Saturday, May 21, 2016

Coming of (a New) Age: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård in The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015).

In 2003, the movie Thirteen, written by fledgling actress Nikki Reed (Twilight) and Catherine Hardwicke garnered critical acclaim for its bold, provocative portrayal of the seedy secret lives of early teens experimenting with drugs, sex, and alcohol. While films like American Pie (1999) offered a frank but socially acceptable look at the first sexual forays of young men, Thirteen followed the trajectory for exploring budding sexuality in young girls set by a long history of grim, moralizing tales from Samuel Richardson’s 1748 novel, Clarissa, to Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013). Although still largely regarded as one of the more honest and realistic glimpses into what teens are up to behind closed doors, Thirteen did nothing new for women’s sexuality or autonomy – it reminded us, as stories have told us since time immemorial, that young women who give in to sexual desire, who dare to experiment with sex or drugs, are opening the door to a world of victimhood, shame, and regret.

Tackling almost exactly the same subject matter as Harwicke’s Thirteen, Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl differs only in setting, critical buzz, and, most importantly, tone. Adapted from a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, the 2015 film offers a candid and refreshing story of a teen girl’s incredibly messy first sexual experiences growing up in 1970s San Francisco. Minnie Goetz (newcomer Bel Powley) is a 15-year-old who likes drawing (the film is embellished with 70s-inspired, Monty Python-esque comic drawings from Minnie’s imagination), doesn’t love school, and lives in a cozy, liberal household with her free spirit mother (Kristen Wiig), gawky but adorable little sister, Gretel (Abby Wait), and any number of mom’s party friends who’ve come to crash for the night. After he accidentally grazes her boob with his hand, mom’s handsome underachiever boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård, complete with bell-bottoms and porn-star mustache) becomes the object of Minnie’s overwhelming teenage lust. The two embark on an ill-advised affair behind her mother’s back which Minnie chronicles in an audio diary comprised of a series of unmarked cassette tapes carelessly strewn about her bedroom. Naturally, Minnie’s sexual awakening via Monroe leads her to satisfy her curiosity about a slew of other taboo subjects which she also records for posterity, alongside her musings about standard 15-year-old topics like whether or not losing her virginity makes her look different, if paramour Monroe masturbates thinking about her, and, less directly, about the complex and often confusing overlap between a good lay and actual love. The diaries, like Minnie, are unreserved and unashamed; her voice is clear, direct, and distinct while being unmistakably teenage.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Rachel & Alice & Obama

Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married (2008).

In a campaign year which has been filled with anger, violence and rancor, there hasn't been a spirit of hope that many drew from Obama's first ascension to the Presidency. What we have been witnessing in the primaries so far is an ugly reaction to it. Donald Trump, a demagogue Paul Bunyan, lumbers across the land promising walls – both real and figurative – to keep out Muslim and Mexican immigrants and restore America to a greatness he perceives as a land that never had Barack Obama as President. (After all, Trump is the Truther who once challenged the legitimacy of the President's citizenship.) The Republican Presidential hopeful isn't stoking the ideals in his country but playing instead to its discontent. Stirring and seeking anger wherever he finds it, especially in the white working-class, he isn't interested in salving the sources of their wounds, but marshaling the power of their rage to vote him in. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton talks and conducts herself as the power broker politician. If Trump speaks to the ugly underside of American exceptionalism, Clinton addresses the unidentifiable masses that make up the country. Given that she comes across like a high-powered CEO who has a demographic sense of her own constituents, it's understandable that she hasn't convinced many disenchanted younger voters to hop on board. They've chosen instead the populist caboose of socialist Bernie Sanders who reaches out to their despair like a crotchety Woody Guthrie and invokes a Promised Land that will build bridges rather than Donald Trump's walls. But his own campaign has been lately doing its own share of erecting walls especially in the face of Clinton's ascending victory as the Democratic choice for President. Unless these two sides truly make peace, a Trump victory is not only highly possible, it will most certainly be a reality. And we'll have as the new President, the anti-Obama.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Cuban Missiles of the Human Kind: The Ballet Nacional de Cuba's Don Quixote

Photo by Nancy Reyes, courtesy of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal & Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

The castanets heard clicking through Don Quixote, the ballet that opened at Place des Arts on May 4 for a three-night run, echoed the rat-a-tat-tat of heartbeats thrilling at the return of Ballet Nacional de Cuba to Montreal following a five-year absence. The Ludwig Minkus score might have been canned, but the pulse of the Iberian rhythms felt vivid enough for the capacity audience to stand on its feet and clap along, simulating the passions of the fiery fiesta erupting on stage.

Prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso – and rare is the dancer in the history of ballet who owns that superlative title – created her version of the 19th century classic to restore the ballet to its Latin origins. While based on the Spanish novel that Miguel de Cervantes first published in 1605, Don Quixote has been in foreign hands since first appearing as a ballet in 1869. Transplanted Parisian Marius Petipa adapted Cervantes' story for the Imperial Ballet of Russia, working closely with composer Minkus to produce a four-act Spanish-accented extravaganza that many companies around the globe have since included in their repertoires. Alexander Gorsky updated the Petipa ballet for Moscow in 1900, and this is the version Alonso relied on when creating her version of Don Quixote in 1998. She likely learned it growing up, instructed by Russian teachers.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Barron and Charlap: The Art of the Jazz Trio

In 1961, at 19 years of age, a young pianist named Kenny Barron broke into the heart of the jazz scene just as it was peaking in popularity and innovation. Barron (born in Philadelphia, the city of John Coltrane) moved to New York and free-lanced with the young lions Roy Haynes, Lee Morgan and James Moody, three different and yet distinct voices in American music. As the jazz form stretched out, he enriched his musical vocabulary and became a working sideman. Barron proved himself worthy of such stellar company by cutting his first record in 1962 with James Moody. Moody recommended the young piano-player to Dizzy Gillespie. Gillespie was infatuated with the Afro-Cuban sounds in those days and his influence on Barron was profound. Between 1962 and 1968, Barron had steady work with either Gillespie or Moody in a rich repertoire of standards, be-bop and Afro-Cuban music. By 1971 he joined the truly adventurous reed-player Yusef Lateef for six albums released on Atlantic Records. Barron’s talent lie in his ability to fuse all these musical styles (be-bop, Latin, Avant-Garde) while building his own voice, making him one of the most versatile pianists in jazz. As the decades followed, Barron quietly made his mark as a soloist and bandleader. Over the years, he’s cut some memorable records with Stan Getz and Charlie Haden. His splendid 2014 release with bassist Dave Holland, called The Art of Conversation (Impulse), was marvelous recording.

Kenny Barron’s new release is called Book of Intuition (Impulse) and it’s everything one would expect from this veteran musician: passion, joy and sensitivity. Kiyoshi Kitagawa, bass, and Johnathan Blake, drums, round out the trio on this occasion.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

One Last Adventure – Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

A Thief's End is the fourth and final game in Naughty Dog's Uncharted series.

I’ve never reviewed an Uncharted game, because I’ve found it to be a mostly disposable series. Nathan Drake (Nolan North) going off on his light, fun, Indiana Jones-style adventures resulted in some eye-catching setpieces but few lasting memories for me (and, in hindsight, it may have been that same resemblance to Indiana Jones which failed to charm me; you have to work real hard to beat Indy at his own game). The high level of visual polish and cinematic flair of Drake’s globetrotting quests provided some temporary “wow moments,” and the characterization and mo-cap performance of Drake and his companions were definite touchstones in turn of the century storytelling in games, but these elements were hamstrung by lackluster combat sections, which interrupted the smooth linear flow of story and gameplay (mostly revolving around traversing the lush environments and solving ancient puzzles). The Uncharted series always struck me as a series of impressive, if slightly forgettable games – until the fourth iteration, that is. Drake’s adventures came to an end, and it was there at the edge of the map that Uncharted and I finally made communion.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Do I Hear a Waltz?: An Encores! Misstep

Melissa Errico and Richard Troxell in Do I Hear a Waltz? (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Stephen Sondheim’s only collaboration with Richard Rodgers was the 1965 musical Do I Hear a Waltz?, adapted by Arthur Laurents from his 1952 Broadway success The Time of the Cuckoo. Shirley Booth had starred in the play, as a lonely Midwesterner who comes to Venice on vacation in the hopes of enjoying a romantic fling, and Katharine Hepburn took over the role in David Lean’s 1955 film version, Summertime. Though Sondheim’s early musicals were partnerships with other composers – West Side Story with Leonard Bernstein and Gypsy with Jule Styne – he had established himself as a composer-lyricist with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Anyone Can Whistle at the beginning of the sixties. But Rodgers was, of course, the fabled writing partner of Sondheim’s adolescent mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, and Laurents was the man who wrote the book for Gypsy, so he agreed to the collaboration. But these two men of strikingly different sensibilities didn’t get along, and though the musical had a modest run it didn’t make much of an impression. (Neither did the leading lady, Elizabeth Allen.) And Sondheim has never thought much of it; in interviews and in his book Finishing the Hat he’s referred to it, quoting his friend, Rodgers’ daughter Mary a “why?” musical – as in “Why bother turning this material into a musical?”

Last weekend’s revival by Encores! marks the first time Do I Hear a Waltz? has been produced in New York since the original production. I saw the show as a teenager and know the cast album well, and I’ve always thought that the material was interesting and the score had considerable charm. Except for a couple of songs in No Strings, it’s the only late Rodgers score worth listening to; the ballads are especially lovely. Leona, the protagonist, thinks of herself as independent and resilient, but she’s febrile, with an all-or-nothing romantic fervor and fragile sensibilities; “Why is it I get so easily hurt?” she asks herself in one lyric, and the answer seems to be that she alternates between asking too much and not having the flexibility or the courage to accept what she’s offered if it’s not perfect. “Throw the dream away,” the Venetian shopkeeper Renato Di Rossi, who courts her, pleads in another song; he’s married, but in a union that has long since passed from passion into a state of mutual respect, and he doesn’t have money. The musical pits Leona’s Yankee puritanism with a more relaxed European attitude toward sex, embodied not only in Renato but also in Signora Fioria, the middle-aged proprietor of the pensione where Leona stays with two American couples. Signora Fioria seduces the younger of the two men, a painter named Eddie Yeager, whose marriage to the naïve, trusting Jennifer has begun to fray at the edges. When Leona spots Eddie going off in a gondola with the hotelkeeper, her moral shock is piled on top of her difficulties in taking Renato as he is, for good and for ill. The second act is overloaded: Laurents introduces one too many plot strands and the climactic scene teeters on the edge of melodrama, or perhaps goes over that edge, depending on your point of view and, I would think, the quality of the production.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Truth and Consequences: Reflections on the Jian Ghomeshi Scandal

Jian Ghomeshi (right) exiting a Toronto courthouse with his lawyer Marie Henein. (Photo: Frank Gunn/AP)

As I was writing about Kirby Dick’s disturbing, albeit flawed documentary, The Hunting Ground, that profiles several women who were victims of sexual assault on American campuses and the apparent official indifference they confronted, it was hard not to think about the outcome of the Jian Ghomeshi trial and the firestorm that it created here in Canada. As most people know, that trial was a high profile case of a former marquee radio host for the CBC that publicly terminated him in the midst of several allegations of disreputable behaviour towards a number of women. The juxtaposition of the American film and the Canadian trial is unsettling because my responses are complicated. Initially, I experienced an almost visceral antipathy toward the male perpetrators. It was easy to feel a sense of outrage about what happened to these young women in The Hunting Ground and the suffering they endured, exacerbated by the blaming-the-victim rhetoric and hostile responses they encountered, even though I believe that the filmmakers could have done a better job at vetting at least one of the women. At the outset of the Ghomeshi trial, I was quite prepared to jump on the media bandwagon and consign the accused to Dante’s Second Circle of Hell for “carnal malefactors.” My feelings of antipathy toward Ghomeshi deepened after reading a powerful online account by Jessica Knoll, who recounts her own gang rape that inspired her novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, and the subsequent vicious treatment she received by her peers and at least one teacher who regarded her as a slut. That essay is of course totally unrelated to the Ghomeshi trial but it did contribute to my mindset that the justice system in general does not always serve women who are the victims of sexual assault.

However, as the Ghomeshi trial unfolded with the cross-examination of the three witnesses and the revelations of sandbagging the media, the police and Crown prosecutors, it became apparent that the Crown’s case was imploding. The inconsistencies between what they told the authorities and what was revealed in the court, their behaviour after the alleged attacks, that included the email collusion among the complainants who were determined to “cook his goose” and “make the predator pay for all the shit he has done” had impeached their credibility. A not guilty verdict was not unexpected and neither was the outraged reaction.