Saturday, April 5, 2014

Time, Power and Song: Time After Time, The Seduction of Joe Tynan and Hair

It's still difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend that we lost our dear colleague and Critics at Large co-founder David Churchill a year ago today. For David was not only my best friend, he was also my counsel. If I tried to recall the number of times this past year I wanted to pick up the phone to get his advice on a piece, request an idea for one, or hear him come up with a brainchild for a series to run, I would quickly lose count. Never mind that every day I went to edit and post a piece, I would look at our homepage and be reminded that he was here and not here. 

I've been wanting to keep his presence on Critics at Large continuous despite mortality making that task next to impossible. Fortunately, his wife, Rose, lent me a box of his writing – both published and unpublished – that allowed me to at least try the impossible. And it was quite a trip dipping into the volume of his work and going all the way back to his film reviews from his university days. Perhaps the bonus was finding in the box the notebook he kept in the mid-Eighties. In it, I discovered handwritten comments he had compiled at a number of screenings we went to together. Sometimes he even had very precise notes to counter my own opinions on pictures we would ultimately disagree on when we finally reviewed them on the radio at CJRT-FM's On the Arts. Reading them today quickly stoked those moments on air when I heard those views for the first time. Reading his quickly scribbled assertions had an alchemical way of bringing his voice back into the present. 

Today I want to reach back to his university reviews where I found it bracing (and not terribly surprising) to discover that David's conversational voice was indeed as recognizable as it became years later on Critics at Large. Last week, Rose commented to me that David was all there right from the beginning. She was saying that he didn't grow into his voice. Judging by the pieces below, I would have to agree. To prove the point, I've decided to include film reviews first published in 1979 from the newspaper, one of the University of Toronto's journals at that time. David's temperament and wit are easily recognizable to anyone who knew him. Since I also want to treat these pieces as if they were copy he just e-mailed me this morning, they are presented as edited from their original source.

Kevin Courrier,

By 1979, war will have ended. There will be no crime and no need for the police. People will live in a socialist utopia and free love will be regularly practised. Confused? So is H.G. Wells in Nicholas Meyer's Time After Time where author and inventor Wells (Malcolm McDowell) finds himself, through the use of his time machine, hunting down Jack the Ripper (David Warner) in modern day San Francisco. Meyer, a novelist turned director, had already single-handedly brought back the 'What If...' notion in his detective novel, The Seven -Per-Cent Solution (1974), where Sherlock Holmes met Sigmund Freud who not only eventually cures him of his cocaine addiction, but gets him embroiled in solving a kidnapping where both men need their full deductive powers to solve it.

Malcolm McDowell & David Warner in Time After Time

Malcolm McDowell's 'little boy lost' portrayal of Wells is as equally effective here as Warner's Ripper who stands in stark contrast to the inventor's utopian views. Not surprisingly, it's the Ripper who feels at home in the contemporary world where, as he sees it, mankind has only progressed in its refinement of committing violence. "Ninety years ago, I was a freak," he tells the disillusioned Wells. "Today, I'm an amateur. I belong here completely and utterly. I'm home." Warner, who first came to prominence as the non-conformist in Morgan! (1966), brings the right amount of sinister appeal to the role and never once overplays his hand. Mary Steenburgen, who plays a Bay area bank clerk who becomes Wells's confederate and lover, might be a little clichéd as the 'liberated woman' Wells hoped to find in the future, but she plays the part with genuine warmth and we fear for her safety when the Ripper begins to stalk her.

Meyer might be a rank amateur as a film-maker, but he directs like an old pro. As in his previous novel, he shows a flair for the time travel genre. In Time After Time, he reveals that although our society is pretty fouled up, time travel doesn't provide any magic formulas to correct it.

Alan Alda and Meryl Streep in The Seduction of Joe Tynan

You wouldn't equate originality with most Hollywood films these days, which is maybe why one of the most original films this year, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, was made outside the inner sanctum of Tinseltown. Directed by Jerry Schatzberg (The Panic in Needle Park, Scarecrow), The Seduction of Joe Tynan examines what happens to a U.S. senator (Alan Alda) when power, fame and lust begin to change the course of his life. Tynan's attempts to overcome these controls plays against the political clichés that often run through this genre. The script, written by Alda, turns out to be crisp and witty, and the characters are so well defined that even a mediocre actor could look good playing this material. Alda's performance as the struggling senator who is asked to lead the opposition to a Supreme Court appointment and finds himself struggling with his own morality is full of the kind of wit and wisdom that has made him so likeable on M*A*S*H. The supporting players, Barbara Barrie (who plays Tynan's wife) and Meryl Streep (who is an attorney he has an affair with that jeopardizes his marriage and career), have an audience rapport that allows us split sympathies for both.

While the cast is strong, there are none better than Rip Torn, who plays a "good ole boy" senator with a sex drive in high gear. Although he's been terrific in previous roles like Payday and The Man Who Fell to Earth, his role here doesn't demand the sadism often associated with his characters. The most pleasing aspect of The Seduction of Joe Tynan, in a year of overblown megamovies like Superman and Hurricane, is how the picture respects the audience's intelligence by giving us recognizable people in realistic settings.

Treat Williams and his band of hippies in Hair

When it was announced that the Czech director Milos Forman would be directing the film adaptation of the popular stage musical Hair, some people couldn't understand why he would pick a subject that was so far removed from his last picture, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But it's not so far removed since both tackle our instinct to rebel against the status quo. Hair also has the energy to knock the audience back to the decade of its origin – the Sixties.

The musical, written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, with music by Galt MacDermot, has been slightly altered by Michael Weller who includes a character Claude (John Savage), a naive farm boy from Oklahoma, who comes to New York to be inducted into the army. In the process, he wanders into Central Park where he is confronted by four hippies (Treat Williams, Annie Golden, Dorsey Wright and Don Dacus) who ask him for change. Eventually, it's him that they change by taking him on a two-day whirlwind tour of the counter-culture before he enters the army. While the plot is functional, the music helps Hair soar. Treat Williams and John Savage are both strong leads. Williams' portrayal of the hippie leader, Berger, is electric enough to draw sympathy towards him despite his conniving personality. Though his singing voice isn't his strongest attribute, he still holds his own with the professional singers in the cast. John Savage, fresh from his performance in The Deer Hunter, subtly makes the transition from simple country boy to a man of the world.

The obvious highlights of Hair are the song and dance numbers. Galt MacDermot's "Black Boys/White Boys" has wit and strength, while "Easy to be Hard" has a heart-wrenching sincerity. Choreographer Twyla Tharp's dance numbers are also done with perfect precision possessing a grace and beauty that are done full justice in the editing. But, ironically, it's the musical numbers that draw attention to the film's flaws: which are in the dialogue. The script does nothing more than provide a plot, but it does little to help us understand the motives of the characters. Despite the efforts of the performers, they end up lacking a depth that would help us understand the conflicts of that era. For a young audience today, the characters in Hair might be no more than long-haired people from a bygone era cavorting on the screen. With as little depth as they're provided, who could blame them for saying, "Let's go see Saturday Night Fever instead."  

– David Churchill (1959 – 2013) was a film critic and novelist. Seemingly born with a pen in his hand, he was a freelance writer for over 25 years. Most recently, he worked in the publications department of Vintages, the fine wine and spirits division of the LCBO, where he wrote about beverage alcohol. His first novel, entitled The Empire of Death, is available for order at http://www.wordplaysalon.comThe Eye of the Storm, his second novel, will be released posthumously.   

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