Saturday, December 4, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #5: Robert Towne (1988)

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 (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.

One section of the book deals with film directors who began confronting the changing face of the industry in the Eighties. By 1988, screenwriter Robert Towne had become one of Hollywood's most gifted, intelligent and in-demand writers. He emerged out of the Sixties as a key "script consultant" on Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and in the Seventies on The Godfather (1972). Towne soon became an influential screenwriter himself as that decade went forward (The Last Detail, Chinatown, Shampoo) and turned to directing in the eighties (Personal Best, Tequila Sunrise). When we chatted in 1988, while he was promoting Tequila Sunrise, an entertaining romantic melodrama starring Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kurt Russell, neither of us could guess that he would make only two more movies (Without Limits, Ask the Dust) in the next couple of decades.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Exciting and Visceral Cinema: Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan

With American cinema in the perpetual doldrums, it’s fallen to a handful of directors to provide quality movie-making that doesn’t insult the intelligence and displays an original and striking mindset. David Fincher’s superb The Social Network was one such recent release, as was Spike Jonze’s perceptive 2009 adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s tale Where the Wild Things Are. Now, talented filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) weighs in with Black Swan, which does for Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet Swan Lake what Jaws did for sharks, that is, brilliantly reveal the dark undercurrents roiling beneath a placid surface.

Set amidst the hot house atmosphere of a New York ballet company, Black Swan focuses on Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), who, like everyone else in her group, hopes to land the starring role in an upcoming revisionist new production of Swan Lake. Driven company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is interested in utilizing Nina as the ballet’s lead, but bluntly points out to her that while he’s sure she can play the innocent White Swan of the ballet, essaying the Black Swan, representing the darker side of human nature, is, he fears, out of her emotional range. He gives her the role anyway, but a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who has conveniently just joined the company, is being held in reserve as an alternate, just in case Nina can’t pull the part off. Pushed by her disturbed perfectionist mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina herself, and none too stable in her own right, cracks begin to appear in Nina’s world. It revolves around her cutting herself, imagining plots against her – which may indeed exist – and, just possibly, undergoing a split personality, thus replicating the plot of Swan Lake. Needless to say, as opening night fast approaches, things come to a messy, powerful head.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Invisible Artist: Irvin Kershner 1923-2010

When George Lucas tapped director Irvin Kershner, who died last Saturday at 87 after a three-year battle with lung cancer, to direct The Empire Strikes Back (the sequel to Star Wars), Kershner asked him, "Of all the younger guys around, all the hot-shots, why me?" Lucas replied, "Well, because you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but you're not Hollywood." Lucas wasn't kidding. Nor was he simply pandering to the veteran director. Although Irvin Kershner had been making movies in Hollywood since the late fifties, he certainly wasn't typical Hollywood. He didn't make the most obvious commercial entertainments, but rather he examined with thoughtful consideration what constitutes commercial entertainment. Which is one reason why The Empire Strikes Back was a significant improvement over its predecessor.

If Lucas created spectacle out of the pop treadmill of space action serials, Kershner gave his own film a sumptuousness that linked it to classic fairy tale. Star Wars was content being an entertainment machine that kept the audience peaked, but The Empire Strikes Back dug deeper into the underpinnings of the story while giving the characters flesh and blood emotion. It was the most dramatically charged and enchanting picture of the entire series. "I like to fill up the frame with the characters' faces," Kershner once said. "There's nothing more interesting than the landscape of the human face." That landscape was often filled with the temperament of a film maker who seldom settled for the outlines of what the stories gave him.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Separating Paranoia From Heightened Consciousness: Doug Liman's Fair Game

Conspiracies are as old as the dawn of civilization. They consistently intrigued Shakespeare. Bye-bye, Julius Caesar. Tough luck, Macbeth. Some speculate on the true identity of the Bard himself; Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous, due out in late 2011, will address this controversy. But, in the modern era, the very notion of a conspiracy theory gained credence immediately after the November 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. We have not been the same since. Nowadays, everyone’s suspicious of everything. On the lunatic fringe, there are the Truthers (Who really attacked the World Trade Center?), the Birthers (Where was Obama actually born?) and, a cherished chestnut, People Who Suspect the Fluoridation of Water is a Communist Plot.

Yet, for those of us with more reasoned fears, it’s often difficult to separate paranoia from heightened consciousness. To quote Kurt Cobain, who must have borrowed it from Joseph Heller’s Catch 22: “Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.” That certainly is the case for Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame in Fair Game, a sympathetic biographical film tracing the D.C. couple’s nightmare at the hands of the vindictive Bush administration. Although unseen except in genuine news footage, the chief perpetrators are Karl Rove and the even more powerful Dick Cheney (On a Baghdad battlefield, this contemporary Richard III might plead: “A heart, a heart. My kingdom for a heart!”). But the Central Intelligence Agency — where Plame is an undercover operative until exposed for devious purposes — comes across as a bastion of back-stabbers.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chasing Away the Christmas Blues: Shelby Lynne and Annie Lennox's Christmas CDs

Music at Christmas time has the potential to either warm the soul -- or wear out the heart. We're bombarded with the stuff right after Halloween in every mall and in every store. And it's a real shame that music has to become intolerable under the guise of the Christmas spirit (a spirit one can have a hard time invoking while shopping in the jewelry section). During the season, though, I always reach for two distinctly classic albums that help steady the Christmas chatter: Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift For You, with its rocking good tunes, and A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi, which casts a jazzier Christmas spell. Both albums stir peaceful memories of Christmas past without all the hustle and bustle. But there are also two new albums competing for a spot on my player: Shelby Lynne's Merry Christmas (Everso Records, 2010) and Annie Lennox's A Christmas Cornucopia (Decca Records, 2010). Both releases don't let commercialization get in the way of a good record so I'm pleased to report that these new albums are first-rate.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Songs My Mother Taught Me: Roky Erickson's True Love Cast Out All Evil

In 1966, the 13th Floor Elevators launched what came to be known as psychedelic rock with their hit single, "You're Gonna Miss Me." It's quite likely that the band's lead singer/songwriter Roky Erickson had no idea that the song's title would end up overshadowing the future that lay ahead of him. I also doubt that given the horrors of what did lay ahead, he (and the legion of fans who followed him) ever considered a day when a record would come out of that experience with the power and emotional force of True Love Cast Out All Evil (released last April). It's one of the strongest and strangely affecting CDs of the year.

For those who miss albums that are conceived as albums (rather than merely a collection of songs), True Love Cast Out All Evil is a beautifully crafted one with a suggestively stirring arc. It's an informal anthropological portrait of an artist trying to re-connect all the broken pieces of memory and truth and finding out how elusive that process can be. Produced by Will Sheff and featuring his band Okkervil River, True Love is a song cycle that attempts to provide a chronicle of a life that has been blasted apart. To his credit, however, Sheff doesn't solemnize the process, nor does he create an inspirational tribute to Erickson's survival. He rather lets Erickson's songs tell the story, an elliptical series of parables about one man testing his faith against an unforgiving world where fate had cast him. Roky Erickson learned his love of music from his mother, a woman who was both religiously devotional and righteously mad. True Love Cast Out All Evil is a haunting evocation of a parent's gift to her son, a present that shares equal portions of inspiration and insanity. (As he says in "Bring Back the Past": "Moody tunes whistle in my ears/And throw me up and down/Dreams and scenes from joy to tears/Could screw me to the ground.")

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Rewriting History The Right Way: The Tudors

At the recent Gemini Awards (Canada's version of the Emmys), The Tudors deservedly took home the prize, for its third season, as Best Series. Almost immediately, there was much gnashing of teeth and wrenching of clothing by the chattering classes because they felt “it wasn't Canadian enough.” I know it was not an earnest drama like Wild Roses, or an insufferable comedy, such as the Canadian-set and overrated Little Mosque On the Prairie, or Corner Gas, but I always thought that the definition of "Best" was the best produced program that year. Since there was a lot of Canadian money involved (it was an Irish/Canadian co-production), and a wealth of Canuck talent was on display both in front of and behind the camera (for example, Jeremy Podeswa (Fugitive Pieces), directed several episodes throughout the show's four year run), in my books, The Tudors qualified as Canadian. Okay, it didn't "tell a Canadian story" (obliquely, I think it did, because the actions of Henry VIII in the 16th century still has an impact on Canada today), but who cares? Are we that blinkered that we should only be telling Canadian stories? And who decides what those are?