Saturday, December 31, 2016

Movie Musical as Theory: La La Land

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land has won several critics’ prizes and is sure to be an Academy Award contender, which is good news for those of us who love musicals since its success is likely to generate new ones. But I’m afraid I couldn’t get up much enthusiasm for the movie. It’s amiable and well-intentioned, it looks lovely (Linus Sandgren lit it, and the production design is by David Wasco), and God knows you can’t fault the two charming stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. For this L.A.-set romantic tale of Mia, an aspiring actress who goes to auditions when she’s not working as a barista, and Sebastian, an aspiring jazz musician who wants to open his own club, where he can play the music he loves. Chazelle spins off from what must be his favorite musicals: Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York and (in one number) Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris. I adore those movies, too, but unlike them La La Land rarely leaves the ground. Chazelle, who is about to turn thirty-two, has made only two previous movies, and La La Land is an immense improvement over his last, the highly acclaimed Whiplash, which I found eminently phony from start to finish. (I didn’t buy either the college-age drummer hero, played by Miles Teller, who is so dedicated to his art that he doesn’t have time to get laid, or his sadistic teacher, played by Oscar-winning J.K. Simmons, who would have been fired years ago for his relentless abuse of his students. And I found the relationship between these two characters incomprehensible.) But La La Land just isn’t the real thing. It feels like someone’s doctoral dissertation on movie musicals.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Best of CAL 2016


Back in January 2010, when David Churchill, Shlomo Schwartzberg and I came up with the idea of Critics At Large, we envisioned a daily online arts journal that would provide us the freedom to write – a freedom we were beginning to lose in magazines and newspapers. Growing rapidly tired of working in a field where desperate careerism and craven expedience was being rewarded, we wanted to remain true to the pleasures of critical writing. We also wanted to discover who our readers might be. Over the last seven years, many things changed in both our writing and in our audience. For one thing, Critics At Large grew to be less a haven for frustrated writers and more a home for a diverse and hopeful group who saw us as a possibility. We began attracting a motley crew from various backgrounds who helped change the magazine for the better. A number of men and women, young and old, experienced and not, came to shape our identity as a journal rather than take on the identity we originally gave it. Along that path, we attracted veteran arts critics who wanted to continue to address the work that inspired them, but we also drew inexperienced voices trying to find out the true value of having one to speak with. When I read individual pieces each day, I marvel at the sheer range of material and the keen passion each writer brings to their subject. As for our readers, they have not only been rapidly growing, but the diversity of opinion in the magazine has helped us reach out to a much wider readership.What became most important for me, as one of its co-founders, was watching Critics At Large grow beyond my own expectations into a continually morphing organism that embraces the freedom our writers bring to it. For those who believe that criticism is not about everyone having the right opinion, but instead a means by which the writer and reader mutually discover their own personal relationship to a work, I think we are succeeding in getting there. As a way to celebrate that goal, and I suppose to demonstrate it, here is a look back at some of my own favourite pieces from the past year. Rather than commenting on the writer and their work, I've selected specific quotes that I think best reflects their value to me as critics. As I continue on as both writer and reader, I can truly say that I'm proud to call them colleagues.

Kevin Courrier
Editor-in-Chief
Critics At Large

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Top 5 Games of 2016: Finales & Friends

A look at FROM Software's Dark Souls III.

Once again, the biggest video game titles of the year have slipped me by. Among many others, I missed out on Final Fantasy XV, Battlefield 1, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Hitman, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Dishonored 2, Titanfall 2, and Gears of War 4. These games dominated industry commentary and global markets alike, much like Hollywood blockbuster sequels elbowing their way into the spotlight every summer – and like those blockbusters, they have grown more and more tedious in my eyes. In a market overstuffed with as much repetition as variety, I have to be ever more careful about where I spend my gaming dollar, and none of the titles I listed intrigued me enough to justify spending almost a hundred dollars (and who knows how many hours of my life) on any one of them. But that’s not to say that I didn’t play anything in 2016. Far from it. In fact – if only in terms of sheer quality – this might have been one of the best years for gaming in recent memory. Without further ado, here are my Top 5 Games I played in 2016 (along with some honourable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut).

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Art of the Song 2016: The Year’s Best Singles

The members of A Tribe Called Red. (Photo: Falling Tree Photography)

Sometimes a single track can go a long way… to inform, entertain and genuinely change the way we think of ourselves. This past year’s political, environmental and social events were certainly magnified by a U.S. Presidential candidate who raced all the way to the bottom and won. But out of all that muck, these songs in particular cleared the haze and showed us some light. They graced us with humour and passion. They spoke truth to power and put the spotlight on the rich subtleties of life. We’re going to need a lot more of them in the years ahead.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Curve Ball: Paul Verhoeven's Elle

Isabelle Huppert and silent witness in Elle

In the opening scene of Paul Verhoeven's Elle, Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is raped in her home by an assailant in a ski mask while her grey tabby cat quietly looks on. What Michèle feels about the violent assault, and how she will respond to it, are initially as mysterious to us as trying to read the thoughts of the feline who witnessed it. Afterwards, Michèle simply cleans up the mess and proceeds to have a hot bath, where, in the soap bubbles, she gathers the rising blood from her genitals into a miniature sculpture – and soon afterwards shares a contentious dinner with her son where they argue about the woman in his life. For those used to seeing genre films where rape, murder and betrayal get answered and explained in predicable ways, and can (in the worst pictures) even get exploited to heat up our blood lust, Elle goes completely against the grain. Rather than play to the most melodramatic kind of cause and effect – where sociology and dogmatism replace polymorphous sexuality and psychopathology – Verhoeven sets up a maze of possibilities to characterize a woman who doesn't get pinned down and defined by her circumstances. Not only will that approach upset those who have specific, narrow views of what constitutes rape victim response, but Elle doesn't even tell you if Michèle's behaviour grows out of the trauma of the assault. In fact, the more we get to know her, the more we see that any number of disturbing and bizarre moments have shaped her life. Elle builds its strength and its power by throwing curve balls at our expectations so that we have no choice but to take the character – and the movie – on its own terms rather than the terms we wish to impose on it.

Monday, December 26, 2016

One on One: Moonlight

Mahershala Ali (right) and Alex R. Hibbert in Moonlight.

I’ve never seen a coming-of-age movie quite like Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins. It’s the story of an African-American kid from a poor neighborhood in Miami told in three parts, each one capturing the boy, Chiron, at a different age: nine, sixteen, twenty-six. (Given the three-act structure, it’s not surprising to find out that the source material is a play, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.) In act one Chiron, known as Little and played by Alex Hibbert, lives with his mother Paula (Naomie Harris), who turns tricks for crack money. Tiny and delicate, Little is bullied by the other boys; the only one of his peers who shows him any kindness is Kevin (Jaden Piner), who tries to teach him how to stand up for himself in a fight. Little is hiding from the other kids in an abandoned house sometimes used by junkies when Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer, finds him and takes him home to his girl friend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) for a meal. Little is shy – and stubborn – to the point of non-communication; it isn’t until the next day that Juan and Teresa get him to tell them where he lives, and when Juan drives him home Paula isn’t grateful for his generosity, since he’s the man she buys rock from. Still, Little, who has no male role models and has to negotiate his mother’s substance-fueled moods, adopts Juan and Teresa as surrogate parents, and they’re tender and patient with him, riding out his silences and answering the questions he can’t ask anyone else. The other boys make fun of the way he walks and holds himself and call him a faggot; their merciless ragging has the effect of causing him to struggle with his sexuality before he’s old enough to even see himself in sexual terms. When he asks Juan and Teresa what a faggot is, Juan tells him it’s “a word used to make gay people feel bad,” and in the macho street culture of the neighborhood Juan’s instinctive egalitarianism and lack of bias, which come from his openheartedness, feel like a small miracle. He and Teresa are a gift to this brooding, complicated kid, who alternates between avoiding everyone’s gaze and seeking to make direct contact, his huge, demanding eyes fixed on Juan or Teresa or Paula or Kevin. Juan treats Little like a son, counseling him that he has to make up his own mind about who he’s going to be. He never lies to the boy; when Little finds out that he deals dope to his mother and confronts him about it, Juan doesn’t deny it, though for the first time you can see the shame in his face. Clearly he’s not the right paternal figure to get the kid through his troubled childhood, but he’s the only one Little’s got.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Oh What Fun? The Troubling Origins of “Jingle Bells” and the Problem of Christmas Entertainment


Few, if any, Christmas songs are as widely known and capable of eliciting such instantaneous recognition as “Jingle Bells.” The short, simple song conjures up images of an old-fashioned holiday, feeding nostalgia for a Currier & Ives version of the past full of universal and uncomplicated Christmas cheer.

The reality, however, is far different. Dr. Kyna Hamill of Boston University has recently made some surprising discoveries regarding “Jingle Bells” that challenge our cozy assumptions about its nature and origins. Hamill spoke with me as part of a regular podcast series, the Theatre History Podcast, on howlround.com. In our conversation, which you can listen to here, she explains that what began as a matter of local interest eventually turned into a much deeper research project, one with surprising conclusions.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Showboating: Fences

Denzel Washington stars in and directs August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Fences.

When you watch Denzel Washington in the movie version of Fences, you don’t think, “This is a great actor”; you think, “This is an actor who wants to make sure you know how great he is.” In the mammoth role of Troy Maxson, the 1950s Pittsburgh sanitation worker who is the protagonist of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning 1987 play – and under his own direction – Washington yells and declaims, shambles and struts and puffs himself up. His recitations of the long, long speeches Wilson put in this character’s mouth are like tricky vocal exercises, and we have plenty of time to marvel at his mastery of modulation and tone, particularly since we’re not distracted by any emotional involvement in the performance. On human terms I didn’t believe a single word of it, at least until, late in the picture, Troy began to sing to himself while puttering around his yard building the symbolic fence we hear about in every damn scene. (It signifies, depending on the moment, Troy’s penchant for alienating the people closest to him, his refusal to let in the truth about himself, and his struggle, in the Edgar Allan Poe “Masque of the Red Death” sense, to keep death away from his door.) This song about an old dog named Blue feels genuine, as if for once in the movie Washington didn’t feel he had something to prove. Or maybe I was just relieved that the character had stopped talking.

Friday, December 23, 2016

A Spy infiltrates ISIS in Daniel Silva’s The Black Widow

Author Daniel Silva. (Photo by Marco Grob, courtesy of HarperCollins)

The murder of civilians over the last couple of years in France and northern Europe to my knowledge has been portrayed in fiction at least twice, in Todd Babiak’s Son of France, and most recently in Daniel Silva’s The Black Widow (HarperCollins, 2016) – before the events occurred in reality, as both authors indicate. Silva has written sixteen novels in his Gabriel Allon spy series about an Israeli master spy, and on the basis of his current offering – the first that I have read – he is adept at rendering a gripping, page-turning thriller. There are sufficient backstories to inform new readers: Allon began his career as a spy and assassin when he tracked down the Palestinian terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics; he lost a son to a terrorist car bomb, shattering his wife’s mental faculties and leaving her languishing in a care home. At this point in his career, his fieldwork appears over. Because of Allon's past record of derring-do exploits along with some mishaps, a fabricated story of his death has been circulated. He is actually living in Israel, virtually in hiding, in large part to protect his new family, and on the cusp of becoming security chief for “the Office,” known in real life as Mossad. His cover is that of an internationally recognized art restorer and we initially meet him in The Black Widow working on a Caravaggio at the Israel Museum.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Incidents of Travel in the Fourth Dimension: Phenomenological Drawings by Patricia Salen

All pieces imaged on this page are from an untitled drawing series by Patricia Salen, 2010.

“We must return to the Lebenswelt [life-world], the world in which we meet in the lived-in experience, our immediate experience of the world.” Maurice Merleau Ponty
It is entirely possible for drawings to explore time. In fact, time may be their primary content. The relationship between the cognitive and perceptual realms may also best be investigated through a conversation between the eye and the hand, mediated by the mind, as evidenced in the drawings of Quebec-born artist Patricia Salen. Following its inception by Edmund Husserl, the notions inherent to the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty are perhaps an ideal vehicle for examining the artmaking impulse. Especially the Salen drawing impulse.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Gaming the System: HBO'S Westworld

Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Robert Ford, in HBO's Westworld.

Note: This review contains spoilers for the first season of HBO’s Westworld.
 
The “Mystery Box” is empty.

That’s a revelation that took almost a decade to seep into my brain. J.J. Abrams, like all great storytellers, is a great liar. But, despite his skill as an emotional filmmaker, his personal storytelling technique of capturing audience interest by building mystique around insignificant things is fraudulent and false. He’s an actual liar. There has never been anything in the box. And getting me to care about it – the way he, and others who imitate him, were able to string me along for years on the promise that one day the box would open, and something fantastic would be inside, was little more than a nasty parlour trick. He did it with LOST; he did it with Star Trek Into Darkness; he did it with Cloverfield and Super 8 and arguably even Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But I’m wise to his game, and by this point most general audiences are, too. We’re sick of being told we must find something interesting just because it’s mysterious. And this impatience on our part changed the way that writers can approach material in this mystery genre, whether on film or in episodic form: they can’t be lazy anymore and assume their audience will stick around to find out what it all means. They know that we know that if the answer ever does come, it’s likely to be unsatisfying anyway. And so the smarter creators – like those behind HBO’s Westworld (including, yes, J.J. himself) – are starting to remember that quality storytelling spends its time engaging with character, theme, and semiotics, rather than hollow plot twists and empty reveals.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Tragedy in Time: Keith Maitland's Tower

Pregnant freshman Claire James and her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, moments before they're shot in Tower

On August 1st 1966, after first murdering his mother and then his wife, Charles Whitman, a mentally ill 25-year-old engineering student, climbed to the top of the campus tower of the University of Texas and began shooting randomly, hitting 49 people and killing 17. Up until the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, this horrible tragedy was the deadliest school shooting in American history. Most of the accounts have focused primarily on the shooter, and how his father was a violent and abusive man who regularly beat his wife and son. There were also stories of Charles Whitman's fascination for guns from a very young age until, as an adult, he became a marine and learned how to use them effectively. Some reports even suggested that an undiagnosed brain tumour may have contributed to his deteriorating mental state. His story has been told in many true crime documentaries. He was the subject of James Jameson's drama The Deadly Tower (1975) with Kurt Russell in the role of Whitman. Singer/songwriter Harry Chapin ("Taxi," "Cats in the Cradle") wrote an epic folk tale, "Sniper," in 1972, which was loosely based on the killer. "[T]he earnestness with which Chapin imbued his folksy love songs serves this macabre subject well," wrote critic Sean T. Collins. "Chapin is no more able to hide behind irony or ambiguity here than he is in his more romantic work, forcing the audience to come directly to terms with the horror of the sniper attack, and the tortured character of the sniper himself." As with most mass murders, we remember the perpetrator of the crime, that "tortured character" Collins identifies – a nobody who through an act of horror becomes a somebody – but rarely do we remember the victims, who end up, ironically, as anonymous as the killer himself was before his shocking deed.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Band’s Visit: What We Share

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in The Band's Visit. (Photo: Ahron R. Foster)

Affably modest and utterly joyous, The Band’s Visit is the perfect ninety-minute musical – and the best new musical I’ve seen since 2012’s Dogfight, which was also a small-scale off-Broadway show. Dogfight played its limited run at Second Stage; The Band’s Visit will be at the Atlantic Theater Company in Chelsea only until the end of the first week in January. (It’s been extended twice.) The source material is a film from 2007, written and directed by Eran Kolirin, a sweet morsel from Israel that attracted little notice; no one I’ve mentioned the musical to had heard of the film, let alone seen it. In it, a police band from Alexandria with a date to perform at the Arab Cultural Center in a tiny Israeli city finds itself stranded in another Israeli city, Bet Hatikva, with almost the same name. (They’re one consonant apart.) Dina, the café owner who informs them that they’re in the wrong place – and that no buses are expected until the next morning – feeds them and offers to put some a couple of them up at home and more at her restaurant, volunteering her unemployed pal Itzik to take in the remaining two musicians.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Culture for the Holidays: Some Suggestions

The complete four seasons of WKRP in Cincinnati (CBS, 1978-1982) are newly available on DVD.

With the holiday season fast approaching, there is no shortage of books, albums/CDs and DVDs to choose from. So to make it easier for you to pick, here are some recent offerings you might want to contemplate purchasing for your loves ones – or for yourself.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Genius at Work: Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai's Reset

Choreographer Benjamin Millepied. (Photo: Patrick Fraser)

The life of a ballet dancer is hard, the life of a ballet artistic director even harder, especially when that director is also a maverick choreographer and free thinker who wants to change convention. It's a tall order, and one that ultimately proved too much for Benjamin Millepied to fulfill  but not for lack of trying. The subject of a new and fascinating ballet documentary that opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Dec. 23 and Vancouver's Vancity Theatre on New Year's Day, Millepied is the David who took on the Goliath of the Paris Opera Ballet when, starting in 2014, he helmed the famed institution where classical dance, as we know it, originated nearly 350 years ago.

Born in France, the former New York City Ballet dancer perhaps better known as the Black Swan choreographer who went on to marry that film's star, Natalie Portman, in 2012, Millepied resigned abruptly from the company in February, after only 15 months in the top job. He has since relocated to Los Angeles with his Hollywood movie-star wife to direct a smaller-scale contemporary dance ensemble. But it's his time at the Paris Opera which is the focus here, a watershed moment not just for this visionary dance artist but also for a company wanting to move forward while respecting the past. Reset  or Relève, as the 110-minute film is called in French  emerges as an important document highlighting the need for innovation in dance and the hierarchical structures that get in the way of real progress. "Sometimes it's hard to move a big ship forward," says Paris Opera director Stéphane Lissner early in the film, addressing an underlying problem.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Cyberkitsch: How The Machine Colonized Us When We Weren’t Looking

Walter Benjamin at work in the National Library in Paris, 1937. (Photo: Gisèle Freund)

The present digital age is the ideal time to re-examine the ideas of the great German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin, author of one of the most important essays in the history of art criticism and visual culture appreciation. His 1936 reflections on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (sometimes translated as "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility") is still salient.

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German-Jewish culture critic who made a precarious and eventually doomed living as a unique kind of journalist, one who tried to make clear the impact of our modern mechanized history on our daily lives. His precious but exotic form of journalism captured both the past history of how we got to live so comfortably among our machines as well as the future history of what those machines might be capable of doing, not just for us, but to us. How we became their people and how they forever altered our hearts and minds  in ways not simply good or bad, but more often mysterious, the outcome of which has still yet to be fully determined.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Dream Team: The Last Guardian

The Last Guardian, developed by genDESIGN and Sony's Japan Studio, was released on December 6th. 2016.

In 2006, I played a game called Shadow of the Colossus that changed how I understood game design. During my unforgettable first playthrough, in which I played a young man astride a horse who must travel across vast lands to conquer ancient stone giants, I discovered a new approach to the “rules” of what a game can and must do. Its enigmatic Japanese fantasy storytelling was deeply suggestive in its abstraction, telling me little and explaining even less, and its simplistic design structure – the hunt for and destruction of the titular Colossi encompasses the entirety of the game experience – became indelible in my mind as one of the first examples of true art in gaming, which forced me to confront the reality of what I was doing, posing sharp questions and providing no comforting answers. It was a watershed moment in my gaming life, and made the anticipation painful for director Fumito Ueda’s next game, which began development the next year. Announced as The Last Guardian, telling the story of the shared bond between a boy and a fictional mythological beast, it was set to release in 2011 – but was delayed multiple times due to hardware difficulties with the planned Playstation 3 platform, the departure of Ueda and other development team members, and other difficulties. Its reassignment to Sony Interactive Entertainment’s internal Japan Studio and the shift to a Playstation 4 release in 2012 was met with skepticism, and after several years with no word it was assumed that the title had been shelved. Then in 2015, to the surprise of all at E3, it was paraded out for an official 2016 release, and finally became available last week on the December 6th – a full decade after development first began.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

At the Crossroads: Sting and The Rolling Stones

Sting performing at the Dubai Jazz Festival in 2015. (Photo: Satish Kumar)

In his 2009 book of critical essays called Heroes And Villains (De Capo), music scholar David Hajdu writes, “Rock ‘n’ rollers, as they age, sometimes find themselves outgrowing a music they cannot outlive. … In the past few years, several prominent rockers of a certain age have pursued a novel solution to the problem of growing too old to rock ‘n’ roll – …. They are backdating their careers [by] repositioning themselves so as to be associated with styles of music that preceded
rock. .… Each of these efforts represents not just a detour from rock but also a claim to higher ground.” Hajdu goes on to cite Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Sting as artists who’ve released albums of music dedicated to “the higher ground.”

Two recent releases by the aforementioned Sting, now 65 years old, and the septuagenarian Rolling Stones are a return to the crossroads: a pilgrimage, if you will, to the once fertile soil of their musical roots. On December 2nd, The Rolling Stones released their all-blues album called Blue & Lonesome (Polydor). Last month, Sting released his new “rock” album called 57th & 9th (A&M). Billed as his first rock album in 13 years, the album’s title comes from his favourite intersection in New York, the corner of 57th and 9th, not far from Columbus Circle, in what’s commonly known as Hell’s Kitchen. It’s in this location, as he told Stephen Colbert, where he meditates while waiting for the light to change at the busy crossroads. As he says in the liner notes, “I do most of my thinking while walking … so walking and the conjuring of stories were intrinsically bound together for me.” The result of Sting’s thoughtful walks is his new album of rock songs, but like the terrain of New York City, it’s an uneven journey with very little “newness” to it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Talking Out of Turn #49 (Podcast): Agnès Varda (1986)

Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond (1985), by Agnès Varda.

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, I 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 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 concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it. 

Tom Fulton, host and producer of On the Arts.
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., 
Doris Kearns Goodwin sitting alongside Clive Barker). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I were trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. The book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

As mainstream movies became more predictable and packaged in the eighties, some filmmakers turned to the fringes. Not all of the work of independent directors, though, was worthy of being enshrined (any more than all of the Hollywood work earned for itself the right to be trashed). There were good and bad films in both camps. What I wanted to illustrate in the chapter Occupying the Margins: Re-Inventing Movies was the more idiosyncratic styles of people working in the business on both sides of the fence. They included screenwriter Robert Towne, the Hollywood mogul Samuel Z. Arkoff, the then-emerging sibling filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, and film directors Bill Forsyth, Bob Swaim, James Toback, Mira Nair, and Agnès Varda.

When I sat down with Agnès Varda in 1986, her film Vagabond had just been released in North America. The film, starring Sandrine Bonnaire, dramatized the death of a female vagrant, and traced the steps to her demise. Varda's approach was one of objectivity and detachment. This didn't go down well with those of us who wanted more of the director's vision of this woman's life. In this interview, she counters my arguments on the matter.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Agnès Varda as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1986.



Monday, December 12, 2016

Tammy Grimes, 1934-2016

Brian Bedford and Tammy Grimes in Private Lives, 1970.

Tammy Grimes died at the end of October, many years after her celebrity had faded. If you went to the theatre in New York in the sixties you knew who she was: the ineffable sprite with the gingery brandy-snap contralto and the slightly preposterous bohemian hauteur who was born to play high comedy. The English-accented voice was her own invention – she was born in Lynn, Massachusetts – and if you listen to the original cast album of The Littlest Revue (1956), the first show in which she was featured (she had understudied Kim Stanley’s Cherie in Bus Stop on Broadway the year before), you can hear her trying it out: tentatively on her first solo, “Madly in Love,” more confidently on her second, “I’m Glad I’m Not a Man.” She was a cabaret singer as well as an actress; Noël Coward discovered her at Julius Monk’s Downstairs and nabbed her for his play Look After Lulu!, in which she played the first of several notable Coward heroines – she was Elvira in High Spirits, the 1964 musical of Blithe Spirit, and Amanda in a Broadway revival of Private Lives six years later. Strangely, though, her breakthrough role was that of the indomitable Colorado millionairess, raised in rural poverty and later one of the survivors of the Titanic, in Meredith Willson’s 1960 The Unsinkable Molly Brown. I saw her in it and was delighted by her performance; at ten it didn’t occur to me to wonder where a Colorado mountain gal acquired so cultivated a vocal effect. She book-ended the decade with Tony Awards for it and for Private Lives, in a part that surely suited her better. Due to a weird glitch in the rules (since modified), the first of these awards was for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, even though she played the title character in Molly Brown and was rarely off the stage during its running time. At the time only actors billed above the title were eligible for a leading actor or actress nod and, since Grimes was not considered a star in 1960, her name appeared below the title.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Critics Notes & Frames Vol. XXI


Brian De Palma's Home Movies is a 1979 low-budget independent film made with the help of his film class at Sarah Lawrence as a hands-on training exercise. (They were given the primary responsibilities of raising money, arranging the shooting schedule, and editing the film, all under De Palma's supervision.) What they got was a spirited primal comedy laced with episodes from De Palma's early life that also came to make sense of his movie obsessions. Kirk Douglas (who had just starred in De Palma's last thriller, The Fury) plays a film instructor who uses the medium as a form of therapy. His prize student Dennis Byrd (Keith Gordon) decides to turn the camera on his family life, which is filled with enough neurotic issues to fuel numerous sessions. Besides competing with a favoured and pompous older brother (the hilarious Gerrit Graham, who played the glam rock star, Beef in De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise), Dennis also has to deal with a mother (Mary Davenport) who pops pills because of her philandering husband (Vincent Gardenia), a physician on whom his son ultimately turns his lens to catch him in the act. When his older sibling brings home his girlfriend, Kristina (Nancy Allen), Dennis is immediately drawn to this striking blonde while still torn by guilt over his parents' marital issues. Home Movies is a shaggy satire with Oedipal gags that pop like party balloons. While the picture has a relaxed charm compared to the fervently exciting thrillers, Carrie and The Fury, that preceded it, the themes of voyeurism and fear would carry over effectively into his next picture, Dressed to Kill, where the comedy and horror have a more lasting after-bite.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Off the Beat: NBC’s Hairspray Live!

Derek Hough and Maddie Baillio in NBC’s Hairspray Live! (Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC)

When NBC decided to revive the tradition of presenting live musicals with The Sound of Music Live! in 2013, it hit upon a successful formula for drawing in viewers during the holiday doldrums. The Sound of Music Live! and its successor, Peter Pan Live! were deliberately old-fashioned affairs, presenting well-worn favorites performed on a soundstage devoid of audience members, just as productions featuring the likes of Mary Martin had done decades before. Granted, they were plagued by technical problems, and the celebrities whom network executives cast as the leads didn’t measure up to the Broadway veterans who were relegated to supporting roles, but for the most part audiences didn’t seem to care. Last year’s live performance of The Wiz suggested that NBC was starting to learn from its mistakes, starting with its choice to produce a show that, while not as well-known as its predecessors, gave a talented cast of African-American performers a chance to shine. It looked like NBC would slowly but steadily improve on its initial formula, year by year, for as long as it chose to continue its live musical revivals.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Class and Celebrity in Jeffrey Toobin’s American Heiress

Patricia Hearst (centre) leaving from San Francisco's Federal Building after received her seven-year sentence, on April 12, 1976.

The year 2016 may be remembered as the one in which celebrity became a vital touchstone in American culture. Most notably was the grotesque upset Presidential victory of Donald Trump in which a reality-TV concept, complete with the dramatic, over-the-top meanness and coarseness – as evidenced by the boisterous rallies and venomous post-truth tweets – helped propel him to the White House. On a lesser scale, this year witnessed both a spotty, award-winning television movie, The People v. O. J. Simpson, based on Jeffrey Toobin’s 1996 biography, Run of His Life , and the superior documentary, O. J.: Made in America, in which Simpson notoriously utters, “I am not black, I’m O.J.,” a statement that underscored his celebrity status. Sadly, it is possible to draw another connection between a seismic political event and an infamous crime story. In her 2010 book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, journalist Rebecca Traister investigated the 2008 Presidential election and found bile-filled examples of visceral misogyny directed toward Hillary Clinton that included, affixed to t-shirts, “I wish that Hillary had married O.J.” Thirdly, this year marked the publication of Toobin’s American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst (Doubleday), which directly links a series of crimes in the 1970s with celebrity and class.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Poképaradise: Pokémon Sun & Moon

Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon (developed by Game Freak and published by Nintendo) were released in November 2016.

For those who think that Pokémon is that dumb game you play on your phone, endangering yourself and others in pursuit of imaginary monsters like some schizophrenic wackjob, allow me to clarify something: Pokémon GO is not Pokémon. The promise of GO was an exciting one – that the charm and addictive fun of the actual, real Pokémon games could be translated into a virtual “real-world” setting – but it quickly became obvious that GO was as shallow and dispensable as any flash-in-the-pan mobile game. GO is designed like the ubiquitous Candy Crush Saga and most other mobile shovelware in that its core gameplay loops are designed for sustained repetitive mindlessness: something to keep your fingers busy on the subway or the toilet, devoid of player agency, the need for critical thought, or any form of true interactive engagement. The real Pokémon, the one that’s been almost single-handedly responsible for keeping Nintendo’s handheld consoles afloat since 1998, is a series of brilliantly designed RPGs that are aging like fine wine – and still finding ways to improve on their central mechanics nearly 20 years after their first incarnation.

As Nintendo’s portable Game Boy platform has evolved, so too has the software designed to sell that hardware. With the North American release of Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue in 1998, developer Game Freak helped Nintendo revitalize the Game Boy and established a precedent for one of the most successful franchises in gaming history, spawning a tie-in cartoon, a collectible card game, and countless huggable plush representations of the game’s titular “pocket monsters.” Released every few years as colour-matched titles with minor differences (which encourage players to trade with and battle against their friends), every game in the series has embraced the core appeal of setting off on an adventure to find, capture, and train all the Pokémon in the game’s fictional world – verbalized famously in the tagline of the original game as “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” Since they've enjoyed nearly two decades of success, there’s a lot of pressure on each new title to deliver fresh, interesting material while maintaining that central fun factor that’s kept the series alive for so long – pressure which, until recently, hasn’t prompted the results many series stalwarts have hoped for. The latest pair of games is called Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon, released in November of this year, and they inject the franchise with the innovation and invigoration it’s been sorely lacking for years. They’re absolutely brilliant.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Ten Years After: Back to Winehouse

Amy Winehouse's second, and final, studio album Back to Black was released on October 27, 2006.

“Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.”  John Updike
Before long, the brilliant album Amy Winehouse released ten years ago this past October will have lived longer that she herself did. Back to Black (Island Records, 2006) was then and still is now a singular achievement with few sonic peers in the realm of pop music. This is especially ironic because it was never intended to be a pop record at all and instead merged jazz, blues, R&B, funk, ska, soul, hip hop, "Wall of Sound" 60’s girl groups and something else without a name into an amazing witch’s brew with many imitators but few equals.

Having just completed a book on this album, its historical roots, brilliant producers and back-up band, I am amazed by the record now as I was when I first heard it a decade ago. Almost as strange is the fact that she passed away nearly a half a decade ago this year, and took with her one of the most oddly gifted and mesmerizing torch song talents to come along since Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Anita O’Day and Sharon Jones.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Neglected Gem #94: Bobby Roth's Heartbreakers (1984)

Nick Mancuso and Peter Coyote in Heartbreakers

Many claim the subject of male bonding, and the way women become the battlefield where men act out (and often avoid) their competitiveness with each other, to be the domain of John Cassavetes (Faces, Husbands). But I often found the verbal punch-ups between macho guys in his pictures to be ultimately quite wearying. In Bobby Roth's seldom-seen Heartbreakers, the guys aren't frustrated blowhards and the women they're drawn to aren't mere victims of their bluster. Roth sets up his drama, which is set in Los Angeles, in terms of the dynamics that both trap and propel his characters into the relationships they choose, away from the ones they choose to avoid, and into the damage they're not conscious of causing each other. Heartbreakers is less about finding fault in the battle of the genders and more about indulging a curiosity about that battle and what it reveals of the warriors who engage in it. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

A Life: Tumbling into Obscurity

Brad Heberlee and David Hyde Pierce in the Playwrights Horizons production of A Life. (Photo: by Joan Marcus)

I would never willingly miss seeing David Hyde Pierce, so I hastened to the Playwrights Horizons production of A Life, a new play by Adam Bock, directed by Anne Kauffman at City Center. And for the first forty minutes (half of the play’s brief running time) it’s a worthwhile excursion for the actor’s fans. Pierce plays Nate Martin, a gay New Yorker – transplanted years ago from his native Ohio – who has just parted company with his latest boyfriend; it’s not the first time they’ve broken up so whether or not this split is permanent is up in the air. The play begins with a twenty-five-minute monologue, which Pierce delivers with witty understatement, in which Nate mostly discusses his checkered romantic history: short-term relationships that ended because of dissatisfaction – sometimes trivial-sounding – on his side. We expect that the play is going to focus on his attempts to get past his failure to sustain a relationship, or else his inability to pull out of his usual pattern, and since Pierce is a master at playing befuddled men struggling to get unstuck, and since he has the surest high-comic style currently on view, I was impatient to see how Nate’s story would unfold.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

East End Identity Crisis: The Infidel (2010)

Archie Panjabi, Omid Djalili and Amit Shah in The Infidel (2010).

"Look not at what a man has done, but what he hopes to do."
– Mahmud's four-year-old daughter, in The Infidel.
The Infidel (2010) tells the story of Mahmud Nasir (played with grumpy charm by British comedian Omid Djalili), an East London British-Pakistani family man, who discovers upon the recent death of his mother that he was adopted and (to his dismay) that he was born Jewish. The resulting crisis of identity leads him to try to track down his birth parents, with the help of his equally ill-tempered American Jewish neighbour Lenny (Richard Schiff, of West Wing fame). At the same time, his moderate Muslim life is unsettled by the imminent visit of his son's future father-in-law, a hard-line Egyptian cleric named Arshad Al-Masri (played by Israeli actor Yigal Naor, HBO's House of Saddam), who is coming to make sure that his daughter's new family are, as Mahmud's precocious four-year-old daughter puts it, "Muslim enough." These twin pressures lead to a slapstick process by which Mahmud alternately tries on both identities, and finds that neither truly fits. It is an amusing – sometimes hilarious – fable, told with a gentle, prodding eye on hypocrisy and all the holier-than-thou ways we often police one another's behaviour without taking our own into account.

Produced in the UK on a small budget, The Infidel was directed by Josh Appignanesi (whose only other feature is 2005's haunting Jewish-themed Song of Songs) and written by David Baddiel. In 2010, the movie created some buzz at the Tribeca Film Festival and ultimately became a modest hit in theatres worldwide (even inspiring a 2015 Bollywood remake). In 2014, Baddiel launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund his own stage musical adaptation of the script, which would eventually premiere at London's Theatre Royal Stratford East replete with songs by Erran Baron Cohen. But it is the original film that bears revisiting, especially at the close of this dark year.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

American Pastoral: The Assimilation Dream

Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connelly in American Pastoral

The house I grew up in was in a gracious suburb of Montreal that had been restricted by a “gentleman’s agreement” – that is, no houses were sold to Jews – until, in the early fifties, it expanded northward and the old rules were no longer imposed on the new properties. Still, when my parents bought our house we were the first Jews on the street, and though most of our neighbors were warm and welcoming (a Chinese family was already ensconced two doors down), there was one family at the end of the block that refused to acknowledge us. I was only three or four when my father bought the first television set on the street, so I only learned from him years later about the day these anti-Semites showed up at our door, like all of our other neighbors, to get a peek at this brand-new marvel. “What did you do?” I asked my dad, but of course I knew him well enough to anticipate his answer: “I invited them in.” My father, a man of unassailable integrity, was also an accommodating one; he believed in people getting along, and he made his philosophy work – he counted non-Jews as well as Jews among his friends all his life.

I thought of my father when I read Philip Roth’s great 1997 novel American Pastoral – now a movie, directed by and starring Ewan McGregor – which offers, as one of its two great themes, the idea of assimilation as the essential dream of Jewish Americans and then dismantles it. Its protagonist is Seymour “Swede” Levov, a Jewish kid from Newark who, through a combination of uncanny athletic gifts (in high school he’s a football, basketball and baseball star) and golden-boy Wasp looks, gets to live the charmed life denied to most Jews in the forties and fifties. Roth’s narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, who pals around with Swede’s kid brother Jerry and, like all the other Newark youngsters, basks in Seymour’s reflected glory, refers to him as “our very own Swede, a boy as close to a goy as we were going to get” whose “steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask” permitted him to wear his Jewishness lightly. “[T]hrough the Swede,” Nathan explains, “the neighborhood entered into a fantasy about itself and about the world . . . our families could forget the way things actually work . . .” (They could also forget about the war; this part of the story takes place in the early forties.) The Swede takes over his father’s glove business, Newark Maid, but he successfully defies his father’s insular mentality and marries a Gentile, Dawn Dwyer, Miss New Jersey of 1949, and moves out to the country – Old Rimrock, N.J., bona fide Wasp territory. (Swede Levov anticipates another indelible Roth creation, Coleman Silk in The Human Stain, a black man so light-skinned he can pass for white.) Nathan, crossing paths with him again in the mid-nineties, assumes that his life has been “most simple and most ordinary and therefore just great, right in the American grain.” But then he runs into Jerry shortly after at their forty-fifth high school reunion and finds out that the Swede, recently and unexpectedly dead, lived for three decades under the cloud of a tragedy: his daughter Merry, radicalized as a teenager during the Vietnam War, had bombed the Old Rimrock post office and gone underground.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Everybody Knows: The Ubiquitous Leonard Cohen in the Movies

A young Leonard Cohen, in Donald Brittain's 1965 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen...Mr. Leonard Cohen.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Leonard Cohen since his passing earlier this month, unexpectedly but at the ripe old age of 82 – remembering the great concert of his I attended in Toronto in 2008, the humbleness he displayed on stage, and the sheer joy he felt in being so loved so late in his life. You just know he could not have imagined this highly positive outcome of his career trajectory. My good friend Bram Eisenthal, who worked then at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, the synagogue that Cohen attended in Montreal, and whose cantor and choir are featured in several of the songs in Cohen’s poignant last album You Want it Darker (2016), sent him my concert review – and while I have no idea if he actually saw it, much less read it, I was thrilled to know that he might have. And as a Montrealer, I've visited where he lived and can recall sitting in Ben’s Delicatessen, a while before it permanently closed, not really enjoying the food (the quality of its fare had declined) but still content to know I was eating in one of Leonard’s hangouts.

A couple of days after the announcement of Leonard Cohen’s death, I was watching a fine 2016 French movie, Irreplaceable (Médecin de champagne), part of the lineup at Toronto’s edition of the European Union Film Festival, about a country doctor (François Cluzet) whose life is upended when he develops a tumour and has to allow a female medical practitioner (Marianne Denicourt) to help him in his duties. Late in the movie, both doctors attend a village dance where a country band slides into a decent rendition of Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah,” a moment which prompted a bit of a murmur from the audience as it seemed so particularly apt to pay tribute to Leonard in this way so soon after the shocking news of his death. (The moment was entirely serendipitous, of course, but still…) But it also struck me as nothing new, as I can’t think of any artist who has been featured the way he has in movies. It’s not simply that his songs or covers of them have graced so many movies and TV shows over the years (more than 50 at least), but the diversity of the filmmakers who have utilized his songs in their works has intrigued me and made me ponder on why he, of all singers-songwriters out there, has struck such a chord with so many of them.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Well-Dressed Heartbreak: Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals.

Tom Ford may be a household name thanks to his work in the fashion industry as former creative director for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent before launching his eponymous label in 2006, but many may be surprised to know that he considers his sartorial success to be a stepping stone for his grander aims as a filmmaker. His initial foray into the world of cinema, with the 2009 Colin Firth and Julianne Moore drama A Single Man, was met with critical acclaim (and an Oscar nomination for Firth). Seven years later, his newest film, the noir thriller Nocturnal Animals, proves that A Single Man’s success was no accident and that Ford is good for much more than nice (read: stunning, impeccably tailored, outrageously classy, should-be-in-every-man’s-wardrobe) suits.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Talking Out of Turn #48 (Podcast): Wallace Shawn (1981)

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory in My Dinner With André (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, I 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 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 concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it. 

Tom Fulton, host and producer of On the Arts.
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., Doris Kearns Goodwin sitting alongside Clive Barker). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I were trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. The book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.


In a decade that many considered to be drowning in narcissism, I decided to include interviews in Talking Out of Turn with artists who posed alternatives to self-centeredness in the eighties when it came to examining the self. That included the Canadian poet bp Nichol, whose life work in both narrative and experimental poetry was almost always autobiographical in nature; D.M. Thomas, who inserted the theories of Freud and the horror of the Holocaust into fiction in The White Hotel (1981); and William Diehl, a pulp fiction writer (Chameleon, Sharky's Machine) who was also a pacifist: he wrote violent dramas to purge himself of the turbulence within him. The chapter on biography also included Wallace Shawn talking about the process of making (with Louis Malle and André Gregory) the highly experimental fictional documentary My Dinner with André (1981). My Dinner with Andréa film about two men having dinner and discussing personal and philosophical issues, created an unusual – yet still dramatic – form of autobiography that Shawn considered frightfully raw,

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Wallace Shawn as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1981.