Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Critic as Reader

Last January, I was part of a small group of professional critics who thought up the idea of doing this website. Over the year, we also managed to woo a number of writers to its cause, all of whom were excited about the possibility of doing intelligent arts criticism. Although I was one of those writers who contributed to Critics at Large, I also became an avid reader of the site. What I read from this motley group of passionate scribes helped me affirm my belief that one could retain a love of discussing a world of ideas despite pressures from an industry that endorsed and rewarded consumerism over criticism. As a way to thank those writers, whose hard work and sharp powers of observation inspired my own writing this year, I prepared a list of my favourite pieces from our archives. While each of these writers might argue that the work I've chosen isn't necessarily their best, I believe it highlights with clarity the sensibility of the critic who wrote it. These posts, in no particular order, are the ones that most mattered to me. For those readers who came late to Critics at Large, or simply missed the original post, I invite you to look back at some of the best work we did last year.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Top Films of 2010: It Was Not a Very Good Year



2010 will likely go down as one of the very worst years ever in film, at least, in the twenty plus years I’ve been reviewing movies in Toronto. And while I like doing Best of the Year lists, compiling this one only served to remind me of how bad things were at the cinemas, both on the commercial end of things (Get Him To the Greek, Kick-Ass) and art house environs (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, The Tempest); those movies were equally painful to sit through. It was a strong year for documentaries, though (La danse, Inside Job, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Marwencol and others) and French films (Carlos, Un proph├Ęte, Micmacs). But American feature films were especially weak and negligible (The Social Network and Black Swan were about the only ones that stood out.) More to the point, once I factor in the films mentioned on my year end list below, there were only a few others (Another Year, The King’s Speech, Mother, Splice, Get Low, Trigger) that were worth my time. Usually there are three times that many good features to consider. But enough gloom and doom, without further ado here are my twelve top films of 2010, most of them reviewed on Critics at Large, the ones that excited, provoked, entertained and engrossed me in equal measure.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Some of the Best: Favourites of 2010


Unlike other critics, I've always kind of enjoyed compiling a list of favourites from the previous years. It gives me a chance to look back on the year and examine what I've read, seen or listened to. Some of what follows was not necessarily part of 2010, but I only got around to it this past year. In fact, one example is over 70 years old. A few I've written about on the blog in 2010, but not all. So, sit back, relax and, hopefully, enjoy.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Man of the West: Ian Tyson's The Long Trail

Ian Tyson is a Canadian singer/songwriter of great artistic reputation. He penned some of the country’s most familiar songs, such as “Four Strong Winds” and “Someday Soon”. In his autobiography, The Long Trail (Random House, 2010), written with Jeremy Klaszus, Tyson admits that his “childhood memories are lost to too many miles and too many whiskey bottles.” In spite of that condition, Tyson’s ability to recall his life seems unaffected.

The Long Trail reads like a conversation, albeit, one-sided. It’s as if Tyson has invited the reader into his den or kitchen and reminisced. This approach has Tyson endearing his readers without fuss or pretense. It’s a life of mischief, horses, the outdoors, women, travel and the so-called, Western frontier. It’s a life full of mistakes, but no regrets; yet one that still seems ordinary.

At first glance, it appears that Tyson has had a better relationship with horses than he he’s had with people. He often refers to horses by name with references to their heritage and how much he paid for them. But this would be a simplistic conclusion to reach. Tyson is great storyteller because he’s also a great songwriter and that combination has served him well in this book. He’s been able to pen some of the best songs about love, life and the West for years. And while The Long Trail offers some insights into his artistic process, it seems as wide open a book as the countryside Tyson eloquently talks about.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Forgotten Foreign Language Gems (Part Two)

 
As I mentioned in yesterday's post, it became apparent from a recent film course that I taught, Key Filmmakers of Our Time, that outside of North America, excepting, perhaps for France, too many important foreign language films were not readily available on DVD. This included films from major directors, such as Italy’s Francesco Rosi (Illustrious Corpses,Three Brothers) and  the lateTaiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang (A Brighter Summer Day). (Key Canadian films, such as Rejeanne Padovani, Joshua Then and Now and 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould were also either never put out on DVD or are now out of print.) And of those foreign films that did get put out on disc, a lot of them fell through the cracks or were ignored because most DVD reviewers were more interested in promoting the big Hollywood blockbusters. In that light of rectifying a wrong, here are a few more foreign language films that are well worth searching out at your local quality video store.


Monday, December 27, 2010

Forgotten Foreign Language Gems (Part One)

It became apparent from a recent film course that I taught, Key Filmmakers of Our Time, that outside of North America, excepting, perhaps for France, too many important foreign language films were not readily available on DVD in Canada. This included films from major directors, such as Italy’s Francesco Rosi (Illustrious Corpses, Three Brothers) and the late Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang (A Brighter Summer Day). (Key Canadian films, such as Rejeanne Padovani, Joshua Then and Now and 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould were also either never put out on DVD or are now out of print but that’s a story for another blog.) And of those foreign films that did get put out on disc, a lot of them fell through the cracks or were ignored because most DVD reviewers were more interested in promoting the big Hollywood blockbusters. In that light of rectifying a wrong, here are some foreign language films that are well worth searching out at your local quality video store.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #8: Margaret Atwood (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 starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was now starting to take 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. 

Talking Out of Turn had one section devoted to critics who ran against the current of popular thinking in the eighties. That chapter included discussions with film critic Vito Russo (The Celluloid Closet) who wrote a book about gay cinema before the horror of AIDS changed the landscape; also Jay Scott, who would later die from AIDS, spoke about how, despite being one of Canada's sharpest and wittiest writers on movies, he was initially a reluctant critic; and author Margaret Atwood who turned to literary criticism in her 1983 book Second Words. She discussed -- from an author's perspective -- the value of criticism and how it was changing for the worst during this decade.