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.