Saturday, November 27, 2010

One Brain, Two Ears: Stereo vs Mono

There's a rather humorous video on YouTube making the cyber-rounds as of late. It's called "Bob Dylan Wants You to Embrace Mono" put out by Columbia Records to promote their new release of the box-set Bob Dylan: The Original Mono Recordings, which contains the first 8 albums by Bob Dylan in mono. The movie is presented as an educational film from the 1960s using a ton of archival footage of teenagers at play. In between, a pseudo-professor talks about recorded sound and how the brain is tricked into hearing things in mono as opposed to stereo, which, it is suggested, is bad for your brain (click here for the video). The argument is good one as we come to terms with technology and the ever-changing marketing of music around the world. But what appears to be a commercial, corporate gimmick to sell more CDs has real value when assessing how we hear music and what the new technology has granted us regarding the quality of those sounds.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #4: Pauline Kael (1983)

Pauline Kael

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.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (e.g. 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.

Talking Out of Turn had one section devoted to critics who ran against the current of popular thinking in the eighties. That chapter included discussions with film critic Vito Russo (The Celluloid Closet) who wrote a book about gay cinema before the horror of AIDS changed the landscape; also Jay Scott, who would later die from AIDS, spoke about how, despite being one of Canada's sharpest and wittiest writers on movies, he was initially a reluctant critic; and author Margaret Atwood who turned to literary criticism in her 1986 book Second Words. She discussed -- from an author's perspective -- the value of criticism and how it was changing for the worst during this decade.
There was also a discussion with New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael who two years earlier had returned to writing after a brief hiatus as a consultant in Hollywood.  Kael's career began at a fortuitous time in movie history during the sixties when Godard, Truffaut, Bertolucci and Arthur Penn dramatically changed the face of the art form. Her reviews also changed the intent and style of criticism. She fought the auteur school of Andrew Sarris that was worshipful of film directors. She created instead an intuitive and personal approach to criticism based on examining her responses to the work and illuminating that experience in the context of art, politics, popular culture and literature. In a sense, she acted on D.H. Lawrence's sharp observation in his Classic Studies in American Literature: "Never trust the artist, trust the tale."
When we met to talk at the Windsor Arms hotel in Toronto, during her book tour for her compendium, 5001 Nights at the Movies, the Reagan decade was already beginning to have its deadening impact on the movie industry. I had only been reviewing professionally for about three years and was already beginning to witness a decline in quality pictures as well as the decline of a critical and discerning audience. With that question rattling in my brain, we began the interview.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Trauma's Twins: Interview with Tim Cook (The Madman and The Butcher)

Author and Great War historian Tim Cook, who won the 2009 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction for his book, Shock Troops (2008), a book that examined the horrific impact World War One had on Canadian fighting forces in the battles of Hill 70, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, returns to both the horror and that defining conflict in The Madman and The Butcher: The Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie (Penguin, 2010). Where Shock Troops delved into the emotional trauma WWI exacted on our troops, The Madman and The Butcher looks at two key figures who embodied its aftermath.

The Madman and The Butcher is basically a double biography, with contrasting chapters, about the relationship between Sam Hughes, Canada's War Minister during the first 2 1/2 years of WWI, and Arthur Currie, the Canadian Corp commander who was recognized as a great general, one who doggedly sought to solve the challenges of fighting trench warfare. With deft precision, Cook compares the conflict between Hughes (the madman) and Currie (the butcher) while leading up to one of the most famous libel trials in Canadian history. Where Hughes was brash and outspoken, attacking Currie's reputation, Currie was quiet, thoughtful and traumatized by what he witnessed. After the war, Hughes accused Currie of being a butcher of his own men and he took the full brunt of Hughes's accusations despite being a superior tactical officer.

While talking to Tim Cook at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto, I wanted to first understand what drew him to these two vastly different personalities.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Love & Other Drugs: Avoiding the Harsh Realities

Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway
The TV ads for Love & Other Drugs, the new film from director Edward Zwick (Glory, Defiance), leave one key plot point out of the movie’s hard sell. The female lead, played by Anne Hathaway, has Parkinson’s Disease, the incurable and debilitating illness that eventually destroys a person’s motor symptoms and is most recognizable by the physical tremors that its sufferers display. The late Pope John Paul II had it, as does actor Michael J. Fox, who is the most identifiable Parkinson’s sufferer in the United States. But the makers of Love & Other Drugs would prefer that Parkinson’s not be part of the movie’s pitch for audiences even though it’s an important element of the romantic comedy/drama. That omission from the TV spots is both illuminating and indicative of why the movie itself falls far short of offering something new and original on screen.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Misfits: I Don’t Think We’re in Smallville Anymore

Two weeks ago, Misfits began its much anticipated second season. When the show premiered last fall in the UK on Channel 4, it was nothing short of a phenomenon. This past June Misfits surprised everyone, including the show’s young stars, when it won the BAFTA for Best Drama, beating out BBC favourites Spooks (aka MI-5 in North America), Being Human, and Jimmy McGovern’s exquisitely powerful The Street. Part teen drama, part science fiction, part inner-city portrait, the premise of the show is deceptively familiar: five young delinquents suddenly find themselves with superpowers. We’ve all seen comparable stories before, be it on Smallville, Heroes, The X-Men, or more recently, this season’s No Ordinary Family on ABC. And while on paper Misfits might bear a passing resemblance to these more conventional offerings it has very little in common with any of them. The series is intelligent, darkly comic, intensely suspenseful, and always extraordinarily fun. Think of it as Heroes meets The Breakfast Club, with a large dash of Trainspotting.

Set against a grey, urban landscape peppered with alienated youth, decaying infrastructure, and economic despair, Misfits is, ironically, more grounded in reality than many other less fantastical shows. The show’s writing is sharp and hilarious, invariably profane, and refreshingly unadorned. (Series creator Howard Overman is credited with penning every one of the first season’s 6 episodes and it looks as if the same will be true for the current season.) The five young actors—largely unknown before they were cast in the show—don’t have the cheek-bones, jarring athletic builds, and model good looks that populate what passes for teen dramas on American television, but they are consistently superb in their roles. The charisma of Robert Sheehan, the young Irish actor who plays Nathan on the series, could carry the show on its own, but each of our ‘heroes’ is a well-drawn and profoundly human character.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The End In Sight: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

As we approach the end of the long road that is the Harry Potter film series with the release this past weekend of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, I want to make one thing clear. From the beginning, I've been a fan of J.K. Rowling's books and the Warner Brothers adaptations. That does not mean, however, I've set my critical faculties aside when it comes to either the novels or the films. There have been moments in all of them when my patience has been tried just as much as my enthusiasm has been elevated. For example, it is no accident that the best film, Alfonso Cuarón's absolutely sublime Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), is based on the best of the books. Everything in both works brilliantly, and yet screenwriter Steve Kloves (writer of all the films except Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), while staying true to Rowling’s template, was unafraid to strip away extraneous plot and characters. Only occasionally have I regretted some of the excisions made for all the films.

We have been very fortunate with Harry Potter on the big screen. The closest to bad that the series got was Chris Columbus' Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), and that was partially because it was based on the weakest book in the series. With this second novel, Rowling didn't seem to have a strong handle on the story, or where she was going with it, so both versions meandered and only found their respective legs during the finale. No offence to Columbus, but he's a hack. I will always have respect for him on one level – his choice of the three leads was inspired – but he lacks visual inventiveness and can be quite sloppy.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Borrowed Time: Listening to John Lennon's Signature Box Set

“I’ve always been slightly jealous of the world for having had more time with my father than I did” – Sean Lennon

Sean Lennon makes a valid point considering that he was just 5 years old when his father died. Consequently, our own memories of John Lennon resonate differently. But, in considering the music, we have to take into account Lennon’s relationship with his family and his openly political activities. This is especially true when you examine his entire body of work, as collected in the recently released Signature Box Set. Remastered by the same team that did the excellent work on The Beatles’ mono and stereo box sets from last year, this collection reflects the same standard of audio excellence. The set features Lennon’s singles, demos and completed albums, including a brochure of essays from Yoko Ono, Julian Lennon and his half-brother, Sean.  The set also includes a book examining Lennon’s short life and a print of one of his ink illustrations. I took the time to listen to these albums once again in chronological order just as they were intended.