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.