Saturday, January 10, 2015

Styles and Stylists: Mike Leigh’s Turner, Tim Burton’s Keane

Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner.

The English writer-director Mike Leigh is a caricaturist by bent whose famous collaborative process with his actors (which begins with improvisation) allows them to inhabit those caricatures – to make them experiential. He’s the closest any filmmaker has come to approximating Dickens, though his complex tone and the peculiar loving gruffness of his humor are distinctly contemporary. I love most of his movies, but when he applies his approach to nineteenth-century British subjects what he comes up with is truly wondrous. His 1999 Topsy-Turvy, about Gilbert and Sullivan and the first production of The Mikado, is simultaneously a dazzlingly detailed chronicle of theatrical creation (I think it’s the finest backstage movie ever made) and a profound study of the Victorian temperament comparable only, perhaps, to David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and Dennis Potter and Gavin Millar’s brilliant (and almost unknown) Dreamchild. In his new movie, Mr. Turner – which looks at the most celebrated and productive period in the life of the great (and remarkably prolific) painter J.M.W. Turner, who died in 1851 – Leigh uses his own pebbled, off-side style for an impressionistic effect that matches it up with Turner’s style, which anticipated impressionism and, in his late canvases, took on an abstract quality that (as Leigh’s movie shows) alienated audiences that had embraced his work for years. In Mr. Turner, an idiosyncratic master filmmaker reaches out to an artist from an earlier epoch and finds common ground. That’s what happened when Robert Altman took on Van Gogh in 1990 in Vincent and Theo. In both cases the eye of a gifted contemporary director fixes on the radical element that makes these painters’ work seem so startlingly modern. With Altman’s Van Gogh and Leigh’s Turner, you feel that their experiments were so ahead of their time that we’re still racing to catch up with them.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Passions Pursued: M.P. Fedunkiw's A Degree of Futility

(Full disclosure: I am acquainted with Marianne Fedunkiw slightly as she is the President of the Toronto Arts and Letters Club, of which I am a member.) 

Write what you know has been a guiding principle in M.P. (Marianne) Fedunkiw impressive fictional debut, A Degree of Futility (FriesenPress, 2014), a novel about three friends, Lily, the narrator, Greg and Simon, who have difficulty either in completing a PhD or finding full-time work in their chosen field. This topic has received considerable attention in the press, on the CBC’s, The Current and TVO’s, The Agenda. But to my knowledge, A Degree is the first to explore these issues in a fictional format. 

Fedunkiw obtained her PhD in 2000 in medical history and has taught courses at three Toronto-area universities for more than fifteen years. Like so many other PhD graduates, she has been an underemployed sessional instructor, going from contract to contract, with little chance of entering the tenure stream inside the academy. Both in the novel and in public statements, Fedunkiw has stated the importance of having a plan B if a tenured position does not materialize, and she has taken her own advice. It helped that Fedunkiw had a journalism degree that enabled her to work at The Globe and Mail among other publications, and she was also a member of the team that started The Discovery Channel in Canada during the 1990s. She has international research experience and runs MF Strategic Communications, a consulting firm that specializes in communications for the university, research and medical sectors. Moreover, she has written plays and is now working on another novel.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Critic's Notes & Frames Vol. XI: Je Suis Charlie

On Wednesday morning, the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo was attacked by three masked gunmen who stormed the building and killed ten of its staff and two police officers. The gunmen are currently identified as Muslim extremists. The attack came shortly after the paper tweeted a satirical drawing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Irreverent and stridently non-conformist in tone, the publication has always been anti-religious while taking on the extreme right, Islam, Judaism and Catholicism. Its sensibility was clearly defined by its former editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, as "left-wing pluralism." In September 2012, the newspaper had published a series of satirical cartoons of Muhammed, some of which feature nude caricatures of him, in response to the anti-Islamic film, Innocence of Muslims, which led to attacks on U.S. embassies and increased security in France. Before yesterday's attack, the magazine had also been the victim of an earlier terrorist attack  a firebombing in 2011.

Curiously, I'd already been planning an edition of Critic's Notes scheduled for today, but after the horrible events yesterday in Paris, I've decided to forgo that one in favour of this new post. In solidarity with those who perished for exercising their freedom of speech, I've decided to let others have their voice in response to those events and to sit back and listen to those voices. In the spirit of Charlie's pluralism, I've also included contrary ones, as well, to keep to the spirit of equal opportunity democracy. Wherever possible, I tried to create links to the original articles (unless they were quotes from social media). For the first time, the picture of the pen that has always lead off this column takes on an added significance.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Knight of Light: Gordon Willis in Retrospective

A scene from Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979), shot by Gordon Willis.

Near the opening of his 1977 film Annie Hall, Woody Allen (playing Alvy, a version of himself) anticipates a rendezvous with the title character in front of a movie house. She’s running late, however, and during the interlude two wise guys accost him, recognizing his face from television comedian appearances. Unnerved beyond even his usual neuroticism, he practically runs to Annie when she pulls up in a cab at last. “I’m standing here with the cast of The Godfather!” he blurts out as they duck inside. This must rank as one of the great meta-references in cinema. For Diane Keaton, who plays Annie, of course was in the cast of The Godfather, in the role of Kay. You can’t get a better entrance. But it’s actually a double joke, for Annie Hall shares not only a great actor with those movies, but a great cinematographer as well: Gordon Willis. Willis died last year, and he stands prominently among the film luminaries we remember in looking back at 2014. So important was his impact on the art form, in fact, that the Brattle Theatre here in Boston offered a seven-film tribute to him late last summer. And while good doesn’t describe all of those pictures, Willis’ style is so distinctive that worth seeing does.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Critics Still At Large: Five Years On

During the late fall of 2009, when Shlomo Schwartzberg, the late David Churchill and myself sat down in Made in China, a restaurant in downtown Toronto, to create Critics at Large, we had no idea whether we would last five months, let alone five years. But here we are five years later and with more writers than we started with. At that time, we created the site with a chip on our shoulder. Two of us had been seasoned journalists, who were quickly finding ourselves out of season, and being left with nowhere to work. So there was a defiance in not going down quietly. Critics at Large was to be our weapon. But we were also venturing into the world of social media which many believed to be the harbinger of the death of print. So we made the decision to lower our swords, and see ourselves more as part of a pioneering effort, where we hoped we could bring the values we learned from the traditions of the analogue world and apply them to the digital one. The only thing to be decided was whether we had anything interesting to say. Time took care of that.

While I wouldn't be so bold as to say that we accomplished the goal of standing out from the pack, I think the question of what that meant was on everybody's mind who came on board. We all read each other and we knew that the bar could be raised (or dropped) in a heartbeat. Yet when I look back through our archive, I see a strong body of work that's versatile, filled with temperament and sometimes risky. The question of what constituted criticism remained a consistent quest and something we felt in the process of defining. Not all of our writers, for example, were comfortable with the idea of making harsh comments about things they didn't like. As I've come to discover (especially on Facebook), the profession isn't very well understood, or respected today, which makes writers more vulnerable than in any period I can recall. In some areas, critics are even hated, as if our goal is to deprive people of pleasure. (One Facebook 'friend' described what I did as 'parasitic.') So rather than impose a sense of what we should stand for, we became more organic in our approach. That is, we allowed people the freedom to find their true voices and their critical edge in their own time. This decision naturally took the edge off that chip we placed on our shoulder. What became more important, over time, was bringing a self-respect and integrity to what we did on a daily basis.

Monday, January 5, 2015

White Christmas: Seasonal Treat

The cast of Irving Berlin's White Christmas. (Photo: Kevin White)

The stage adaptation of Irving Berlin’s 1954 movie musical White Christmas toured the country for a couple of seasons before opening for a limited Broadway run in 2006. I caught it in Boston nine years ago and found it so satisfying that, when it came through again this Christmas, I went back for a second look. The original production carried a directing credit to Walter Bobbie, with Randy Skinner listed as choreographer; Skinner is now listed as director, too, but the show is almost exactly the one I remembered.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

First-Person Singular: Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl

Anita Diamant's newest novel, The Boston Girl, was published by Scribner on December 7. (Photo: Dominick Reuter)

Novels that take us back in time are a pleasure for a number of reasons. They provide window into worlds which are no less complicated than our own, albeit usually without internet and smart-phones. But the best of these novels are not about gimmicky and nostalgia-inflected descriptions of fashion and ‘quaint’ transportation. In the tradition of Wild Swans and Angela’s Ashes (both of which have notably autobiographical elements) the best invocations of the past are about characters and people. By slowly bringing the reader from the past into the present, such books make the present richer, inflecting how we think of the people around us with an awareness of the depths of history which each of us bear. Anita Diamant’s newest novel, The Boston Girl (Scribner Publishing, 2014), is just such a book—but it also stands out for its writing, sharp pace, and a few other quite remarkable features.