Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Purveyor of Thresholds: Why Scott Walker Is God

"See the man with the stage fright
Just standin' up there to give it all his might.
And he got caught in the spotlight,
But when we get to the end
He wants to start all over again."
                                  – from "Stage Fright" by Robbie Robertson
Author Barney Hoskyns has rightly observed that though The Band’s leader Robbie Robertson wrote this 1970 song ostensibly about Bob Dylan, who had stopped touring live in the late '60s, it could also have been about the shy Robertson himself, who had experienced stage fright the year before during The Band’s first live concert. Naturally it could also be about any emblematic singer who had experienced what Levon Helm called “the terror of performing” or any person who, as William Ruhlmann once put it, had discovered “the pitfalls of fortune and fame.” And as the song itself declared so openly, “since that day he ain’t been the same”, largely as a result of the personal price he had to pay for being able to “sing like a bird.”

But given the year, 1970, and given Scott Walker’s own notoriously famous stage fright (which was known to be almost paralyzing), I’ve always felt that the song especially captured some the core dilemma eating away at Walker himself. Like Dylan, who rejected both the trappings and the demands of celebrity after flying too high and too fast in the '60s, not to mention mangling his motorcycle, Scott Walker also withdrew from the public eye after his own Icarus-like trauma: the discouragement he felt after his first four post-Walker Brothers solo records failed to meet his own exacting (and probably unattainable) expectations.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Filmmaker Morley Markson (1988)

Former Black Panther Donald Cox in Morley Markson's Growing Up in America (1988).

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 1988, one of those people was Canadian documentary filmmaker Morley Markson.

In 1971, Markson made Breathing Together: Revolution of the Electric Family, a documentary which interviewed prominent counterculture figures and social activists from the '60s, including Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, William Kunstler, and Donald Cox. When I sat down with Markson in 1988, his follow-up film Growing Up in America had just been released.

In Growing Up in America, Markson returns 18 years later to many of those featured in his original film and reflects with them on their impact and the current state of politics and culture in the United States. Considering the dark events of the past few days, it seems timely today to reflect on the larger sweep of American history, through the eyes of some of its most vocal and idealistic figures.

– Kevin Courrier.

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


Monday, August 14, 2017

More New Plays at Williamstown: Actually and A Legendary Romance

Joshua Boone and Alexandra Socha in Actually. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

Both these reviews contain spoilers.

The characters in Anna Ziegler’s two-hander Actually on the Nikos Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival are Princeton first-year students who hook up in the first weeks of the fall semester and wind up sleeping together when both are considerably under the influence. Amber (Alexandra Socha) is a white Jewish girl who has never thought of herself as especially pretty or been especially popular; her high school experimentation with sex was mostly an attempt to avoid the embarrassment of getting to the end of senior year with her virginity intact, and the boy who initiated her, her best friend’s brother, was aggressive and insensitive. Tom (Joshua Boone) is African American, charming and sexually experienced, and hides his own insecurities under a façade of cockiness. When he shows some interest in Amber, she can’t believe her good fortune, and Tom, always eager for sex but not seeking a relationship, is surprised at the tender feelings she generates in him. But when they go to bed her finely tuned radar picks up something off in his behavior, and she finds the sex too rough. What happens then is unclear since their recollections are different. But after the fact she tells her friends that he “practically raped her” and they encourage her to lodge a complaint. Both students end up in front of a faculty board on sexual misconduct. Actually is mostly a set of intercut monologues in which each of the characters presents a self-portrait while narrating the story of their interaction; only in the opening minutes of the play and in the final scene do they talk to each other, aside from a heated moment in their relaying of the events of the night in question, when they quarrel over exactly what happened.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Dance of the Dispossessed: Bangarra Dance Theatre's Bennelong

Bangarra Dance Theatre performing Bennelong. (Photo: Vishal Pandey)

Even non-Australians are familiar with Bennelong Point, a former tidal island in New South Wales that since the early 1970s has served as the home of the Sydney Opera House. Architect Jørn Utzon's sculptural design, inspired by a segmented orange but looking more like the white sails of the convict ships that first landed at this very location in 1788, has made Bennelong Point internationally famous as a World Heritage Site. More than eight million international tourists visit the promontory each year, participating in a sort of pilgrimage of high Western culture.

The building is so strikingly innovative that few notice the layers of history lying underfoot in the surrounding stones. Bennelong Point is so named because this is where once stood the brick hut occupied by an Aboriginal man born of the Eora clan in 1764. It had been built for him by the British, who founded a penal colony on his ancestral lands. His name was Woollarawarre Bennelong and, more than 200 years since his death in 1813 in the nearby suburb of Putney, he has returned to the place that bears his name to retell his story.

Directly assisting in his resurrection is Stephen Page, artistic director and chief choreographer of Sydney's Bangarra Dance Theatre, the critically acclaimed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander company which has been seamlessly blending indigenous storytelling traditions with modern dance technique and contemporary movement styles for the past 28 years. Bennelong is Page's latest creation and it dynamically recounts the life story of the first indigenous Australian to forge an alliance with the Europeans.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Ghost Story and Dunkirk: Failed Experiments

Casey Afflect and Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story.

A Ghost Story is an experimental film embedded in a commercial feature. An unnamed couple (the credits list them as "C" and "M"), played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, lives in a house that appears to be haunted; as they’re about to move out, C (Affleck) dies suddenly. The rest of the picture is from the point of view of the ghost who rises from his body in the hospital morgue. The movie’s subject is time, and we experience it as the ghost does, hovering in the house (in the classic mode of a specter in a sheet with holes for eyes) as M grieves and then takes up her life again and departs; as another family – a Hispanic single mother and her two young children – move in and then, spooked by the ghost’s announcement of his presence, move out again; as the house becomes dilapidated and is razed to the ground (along with the one next door, inhabited by its own ghost); as the land is taken over by an office building and the neighborhood becomes a gleaming cityscape. Then time reverses itself, taking us, with the ghost, back to the first settlers in this (unspecified) area, a farmer and his family, who are killed by Native Americans. Eventually the movie catches up to itself and we return to the first scenes between C and M, only now we see them from the perspective of the ghost, who has been there all along. (The noise that alarmed them in bed and brought them into the living room at the beginning of the picture turns out to be the sound of the ghost plunking on their piano.)

Friday, August 11, 2017

Orthodox Views: Menashe, The Women’s Balcony and The Wedding Plan

Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski in Menashe.

It’s probably a bit ironic that, of late, movies about Orthodox Jewish communities in America and Israel (Holy Rollers, Ushpizin, Fill the Void) have been popping up on our movies screens, made by both secular and religious filmmakers. I say ironic because unless they get dispensation from their rabbis, Orthodox Jews won’t go see any of the movies even if they're interested in doing so. Yet their closed-off and rule-driven world will likely continue to be fodder for directors who find them to be fascinating subjects for the cinema. Three new movies offer proof positive of that curious view.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Like A Midnight Cowboy: Glen Campbell, 1936-2017

Glen Campbell performing on the BBC in 1970. (Photo: Michael Putland/Getty/Hulton Archive)

It wasn’t shocking to hear, two days ago, that Glen Campbell had died: for nearly a decade, he had been making highly public acknowledgements of his affliction with Alzheimer’s disease. Rather than lachrymose interviews or TV appearances, these mostly took the form of actual work. A worldwide concert tour spanned August 2011 to November 2012; referred to variously as “Good Times – The Final Farewell Tour” and “The Goodbye Tour,” it couldn’t have been more upfront about its theme and raison d'être. I’ll Be Me, a documentary about the tour and about the disease, premiered on CNN in 2014. Campbell’s last three studio albums – 2011’s Ghost on the Canvas, 2013’s See You There, and this year’s Adiós – were concerned entirely or partially with the singer’s contemplation of his own looming mortality. These years and works amount to a concerted resistance against dissolution and death, and they comprise, whatever their artistic results, an exemplary final act.