Saturday, March 10, 2018

Romantic Comedy at the End of the Millennium: The Last, Brief Golden Age

James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner (1940).  

Why is it so difficult for Hollywood to make decent romantic comedies in the twenty-first century? Every year brings a handful, but by my count there have been only five in the last decade worth looking at: Ghost Town and Vicky Cristina Barcelona in 2008, Letters to Juliet in 2010, Top Five in 2014 and – a special case – Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (with a contemporary setting) in 2013. And you could put David Fincher's 2011 adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on that list, too, since it’s a murder mystery that only gets solved (as Kevin Courrier argued convincingly on this website) when the two protagonists, a brilliant journalist with an analog background and an IT whiz, pool their intellectual resources (while becoming lovers). As Whedon’s movie reminds us, Much Ado is the granddaddy of modern American romantic comedy. It pioneered the structure – a hero and heroine begin as adversaries but, by passing a series of tests and proving they’re open to compromise and change, they gradually earn each other’s love – that Hollywood adopted in the 1930s and that proved hardy and resilient through the rest of the twentieth century. It was the ideal solution to the issues posed by Hollywood’s self-censorship code (the Production Code, known popularly as the Hays Code), which bore down on American filmmakers in 1934 and held sway for roughly the next twenty-five years. The romantic-comedy structure enabled writers and directors to make movies that were sexy and witty, even though the narratives were forced to banish actual sex. Audiences loved smart entertainments like It Happened One Night (the first of these), My Man Godfrey, The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, Easy Living, The Moon’s Our Home, Bringing Up Baby, The Shop Around the Corner, His Girl Friday and The Lady Eve. And they responded to the form itself, which was a dramatic metaphor for the process of falling in love.

Friday, March 9, 2018

A Cut Above: In Conversation with Beatles' Hairdresser Leslie Cavendish

Leslie Cavendish cutting George Harrison’s hair.

Leslie Cavendish has never forgotten the day, just over 50 years ago, when as an employee of Vidal Sassoon’s revolutionary London hair salon, he styled Jane Asher’s strawberry-blonde mane and became entangled with The Beatles. The British actress had been a regular at Sassoon’s Bond Street location, a celebrity magnet attracting all the fashionable women of the day. But on that particular Saturday, September 3, 1966, to be exact, Asher’s regular stylist, Roger Thompson, later Sassoon’s first-ever international creative director in New York, had fussed too much with an earlier client’s hair and had fallen behind. He asked young Cavendish to do the wash and blow-dry, and absolutely lived to regret it when that little twist of destiny ended up catapulting his trainee – and not him -- into the orbit of The Beatles’ fame. After taking extra care, and ensuring that she liked what she saw looking back at her in the mirror, he listened in astonishment as Asher asked him would he mind doing a house call to cut her boyfriend’s hair. Her boyfriend happened to be Paul McCartney. Asher scribbled his address on a piece of paper pulled from a notepad in her handbag. He recalls the moment vividly in The Cutting Edge, his scissors-sharp 2017 memoir whose North American edition comes out today at The Fest for Beatles Fans in New York.
“When she passed it over and I saw the address, 7 Cavendish Avenue, I said:
‘What a coincidence. My surname is Cavendish.’
‘It must be fate, then, Leslie,’ she said with a smile. ‘Don’t you think? I’ll tell him you’ll be over at about six.’
It certainly was fate.
My life would never be the same again.”

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Don't Look Back In Anger: Netflix’s Everything Sucks!

Jahi Di'Allo Winston and Peyton Kennedy in Everything Sucks!, now streaming on Netflix.

Luke: . . . you're out of focus.
Kate: I know. I'm trying to fix that.
                   – from Episode 1 of Everything Sucks!
Television shows and films about how horrible high school can be are plentiful – just as plentiful as shows set in the 1980s and ‘90s seem to be currently. And so, recognizing none of the actors in the main cast and knowing nothing at all about the show’s creators and main writers (Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan), I showed up to Netflix’s new coming-of-age dramedy Everything Sucks! with low, and pointedly narrow, expectations – anticipating at best a brief dip into a new, and ultimately forgettable, guilty pleasure (along the lines of MTV’s clever, but scatological  and sophomoric, The Hard Times of RJ Berger), or a mildly amusing nostalgia project designed to flatter a coveted Millennial demographic. As a result, I was genuinely unprepared for how poignant, sincere, and generally affecting the series is.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Michael Ondaatje (1982)

Author Michael Ondaatje. (Photo: Linda Spalding)

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 novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje.

At the time of our conversation, Ondaatje's fictionalized memoir Running in the Family had just been published. Born in Sri Lanka in 1943, he emigrated to Montreal at the age of 19. His writing includes over a dozen books of poetry and six novels, including In the Skin of a Lion (1987) and Anil's Ghost (2000). His 1992 novel The English Patient was adapted into an award-winning film in 1996 by Anthony Minghella. (Minghella's acclaimed film, starring Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, and Kristin Scott Thomas, would go on to win numerous Academy Awards – including Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Supporting Actress for Binoche.)

Michael Ondaatje is one of Canada's most celebrated writers, winning the Giller Prize, the Booker Prize, and the Governor General's Award on five occasions. In 1988, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. Michael Ondaatje's most recent novel is The Cat's Table, published in 2011.

– Kevin Courrier.

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

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Inventory Management, Vol VII: Battling for Supremacy

Dragon Ball FighterZ was developed by Arc System Works and published by Bandai Namco Entertainment in January.

I’ve had a rocky relationship with the super-popular anime series Dragon Ball over the course of my life. When it was airing on television in the 90s, I never caught enough of the story for any of the shouting and fighting and flying around to mean anything to me, so I largely ignored it. Later, having never really watched it, I nonetheless felt comfortable deriding the series as a brainless assembly of fight scenes broken up by long, tedious stretches of exposition. In my first year of university, however, a group of my new peers – horrified that I’d never given their favourite childhood TV series a fair shake – cemented the early days of our friendship by watching the show with me in our down time, making the shared enjoyment of this hyper-dramatized, aggressively-plotted story a ritualized, almost sacred event. Its quality meant very little in that context, since the social aspect of those viewings was far more important than the show itself, but still I enjoyed it far more than I ever thought I would. To this day I’ve never watched the entire series, but I treasure the memories of those early seasons, and still nurse a great fondness for the world of Dragon Ball.

Another activity that my dorm-mates and I would regularly engage in was the friendly competition of fighting games, from Mortal Kombat to Super Smash Bros. I was never much good at these types of games, not being a terribly competitive person by nature, but again, they were far more effective as a catalyst for fun socializing than anything else. Apart from the occasional indulgence (the Soulcalibur series being a decadent favourite) or the odd title picked up in a bargain bin (like my much-loved Xbox copy of Marvel vs. Capcom 2), I never went out of my way to buy fighting games for myself, much less practice them or follow their competitive scenes. So it must have been a subtle yet potent bout of nostalgia, powerful enough to overcome my general indifference to the genre, that prompted me to purchase this year’s Dragon Ball FighterZ for Playstation 4.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The White Card: Be White, Baby

Patricia Kalember and Karen Pittman in The White Card. (Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

For the production of Claudia Rankine’s play The White Card, about race in contemporary America – a co-production of American Repertory Theater and Arts Emerson – scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez has built a black-box space inside the stage of Boston’s downtown Emerson Paramount Center. Except that it’s a white box, with the audience seated on painful white chairs, tennis-court style, on either side above the narrow cream-colored playing area (with matching furniture). The symbolism is painfully obvious. Moreover, having wriggled back and forth on those goddamn chairs for eighty intermissionless minutes, perhaps I may be permitted to advance the theory that the level of discomfort, too, is deliberate. Could this be director Diane Paulus’s take on Brechtian theatre – keeping the audience alert at what amounts to a droning lecture on white privilege by literally making us squirm?

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Lingering Darkness – Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams

Hank Williams performing on The Perry Como Show (November 14, 1951).

The worst part about reading a biography of country-music legend Hank Williams is that if you know anything about the history of music, you know how his story ends. Mark Ribowsky’s new biography, Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams (Liveright), was published last year. It’s thoroughly researched and thoroughly engaging because the author is deeply connected to his subject. In fact, Ribowsky’s tome is constantly looming on the dark side of Williams’s life, yet he succeeds in telling the tale of the beloved son of Alabama, who, in spite of his alcoholism and ramblin’ lifestyle, was “fresh, taut, [and] vibrant” on his recordings. To him Williams was a man who had “an instinct for turning pain into commercial gain” and expressing that pain with a degree of authenticity few of his peers, such as Ernest Tubb and Eddie Arnold, possessed. For Ribowsky, Williams changed the sound of country music, bringing “hillbilly” to the mainstream of American culture by wearing his heart on his sleeve. Yet his talent couldn’t save him from his inner struggles often expressed by his destructive, mood-swinging behaviour.