and trying to figure out why everybody is out to kill him.

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade (1963)
These opening scenes, luxuriously lit by John Seale, whet your appetite for the kind of sophisticated romantic thrills you used to get in wisecracking fare like North by Northwest (1959) and Charade (1963). But The Tourist turns out to be all thumbs and lost in transit. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who took us pretty far inside the tormented life of a cipher in his sharp political exposé The Lives of Others (2006), has no feel for the casual, superficial pleasures offered by romantic thrillers. Despite having two sexy stars in the lead, von Donnersmarck gives you no clue as to why these two misfits would ever fall in love.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol and the Current State of the Thriller

As a genre, whether in books or films, the thriller is in a terrible state. And no, it's not all Dan Brown's fault. Over the last 20 years, the thriller has devolved to the point where it is often just this side of science fiction. I love good science fiction, so this is certainly no diss of that genre, but when thriller writers and filmmakers feel compelled to produce more and more outlandish plots just to get attention, you know something is wrong in the state of Denmark (and yes, I would consider Hamlet a thriller, one of inaction perhaps, but still a thriller).

Herewith are some of the basic plots of a few thrillers in the last 30 years: a group of former Nazis clone Hitler (Ira Levin's The Boys From Brazil – 1976); a group of scientists raise the Titanic to obtain a rare mineral that the US government can then use to create a sound wave to knock down Soviet missiles (Clive Cussler's Raise the Titanic – 1976); Hitler's right-hand-man Rudolph Hess has survived the war and is now a super villain in South Africa attempting to launch a nuclear device at Israel (Greg Iles' Spandau Phoenix – 1993); a virulent form of the Ebola virus is stolen by an evil group planning to let it free on the world (Ken Follett's White Out – 2004); a plan to destroy the Vatican with antimatter is hatched by a madman who also wants to be Pope – and, oh yes, the novel's hero jumps out of a helicopter using a tarp as a parachute! (Brown's Angels and Demons – 2000); a group of people over centuries try to hide the fact Jesus married and fathered children after his crucifixion – the Catholic Church does everything in its power to eliminate those who know (Brown's The Da Vinci Code – 2003); a madman tries to show that a plan to keep The Word from the whole world is the result of a conspiracy by the Masons – many of whom are at the top of the US government (Brown's The Last Symbol – 2009, just released in paperback in October 2010). 

I could go on, but my point is that even though many of these books are pretty terrible and generally poorly written (and yes, I admit over the years I've read all of these), it just doesn't seem to matter. All of these writers (except Levin, who died in 2007) continue to write and frequently make it onto the bestseller lists around the world. And one, Dan Brown, as we all know, became a phenom because of The Da Vinci Code. I know I'm not going to convince anybody that this genre is bereft when the plots have become this idiotic because these books continue to sell and sell and sell. (Want proof? Look at the New York Times Review of Books Fiction Bestseller List for Sunday, December 12, 2010 – nine of the fifteen listed are thrillers.)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Good For Goodness Sake: Santa's Screen Gems

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me....a hidden treasure on DVD or VHS. Whether looking for gifts to put under the tree or simply movies to rent when holiday television programming is skimpy, here are a dozen suggestions in no particular order for older, sometimes forgotten releases that still make sense. They aren’t necessarily full of holiday cheer, but devoted cineastes tend to be happiest if good tidings are tempered by a little gloom: