Saturday, July 29, 2017

Nothing To Be Afraid of Here: Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines

The recent furor over HBO’s announcement of a proposed TV series to be called Confederate that imagines a world where the South seceded from the Union and has kept slavery as an institution to the present day is puzzling for any number of reasons. The objections seem to be to the very concept of the show, created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (Game of Thrones), that it would be offensive to black viewers and exploitative of the subject of slavery. (Black writer Roxane Gay labelled it "slavery fan fiction" in a New York Times op-ed.) But that argument ignores the obvious fact that the idea is not exactly a novel one in fiction. Science-fiction writer Harry Turtledove wrote an epic ten-book series on this very subject in his Southern Victory series (1998-2007). Kevin Willmot’s CSA: The Confederate States of America was a 2004 film mockumentary which posited a British-made documentary examining the present-day CSA, an empire that spans Cuba, Mexico and Central America, and the realities of its racist culture, complete with a revised history of America. (In the film's imagined history Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson and others left to go live in a free Canada and President Abraham Lincoln also ended up there after being free from imprisonment by the Confederacy.) And last July saw the release of Ben H. Winters’ similarly themed novel Underground Airlines (Mulholland Books). So why the fuss about an idea that is hardly a radical departure from the literary or visual norm? The answer might be because it hits too close to home.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Maudie: A Window on the World

Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins in Maudie

The unassuming bio Maudie by the Irish director Aisling Walsh is a small-scale beauty about the Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins) and her relationship with her husband Everett (Ethan Hawke). Maud, crippled by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, goes to live with her grim, puritanical Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose, in a finely sketched performance) in Digby after her brother Charles (Zachary Bennett) sells the house they grew up in. (In the Depression-era Canadian Maritimes, the son gets the inheritance.) Finding her new environment unendurable, Maud answers Everett’s ad for a live-in housekeeper and, though he’s an ornery loner and sometimes a brute, they become lovers and finally – at Maud’s insistence – they marry. It’s an uphill odd-couple romance in which her spirit and humor and common sense slowly bring out unexpected sensitivities in him. And her whimsical nature-inspired art, with which she decorates his ramshackle house – a single room with a sleeping loft – becomes an additional means of income for them (he makes a meager living peddling fish) after an American, Sandra (Kari Matchett), who summers in the area starts to purchase her little homemade cards and then commissions her to make paintings. Over time Sandra becomes her best friend.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Inventory Management, Vol II: The Splattening

Splatoon 2 was released by Nintendo, for Nintendo Switch, on July 21.

"Inventory Management" is the period of rest and thoughtfulness that occurs during breaks in the action, in which we organize and clear out all the unnecessary clutter we've accumulated during our adventures. This column, like its sister column Critic's Notes & Frames, embraces this spirit of enjoyable tidying up by acting as a receptacle for all the reviews, thoughts, and musings about games and gaming culture that wouldn't fit anywhere else.
– Justin Cummings

Splatoon 2 – which, if we lived in a just and proper world, would be called “Spla2n” – is Nintendo’s second swing at one of its first new IPs in decades, building on the promising but undercooked foundation of squooshy, gooshy fun from the first Splatoon (2015) for WiiU. I tried the original when it came out, but never owned it; it was a game I appreciated more for philosophical and aesthetic reasons than as an actual experience. I loved that Nintendo had taken a chance on a new and unproven brand – something that the company’s risk-averse executives had avoided for years. I loved that they created a sort of development incubator for younger talent, and that the ingenuity and flair of those voices was allowed to come through in their first product. And I loved many of the things the game itself achieved, with its weird, unique, family-friendly shooter gameplay.

But I didn’t love it enough to buy it.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Come from the Heart – Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark by Tamara Saviano

( r. Townes Van Zandt, Susanna Clark, and Guy Clark.)

Guy Clark (1941-2016) may not be a household name, but in many circles he is considered one of the greatest songwriters in American music. Author Tamara Saviano goes to great lengths to tell us so in her important biography of the singer-songwriter, Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark, recently published by Texas A&M University Press. Saviano is the perfect choice to tell Clark’s story because she’s been writing about him for several years at Country Music Magazine. She's also interviewed him several times. One of her best essays about Clark appeared in the 2014 issue of The Oxford American featuring the music of Texas. Her sentimental memoir about Clark’s 1975 release Ole No. 1 provided fresh insights about the album. So I was genuinely enthused about this biography and its author. Unfortunately, due to an overuse of facts and anecdotes, Clark’s story gets a little lost in the narrative.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Novelist Martin Amis (1981)

Martin Amis, in 1981.(Photo: Martin Lawrence)

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 artists from all fields. In 1981, one of those people was British novelist Martin Amis.

When I sat down with Amis, his fourth novel, Other People: A Mystery Story, had just been published, with his best-known books  Money (1984), London Fields (1989), and Time's Arrow (1991). the last short-listed for the Booker Prize still to come. Other People was Amis's first published novel after he had made his transition to becoming a full-time writer.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Martin Amis as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1981.

Monday, July 24, 2017

George Bernard Shaw, Lillian Hellman and Paula Vogel: Issues

Andrew Lawrie, Sara Topham and Jim Mezon in the Shaw Festival's production of Saint Joan. (Photo: David Cooper)

This article contains reviews of Saint Joan, The Little Foxes, and Indecent.

George Bernard Shaw lays out the argument of Saint Joan with unerring precision. Joan is a French peasant, a teenager, unwavering in her Catholic devotion yet possessed of a country girl’s common sense; when she hears the voices of saints in the church bells, urging her to lead an army to throw the English out of France, she accepts them without doubt or hesitation and her no-nonsense certainty that she is doing the right thing convinces one man after another, right up to the Dauphin, whom she dreams of helping to crown King Charles VII. But as soon as she wins the war for him she finds herself mired in political turmoil that she doesn’t understand and that will end inevitably with her being burned at the stake. She has run afoul not only of the English (obviously) but of the church, represented by the Archbishop of Rheims and the Inquisition, who find in her intimate relationship with God a threat to the Catholic hierarchy. Even the Dauphin, now the monarch, is put off by her arrogance, which earlier he, like the officers she kicked into battle, found inspiring and sensible. The more she insists on being true to the simple faith that got her there in the first place, the more she damns herself in the eyes of the church, which forms an unholy alliance with its secular arm (and the English) to execute her.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Dark Mirrors: Get Out and Race in America

Daniel Kaluuya in Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017).

“The truth is, they don’t surround us. We surround them. This is our country."
– Glenn Beck, Fox News Channel, March 13, 2009.
Jordan Peele’s gripping film, Get Out, which explores contemporary race relations on a micro-level through the prism of horror comedy, has received considerable attention from critics, including this site’s Justin Cummings and Kevin Courrier. Among other films, they have rightly pointed out its cultural markers as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives. In both versions of the latter, wives are reprogrammed into robotic doppelgängers, and Get Out can be viewed as a sinister version of Dinner. But Sidney Poitier’s other 1967 film, In the Heat of the Night, also comes to mind. His role as the urbane cop who encounters southern redneck racists finds its mirror image fifty years later in Get Out, in the black photographer Chris’s unease with the seemingly polite but cringe-inducing patronizing of white liberals, a veneer that covers their malevolent and dangerous presence. I would add two fictional progenitors to Get Out: H. G. Wells’s early science-fiction novella, The Island of Doctor Moreau, about a physician who experiments on animals to turn them into human-like hybrids, and Stephen King’s End of Watch, which posits the idea that the consciousness of a comatose psychopath can be transferred to the minds of others who become the agents of his nefarious plans.