Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Ghosts of October (2): Vanished! A Video Séance

Victoria Seifert as Voirrey Irving in Vanished! A Video Séance (1999).

Each week this month, leading up to Halloween, Devin McKinney is highlighting one of his favorite ghost stories, in fiction or film. See Part 1 here
In 1931, a tiny, furry creature with humanoid hands, voice, and intelligence was said to have materialized at Doarlish Cashen, a remote farm near the village of Dalby on the Isle of Man, two hours’ boat ride from England’s west coast. The farm’s inhabitants, the Irving family, had begun to hear scuffling and chattering in their attic, followed by a high-pitched, gibbering voice. Quickly picking up English from its hosts, the voice’s owner gave its name as Gef, and claimed to be an 80-year-old marsh mongoose brought to England in the previous century. Initially reticent, Gef soon came into view and moved about the house freely. Despite causing no end of poltergeist mischief (midnight cacophonies, food stolen, messes left), the Irvings became attached to the creature, and it to them. Word of the family’s fantastic guest reached the village, and then the mainland, where Gef became a sensation in the popular press and psychical societies. Many visitors came, some going away convinced of the unbelievable, others that a hoax was on; Harry Price, the preeminent ghost hunter of the day, investigated with admirable pomp, holding séances and writing a book. (More showman than scientist, Price was cagily inconclusive in his findings.) But neither solid confirmation nor a definitive debunking was presented, and after a few years, the public fascination with the case faded. So, apparently, did Gef.

Vanished! A Video Séance (1999) begins on a whistling wind and an image, only briefly held, of Doarlish Cashen – a rough, charmless place, in open country. Then we watch the textured skin of a female neck work up and down in excruciatingly slow motion to the magnified sounds of swallowing, which evolve into a series of primordial growls and roars. This wordless prelude lasts perhaps a minute, though it seems longer, long enough for you to do two things – discern that these are the sounds of a spirit entering the body and voice-box of a human host; and reflect on the abstractness of what you are seeing and hearing. In successive shots, the Irvings – father James (Julian Curry), mother Margaret (Rosemary McHale), and teenage daughter Voirrey (Victoria Seifert) – explain that they have been called up to relate incidents in their lives from years ago. Unless you know something of the backstory, you will have no idea of who these people are, or why they’ve been summoned. But you will wait to find out, because the tone is so plain and grave, the actors so fixated. This will not be a conventional spook show.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Diversions: The Drowsy Chaperone and Sherlock’s Last Case

The cast of Goodspeed Opera House's production of The Drowsy Chaperone. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The Drowsy Chaperone is one of the high points in twenty-first-century American musical theatre. First produced on Broadway in 2006 in a rambunctious, irresistible production that is still the best thing director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw has ever done, it’s a parody of a 1920s musical comedy framed, ingeniously, by a commentary by a middle-aged musicals buff known as Man in Chair. The conceit is that this character, who finds most contemporary theatre unsatisfying – and the modern world exasperating – is sitting alone in his apartment, trying to coax himself out of the blues by listening to his favorite show recording, of a silly, lighthearted musical called The Drowsy Chaperone. Bob Martin, who wrote the book along with his fellow Canadian, Don McKellar, was the original Man in Chair; the ebullient, sometimes loony songs are by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, and the lyrics often make you laugh out loud – a genuine rarity.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Kevin Courrier (1954-2018)

Kevin Courrier (November 23, 1954-October 12, 2018).

It is with profound sadness that we announce the passing of Kevin Courrier on October 12 after a three-year battle with cancer. Kevin co-founded Critics At Large in January 2010 along with Shlomo Schwartzberg and the late David Churchill and served as editor-in-chief until his illness compelled him to retire early this year. He also contributed hundreds of pieces, mostly on movies and music. Even after he was no longer able to write for the website, he continued to be heard here – literally as well as figuratively – on podcasts that had originated as interviews with a wide range of artists on the CJRT-FM radio show On the Arts throughout the 1980s.

Kevin was a fine writer and a formidable critic. He had a grasp of the popular arts that was simultaneously dazzlingly broad and effortlessly deep. He was a compendium of information about music and movies and he had a precise memory that never faltered, even in his final months. He had a rare – one might say unparalleled – gift for making unexpected and resonant connections between disparate works and ideas, unshakeable common sense, and the ability to make the complex lucid, whether on larger canvases (his books on Randy Newman, The Beatles, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart) or smaller ones (his work on this website, the culmination of a career in journalism). These same qualities were apparent in the extraordinarily popular classes on film he gave to audiences of seniors in a variety of Toronto venues.

We offer below a small selection of reviews and articles that showcase his remarkable talent. We will miss his voice.

– The editorial team of Critics At Large

Out of This World: John Coltrane in Seattle (1965) September 24, 2015 

Lost Man – O.J.: Made in America June 23, 2016

You Probably Don't Even Hear It When It Happens: The Sopranos & The Death of the Gangster Hero August 26, 2016

A Change Is Gonna Come: The End of the Obama Era January 20, 2017

Bridge Over Troubled Water: The Fiftieth Anniversary of Bobby Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" July 11, 2017

Run Through the Jungle: Ken Burns & Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War October 1, 2017

Deplorable: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri January 9, 2018

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Behind the Mirror: The Cinematic Uncanny of Michael Curtiz

A scene from Michael Curtiz's final film The Comancheros (1961).

“Hide in the mirror. No one will look for you there.”  – Ljupka Cvetnova

“Movies are magic.”  – Van Dyke Parks

When I was coming of age in the mid-60s in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills, there wasn’t much to do apart from reading books and watching television. Well, there were some other activities, but they were illegal back then. And one of the accidental benefits of primitive television in the days, before the advent of cable, TCM and Netflix, was the ironic fact that old movie studios used to provide the bulk of late-night programming in the form of classic films from the golden age. Especially late-late-late night television, for the likes of me, for whom there was no better way to come down from the excitement of attending all-day outdoor rock festivals with ten stellar bands.

As a result I caught magical glimpses of some of the great cinematic gems and enjoyed many of my favourite flicks in a film festival occurring only in my own mind. It turned out that many of my favourites were produced and directed by the same quietly titanic but toweringly talented individual. Back then I was also able to actually rent 16-mm versions, along with the projector, from our local library (another thing of the past) and even to order the films themselves by mail order from outfits called Blackhawk and Castle Films. I used to screen these at home for friends, often with my own substituted soundtracks, in the case of some grand silent masterpieces.

Where to begin to unravel the wildly multi-phrenic universe of one of the most gifted and underrated geniuses in film history: Michael Curtiz? Perhaps by asking a basic question: what might all the following drastically divergent and highly stylized visual entertainments have in common? Just one single but remarkable thing, which was the result of the commercial ascendancy of Hollywood after both the end of the First and the Second World Wars, when a flood of talented newcomers washed up on its sunny shores from a conflict-ravaged Europe.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Modernists: Naked and Uncle Vanya

Tara Franklin and James Barry in the Berkshire Theatre Group production of Naked. (Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware)

Among the virtues of the Berkshire Theatre Group is its dedication to reviving forgotten plays, both American and European. The BTG summer season included The Petrified Forest, and currently you can see an excellent mounting of Luigi Pirandello’s Naked. Italy’s famous modernist playwright, who invented a new style of theatre, theatre of identity (usually known simply as Pirandellian theatre), with Six Characters in Search of an Author in 1921, wrote Naked the following year. It was a remarkably prolific time for Pirandello, who turned out fourteen plays and a novel between 1921 and 1929; Naked was one of three plays he wrote in 1922 alone, including his second masterpiece, Henry IV. But I’d never read or seen it before. It’s rarely performed, and though I have six or eight Pirandello plays on my shelves, Naked isn’t among them. BTG is using the Nicholas Wright translation, which was produced at the Almeida in London nearly twenty years ago 2000 with Juliette Binoche and then in New York with Mira Sorvino.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Writing as a Sensual Act: In Conversation with Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is Advice for Future Corpses. (Photo: Robbie McClaran)

Sallie Tisdale, a literary libertine, is laid out on a divan in a downtown Toronto bar called Harmony Lounge, gorging on cakes and finger sandwiches. It's not that she's ravenous – she just had lunch – it's just that she is loath to deny herself pleasure, any pleasure – food, liquids, sex. Especially sex.

The author of Talk Dirty To Me, a book celebrating orgasms, pornography, fantasies, prostitution and other things that make the libido go bump in the night, became a cause célèbre immediately upon its publication in 1994. She has since authored nine non-fiction books, as well as dozens of articles for The New Yorker, The New Republic and Harper's magazines. Her latest title is Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying, published by Touchstone Books in June.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Neglected Gem: Breach (2007)

Ryan Phillippe and Chris Cooper in Breach (2007).

Like his previous film, the 2003 Shattered Glass, writer-director Billy Ray’s Breach is a true-life narrative that builds to the uncovering of a fraud. In Shattered Glass the fraud was Stephen Glass (played by Hayden Christensen), the wunderkind journalist for The New Republic, who, it turned out, had concocted most of his stories. In Breach it’s Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), a CIA operative whose 2001 arrest revealed him as the most egregious spy in American history. Both of these movies are extremely suspenseful, but not in conventional ways, because there’s no surprise about the identity of either of the two perpetrators. Once a Forbes writer (Steve Zahn) starts to unravel one of Glass’s articles, we know where the film is going, and the only revelation in Breach – which comes in the early middle of the movie – is that the reason the CIA sets the aspiring young agent, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Philippe), in Hanssen’s office and on his tail isn’t, as Eric is originally told, that his new boss is a pornographer but that he’s a traitor. What appears to draw Ray to both his subjects is astonishment that they could have been who they were and gotten away with what they did for so long. What creates the suspense in both pictures is the way they move from incredulousness to certainty: both ours and that of the other major male characters – Eric in Breach, Steve Glass’s editor Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) in Shattered Glass – who have the charge of bringing them down.