Saturday, September 10, 2011

Gentle On My Mind: Glen Campbell's Ghost on the Canvas

It's not very often when a musician decides to announce a final tour and a last recording. Usually it's a quiet retirement from performing accompanied by a final tour, as was the case with Vladimir Horowitz and Canadian jazz pianist Oliver Jones. There have also been "farewell tours" that never ended like the ones by Cher, David Bowie and The Who, to name just three.

For Glen Campbell, who revealed in June that he has Alzheimer's disease, a last album and a final tour take on new meaning. At a packed concert at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto on August 31st, portions of which you can see on youtube, Campbell didn't look like the debilitated artist one might expect. He was in great form performing some the biggest songs in pop music history, principally written by Jimmy Webb. "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" etc were included in the set with "Gentle on My Mind," "True Grit" and "Southern Nights." But rather than hide behind his illness, Campbell has simply called it the "Goodbye Tour" that takes him across the continent, the U.K. and back again until next February. I can only admire his tenacity and bravery in what are his final days. I don't know much about Alzheimer's but it is commonly known as a degenerative form of dementia or senility. Once the mind starts to fail the bodily functions follow and the only destination after that is death.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Neglected Gems #6: Stevie (2002)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why impressive debuts like Jeff Lipsky’s Childhood’s End (1997) didn’t get half the buzz that considerably lesser movies (Another EarthBallast) acquired upon their subsequent release. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Telling Us What He Thinks: Ry Cooder, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (Nonesuch Records, 2011)


Ry Cooder has been described as a modern Ulysses, on an odyssey though the music of his native America, and then through the rest of the world. From his earliest recorded works as a session guitarist in the late '60s (playing on records by Paul Revere & the Raiders and Pat Boone), through a series of world music experiments (with Africa’s Ali Farka Toure, Hawaii’s Gabby Pahinui and Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club), and a decade scoring films for directors Walter Hill and Wim Wenders, he has introduced slide guitar and blues mandolin to generations of listeners. In 2005, he returned to the marketplace as bandleader with Chavez Ravine, the beginning of his California Trilogy. This series continued with My Name is Buddy (2007) and I, Flathead (2008). Each release saw him expand his vision with bigger productions not just musically but in packaging. Chavez Ravine included a fat booklet with historic photos of the LA neighbourhood; Buddy came in a hardcover book with illustrations (by Vincent Valdez) and brief narrative pieces (written by Cooder) linking the songs; I, Flathead was packaged in a large format hardcover book with a novella telling the story of Kash Buk and the Klowns. The songs on all three albums were composed by Cooder. This, too, was a change of direction.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Glory of Horse Racing: Secretariat (2010) and an afternoon at Woodbine Race Track

For me, there may be nothing more beautiful on this Earth than the sight of a thoroughbred race horse, with jockey aboard, charging down the homestretch pushing and pushing to beat the other thoroughbreds in a turf race. Even as a young boy, I paid attention to the great Triple Crown in the US (Kentucky Derby/ Preakness/ Belmont Stakes) and Canada's own version (The Queen's Plate/ The Prince of Wales Stakes/The Breeder's Cup). The fine-toned, rippling muscles of these gorgeous animals, whether just standing in a paddock or galloping down the track have always caught my eye. I'm fortunate to remember watching Secretariat live on TV, one of the greatest horses ever, when he managed to win the Triple Crown in 1973

It was quite exciting when he won because it had not been done since Citation in 1948. And it has only been done twice since, Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978). Over the years, I've cheered on a variety of horses, some which managed to get the first two, but always failed at the longer and harder-to-achieve, Belmont Stakes. My favourite in recent years was Smarty Jones, a great horse considered “smallish” by thoroughbred standards, but who still managed to easily win the first two legs before being pipped at the wire by Birdstone at Belmont. I didn't even necessarily know I was doing this, but I've also discovered that I've always gone out of my way to watch horse racing films. Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion (1979), Simon Wincer's Phar Lap (1983), Gary Ross's Seabiscuit (2003), Joe Johnston's Hidalgo (2003) and, of course, Randall Wallace's Secretariat (2010) which has just recently come to DVD. Some of these were great, such as Ballard's lyrical masterpiece; some are rousing entertainments (Hidalgo); some of them are sentimental crap (Seabiscuit – really unfortunate since it is based on an absolutely brilliant book written by Laura Hillenbrand); and some are old-fashioned, in the most gloriously positive sense (Secretariat). (A nod must be extended to my Critics at Large colleague Steve Vineberg for this description that he shared with Kevin Courrier; I couldn't agree more).

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Unlikely Duo: Allen & Malick

For a variety of reasons, I didn't get to many movies this past summer. It would also appear that I wasn't alone. (According to CBC News, box office attendance was at its lowest since 1997.) So I didn't feel like I missed much. But there were a couple of movies over the past few months that did cause some lively discussions and unresolved arguments. Students in my classes and people attending various lectures all wanted to talk about Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. Given the dramatically different sensibilities of both of these directors, the talk reflected much of that divide.

In the case of Midnight in Paris, a romantic comedy fantasy about a screenwriter and novelist (Owen Wilson) visiting Paris with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams), the story is about how a contemporary writer's nostalgia for an earlier artistic culture allows him to wish-fulfill himself back into that time. In this case, it's the twenties with Gertrude Stein, Man Ray, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. Midnight in Paris is a completely enjoyable and charming picture where the pleasures exist within the conception of the story rather than in what Allen does with the inhabitants in it. The characters mostly reflect the screenwriter's impressions of them rather than becoming fully fleshed out versions of Hemingway and Stein. Still Midnight in Paris has deservedly become a huge global hit, one of the director's most successful films, and it continues to sell out at rep houses showing it in second run. What I enjoyed most about Midnight in Paris though was the way Woody Allen finally confronts his need to hide in the past. It was a significant step coming from a man who stopped being a strong contemporary comic voice a long time ago.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Comedies of Manners: The Admirable Crichton & Heartbreak House at the Shaw Festival

James Barrie’s comedy of manners The Admirable Crichton has spawned so many movies that it’s in the collective imagination even if people no longer recognize its title. Gloria Swanson starred in a Cecil B. DeMille silent version called Male and Female in 1919; there was a breezy, vaudeville-style musical adaptation called We’re Not Dressing in 1934 with Bing Crosby, Carole Lombard, Ethel Merman and Burns & Allen; and a faithful English film, released in North America as Paradise Lagoon, came out in 1957. Lina Wertmüller’s Marxist variation, Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August, received undeserved acclaim in 1975. Yet, serviceable as it is, the play itself is rarely revived. The Shaw Festival is mounting it this season, for the first time in thirty-five years.

The premise is ingenious. An English lord with liberal ideas  he has a habit, wearying to his family and embarrassing to his domestic staff, of inviting the servants to tea  winds up shipwrecked on a desert island with his daughters, an indolent young member of the leisure class who is paying court to one of them, and a pair of servants, including his indispensable valet Crichton. Because only Crichton possesses the practical skills to keep them alive and thriving, he becomes the ruler of the island community and his employer, the Earl of Loam, is demoted to the position of servant  until they’re rescued and returned to England. Loam learns through experience what Crichton has been protesting all along: that class boundaries can’t be traversed, even though the make-up of the upper class may shift according to Darwinian dictates. (Except for Paradise Lagoon, the film versions don’t stick to Barrie’s high-comedy ending. We’re Not Dressing adopts romantic-comedy mode  Lombard is the snobby heiress who has to be brought down to earth by Crosby’s unpretentious sailor  and Swept Away, which is rather nasty, takes great pleasure in putting down the rich bitch, Mariangela Melato, by showing that she can’t resist the sad-eyed macho prole played by Giancarlo Giannini. Male and Female veers away from comedy of manners early on straight into melodrama.)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Room to Improve: Soulpepper's Production of Arthur Miller's The Price

Eighteen months ago, I had the privilege to direct The Price by Arthur Miller for the Village Players. For me, the cast and the crew, it was an invigorating experience.So it was exciting for all of us to learn that a Soulpepper production was going to be staged in 2011. The Price opened September 2nd to a packed house of friends, colleagues, students and theatre critics. So my review is probably best understood coming as a former director rather than as a critic removed from the work.

Arthur Miller’s play first debuted in 1968. It’s the story of Victor Franz (Michael Hanrahan), an aging police officer, who has to sell the furniture and worldly belongings of his dead father because the building in which they are stored, is being torn down. So he calls up the aging Gregory Solomon (David Fox), a dealer, to come and assess the value or the price of the goods. His brother Walter (Stuart Hughes), who he has not spoken to (or seen in 16 years), shows up as an equal partner in the imbursement of the estate. Esther (Jane Spidell), Victor’s wife, is also a participant looking to support her husband through this transaction, but as Solomon states upon his arrival, “with used furniture you cannot get emotional.” This prediction comes true over the course of the play.