Saturday, October 22, 2016

Talking Out of Turn #46 (Podcast): Robert Altman (1983)

David Alan Grier, Matthew Modine and Michael Wright in Robert Altman's Streamers (1983).

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was 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 was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

One chapter, titled The Ghosts of Vietnam, featured interviews with a variety of authors (Robert Stone, Brian Fawcett) and filmmakers (Oliver Stone, Louis Malle) who dealt in their work with various aspects of the legacy of the Vietnam War and how it was felt in the Eighties. The American obsession with Latin and South America during the Reagan years seemed to be an ill-advised attempt to exorcise the ghosts of the earlier conflict. One of those interviews was with filmmaker Robert Altman, who I sat down with in 1983 to speak about his new film, Streamers.

The films of Robert Altman's films constantly had the buzz of Vietnam behind them, whatever their explicit subject matter e.g. MASH (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and Nashville (1975) – but Streamers, a screen adaptation of David Rabe's play of the same name, was Altman's first film to deal directly with the conflict. Though Streamers isn't among Altman's best movies, his thoughts about the project and about the Vietnam conflict were fascinating.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Robert Altman as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1983. 


Friday, October 21, 2016

Principal Photography: In Conversation with Gregg Delman

Misty Copeland by Gregg Delman was published in the U.S. by Rizzoli at the end of September. (Photo by Gregg Delman)

New York-based photographer Gregg Delman photographed ballerina Misty Copeland over a two-year period, from 2011 to 2014, before she became internationally famous as the first African-American to become a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, one of the world's top classical dance companies. Their collaborative sessions yielded thousands of images, 95 of which have just been published in a gorgeous new cloth-cover book by Rizzoli. Misty Copeland by Gregg Delman, officially released on Sept. 26 with a Manhattan book launch party attended by both artists, is a feast for the eyes that deepens the intimate relationship between dance and the still image.

For fans of Copeland, the book immortalizes the California-born ballerina who today is the most talked about dancer since Mikhail Baryshnikov defected from the Soviet Union in 1970s. Her fame arises from her status as a ballet iconoclast whose pronounced musculature and ample bosom represent a sharp departure from the pale and frail ballerina stereotype that has dominated the popular imagination since the early 19th century. It's a welcome change, and one which Delman appears to have presciently anticipated. His erotically charged images spotlight the dancer's voluptuousness and daring artistry. They celebrate a powerful dancer who is also a strong woman, in control of her destiny. Delman calls it an accurate portrait.

"Dancing is something Misty does but she's much more than a dancer," said Delman during a recent interview in New York, close to his Chelsea studio. "Anyone who meets her can see the energy she has. I always knew she'd be something. She was already something for me from the beginning. She was this incredible muse." Here's more of that conversation:

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Critic’s Crypt: J-Horror Genre Slugfest – Kairo & Hausu

The girls arrive at the titular House (Hausu, 1977).

I’m comfortable admitting that I felt a certain amount of trepidation about this particular Critic’s Crypt. Japanese horror films like Ring (1998) and Noroi: The Curse (2005) have always had a way of getting under my skin the way no Western horror movie can (in fact I still maintain that in addition to being far superior to its Hollywood remake, Ring is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen). I’ve been trying to put my finger on it for years, but I think it simply comes down to the difference in cultural sensibilities between Japan and the rest of the world, and how that manifests in terms of horror. What the Japanese find frightening is represented in a much more subtle and insidious way than our Hollywood-bred jump-scare fare, relying far more often on the audience’s imagination and playing on fears and doubts that – to me, as an uncultured gaijin, anyway – are just as scary in their probing truth as they are in their foreign incomprehensibility.

Often it’s about the way j-horror (as it’s affectionately known here) will take ordinary, innocuous things and – by connecting them to the strange, the supernatural, and the psychotic – make them terrifying. Whether it’s an unlabelled VHS tape, a flock of pigeons, a crumpled garbage bag, or a TV screen left on static, this genre excels at forcing you to re-examine the world around you with suspicious, fearful eyes. The potential freak-out factor extends beyond the threshold of the theatre doors, making your walk home in the sunshine as nerve-wracking as a night-time shortcut through a cemetery. In short, I can’t really articulate exactly why, but Japanese horror movies scare me good.

So, in a month that’s so far been pretty light on true horror, I had to steel myself for what I expected would be the most harrowing viewings of Halloween 2016. I chose an old and a new, neither of which I’d seen before: 2001’s Kairo (aka “Pulse”), about ghosts who invade our world through the internet, and 1977’s Hausu (aka “House”), about… well, we’ll get to that. To my immense surprise, neither really represented j-horror the way I had expected – but in their unique twists on the formula, they were exemplars of how broad and varied and surprising the genre can be. Plus, I made it through without mentally scarring myself! So, that’s a win.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Riding the Rails: Billy Bragg and Joe Henry

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry's new album is titled Shine A Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad.

At first glance the musical combination of Billy Bragg, beloved son of the British left, and American songwriter Joe Henry would be unusual. But the fact of the matter is that the two musicians met over thirty years ago in an office waiting room at Warner Brothers. Henry’s wife was a publicist with the label at the time courting Bragg to radio stations and newspaper interviews. Their introduction was “the start of a beautiful friendship” that eventually put Joe Henry in the producer’s chair for Bragg’s album, Tooth & Nail (2013), and finally as a partner on their new album Shine A Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad (Cooking Vinyl). It’s an album of train songs recorded in various train stations from Chicago to Los Angeles. Bragg, Henry and a small crew set out to capture history, by taking a trip through the Midwest United States by rail. The first track released, as a single, was “Midnight Special,” documented on a video by Ray Foley.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Daydream Nation: FX's Atlanta

Donald Glover and Brian Tyree Henry in Atlanta.

Donald Glover, the star and creator of the FX series Atlanta, maintains a rap career under the name Childish Gambino, and anyone who saw Glover as Troy Barnes on Community will think they have an idea of what a childish Gambino is like. Troy, a high school football star tentatively easing into adult life as a community college student, initially came across as kid’s idea of a confident, swaggering jock, but that’s because his aggressive, socially well-adjusted persona was a pose. Once Troy embraced his true character as a lonely nerd in search of a playmate and began spending all his time playing games and obsessing over old TV shows with the master nerd Abed (Danny Pudi), he grew increasingly childlike, to the point of losing his jock’s sexual aura and becoming a human stuffed animal. It was to Glover’s enormous credit that he managed to make this seem less like a regression than like the self-realization of someone who’d been hiding behind a false front and needed some time in the playroom before becoming an adult.

For fans of Community, or even Glover’s often witty and intoxicating nerd-rap, the first surprise of Atlanta is that Glover lithe, bearded, and heavy-lidded is very much an adult. As Earn, who’s back home in Atlanta after dropping out of college, he has the presence of a man who’s been kicked around the block a few times and is ready to claim his place in the world and do right by the people he cares about. If anything, he’s more precariously lost than Troy, in the limbo of his community-college safe space, ever was. Earn arrives in town with no money, job, or prospects, just an uncertain relationship with Vanessa (Zazie Beetz), a schoolteacher who’s the mother of his baby daughter. Troy’s face would sometimes freeze in an expression of smiling terror when he was afraid reality was about to catch up with him and present him with something he couldn’t bluff his way out of. Panic seems to be outside Earn’s emotional range, even when, in the wake of a ridiculous shooting incident, he’s arrested and has to spend most of a night and much of the next day idly waiting for bail money to arrive.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Cherry Orchard at the Roundabout: The Upside and the Downside

Harold Perrineau, Diane Lane and John Glover in the Roundabout Theater's The Cherry Orchard. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Diane Lane gives a warm and luminous performance as Ranevskaya in the newly opened Roundabout Theatre production of The Cherry Orchard. Though she’s done relatively little theatrical work, Lane has the aura of a great stage personality, the kind playwrights built vehicles around in the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth. As Ranevskaya, who, with her brother Gaev (John Glover), embodies the last vestiges of the bankrupt Russian aristocracy, incapable of saving themselves, she gets at both the high-comic and the tragic undercurrents of Chekhov’s masterly final play – and at its magic, too. It’s the most radical of his pieces, giving rise to sudden shifts of mood and tone as well as revealing the contradictions that make his characters both intricate, impressionistic reflections of real human experience and unsolvable mysteries. Ranevskaya is frivolous and generous, foolish and worldly-wise, life-embracing and haunted – and Lane suggests all of these aspects.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Politics along the Danube: Reflections of a Study Trip River Cruise (Part 1 of 2)

The still-visible damage from the NATO bombing of Belgrade. (Photo: David Orlovic)

Last August I had the good fortune to be a member of a study trip river cruise along the Danube that sailed from the port town of Vidin (after two days in Sophia, Bulgaria) to Passau in Germany that concluded with a two-day trip to Prague, Czech Republic. It was an exhilarating experience because of the significant ports of call at which we stopped and the stimulating conversations with fellow passengers. But my lasting impressions were more about what was imparted or omitted by the local guest lecturers and tour guides, and their often selective or subjective remarks. This review is also informed by my exchanges with others about those experiences, as well as my supplemental reading. Part 1 of this piece appears below. Part 2 will be published here in two weeks.
– Bob Douglas
The first sentence of Alan Furst’s wonderfully crafted novel, Night Soldiers, reads: “In Bulgaria, in 1934 on a muddy street in the river town of Vidin, Khristo Stoianev saw his brother kicked to death.” Although a powerful sentence, it did not originally leap off the page until I reread large sections of the novel when I returned home from the Danube cruise. Nor did I initially give Furst’s map of the Danube from 1934-1945, which graces the beginning of the book, more than a cursory glance until recently. Only the first thirty-five pages and the last section of Night Soldiers are about his activities along the Danube, but those pages resonate more deeply. They also provide striking insights that I thought were sometimes missing when I listened to the Bulgarian lecturer and guide.