Saturday, November 5, 2016

Dynasty of Dissonance: Noise and 20th Century Art

Marcel Duchamp and John Cage playing chess at the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto in 1968.

In the beginning, there was chess. It was a great year. Vintage. On Tuesday, March 5, 1968, I was standing outside of the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto on the sidewalk listening to an unearthly cacophony pouring from within its walls. Inside, two of the great modernist sages, John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, were playing an exhibition match of chess on an amplified board before an audience of enraptured worshippers. It was both deafening and enlightening. Sound and vision were shaking hands.

I was seventeen years old and could not get a ticket to the sold-out event, indeed I was not alone on the sidewalk in the pouring rain, for many other puzzled onlookers were keeping me company. The only difference between us, I quickly surmised, was that I realized I was observing one of the seminal moments in our contemporary culture: the virtual triumph of dissonance within the arts. Though I was not therefore able to be an eyewitness to this incredible event, appreciative as I was of the consequences of its hidden meanings for our shared global culture, that acceptance allowed me to become something perhaps even more intriguing. I was an earwitness to history’s following announcement: anything goes now, so get used to it. After all, we had certainly had a long enough time to acclimatize ourselves to the remarkable presence of disharmony and radical discontinuity in all aspects of artistic pursuit, and not just in music, but in all avenues of creative expression. Yet the challenge remained, and perhaps still remains to this day. How able were we to adapt to the fact that modernism meant that the classical rules of proportion, harmony, even presumed beauty, were being assailed from every side. And this was not new. The urge to introduce noise into the arts really began, albeit in a piecemeal fashion, ages ago, but it did pick up quite a head of collective steam in the twentieth century.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Phony Feminism: The Girl on the Train

Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train.

Tate Taylor’s movie The Girl on the Train is awful, but it’s pretty much what the material – the 2015 bestseller by the English (South Africa-born) novelist Paula Hawkins – deserves. It’s a fake-feminist thriller, like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, though not quite as loathsome. Flynn’s book is the twisty tale of a vanished wife whose husband is assumed to have murdered her, but for the first half it presents itself, with a hip, up-to-the-minute chic, as the anatomy of a bad marriage. When the material turns around on itself and Amy, the wife, is revealed to be a sociopath who’s manipulated her own disappearance to make the husband look guilty, and thus get revenge on him for cheating on her, Flynn tries to play it both ways – to make Amy the villain the narrative requires while rigging a pitiful portrait of her childhood, when her parents, co-authors of a beloved series of children’s books, used her as the model for their implausibly perfect heroine. Flynn pretends to be commenting on the damage to the psyche of a little girl who’s stuck competing with her own flawless image, just as she pretends to be exposing the gritty reality of a disintegrating modern-American relationship relationship. But Amy’s behavior doesn’t match up convincingly with her backstory, and Flynn has made her such a demon that a backstory is superfluous anyway. It would be like inserting a flashback in Fatal Attraction that showed how her father’s cruelty toward Glenn Close had made her into the psycho who stalks Michael Douglas and boils his little girl’s bunny rabbit. Amy’s monstrousness – like Close’s Alex’s – is so clearly predicated on male terror of aggressive, outsmarting women that the idea of Gone Girl as feminist would be a bad joke if it weren’t so offensive.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Critics Notes & Frames Vol. XX

Andrew Lincoln in AMC's The Walking Dead.

I've grown to trust fan culture less and less as the years go on. There's a perfectly good reason: decent criticism ends up invalid in the face of it. Dedicated zealots will criticize a popular television show, but only within the confines the series provides – which means viewers will complain if a character they like dies in a manner they don't approve of, or if the arc takes an unpopular turn  but they don't think outside the confines of the show to examine what it is actually doing and why. This is what separates criticism (which asks why this and why now) from consumer reporting (which tells you what's cool to see and what's not). One form invites you to think and the other tells you what to think. And, if you haven't noticed, consumer reporters today find themselves more often employed than actual critics. (That's what makes marketing folks happy and many editors and producers relieved.)

A perfect example of fan culture criticism is AMC's popular zombie apocalypse series, The Walking Dead, which over the last six seasons has grown fascinated with splattering zombie brains each week (therefore trivializing death by endlessly numbing us to its gore). It even has an after-show gabfest, Talking Dead, where fans get to have their own variety show and the zombie is reduced to a lifeless commodity consumed to boost viewership and ratings. If people were fighting for their humanity in something like Night of the Living Dead, today people appear to identify more with the undead, as if true human feeling had already been gobbled up. The post-modern age has done much to chisel the tombstone of a more romantic and passionate response to death and destruction. In its place lies a comforting cool cynicism where folks distrust any form of rebellion against the norm. We're so inured to shock now that it's rare that a work of art even has the ability to cause a riot, or even perhaps stoke passionate debate. Until a couple of weeks ago.

When the latest uber-villain, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and his barbed-wire baseball bat, brutally and vividly bashed in the brains of two of the more popular living characters on the show, The Walking Dead suddenly prompted a number of its fans to walk away. (Talking Dead characteristically celebrated the season opener by screening it - without a whisper of intended irony - in a Los Angeles cemetery where the cast and fans could be wistful together and then jubilantly bring in a new season.) When it comes to the subject of death, The Walking Dead has long developed its own dramatic somnambulism. (Sometimes the corpses seem to be moving – and thinking – faster than the living.) But in the season opener, the creators pulled the cheapest trick of exploitation by prolonging the tension so that the audience would also get bashed over the head. (The most shameful bit of manipulation made the audience wait for an eternity to see if the hero, Rick, played by Andrew Lincoln, would cut off his son's arm with an axe to demonstrate his loyalty to Negan.) Where fan criticism might complain about the necessity of the gruesome violence, or bemoan the death of an adored character, a critic examines the larger issues. For instance, James Hibbert tweeted, "That The Walking Dead censors Negan swearing & won’t show nudity, but airs THAT feels like [a perfect] example of upside down puritanism." The Walking Dead is an ample example of "upside down puritanism."

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Psychiatric Help: Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker

Leonard Cohen's new album, You Want It Darker, was released on October 21st. (Photo: Luke Macgregor/Reuters)

Since its release a couple of weeks ago, Leonard Cohen’s latest album has been getting a lot of attention. You Want It Darker (Columbia) is Cohen’s 14th studio album. But rather than write an essay with syrupy accolades and explanatory impressions of the record, I’d rather not compete with the beautiful superlatives of Sylvie Simmons in the November issue of MOJO magazine. Nor try to unfurl the historical and spiritual connection of Cohen to Montreal, his birthplace, as Robert Everett-Green did so nicely in The Globe and Mail on October 22.

Similarly, I have no notion of adding anything more to David Remnick’s excellent profile in the October 17 issue of The New Yorker since I didn’t request an interview in the first place. I want to discuss Cohen’s remarkable timing with this record and the context, at least to me, of his profound ability of holding up a mirror to our world. With the clusterf#%& of the Presidential election campaign to the south, the Syrian Refugee crisis and, as recently reported by the WWF, a shrinking wildlife, Cohen’s poetry and songs are like a cold slap in the face to me. A shake-up of my ego and the ridiculous speed at which the world is cruising along without taking notice of the damage humanity is incurring upon itself. Of course we want it darker and we need a poet, perhaps this poet, to point it out. Finger-wagging won’t do; we’ll tune out. But as emotionally instructive opinion surrounded by the company of music, Cohen hits the proverbial spot as only he can, and for that I’m grateful.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Talking Out of Turn #47 (Podcast): Sidney Lumet (1988)

A scene from 12 Angry Men (1957), directed by Sidney Lumet.

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 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. 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 area of the book concerned the legacy of the sixties. My thinking was (and still is) that it’s difficult taking into consideration the political landscape of the eighties without examining aspects of the sixties. Many ghosts from that period (i.e., Vietnam, the Cold War, civil rights) continued to linger as unresolved arguments that underscored political and cultural actions in the eighties. If cynicism became more the common coin twenty years after the idealism sparked by JFK’s 1960 inaugural address, the voices included in this chapter of Talking Out of Turn set out to uncover what the political lessons of the sixties were. This section included, among others, poet Allen Ginsbergnovelist Ann Beattie (Love Always, Chilly Scenes of Winter), and filmmaker Sidney Lumet.

Director of movies such as 12 Angry Men (1957), The Pawnbroker (1964), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Network (1976), Sidney Lumet would make many political films in his career, but few of them in the eighties did very well. This includes Running on Empty, a movie that dealt with sixties-era fugitives from the law in the 1980s, that had just been released when I sat down with the director in 1988. In our conversation Lumet ruminates on the problems of making political movies – especially ones that confronted the 1960s – during the Reagan era. Sidney Lumet passed away in 2011 at the age of 86.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Sidney Lumet as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1988.


Monday, October 31, 2016

The Front Page: Old Pros

John Slattery and Nathan Lane in The Front Page at Broadway's Broadhurst Theater. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

In recent years every Broadway season has included a top-flight revival of a classic American play. Last year it was Long Day’s Journey into Night, the year before You Can’t Take It with You and Of Mice and Men the season before that. But they don’t always get the respect they’ve earned. The mediocre notices for Jack O’Brien’s production of the 1928 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur comedy The Front Page with Nathan Lane and John Slattery have been utterly perplexing. I saw the show just before the press opening and walked away in a state of bliss. O’Brien has gathered together a dazzling cast to mount what I’d say is one of the three best comedies ever written by Americans, and watching them parry and thrust, negotiate Hecht and MacArthur’s hilarious banter and glide through the perfect mechanics of the farce plot with acrobatic grace is akin to buying a ticket for a revue in vaudeville’s heyday and discovering that every single act is good enough for the coveted penultimate slot on the bill.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

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

Hungarian Jews waiting in line at the Swiss embassy in Budapest, 1944. (Photo by Agnes Hirschi, Carl Lutz's daughter)

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 and 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 piece is also informed by my exchanges with others about those experiences, as well as my supplemental reading. Part 1 of this piece was published two weeks. The second, and concluding, part is below.
– Bob Douglas

Arriving in Budapest and opting for the Jewish sites tour rather than a general city tour turned out to be one of the best experiences of the trip. The guide was excellent, wonderfully integrating historical, personal and the contemporary at both the places we visited and in the talk she gave at the “Glass House.” At one time a glass factory showroom owned by a displaced Jewish manufacturer, during the war it was the location at which the Swiss diplomat, Carl Lutz, sheltered 3,000 Jews by annexing it to the Swiss legation, thereby extending diplomatic immunity to the place. It is now a museum to honour Lutz.

The guide provided history not merely as interesting or diverting but to explain how the Hungarian kingdom that lived as a relatively peaceful multi-national state for a thousand years was eviscerated by the catastrophic 1920 Treaty of Trianon, a dismemberment that contributed to the tragedy that would befall Hungarian Jews during World War II and continues to reverberate today. Allied to Germany in World War One, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire collapsed after their defeat. Hungary experienced a short-lived but traumatic Communist experiment that was followed by forcing it to accept a treaty that shredded the country, losing two thirds of its territory and one third of its ethnic population. The national shame was accompanied by the perception that its citizens had been stabbed in the back by internal enemies. A scapegoat was found in the Jews, particularly since a number of them had been supporters or part of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. The first expression of anti-Semitic legislation occurred in a 1920 law that restricted Jewish university students to six percent of the population.

Shoe memorial along the Danube. (Photo: Bob Douglas)
A one-time monarchist and aide-de-camp to the Emperor, Franz Joseph, prior to the war and commander of the navy during it, Miklos Horthy was elected Regent, the head of state, from 1920 to 1944. He was illiberal, intolerant of intellectuals – he encouraged the denunciation of professors and teachers – and a pre-Nazi anti-Semite, who allied Hungary with Germany in the hope of reclaiming the lost 1920 territory, and he was largely successful (only to lose it in the post-war settlement), but at a high price. Horthy was compelled by Hitler to declare war on the Soviet Union and deport Jews. He reluctantly complied by dispatching Jews to work camps until he realized the fate of the deported, given the distinction he made between revolutionary Jews and those who made valuable contributions to Hungarian society and his opposition to the killing of innocent people.

By June 1944, following the mass deportation of Jews from the provinces, Horthy resisted any further deportations of Budapest Jews because of growing international pressure. He threatened to cancel the alliance with Nazi Germany. To preempt further opposition, the Germans invaded and replaced him with the murderous Arrow Cross Party, which carried out a reign of terror that claimed the lives of 50,000 Jews. That included shooting them on the embankment of the Danube and handcuffing them together in threes and killing one, who pulled the others down with him. When we walked along the Danube Promenade, we saw sixty pairs of shoes, a memorial established in 2005 to those who were killed. I was reminded of the 1990 Costa-Gavras film, Music Box, in which a Chicago attorney played by Jessica Lange, who is defending her father against deportation for war crimes, visits Budapest and looks out on the Danube wondering whether he could have been an Arrow Cross killer.

One of the tour’s highlights was discovering the career of Carl Lutz, who is credited with saving 62,000 Jewish lives. Our guide briefly spoke of the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, well-known, she rightly said, because he was captured by the Soviets after the war and never seen again, a disappearance that has fueled speculation about his fate for years. She had read a recent report (and I confirmed it afterwards) that the granddaughter of the first KGB chairman revealed that he wrote in his diary, hidden in his house wall for years, that Wallenberg had been murdered in 1947 on orders from Stalin. She spent much more time on the Swiss diplomat, Lutz, who had no qualms about extending letters of protection to Budapest Jews and finding safe houses for them. Moreover, because Lutz represented British interests in Hungary, he was able to issue group certificates that enabled 50,000 Jews to go to Palestine. But our guide’s primary focus was on Lutz's providing sanctuary in the Glass House. Despite overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, almost everyone in the House survived the war. When Lutz returned home after the war, he was reprimanded for exceeding his authority. The Swiss government belatedly honoured his humanitarian contribution, but only after his death in 1975. Perhaps a film will be made about this remarkably courageous man.

The tour was also peppered with personal and political commentary arising from a spate of questions. Our guide made it clear that she was here today because her father lived in Budapest and was useful to the Germans because he could speak fluent German. When the opportunity arose, he escaped. She also acknowledged her despair about the current state of affairs in Hungary. She noted that the current President of Hungary, Janos Ader, awarded an Order of Merit to a prominent anti-Semitic journalist, a friend to the autocratic Prime Minister, Viktor Orban. Although she did not mention it, I was encouraged by reading later that other recipients returned their awards as an expression of protest. We discussed the Orban government’s unwillingness to assist Syrian refugees and his conservative populism for the purpose of exploiting fears of immigrants.

I was reminded of that lively exchange when I read news reports of the results of the recent referendum that Orban staged to demonstrate his belief that Hungarians would not be bound by a European Union requirement to accept its share of refugees -- 1,294 asylum seekers -- in order to relieve the burden on Greece and Turkey. The only positive response from this manipulative farce was that less than fifty percent of the population participated in this sham (98 percent voted no to the loaded question), rendering the process constitutionally null and void. When I reflect on the trip, that morning was not only stimulating and moving but our guide demonstrated how the burdens of the past shadow the present. Her presentation was filtered through her family’s experience but it was placed in a larger historical context that is easily verifiable.

Vaclav Havel addressing a crowd in Prague's Wenceslas Square in 1989. (Photo: Lubomir Kotek/AFP)

When we arrived at Bratislava, Slovakia, a guest lecturer provided a talk billed as “The Velvet Revolution.” I was engaged by this topic because of my interest in Vaclav Havel, whom I have long regarded as one the great figures of the late twentieth century, an individual who played a key role in the death of communism and a shining symbol of the country’s finest aspirations. The speaker provided a polished overview of the birth of the union of the Czech and Slovak peoples to the present. Disappointingly, Havel was barely mentioned; Alexander Dubcek, the iconic symbol of the 1968 Prague Spring, was given a higher profile, I think largely because Dubcek was a Slovakian, and we were hearing this talk in Bratislava, not in Prague. That the lecturer almost airbrushed Havel out of her talk may have been deliberate: she did not want to say anything that might alienate a North American audience, since Havel has largely been esteemed in the West. Yet from her historical arc, I learned about the 1918 Declaration of Pittsburgh, in which Czech and Slovak expatriates agreed to create a country with equality between Czechs and Slovaks. The primary author of the agreement was Thomas Masaryk, who, a month later, was the elected president of the new state of Czechoslovakia.