Saturday, April 6, 2013

David Churchill 1959 - 2013

David Churchill (1959-2013)

It is with great sadness and deepest regret that we inform our readers that our dear friend, colleague and co-founder at Critics at Large, David Churchill, passed away from battling cancer on Friday, April 5th with family and friends surrounding him. We plan a later tribute to our valued columnist in the near future. But we honour David today by giving him today's slot. Since one of his favourite shows, Mad Men, is about to start its sixth season tomorrow evening, we repost his wrap-up of Season Five.

When Passion Overwhelms Skill: Season Five of Mad Men

Caution. Many, many spoilers are included.

I had a friend in university who wanted to be a writer. His eventual degree was in English (I don't remember which area he concentrated on). He did all the right things to become a writer. He wrote stories and plays; he was a consistent member of a writer's group. It was his passion. There was only one problem: The things he was really good at, his greatest skills, had nothing to do with writing. Economics and Math were his strengths, ironically, the areas he had no passion for. (He took a course on each subject in his first year and received very good marks – he never took another class in those fields.) Now the thing he had nothing but passion for? He was okay at it; but if I'm being honest, he was missing three key ingredients to be a great, or even good writer: sweat, skill and imagination.

One of the main themes of the just-wrapped Season Five of Matthew Weiner's Mad Men was about examining characters who pursued their passion at the expense of their skills. There were other ideas percolating away below the surface, but this was the major thrust that Weiner pursued in what I think is the strongest season in the series since the first. In the show, it wasn't always career choices; sometimes it was cringe-worthy wrong personal decisions that more than one character made which often led to disaster, or at the very least, a life-changing experience. Though I will occasionally discuss individual episodes (especially those that were great or bad), I'm more interested here in dissecting how Weiner developed his season-long theme through individual characters.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Neglected Gem #40: Joe Gould’s Secret (2000)

Stanley Tucci and Ian Holm star in Joe Gould's Secret

Joe Gould’s Secret (2000) tells the oddball story of how, in 1950, New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell (played by Stanley Tucci, who also directed) finds his muse, an alcoholic, half-mad Greenwich Village eccentric named Joe Gould (Ian Holm) who lives off the generosity of his friends – and off panhandling in the streets and in restaurants – while he claims to be completing a book, an oral history of the world that he refers to as “the O.H.” It reportedly exists in a series of notebooks that Gould deposits all over town, entrusting them to his supporters – like Max Gordon (David Wohl), the producer who runs the Village Vanguard. Mitchell first encounters Gould at a Village lunch counter. Intrigued, he interviews him and talks to the people who seem to know him best: Gordon, Alice Neel (Susan Sarandon, in a lovely small performance), who painted his portrait during the early days of the Depression (she says she gave him three penises because he seemed to require the excess), the gallery owner Vivian Marquis (Patricia Clarkson), and Freddy (Allan Corduner), who runs a poetry club called The Ravens and wears his coat the affected-theatrical way, hanging off his shoulders. They’re an entertaining crowd, though Tucci depicts them a mite quaintly. (You think, by contrast, of the treatment Mazursky gave this setting in his valentine to the Village in the 1950s, Next Stop, Greenwich Village.) 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Petty Larceny: Gimme the Loot

Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson stars in Gimme the Loot

Gimme the Loot, an engaging 81-minute first feature from Adam Leon, is about a couple of black teenagers from the Bronx, Sofia (Tashiana Washington) and Malcolm (Ty Hickson), and how they spend the hot summer days drifting around the city on adventures that look aimless but, from minute to minute, always seem like matters of vital importance to them. They’re adolescents, with no perspective or capacity for long-range planning, but with passionate feelings that they can neither control nor modulate. In the case of the feelings they may be developing for each other beneath the playful but spiky surface of their platonic partnership, they can’t even articulate them, even though she’s smoldering and direct and he’s a happy motor-mouth.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Orphan Black and the New Face of Canadian Science Fiction

Tatiana Maslany stars in Orphan Black, on BBC America and Space

If you love TV and live in Toronto (as I do), watching American television can often be a frustrating experience. As thrilled as I am that Toronto has established itself as the go-to site for American-produced film and TV, it is often impossible to watch an episode of a favourite series without feeling that the city is being slighted, an “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” feeling which gets called up whenever a signature Toronto location is passed off as a generic street in “Pick Your City”, USA. to single out just one recurring example, see the numerous uses of Daniel Libeskind’s striking crystalline extension to the Royal Ontario Museum in the background of scenes set in Chicago or DC. It is therefore especially gratifying when those norms are shaken up.

This past Sunday, Orphan Black aired its first episode, and on April 21, Showcase’s hit time-travel drama Continuum premieres its second season on Canadian airwaves; both shows are not only produced and filmed in Canada, but (with an appalling deficiency of that renowned Canadian humility) are also set here as well.

With Fringe, Alphas, and Eureka’s recent departures, there are barely any original science fiction series on the U.S. networks – TNT’s Falling Skies and SyFy’s always delightful Warehouse 13 are the only current exceptions. (There is, interestingly, no immediate shortage of fantasy stories: Grimm, Games of Thrones, Supernatural, True Blood and any of that long and growing list of vampire and werewolf shows are in constant rotation.) I won’t speculate on the reasons for the lack of success U.S. networks have had with science fiction shows in the last few years, even following up on the popular and critical successes of Battlestar Galactica and Lost. Whatever the causes, American viewers and cable networks have had to look beyond their borders to find new science fiction storytelling: across the pond to the UK (Doctor Who, Misfits, and the recent Utopia) and, perhaps most surprisingly, north to Canada. With two ambitious and entertaining series, Continuum and now the extremely promising Orphan Black, we are perhaps entering a minor golden age of Canadian science fiction programming.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Ethics of Forgiveness in The Storyteller

In the Epilogue of That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (2013), I wrote that “not a single SS officer arrested after the war demonstrated any remorse.” I had not yet encountered a perpetrator seeking forgiveness from a victim until I read The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness (1969, 1997) by the late concentration camp survivor and Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal. He recounts that, while in the camps, he was once assigned to hear the death-bed confession of a SS officer in the hope that he, a Jew, would offer the dying man absolution. Although the young man appeared to show remorse over the crimes in which he had participated in the East, he was also self-centered, as he repeatedly indicated that he was too young to die, and more offensively, he contended that Jews died quickly, whereas, he was suffering a slow death. Wiesenthal offered compassion by holding his hand and by listening, but he remained silent throughout this ordeal. He left without saying a word. That meeting unsettled him and disturbed his equilibrium when he debated with camp inmates the morality of forgiving this man. Two years later, his companions are all dead but that encounter with the SS officer continued to preoccupy him and invaded his dreams as he talked about it again. After the war, he visited the young man’s mother to hear her story about her “good son” who would never have committed the crimes that she had heard about. He decided not to compound the woman’s sufferings by disabusing her of her ideas. Wiesenthal came to the conclusion that the only individuals who could offer forgiveness were those who had directly suffered from a perpetrator’s actions. He also noted that twenty five years later at the Stuttgart trials only one of the accused acknowledged his crimes and showed contrition; the rest challenged what the victims said and, according to Wiesenthal, only regretted that there were survivors to testify against them.

Wiesenthal’s book came to my attention when I read The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult (Emily Bestler Books, 2013), who begins her acknowledgments by indicating that his book was the genesis for her exploration of the moral and philosophical conundrums he raised if the same request was made decades later by a perpetrator to a Jew. Picoult, a prolific writer, is a novelist of twenty books who focuses on the family by addressing current controversial issues, among them: gay relationships, the dissolution of professional and personal boundaries when one’s child is a victim of sexual abuse, the dilemmas posed by contentious medical procedures and school shootings. The Storyteller may be her most ambitious and layered work. The novel begins with a dark fairy tale, reminiscent of a story told by the Grimm brothers or Hans Christian Anderson. A young woman falls in love with a vampire-like creature called the upior who terrorizes the town and may have killed the girl’s father. This tale is woven in and out throughout and we are not certain of its significance until later in the novel when it becomes clear that this allegory was written by a Holocaust survivor, Minka, the grandmother of a young woman, Sage Singer, whose viewpoint anchors the present-day account.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Passion: Where the Romantic Becomes the Baroque

Melissa Errico and Ryan Silverman, in Classic Stage Company's new production of Passion (Photo by Joan Marcus)

No other American musical works in the same way as Passion, with its uncharacteristically subdued score by Stephen Sondheim and its book by James Lapine, who also did the elegant spare staging in the original Broadway version, in 1994. (That production was broadcast on PBS and is available on DVD.) Written in one intense act, Passion – which is currently being given an excellent revival by New York’s Classic Stage Company, under John Doyle’s direction – is a genuine oddity: a short-story musical (it’s single-themed and single-plotted) that operates exactly at cross-purposes to what it appears to be doing, and builds power by not delivering the emotional satisfaction it appears to promise.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Legacy of Fascism: Jo Nesbo’s Redbreast

Given that the English translation of the second novel in the Harry Hole series, The Cockroaches, will be released sometime in 2013, it seems appropriate to wait to review the entire series. In the meantime, because of its specific theme, I offer a few reflections on Nesbo’s Redbreast (Random House, 2006)

Readers of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005) will recall that some of the elder members of the dysfunctional Vanger family retained pronounced Nazi sympathies and that the family business once had strong ties with Nazi Germany. In Redbreast, Jo Nesbo investigates the role played by Nazism in Norway in World War II and its ripple effects down to the Millennium present. In particular Nesbo sets out to challenge the national myth that according to one character the Norwegian population was “fighting shoulder to shoulder against Nazism.” Nesbo achieves this feat of dispelling the national self-image through multiple switches in time, place and points of view.

This story has personal resonance for Nesbo, a former stock broker and still part time lead singer in a rock group. Before his parents met each other, his father had been among the seven thousand Norwegians who volunteered to fight alongside the Nazis against the Communists on the Eastern Front. His mother remained in Norway throughout the war and was a member of the national resistance. When his father returned home, he was branded as a traitor and spent three years in prison.