Saturday, October 21, 2017

Fashion Down Under (Why It’s On Top)

“The assumption that Australia is a season behind is no longer relevant,” says Dion Lee,
one of several Australian designers taking the country's fashion global.

Australia is known for many things, most of them rooted in the natural world – koalas, kangaroos, kookaburras and Crocodile Dundee types strutting across the Outback when not surfing the waves of the country’s incredible beaches. Fashion has never been one.

But that perception is changing thanks to a growing number of Aussie designers turning Down Under into a top player in the global apparel industry. The past year has seen a greater number of Australian fashion brands leap from relative obscurity to international cachet, lead by such trailblazers as Zimmermann. The flirty swim and ready-to-wear label has 25 boutiques across Australia and another eight internationally, including a first in London’s prestigious Mayfair district and East Hampton in Long Island. In Canada, the brand is sold through Holt Renfrew.

“We’re not trying to be like anyone else,” says Simone Zimmermann, who founded the namesake brand with her designer sister Nicky Zimmermann in Sydney in 1991. “We are always trying to be the best at what we do, and that’s made us different.”

Friday, October 20, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Wendy Hughes (1984)

Wendy Hughes and John Hargreaves in My First Wife (1984).

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) 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 writers and artists from all fields. In 1984, I sat down with Australian actress Wendy Hughes.

With an acting career spanning four decades, Wendy Hughes is probably best known to North American audiences for 1979's My Brilliant Career and for her recurring role as Dr. Carol Blythe on Homicide: Life on the Street. In 1984, she was in Toronto promoting the film My First Wife, part of her long collaboration with director Paul Cox. Their most critically acclaimed film together was Lonely Hearts (1982), and their last was Salvation (2008). Wendy Hughes passed in 2014, at the age of 61.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Wendy Hughes as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1984.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Victory Vindication!: Studio MDHR’s Cuphead

Cuphead was released by Studio MDHR on September 29.

I had been hotly anticipating the release of Cuphead, the debut game from independent Canadian developer duo Studio MDHR, since its very first reveal trailers. I mean, how could you not? At a glance, it’s abundantly clear that the game offers something that has literally never been seen before in gaming: a vibrant visual style modeled after the Disney and Fleischer cartoons from the 1920s and 30s. Cuphead’s animation – and its general sense of polish and pizzazz – is so jaw-dropping that it almost didn’t matter what the game actually was. I didn’t care if the thing was going to be any good or not; I just wanted to bask in its aesthetic.

I was delighted to discover when it finally released last month that, in spite of my low expectations, there is indeed more to Cuphead than meets the eye, and that its pleasures in terms of gameplay precision, retro mechanics, and difficulty are a match for its visual (and sonic) delights. Much ballyhoo is being made about its level of challenge, and whether or not it may be prohibitive to those who just want to enjoy its unique style, but I think the way Cuphead handles its difficulty is exemplary. It’s the same type of punishing, balanced, satisfying design that I find so compelling in some other very different games that are also infamous for their difficulty.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Into That Good Night: The Image of Mortality in Art and Culture

Dylan Thomas.

In 1952, one year before his untimely passing at the far too young age of 39, Dylan Thomas wrote one of his most famous poems, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," in which that repeated chorus followed observations on why mortality seemed to bug him so much. “Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Ironically, in 1936 when he was younger and less literally at the doorstep of that diminishing light, Thomas had written a different but equally arresting poem, "And Death Shall Have No Dominion," and it was one that optimistically celebrated the fact that we could never be vanquished by that damn light switch. Oh what a subtle difference one’s proximity to the darkness can make.

Such deep poetic insights into the human condition invite us to consider the importance of three key subjects and themes that have recurred throughout human history: the fact of our mortality, the potential for immortality, and the opportunity for transcendence. Art and cultural history are both replete with a perpetually challenging wonderment relating to these basic human subjects, whether it is in the form of poetry, philosophy, religion, mythology, painting, sculpture or movies. In addition, these themes are explored equally through liturgical and sacred as well as secular and entertainment formats. In a sense these themes are tied to the elemental subjects expressed in art throughout its long history from the cave wall to the computer screen: the mysteries of the self, of society, of nature and of the spiritual.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Critics Notes & Frames Vol. XXIV

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (photo by Mary Ellen Matthews)

I didn’t realize how much I had taken for granted my love of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. While I have collected and enjoyed Petty’s music for years, I’ve never taken the time to contemplate why his best songs (and there are many) have always brought me such happiness. But for the last 40 years, Petty and The Heartbreakers helped keep some of the idealistic dreams of the sixties alive. They didn’t, however, do it by showing a nostalgic reverence for the era and its music. Rather they captured the music’s urgency, its uncompromising demand for freedom which lies right at the heart of all rock & roll. Whether it’s in an anthem like “I Won’t Back Down,” a plaintive ballad like “Southern Accents,” or a scorching rocker like “You Wreck Me,” Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers created an immediacy that made each song sound both fresh and fully alive with possibility. For those who remember the joy they felt when a great song came through their tiny earphone on their transistor radio, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers brought that instant delight to the music they played. I think critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine nailed Petty’s appeal and longevity perfectly when he said that he and The Heartbreakers "didn’t break from tradition the way their punk contemporaries did. Instead, they celebrated it, culling the best parts of The British Invasion, American garage rock, and Dylanesque singer/songwriters to create a distinctly American hybrid that recalled the past without being indebted to it.”

Monday, October 16, 2017

Time and the Conways: Time Lost and Found

Elizabeth McGovern, Matthew James Thomas, Cara Ricketts and Anna Camp in Time and the Conways. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

The English playwright and novelist J.B. Priestley was fascinated by time and wrote a series of plays about it, though only one, An Inspector Calls, has tended to get performed on these shores. But now Roundabout Theatre has elected to open its 2017-18 season with his Time and the Conways. First produced in 1937, the play was inspired by J.W. Dunne’s theory of time. It’s set shortly after World War I, at a 21st birthday party for Kay Conway, one of six siblings in a moneyed British family, and nineteen years later, when the Conways have fallen into financial disaster and personal unhappiness; act three – performed, in Rebecca Taichman’s production, after the sole intermission – is continuous with act one.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Enigmatic Reunions: Linden MacIntyre’s The Only Café

Author Linden MacIntyre.

Ari Folman’s animated 2008 quasi-documentary Waltz with Bashir is the filmmaker’s cinematic effort to address and perhaps atone for his complicity in the 1982 massacre of thirty-five hundred unarmed Palestinian civilians in the West Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Folman was a nineteen-year-old Israeli soldier at the time and he repressed almost all memories of the events until, twenty years later, a friend recounted a recurring nightmare of a pack of ravenous, fanged dogs running through the streets of Tel Aviv before stopping at an apartment building and snarling up at a silhouetted figure in a window.

This visceral nightmare is the opening scene in the film and the effect is electric and immediately engages the viewer. Both Folman and his friend are convinced that the dream is related to what happened in Beirut years earlier because the dreamer recounts how he killed twenty-six watchdogs during the war. Folman seeks out friends and compatriots to interview who recall their experiences, which often bleed into fantasies of that surreal time. The animation is particularly effective in visualizing these fantasies. The interviews became the film’s fulcrum as animated versions of likely very real people speak about their memories with Folman’s avatar. With the assistance of one of his own recurring dreams, Folman is able to piece together what did happen when a Christian Phalangist militia committed these atrocities with the unwitting assistance of the Israelis, including his personal role in that massacre. At this point, the animation gives way to actual footage of the slaughter's aftermath and its effect is extremely powerful.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Neglected Gem # 108: The Clock (1945)

Robert Walker and Judy Garland in Vincente Minnelli's The Clock (1945)

When it was released in 1945, The Clock was a moderate box-office success. But most people wouldn’t recognize the title today unless they’ve happened across it on Turner Classic Movies, where it’s a perennial. The plot is simple. Corporal Joe Allen (Robert Walker), a soldier on a forty-eight-hour leave in New York before departing for the front falls in love with Alice Maybery (Judy Garland), a secretary he encounters by chance in Penn Station – she trips over his foot at the bottom of an escalator and loses her heel. Drawn to her immediately, he asks her to show him the sights of the city; surprising herself, she agrees, and they spend the afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum. He asks her to meet him that night, and they spend the entire evening together, into the small hours of the morning, when they are befriended by a milkman and wind up making his deliveries for him when he gets hurt. By now Alice and Joe are deeply in love. They decide to get married before he returns to camp, but obtaining a license and getting to the justice of the peace by the end of business hours present challenges they almost fail to overcome. They do overcome them, however, and spend their wedding night in a hotel before Joe has to leave Alice. That’s the entire story.

The Clock gave Garland her first non-musical role, and it was the first non-musical project for its director, Vincente Minnelli, whom she requested as a replacement when the original director, Fred Zinnemann, didn’t work out. Both star and director had just come off Meet Me in St. Louis, an unqualified triumph, and they married as soon as The Clock wrapped; their feelings for each other surely leaked into the picture, which is one of Hollywood’s loveliest romantic dramas. No one ever shot Garland as exquisitely as Minnelli – or lit her like George Folsey, the cinematographer on both movies. (Minnelli directed her in only one subsequent film, The Pirate, and he was behind the camera for her numbers in Ziegfeld Follies and Till the Clouds Roll By as well.)

Friday, October 13, 2017

Infinite Regress: David Foster Wallace & Writing About Writing and Not Writing

David Foster Wallace giving a reading at San Francisco's All Saints Church in 2006 (photo by Steve Rhodes)

It has recently come to my attention that the meaning of life can be found in the 1996 novel by the late American author David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest. I can indeed confirm this, even though it is a delayed realization of some fifteen perplexed years. There are a number of explanations for why it took so long to realize that the meaning of life is easily found in Infinite Jest (page 492, to be exact) but those would not add anything salient to this basic empirical fact. The meaning of life recurs on page 997, as if for some sort of echo effect that manages to reassure the astute reader that, indeed, he or she is on the right track after all. But just where does that track lead? Did DFW find out? If so, after visiting us from 1962 to 2008, he is regrettably no longer able to file his remarkable reports from the front. Or has he only gone on to the actual front? “One never knew, after all, now did one now, did one now did one,” as he himself said in the “radically condensed history of post-industrial life” from his Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, 2007. Late late Wallace.

If one could envisage a large balcony jutting off a big old ornate building somewhere in the Swiss Alps (SA in Wallace-speak), with obscurely wounded inmates lounging on large deck chairs bundled in thick blankets and conversing about the meaning of life in their own distinct accents or dialects, then one could probably see that Harry Haller is there from the novel Steppenwolf, Hans Castorp is there from The Magic Mountain (he is their genial host, in fact), Ulrich is there from The Man Without Qualities, Gwyon is there from The Recognitions, Benny Profane is there from Pynchon's Should Salinger or . . . God, no, who wants to listen to Holden with his constant cringing and whining? Certainly not gentlemen of the caliber of Haller, Castorp and Ulrich. Old-world, you know. He could always sit with Profane, I suppose. After all, it’s a community of shadows of their former selves, or of their creative authors. And Wallace’s Hal Incandenza IJ character is sitting there quietly in the corner, seemingly lost in a private reverie, or maybe he’s just pouting, thinking about Norman Mailer.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Cells Within Cells, Interlinked: Blade Runner 2049

Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049. (Photo: Stephen Vaughan)

Note: This review contains spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.

I have a . . . complicated relationship with Ridley Scott. I’m skeptical enough of his work, both old and new, that the prospect of a sequel to one of his better-loved films – directed by another filmmaker, to boot – was less than appetizing to me. I simply didn’t agree that the world needed more Blade Runner; Scott’s visually gorgeous 1982 tone poem was a sumptuous enough meal for me (if not a very nutritious one), whose working elements felt like they would be next to impossible to recreate. Learning that Denis Villeneuve, one of my favourite filmmakers, was the one being tapped for the sequel only served to complicate my feelings further. The casting of Ryan Gosling as the new blade-running protagonist boded well; the inclusion of Hollywood’s chief aging grumpypants, Harrison Ford, did not. It was nearly impossible to calibrate my expectations, so . . . I chose not to. I tried to ignore the marketing campaign for Blade Runner 2049 (except for the tie-in short films, which I thought were brilliant). I went to see it with very little idea of what I was in for.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Battle of the Sexes: The Limitations of Decency

Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes.

Emma Stone is one of the greatest pleasures to be had at the movies these days. The spark she sets off comes simultaneously from braininess and personal warmth, and in movie after movie she pulls off the trick of suggesting sophistication without a trace of affectation; she’s an old-world Hollywood star with a distinctly twenty-first-century hipness and sexiness. You may think of Jean Arthur or Margaret Sullavan with just a hint of Katharine Hepburn, but it’s emphatically the contemporary world of experience that she inhabits. As Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes taking on Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) on the tennis court in their historic match, she’s playing a story set nearly half a century ago, but it’s a modern breakthrough story, about a superlative athlete who proved, in the early days of the women’s movement, that women could be the equal of men in the sports realm and deserved the same respect (and the same monetary rewards). It’s also the tale of a young woman – King is twenty-nine, the age Stone herself will be in a few weeks – who confronts a gay sexuality concealed under the surface of a superficially happy but dispassionate marriage. Stone gives a beautifully understated performance in which her character’s struggles, disappointments, discoveries and triumphs register as glimmers of emotion in a pool of practiced calm. It’s a perfect intersection of instinct and technique.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Poet Phyllis Webb (1982)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) 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 writers and artists from all fields. In 1982, I sat down with Canadian poet Phyllis Webb.

At the time of our conversation, Talonbooks had just released The Vision Tree: Selected Poems, which collected selections of her work from 1954-1982. The collection would go on to win the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry later that same year. Over her long career, Webb has also worked for CBC Radio where, in 1965, she created, with William A. Young, the long-running radio program Ideas. Her most recent book of original poetry was 1999's Four Swans in Fulford Harbour.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Phyllis Webb as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1982.


Monday, October 9, 2017

Gaslight: Stage and Screen

Kim Stauffer and Mark H. Dold in Barrington Stage Company's Gaslight. (Photo: Scott Barrow)

The 1938 British chestnut Gaslight is seldom revived; most people know it – if at all – by the 1944 George Cukor movie, which won Ingrid Bergman her first Oscar. (A previous version, made in England in 1940 with Diana Wynyard, shows up on Turner Classic Movies every now and then.) Barrington Stage has chosen the play to close its 2017 season, and it’s the first time I’ve seen it live since another regional group nearly three decades ago produced it under its original Broadway title, Angel Street. Gaslight is a psychological melodrama, set in London in the 1880s, about a woman whose husband is slowly driving her to madness by convincing her that she loses or hides objects in their home and then can’t remember she’s done it, and that, moreover, the footsteps she hears over the ceiling at night and the inexplicable dimming of the gas lamps are all in her mind. Jack Manningham is two kinds of villain: a sadistic domestic tyrant of the Victorian variety as well as a psychopath who killed the previous owner of their house to rob her of some priceless rubies that he was never able to unearth. The murder remained unsolved, and now, fifteen years later, he’s returned with a bride whose fortune he uses to buy up the property so he can continue his search. Driving her into an asylum is his way of getting rid of her. But Bella Manningham is the play’s protagonist, though she’s able to triumph over her husband only with the unlooked-for help of Inspector Rough, a Scotland Yard detective who was a novice on the original investigation and who recognizes Manningham (though he’s changed his name) when he passes him in the street after he and Bella have moved into the murder house.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Just Possibly: ABC's Kevin (Probably) Saves the World

Chloe East and Jason Ritter in ABC's Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.

Yvette: In every generation since the dawn of man, there are 36 righteous souls in the world. And they protect humanity by merely existing. Now there's only one. You, Kevin . . . you are the last of the righteous. 
Kevin: Cool.
The last network series Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters brought us was Reaper, in 2007. Telling the story of a slacker-turned-devil’s helper, Reaper was a blast for the two seasons it ran on the CW. It was cartoonish, noisy, and profane – and hardly had a redemptive bone in its body. Fazekas and Butters’s new fantasy series, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, premiered on ABC last Tuesday, and one thing needs to be said right off the bat: it is nothing like Reaper. Beyond the broad plot of a sad-sack man-boy given a tacitly epic mission that shakes up his mundane existence (a thumbnail that could just as easily describe Chuck), Kevin is as earnest as Reaper was caustic – and, moreover, comes with an unapologetic and often compelling message of hope.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Wait and See: Fox’s Ghosted and ABC’s The Mayor

Adam Scott and Craig Robinson in Fox's Ghosted.

I think I like Ghosted –  though, to be honest, I’m not sure. Even though I’ve watched roughly 22 minutes of Fox’s new paranormal comedy, I have no idea if I’ve seen anything that will be representative of the kind of show that it will eventually become. It’s a dilemma that’s inherent to any attempt to critically evaluate the sort of serial storytelling that’s central to how television currently functions, and one that initially put me off shows that would later become favorites of mine, most notably Parks and Recreation. For a number of reasons, this problem seems particularly acute in the case of Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten’s sitcom version of The X-Files.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Stories and Voices: Richard Wagamese's The Medicine Walk

author Richard Wagamese

I had never heard of Richard Wagamese until earlier this year when his untimely and sudden death at the age of 61 was announced. Over the summer I read his novel, The Medicine Walk (McClelland & Stewart), published in 2014, and I so valued it that I have read three more of his books since.

Wagamese was an Ojibwe from the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in northwestern Ontario. He was a prolific writer. He wrote 6 novels, a book of poetry, and five non-fiction titles. He is best known for his novel, Indian Horse (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012), which won the Burt Award for First Nations, Metis and Inuit Literature. This story has now been made into a film that was premiered at TIFF this past September. Wagamese was also an award-winning journalist and producer. He was the recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media and Communications, the Molson Prize and the Canada Reads People’s Choice Award.

His writing addresses the psychological impact of residential schools on those who suffered through that experience as well as how those events continue to impact their families and communities. His novels also deal with the racism directed at indigenous people, while describing strong relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous characters. His books are imbued with a sense of hope.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A Cry to the Silent Heavens: Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!

Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!

Note: This review contains spoilers for Mother! 

Mother! must have been as painful to make as it is to experience. It’s a brutal expression of faith, misanthropy, and the cycle of creation and destruction, as abstract as it is harrowing. It’s a film that both invites and scorns interpretation, using its broad metaphor and overt symbolism in ways that feel extremely personal. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a cinema setting. It terrified me.

Jennifer Lawrence is “Mother,” and Javier Bardem is “Him.” He struggles to write while she labours to meticulously rebuild the house they share, his childhood home, which was lost in a fire. They are alone in this house in the middle of an endless wilderness – until a houseguest (Ed Harris) drops by, eventually bringing his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) with him. Bardem invites them to stay. They encroach, ever more boldly, upon their hostess’s patience and hospitality, while the film builds aggressively towards a shocking, shattering climax. This is not reality. This is a living nightmare, a parable of impotence and fear and ego, whose scope expands and contracts sickeningly from the incredibly personal to the vast and unknowable.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Gestures in the Dark: The Abstraction of Bianca Biji

Trying So Hard by Bianca Biji,. (2015, 31 x 44 cm.)

"The minute atom has as many degrees of latitude and longitude as the mighty Jupiter."
– James Lendall Basford
Two forms of human communication immediately come to mind when viewing the incisive and dramatic abstract paintings of the Belgian artist Bianca Biji: sign language and calligraphy. In their deft command of a strong but silent gestural language that is both classically modernist and cheekily postmodern at the same time, her paintings summon what Harold Rosenberg in the late '40s and '50s called “action painting.” But they breathe new life into the visceral theatricality of her legitimate precursors, Kline, Tobey and Miró, by injecting fresh fuel to the ongoing fire – especially the sublimely smoldering embers of Franz Kline. It is not at all a negative thing to say that her work engages in a striking visual conversation with Kline in the best possible way: as optical poems.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Poet Al Purdy (1986)

Canadian Poet Al Purdy, 1918-2000. (Photo: John Reeves)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) 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 writers and artists from all fields. In 1986, I sat down with Canadian poet Al Purdy.

At the time of our conversation, McClelland & Stewart had just released The Collected Poems of Al Purdy, which collected Purdy's best work from the previous 25 years. A published poet since 1944, Purdy published 39 books of poetry in his lifetime and is one of Canada's most celebrated poets. His numerous prizes and honours include the Order of Canada in 1982, the Order of Ontario in 1987, and the Governor General's Award for Poetry for the 1986 volume. Al Purdy passed away in 2000 at the age of 81.

– Kevin Courrier.

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


Monday, October 2, 2017

Lost Lake: Hello, Stranger

Quentin Maré and Lynnette R. Freeman in Lost Lake, by Berkshire Theatre Group. (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

In David Auburn’s Lost Lake, Veronica, a New York City nurse, forms an odd, thorny relationship, difficult to categorize, with Hogan, the man who rents her a cabin on a lake for a week in August so she can give her children (and her daughter’s best friend) a vacation. He seems a little slippery and doesn’t follow through on the promises he made to ready the place for her. Moreover, he’s fighting personal demons that he keeps hinting around about – fractured relationships with the local renters’ association, which is suing him; with his teenage daughter, who lives with her mother in Manhattan and won’t give him her e-mail; and with his brother and sister-in-law, whom he lived with for a time and who claim he’s stolen from them. (He also lets it slip, to Veronica’s consternation, that he’s living in his truck on the property he’s renting to her.) But though he presents as a loser and she comes across as confident and tough, it turns out that her life, too, is far from settled: she’s raising two little kids alone because her husband was killed in a hit-and-run two years earlier, and she’s just lost her job. The play, a two-hander that unfolds in a speedy ninety minutes, plays variations on the old dramatic set-up about strangers who meet in unlikely circumstances and are able to reach out to one another. But it never develops as you expect (for one thing, they don’t become lovers), and its unpredictability is part of its charm.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Run Through the Jungle: Ken Burns & Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War

"I said: ‘Yes, my son is dead … One of the reasons he died was so you’d have the right to do this, so go ahead and demonstrate. Have at it. No, I won’t be joining you. But I tell you what, if you ever ring my doorbell again I’ll blow your damned head off with a .357 Magnum." 
– Country singer Jan Howard of Tennessee speaking in The Vietnam War about an anti-war protester she addresses at her door in 1969 
“I think the Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America. . . .  Unfortunately, we’ve never moved really far away from that. And we never recovered.” 
– Veteran Phil Gioia in The Vietnam War

By the time you arrive at the end of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's staggering 10-part and 18-hour documentary, The Vietnam War, you may feel so emotionally devastated by the experience that you won't find it easy to sum up its impact. Nevertheless, many on the left and right have already attempted to do so. They seem to share common ground in their belief that the series, in its desire to capture the war from all sides, cancels out any strong subjective opinion of it. From the left, you get the impression that they lament the absence of Noam Chomsky, as if Burns and Novick didn't go far enough in their condemnation of America's war policy. As for the right, there is a discomfort that if only William F. Buckley were still around he'd be able to put those liberal intellectuals in their place and we wouldn't be seeing so many North Vietnamese soldiers drawing moral equivalences with the American experience. Yet one thing is certain in all this contentious debate: the Vietnam War continues to divide and polarize Americans to the extent that maybe no film could fully heal the breach. The Vietnam War, with all its flaws and virtues, goes further than any other documentary toward mapping out its tragic course, clarifying the poor policy decisions that needlessly cost altogether millions of lives, and illuminating the traumatic experiences of those who fought in it. Unlike many of the confused attempts by dramatic films as varied as The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket to definitively define the conflict, The Vietnam War delves right into the political hubris that created the war rather than rendering it mystical (Apocalypse Now), turning it into a rites-of-passage parable (The Deer Hunter), or reducing the specifics of war trauma to systemic and sadistic conditioning (Full Metal Jacket). At its best, The Vietnam War fully lays out what Burns calls in a recent profile in The New Yorker his "emotional archaeology" so that viewers can come to their own conclusions. But its flaws, some of which grow out of that need to be fair and even-handed, also reveal an unvarying tone which – over such a long stretch – overwhelms the senses.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Remembering the Communist Experience in Romania and Bulgaria, Part Two: Haunts From the Gulag - Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land

author Elizabeth Kostova

(Part One of Remembering the Communist Experience in Romania and Bulgaria can be read here.)

When Elizabeth Kostova was twelve, she spent a year living and travelling in Eastern Europe, which she later remarked was “a formative experience.” She became enthralled by the Dracula stories that her father, who taught that year at a college in Slovenia, provided for her. Years later in 2006, she published her debut international bestseller novel, The Historian, which likely received its initial genesis from those childhood memories. The Historian is a large, baggy novel that extends over three generations – the 1970s, the 1950s and the 1930s – and involves the search for the fifteenth-century Wallachian tyrant, Vlad Tepes. The eponymous historian decamps to find her father, who has disappeared after discovering a strange book in his library, as did his mentor almost twenty years earlier. They had set out to discover the tomb of Vlad/Dracula, believing he was still alive and responsible, as he later acknowledges, for orchestrating the horrors of the twentieth century.

The Historian is based on the erroneous historical assumption that Vlad the Impaler is the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But this is, of course, a novel and an enjoyable romp to read. One of its pleasures is Kostova’s knowledge of the geographical areas that her characters travel, especially Bulgaria, the setting for the last third of the book. Having embarked on several trips to this country, Kostova now lives there with her Bulgarian husband. Her latest novel, The Shadow Land (Ballantine Books), has a tighter focus with only two timelines that gradually intersect, well-developed characters and a gripping account of a vital historical issue – the destructive power of Communism in Bulgaria – that many contemporary Bulgarians minimize or about which have no awareness. Because of these attributes, The Shadow Land is a more accomplished and a more moving novel than her Gothic thriller.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Beauty of Action, Beauty of Character: The Criterion Collection Release of Only Angels Have Wings

Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings

The opening twenty minutes of the 1939 Only Angel Have Wings are a marvel – emotionally and tonally double-jointed, with a loose, jocular quality and a spontaneous energy, underscored by the overlapping of Jules Furthman’s expert hard-boiled dialogue, that masks the astonishing control of the director, Howard Hawks. A pair of flyboys, Joe (Noah Beery Jr.) and Les (Allyn Joslyn), who work for a South American airmail service, pick up Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a singer with an evening’s layover before she’s to re-embark on the boat to Panama. They buy her drinks and offer her a steak dinner at the bar-restaurant owned by Dutchy (Sig Rumann), whose money provides the operating budget for the mail company. But their boss, Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), interrupts the meal to send Joe out on a mail run, through the rain and fog that stalled Bonnie’s ship here in the tiny town of Barranca. Joe doesn’t make it. When the weather makes his passage impractical and Geoff radios him to come on back, he’s so eager to resume his courtship of Bonnie that he insists on short-shrifting his landing rather than hanging out in the skies long enough for Geoff and his best buddy and employee Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell) to wave him in safely. Joe’s plane hits a tree and crashes. Bonnie’s devastated – and appalled at what she sees as a lack of gravity among Carter and the other pilots in the face of this tragedy. What she doesn’t understand at first is that their joking is a form of gallantry and their apparent insensitivity is the only way they can keep going when death is always hovering over them; unspoken grief underlines their raucousness. Eventually she gets it: when she sits down at the piano and leads some of the others in a rendition of “Some of These Days,” she cottons onto the feeling of camaraderie at Barranca Airlines. The miraculously extended episode ends with one of those unconventional depictions of community that Hawks is justly famous for.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

On The Cold Side of War – Star Trek: Discovery

Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery.

Note: This piece contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery.

The world needs Star Trek now as much as it ever did.

I don’t need to enumerate the problems we’re facing in our communities and society at large, because your eyes and ears are full of them already. Something that’s largely absent from our feeds, though – unless you really dig for it – is a sense of hope, a promise that things could be better. That we, as human beings, could be better. This is the distilled essence of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision for Star Trek, and it often gets lost in new incarnations of the Trek mythos, wrapped up as they so often are in their own zeitgeists and styles and disparate audiences. Star Trek: Discovery, the new Trek for our new zeitgeist, stumbles in its own way towards that lofty ideal – but ultimately, I was left with that feeling of hope that I so desperately crave.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Loyalty, Mastery, Mystery: Nicholas Jennings’s Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot in 1976.

I was eager to read Nicholas Jennings’s Lightfoot (Viking; 328 pp.), the first biography of the Canadian singer-songwriter, for what are probably typical reasons. I’ve loved Gordon Lightfoot’s music, much of it, for most of my life; and we tend to want to know more about people who impress us, especially if a certain mystery attaches to them and to the sources of their achievement. Lightfoot has never been self-revealing in obvious ways, in either his lyrics or (to the degree that one has even registered them) his public statements. His best music transfixes partly because it comes across as effortless, contented, and fully formed, with no show of raw nerves or violent ambivalence à la Dylan or Lennon. Placid yet strong, it maintains just the right emotional distance. Surely Lightfoot’s unique gift is driven by at least a few tangible, knowable secrets; surely having a sense of the man will only deepen the music. But having read the Jennings book, I question whether Gordon Lightfoot’s art – his in particular – can benefit in any way from a biographical context. I wonder if even a better book than this would likewise cut against what makes his music alluring. And I suspect that there’s a reason we’ve been able to love that music so well for so long while knowing so little about the man who made it.  

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Writer B. W. Powe (1987)

Marshall McLuhan in 1973.

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) 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 writers and artists from all fields. In 1987, I sat down with Canadian writer and scholar B. W. Powe.

At the time of our conversation Powe's landmark book, The Solitary Outlaw (Lester & Orpen Dennys), had just been published. He was a student of Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye at the University of Toronto, and the book explores the role of the intellectual in a post-literate age by profiling Pierre Trudeau, Wyndham Lewis, Glenn Gould, Elias Canetti, and McLuhan. Since 1987, Powe has published books of poetry, fiction, criticism, and philosophy. His latest publication, in 2016, is The Tigers of Perception, a multi-media lyric essay. Powe is currently a professor of English at Toronto's York University, where he has taught since 1984.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with B. W. Powe as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1987.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Treasurer: Mother and Son

Peter Friedman and Deanna Dunagan in The Treasurer. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Max Posner’s The Treasurer, which is receiving a tip-top production by David Cromer for Playwrights Horizon (at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater in New York City), is a lopsided comedy-drama that begins as an exploration of the guilt a middle-aged son (Peter Friedman) feels over his lack of affection for an aging mother (Deanna Dunagan). What I mean by “lopsided” is that Posner’s play doesn’t head at its theme directly; it keeps getting derailed and turned around. It’s absurdist in style, but acknowledging that fact doesn’t resolve its shaggy-dog quality. And by the end of its ninety-five minutes I realized that I didn’t want a resolution – that its meandering is part of its charm and also part of what makes it touching.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Spontaneous Combustion: The Gestural Paintings of Marija Jaukovic

I Don’t Know Anything / I Know Nothing by  Marija Jaukovic (2015, oil on panel 4 x4 ft.)

“What is this life, if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?” – W.H. Davies

If we do force ourselves and take the time to stop and actually stare at reality, we notice right away that the longer we stare the more blurred it becomes around the edges, until eventually the borderline between being awake and being in a dream dissolves entirely. That is ultimately the true purpose of any visual art that does more than merely decorate reality, or even portray it accurately, and instead provides us with a window, not looking outward but looking inside, where every borderline disappears before our extended gaze and thoughts themselves become forms. What great paintings offer us is a balsamic reduction of reality. Whether we actually use it to spice up our daily lives is, of cours,e up to us.

Some paintings are an immediate seduction for the eye. Like dancing in the dark, or dancing with your own shadow on the wall, they invite the mesmerized viewer into a sensual theatre microscopic in scale and yet as large as a galaxy of forms. Removing all limits to our perception as well as our conception, the boldly compelling and subtly captivating paintings of Marija Jaukovic expand or contract depending on the consciousness of the observer. Their paradoxical stance, somewhere in between the domains of a savage abstraction and emotive expressionism, offers us a glimpse of an interior realm where form and feeling are fused in an erotic embrace of practically tantric dimensions. The spirit of a mid-20th century movement known as Art Brut hovers over her recent work like a misty vapor descending from history’s archive of images and ideas, as does the ghost of its principal progenitor, Jean Dubuffet. Like that visionary French painter, the Toronto-based Jaukovic makes a wealth of psychic content from the raw material of apparently povera sources. That is their primary paradox, and their principal appeal: their secretive stagecraft is the ability to manifest a maximum of visual and visceral impact while utilizing a minimum of economical means to do so. As such, they ironically introduce us to a unique zone of maximal minimalism.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

One Hell of a Show: NBC’s The Good Place Returns

Ted Danson and Kristen Bell

Warning: This review covers the entire first season of The Good Place, as well as the premiere of Season Two. It contains extensive discussion of plot points from throughout the show’s run thus far.

Setting a television comedy in the afterlife seems like an excellent way to set yourself up for failure. Since there is, by its very nature, a distinct sense of finality about the place, it’s hard to see how you might tell a long-running story that’s set there. Furthermore, since most religious traditions view existence after death as primarily a matter of receiving one’s just reward or punishment for their actions on the mortal plane, it’s not clear how you might develop a sense of character, or achieve any sort of narrative progression or tension. However, that’s just what Michael Schur and the creative team of NBC’s The Good Place achieved on the first season of the show.

As Mark Clamen noted in his initial review of The Good Place’s premiere, Schur’s metaphysical comedy had a rather tentative beginning. I found myself watching the first few episodes primarily out of curiosity as to how – or if – the show’s premise would develop, as well as for the performances by Ted Danson and Kristen Bell. However, as the larger scheme behind Schur’s premise began to reveal itself, and as the characters who inhabit this decidedly off-kilter version of heaven became more fully realized, The Good Place became far more than a pleasant-enough entertainment with a veneer of philosophical sophistication.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Soul Survivors: Interview with Clement Virgo (1995)

Sharon Lewis as the DJ in Rude.

As part of our Canada150 series, where we celebrate the country's birthday, we have been featuring periodic articles and interviews focusing on Canada's artistic accomplishments. Although filmmaker Clement Virgo is originally from Jamaica, he came to this country when he was 11 and would in time become one of our prominent directors. Beginning his adult years as a window-display artist in the fashion industry in the late eighties, he soon became a resident at the Canadian Film Centre's Summer Lab in both 1991 and 1992. While there he produced three short films: A Small Dick Fleshy Ass Thang (1991), Split Second Pullout Technique (1992), and Save My Lost Nigga' Soul (1993), which won the prize for Best Short Film at the Toronto International Film Festival that year. While at the Centre,Virgo also developed a script which in 1995 became the basis for his first feature, Rude.

Rude is a triptych about three characters seeking redemption and survival over an Easter weekend in an expressionistic version of an inner-city neighbourhood. General (Maurice Dean Wint) is a painter and former drug dealer just released from prison who has to fight the transgressions of his past, while his brother, Reece (Clark Johnson), gives in to the temptation of becoming a criminal. Maxine (Rachael Crawford) is a window dresser struggling with depression since she ended a pregnancy and lost her lover, Jordan (Richard Chevolleau), a boxer who has his own inner struggles, which culminate in an act of gay-bashing. This whole triad is tied together by the excoriations of Rude (Sharon Lewis), the DJ of a local pirate radio station. While Rude had its world premiere in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, later that same year it won the Best Canadian Feature Film in Perspective Canada at TIFF, and was nominated for eight Genie Awards, including Best Picture, at the 1996 event. At TIFF 2017, Rude was selected to be screened in the Cinémathèque section.

Clement Virgo's follow-up feature, The Planet of Junior Brown (1997), would earn him an Emmy nomination, while the controversial, Lie With Me (2005), stirred strong reaction for its explicit sexual content at the 2005 edition of TIFF. Along with directing the popular award-winning boxing drama Poor Boy's Game in 2007, Virgo co-wrote and directed the six-part miniseries adaptation of  Lawrence Hill's best-selling novel, The Book of Negroes, for CBC Television, which went on to further acclaim when it was screened in the United States.

When I first spoke to Virgo, a few days before the TIFF premiere of Rude in 1995, we touched on a number of subjects including Bryan Singer's clever caper drama, The Usual Suspects (which he had seen at Cannes that year), the place of spirituality in black films, and how he felt his pictures differed from the heated dramas on screen at the time (Boyz in the Hood, Menace to Society) about contemporary black culture.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Eyes Up, Guardian: Destiny 2

Destiny 2, developed by Bungie, was released on September 5.

I purchased Destiny 2 under a certain degree of duress. My experiences with the original Destiny, first launched by Bungie in 2014, were strongly mixed; I was often frustrated by its obtuse and player-hostile systems, and many of Bungie's choices in managing the IP prompted a raised eyebrow, and yet I count the shared social experiences I had with my friends throughout the game's multiplayer challenges as some of the best and most memorable in my whole life. I was hardly the only player to feel this way, and though many of the issues the game launched with were eventually patched out in future expansions, Destiny never really felt like the complete online shooter experience we had all expected it to be. The fact that we were being asked this September to purchase a fully-priced sequel, instead of a new expansion on the original game that included improvements and changes, was galling in the extreme.

Destiny 2's reception has been glowing from the jump, which I found surprising (didn’t everyone have the same gripes as me?), but now that I've played it, I understand why. Its changes seem subtle and intuitive on the surface, but actually disguise a bone-deep redesign that streamlines Destiny's systems, excises its unnecessary cruft, and prioritizes player satisfaction. It's far too early to comment on the game's long-term sustainability, but even at launch this is the strongest the IP has ever been, and these things only ever get better as they go.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

An Enterprising Venture: Seth McFarlane's The Orville

(from left) Scott Grimes, Mark Jackson, J. Lee, Seth MacFarlane and Adrianne Palicki in The Orville.

This review contains very minor spoilers for the first two episodes of Fox's The Orville.

Cards on the table: until I watched the second episode of The Orville, this review was looking like it was going to be a rant. Last week's premiere episode of Seth McFarlane's much-ballyhooed piss-take on the Star Trek franchise was a frustrating disappointment. Too mild to be a send-up and not original enough to fly on its own steam, the first hour of The Orville presaged a series with no idea what it was. It seemed more rip-off than either satire or homage – and I left feeling that the network was using the "spoof" label as window dressing for brazen creative laziness. But then I tuned into this Sunday's second episode and, with my expectations now suitably re-adjusted, I had a genuine blast. What a difference a week makes.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Author Morley Torgov (1982)

Author Morley Torgov.

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) 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 writers and artists from all fields. In 1982, I sat down with Canadian author Morley Torgov.

At the time of our conversation Torgov's novel The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick had just been published. The next year, he was awarded Stephen Leacock Award for Humour for the novel. A well-received film adaptation was released in 1988. His most recent novel is The Mastersinger from Minsk (2012), the second book in his Inspector Hermann Preiss mystery series. In 2015, Morley Torgov received the Order of Canada.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Morley Torgov as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1982.

Monday, September 18, 2017

On the Shore of the Wide World: Still Life

Mary McCann and Leroy McClain in On the Shore of the Wide World.(Photo: Ahron R. Foster)

On the Shore of the Wide World, receiving its American premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company, is the English playwright Simon Stephens’s exploration of the effects of a tragic accident on a family in a Manchester town in 2004. Fifteen-year-old Christopher Holmes (Wesley Zurick) is hit by a motorist and killed. His death drives his father, Peter (C.J. Wilson) and his mother, Alice (Mary McCann) apart and exacerbates the tensions between them and Peter’s parents, Charlie (Peter Maloney) and Ellen (Blair Brown) as well as bringing to light the unsettling qualities in their relationship. Shortly before he was killed, Christopher walked in on his alcoholic grandfather strong-arming his grandmother and, in dismay, confided in his older brother Alex (Ben Rosenfield), whom he adored. The aftermath of the boy’s death and the evident crumbling of his parents’ marriage drive Alex to move to London with his new girlfriend, Sarah (Tedra Millan). Meanwhile both Peter and Sarah, who have so much difficulty communicating with each other, are drawn – not romantically but out of a need for confidants – to other people. Peter, who restores old houses, has been hired by the pregnant Susan (Amelia Workman), and she’s the first person outside the family with whom he shares the story of Christopher’s death. (This conversation also marks the first time the audience hears about it, for reasons I can’t quite work out; this choice doesn’t seem to enhance the drama.) Stranger – and more intriguing – is the friendship that grows up between Alice and John (Leroy McClain), the driver of the car that knocked Christopher down on his bike. John’s attempt to reach out to the mother of the boy he inadvertently killed and her responding to him (reluctantly at first) are reminiscent of part of the plot of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, though here it develops in a different direction.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Remembering the Communist Experience in Romania and Bulgaria, Part One: Partial Amnesia

Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, centre, in his final address to the people on Dec. 21, 1989.

“The things they do to you (in the camps), the power they have over you. It throws off your sense of right and wrong.”Olen Steinhauer, The Confession
One of the most remarkable exchanges I encountered this summer during my time in the lower Danube was the personal family story of one of the Romanian guides. His father, a doctor, originally supported the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu until his father was conscripted into the army and one of his odious duties was to accompany the feared security police on missions in which they executed individuals. (His father would subsequently turn against Ceaușescu by supporting his wife who, coming from a humble background, had suffered under the regime.) He also revealed how his mother and her fellow workers were bussed in to cheer Ceaușescu as he appeared on his balcony for the last time. The guide’s uncle was a member of the Army ordered to shoot anyone in the crowd who did not appear to be cheering. Was he to shoot his sister? This was a pivotal point in alienating the army. The despised dictator lost his support and as a result he was finished. Our guide pointed out that balcony where Ceausescu delivered a speech that was interrupted by taunts from the crowd. It was a breathtaking moment, but this guide was an almost solitary voice among the local citizens I have heard over the last two years.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Watching and Worrying – David Thomson's Television: A Biography

Television can’t be an easy thing to write a book about, given its rapid ongoing evolution into new forms – given, too, the sheer unconquerable volume of sound and image, brilliance and nonsense that have coursed from the small screen since it buzzed to something like life in the late 1930s. But David Thomson, one of our best historian-critics, is also one of our most ambitious writers. Among his more than 30 books are two major critical histories of film, one focusing on Hollywood (2004’s The Whole Equation), the other taking a more global vantage (2012’s The Big Screen). His mammoth Biographical Dictionary of Film, first published in 1975, is now in its sixth edition, and he writes a detailed, eccentric, irresistible “personal introduction to 1,000 films” (2008’s “Have You Seen … ?”) with the same bell-ringing ease that Johnny B. Goode brought to playing a guitar. So it’s with a rueful smile and admiring shake of the head that we who know Thomson’s tendencies to great scale and world-encompassing thought, as well as his vast knowledge and masterly ability to combine fact and reverie, regard his latest book and say that yes, of course he has the stuff to write a critical history of television, and he will earn the right, if anyone will, to give it a title as provocatively blunt and accurate as Television: A Biography (Thames & Hudson; 412 pp.). 

Friday, September 15, 2017

See You At The Curtain Call: Twin Peaks – The Return (2017)

Despite my best efforts, there are a few unavoidable spoilers within

“'We are like the spider,' said the king. 'We weave our life, and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe. That is why it is said, "Having created the creation, the Creator entered into it.". This is true for us. We create our world, and then enter into that world. We live in the world we have created.'"
– Thomas Egenes & Kamuda Reddy, Eternal Stories from the Upanishads

"We are like the dreamer who dreams and lives inside the dream, but who is the dreamer?” 
– David Lynch

I think it's safe to say that there hasn't been anything on television close to what director David Lynch and co-writer Mark Frost unleashed the last few months in their 18-part serial Twin Peaks – The Return. More than being simply a sequel to the original 1990 ABC series, Twin Peaks, which focused on the murder investigation of the high school senior Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) by FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), or a mere continuation of the follow-up 1992 film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which examined the circumstances leading to that murder, Showtime's Twin Peaks – The Return was an abstract murder mystery that resisted solutions and begged even more questions. It was like finding yourself seeped in a David Lynch compendium where you experienced the full body of his work – including Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive – as one long amorphous trance as plot lines vanished, dramatic moments imploded, and nightmarish visions suddenly erupted and took hold. Twin Peaks – The Return was the source of much frustration because within that Lynchian theme park of devious delight were also hours of flattened-out kitschy comedy that not only tested your patience, but drew some of his worst instincts, those that had already been on display in Wild at Heart, and parts of Lost Highway. Yet the baggy unevenness of Twin Peaks – The Return wasn't simply a case of the director's intuition taking a holiday and intermittently going wrong. Lynch, who works almost entirely from his unconscious, seemed to be refusing to make any kind of conscious judgement over the material. It was as if he'd decided instead to run the table with whatever came into his mind (bad or startlingly good) to see where it might lead him – and also, of course, the viewer. Knowing that there was an audience out there both nostalgic and fiendishly curious to return to Twin Peaks after such a long hiatus, Lynch turned this epic tale into something more than a conclusion and resolution to the story. Twin Peaks – The Return was a turbulent meditation on the past, on the nature of nostalgia, on the tropes of television serial drama, and on death itself.      

Thursday, September 14, 2017

You'll Float Too: Andy Muschietti’s IT

Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, and Jack Dylan Grazer in IT.

I’m neither a Stephen King devotee nor a person who grew up with the 1990 TV movie based on his landmark novel It, so unlike many filmgoers who are bleating their nostalgic bias into any internet forum they can find, a new feature length film version appealed to me greatly. I love the creepy premise of a picturesque town in Maine that is besieged by an ancient evil that poses as a ghoulish clown in order to kidnap children. I generally admire the creativity and weirdness of King’s work, despite its inconsistency in quality. And as summer slowly transitions into autumn – the season of Halloween, the season of horror, my favourite season – my appetite for an entertaining horror film grows ever more fierce.

IT, I’m pleased to say, satiated that hunger. Director Andy Muschietti has made a handsome and efficient horror flick from King’s original material, adapting the long-winded 1986 novel into a solidly-structured two-hour spookfest. IT, I’m pleased to say, satiated that hunger. Director Andy Muschietti has made a handsome and efficient horror flick from King’s original material, adapting the long-winded 1986 novel into a solidly-structured two-hour spookfest. The story of IT, about a group of young teens who call themselves “The Losers Club” discovering the presence of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård) and fighting against It, only represents the first half of the novel. The second half portrays the same group of kids almost three decades later, as the evil force in their hometown of Derry re-emerges to feed once again. Muschietti made a conscious choice to split the story into two films, with the closing credits of IT listing the film as “Chapter One”. Since the 1990 film is criticized for attempting (and failing) to cram both halves of the novel into one made-for-TV movie, Muschietti has clearly made the right decision – especially since the pacing and structure of his adaptation feel spot-on.