Friday, April 12, 2024

Cry Me a River: The Sweet Sorrow of Film Noir

“Life is a tragedy when seen in a close-up, but a comedy when seen in the long shot.” – Charlie Chaplin

Melodrama: the essential link between classical tragedy and ‘dark film’. “Suffering, with style” is the succinct and totally apt way that Turner Classic Movies curator Eddie Muller characterizes this unique mode of film noir storytelling: “The men and women of this sinister cinematic world are driven by greed, lust, jealousy and revenge, which leads inexorably to existential torment, soul crushing despair and a few last gasping breaths in a rain soaked gutter. But damned if these lost souls don’t look sensational riding the Hades Express. If you’re going straight to hell, you might as well travel with some style to burn.”

From the moment the term film noir or dark film was first employed by advanced French critics in the post-World War Two global culture, there was also an instant debate about what it encapsulated so vividly. Muller, who is also an author of crime fiction himself, further defines the concept as being about a protagonist who, driven to act out of some desperate desire, does something that he or she knows to be wrong, even understanding what dire consequences will follow. Karma always looms large in noir.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Christopher Durang, 1949-2024

Christopher Durang and E. Katherine Kerr in Laughing Wild, in 1987.

It’s hard to imagine a more tragic-ironic fate for the playwright Christopher Durang than the disease from which he suffered for the last eight years of his life, logopenic primary progressive aphasia, which renders its victims unable to find the words they need to express what they want to say. (He died of complicated from the illness on April 2.) Durang was one of the great wits of contemporary American drama. His plays are outrageous and uproarious. In terms of style he’s an absurdist, but his work isn’t like that of any other absurdist; itis wildly playful and manically inventive, and it runs on pretzel logic. In Beyond Therapy the two protagonists are a newly formed couple whose road to happiness is blocked as much by their shrinks as by the man’s inability to give up his gay lover – his shrink is a bona fide fruitcake while hers has been sleeping with her. One of the main characters in Betty’s Summer Vacation is a serial killer. The characters in the two-hander Laughing Wild wind up in overlapping dreams:  she dreams that she has murdered and then replaced the talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael and he dreams that he shows up on her talk show dressed as an obscure Catholic figure called the Infant of Prague.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Singing Drunks: Days of Wine and Roses

Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara in Days of Wine and Roses. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

At first Days of Wine and Roses, written by JP Miller, was a ninety-minute drama on Playhouse 90 in 1958, at the height of the era of live TV drama, starring Cliff Robertson as a corporate drunk and Piper Laurie as the woman he falls in love with and turns into a fellow alcoholic. The tragedy is that while he finally gives up the bottle and gets his life together, she can’t stop – she winds up choosing booze over both him and their little girl. At this point not many viewers remember the original, which is distinguished by Laurie’s complexly delicate performance. (You can watch it on Prime.) But the 1962 movie, directed by Blake Edwards, is justly famous, for the performances of Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick as the couple, Joe and Kirsten Clay, and Charles Bickford, repeating his role as Kirsten’s rough-hewn Swedish papa, is quite fine. The narrative is a conventional addict story but its unadorned quality lends it a certain authenticity, and Lemmon isn’t as showy as he is in other dramatic roles; he may be responding to Remick, an underappreciated actress whose modesty is one of her virtues.

In the new stage musical, adapted by Craig Lucas with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, which just closed on Broadway (it premiered at the Atlantic Stage Company last spring), Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara played the sodden Clays, and it’s hard to imagine two actor-singers who could have been more effective in the parts. James gets Joe’s hail-fellow-well-met affability but with an understated desperation that’s there from the opening party scene, where, as head of public relations at the agency where he and Kirsten both work, he’s expected to supply not just liquor but also women for clients; there’s a subtle suggestion that he imbibes not just to have fun but so he doesn’t have to think too much about the seedier side of his job. Drinking loosens him up but when, in the early days after their daughter Lila (Tabitha Lawing) is born, Kirsten eases off and he feels he’s lost his playmate, it can also make him angry. He explodes in the scene – famous in Lemmon’s version in the film – where, when he’s convinced her to cheat after a domestic near-disaster has kept them sober for a couple of months, he can’t locate a bottle he’s hidden in her father’s greenhouse. Partly because as an actor James has a sweetness and gentleness, his fury in this sequence, which takes in the boss who fired him for drink-fueled irresponsibility, is surprising and upsetting.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Subtly Scintillating: The National Ballet of Canada’s Winter Season Triple Bill

Koto Ishihara in UtopiVerse. (Photo: Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

The National Ballet of Canada's Winter 2024 program — at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre, March 20-March 24 — presented a dynamic blend of tradition and innovation, showcasing three distinct works that push the boundaries of contemporary ballet.

Leading the charge is William Yong’s Utopiverse, a world premiere exploration of alternate realities and the human quest for utopia. It is a first classical dance commission for Yong, a Hong Kong-born independent choreographer whose Toronto-based Zata Omm Dance Projects is known for creating interdisciplinary eco-conscious works that merge dance, technology and other art forms for creative explorations.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

In Passing: The Enigmatic Paintings of Janna Watson

 Air Signs Talking, 48 x 48 in.

“Tantra is a technique that allows you to connect with your inner energy and experience transformation. One can visualize energy moving through the body with each and every breath.” – David Frawley

“Wu wei invites spontaneous and inevitable behaviors to happen naturally. Rather than painting a pre-planned idea, I let go of the ego in order to unify myself with the environment.”Janna Watson

Tantric diagrams. The visually compelling paintings of Flesherton-born and Toronto-based artist Janna Watson, usually produced on sensual birch wood panels, represent a significant development in what has been called biomorphic abstraction. With their energetic dance-like forms coming together, gently colliding and receding apart, they also provide an added visual bonus of taking gestural abstraction itself to new heights of emotive splendor. Viewing her colourful and almost calligraphic work offers us a chance to vividly remember a time when our tired retinas, less lulled by flickering digital pixels, were much more open to being transported out of ourselves and into the open-ended narrative that great painting always invites and provides.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Journalism on Stage: The Connector and Corruption

Sanjit De Silva and Toby Stephens in Corruption. (Photo: T Charles Erickson)

In his new play, Corruption, which opened last week at Lincoln Center, the excellent American political playwright J.T. Rogers dramatizes the scandal in Britain that brought down Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper News of the World when it was revealed that phone hacking and police bribery were commonplace procedures at the publication. Most of the targets were show-biz celebrities, politicians and members of the royal family, but the investigation showed that the phones of thousands of ordinary citizens had also been hacked, including those of a murdered schoolgirl and the relatives of victims of the 2005 London bombings. Rogers’s previous plays include The Overwhelming (about the Rwandan genocide), Blood and Gifts (about the war in Afghanistan) and the Tony Award-winning Oslo (about the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and Palestine). Corruption is based on Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain, an account of the scandal co-written by two men who took major roles in illuminating it: Tom Watson, a Member of Parliament (and future Labour Party Deputy Leader) serving on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and Martin Hickman, a journalist for The Independent.

Rogers has chosen Watson (played by Toby Stephens) as his protagonist, but he doesn’t attempt to whitewash him: as government whip during Gordon Brown’s tenure as Prime Minister, his assertiveness crossed the line into bullying and intimidation. When Watson attempts to enlist a fellow MP, Chris Bryant (K. Todd Freeman), in the uncovering of the News of the World debacle, Bryant’s initial reluctance is personal: he hasn’t forgiven Tom for homophobic slurs, and when he does join the fight he insists that their collaboration isn’t an indication of friendship. Still, the lines that separate the good guys from the bad guys in this drama are very clear. It’s an intelligent, well-acted production, exciting (especially in the second act), directed by Bartlett Sher (who staged both Oslo and Blood and Gifts) with his usual command of rhythm and tempo and his highly skillful choreographing of ensembles, and Michael Yeargan has designed a fine set, a halo of screens playing news clips that spins over the stage. But by definition agit-prop plays aren’t subtle. The English playwright James Graham, who wrote Ink (about Murdoch’s early career) and Dear England among others, tends to present rousing material in an entertaining fashion in the first act and then convince himself in the second that he’s making a profound statement; you end up feeling cheated. Rogers reaches farther in Blood and Gifts and certainly in Oslo, which is his best work; in Corruption he’s satisfied to let the material speak for itself. I don’t think that’s a failing; neither the play nor the production makes extravagant claims for itself, and the subject matter is undeniably compelling and infuriating. But his writing here has more punch than elegance.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Down the Rabbit Hole with the National Ballet of Canada

Tirion Law and Svetlana Lunkina Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. (Photo: Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

The National Ballet of Canada's presentation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland transcends mere entertainment, offering an unbridled exploration of creativity, imagination, and the human experience. Christopher Wheeldon's shape-shifting choreography, inspired by Lewis Carroll's timeless tale, serves as a poignant reflection on the power of storytelling and the journey of self-discovery. A mesmerizing use of computer-generated imagery, eye-popping colour and actual dancing in the aisles allow for a fully immersive experience, accessible to all.