Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Raw Material: Manasie Akpaliapik and Inua of the Seas

A detail from The Effects of Colonialization, Past and Present by Manasie Akpaliapik.

Manasie Akpaliapik has not had an easy time of it. An Inuit carver born in 1955 at a hunting camp north of Baffin Island, he suffered a devastating personal loss when his wife and young children died in a house fire nearly 40 years ago. He soon after used art to see him assuage the grief and alcohol to numb the pain. While his expressionistic carvings brought him a high degree of success (his work is in the permanent collections of Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada, in addition to other major national and international art institutions), the booze ended up dominating. By 2007, Akpaliapik, one of the greatest Inuit carvers of our time, was behind bars for disorderly conduct in a Southern Ontario jail, away from his people, away from his art.

But here’s the happy ending (so far). Akpaliapik is back. Now sober, the artist celebrated for his expressionistic handling of found raw materials like tusks, antlers and animal bone, is once again carving whalebone – his material of choice – etching into its tough, tensile surface scenes from his troubled life. The most poignant of his pictorial self-portraits populate The Effects of Colonialization, Past and Present, a 72-by-65-by-30cm sculpture carved from a section of a 120-year-old bowhead whale skull.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Bio-Downer: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Lee Israel was a freelance journalist who enjoyed some success writing celebrity bios (her 1980 book on the columnist Dorothy Kilgallen was a bestseller) before running dry and turning, in a particularly imaginative response to desperation, to forging letters by famous people and selling them to book shops with a sideline in memorabilia. Eventually the FBI tracked her down but she managed to escape prison – a sympathetic judge gave her probation – and the last thing she wrote, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, is an account of her odd and abbreviated life of crime. The title is from one of the letters she invents and ascribes to Dorothy Parker, in which Parker quips that her drunken escapades have offended so many of her friends that she ought to have little cards printed that beg their forgiveness. The misanthropic Israel was drawn to brittle, acerbic wits like Parker and Noël Coward and she had enough of a gift for epigrams to emulate their styles; her book, which takes about an hour and a half to read, is enjoyably nasty-minded. She juxtaposes samples of her handiwork with sketches about how she plied her illicit craft. But Marielle Heller’s movie version, from a screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, is somber and cautionary. It portrays Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy) as a tragic heroine, a reclusive dipsomaniac who is so terrified of rejection that she can’t sustain a romantic relationship – she’s still haunted by the failure of her last one – or even a friendship, and lavishes all her affection on her aging cat. (The movie begins with her losing an editing job because she imbibes at work and tells her supervisor to fuck off.) Moreover, as her editor (Jane Curtin, in a sharp-eyed cameo) points out, she doesn’t have the nerve to forget about projects no one in 1991 could care less about – her latest, if she can recover from a bad case of writer’s block, is a book on Fanny Brice – and write something that reflects her own voice. The idea that biography is somehow a dodge for a real writer should be news to, say, Gary Giddins, who just came out with the second volume of his study of Bing Crosby, which I can’t wait to sit down with. Toward the end of the movie, in a heartfelt statement before the judge sentences her, Lee owns up to the reason she has never taken her agent’s counsel: that she’s always been afraid of rejection on the literary front, too.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

A Dumb Fun Sub Movie Is Better Than None: Hunter Killer

Gerard Butler (left) in Hunter Killer.

If you hadn’t already guessed from the film’s name and poster typeface, Hunter Killer is a retro action B-movie in the techno-fetishistic style of a Tom Clancy adaptation. Joe Glass (Gerard Butler) ascends from the rank and file to captain his first submarine on a mission to investigate a missing American sub, which they find sunk alongside a Russian sub. Unable to contact Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko), the U.S. sends out a Navy SEAL recon team, which discovers that Zakarin is being held captive at a Russian naval base in a coup led by war-hungry Defense Minister Durov (Mikhail Gorevoy). Naturally, the sub and the SEALs are brought together to form a mission to extract Zakarin. Needless to say, they succeed by a hair.

There are numerous resemblances to The Hunt for Red October (1990): some crew are rescued from the downed Russian sub, whose captain (the late Michael Nyqvist) proves indispensable for navigating the U.S. sub into the Russian naval base, and for getting it out in one piece; a stateside bureaucratic argument over how to deal with the coup results in both prepping for war and greenlighting the maverick rescue op, which is also headed by a black admiral (here played by Common); there’s a traitor in the Russian crew, though here it’s only a minor plot point; and, heck, the Russians even speak English amongst themselves.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Halves: Man in the Ring and The Lifespan of a Fact

Kyle Vincent Terry and John Douglas Thompson in Michael Cristofer's Man in the Ring. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Michael Cristofer’s new play Man in the Ring, receiving its premiere at Boston’s Huntington Theatre, is the biography of Emile Griffith, the middleweight boxing champ of the late fifties and sixties, born on St. Thomas. It’s a fascinating story about a man whose life is haunted by demons – of Benny “Kid” Paret, who died as a result of the Griffith’s last victory over him in the ring, and, in Cristofer’s portrait, of his bisexuality. (Cristofer recreates the vicious beating Griffith received outside a gay bar in 1992.) Cristofer’s dramatic strategy is to tell it in flashback through the point of view of an aging Emile (John Douglas Thompson), living in New York with Luis (Victor Almanzar), a younger man who nurses him through his struggles with dementia pugilistica.

Michael Greif has given the work an exciting production, gracefully staged and visually beautiful. David Zinn designed the set, which is delineated at the wings by staggered fire-escape balconies and upstage by a curved cyclorama on which Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully’s projections evoke the period urban feel as well as echoing key moments in the play, Brechtian style. Zinn relies on muted colors, blacks and browns and sepias, while Emilio Sosa’s costumes provide exotic flashes of color that link back to Emile’s island birthplace. The brilliant lighting design is by Ben Stanton, who takes a leaf from Raging Bull cinematographer Michael Chapman’s book: blinding, crackling flashbulbs heighten the fight scenes. Matt Tierney created the vibrant sound design, and Michael McElroy arranged the music, Caribbean hymns and folk songs that, like the titles, have a Brechtian function. The supporting cast is flawless; the standout performances are by the charismatic Kyle Vincent Terry as young Emile, Almanzar as both Luis (who was Griffith’s adopted son) and a male lover, and Sean Boyce Johnson as Benny Paret, but Starla Benford as Emile’s mother, Emelda, and Gordon Clapp as his manager, Howie Albert, are also memorable. Towering above them is the majestic John Douglas Thompson. His portrayal of the physiologically and psychically impaired Griffith, who stumbles through the play like a wounded colossus, howling like Lear against the immovable universe, is surely one of the highlights of the theatrical season, here or anywhere.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Soundtrack for The Immobile Flaneur: The Seductive Music of Nas Hedron

“Music is frozen architecture and architecture is frozen music.” – Goethe

Museum of Dreams. That was the title that my friend and fellow broadcaster the late Kevin Courrier and I gave to an episode of a pilot for a radio program we were working on together a few years back. The program was called Musical Chairs, with each weekly episode devoted to a particular theme and featuring drastically diverse musical examples evoking a given subject. That particular installment was about “The City,” and it offered a wide range of international music, including songs, instrumentals, pop, folk, jazz, classical and avant-garde, all of which personified life in an urban setting: what it meant to be city dwellers, all of us strangers living together in close proximity. My notion was that every city was a kind of museum collecting all the dreams, and even perhaps the nightmares for that matter, of all the inhabitants it had hosted throughout its history. Maybe even the dreams of future inhabitants would be stored in this urban museum, people who hadn’t even arrived there yet.

We had songs by Bruce Cockburn from Inner City Front, a concerto by Aaron Copeland called "Quiet City," The Lovin’ Spoonful’s "Summer in the City," Ornette Coleman’s "Skies Over America" jazz suite, Scott Walker’s enigmatic "Farmer in the City," Stevie Wonder’s "Living For the City," and the mysterious chamber work by American composer Charles Ives, "Central Park in the Dark," among others. The idea being to freak out as many listeners as possible by exploring one single, simple subject and theme, the city and its sounds, through as many divergent threads of musical styles as possible. In between tracks, Kevin and I would chat about how and why we each had chosen our alternating selections to play for the other (and the audience). If only I had known back then (mid-'80s) about the music of Nas Hedron, we could have programmed a whole episode, maybe even several, come to think of it, merely by playing a flock of Hedron’s own shimmering compositions.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Found Footage: Mountain (2017) and Shirkers (2018)

A scene from Jennifer Peedom's Mountain (2017).

I want to discuss two films that, to a significant degree, are stitched together from previously existing footage.

Mountain (2017) is a feature-length video essay, directed by Jennifer Peedom and mostly shot by Renan Ozturk, on the symbolic relationship between human and mountain. Mountain porn is to be expected – the gorgeous, absolutely stunning vistas and panoramas and drone shots – but what is not expected is just how much this 74-minute-long film effortlessly includes: mountaintop cyclists and motorcyclists, skiers with and without parachutes, tightrope walkers, shots of individual snowflakes (turns out they’re not flat), lava, nosediving helicopters, vertigo-inducing helmet-cam shots of regular and free solo climbers, an athlete wipe-out reel, a critique of extreme sports online branding, and a critique of mountain tourism. Not to mention the poetry of Willem Dafoe’s narration, taken from Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind. It’s truly an awesome experience.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Magic Season – Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Eddie Redmayne and Callum Turner in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

We can all agree that the more franchises crowd the multiplexes, the more difficult it is for other sorts of pictures to get seen – indeed, to get made at all. Still, some of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had at the movies this year have been at the latest entries in various series: Incredibles 2, Mission Impossible: Fallout, Ant-Man and the Wasp, even the much-maligned Solo. However, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald towers above the others. It confirms that, visually and emotionally, this particular franchise is on the same level as the recently concluded Planet of the Apes trilogy.