Sunday, September 30, 2012

Risk-Free Music With a Good Sound: The Sheepdogs

A few years ago legendary musician Tom Petty made an appearance on the Charlie Rose program to discuss the music business, and more specifically rock. Rose asked him about the health of the genre; Petty’s reply: “It’s asleep.” But one could say that it has been asleep for many years, at least, as the kind of pure, unadulterated music that bands like Petty’s Heartbreakers once did between 1967 and 1975. If I were posed such a question myself, I might submit that music, and in particular rock & roll, has evolved by borrowing influences across a number of genres rather than branching out from the same, extended blues roots.

The Sheepdogs, the Canadian quartet from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, may be the last link to any pure form of rock music. Rooted in the blues, yet forged by the tough sound of electric guitars, The Sheepdogs have always reminded me of a blend of styles from such roots rock bands as The Grateful Dead, CCR and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But as an up and coming Canadian act, whose first three records barely scratched the all-important American market, The Sheepdogs finally got launched into stardom by making the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 2011. Thus a new rock music saviour was born and the band was signed to Atlantic Records. Produced by Patrick Carney, of The Black Keys, this self-titled release is an album specifically focused to introduce the band to a larger audience. Unfortunately, while the record may generate wider appeal, it does nothing to alert or awaken the music from Tom Petty’s defined slumber. (The Foo Fighters did that!)

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Time's Mysterious Passage: Penny & The Quarters' "You and Me"

Michelle Williams & Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine
In Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine (2010), when Dean (Ryan Gosling) selects a song that he clearly hopes sustains the love between himself and Cindy (Michelle Williams), he's in a very familiar and popular movie tradition. That tradition includes Dooley Wilson calling up the lost romantic days in Paris for Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) when he sings and performs "As Time Goes By" in Casablanca (1943), or Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) holding his boom-box high above his head outside the bedroom window of Diane Court (Iona Skye), the girl he's smitten with, so she can hear Peter Gabriel's touching "In Your Eyes" in Say Anything (1989). The romanticism in these songs not only serves to enhance the desires of the characters on the screen, what you could call an urgent yearning in them to make their love work, but it also speaks to the way pop music so often captures the fleeting innocence of what it feels like to fall in love. While in real life, relationships change, the songs always remain the same, fixed in the time in which they were first recorded. And if the relationship falls apart, or especially if it ends tragically, these tunes can quickly bring us heartache. When they suddenly come on the radio – often in a flash – they remind us of who we once were, but are no more.

Along with his co-writers Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, Cianfrance in Blue Valentine seems to understand the ways in which pop songs can define the way we love. He underlines it by introducing the couple's song in a completely new way. And the song he's chosen has a fascinating history of its own which hauntingly mirrors the dashed hopes of the couple on the screen. Blue Valentine is a devastating and accomplished work, a heartbreaking film about the dissolution of the relationship between Dean and Cindy, but it's not told to us in linear time. Throughout the film, we jump back and forth and through the various moments in their love affair and marriage, those moments that are both poignant and ultimately wounding. Cinafrance nimbly contrasts those changes, too, even in the body language of the characters. As they both come to know each other, we can see in their bodies the eager and giddy anticipation of the sparks they hope to set off in each other. (It's there in the musical sway of their courtship.) But that eagerness is then boldly juxtaposed with the present, where the music is suddenly gone and a revulsion at being physically touched dramatically mirrors the ways in which their marriage is coming apart. In most romantic pictures, we usually hear the couple's song the first time they choose it, when it clearly signals the love they begin to feel for each other. And we come to believe in that song, just as Rick and Ilsa believe in "As Time Goes By." In Blue Valentine, we encounter their song early in the picture, but it comes late in their marriage when it no longer has any meaning left for them. It is, in fact, in a moment when Dean is desperately trying to get it back. Then we hear it again, later in the film. But this time, it's right at that moment when it first became their song, a moment that becomes unbearably wounding because we also now know where their marriage is heading.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Definitely an Oxymoron: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master

Joaquin Phoenix & Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master

I’m not really surprised that Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest movie The Master is as atrocious as it is. This is, after all, the filmmaker who’s inflicted Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and There Will be Blood (2007) upon us. But I do marvel anew at the superlatives and fulsome praise being lavished on Anderson by the majority of film critics, even though the over-praising of this director, who actually has little of value to offer, is also par for the course. The Master is being festooned with adjectives – audacious, brilliant, masterful – that are more rightly applied to genuine filmmakers, talents such as Robert Altman, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir and Steven Spielberg, directors who've actually made movies that last and have impacted on the cinematic medium in new and unique ways. In fact, The Master, which Anderson wrote as well, isn't deserving of any commendations at all. It’s a film that is rife with idiotic, pulpy dialogue, mannered, artificial acting, sloppy plotting and a storyline that, despite its obvious pretensions to the contrary, doesn't add up to anything memorable at all.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Man and His Masks: Peter Gabriel, September 19, 2012, Air Canada Centre, Toronto

Peter Gabriel - Toronto, September 19, 2012

Peter Gabriel and I have quite a history together. Last week at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto I saw him for the sixth time, which I will discuss shortly, but nothing will ever top the first time on the evening of October 16, 1978, also in Toronto, at Maple Leaf Gardens. And no, I'm not rainman with dates. There's a wonderful, and very obsessive website called setlist.fm that lists all his (and many many perfomers') concerts from the start of his solo career to the present.

In 1978, I was a broke university student, so I could only afford nosebleed seats in the greys high up in MLG's rafters. A friend and a girl I was seeing at the time came with me. After a terrible opening act (what they were thinking putting Nick Gilder on as Peter Gabriel's opening act is beyond me. We booed him off the stage in 15 minutes – poor bastard – though we gave him polite applause for his one hit that I can recall, “Hot Child in the City”), I snuck down to the top of the reds with my camera, telephoto lens and high-speed black and white film. I hoped that the lens and fast film would allow me to get good shots.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Jimi Hendrix Drifting

When Jimi Hendrix died in 1970, over forty years ago this month, I was in high school. It was a time when a number of key pop figures – all in their twenties – never got to see thirty. A year earlier, it was Brian Jones of The Stones, and Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison would soon follow Hendrix to the grave. Besides sobering you with a taste of death's final victory (right at that moment when you saw nothing but life straight ahead), you also realized that a person's genius, their gifts, even their youth, could do nothing to protect them.

Hendrix's death hit me harder than the others because I came to truly love the paradoxical nature of his music. (In a song that fundamentally came out of the blues like "Burning of the Midnight Lamp," he combined a harpsichord with a wah-wah electric guitar and a chorale section to create a powerfully intense emotional soundscape.) Although Jimi Hendrix was always fully recognized as a virtuoso and theatrical guitar stylist, he was rarely discussed in any great depth in terms of his gifts as a poet, singer and music innovator. (For those insights, it's best to read David Henderson's 1978 biography 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky which still hasn't been equalled.) But John Morthland, writing in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, captured key aspects of those many gifts that Henderson elaborates on. "As a guitarist, Hendrix quite simply redefined the instrument, in the same way that Cecil Taylor redefined the piano or John Coltrane the tenor sax," he wrote. "As a songwriter, Hendrix was capable of startling, mystical imagery as well as the down-to-earth sexual allusions of the bluesman." Those sexual allusions though also led to a particular kind of theatricality that the artist himself was growing tired of indulging. Joni Mitchell, who met Hendrix in Ottawa towards the end of his life, recognized immediately his frustration about the public and critical perception of him based on those sexual allusions. "He made his reputation by setting his guitar on fire, but that eventually became repugnant to him," Mitchell told The Guardian in 1970. "'I can't stand to do that anymore,' he said, 'but they've come to expect it. I'd like to just stand still'."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Comedy at Its Highest Peak: The Big Bang Theory

The cast of The Big Bang Theory

Note: The following contains Spoilers

Two of the best American comedies on television, The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family, come from very different sitcom traditions. But they also cross over in interesting ways. The Big Bang Theory (CBS), which begins its sixth season on Thursday, Sept. 27, features an old fashioned laugh track, uses two cameras, and is a studio shot comedy in the vein of The Honeymooners, All in the Family and Frasier. Modern Family (ABC), which heads into its fourth season on Wednesday September 26, and which I’ll write about next week, eschews the laugh track, is filmed on real locations and is more in the naturalistic vein of M*A*S*H and Mad About You. Yet The Big Bang Theory still boasts the kind of sharp wit and subtle jokes that makes it quite contemporary in tone; and Modern Family has a decided penchant for slapstick, spit takes and pratfalls. Both shows are very funny and, in their own ways, unique comedies.

When The Big Bang Theory debuted in 2007, it did seem like a long shot for ratings success, even though it was the creation of Chuck Lorre, who had already scored big with Two and a Half Men (a crass comedy decidedly inferior to The Big Bang Theory in every way). After all, who but a bunch of science fiction obsessed nerds would want to watch a show about people like that? But Lorre was onto something. He realized that thirty years after Star Wars, SF, fantasy and gaming had so penetrated the popular culture that there would be quite a lot of interest in its goings-on from the outside world. Not to mention, the series offered one strong female character that functioned as the fulcrum for the guys and their shtick and provided  a ‘normal’ counterpart to the male oriented geek brigade (There are now three women on the show.) Five years on, The Big Bang Theory is an enormous hit (some 16 million American viewers, up 23% from the year before) and a smooth running ensemble, with not a weak link among the cast.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Curiouser and Curiouser: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time


Mark Haddon’s beloved novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a stunt, but a brilliant one. Haddon imagines the coming of age of a fifteen-year-old autistic boy through the perspective of its hero, Christopher Boone, who discovers – in the course of trying to solve the murder of the next-door neighbor’s dog – that his father has lied to him, claiming that his mother died of heart disease when in fact she ran off to London with the neighbor’s husband. The shock of discovering dozens of letters his mother wrote him (and his father hid) – and his fear that his father, who admits to having killed the dog in a fit of anger, might just as easily kill him – drives him to find his way from the provincial town where he lives to London, a feat that, given the limitations of his perception, requires a stunning combination of courage and invention. The book itself is a feat of sympathetic imagination and of tonal imagination too. Christopher can’t read other people’s expressions of their feelings and he can’t convey his own in any conventional way, yet the novel is poignant; he doesn’t comprehend humor, yet it’s funny and charming. It’s a sort of revision of Alice in Wonderland with a protagonist incapable of lying who falls down the rabbit hole when he has to parse the great lie that’s been told to him and then journeys all the way to London, which might as well be the end of the earth.

Luke Treadaway & Paul Ritter (photo by Manuel Harlan)
The National Theatre dramatization, which reached international audiences via HD this month, is a faithful transcription by playwright Simon Stephens, staged by Marianne Elliott (co-director of War Horse) in the National’s smallest space, the Cottesloe. The intimacy of the venue, combined with Elliott’s novel use of the space (wonderfully designed by Bunny Christie) and Peter Constable’s lighting, which often uses darkness to sculpt the environment, presents difficulties for the National Theatre Live HD series that previous productions haven’t. It takes a long time to get used to the visuals; I’d say it takes a long time to negotiate where you are in relation to what’s being played out in front of you, but in fact you never do, and you’re not supposed to, since the arena, a grid on which projections are constantly playing (usually of numbers, to suggest Christopher’s fixation on mathematics), is continually shifting to imitate the patterns forming in the young hero’s mind. Sometimes the HD version includes aerial views of the stage, which helps considerably and isn’t really a violation of the original theatrical experience, since anyone who sits in the balcony of the Cottesloe has pretty much a straight-down view of the stage. In any case, the challenges are worth meeting. This is a splendid production, with a remarkable young actor named Luke Treadway in the starring role. Treadway has amazing physical and vocal technique and an entirely novel kind of wit and ebullience. He finds dramatic equivalents to communicate Christopher’s diverted emotions (Haddon’s point is that they aren’t blocked, just deviated) and his unassailable logic.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

One For Two: Dwight Yoakam's 3 Pears & The Time Jumpers

The first sound you notice on the new Dwight Yoakam album is a peculiar “yelp” at the end of his phrases. Fortunately, this annoying affectation is only heard on three of the songs on his new album, 3 Pears (Warners, 2012), released last week. The songs “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” and “Nothing But Love” are loaded with a pseudo Buddy Holly twitch, plus an affectation that distinguished the Texas rock ‘n roller. Even though Yoakam’s songs thrive on his ability to shape his lyrics with humour this record lacks any of the cool turns-of-phrase that have highlighted his work over the years. (See: Gone or Blame The Vain) The one exception would be the title track, “3 Pears,” as he plays off the synonym “Three pairs of glasses/Three pairs of shades/Three pairs of other things/All there in spades.” It’s not much, but when Yoakam puts the words into the context of a song, the sarcasm lingers.

That said, the strongest songs on the album come at the hands of co-producer, Beck Hansen (aka Beck). “A Heart Like Mine” and “Missing Heart”explore a more interesting arrangement of Yoakam’s distinctive baritone, but on this album his voice is beginning to sound a little tired. Nevertheless, Yoakam puts in a good performance on a album closing version of “Long Way To Go” featuring only piano accompaniment. It’s a deeper emotional journey for a singer who, for the past 20 years, wears his heart on his proverbial sleeve. So while it’s nice to hear from Yoakam after such a long stretch (this is his first album of new songs in 7 years), I was disappointed by the unevenness of the record and the poor mixes, especially the more rock-oriented tracks. The drums, which crash and burn on most of the cuts, are either too loud or too heavy-handed. To me, Yoakam’s talent lies in his ability to straddle the Bakersfield sounds of Buck Owens with contemporary Nashville honky tonk, with a small dash of wit attached. (I highly recommend any of the Pete Anderson produced sessions from the 1990s) So while this record has put Dwight Yoakam back on the proverbial country music map, 3 Pears bears little fruit.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Political Music: New CDs from Bill Bourne and Annabelle Chvostek



Just when you think you’re on top of all the stuff you need to review, the mailman arrives and drops a pile of CDs into the mailbox. I pile them up in front of my computer so I remember the order in which they arrived. I simply don’t have time to listen to all of them. I’ll pop one in to the CD player every once in awhile and try to work through it, but if it’s a good one I get distracted from what I’m supposed to be doing, and if it’s a bad one I may never give it another chance. And when I say a bad one, I don’t necessarily mean that the artist and his/her music has no redeeming qualities, I simply mean it didn’t grab me on first listen. The trouble with having so much to listen to is that you may never get back to something just because so much more has arrived in the meantime.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Neglected Gem #24: The Gingerbread Man (1998)

The Gingerbread Man, from 1998, is one of Robert Altman’s least known movies; even most of his fans probably don’t know it exists. Altman encountered a familiar problem with the screenwriter when he rewrote the script on the set, but the fact that this time the writer he alienated was John Grisham, adapting his own story, added up to lousy PR for Altman when Grisham had his name removed from the credits. (The listed screenwriter, Al Hayes, is an invention.) It didn’t help that the preview screenings were poorly received – and that the recut version, after the studio, Polygram, snatched the picture back from Altman, didn’t fare any better. At that point Altman got his movie back, but without the blessing of the distributor.Yet the movie is a sensationally effective off-center thriller.

Altman’s relationship to Grisham’s material parallels Sam Peckinpah’s to the dead-in-the-water Robert Ludlum plot he got saddled with in his last picture, The Osterman Weekend (1983): he doesn’t scuttle it, exactly, but he transforms it by discovering a theme for it (theme is almost as foreign a concept to Grisham as character), by marinating it in atmosphere, and by using it to set loose a truly dazzling exhibition of directorial technique. The Gingerbread Man is set in Savannah, and its hero is a glib, skillful lawyer, Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh, in a loose, energized performance), who’s just come off a controversial, high-profile case. The trial has made him the least popular citizen in the county in the eyes of the police community, because he got a criminal off and crucified a cop in the process (for shooting the perp). Magruder’s personal life is a shambles: his ex-wife Leeanne (Famke Janssen) is hot to gain full custody of their two kids, and she shows up at his firm’s celebration of his victory with her divorce lawyer on her arm, just to piss him off. Rick’s own behavior that night isn’t any cannier: he offers one of the waitresses (Embeth Davidtz) a lift home, after she tells him her car has been stolen, and winds up in bed with her. Everyone in the office sees him show up the next morning in the same suit he left in, and Leeanne, who’s hunting for ways to prove he’s an unfit parent, sizes up the situation correctly when he arrives late to pick up the kids. And when he tries to connect with the waitress again, calling up the catering service to obtain her home number, it suddenly occurs to him that he doesn’t even know her name.(Branagh does a lovely job with this small moment of recognition, when Rick suddenly sees in himself the immaturity and instability that others – especially Leeanne – have been accusing him of.)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Invisible Men

Ralph Ellison
In 1952, black American author Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man, a novel that addressed many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans in the early part of the twentieth century. The book, which Ellison began in the summer of 1945 in a barn in Waitsfield, Vermont, while on sick leave from the Merchant Marine, became a passionate, angry declaration of independence. (Ellison had already asserted a bold independence when he wouldn't serve in the segregated army, but chose merchant marine service over the draft.) But Ellison's rage wasn't just directed towards the racist society that had rendered him invisible, but also his disillusionment with the Communist Party he had joined and supported in the mid-Thirties.

Ellison felt betrayed by Party leaders who he felt had treated the black civil rights struggle as merely an expedient symbol, a means to an end in the Marxist class struggle against capitalism. Culture critic Robert Warshow would accurately address this phenomenon, the Stalinist corruption of American intellectual life, a couple of years later in The Nation. "[I]n the '30s radicalism entered upon an age of organized disingenuousness, when every act and every idea had behind it some 'larger consideration' which destroyed its honesty and meaning," he wrote. "Everyone became a professional politician, acting within a framework of 'realism' that tended to make political activity an end in itself. The half-truth was elevated to the position of a principle, and in the end the half-truth, in itself, became more desirable than the whole-truth." For Ellison, this couldn't have been true when considering the non-aggression pact that was signed between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Prodigal Son: The Catholicism of Eugene O’Neill

Playwright Eugene O'Neill

A few years ago, filmmaker Ric Burns released a documentary on Eugene O’Neill for PBS that featured several notable screen actors performing excerpts from the playwright’s works. Among them was Christopher Plummer, who confesses to Burns onscreen that he hadn’t always had a passion for the writer. “I felt,” he explains, “that he enjoyed being indulgent – there’s a great indulgence in him.” Plummer felt drawn to the British playwrights instead, preferring their understated approach to O’Neill’s sturm und drang. But the latter bled Irish blood, and while the English may button down their emotions and their prose, the Irish are the people who throw back a Jameson, break into ebullient reels, and then slay you with a tragic ballad. Weighed down with collective psychic baggage accrued over centuries of suffering, they let alcohol uncork their pent up agony into an aesthetic emotional flood they’d readily drown in. Plummer’s observation is right on one level, and O’Neill did in part cultivate and relish his image as a tortured artist. But this truth, as Plummer himself admits, misses the bigger point: that O’Neill’s indulgence inevitably bowls you over, the way Plummer’s performance of James Tyrone from Long Day’s Journey into Night does over the documentary’s next few minutes, or Jason Robard’s ones, or Vanessa Redgrave’s. O’Neill plumbed the depths of his haunted soul with a naked vulnerability that demands respect – it may be shameless, but it’s remarkably ambitious in its insistence to be heard. He single-handedly took American theater from the basement to the rafters, and grabs you by the throat in the process. When you listen to it, his language becomes, as Plummer put it, “uncannily one’s own.”

Dorothy Day
And his anguish was real, after all. Scarred by his mother’s morphine addiction, he, like the other men in his family, struggled with severe alcoholism. Tuberculosis nearly killed him and he took to the seas to escape his inner demons. As a young man carousing about the bars of the Lower East Side, he would regale his friend and sometime-sweetheart Dorothy Day with drunken recitations of Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.” He “would sit there, black and dour,” she recalls in her autobiography The Long Loneliness, “his head sunk as he intoned, ‘And now my heart is as a broken fount, wherein tear drippings stagnate.’” The poem’s theme – of God’s ceaseless pursuit of the fleeing sinner – fascinated the (at the time) agnostic woman. Elsewhere she describes holding him in bed as he shivered into intoxicated sleep. He, in turn, urged her to read St. Augustine’s Confessions. The effect it had on her was undoubtedly more than he imagined – Day, of course, had a major conversion to Catholicism and became famous as the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Her communal life of prayer and works of mercy with the poor of New York – and the national movement it sparked – led historian David O’Brien to dub her “the most influential, interesting, and significant figure in the history of American Catholicism,” and the Vatican to open her cause for canonization.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Straight Talk: Elmore Leonard's Raylan

One of author Elmore Leonard's great gifts, as previously demonstrated in Maximum Bob and Get Shorty, is his unique ability to shape his characters specifically through their dialogue. In Raylan (HarperCollins, 2012), Leonard’s 30th novel, the story of a sharp-shooting U.S. Marshall, the author continues his talk-driven style in fine fashion. Raylan Givens, is the lead character in the FX series, Justified, that just ended its third season. (The series is based on the characters in Leonard’s short story, "Fire In The Hole," published in 2001. The first episode of the series is an adaptation of that story.) Justified stars Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, whose claim to fame was as the sheriff Seth Bullock in Deadwood, the superb, but short-lived HBO series. (Interesting how he went from a law enforcer in one era to a U.S. Marshall in the modern era)

The character of Raylan Givens often reads like the John Wayne of old: a man with grit and a moral code. For Leonard, whose characters are often flawed, that cliché isn’t celebrated. Givens is good, but he drinks too much, often gets into fights that he loses, and is often a little too flexible with the law. He wears a cowboy hat at all times, even though it’s not part of the uniform, and fancies himself a ladies' man. But most of all, he considers his actions in the light of criminal activity as “justified.” And the way Leonard shapes his stories the reader can’t help but agree. It’s Given’s strong moral code that engages you. Givens is a Marshall, after all, whose job is to collect felons on the lam and bring them to jail. It’s a job he does well even if he bends the rules from time-to-time.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Overthinking Hedda: Hedda Gabler at the Shaw

Moya O'Connell as Hedda Gabler (Photo by Emily Cooper) 
More than any other playwright, Henrik Ibsen was responsible for bringing the theatre into the modern age, which is why his plays – not just the most frequently performed masterpieces, A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, but also The Wild Duck, Ghosts, The Master Builder, Rosmersholm and Lady from the Sea – feel freshly startling, even devastating, when you pick them up again. (The Shaw Festival did a revelatory staging of the seldom performed Rosmersholm in 2006.) It’s one thing to talk about the modernist qualities of these works, however, and quite another to forget that Ibsen’s heroes and especially his heroines are trapped like flies in amber in the intractable mores of nineteenth-century Norway. A director who ignores the repressed Nordic Victorianism of Ibsen’s age does so at his or her peril. (Anyone remember the Joseph Losey movie of A Doll’s House, with Jane Fonda as a Nora who seemed to have sprung, consciousness fully raised, from the early 1970s?) Hedda Gabler’s sexual curiosity can’t be satisfied in drawing-room banter because she’s a woman; she has to get the information she craves through witty but decorous innuendo and delicately framed allusions. Yet in Martha Henry’s production at the Shaw, when Eilert Loevborg (Gray Powell), who once courted Hedda (Moya O’Connell), meets her at the house she has just moved into with her new husband, George Tesman (Patrick McManus), Eilert puts his hand unabashedly on Hedda’s leg while Tesman and family friend Judge Brack (Jim Mezon) are in another room drinking glasses of punch. When Hedda finally admits to her husband that she’s (unhappily) pregnant with his child, a subject discussed in polite Victorian society with only the most indirect phrasing, O’Connell thrusts his hand onto her belly. When the judge returns in the last act to bring the news that Loevborg has shot himself, Mezon’s gestures make it explicitly clear that the fatal bullet lodged in his groin. When he blackmails her by threatening to expose the fact that Hedda let him have one of her father’s pistols, this Brack practically forces himself on her (presumably in case we miss the aim of the blackmail).

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Playing It Real: Showcase and BBC America's Copper

Tom Weston-Jones in Copper

Whenever a television show set in a time period that is not present day comes on the air I'm always curious to see if the characters will be true to the era; or will they be so infected with 21st century sensibilities that, no matter how many period details they get right, the characters just don't ring true. That was in my mind when the first episode of the new series Copper on Showcase (in Canada) and BBC America (in the U.S.) hit the airwaves four weeks ago. So I could not have been more pleased when the pilot episode started with our ostensible hero, Irish-American Detective Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) and his crew, stopping a bank robbery. This is what they did: They waited for the bank robbers to emerge from the bank with their ill-gotten gain (they had received a tip beforehand) and then they followed them. When the robbers entered a secluded alleyway, Corky (as he's called) and his men bushwhacked them. They basically killed the men in cold blood and, before the chief detective can arrive, they pocketed half the money.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Undressing: Shakespeare and Romantic Comedy

Emma Thompson & Kenneth Branagh in Much Ado About Nothing.

When Kenneth Branagh adapted Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing for the screen in 1993, he had the good sense to shape it like a romantic comedy. Romantic comedy may be a modern genre, but Much Ado has all the same elements – most importantly, two lovers who begin as antagonists and find their way through the friction to a romance that is deepened by the challenges they pose to one another. It also has some of the funniest romantic banter in the history of theater and Emma Thompson, as the unstoppably witty Beatrice, blazes through those lines with the exuberant physicality of an English screwball heroine.

Much Ado may be the forerunner to all romantic comedy, but there’s another association between Shakespeare’s comedies and the modern genre: that like the lovers in Twelfth Night or As You Like It, the characters in romantic comedies often court through disguise. From Ernst Lubitsch’s sublime Shop Around the Corner and Preston Sturges’ mischievous The Lady Eve to the rollicking cross-country romance of Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild with its notes of darkness, romantic comedies are about the roles we play to win love and the risks we take in finally shedding our disguises to earn that love. (Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve and Melanie Griffith in Something Wild both move through a series of disguises as the movie progresses and they fall in love with the men they try to con.) The love stories are quests for fulfilment, where the characters, through romantic surrender, throw off the defenses they have become all too comfortable in and with it the need for disguise.

Clare Danes & Billy Crudup in Stage Beauty.
Richard Eyre’s Stage Beauty (2004) is a romantic comedy about a Restoration staging of Shakespeare’s Othello where the cross-dressing disguises of Shakespearean comedy become the conceit through which the romantic partnership plays out. Set in London, at the moment when the ban against women acting on the stage was reversed, its lovers are Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), the last celebrity among actors who played the women’s roles, and Margaret Hughes, or Maria (Clare Danes), the first professional actress on the English stage. Stage Beauty makes those links between Shakespeare’s plays and modern romantic comedy explicit in a deliciously subversive and wittily postmodern exploration of the performance of gender and the enigma of sexuality and desire.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Bullet in the Face: Deranged and Violent, But Terribly Fun

Max Williams and Neil Napier in Bullet in the Face, on IFC

The TV universe is full of shows that seem designed to appeal to those who favour hallucination over reality. The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim’s staggeringly long-running Aqua Teen Hunger Force (re-titled in recent seasons as Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 1 and this past summer, in its 9th season, as Aqua Something You Know Whatever) certainly seem to have embraced the coveted “too impatient for linear narrative, too stoned to change the channel” demo with some success – but it is rare for a live-action series to go that route. Enter Bullet in the Face: a Canadian-produced noir parody series, created by Alan Spencer and starring former pro hockey player Max Williams alongside veteran actors Eric Roberts and Eddie Izzard, which had its 6-episode first season air in mid-August on IFC in the U.S. and Super Channel in Canada, beginning on September 17th.

Williams plays Gunter Vogler, a German-accented sociopathic mob enforcer whose life takes a sudden turn when he gets shot in the face and wakes to find that an experimental medical procedure has left him wearing the face of a cop he recently killed. It's all part of an insane scheme by Police Commissioner Eva Braden (Jessica Steen) to use Vogler to take down her city's underworld in one fiery swoop. Of course Vogler turns out to be impossible to control and the plan leaves dozens of bodies in its wake, innocent and guilty alike. (A few samples of his general outlook: when his ‘partner’ tells him that the city is being torn apart because of lack of manpower, Vogler retorts “Then use children.” When asked if he ever “gets tired of being so relentlessly evil all the time”, he replies “Of course. That's why I take naps.”) Williams’ crazed energy more than carries the show through its manic plotlines, but Eddie Izzard, as the agoraphobic crime boss Tannhäuser, is given many of the show’s best and most over-the-top lines. (Asked at one point by a lackey to explain why he’s decided to blow up the city’s hospitals, Tannhauser explains that “It's what King Herod would have done.”)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Pennultimate Challenge: Five Reasons Why Sean Penn Wanted to Give Up Acting and Become a Director (1996)

Sean Penn
Back in June, Mark Clamen wrote about a new Sean Penn film, This Must Be the Place, which had opened all over Europe, but had yet to have a theatrical release in North America. "This Must Be the Place turns out to be either the strangest road movie ever made or the single quirkiest Holocaust-themed movie since Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (although I should stress that Nazis notwithstanding the two films have absolutely nothing else in common)," Mark wrote. "The only reason I'd hesitate to call This Must Be the Place a Neglected Gem is that I’m hoping there's still time it will find the wider audience it deserves." Mark finally gets his wish when this Italian/French co-production opens next month in North America. Of Penn's performance, Mark wrote that "Penn plays the character with a low-burning intensity...[his] performance ultimately reveals an eminently likable man, but it takes much of the movie to get to know him." That "low-burning intensity" of Sean Penn became the subject of a profile written by Kevin Courrier in 1996 when he spoke with him at a Toronto Film Festival round-table when the actor, promoting his second film as a director, The Crossing Guard, was considering abandoning acting for the director's chair. In the piece, Courrier takes five of Penn's reasons for the career shift and examines their merit.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Full Carnival Drag: How Music Works by David Byrne

Musician David Byrne

Over the past couple of weeks I have been to a backyard concert featuring Jacob Moon and Suzie Vinnick; a Tribute to the Music of Pink Floyd at Hugh’s Room in Toronto; and led a discussion on the importance of music in the life of the church. We talked about the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of music and experienced all of those aspects in the concerts. I also spent a long time trying to arrange a song on the guitar. Then David Byrne’s new book, How Music Works (McSweeney’s, 2012), appeared on the shelves. I bought it immediately.

David Byrne is the brainy and gangly leader of Talking Heads, a band which even during its lifespan seemed to exist outside the pop music world. Against contemporaries like The Clash, Elvis Costello and The Sex Pistols, the Talking Heads were…ummm…artsier and maybe even geekier. Byrne’s angular dance moves and odd vocalizing was, at times, off putting, but, with Tina Weymouth’s bass and Chris Frantz’s drums providing a funky bottom to the sometimes political lyrics, the band managed to successfully combine art school ideas, rock ‘n’roll rifts and whimsy. The whimsy and art were multiplied in Byrne’s solo career as he added influences from World Music and performance art to his resume. He has published a number of books, one on the use of Power-Point, another on his habit of taking a bicycle with him when he tours. How Music Works contains a chapter expanded from a TED.com talk, another one from an introduction to a picture book about CBGB, and yet another which began life as an article in WIRED magazine, and much more.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Shot Between the Eyes: Bob Dylan's Tempest

Bob Dylan performing at the Critics' Choice Movie Awards on January 12, 2012. (Photo: Christopher Polk)

After 35 studio albums, hundreds of songs and the so-called endless touring, does Bob Dylan have anything new to say? Or is he repeating himself?

On Tempest (Columbia 2012), Dylan's new album released today, the answer may lie in the writing credits, namely the contribution of Robert Hunter, lyricist with the Grateful Dead. Hunter made a serious contribution to Dylan's last album, Together Through Life (Columbia 2009), indicating a collaboration that may suggest Dylan is running out of ideas for songs. That said, the first single and opening track on Tempest,  “Duquesne Whistle,” offers the bittersweet story of love that presents yet another Dylanesque turn of phrase: "You're the only thing that keeps me going/You're like a time bomb in my heart." Strictly speaking, it's not the story of a relationship that gives him a “lethal dose” but it reflects a matured songwriter who may prefer to wax nostalgic. And if collaborating with Hunter frees up the artist, then so be it.

“Duquesne Whistle” speaks to me of trains constantly on the move and considering Dylan's hard work touring the world over the years, the superficial meaning isn't lost. But as the band shuffles beautifully along and Dylan repeats the phrase "that Duquesne train gonna rock me night and day," I can only come to that conclusion on first glance. (A deeper meaning may take some time to reveal itself.) Nevertheless, the ten songs on this record are strong on first listen.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Overplaying Shaw: The Millionairess at Niagara-on-the-Lake

Steven Sutcliffe and Nicole Underhay in The Millionairess (Photo by David Cooper)

The two productions of Shaw plays at the Shaw Festival this summer are both wearying. Eda Holmes, who directed Misalliance, and Blair Williams, who staged The Millionairess, seem to be laboring under the misperception that if you make these plays more frantic and emphatic, then somehow their ideas will be clearer and the texts will seem funnier, when in fact there’s no special trick to penetrating their ideas, and all the overstatement numbs out the comedy. And the concepts are puzzling. Holmes has set Misalliance in 1962, for unconvincing reasons that she lays out in a director’s note; the characters don’t sound remotely as if they belonged in the sixties (the play was written a few years before the First World War), so Judith Bowden’s sets – which don’t really seem to belong to any historical era – and costumes just make you scratch your head. The Millionairess is performed without English accents, so when one of the characters refers to an American with whom he got involved in a business deal, you just wonder what he’s supposed to be. Canadian?

Shaw bills The Millionairess as a “Jonsonian comedy,” which would explain the outrageous character names, but the cast performs it as if it were Kaufman and Hart, and it’s such a silly play that I don’t imagine it matters. I’ve seen it three times over the years at roughly twenty-year intervals and each time even the plot fails to stick in my brain. The main character, an imperious and impossible heiress named Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga, marries two men, one before the play begins and one just after the final curtain, both of whom manage to pass her late father’s test and make money out of the small pile she deeds to them. In between she throws another suitor down the stairs for making an unkind comment about her papa and takes over two businesses and turns them into triumphs. The narrative doesn’t cohere very well (probably that’s why I can never recall how it goes) but it makes a number of typically Shavian observations about economics. The best thing in it is the third act, wherein Epifania offers herself for a job at a sweatshop and starts to make improvements in it before she’s even begun work. It’s not in the same style as the rest of the play, and in the production at the Shaw it’s the only scene that’s largely performed (at least, by Michael Ball and Wendy Thatcher, as the sweatshop owner and his wife) with some restraint.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Reinventing the Vampire Myth: Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's The Strain Trilogy

Pan's Labyrinth is a favourite film of mine from the last ten years. Director Guillermo del Toro crafted an adult fairy tale set in Spain near the end of World War II, which brought together realistic elements of the battle between the still-fighting Republicans and now-in-charge Fascists, and combined it with the fantasy world created by a lonely young girl who is brought to a Fascist stronghold by her mother. The mother has married the violent Captain in charge of the garrison and he has insisted they join him in the forest (the mother is pregnant with the Captain's child). To the little girl, the fantasy world is filled with magical creatures that are both good and malevolent (sometimes within the same creature). In this world, she is thought to be a lost princess who must perform various tasks to prove she is who they believe her to be.

Beyond being a wonderful tale that combines real horror (the violence perpetuated on each side in the Spanish battles is pretty brutal) with fantasy, del Toro created creatures that borrowed elements from stories we've heard before and gave them a mighty twist. The twists created a visual world unlike anything we've ever seen on film. He also created a fantasy world for the girl that is far closer to the original Grimm's Fairy Tales than the more sanitized versions that came out later. The fantasy world is no less disturbing and violent than the one in the real world, but here, at least, the young girl's importance is acknowledged where, in the real world, she is viewed as nothing more than a nuisance who is barely tolerated.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Talking Out of Turn #32: Barbara Branden on Ayn Rand (1986)

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.

Tom Fulton, the executive producer of On the Arts

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.

In the chapter Icons Revisited, I included a number of writers who re-examined past iconic figures whose personalities still continued to overshadow the decade. Some of the writers included historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on the Kennedy family, John Malcolm Brinnin on Truman Capote, Heather Robertson's fictionalized biographies on former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, former leftist activist (now neo-conservative) David Horowitz who, along with Peter Collier, wrote a riveting and complex study of the Ford family empire, and Barbara Branden on the controversial author Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged), a writer whose work has had a strong influence on the current Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism illicits a strong reaction from just about everyone who reads her work (especially young adolescents who identify with her heroes' battles against conformity and mediocrity). Yet most of us know little of Rand's personal life. Barbara Branden, who along with her husband Nathaniel, became one of her early followers and closest friends in 1950. (Branden and her former husband also co-founded the Nathaniel Branden Institute which gave courses on Rand's philosophy.) In 1954, however, Nathaniel began a secret romantic affair with Rand with the reluctant permission of both their spouses (Barbara and Frank O'Connor). Rand terminated her association with Nathaniel Branden by 1968 however after she discovered that he had become involved with actress Patricia Scott more than four years earlier. She likewise disassociated herself from Barbara Branden for keeping this fact from her.


In 1986, Barbara Branden wrote a memoir, The Passion of Ayn Rand (Doubleday), that not only unveiled this polarizing figure, she also illustrated the perils of blind faith and idolatry. The book later became an Emmy-award winning film in 1999 with Helen Mirren portraying Ayn Rand, and Eric Stoltz as Nathaniel and Julie Delpy as Barbara.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Usual Mixed Bag: Summer Movie Roundup


Over the years, the meaning of summer movies has changed. As a teen, I remember that about the only films released in hot weather were the blockbusters, the James Bonds, the Star Wars etc. Then things began to change and serious, foreign language, subtitled movies also were sent out to the populace. Nowadays, it’s a veritable smorgasbord of movies on view, though the biggest box office and attendant media coverage still accrues to tent-pole films like The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers. And while it seems like the kids rule the roost because of all the publicity given to the younger skewing  movies (though many adults go to them, too), there really is a choice for all film tastes. Here is a look at some recent summer releases in Toronto, most still in our theatres and probably in yours, as well. It’s the usual mixed bag when it comes to quality.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Bourne Series: A Touch of the Human

At some point fairly late in The Bourne Identity, the first (2002) film in the series culled from the Robert Ludlum bestsellers, the amnesiac hero known as Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) – using impressive secret-agent skills he’s continually startled to find he possesses – figures out that one of an apparently unending series of assassins sent out to hunt him down has located the house where he and his companion Marie (Franka Potente) have spent the night. So he quietly sends their host, an old lover of Marie’s, with his two little kids to safety in their basement, then grabs a rifle and leads the unseen hit man (Clive Owen) out into the woods for a face-off. It may seem like a trivial concern, but I was grateful to the director, Doug Liman, and the screenwriters, Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron, for having the decency to remove two innocent children from danger before we had time to get anxious over their well-being. It struck me as almost chivalric on the filmmakers’ part to consider the feelings of the audience – to recognize that you can tense up a thriller without making it a sadistic experience.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Cooperstown Culture (Part Two): American Impressionism at The Fenimore Art Museum

Fenimore Art Museum
In between my opera escapades, which I alluded to yesterday in my discussion of Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars, I made time to stop by the Fenimore Art Museum on the outskirts of the village. In the late 1930s, Stephen Clark, a wealthy philanthropist, made an agreement with the New York State Historical Association to convert his newly-built mansion on the shores of Lake Otsego into an art museum (Clark also convinced Major League Baseball to build the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown; his brother Sterling founded the Clark Museum in Williamstown, MA). Today, the Fenimore houses one of the finest collections of Indian art and American folk art around. And the temporary exhibits it’s hosted in recent years, including 2009’s exhibition of American artists in Rome and last year’s Edward Hopper show, have been wonderful treats for this region. The current exhibit, American Impressionism: Paintings of Life and Light (on through September 16th), continues this trend.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Cooperstown Culture (Part One): The Glimmerglass Opera Company production of Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars

The Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Nick Coccoma, to our group.

Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can never go home, and there’s a lot of truth in that. Once you’ve grown, you can’t experience home the way you did in youth. But one of the more pleasant surprises in life comes from experiencing your home in new ways, often through the eyes of first-time visitors. This revelation happened to me twice this summer when I returned to my place of origin in Cooperstown, NY – once with friends who had never been and, more recently, on my own. Cooperstown is, of course, famous as the home of baseball, the location of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. If baseball constitutes America’s de facto religion, Cooperstown is its Mecca. Each summer, some 300,000 zealots descend on this sleepy village of two-thousand residents to pay homage to their favorite ballplayers, immortalized on gold-leafed plaques in an atrium that’s got the unsettling feel of a shrine. I’m a baseball fan, but more in spite of growing up in Cooperstown than because of it. To those who live there, the baseball craze makes for an annoying sideshow suffered in what is just an ordinary place to work and raise a family.

And yet Cooperstown is special, but, as many others have come to learn, not just or even mostly because of baseball. Once an important meeting place and residence for the native Iroquois tribes, this region of central New York played an important frontier role in colonial and post-Revolutionary America. The scion of the town’s founder, James Fenimore Cooper, became America’s first novelist and made the Cooperstown area setting to many of his Leatherstocking Tales, of which The Last of the Mohicans is the most famous. In the 19th century, the county grew into the nation’s leader in hop production. It boasts great natural beauty, with the village’s quaint streets sitting at the southern shore of the nine-mile Otsego Lake, the source of the Susquehanna River. The longest river on the east coast, the Susquehanna contributes the largest amount of fresh water to the Chesapeake Bay of any single source.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Lola and Doc: Come Back Little Sheba at Shaw

Corrine Koslo and Ric Reid in Come Back Little Sheba at the Shaw Festival (All Photos by David Cooper)

William Inge’s reputation as a playwright seems to have outlived his plays; they don’t get revived much. But though he’s not in the class of our finest southern playwrights (Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers), his work, which embodies a 1950s realist esthetic, is interesting. The movie versions of Come Back, Little Sheba and A Loss of Roses (the film’s title is The Stripper) linger in the memory for the performances of the leading actresses, Shirley Booth and Joanne Woodward respectively, in the roles of profoundly disappointed women. That’s the Inge archetype; the spinster schoolteacher in Picnic, Rosemary, fits it too, though she’s a supporting character. One of the reasons that Picnic is Inge’s signal achievement – it’s considerably better than the popular 1955 movie suggests – is that it provides a wider spectrum of characters than the others. Still, I was pleased to see the Shaw Festival’s mounting of Sheba, even though Jackie Maxwell’s production is clumsy. It showcases two talented actors, Corrine Koslo as Lola Delaney and Ric Reid as her husband Doc, and unlike most shows it improves as it goes along: the second act is poignant, even gripping.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Dwelling in the Details: The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

Author Steven Pinker

I’m often told I dwell too much on words. During many an impassioned discussion I’ve heard people scoff “Semantics!” with a dismissive wave of the hand, as if I’m being too picky about the details (although what they’re often frustrated by is, in fact, pragmatics...but, well, you get the idea). But why not focus on the details, on accuracy? Human language can offer such a glorious range of nuance and character, and it provides one of the most crucial of links between our individual worlds and thoughts. Though not without their limitations, words form so much of our daily life. Yet we often lose sight of exactly how language shapes us, or how we shape it. As Linguist Steven Pinker rightly puts it, language helps to form, and is crucially formed by, The Stuff of Thought.

The book serves as Pinker’s third volume in two separate trilogies: one about language and the mind (which includes The Language Instinct and Words and Rules) and another on human psychology (featuring How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate). Each of these titles themselves make metaphorical, yet bold statements about the nature of our species. The Stuff of Thought rounds out each series with yet another declaration, confidently stating the ways in which human nature gets reflected in our language. Pinker argues that the linguistic tools we use, often without thinking, show us a great deal about ourselves, from our mental models to our culture to naming conventions.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Beauty in Simplicity: John Abercrombie Quartet's Within a Song

Beauty in simplicity. It's a phrase that's been used to describe great musical performances that are unadorned and ego-free and reach the human heart. Within a Song (ECM, 2012) by John Abercrombie could easily be described in this way. It’s an album of music that specifically plays tribute to the sounds Abercrombie enjoyed while maturing as a guitarist. But rather than pay tribute to his favourite songs and musicians in a formal way   that is, as mimicry  the guitarist leads his group away from nostalgia and into the present. It’s an arrangement that works beautifully.

The record opens with the standard "Where Are You?" by Jimmy McHugh. It's an appropriate choice as Abercrombie seeks to find the source of his inspiration and the muse that spoke to him in the 1960s and pulled him into jazz. Essentially, that's what this new album is about: the turbulent times in the art of jazz that reflected the social changes in the United States while uncovering new ground in the music. But it’s not a literal history  it’s impressionistic.