Sunday, May 27, 2018

Seeking Redemption in Philip Kerr's Greeks Bearing Gifts

The late Philip Kerr, author of the Bernie Gunther series, including Greeks Bearing Gifts. (Photo: Phil Wilkinson)

"We live in a new era of international amnesia. Who we were and what we did? None of that matters now that we're on the side of truth, justice, and the American way of life." 
 Philip Kerr, Greeks Bearing Gifts
The sardonic voice above is that of Bernie Gunther, the protagonist of Greeks Bearing Gifts (Putnam/Wood, 2018) the thirteenth entry of the wise-cracking one-time Berlin detective and later private investigator by the late Philip Kerr who recently died of cancer at the age of sixty two. Kerr first introduced us to the cynical Gunther in his Berlin Noir trilogy: March Violets, (1989),The Pale Criminal (1990) and A German Requiem (1991), set respectively in 1936, 1938 (just before Kristallnacht), and 1947, in which he first explored the legacy of Nazism. From the beginning, Kerr was strongly influenced by the American hard-boiled novelists, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. His razor-sharp dialogue, astringent character profiles and his protagonist's first person narratives have been distinctive trademarks of the series.

Kerr turned to other fiction for fifteen years before returning with The One From the Other (2006) in which Gunther poses as a Nazi war criminal as he pursues former powerful Nazis to South America. In Field Gray (2010), Gunther is commandeered to join the SD, the intelligence arm of the SS, and serve on the Eastern Front, where he is horrified by the war's atrocities, captured by the Soviets and, as a POW, toils in an uranium mine where most of the captives did not survive. Yet Gunther prevails, returns to Berlin, and is dragooned into solving a crime for the ideological zealot Reinhard Heydrich, who holds a particular fascination for Kerr since this talented and exceedingly ruthless Nazi potentate first appeared in Pale Criminal (later re-surfacing in Prague Fatale (2011) and last year's Prussian Blue). In the latter novel, Gunther repressed his scruples to also serve the loathsome Mafia-like strongman, Martin Bormann.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Viva Flamenco: Esmeralda Enrique's De La Raíz

Left to right: Alison MacDonald, Virginia Castro, & Paloma Cortés in De La Raíz. (Photo: Jennifer Watkins)

Against a backdrop of vintage photographs of flamenco artists past, Toronto’s Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company celebrated the communal origins of its tempestuous tripartite art form in De La Raíz (From the Root), a thrilling spectacle of dance, music, and song which took place at Harbourfront Centre’s Fleck Dance Theatre, May 4-6. The award-winning dancer and choreographer Esmeralda Enrique used the occasion to stage a variety of Spanish dances that stepped back in time to tell (by showing) the story of flamenco’s rise from the cafés cantates of the 19th century to become a much-applauded theatrical presence on the world stage.

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Victors and the Vanquished: Thunder in the Mountains

(from left) Chief Joseph (Heinmot Tooyalakekt) and Oliver Otis Howard. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Few things are more depressing than the close examination of the history of North America. Not the ancient true history of the continent and its inhabitants over the last 20,000 years, but rather the imaginary history of the Europeans who came and invented a conceptual country superimposed over the multiple ones that already existed here since the Ice Age receded. That imaginary history of the immigrants who became both Americans and Canadians is fascinating because it was written by the victors in the blood of the vanquished. The poet Robert Duncan once remarked that blood is the ink in which human history is written, and never is that fact more clear than in a recent book by Daniel Sharfstein from WW Norton (Penguin/Random House) called Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War.

"T-under", as he translated his own name to one early visitor to his ancestral homeland, was only called Joseph because his father had been christened in November 1839 by a missionary who had recently come from New York to preach the gospel to the Nez Perce peoples. So his father was called Old Joseph and he was called Young Joseph, and eventually, just Joseph. Nez Perce, of course, was yet another misunderstood and misapplied assumption originally made by the French explorers who saw some natives making a sign for the tribe that resembled a pierced nose, so they presumptuously renamed the group The Pierced Noses. In reality, something neither the French nor any other soon to become “Americans” took much notice of when they saw the splendour of the continent spread before them, was that this culture was really and paradoxically called Nimi’ipuu, or the real people. Which people were real and which were not, what kind of human being qualified for equal treatment had of course been at the core of one of the central events in American history: the Civil War.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Neglected Gem: Metroland (1997)

Christian Bale and Emily Watson in Metroland. (Photo: IMDB)

Philip Savile, who died in 2016, was one of those journeymen British directors who nevertheless helmed some interesting, original projects in his career. Those included Shadey (1985), a quirky, off-kilter spy story; the poignant gay coming-of-age thriller The Fruit Machine (1988); and The Cloning of Joanna May (1989), a striking TV adaption of Fay Weldon’s inventive science-fiction novel. But perhaps his most impressive achievement was Metroland, his finely directed, acute adaptation of Julian Barnes’s novel about two best friends who come a cropper over their differing goals in life. Metroland is one of those modestly laid-out, underplayed dramas that too often go missing in action when it comes to filmgoers’ preferences. It’s also a necessary reminder that actor Christian Bale, who is the main focus of the movie, can play human-sized, recognizable protagonists rather than just over-the-top roles like his morose Batman in Christopher Nolan’s heavy-handed The Dark Knight trilogy or pull off gimmicks like losing all that weight for unduly heightened and singularly uninteresting "reality" films such as The Machinist and The Fighter.

Metroland is what the London suburb of Eastwood has been nicknamed by those who say they would never consider living there. It’s also the place where Chris (Bale) grew up and swore he’d never return to again. Now as an adult, circa 1977, he lives there with his wife Marion (Emily Watson) and their baby girl, and instead of having become a freelance photographer, as he dreamed of doing, he works in an advertising agency. Yet he doesn’t consciously question his life path or career decisions. But when his childhood buddy, Toni (Lee Ross), who's still carefree, pops up after a few years abroad, Chris is suddenly asking that age-old question: is that all there is?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Best of Youth: In the Fullness of Time

Alessio Boni as Matteo Carati in The Best of Youth. (Photo: IMDB)

Note: This review contains spoilers for The Best of Youth.

The Best of Youth (La meglio gioventù) was shot as a miniseries for Italian television, broadcast in 2003 and released in North America two years later in two parts, each a little over three hours in length. That’s the way to see it – if you can’t watch it all in a single sitting – because you want to be able to keep all the details in your head, as you can when you’ve got a novel going. And that’s what The Best of Youth is really like: a long novel that expands in your mind as you move through it and that wraps itself around you so that by the end you feel you know the characters the way you know the members of your own family and your closest friends. The material is an epic: the setting is Italy from 1966 to 2003, and the characters interact against the turbulent social and political landscape of one-third of a century. Yet the writers, Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, and the director, Marco Tullio Giordana, approach it with extraordinary intimacy. Considering the length of the picture and of the period it portrays, it has a surprisingly compact cast of characters, and though the narrative sometimes leaps ahead several years, and regularly stretches back and forth across the country (even occasionally stepping outside it), when you look for literary comparisons you’re more likely to come up with Chekhov than with Tolstoy.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Paul Schrader on Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

A scene from Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985).

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 1985, I sat down with film director Paul Schrader.

At the time of our conversation, Paul Schrader, the screenwriter behind Taxi Driver (1976) and writer/director of American Gigolo (1980), had just completed work on Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, his biopic of Japanese author, playwright and filmmaker Yukio Mishima, who had famously committed public seppuku in 1970. The film, which combines stories of Mishima's life with adaptations of some of his fictional works, was recently remastered and released by the Criterion Collection.

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with  Paul Schrader as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1985.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Iceman Cometh: Whose Play is This?

The cast of George C. Wolfe's The Iceman Cometh with Denzel Washington (seated, centre) as Hickey. (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Initially I’d planned on skipping George C. Wolfe’s Broadway revival of The Iceman Cometh because Denzel Washington had been cast as Hickey, Eugene O’Neill’s archetypal salesman, and in my view the stage tends to bring out Washington’s showboating side – even when he’s not playing the lead in a four-hour play that climaxes with a roughly half-hour-long confession scene. But Washington did perhaps the finest work of his career in Dan Gilroy’s movie Roman J. Israel, Esq. last fall, so eventually I broke down and opted to check out what he was up to as Hickey. And I must say that he works very hard in the role and doesn’t succumb to the usual temptations – the ones that made him exasperating when he played Brutus in Julius Caesar and in both the recent stage and screen versions of August Wilson’s Fences. The problem turns out to be one I hadn’t anticipated: he’s simply miscast. You have to believe that Hickey – who shows up at Harry Hope’s saloon for an annual blow-out with his hopeless alcoholic pals (in honor of Hope’s birthday) but this time with the mission of saving them from their pipe dreams – could sell you water rights to a desert. As Washington plays him he seems more like a derailed executive.