Saturday, December 15, 2012

State of Wonder: Life of Pi

After the dullest year for movies I can remember in four decades of professional reviewing, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi restores the thrill of filmgoing. Adapted by David Magee from the beloved novel by the writer Yann Martel, who was born in Spain to French-Canadian parentsit tells the story of an adolescent Indian boy (played by a talented young actor named Suraj Sharma) who survives the wreck of a Japanese cargo ship and sails the Pacific on a lifeboat with a fully grown Bengal tiger. Lee’s approach to the material is to treat it like a fable, with lush, hothouse colors – the magnificent cinematography is by Claudio Miranda – contained within precise, sharply defined lines, and oftentimes magically layered imagery that’s accentuated by the 3D process. (During one shot, of a sky pocked with stars reflected in the depths of the ocean so that they suggest exotic blossoms living beneath the water, I had to restrain myself from shouting out loud.) Lee and Miranda’s influences appear to have been Henri Rousseau, Odilon Redon and perhaps the American painter Morris Louis; the style veers between symbolism and surrealism. Pauline Kael cited Louis in her review of Carroll Ballard’s masterpiece The Black Stallion, another fantastical story about a boy and an animal who are castaways from a shipwreck, and The Black Stallion is certainly the movie I thought about most frequently during Life of Pi, especially in the shipboard scenes during the storm that is the occasion for the ship’s destruction. (We never find out the cause of the wreck, and neither, to their consternation, do the insurance investigators who interview Pi after he eventually reaches dry land, in Mexico.) Both stories involve the training of a wild animal – in this case a dangerous carnivore in a severely restricted space – but otherwise they’re quite different, since Life of Pi is primarily a tale about faith.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Royal Whiplash: A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix

With The Hobbit heading to the big screen this weekend (and Shlomo's review shortly to follow!), Tolkien's beloved young adult novel finds itself back in demand. Many adults are likely picking it up for the first time, and who can blame them? Grown ups reading kid or teen books is hardly a new idea, as many of them are simply good stories, regardless of the way publishers choose to categorize them. As a bookseller I often encountered people who were surprised to learn that darker tales, like Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, could be shelved as "Teen Fiction". Recent years have seen many other examples of these books picking up an older readership, and subsequently being made into (often less successful) film adaptations: Coraline, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and certain other series that I'm disinclined to name aloud.

One 'young adult' author I've followed for some time is Garth Nix, a prolific writer of fantasy series including the Abhorsen trilogy, The Keys to the Kingdom, and The Seventh Tower, among others. As all of these demonstrate a propensity for strange and epic worldbuilding, with each universe’s set of abstractions and absurdities taken as mundane by their inhabitants. Nix's new novel, A Confusion of Princes (HarperCollins, 2012), is a foray into Space Opera territory that I knew would be grand and intricate. His fantasy background spills over, with his treatment of technology living up to Clark’s Laws. Going in I hoped this was to be the first book in a new series, and by the end I felt certain it would have worked better that way. The massive tomes of Harry Potter gave the lie to the idea that kids won't read big books (not that I believed it to begin with), and with multiple series under his belt, I'm not certain why Nix chose this route here.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Best of Television 2012: Mayan Apocalypse Edition

Stephen Colbert's election coverage is just one of many high points of the year in television

As the nights grow longer and the days grow colder, December typically marks the time when we all reflect on the year that was. But this year, with the Mayan-prophesied end of days just eight days away, we perhaps have more reason than ever to look back. With everyone from the Vatican to NASA remaining resolutely sceptical, many are still counting down to December 21, 2012. (December 21 is also the day that Resident Evil: Retribution comes out on Blu-ray – so clearly portents of doom lurk everywhere!)

But whether or not there will actually be a 2013, the time seems right for me to share all those moments of 2012 that made me grateful to own a television. While the new fall season has a few bright spots (I would include ABC’s musical/drama Nashville in that short list), TV’s very best moments of 2012 were found in its continuing shows. And so, in honour of what may be the last eight days of human existence, here are eight shows (in no particular order) that you may want to check out before our world (perhaps) comes to an explosive end.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Textile Giants: BIG at The Royal Ontario Museum

Adinkra Wrapper, a Ghanaian toga measuring 3 metres long, currently on display at the ROM in Toronto

In fashion, size matters. Clothing, especially ready-to-wear, is tailored to conform to universal standards of small, medium or large. It is sold to fit, or not fit when showcased on slender silhouettes slinking down an international fashion runway, an impossible ideal for most. Not everyone can squeeze into fashion’s modern-day obsession with Lilliputian proportions, and so, when small is the season’s biggest trend, then follow the diets, purgings, eating disorders and assorted guilt trips which make fashion a curse, if not a monumental pain. Size is definitely a sensitive issue where fashion is concerned, which makes it all the more provocative for the Royal Ontario Museum to have called its latest textiles and costume exhibition, BIG.

Unquestionably, this is an adjective inspiring fear and loathing in any fashionista worth her skin-tight jeans and equally teeny stilettos. But rest easy. As created by co-curators Alexandra Palmer (the ROM’s Nora E. Vaughan Fashion Costume Curator), Sarah Fee and Anu Liivandit, BIG, in this case, is a good thing. It suggests capaciousness of ideas, mammoth accomplishments in the textile arts over several centuries involving thousands upon thousands of hours of manual labour and brand name contemporary designers whose reputations are boulder-esque: Tom Ford, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, to name a few.

BIG, in other words, is a bang.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Time Well Spent: The Education of Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck performing at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2010 (Photo by Joe Giblin)

Dave Brubeck was the last of the great ambassadors of jazz. Throughout the 1960s, he and his famous quartet would travel the world playing concerts and spreading the word that jazz was more than just an American music. He knew throughout its history that it was a music that drew on all genres. For Dave Brubeck was also a curious composer, one who was intimately interested in learning and using the native sounds and rhythms of Japan, Turkey, Russia and France, in his own work.

His tenure with the French composer Darius Millaud opened his ears to what was possible by learning orchestration, instead of classical piano technique. Brubeck’s openness and eclecticism is one of the most important reasons why he should be remembered. For his was a continuing journey for knowledge. His death last week, at age 91, was the end of that long journey, and in some ways it was the end of a jazz renaissance.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Election Day with the Apple Family: Sorry

J. Smith-Cameron and Laila Robins in Sorry (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Since I was a fan of both the first two parts of Richard Nelson’s Apple family tetralogy, That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad, I would like to report that with Sorry, which he wrote to coincide with the presidential election, he hits another ball out of the park. But it’s something of a disappointment, despite the obvious intelligence of the writing and the usual skill of the acting. (As with the earlier entries, Nelson also directed.) Nelson’s coup with the first two plays is that he managed to create a plausible, compelling family of New York state liberals whose conversation veers easily and provocatively into the political. The plays aren’t doctrinaire or preachy; they’re political dramas by virtue of their setting (That Hopey Changey Thing opened around the time of the mid-term elections, Sweet and Sad on the tenth anniversary of 9/11) and the savvy of the well-read, articulate, deep-thinking quartet of main characters: a brother and three sisters meeting up at the home of one (now two) of the sisters in upstate Rhinebeck. But Sorry doesn’t manage the balance of the personal and the political with the grace and fluidity of the earlier plays (though the 9/11 content of Sweet and Sad, to be truthful, was its weak point). For an hour the election is barely mentioned and then, abruptly, the dialogue picks it up. For the first time in the Apple series, when the characters begin to discuss politics, I don’t quite believe it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Long May They Stand: Arhoolie Records Celebrates 50 Years

Santiago Jimenéz, Jr. performs with La Familia Peña-Govea at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in February 2011

On November 3, 1960, Arhoolie Records released their first LP. LP stands for Long Play because these records ran at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute and contained a lot of music, compared to what had been available before. These days people fill up 80 minutes of a CD with remixes and ‘bonus tracks’ (many of which we could live without) or create interminably long downloads for their iPods. But in the sixties, it was the LP, or album (so called because they replaced the actual ‘album’ collection of 78s which made available long music pieces on a set of 10” records that had to be changed one after the other). I digress. On November 3 1960, Arhoolie Records released their first LP. It wasn’t the first LP ever, but it was an important one, 250 copies of Mance Lipscomb’s Texas Sharecropper and Songster. The records had arrived. It was a big moment for Chris Strachwitz and his partner Wayne Pope who sat around the kitchen table gluing printed cover slicks onto black jackets, stuffed the discs into the jackets and inserted a booklet of notes and lyrics: 250 copies.

The whole project had been a labour of love. Blues songster Lipscomb had been recorded in the field in Texas. Blues writer and historian Mack McCormick, had introduced Strachwitz to Lightning Hopkins (via Sam Charters) with the intention of a live recording which never took place, but Mance Lipscomb was a major substitute. Strachwitz pulled together the financing and named the label Arhoolie which means something like a “field holler” an appropriate name for the kinds of authentic Americana music the label would release over its fifty years. From first recording Country Joe McDonald’s famous “Fixin’ to Die Rag” to discovering (or at least making known) Mexican performers, sacred steel players, and down home blues singers, Strachwitz remained true to his vision right up to They All Played For Us, the soon-to-be-released recording of their 50th anniversary celebration at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse.