Saturday, July 16, 2016

High and Low: Notes on Film Criticism and Hitchcock/Truffaut

François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock.

Why is it that some people think film critics (to paraphrase Cyndi Lauper) don't want to have fun? More to the point, why do people get so upset when you don't have the kind of fun they had at a hit movie even though you can explain clearly why it didn't deliver for you? (People never get this incensed when the picture is a commercial failure.) If I find a picture sluggish and heavy-spirited, as I once did with Ivan Reitman's massive 1984 hit Ghostbusters, why shouldn't I say so? Just because it was intended to entertain and make money for the studio doesn't make that a criteria for evaluating its quality. A good critic always judges a film on whether or not they are enjoying it, but they also go further to try and articulate why (even though, according to some moviegoers, you're not supposed to have a contrary opinion when the picture is a huge Hollywood production with a pedigree). Yet, as in politics, the Emperor sometimes has no clothes. But those same folks who always strip the Emperor down to the buff in politics seem to feel that the same doesn't apply to the popular arts which you should just let wash over you. This may explain why there's been such an uproar over the new remake of Ghostbusters where people are insane with rage that Hollywood has dared to reboot a 'classic.' Meanwhile, others get appalled if you diss the original. They assume that, due to your discriminating intellect, you can't simply party down and enjoy getting slimed.

If audiences develop their taste for art by first having an appetite for mindless entertainment, as Pauline Kael once suggested in her essay, "Trash, Art, and the Movies," it's because good criticism makes that process possible. My own movie collection, for instance, ranges from Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game to Dumb and Dumber. Obviously, there's a world of difference between them, but both movies are enjoyable on the terms they offer. There's an irresistible charm that silliness and even stupidity can provide when it's done with a certain tone and skill, just as a profound work with an artist's vision can irrevocably change the way you walk and talk. Yet there's a kind of snobbery that crosses between both high and low tastes. For instance, I know some very literate friends who'd be stunned that I'd even consider Dumb and Dumber a good comedy because their intelligence and higher tastes prevents them from getting in touch with the polymorphous infant in themselves. There are others, no doubt, who think my love of Renoir means I should get out more. Movie pleasure can be delectably superficial, or it can deliver a deeper satisfaction, the same way one develops a taste for better wine while still having the occasional desire to chug a beer.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Farewell to John McMartin (1929-2016)

From left: Alexis Smith, John McMartin, Dorothy Collins and Gene Nelson in the 1971 production of Follies.

During my junior year in college, Stephen Sondheim’s Follies tried out in Boston and I saw it on opening night, with John McMartin – who died last week, at the age of eighty-six – in the leading male role. The musical is set at a reunion of showgirls in the about-to-be-torn-down Broadway house where they appeared in annual editions of an elaborate revue, and the main characters are two couples – one-time chorines and best friends and the men they married – whose lives turned out to be marked by longing, regret and increasing bitterness. McMartin played Ben Stone, celebrated diplomat and author, who starts out by denying that he wishes he’d lived his life differently, then falls in love all over again with the woman he didn’t marry (played by Dorothy Collins) – or rather, with his romanticized memory of her and of the man he used to be. I’ve never forgotten McMartin’s devastating performance. In act one, when he sang “The Road You Didn’t Take,” Ben’s supposed refusal to admit that his might not have been the right road, McMartin’s pebble-strewn tremolo conveyed the heartbreak and the escalating rage bubbling up beneath his insistence. It remains one of the greatest dramatic performances of a song I’ve ever experienced in a theatre. At the last televised birthday tribute to Sondheim, in 2010, McMartin reprised it. He was eighty by then, but astonishingly his rendition had lost none of its emotional power.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Competitive Endurance Journalism: HBO’s Tickled

A scene from Tickled.

I knew pretty much nothing about Tickled, a documentary by New Zealand directors and journalists David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, before I saw it. I had read a description that painted it as an innocent and curious examination of the alleged sport of “competitive endurance tickling” that quickly morphs into something far more bizarre and disturbing, but that was it. I’m hoping that by discouraging you from reading this until you’ve seen the movie, I can help you experience the film the way I did, which was to be led by the hand down a deep rabbit hole of the human psyche in one of the more vocal and memorable theatregoing experiences of my life. See this one, and report back.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Well-Tempered Piano Players: Joey Alexander and Ramsey Lewis

Joey Alexander at the piano. (Photo: Rebecca Meek)

The 30th Annual Toronto Jazz Festival wrapped up a couple of weeks ago and in spite of the often-confused line-up that included KC and the Sunshine Band and Sarah McLachlan, the real focus was on jazz piano players. Among the featured musicians in the festival were the wonderful Bill Charlap Trio, Montreal’s Oliver Jones, Australian Matt Baker, newcomer Alfredo Rodriguez from Cuba, and the one and only Chick Corea. But the important concert for me was on June 30th at Koerner Hall. The very popular Joey Alexander and his Trio made their Toronto stage debut in a double bill with the “legendary” Ramsey Lewis Quartet. The concert was a fine example of the generational shift in jazz: Alexander is 13 years old; Lewis turned 81 last May. What Lewis and Alexander shared was the importance of improvised music and the need to break new ground. Jazz wouldn’t be jazz without it. The result was an engaging evening of music that was frequently challenging to the ears.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Ahead of the Curve: Edgar Degas at the MoMA

The Ballet Master (Le Maître de ballet), by Edgar Degas, c. 1876. (White chalk or opaque watercolor over monotype on paper)

Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty is a deeply intriguing exhibition of rarely seen work by the great 19th century artist, and among the best ever to explore the multifaceted Frenchman’s modernist tendencies. Better known for his pastel portraits of ballerinas, Degas is here presented as a maverick experimentalist working in the comparatively dark medium of monotype, a technique involving drawing in black ink on a metal plate that was run through a press to create a one-off print. Printmaking usually creates multiples of the same image. But Degas used monotyping to be unique. The technique allowed him to be spontaneous and inventive in creating single plates with a heightened tactility that made the paper it was made on come alive.

The Museum of Modern Art show, up until July 24, consists of approximately 120 monotypes organized by senior curator Jodi Hauptman with curatorial assistant Heidi Hirschl, senior conservator Karl Buchberg and independent Degas art historian Richard Kendall. Arranged chronologically, from the 1870s to the 1890s, they share gallery space with some 60 related works, including paintings, drawings, pastels, sketchbooks, prints and book illustrations. The range and breadth of work alone shows Degas to have been an exceedingly prolific and curious artist who transgressed boundaries while single-mindedly pursuing unorthodox subjects and artistic methods. People often lump Degas in with the Impressionists. But as this excellent exhibition makes clear he cannot be so easily defined. Degas outstripped his contemporaries by using liquid ink and not just colour to suggest the ambiguity of modern life. It’s a remarkable achievement, and thrilling to observe in a show that gives free rein to the artist’s fascination with pliable form.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Three Musicals: Threepenny Opera, Little Shop of Horrors, and The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

Rosalie Craig and Rory Kinnear in The Threepenny Opera at London’s National Theatre. (Photo byRichard Hubert Smith)

There’s an exciting new production by Rufus Norris of The Threepenny Opera at London’s National Theatre, with Rory Kinnear, dashing and ironic and brilliant, as Bertolt Brecht’s anti-hero Captain Macheath ("Mack the Knife"), the audacious and unsettling gangster whose insatiable taste for the ladies is his downfall. The trademark supertitles are missing, but Norris knows his Brecht. The National’s current artistic director, he staged London Road there in 2011, a Brechtian musical based on interviews with the residents of a middle-class neighborhood where a serial killer has been dispatching prostitutes; it’s one of the most extraordinary evenings I’ve ever spent in a theatre. Norris made a film of it last year but it wasn’t released on this side of the Atlantic. He’s directed Threepenny as a mélange of carnival side-show, music hall entertainment and pantomime (in the English sense of the word). Vicki Mortimer’s set is a constantly revolving series of scaffolding and flats dressed with construction paper – the actors make their entrances by tearing through it. At the top of the first act, members of the ensemble enact a comic dumb-show version of Mack’s nefarious deeds behind a cut-out frame while the Balladeer (George Ikediashi, who shows up later with a Jamaican accent as the pastor who marries Mack and Polly Peachum, and then in drag at the whorehouse) sings the “Moritat,” a.k.a. “The Ballad of Mack the Knife.” The eight-member band, including music director David Shrubsole on piano and harmonium, appears in the midst of the action, and on some numbers Shrubsole, looking like a seedy undertaker in black with a top hat, accompanies Polly (Rosalie Craig) or Jenny (Sharon Small), cabaret style, on one of the ballads. For the “Army Song,” Mack and his pal Tiger Brown (Peter de Jersey), the chief police inspector, hold onto each other in terror, lit by a downstage special, while lanterns swing ominously back and forth upstage, and on the final verse bloody body bags drop down from the flies. (Paule Constable designed the expressionistic lighting.)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Picture/Portrait: De Palma & Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words

I can't think of any other film director whose work continually captivated me but has drawn such violent reactions from various friends than the movies of Brian De Palma. It didn't seem to matter whether it was ones that I loved (Hi Mom!Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, The Fury, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Casualties of War, Carlito's Way, Femme Fatale and Redacted), ones that I didn't (Sisters, Scarface, Body Double, The Black Dahlia and Passion), or ones with virtues disguised by their compromises (The Untouchables, Raising CainSnake Eyes and Mission to Mars), folks had an axe to grind and I was often the stone used to sharpen it. From the moment one individual introduced me to the fiendishly clever 1974 musical comedy, Phantom of the Paradise, I was drawn into De Palma's spiky impudence. The devious way he deployed irony to give genre pictures a wicked vitality I found to be both darkly funny and emotionally searing – even heartbreaking. This equivocal approach may account for most of the strong reactions I got from various moviegoers. Often when artists use irony, it's with a knowing sense of detachment, and the film congratulates you on your hipness while keeping you cocooned in your certainties. But De Palma played out life's failures on a grand operatic scale. He drew us into a waking nightmare and then proceeded to pull the rug out from under our convictions. That's maybe why one friend, who I took to The Fury after he returned from a yoga retreat, didn't speak to me for months. Subjecting him to a hallucinatory thriller about two teenagers with telekinesis and where De Palma (as critic Terrence Rafferty once wrote) "generate[d] horror from nightmarish exaggerations of the experience of adolescence: the feeling that your impulses have gone out of control, that even your own body is alien, perhaps hostile...," put him in touch with basic drives the weekend in the country was supposed to cleanse. A few years later, when we went to see Blow Out, he took a swing at me afterwards. (Luckily, he missed.) The picture was about a man whose gifts fail him when he tries to unravel a political conspiracy and save the one person he cares about most. What may have disturbed him was that it went against the grain of having our virtues overcome the desires of those who continually undermine them. Needless to say, he never again went to another Brian De Palma picture with me. But others eagerly took his place popping out of press screenings, or surging through crowds of people having a Christmas libation, to demand what I thought of Scarface, or verbally confronting me over how Carlito's Way infuriated them. One much friendlier critic years later, after seeing his Iraq War drama Redacted, even told me, "He better not be kidding."