Saturday, November 13, 2010

Classy Affair: Charlie Haden's Quartet West's Sophisticated Ladies

In 1992, Charlie Haden's Quartet West released a remarkable jazz album. It was called Haunted Heart and it featured the bass player’s quartet with Ernie Watts on tenor sax, Alan Broadbent on piano and Larance Marable on drums. The album was a soundtrack to Los Angeles, without the pictures, although it portrayed L.A. in a cinematic way. The album opens with the Warner Brothers fanfare composed by Max Steiner and segues into a composition called "Hello My Lovely" played by the quartet. Even better was the use of period recordings from the 1940s. Songs by Jo Stafford, Jeri Southern and Billie Holiday were brilliantly woven into the texture and tone creating a moving picture in the mind.

Two years later, Quartet West released a follow-up album called Always Say Goodbye featuring a thematic presentation based on The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. This time the quartet was featured playing period recordings by sax great, Coleman Hawkins, Jo Stafford, Chet Baker and the Duke Ellington Orchestra featuring Ray Nance on violin. A musical excerpt from the Warner Brothers movie, The Big Sleep, including dialogue between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, concluded the album. This album also created an interesting concept rarely tried in jazz: the mash up.

This new release, Sophisticated Ladies, further re-interprets the past, but this time featuring the contemporary voices of Melody Gardot, Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, Renee Fleming and Ruth Cameron, Haden's wife. Of course, with this much talent crowding the room, the results are uneven. But it's still remarkable what some singers, if they're prepared, can bring to a song. Therefore, the successful tracks on Sophisticated Ladies are by the better singers. Namely, Wilson, Krall and Fleming. The other three fail to dazzle my ears and perhaps it's because the material isn't suitable to the vocalist. For instance, Norah Jones does her best with "Ill Wind," one of the best torch ballads in the American Songbook, but I'm not convinced the wind is blowing her "no good." As for Melody Gardot, on "If I'm Lucky," a rarely recorded song by Edgar De Lange, she seems to be getting bad vocal coaching. Her vibrato styling on this song spoils the purity of the melody.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #2: David Cronenberg (1983)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM 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 artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. 

With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of On the Arts.
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

The horror film genre in the eighties had grown significantly more popular because horror writers, like Stephen King, were pumping out books that were already infused with a film sensibility. But the success of thillers like Friday the 13th and The Nightmare on Elm Street also brought on a deluge of dread-inducing suspense pictures that were essentially about people bent on, what my friend Alex Patterson once called, head-pulling rampages. Although these films and their imitators were often lauded for their subversiveness, they were actually quite morally conservative, fitting snuggly into the Reagan era. After all, in those movies, why was it the sexually active teenagers who always got snuffed out and it was the virgin who became the hero that vanquished the killer? Many of these horror movies did more to re-enforce our fears and prejudices than help us come to terms with transgression. 

David Cronenberg.
What true horror became in the eighties and what it began to mean in artistic terms was part of a discussion I had with one of its practitioners, David Cronenberg (Shivers, Rabid, The Brood), in 1983. As a Canadian director who began his career in the seventies making low-budget thrillers, Cronenberg was just about to release his first big-budget commercial movie, The Dead Zone, which was adapted from a best-selling Stephen King novel. He was also about to be honoured at the Festival of Festivals (the original name of the Toronto International Film Festival) and had programed a series on science-fiction films for that year's event. We began the interview talking about the changing face of horror right at that moment when, in retrospect, he was beginning to move beyond the genre.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remembrance: Canadian Military Disasters on Film and TV

Every Remembrance Day, between 1990 and 2007, I used to ask men of a certain age (usually in their 70s to 80s) if they had served in World War II. I wasn't buttonholing old men on the street, they were either those selling poppies or, since I worked in retail during the first ten years of that time period, some of my regular customers. Most of them told me that they had. I always said “thank you for what you did for all of us who've come since.” Some smiled and said they were glad to have done it. Others acknowledged my response and said nothing else. One year, however, a dear customer of mine, who I will call Mr. Clark, came into the store. I asked him that question and when he said he had, I thanked him. He looked at me and said, “I'm not proud, David, of what I did in the war.” Before I could stop myself, I asked him why and he answered, “I was a bombardier in the war. On more than one occasion I knew that our targets were strictly civilian. I knew we were deliberately bombing innocent women and children. And on more than one occasion, I managed to convince my pilot to divert over rail yards or factory areas, and not continue targeting the innocent. If our CO had ever got wind of it, I would have been court martialled.” Court martialling in World War II meant prison and disgrace.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Well Not Dry: Philip Kerr's Field Grey

If this were (and I'm not saying it is) the last book in Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther books, I would still be a very satisfied reader. It's not that Field Grey is the best of the now-seven novels, but there's a mournful, elegiac quality to this book that suggests a fascinating road perhaps leading to an end. The majority of the book is set in Germany in 1954 as Gunther tells stories to interrogators. This one begins shortly after the close of the last novel, If The Dead Rise Not (2009 – reviewed by me here). Gunther is not-so reluctantly coerced into helping a pretty, young female Castro rebel escape from Cuba to Haiti (Gunther, in the best noir tradition, has always been a sucker for a pretty face). During the journey across the Caribbean, Bernie's boat is captured by the American Coast Guard. Through slightly contrived circumstances, Bernie is identified, arrested and imprisoned first in New York, then Germany. He is suspected of war crimes.

Gunther has always been a fascinating character. A detective before and during the Nazi years in Berlin, he is no Nazi (he despises them – well, actually, Bernie hates pretty much everybody: Americans, British, Russians/Communists and the French, particularly the French), but he is a survivalist, so he didn't always stand up to Nazis. The times he didn't step up, he would have certainly been killed if he had. Sometimes he witnessed and even participated in some pretty bad things, but his moral code of trying to do the right thing as much as possible repeatedly saved both his skin and his soul. Bernie did some of the things he is accused of (shooting unarmed partisans in Eastern Europe during the war), but only after they had slaughtered many innocents themselves.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Walking Dead: Zombies Matter Here

Vampires might get all the good press, but the fact is that zombies have also been enjoying a renaissance of late. There have never been so many quality zombie films: beginning with the phenomenal success of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later in 2003, Edgar Wright’s riotous Shaun of the Dead in 2004, the triumphant return of zombie-auteur George Romero with Land of the Dead in 2005, and Andrew Currie’s biting satire Fido in 2006. In the book stores, we’ve got Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) and World War Z (2006). (The film adaptation of the latter is now in pre-production, with Brad Pitt in the lead role.) But there has always been one realm the zombies have failed to successfully (de)populate: the small screen. With the Halloween premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead, the zombies have finally come to our living rooms.

Last year, AMC retired its original motto “TV for Movie People” and introduced its current slogan, “Story Matters Here.” In the 90-minute pilot of The Walking Dead, both principles are in full effect. Developed for television by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), and adapted from Robert Kirkman’s long-running black-and-white comic series of the same name, The Walking Dead is set in the weeks after a zombie apocalypse decimates the human population. While it is unclear how much the show will be following the plot of the comic series (now in its seventh year), its writer Robert Kirkland is on-board as a writer for this first season. Darabont himself wrote and directed the first episode, and it is a masterpiece of restrained storytelling. True to the comic book source material, Darabont lets the visuals tell the story. The early scenes are given hardly any incidental music, and long stretches of the first episode pass without a word of dialogue. This slow, cinematic build-up—as eerie as it is suspenseful—lets the landscape reveal itself, both to the viewer and to our lead character, on its own terms. Check your zombie expectations at the door: there are no cheap scares, no cartoonish violence, and no pounding music. The Walking Dead is a show about character and story: this is a story about the living, not the dead.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Lasting Impressions: Interview with author Ross King (Defiant Spirits)

When we generally think of The Group of Seven, we envision a group of naturalist landscape artists enraptured and captivated by the Canadian shield. Rarely does the idea ever cross our mind that these artists, who included Tom Thomson (who died in 1917 before the Group formally began in 1920), A.Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Franklin Carmichael, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and Frederick Varley, were not solely defined by the Canadian wilderness.

In his book, Defiant Spirits (Douglas & McIntyre, 2010), author and art historian Ross King does argue that that far from being woodsy ruralists the Group was more aethestically shaped by the explosion of modernist Impressionism in Europe, which included the work of C├ęzanne and Van Gogh. Furthermore, while the notion of being defiant and rebellious is seldom associated with being Canadian, Defiant Spirits explores how the dynamic paintings of the Group revealed a group of divergent painters who flaunted convention and were driven to interpret the rugged landscape of their country.

Besides writing Defiant Spirits, Ross King, who won the Governor-General's Award for The Judgment of Paris, a study of French Impressionism, also curated a show of the Group of Seven at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (which runs until January 30, 2011) in Kleinberg, Ontario. The purpose of the exhibition, as with his book, is to dig deeper into the idealized mythology of their work and explore instead the eclectic blend of styles that made them a part of the international avant-garde in the early 20th Century. We began our conversation at the Douglas & McIntyre office in Toronto by having Ross King first define the myth of the Group of Seven and why it developed.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Of Sound Mind: Tackling In Treatment

If my head ever needs shrinking, I’d know which guy to trust. He’s Irish, lives and practices in the same Brooklyn brownstone, has a gift for listening, does not hesitate to provide insights and has been through enough misery himself to understand the suffering of others. Unfortunately, this psychoanalyst is merely a fictitious character named Paul Weston on In Treatment, an HBO series now in its third season. I have to admit I’m addicted.

The minimalist drama is derived from BeTipul, a popular show broadcast in Israel for just two years. The American version’s 2008 and 2009 episodes essentially were just translations from the Hebrew scripts into English. For 2010, original material is required. So far, the process has been seamless, thanks to writers such as Rodrigo Garcia, son of Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and author Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake got her a 2003 Pulitzer Prize). Actor Mark Wahlberg is an executive producer. The fine casts have included Hope Davis, John Mahoney, Blair Underwood, Laila Robbins, Josh Charles, Alison Pill and Embeth Davidtz. In addition, directors such as Melanie Mayron (Melissa on thirtysomething), Chris Misiano (Law & Order), Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) and Paris Barclay (NYPD Blue) contribute to the classy credentials that set In Treatment apart from so much television trash.