Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mind Out of Time: Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010

For close to fifty years, Bob Dylan has transformed himself into any number of incongruent characters while keeping his fans both baffled and infuriated in the process. Critic Greil Marcus is one of those baffled and infuriated fans. But rather than worship at Dylan's altar, or burn him in effigy, Marcus has instead assembled a fascinating chronicle of reviews, stories, asides and rumours about Dylan that he has written over the last four decades. In Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010 (Public Affairs, 2010), Marcus has created a riveting and imaginative collection of criticism where he not only traces a popular artist's erratic career through a chronology of pieces, his book also becomes an engagement where sometimes the hunter gets captured by the game.

While Marcus shapes the arc of Dylan's work, as one would untangle a long, convoluted mystery, we also witness how Dylan has equally shaped him as a writer. "I was never interested in figuring out what the song's meant," Marcus writes in the introduction. "I was interested in figuring out my response to them, and other people's responses. I wanted to get closer to the music than I could by listening to it - I wanted to get inside of it, behind it, and writing about it, through it, inside of it, behind it was my way of doing that."

Although Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010 bears some resemblance to Marcus's last book When That Rough God Goes Riding (see Critics at Large review here), which took us through the equally uneven career of Van Morrison, that book shifted back and forth through time as if Marcus was randomly picking Morrison's albums from the shelf to see if they still added up. By contrast, Bob Dylan is a more linear tale. Yet the very nature of Dylan's art has a way of pulling the rug out from any assumptions concerning what happens next, so Marcus's book becomes (to invert the title of one Dylan album) a mind out of time.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Heavy Fog: Bryan Ferry's Olympia

Bryan Ferry
I have a lot of respect for Bryan Ferry, a vocalist who's always had a flare for the glamour of the music business. He is classier than David Bowie, for instance, yet not too pretentious. Roxy Music, a band I've been fond of since the late '70s, offered music that was glam-rock, but with atmospherics thrown in for good measure. Recognizing his role as the front man, Ferry chose the high road by presenting himself without any theatrics, in spite of the pink suit he once wore when I saw the band in 1978. The band may have appeared stiff on occasion, but Ferry would soften the group with a dedicated vocal and presentation that was at once romantic and hip. Inspired by the music of Stax artists such as Sam & Dave and Otis Reddin et al, Ferry loved the notion of presenting his music as big as possible, with female back-up singers and reeds usually played by Andy MacKay. 

Friday, October 29, 2010

Defying the Mainstream: Margarethe von Trotta’s Vision

Apparently a renaissance nun in medieval days of yore, Hildegard von Bingen displays a protofeminist impudence in writer-director Margarethe von Trotta’s Vision. The protagonist stands up to the good old boys club of mean priests who run the hermitage that houses her Benedictine order. For example, she insists that her promotion to magistra -- a sort of mother superior -- be subject to a democratic vote by the sisters. This being the early 12th century, however, the woman stops short of any pro-choice notions when a young novice is impregnated by one of those good old boys. The poor girl is expelled, even though returning to her family means shame and probable abuse.

As the backstory unfolds, we first see Hildegard at age eight -- destined to become a “little bride” of Christ, according to her parents -- delivered to the cloister in a lush German forest. After a few brief scenes depicting her youth, she’s suddenly 38 and played by frequent von Trotta muse Barbara Sukowa with typical grace. The audience is given few clues as to how the adult celibate has evolved into a remarkable Christian mystic, playwright, composer of liturgical songs, author and healer in a doom-and-gloom era when people regularly flagellated themselves. Somewhere beneath her devout Catholicism lurks an enlightened pagan who worships nature, but the ecclesiastical vows dominate.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Passages: Fathers and Sons

The bond between fathers and sons is always fraught with ups and downs. As his sons grow, the father tries to understand these independent creatures that live under his roof. The sons try to comprehend the 'old man's' archaic attitude. It is a centuries old struggle that continues to confound all father/son relationships. This was not dissimilar to my own relationship with my father, Ken Churchill. Last Sunday morning, he passed away at age 87 and it got me ruminating about my own bond with my Dad.

Over the years, I'm convinced he often times had no idea what to make of his artsy son. Here was a man who climbed hydro poles in the early part of his career, and continued working for Ontario Hydro, in a variety of positions, for almost 40 years. To his children – myself and my older siblings, Neil and Teresa – my Dad was a good father. Unlike most fathers in Parry Sound, he played with us and the rest of the neighbourhood kids (touch football, street hockey, etc.) He taught us to swim (it was a bit of struggle with me, his sink-like-a-rock youngest son), fish, drive a boat, drive a car, ride a bike, skate, ski (downhill and cross country – I sucked at downhill, but I was a pretty good X-country skier) and tie knots (he was in the Navy during WW2). Yet, when it came to the arts, my obsession, I think he was at a loss.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Soap: The Granddaddy of Continuity Comedy

In this age of DVD box sets, Youtube, and Hulu, television fans finally have full and immediate access to their favourite TV series, even ones that have been off the air for decades. As good as current television often is, sometimes the most satisfying viewing can come from settling in front of the TV, or computer, and immersing yourself in a classic series. Last week, frustrated by the lack of innovation in this fall season’s new sitcoms (and with all due respect to the continuing efforts of William Shatner), I pulled a much-loved series off the shelf and looked back at it, for the first time in decades. The series that caught my eye this time was Soap, which aired on ABC from 1977-81.

Soap was prime time television’s first serial comedy. The brainchild of the production team of Susan Harris, Paul Witt, and Tony Thomas (perhaps most famous for creating the immensely successful Golden Girls in the 80s), Soap was a parody of daytime soap operas which wove together the serialized and often sensationalized narrative of a soap with the conventions of a weekly situation comedy. The result was like nothing television had ever seen before, and quite frankly, since. I have always remembered the show fondly but, having watched it mainly as a kid, few but the most exaggerated details of it remained in my memory. What I recalled were the over-the-top characters, the zany situations, and, well to be honest, the ventriloquist dummy. What has surprised me in the past week has been the brilliant writing, the stunning comedic acting, and the depth and humanity of all of its characters. Some sitcoms don’t age well, while others become more impressive even decades after their original run. The best of them fall into two camps: groundbreaking ones which change the genre forever, thereby setting the stage for the success of many subsequent series, and other shows which are so startlingly original that they have produced no real successors. Norman Lear’s All in the Family (1971-79) falls firmly in the latter camp: though the show is largely credited for the sudden boom in ethnic sitcoms of the 70s, none ever approached the stark political frankness of the show that inspired them. Even today, almost 40 years later, any episode from the first season of All in the Family can leave a contemporary television viewer speechless in terms of the bluntness and honesty of its political content. I’m now convinced that Soap, despite its disarming lack of pretension and apparently narrow mandate, falls into that same category.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Songs We Refuse to Sing

Toronto Mayor-elect Rob Ford
While walking home from dinner with a friend last evening, I had the Toronto Civic Election on my mind. This year's Mayoralty race had been a bitterly fought battle between Rob Ford, a right-wing demagogue from the suburbs, and George Smitherman, a provincial Liberal Party politician, who entered the race to bring fiscal responsibility and social awareness to a metropolis where its suburban citizens were angry with our current Mayor David Miller. Many were enraged over high taxes, political entitlement, waste and an ill-functioning transit system. During his campaign, where he vowed to "stop the gravy train," Ford marshalled that fury into a frightening populist froth. He resembled the late comic Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live, acting out his character of the suburban Ralph Kramden, a big lug always in a state of continuous fulmination.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Hitch-22: An Iconoclast Looks Back On His Life (So Far)

Christopher Hitchens
Hitch-22: A Memoir (McClelland & Stewart), the entertaining and enlightening ruminations of controversial writer Christopher Hitchens, is quite a gentle book, even though the British-born, American writer has plenty to be angry about. I met him at a book signing in Toronto a few years ago and he came across as a kind man. But those folks, maybe the majority, who see Hitchens solely as the rabble-rousing provocateur, who’s as apt to tell his adversaries to fuck off as he is to spout bon mots, will glean from Hitch-22 that his combative public image and persona is more removed from the genuine article than they’d think.

It’s not that Hitchens doesn’t stand up for what he believes or goes against the grain. He certainly does. But Hitch-22 is largely a reflective, soft-spoken book wherein he (mostly) sets the record straight on his life, including his famous friendships and his adversarial politics. It’s the latter he's become best known for, particularly from the days right after 9/11, when he rejected the left’s moral equivalence between Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush and their justification for the terror attacks on America. He came out in support of the Iraq war and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, which led to Hitchens being ostracized by the anti-war left. While he's not necessarily embraced by the right, who are suspicious of his anti-religious diatribes and criticism of past American foreign policy, Hitchens is determined (as always) to stake out territory as an iconoclast who thinks solely for himself.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Chop the Tomahawk Chop: Atlanta Braves Fans' Cheer

I, for one, was so grateful that the Atlanta Braves were eliminated by the San Francisco Giants, in the Major League Baseball NLDS, because their fans' cheer, the Tomahawk Chop, is more irritating than any stadium-filled South African World Cup vuvuzela drone-fest. The first time I heard this grating noise was during the 1992 World Series between the Braves and Toronto Blue Jays. This chant is a parody of the supposed Native American war dance song from thousands of Hollywood western movies.

The Tomahawk Chop drone is topped off with the fans waving cartoon foam red tomahawks in a vaguely menacing 'I'm going to scalp you' motion. Whenever the Braves come to bat and have a chance to score, or whenever their pitcher is about to get the third out, the drone commences, taking over the entire soundscape and proceeding to crawl under my skin. Why the fans think this noise is actually helping their team is beyond me. Sure, under manager Bobby Cox, the Braves have been a perennial playoff team (something the Jays sure haven't been for 17 years), but they've only managed to win the World Series once (and that was in the post-strike-shortened 1995 season). Perhaps their fans' insistence in continuing this ridiculous drone is a factor.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Jazz of La Mancha: Kenny Wheeler's Windmill Tilter: The Story of Don Quixote

Windmill Tilter: The Story of Don Quixote (BGO Records), originally released in 1969, is a welcome re-issue. It was the first record by Canadian composer and jazz musician, Kenny Wheeler, who was born in Toronto in 1930. Wheeler was raised however in St. Catherines, Ontario, a small city in the Niagara Region of the province. His father Wilf, played trombone in dance bands that traveled around the country, but he eventually settled in Montreal. Due to his father’s nomadic occupation, Kenny studied music and learned to play trumpet at an early age, but his most significant influences were composers, John Weinzweig and Richard Rodney Bennett.

Wheeler actually moved to London, England in 1952 to study with Bennett. Working in England, proved beneficial to his career, which was significant because most jazz musicians went to New York to play be-bop. Wheeler continued to play in British dance bands earning him a chair in the trumpet section of the John Dankworth Orchestra. Dankworth, who later became the leader in mainstream jazz out of England, inspired Wheeler to compose for his orchestra. The result was Windmill Tilter: The Story of Don Quixote, a suite written for large orchestra and small group. After its first release on the Fontana label, it was forgotten for many years, until now.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Promise Broken & Promise Kept: The Promise & Trigger

When Bruce Springsteen’s fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, was released in the late spring of 1978, it seemed to make everything else around it seem insignificant. “This isn’t just a great record,” The Who’s Pete Townshend exclaimed upon first listening to it. “It’s a fucking triumph.” Darkness not only arrived after a three-year period of contractual war with his former manager Mike Appel, one that forced the artist into a self-imposed hermitage, it also came on the heels of his worldwide hit album, Born to Run (1975). The consequences of furious expectations and the frustrations of a musician trying to maintain his integrity led to an album that was not only a powerful rock & roll record but also a stunning work of self-revelation.

Rather than simply provide a random collection of songs, Springsteen and his E Street Band crafted a work that took the early aspirations of rock & roll (which they celebrated on Born to Run) and uncovered the possible consequences of acting on those aspirations. As a result, songs like “Racing in the Streets,” which took Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ infectiously hopeful call of “Dancing in the Streets” and The Beach Boys’ pining reassurances of “Don’t Worry, Baby,” and revealed the grim realism beneath the hope. Sometimes a memorable and exciting rock hook, like the guitar intro from The Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul,” would be used to slice the voyeuristic lust of “Candy’s Room” in half. In songs like “Badlands,” “The Promised Land” and “Prove it all Night,” Springsteen stripped pop drama down to the basic task of one man’s desire to speak of only what feels true to him; to bring adolescent dreams into adult realities.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Off The Shelf: Edward Yang’s Sublime Yi Yi

It’s a sad irony that Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang died of prostate cancer, at the young age of 59, just when his final film, Yi Yi, was garnering him the best reviews of his career, not to mention his first American distribution deal and the Best Director award at the 2000 Cannes film festival. The death of Yang is really one of the most devastating losses to hit the film world, as there’s no question that he would have gone on to make many more significant features. Unfortunately, curious movie buffs won’t be able to find any of Yang’s other six films on DVD in North America, which is a real shame as his contemporary urban dramas Taipei Story (1985) and The Terrorizers (1986) are first-rate and his four hour opus A Brighter Summer Day (1991), a meticulous period piece that recreated a scandalous murder from his youth, is magnificent. But at least, Yang’s last feature is available for their enjoyment and illumination.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dream Pop: "Be My Baby" & "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

The other morning while having breakfast, I put my Mp3 player on shuffle because I always enjoy the element of surprise. After all, you never know what to expect from song to song. As I was preparing my coffee and cereal, I was first treated to an excerpt from Anton Webern's beautifully spacious Symphony op. 21, which was followed by The Channels' elegiac 1956 doo-wop song, "The Closer You Are," and then the LA punk band, X, with their propulsive 1982 track "Blue Spark." While it's always enjoyable to create a virtual time machine out of music, where you can be dropped any place in time, these three tracks didn't pull me out of the moment of making my breakfast. They instead added something new to the daily routine, an incongruent and appealing soundtrack which roused me from slumber. Once the brittle harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenka stopped their song cold, though, the next track to follow was The Ronettes' "Be My Baby." At which point, I forgot what I was doing and breakfast went into suspended animation for a little over two minutes.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Book: Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris

Though I’m a great lover of French cinema, I must confess that I’ve never been to Paris. It’s a trip I still intend to take some day. Having just finished reading Graham Robb’s fascinating Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris (W.W. Norton and Company), he's helped to firmly cement that desire. In Parisians, Robb, an Oxford-based Englishman who writes on all things French (Balzac: A Biography, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War), has crafted a gripping, rich and provocative history of the city and its inhabitants. It begins around the time of the French Revolution in 1789, right up to the present reign of President Nicholas Sarkozy and the part he played in the city’s recent race riots. Robb’s does this in 20 chapters, roughly corresponding to 20 different arrondissements (districts) of the city. In the process, he describes the intricacies of the City of Light in a way that has a novelistic veneer to it. In short, it’s a history that almost feels like a fiction, which incidentally is a good thing.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Groovy Hooks: Small Sins' Pot Calls Kettle Black

I’m a sucker for musical hooks be they guitar licks, trippy bass lines, or vocal gymnastics. In most music I listen to today, no matter what genre, just to hear one of these hooks would be enough for me to consider a whole album. But Small Sins' Pot Calls Kettle Black, on the Indie label Arts&Crafts, has all three going for it making it one of the freshest pop records of the year. No drudgery, or moody revelations typical of a lot of independent bands out of Canada, Small Sins is about pop music in its purest form: bright, positive, filled with appealing grooves (and all under 4 minutes).

Small Sins is led by Thomas D’Arcy, the bass player and principal songwriter for this group from Toronto. His work has been called “wistful chamber pop … [as if] Jack White had a crush on Kraftwerk.” This is the third album from the band and it’s got everything you want from a so-called chamber pop band: up tempo R&B dance tunes and delicate synth-pop ballads with a lot of charm.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Promises That Can And Can't Be Kept: Grant Goodbrand's Therafields

Grant Goodbrand's Therafields: The Rise and Fall of Lea Hindley-Smith’s Psychoanalytic Commune (ECW Press, 2010), the story of one of the largest and influential therapeutic communes during the sixties and seventies, is an absorbing, insightful and contemplative study of the failure of good intentions. Therafields, an experimental psychotherapeutic collective was formed by British-born lay therapist, Lea Hindley-Smith, in the mid-sixties. The commune was part of that period’s utopian spirit to create an alternate society which, by the end of the '70s, came apart in division, death and suicide. “The experiment had ended in tragedies and bitter animosity, traumatically turning friend against friend in ruptures that never healed,” Goodbrand writes. Therafields might have been sparked by an egalitarian impulse, but it was one that was undone by false expectations, fantasies, idolatry and promises that couldn’t be kept. In Therafields, though, Grant Goodbrand keeps his own promise by trying to heal the breach in that history.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Triggered Times: Remembering "Pearl"

An October 4 New York Times story revealed that Janis Joplin – gone at that point for exactly 40 years – is on the verge of a comeback. Although she has remained a music icon since overdosing on heroin in the fall of 1970, her family never groomed the singer’s legacy the way relatives of other rock stars have. But now a “professional estate manager,” who already has done wonders for the equally deceased Jim Morrison, Peter Tosh and Gram Parsons, intends to relaunch her image. There’ll be new books, vinyl collector editions of her albums, a line of Janis-like clothing and jewelry called Made for Pearl (her nickname and the title of her posthumous record). Plus, he’s planning a feature-length documentary that will include rarely seen footage shot by her road manager John Byrne Cooke.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Boxed In: Rodrigo Cortés’s Buried

In Rodrigo Cortés’s modest thriller Buried, Ryan Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a civilian truck driver in Iraq who is hijacked and buried alive. The drama takes place entirely within the confines of his wooden coffin. When I first heard about the picture last summer, my instincts told me that while this formal exercise in claustrophobia would likely be effective (after all, who isn’t afraid of being buried alive?), where could it possibly go dramatically? But then I started reading all the critical praise it received when it premiered at TIFF in September. So I decided to check it out when it opened.

I should have trusted my first instincts.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Life After Dr. Horrible: A Rough Guide to Original Web Programming

The story goes like this: it was late December 2007 in Hollywood, and Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) was walking the picket line during the 100-day WGA writers’ strike when he began to think about how he could bypass the studios and networks altogether and self-produce a TV show which could be delivered directly to his fans. Walking the line with him was Felicia Day, an actor/writer who Joss knew from the 7th season of Buffy. At the time she was halfway through the first season of her own web series, The Guild, which had become particularly successful. Inspired by her experience, Joss’ little idea grew more and more ambitious. And thus the world’s first Internet musical, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, was born.

Together with his younger brothers, screenwriters Zack (now writing Rubicon) and Jed, and Jed’s then-fiancée (and now wife) Maurissa Tancharoen, the musical and the acting talents of Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle), Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory), and Felicia Day herself, Whedon filmed Dr. Horrible in just four days, with its cast and many of its crew working for free. With no marketing budget to speak of, originally posted online (in three, 14-minute acts) for free download and subsequently going on sale on iTunes and as a DVD, Dr. Horrible was a critical and commercial success by any standard. For media gurus, the summer of 2008 was indeed the season of Dr. Horrible. That fall, despite never having been broadcast on any network, it would go on to win an Emmy, and the “Direct-to-Web Supervillain Musical” was even named #15 in Time Magazine’s ‘Top 50 Inventions of 2008’. Television, it seemed, would never be the same. Here’s how the story was being told: before Dr. Horrible, the major studios and networks could only see the Internet either as a vast delivery mechanism for their large and growing back catalogue of previously produced content or for web tie-ins for established series. The idea of studios producing new, original content for the web simply wasn’t on the table—more than enough money could be made by offering older and recent shows on sites like Hulu, Youtube, and on network websites. (In fact, this lucrative money stream—the majority of which never made its way back to these shows’ writers and creators—was one of the main sticking points leading to WGA strike in 2007.) But now, with Dr. Horrible leading the way, the Internet was suddenly revealed to be a wide-open landscape rich in creative and commercial potential.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Off The Shelf: The Cup (1999)

The Cup, which I first saw at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1999, has a deceptively simple plot. Based on a true story, the film focuses on a couple of teenaged monks training at a monastery in India who become completely obsessed with the 1998 World Cup soccer tournament. While desperately trying to hatch plots to rent a TV and a satellite dish, they also have to convince the monastery abbot to give them permission to watch the final match. Drawing much of his influence from Iranian cinema, writer and director Khyentse Norbu creates an unassuming parable where within it hides an assortment of rich and provocative ideas.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Melancholy Prequel: Caprica

During the production of the last season of Battlestar: Galatica (2002-2009), they announced that a new series, a prequel, called Caprica, set 58 years before the Cylon rebellion depicted in BS:G, would be broadcast. Generally, I've always hated prequels because they lack surprise, innovation or imagination. Each effort comes across like a huge cash grab (hello, George Lucas). And in 98% of cases, that's all they are (hi there, George). Their worst crime is that they tend to be pretty boring because the prequel usually tells us things that – if we've been paying attention to the original TV show or movie – have already been revealed. So, though I loved the reconfigured BS:G, I must admit I had some reluctance about watching Caprica for the reasons stated above. The first eight episodes of Season One ran last year; the next nine just started broadcast on Space last Tuesday.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Vintage: Clapton

Now at the age of 65, Eric Clapton has nothing left to prove as a singer, guitarist and icon of rock music. So it may come as a surprise to learn that he's finally let go of all the pressure from the so-called rock press and die-hard "Layla" fans to live up to his icon status. This record, simply entitled Clapton, is more of a vintage work: balanced, laid-back and sentimental. Surrounded by musical friends such as J.J. Cale, Jim Keltner, Willie Weeks and producer Doyle Bramhall II, what you'll find here is a musical mix of blues, gospel and jazz standards (that's right, Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is The Ocean" and "Autumn Leaves" make the cut). Clapton also went to New Orleans and added Wynton Marsalis, Trombone Shorty and Allen Toussaint to the band for a swinging version of "My Very Good Friend The Milkman" and "When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful." These tracks stand out on the album because Clapton, the great imitator in some people’s minds, has reverently captured the flavours and street feel of New Orleans.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Playing War: The Wooden Gun (1979)

Part coming of age drama, part political allegory, and part social commentary, Ilan Moshenson’s The Wooden Gun (Roveh Huliot in Hebrew) is a small gem. Set in Tel Aviv in 1950, it tells the story of a juvenile gang war between two small groups of adolescent boys. Against the backdrop of Israel’s first years, the story it tells is far vaster and much richer than it may first appear. With a small budget and primarily adolescent casts, this 1979 Israeli feature also dramatizes the striking differences between these young first-generation Israelis and their European-born parents, most of whom are still living in the shadow of the Holocaust. Raised on the glories of war, soldiers’ honour, and nationalism, the boys have little sympathy for or understanding of the world that their families left behind in coming to the newly-created State of Israel. Between the distracted silence of parents and the unthinking (and often confusing) idealism of educators, the children don’t appreciate the dangers of real violence. The boys' world is no larger than the battlefields of the schoolyards and streets of their small neighbourhood, and the impotent efforts of their parents and teachers to contain their escalating violent activities only serve to isolate the boys all the more from the older generation. An early scene in the film offers a perfect snapshot of this confusion of values: their teacher, a war veteran himself, pauses to briefly admonish Yoni for his continued fighting with his peers, then turns without a beat and leads the rest of the students on a charge up the hill of a former battlefield, rat-tat-tatting imaginary machine guns at an invisible enemy.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Shining On: Celebrating John Lennon's 70th Birthday

It was the most perfectly hallucinogenic day of my life. I had been more stoned on previous occasions – it was the 1960s, after all – thanks to a variety of experiments with consciousness. In early April of 1969, however, magic mushrooms and a certain song transformed my world while tripping in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “And we all shine on/ like the moon and the stars and the sun...,” John Lennon was singing in the headphones covering my ears. I had ingested two little brown, wrinkled pieces of fungus that rendered the music extraordinary. The lyrics were speaking to me; I suspected they might contain the most important message of the 20th century: “Instant karma’s gonna get you/ Gonna knock you off your feet/ Better recognize your brother/ In everyone you meet...” Although I easily could have continued listening to Lennon again and again, my three similarly wasted friends persuaded me to accompany them on a walk. Outside, everything looked even more beautiful than could reasonably be expected. I smiled at every stranger we passed and they all appeared to smile back.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Empathy: Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein's Howl

When Allen Ginsberg wrote his epic poem “Howl” in 1955, after being encouraged by the anarchist scribe Kenneth Roxworth to free his voice, it was an attempt to recreate the spontaneous prose that his friend and novelist Jack Kerouac accomplished in On the Road (1951). “I thought I wouldn’t write a poem but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and scribble magic lines from my real mind – sum up my life – something I wouldn’t be able to show anybody, writ for my own soul’s ear and a few other golden ears,” Ginsberg once said about his famous ode.

The new film, Howl, by Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet) and Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk), sets out to get inside those “magic lines” to illuminate how Ginsberg’s poem, with it’s free-form jazz rhythms, worked its hoodoo on an awakening audience of American bohemians seeking cosmic freedom in the mid-fifties. Howl, which stars James Franco as Ginsberg, is a film of bottomless empathy for its subject. The movie examines how Ginsberg’s “Howl” provided a framework for the acceptance of his homosexuality, as well as a vehicle for coming to terms with his mother’s death from mental illness. (The poem itself was written for Carl Solomon whom he met in a mental institution.) Yet “Howl” would also go on to ignite an obscenity trial in 1957 once San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights Books, published the work in 1956 as part of a collection titled Howl and Other Poems. While celebrating the quest for spiritual freedom in Ginsberg’s work, Friedman and Epstein successfully get at the irreverent roots of Ginsberg’s rebellion and why “Howl” became such a passionately impish and angry sonnet.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

From Jackal To Weasel: The Legend of Carlos

Sure, Carlos chronicles the rise and fall of an extremist, but the brilliant Olivier Assayas drama also is very much about the wages of personal decline. Shot as a three-part French television miniseries, the picture profiles a Venezuelan named Ilich Ramirez Sanchez who reinvented himself as the dreaded Carlos. (It was a British newspaper that later added “the Jackal” to his nom de guerre.) Periodic archival footage serves as a reminder that this account is more or less how it all went down; additional truth emerges from magnificent writing, photography, editing and acting.

By the time he appears on screen at age 23, in the early 1970s, the arrogant idealist (portrayed by Edgar Ramirez) has honed the Marxist views inherited from his parents and furthered by studies in world domination at a Moscow university. There’s also been some training in Jordan as a fighter for the anti-Zionist cause. While many of his American contemporaries are demonstrating against the Vietnam War, Carlos chooses a path far more insidious than that of the Weather Underground. “I don’t believe in protests,” he says at one point. “Words get us nowhere … Behind every bullet we fire, there will be an idea.”

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Eclectic and Provocative World of Olivier Assayas

Of all the many talented filmmakers working in France today, none is as eclectic and adventurous as Olivier Assayas. From his 1986 debut film, the psychologically daring Désordre / Disorder) (1986), wherein a group of musicians accidentally commit a murder and then try to cope with the stark reality of what they’ve done, to his superb ‘romance’ about young star crossed lovers,  1994’s L’eau froide / Cold Water, Assayas quickly staked out a terrain where you could be sure of only one thing: he would not make the same movie twice. His oeuvre includes genre exercises that pay tribute to Hong Kong and French cinema (1996’s inventive Irma Vep), descents into horror (2002’s disturbing Demonlover), provocative intellectual dramas (1998’s Fin août, début septembre / Late August, Early September), emotional elegies (2008’s L'heure d'été / Summer Hours), a story about a junkie trying to kick her habit (2004’s gritty Clean) and even a lush costume epic (2000’s Les destinées sentimentales). In his career, Assayas has displayed an unique breadth and range of filmmaking styles and genres, with possibly only Briton Michael Winterbottom (Code 46, Genoa, The Road Trip) rivaling him in that department.

That decision never to repeat himself is a deliberate one, he said, during a wide-ranging interview in Toronto to promote his latest film, Carlos, the true story of the infamous terrorist known in the West as Carlos the Jackal.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Two Excerpts: David Churchill’s Novel, The Empire of Death

In July 2008, I’d been working on an idea for a novel set in Jazz-era New York City. The research was intense and the project was daunting. Since it was to be my first novel, I gradually came to see that I wasn’t ready for something that complex. I hadn’t yet set the idea completely aside when I settled onto my couch one very rainy Sunday to watch a little TV. I turned on the History Channel and watched a show called Cities of the Underworld. This American documentary series, hosted in 2008 by Eric Geller, examined the underground realms of cities around the world. On this afternoon, it was about the 280 kilometres of abandon limestone quarries beneath the city of Paris. By the late 1700s, these tunnels were collapsing, toppling city buildings into the underground. At the same time, the city’s cemeteries were full to bursting. During the rainy season, cadavers would get washed out of the cemeteries and end up in people’s basements. 

The government decided to do two things: one, send men into the underground to build support pillars to prevent further collapse; and two, move the six million skeletal remains from the city’s cemetery into the underground. Henceforth, this world would be called the catacombs. Only one 1800-metre portion of the catacombs contains the skeletal remains. It is now one of Paris’ oddest tourist attractions. The bones are all piled up neatly. Most of the bones are held in place by a wall made up of tibias, femurs and skulls. Every few years, the walls start to collapse. The exhibit is closed for several months as workers go in and rebuild these bone walls to prevent further collapse. As I watched this, I had a ‘what if’ moment. My 'what if' moment became the starting point for my novel, The Empire of Death. My protagonist, Martin Maxwell, is one of those people who, every three or four years, is brought in to rebuild those walls in the catacombs.. 

The first excerpt is from part way into Chapter One. Martin Maxwell is out on the town with his friend, Calandra Smith. He is about to return to Toronto after working in the catacombs for the previous five months. Unfortunately, due to the intensity of the work, this was his only chance to get together with the Paris-based Calandra. In a mostly deserted restaurant, La Marlotte, Martin and Calandra observe a couple coming in and, over the course of an hour, breaking up. The woman abruptly departs, leaving the man alone at his table:

Monday, October 4, 2010

Whatever LoLa Wants: The New Face Of Law & Order

The familiar cha-chung sound is there to accompany the inter-titles that separate scenes, but Law & Order: Los Angeles, which premiered September 29 on NBC, seems to be a breed apart in the pantheon of creator Dick Wolf. This certainly is not a carbon copy of the groundbreaking original show -- just plain Law & Order -- now gone after 20 years on the same network. For one thing, composer Mike Post’s distinctive theme music over the opening credits is missing. Ditto for the ubiquitous verbal introduction. And the look of LoLa, as it has been dubbed, is almost shocking. Longtime fans of the Mother Ship, which is what everyone calls the now-defunct drama, and of the two New York City spin-offs, Special Victims Unit and Criminal Intent, may need to wear shades. Tinseltown is a place of bright sunlight and spacious homes in fashionable hues unknown to the gritty five boroughs, where cramped apartments, dark alleyways, shadowy streets, vacant buildings and menacing parks have been a mainstay of all three prime time cops-and-courts series. Unlike the dingy digs in those L&Os, the LA squad room is disconcertingly sleek and modern.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Unfulfilled Potential: Remembering Arthur Penn and Tony Curtis

Director Arthur Penn and actor Tony Curtis passed away one day apart last week: September 28 and 29. Both talents, it can be argued, were never truly fulfilled. At the very least, they never achieved their possible greatness. Considering Curtis was acting in films and TV from 1949 until 2008 (and was rumoured to be up for another role when he died), his reputation rests on very few projects: The Sweet Smell of Success, (1957), The Defiant Ones (1958), The Vikings (1958), Some Like It Hot (1959), Spartacus (1960) and maybe The Boston Strangler (1968). Except for The Defiant Ones and Some Like It Hot, the pictures he's remembered for are ones where he was not the lead. Was he ever a great actor? Probably not, but when he was good, he could be very good. Yet, due mostly to his own choices in life (he was more interested in jumping the bones of, supposedly, 1000 women and living the Hollywood life, than in really practicing his craft), Curtis never thrived as perhaps he should have.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Hasta La Vista, Gringos: Oliver Stone Goes South

Talk about verisimilitude! Oliver Stone’s first crack at capitalism run amok was Wall Street, in 1987. That hit film came out one year after Salvador, his feverish drama about a boozy photojournalist covering war-torn Central America. This month, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (read Kevin Courrier's review here), a sequel that’s also raking in big bucks at the box office, is hot on the heels of his 2009 examination of a region closer to the Equator than El Salvador: Latin America. South of the Border, a documentary, travels with him through six countries as he interviews democratically elected leaders whose left-leaning perspectives probably alarm the U.S. government.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A Comedy of Malice: David Fincher's The Social Network

David Fincher’s new movie, The Social Network, gives off an exhilarating buzz. With a tip-top script by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Charlie Wilson’s War) that goes snap, crackle and pop, the picture has some of the razor-sharp timing of classic screwball comedy. But you’ll never make the mistake of confusing this movie for a romance. The Social Network – which is the story of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) the billionaire founder of Facebook, the on-line social network that currently boasts over 500 million active users – is a movie about mercenary genius nerds. While the movie doesn’t celebrate their unethical guile, it does pretty far into the scheming brains of social outsiders who find devious ways to get on the inside. Just imagine Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) for the computer age.

Fincher and Sorkin aren’t out to make any claims about the value of Facebook; they’re more interested in the motivations of those who could have imagined it. Basing the story loosely on author Ben Mezrrich’s The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal (2009), the biggest irony Fincher and Sorkin present is how Zuckerberg, who had but one friend – his Facebook business partner, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) – and made many enemies (too numerous to count), could possibly set up such a social phenomenon. The irony is so rich and woven into the texture of the story that Fincher and Sorkin wisely let it simmer.