Saturday, June 21, 2014

Alternate History SF: So Many Worlds to Explore


Believe it or not, the idea of alternate history, or counter-factual worlds as it’s also known, where historical events turned out differently from our world, dates as far back as the 4th century BC. That's when the Roman historian Livy contemplated an alternative 4th century BC in which Alexander the Great of Macedonia expanded his empire westward instead of eastward, thus meeting up with the Romans and in Livy’s view, losing to them in battle. Had that happened, the geographical realities of our time and who ruled where would have been significantly altered.

Since then, everyone from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Winston Churchill has pondered what might have been. Hawthorne’s "P.'s Correspondence," published in 1845, speculated on a different 1845 where famous people such as Napoleon Bonaparte were still alive. Churchill’s alternate history speculation, “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” (part of the 1931 anthology If It Had Happened Otherwise) postulates a Civil War won by the South, which along with the idea of Nazi Germany winning World War Two remains the most frequently written about alternate history scenario. Both of those turnabouts could have happened, which is the point of examining alternate history, recognition that history can literally turn on a dime or on a specific event – such as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which was the main trigger of World War One, or 9/11, whose ramifications are still being felt today. Had either of those events not happened, where would we now be? (Richard Ned Lebow’s fascinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World Without World War One offers up speculations on a history without both world wars had the archduke not been assassinated one hundred years ago this week.) But just because there are so many alternate histories being written – new ones seem to come out weekly – does not mean that they are all of equal quality, or equally plausible. How and why alternate histories convince us, or work as literature, have as much to do with the writer’s biases, talents and abilities to believably explain the altered course of history and those who make it.

Friday, June 20, 2014

If The World Wars Had Never Happened: C.J. Sansom’s Dominion and Richard Ned Lebow's Franz Ferdinand Lives!

The alternate history genre shows no sign of abating as writers and academics continue to play with the what-if concept of history turning out differently. Two recent books take provocative new looks at our world wars, mostly to good literary effect.

On the surface, C.J. Sansom’s Dominion (Random House Canada 2014, but published in the U.K. in 2012) would seem to be tilling old ground. After Robert Harris’s Fatherland, Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Jo Walton’s Small Change Trilogy (Farthing, Ha’penny, Half a Crown) and others, what more can do with the science fiction trope of a Fascist Britain and a victorious Nazi Germany? Lots, actually, as Sansom’s Dominion is a far superior novel to many of the most lauded in the genre. It’s an atmospheric, tense and well-drawn portrait of a world that fortunately did not come into existence but, as the British writer makes clear, could easily have done so if the political developments of the time had deviated just a bit from the historical record. (Like a snowball rolling down a hill, that deviation would result, finally, in a vastly altered world from our own).

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Green and Red: Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves

Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg in Night Moves

Night Moves, which Kelly Reichardt directed from a script she wrote with Jonathan Raymond, has been described as a thriller, and I guess that it is, though it is a largely intellectualized thriller of ideas, with a minimum of action and suspense that’s undercut by the fact that it’s never hard to guess where the story is going. What saves it from being numbingly conceptual is the way the principal actors draw you into their twisted states of mind and the clammy heat they generate together. Jesse Eisenberg plays Josh, an environmentalist who works on a sustainable co-op in Oregon. No longer satisfied with the long-range, practical tactics for preserving the environment that are practiced by the co-op head, he’s planning to blow up a hydroelectric dam.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Talking Out of Turn #33: Vito Russo (1981)

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 radically 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 who were only concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (e.g. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone) which made it look as if they hadn't read the outline. Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be simply 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 uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews a couple of years ago, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large. I'll let the readers judge their merit rather than marketing folks. 

Tom Fulton, the executive producer of On the Arts.
Talking Out of Turn had one section devoted to reviewers who ran against the current of popular thinking in the Eighties. That chapter included discussions with Globe and Mail film critic and author Jay Scott (Midnight Matinees) who spoke about how, despite being one of Canada's sharpest and wittiest writers on movies, he was initially a reluctant critic; author Margaret Atwood, who turned to literary criticism in her 1986 book Second Words, discussed  from an author's perspective  the value of criticism and how it was changing for the worse during this decade; New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who had returned to writing in the Eighties after a brief hiatus as a consultant in Hollywood, talked to me in 1983 about how the Reagan decade was already having a deadening impact on the movie industry; and Vito Russo, who in 1981, wrote a book called The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movieswhich examined the way gays and lesbians had been portrayed in the history of American movies.

author Vito Russo

In his book, Russo moves from decade to decade, weaving into his narrative a chronological and thematic awareness of the various representations of gay life; that is, the attitudes that lay hidden and closeted in American culture. He examines with both humour and affectionate insight the early work of 'movie sissies' like actors Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn, who gave form to what couldn't be acknowledged openly. Russo moves from these 'buddy movies' of the Thirties and Forties to contemporary representations which often ranged from predatory and psychotic (Cruising, American Gigolo) to victims (Advise and Consent, The Children's Hour). He even delves into hidden homosexual dynamics not acknowledged such as the unspoken love between Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd) in Ben-Hur (1959), the covert lesbian attraction that Elizabeth Wilson has for Kim Stanley's Marilyn Monroe character in The Goddess (1958), and the originally cut scene between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960), where Olivier's Roman general admits his bi-sexuality to his slave Antoninus (Curtis) whom he's trying to seduce.


The Celluloid Closet was made into a fine documentary in 1995 by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman where they had the benefit of using Russo's book to select clips that supported his thesis. This fall, at Ryerson University, I'll be teaching a course through the LIFE Institute based on their material. Since this interview with Vito Russo takes place over thirty years ago, just as the AIDS epidemic was first becoming national news, there isn't the sense of dread here that came to overshadow the rest of the decade. (Although he was a huge activist bringing awareness to the needs of the LGBT community, by the end of the decade, AIDS would also claim Russo himself.) Looking back to 1981, it was a year when dozens of Toronto police officers conducted simultaneous raids on Toronto's most popular bathhouses and arrested more than 300 gay men. Times may have indeed changed since those raids, but certain attitudes haven't (including having a mayor who continues to spout invective towards homosexuals – even ignoring them as citizens – without much of a whisper of protest from his supporters). Since Toronto is hosting WorldPride this year, it just seemed fitting to post this talk with Vito Russo on the eve of the celebration.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ad Nauseum: Edge of Tomorrow

Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow

Summer blockbuster season is a polarizing time – movies showing in June and July tend to be either incredibly well-received or universally reviled. It’s difficult for a film to quietly exist in this climate, like an interesting person who goes unnoticed at a party because everyone is busy shouting. Seems as though everyone is talking about Edge of Tomorrow right now – it’s currently riding a massive wave of good press that feels amazingly at odds with its advertising, which promises a ferociously forgettable experience to any discerning moviegoer. Turns out the reality is somewhere in between: it’s nowhere near as good as you’re hearing, but it’s not as bad as you’d expect, either.

The plot is Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers: Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage (a hearty action hero name that smacks appropriately of the 1980s), a military media liason who is sent to the front lines against his will when an invading alien force annexes Europe. During the storming of a French beach, he is killed in action, but wakes up at the dawn of the previous morning. He continues to relive the same battle over and over, until he finds a legendary soldier, Rita Vratasky (played by a very taciturn Emily Blunt), who demands that he “find her when he wakes up.” Turns out this ultimate distaff supersolider, known as “The Angel of Verdun” by the media and “Full Metal Bitch” among the ranks, was afflicted with the same time-looping curse, and they must now team up to stop the alien invasion from ever occurring. If this synopsis is making you yawn, you’re not alone. The trailers for Edge of Tomorrow do an excellent job of encapsulating the aggressively formulaic plot, but they undersell the film’s real draw: a genuine sense of fun.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Race Riff: Smart People

Eunice Wong, McKinley Belcher III (top), Miranda Craigwell, Roderick Hill in Smart People (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

When I was I was in graduate school I directed an African American freshman in a production of David Rabe’s Vietnam War play The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel. He had to play a working-class black soldier who spoke in jive, and though he was a stunningly gifted performer (who went on to a successful acting career) for a while he struggled with the requirements of the role. Here he was, a sophisticated young urban black man, a journalist’s son who’d gotten into Stanford, and I was asking him to sound like some hip street-corner dude. The fact that I was a white guy – and so was Rabe – couldn’t have helped.

My actor figured it out and gave a brilliant performance, and over the years I’d forgotten how resistant he was in the initial stages. What brought it back to mind was Lydia R. Diamond’s vivid and hilarious new Cambridge-set play Smart People, the season closer for Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company. Somehow I missed Diamond’s last collaboration with the Huntington, Stick Fly (2010), and missed it again during its New York run, and now I feel foolish because I had such a good time at Smart People. It’s a four-handed high comedy (as the title suggests) that mines the same awkward, slippery, rich territory as Bruce Norris’s great Clybourne Park. Diamond’s not up to Norris – she has a weakness for speechifying that keeps stopping the play cold, and she tends to fumble shifts in tone – but she’s very talented. The play is about how race sets up class expectations and the often ridiculous tangles that intelligent, educated, sensitive twenty-first-century liberals get themselves into as they try to negotiate the treacherous waters of race. The four characters are Jackson (McKinley Belcher III), a black surgeon who moonlights at a clinic he opened in a poor neighborhood; his friend Brian (Roderick Hill), a white Harvard neuroscientist whose study on racism in whites is getting him in trouble with his institution; Ginny (Eunice Wong), a half-Chinese, half-Japanese psychologist, also on the Harvard faculty, who’s conducting research on depression and low esteem in low-income Chinese women; and Valerie (Miranda Craigwell), an African American actor who dates Jackson (briefly) and gets part-time work in Brian’s lab when Harvard begins to pull his funding. All four are opinionated, tough-minded, outspoken and articulate, which makes them ideal figures for comedy of manners. They’re also touchy, quick to assume – through bitter experience – that other people tend to operate out of deep-dyed prejudices they mostly don’t know they possess. So they sally forth into conversational gambits with their dukes up.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Quests for Truth: The Thrillers of Philip Kraske

Although the content of Philip Kraske’s four political thrillers substantially vary from one another, an observant reader will quickly recognize his left-of-centre politics and his jaundiced view of American political institutions and of political operators at home and abroad, the media circus and of the presence of corrupt, malevolent law enforcement officials. Kraske, an American who spent his formative years growing up in Minnesota before decamping for abroad, possesses a gimlet-eyed grasp of American life and a deep distrust of official versions. At the same time, he is no mere polemicist. His writing is vivid, his dialogue crackles, and his novels are stocked with wonderfully realized characters distinguished by their decency, their search for truth and their desire to make courageous and humane choices under difficult circumstances. (We met briefly in Madrid December 2013 where he has lived since the 1980s, we have had some email correspondence and we share the same publisher, Encompass Editions.)

His first and most overly political novel, Mockery (2010, second edition 2012) is a satire of that genre of political books on presidential elections, from Theodore White’s analysis of the 1960 election to Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s behind-the-scenes scoops on the last two American elections. Kraske imagines a scenario where Sam Walker, an obscure author of history books is tricked by his editors into writing “contemporary history.” After receiving and following up on an anonymous written tip, he writes a sensational exposé about how scandals sank the two major-party presidential candidates and swung victory to the Independent candidate – and it turns out that he got it all wrong. Believing initially that he needed to tie up a few loose ends for a new prologue, Walker doggedly retraces his investigative steps. He eventually writes an addendum that details what he believes really happened, including the attempt to derail his efforts through a honey trap thereby destroying his credibility. (It is hard to imagine Walker’s real life counterparts admitting that their story was untrue and undertaking a similar re-examination.) His refurbished account challenges the accepted narrative provided by the major media companies of a party worker who owns up to her mistake and is transformed into a national icon with an office in the White House and a shoo-in to be elected to Congress. As a result, his editors will not touch it.