Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Talking ‘bout an Evolution: When a Movie Twosome Grows Ever More Tiresome

I thought that One Day would, at the very least, provide some eye candy with footage of Edinburgh, Paris and London. The film certainly flits between those gorgeous European cities while tracking its two protagonists as they continually relocate over the course of 23 years. The conceit is that Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess), just after their 1988 university graduation in Scotland, have an unconsummated sexual encounter on July 15. According to British legend, the weather on that particular date will last for 40 more days. This annual holiday is dedicated to St. Swithin, a Saxon monk who died in 862.

You might ask what a 9th-century celibate priest would have known about romance but the characters never do. For another two decades, Emma and Dexter remain best friends separated by miles and life choices who continue dancing around the fact that they’re obviously soul mates. It’s a 108-minute cinematic tease. Exhaustion sets in. July 15, intended as some kind of mystical touchstone in their existence together and apart, keeps popping up on inter-titles that are ever more meaningless. St. Swithin, be damned. The weather is totally ignored.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Pads and Claws: The Cat Vanishes

In Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973), detective Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) loses his cat when he tries to feed him food he doesn't care for (worse, he tries to fool the pet by pretending it's his favourite). The cat's disappearance becomes a test of loyalty that opens up the theme of the picture. In Argentinian director Carlos Sorin's sly and deceptive The Cat Vanishes, when the pet feline Donatello flees, it becomes a test of sanity for both the characters and us. The Cat Vanishes is being compared to Hitchcock's thrillers, but the resemblance is superficial at best. Unlike Hitchcock, Sorin submerges the familiar techniques of suspense while presenting instead a chamber piece that's embroidered with chills. The story is as devious as the missing Donatello.

The Cat Vanishes opens humorously with a lengthy exposition scene that resembles a similar one that concluded Psycho. A number of psychologists are gathered to discuss Luis (Luis Luque), a history professor who has been institutionalized after having a major breakdown. This esteemed scholar had thought a colleague had stolen his life work with the aid of his wife Beatriz (Beatriz Spelzini), so his violent outburst against both of them lands him in the mental hospital. But the doctors also believe that his breakdown was temporary. Given his solid reputation, they arrive at the conclusion that maybe he should be released into the care of Beatriz. At first, Beatriz tries to make Luis comfortable and calm, but when Donatello freaks out at his arrival and soon disappears, Beatriz begins to wonder if all is well with her hubby after all. She even wonders if his appearance and the cat's departure are linked.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Royal Shakespeare Company, At Home and Abroad: Macbeth, As You Like It & The Winter's Tale

Aislín McGuckin & Jonathan Slinger in Macbeth.

The Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Macbeth at Stratford-on-Avon this season, staged by artistic director Michael Boyd, has something to do with the cult of Edward the Confessor and something to do with the desecration of Catholic churches during the Reformation, but you have to read the essays in the program to understand the connections, and even then they're not terribly clear. A directorial concept that you need liner notes for can't possibly work especially in the English theater, where you have to lay out three or four pounds for a playbill. Years ago I saw a production of The Cherry Orchard at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts that filled the stage with constructivist cardboard cut-outs: I was baffled until I consulted the director's note at intermission and found that he thought the play was about the Russian Revolution and he was convinced that its tone was hopeful. This explanation didn't remove my bafflement, merely redirected it. You can do a lot with a classic text, but if your ideas don't sync up with what's on the page then perhaps you'd be better off calling it something else. And you'd be better off going all the way and changing the text. (Punchdrunk's popular haunted-house reimagining of Macbeth, an environmental piece which combines scenes from the play with images out of Hitchcock and leaves out the dialogue entirely, is appropriately titled Sleep No More.) The director's note in the Cherry Orchard program didn't mesh with the lines about the drowning of Ranevskaya's little boy or the loss of her estate, and in Boyd's Macbeth there's a large enough gap between the text and the visual links to these two historical periods for the whole production to fall into it. I'm sure hardly anyone in the audience has any idea why Ross (Scott Handy) reappears in the second act in a white priest's robe with an enormous cross around his neck or why there's a broken stained-glass window above the stage and a pile of rubble upstage.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Good-bye Gadhafi: The Fourth Estate Says Farewell

Frizz-head himself
“We’re coming for you, frizz-head!”

This derogatory threat frequently aimed at Colonel Moammar Gadhafi by the ragtag revolutionaries now conquering Tripoli is not exactly among the famous battle cries of history, such as “No guts, no glory!” or Shakespeare’s “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” The sarcastic name-calling reminds me of a (roughly translated) quote from Augusto Cesar Sandino, who fought the U.S. Marines occupying Nicaragua from 1927 to 1933: “Come, you clod of morphine addicts...I will make you eat the dust of my wild mountains!” Back then, morphine was routinely included in military first-aid kits to treat painful injuries. But our soldiers must have been using the opiate just to get high and really who can blame them, given the snakes, scorpions and swelter of Central America?

The clod of Libyan loyalists sticking with their leader after four decades of authoritarian rule have been eating the dust of the rebels’ wild deserts. And news coverage of the conflict is mesmerizing for a longtime war-correspondent wannabe like me. The most must-see-TV moments: the 36 journalists from all over the world held hostage in the Rixos, a five-star hotel that became their five-day prison.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sin/Syn City: A Conscientious Objector’s View of Las Vegas

Imagine you are an alien who has just landed on earth. You learn that the occupants of the resource-abundant blue planet have built a city in a region you consider to be relatively uninhabitable: the middle of the desert. There are few natural resources in close proximity. Food, water, and electricity all have to be transported in. Here, amid constant air conditioning and an absence of clocks and windows, humans amuse themselves by essentially throwing their money away and engaging in other frivolous pursuits such as strip clubs, showgirls and huge buffets. You’re not in Venice, Rome, Paris or New York, although all these places have shrines in this city. It’s not a Circus Circus, Treasure Island or Mirage, albeit it sure feels like all of these things. It’s Las Vegas, and it’s so jam-packed with artificial splendor it’s difficult to imagine what its authentic urban scene would look like.

Mari-Beth looking for the authentic Las Vegas  
I visited the self-proclaimed entertainment capital of the world last month. Although Las Vegas was not on my to-visit list, I figure it is one of those places you must see for yourself – alien or not. Throughout my visit, the thought kept nagging me, why so fake? What's the authentic Las Vegas? Why do we feel the need to practice self-delusion so garishly? Eventually I convinced my travel companion to board a city bus and take a ride to nowhere. We passed strip malls and strip joints, trailer parks and industrial parks, sterile looking houses over sterile looking land. We rode right to the mountains on the east side of the city and it took us close to two hours round-trip. But at least I felt I got to see the ‘real’ Las Vegas.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Opening the Wrong Doors: Sarah's Key

Mélusine Mayanc (centre) in Sarah's Key

Ever since the enormous, and deserved, worldwide success of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Holocaust dramas have become a regular subject in the movies. (There had been films on the Holocaust before, but Schindler’s List appeared to open the floodgates.) With cinema's penchant for trivializing tragedies like the Holocaust, fortunately only a few such movies (Life is Beautiful, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) have descended into that odious category. But many others have fallen short in doing justice to the meaning and events of the Holocaust, an admittedly tall order for what is still such an incomprehensible and unprecedented act. Sarah’s Key (Elle s'appelait Sarah), the latest film release concerning the Holocaust, is one such disappointment.

Based on the popular, and critically acclaimed, novel by French author Tatiana de Rosnay, Sarah’s Key unearths, to a degree, the shocking events in France, during two days in July 1942, when some 13,000 French Jews – mostly women and children – were rounded up in Paris, sent to the Vélodrome d'hiver, kept in appalling and inhumane conditions, and then soon after transported to Auschwitz where most perished. In of itself, this wasn’t unusual – the concentration camps were ultimately the destination for most of Europe’s 11 million Jews and the graveyards for six million of them – but what was unique here is that it was the French police, the gendarmes, who carried out the deportations, even before their German occupiers had ordered them to do so. Sarah’s Key begins on that fateful day when the Starzynski family (mother, father and young daughter) are compelled to hastily leave their home. They comply, but not before Sarah (Mélusine Mayanc), the Starzynski’s 10-year-old daughter, instructs her younger brother, Michel, to hide in a closet and not leave until she returns to retrieve him. She locks him in for good measure and then, still clutching the key, leaves. The rest of the film deals the ramifications of her act. And while the movie’s opening scenes are suitably powerful – you’ll curse the anti-Semitic French when you view them – the film becomes progressively more cluttered, contrived and, finally, off topic.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Death By Focus Group: Paul (2011)

When Simon Pegg and Nick Frost first burst on the North American scene as actors and, in Pegg's case, writer with their first feature film, Shaun of the Dead, I was generally impressed. What I enjoyed about the film was how they managed to capture that hard-to-handle middle ground between horror and comedy. One minute, I found myself laughing out loud (the scene where they are deciding which LPs they are willing to give up as weapons to fling at the approaching walking dead still makes me giggle), while the next gave me legitimate chills. Their next film together, Hot Fuzz (both were directed directed by Edgar Wright of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World fame), combined a buddy cop movie, like 48 Hours, with the gentile English drama, such as A Room With A View. For a variety of reasons, I never saw it, but I hear from several people who did that it is Shaun's equal. The major criticism, even from those who liked it, was that in the last act they threw out the gentility and went for straight action, in other words becoming what they were ridiculing. Perhaps that was a sign.

For their next mash up, 2011's Paul (with Frost now on board as co-writer), just released on DVD, they clapped together the alien-amongst-us film with the gross-out buddy comedy. I was looking forward to it, because the premise seemed to be ripe for sending up. And yet, except for Kristen Wiig's winning performance as the daughter of a religious nutcase, Paul is an almost complete failure. The finished film, the first one wholly funded by a US studio (the others had been British imports), not only feels like it was focused-grouped to death, it feels like the script had the same treatment. Every laugh is calculated, every 'beat' in the script seems completely programmed. The spontaneity that seemed to permeate Shaun is long gone. The basic premise of Paul is that Graeme Wily (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) are two life-long SF-loving geek friends who come from England to attend the huge Comic Con in San Diego, and then head out on a road trip across America visiting all the sites made famous in UFO lore or movies (Devil's Mountain, Area 51, etc.). Along the way, they encounter an alien. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Personal, Yet Universal: Guy Clark's Songs and Stories (Dualtone Records, 2011)

I have seen Guy Clark in concert a couple of times. Each time he has been accompanied by his friend and co-writer Verlon Thompson. There is a warmth and familiarity between these two men which spreads throughout the concert hall. Clark and Thompson standing at the mics, guitars in hand, singing their fine songs of life, love and liberty – there’s nothing like it. And they take requests. They also come out afterwards to sign CDs and chat to fans, if, they always say, people are interested! I’ve never heard anyone offer to come out to sign, and give the audience a choice before. His new Songs and Stories CD captures perfectly the feel of a Guy Clark concert.

It should. It was recorded live at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee. The date isn’t given, but it could be yesterday. The recording is just as warm and intimate as a chat with an old friend after a long absence. The format is a bit different than I’m used to. The band is expanded to include, beyond Clark and Thompson, a bass player (Bryn Davies), a percussionist (Kenny Malone) and another guitarist/mandolinist/singer (Shawn Camp). And then Clark announces, during the introduction, that they will sit down to play. This is something new for Clark. Perhaps it worked so well during the guitar pulls and in the recording studio that they just decided to bring the format to the stage. It works a charm.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Produced and Abandoned: The Lost Son (1999)

This question has always nagged me: Why are there so few good directors among great cameramen/women? For instance, when the enormously talented Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) turned to directing movies in the eighties, he came out with the undistinguished All the Right Moves (1983) and the ridiculous Clan of the Cave Bear (1986). You'd be hard-pressed to find anything in those pictures that comes close to the fever dream he conjured up in Taxi Driver.

But then there is Chris Menges, the British cinematographer behind such strikingly diverse work as Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983), Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields (1984) and Neil Jordan's The Good Thief (2002). When he turned to directing, his work was not only as distinguishable as the movie-makers he'd worked for, sometimes he even surpassed them. The trouble is: Nobody knows this since his films have been largely produced and abandoned. After being rightly celebrated at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival with his directorial debut A World Apart, about a young girl coming to terms with her political activist parents during the apartheid years in South Africa, his subsequent pictures have gone MIA.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Chekhov and Ibsen at the National Theatre

I understand the need to find translations of Chekhov and Ibsen that don’t provide obstacle courses for contemporary actors; one of the reasons André Gregory was able to do the phenomenal work he did with the cast of Vanya on 42nd Street was that David Mamet made the language so limpid and close to the natural rhythms of American actors. But the rage for new versions of the plays, often mired in contemporary clichés, is infuriating. In Pam Gems’s rewrite of A Doll’s House, Krogstad warns Christine, “Goes around, comes around,” and I’ve heard a student actor perform a scene in Uncle Vanya in which Astrov uses the expletive “fucking.” That can’t be a reasonable solution. In Andrew Upton’s version of The Cherry Orchard performed by Britain’s National Theatre (and widely seen abroad in HD), Gaev (James Laurenson) calls Lopakhin (Conleth Hill) a “crap artist” and Lyubov Ranevskaya (Zoë Wanamaker), rather than just excoriating the eternal student Trofimov (Mark Bonnar) for having no mistress at his age, grabs at his crotch and wonders out loud if he’s got anything at all down there. But the real offense in Upton’s Cherry Orchard is his lengthy addenda, which seem to have two purposes  to overemphasize the political subtext (the second-act debate between Trofimov and Lopakhin is about one and a half times longer than the one Chekhov wrote) and to make sure the audience doesn’t miss the point. That must be why Yasha (Gerald Kyd), Lyubov's manservant, takes three times as many lines as Chekhov wrote for him to persuade her to take him along when she returns to Paris. (Yasha, born a peasant but determined to rise in the world, is more or less a comic variation on the self-educated valet Jean in Strindberg's Miss Julie.)  Does Upton really think he can improve on Chekhov?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Change is Gonna Come: The Help Offers Flawed Hope

As an aspiring journalist fresh out of college in the 1960s, I found a job with a weekly newspaper in Brookline, Massachusetts. I wrote a column called Around the Town with Babs, a nom de plume that various reporters before me had assumed over the years. The task was to ferret out mundane local gossip, such as:Stanley Lager of Richardson Terrace has been promoted to general manager at Filene's Department Store.Or “Elm Street residents Jane and Bruce Ganz are heading to Florida for the winter.” (Attention: thieves!)

As an aspiring journalist fresh out of college in the 1960s, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan finds a job with a weekly newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi. She writes a column called Ask Miss Myrna, a nom de plume that various reporters before her had assumed over the years. The task is to ferret out mundane local housekeeping advice, such as how to avoid tears while chopping onions.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Walking Wounded Looking For the Walking Dead: Judith Thompson's White Biting Dog

In the late 90s, my acting coach, the exuberant David Switzer, described the characters in modern plays as "the walking wounded looking for the walking dead." It's not the perfect description of modern playwriting that he favoured in our Scene Study class, but it was often the best description he had for difficult plays. White Biting Dog, by the extraordinary Canadian playwright Judith Thompson, which debuted in 1984, was one of those plays that, after careful study, fit the Switzer definition.

A new production opened Thursday at the Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto and it was quite the emotional rollercoaster ride. It's the story of Cape Race, played very well by Mike Ross, a young lawyer tending to his sick father at home. Stressed out by his work and his broken marriage, Cape decides to end it all by jumping off a bridge. But just before he falls, the voice of a small, white dog is heard telling him to stop and that his mission to re-unite his divorced parents must be fulfilled. This throws Cape into a spiral of frustrated angst as he struggles with his own feelings surrounding his mother, gagging on the word itself, and reconciling with his ill father whose fears of dying and his regressive memories have driven him crazy. In the mix is the character of Pony, beautifully played by the engaging Micheala Washburn. Pony is an ex-ambulance driver looking for salvation in the big city. At first glance she is the Ying to Cape’s Yang, a happy yet doubtful young woman who comes looking for her dog. (Cape assumes it’s the white one.) But Cape is soon to discover that Pony is not the good omen he thought she was.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Afflictions of Time: Criterion's DVD Release of The Music Room & The Makioka Sisters

In the opening scenes of Satyajit Ray's flawed, yet intimately haunting, The Music Room (1958), an aging Bengali feudal landlord (zamindar), Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), sits with his back to us in a large chair on the roof of his dilapidated mansion. He puffs away on his hookah, lost in time, while time is clearly running out on his era of wealth and power. Set in the late 1920s, the zamindar's only connection to the comforts and pleasures of his class privilege is the music concerts he presents in his home. The music room, which holds within it the fleeting power of nostalgia, transports Roy from the afflictions of time to the more nobler moments in his past, while his present life decays around him. (It is perhaps a rich irony, not lost here, that it was the feudal classes, so influenced by the West, that actually kept Indian classical music alive.)

The Music Room, which Ray made between the second and third films of his justly acclaimed The Apu Trilogy, may (as critic Pauline Kael once suggested) reflect the same themes of cultural futility as Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. But if that's so, The Music Room is The Cherry Orchard seen through the gothic sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." The Music Room (which Criterion has just released this summer in both regular and Blu-ray) is about how a once powerful aristocrat stubbornly clings to the past through his opulent staging of musicales. But, in doing so, he destroys his family and his life.

Chhabi Biswas as Roy
Since Ray is one of the great humanists among major film directors, he doesn't take a churlish view towards this innocently infantile lord. Rather, as he would later do in Devi (1960) and The Home and The World (1984), Ray brings a sophisticated understanding of the psychological dynamics at work in the story. As with any great dramatist, Satyajit Ray skillfully illuminates the folly of the zamindar rather than examining him objectively, or simply condemning him on our behalf. He achieves something empathetic and similar to what Visconti did with the ageing, much more noble Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) in The Leopard (1963).

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Absurdly Real: Eugène Ionesco's Exit the King at Soulpepper

Oliver Dennis & Karen Rae
In 1962, at the age of 53, playwright Eugène Ionesco thought he may be dying. In an attempt to come to terms with these feelings of mortality, he crafted the play Exit the King. The play centres around King Berenger the First, who, at 400, is dying, but he just doesn't know it yet. His retinue is divided into two groups. The first, his Doctor and Queen Marguerite (his first wife), are the rationalists. In a calm, logical manner they are determined to let him know that, “you are going to die in one and a half hours. You are going to die at the end of the play.” In the other camp, are his kind Nurse and his second (trophy) wife, Queen Marie. She is determined to not tell him. Queen Marie is his favoured wife (he sees Marguerite, and all he can say with a sneer is, “oh, you're still here.”) and has over the years coddled him and told him whatever he wanted to hear.

It is not just the King who is dying, so is his kingdom. In his vigorous youth, he lorded over millions of people, successfully battled thousands of enemies, did everything from single-handedly splitting the atom to inventing the car and computer, and he could even control the weather. It would not rain unless he said so. Now, as he is dying, his kingdom is literally vanishing. The people are all gone, his achievements are forgotten, and the land itself is shrinking and shrinking. His castle is a slanted ruin and a gigantic crack is splitting it in half. The irony here? Ionesco was far from dying. He recovered and lived until 1994.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #22: Allen Ginsberg (1982)

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.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Neglected Gems #5: The Good Thief (2002)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why impressive debuts like Jeff Lipsky’s Childhood’s End (1997) didn’t get half the buzz that considerably lesser movies (Another EarthBallast) acquired upon their subsequent release. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Marriage Musical: Stephen Sondheim's Company

For Stephen Sondheim aficionados, Company is beloved as the watershed musical that established him as a musical-theatre innovator. In a number of his early musicals he supplied the lyrics for the music of older, established composers (Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story, Jule Styne on Gypsy, Richard Rodgers on Do I Hear a Waltz?). His professional debut as a composer-lyricist was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962, but that was an old-fashioned vaudeville along the lines of Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse  and bizarrely, though the score was ingenious, Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove’s libretto received all the attention. (His other solo effort, a strained, distinctly sixties satirical farce called Anyone Can Whistle, closed after 11 performances. The Encores! series of concert-style musical revivals at New York’s City Center staged it two seasons ago with a superlative cast, but engaging as the production was you could see exactly why the show had bombed in 1964.)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Far More Than Shushing and Checking Out Books: For the Love of Librarians and Public Libraries

My name is Laura and I am a librarian.

Upon revealing my profession to strangers I am almost guaranteed the following reaction: “Oh, but you don’t look like a librarian.” Yes, many have extremely strong, and learned, stereotypes about these professionals and the places they work. Many probably assume that their local librarian is a shy, shushing, anal-retentive, nerdy bookworm who lives with several cats. She probably likes knitting, wears cardigans, collects and categorizes things, and has sensible shoes. (Note: I tend to refer to a librarian as a “she” because the profession does seem to attract the fairer sex. In my library program we outnumbered the dudes about ten to one. I still do not understand why more post-undergraduate straight men don’t take advantage of this opportunity.) With regard to these stereotypes: okay, I’m busted. I’m guilty of most of those characteristics. (With the exception of the cats and the sensible shoes part.) The problem with the librarian and library stereotypes, though, may not be that we do not possess any of these characteristics, but that we possess so much more.

Librarians, in fact, are not-so-quiet, super-interesting, super-educated, and technologically savvy professionals. To practice in most libraries you have to acquire a Masters degree in either Library or Information Management. Many librarians – particularly subject specialists, the innately curious, or the overly ambitious – may have multiple graduate degrees and even PhDs. Yes, these poor folks you see at your local branch are actually hot shit, but, for the love of humanity, they are toiling to service patrons such as yourself.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Who’s the Boss? Bruce Springsteen’s Promise

When I was younger I thought with blistering sincerity that Bruce Springsteen was just too American. While I was only ever familiar with his hit song “Dancing in the Dark,” from his 1984 record Born in the USA, that iconic album cover of his denim-clad posterior presented him prominently before a star-spangled backdrop. Ignorantly, I wrote him off as flag-waving, gun-toting American without much to offer outside of trail-blazing patriotism, something of little use to an adolescent Canadian boy growing up in the suburbs. As with anything else I've learned growing up, I was at least partially wrong in my earlier years. (So was Ronald Reagan, as you may recall, but for a different purpose.) Bruce Springsteen is without a doubt a patriotic American, but in a way I never would have suspected. The performer known as “The Boss” made himself the voice of the disinherited in America.

His popular label “The Boss” always seemed peculiar to me. I never understood why my dad referred to Springsteen with the label he also used to describe the man he was working for. But I was naïve. My dad was planting the seeds of an uprising in my unwilling ears. In The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town (2010), we can see perfectly why Springsteen is known as “The Boss.” The documentary, which explores the trials and tribulations behind that career-defining album, opens a window into how The Boss shrugged off guaranteed rock stardom and fought valiantly, passionately and perhaps insanely for what he believed in. The Promise captures a moment in time over thirty years ago when a fresh-faced musician did the unthinkable: He became his own boss.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Fog of Film: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

Though it’s been a decidedly lacklustre summer at the movies, there’s one film that’s a must see, if you are to believe its almost uniformly rapturous reviews. Apparently, The Tree of Life, the latest opus from Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World) is one for the ages, a masterpiece equivalent to any of the great movies, such as, I suppose, Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, The Seven Samurai, The ‘Apu’ Trilogy, M*A*S*H and The Godfather, Part 1 and II, to name a few important milestones in world cinema. Well, I can’t concur with that view. The Tree of Life is actually pretty mediocre; a movie that traffics in indulgent, pretentious and often empty (albeit) beautiful imagery. It's a film most defined by the word meretricious: …"apparently attractive but in reality has little value:” That evaluation, too, pretty much sums up Malick’s career.

In many ways, and not just because they share similar eccentricities, Terrence Malick reminds me most of Stanley Kubrick, another genuine American talent who, after a strong film-making debut, pretty much flamed out, delivering mostly wretched, excessive movies in his late career. Kubrick, after offering up such gems as Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), then trailed off and dove relentlessly into a sea of forgettable mediocrity. Excepting his fine A Clockwork Orange (1971), his second half, much less prolific, oeuvre included the nonsensical and loopy science fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); the vapid Barry Lyndon (1975), starring a woefully miscast Ryan O’Neal in what is surely the most tedious costume drama ever made; the (deliberately?) botched adaptation of Stephen King’s fine horror novel The Shining (1975); Full Metal Jacket (1987), an incoherent war movie to rival Malick’s own The Thin Red Line (1998); and, of course, Kubrick’s final movie, the ridiculous Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which transposed a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitzler to the end of the 20th century while pretending that its themes of sexual jealousy, wherein the woman merely contemplates an affair, would be reacted to in the same fashion nearly a hundred years on.

Richard Gere and Brooke Adams in Days of Heaven.
Malick, for his part, after a stunning, powerful debut with Badlands (1973), loosely based on the life of thrill killer Charles Starkweather, followed up with Days of Heaven (1978), a beautifully shot, somewhat affecting love triangle set in depression-era America. Though I enjoyed that movie, despite the miscasting of Richard Gere as a manual laborer, it was also laden with a distinct lack of narrative flow and a disinterest in strong characterization. Nevertheless, being a departure from his first film, I felt it was a forgivable deviation and I looked forward to what he would do next. However, after a twenty year hiatus, the Malick who returned to film-making, pretty much stood still as a director, continuing to make movies such as The Thin Red Line and The New World (2005), which, even more so than Days of Heaven, concentrated almost solely on forming pretty pictures, eschewing in the process any vestige of flesh and blood emotional dramas, stories that would have left a lasting impact. The Tree of Life, unfortunately, is more of the same.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Weighed Down by the Truth: Shakespeare by the Sea’s Measure for Measure

As an English literature major, this is difficult for me to admit, but here it is: I don’t like Shakespeare. I want to like him. I should like him. I often pretend to like him, but I don’t. It seems to me that Shakespeare focuses habitually on the lackluster narratives. In Romeo and Juliet, the love story between Romeo and Rosaline always distracted me from the main action. (Ditto for the three witches in Macbeth.) And I agree with Tom Stoppard and W.S. Gilbert that Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are far more intriguing than a self-centered Danish Prince. Naturally, the Shakespearean productions I find most interesting are the ones which embrace and capitalize on the back story. Shakespeare by the Sea (SBTS) is usually quite adept at this, and so I had grand expectations for their rendition of Measure for Measure. Specifically, I’d hoped they would elaborate on the history between Angelo and Mariana, which in Shakespeare’s version happens largely outside the main plot. Generally, I’d hoped for any unexpected interpretation they could offer. I was disappointed.

A Shakespearean theatre company has limited material to work with, even if Shakespeare is one of the most prolific playwrights at 37 full length plays. You can’t do the crowd-pleasing Romeo and Juliet every year. There is an art to choosing which of The Bard’s comedies, tragedies or histories you perform and a quality company chooses their drama based on what’s relevant to the culture in which they’re performing. In this regard, Measure for Measure is an ideal choice. The play’s commentary on how power and pride affect the interpretation of truth and justice is still central to our society: from America’s economic crisis (which producers would have known when they chose the play) to the tragic shootings in Norway (which they could not have known)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Beach TV 2011: Franklin & Bash, Suits, and Warehouse 13

If you’ve been spending this summer catching up on all the television you didn’t get the chance to watch during the year, you’ve likely been missing out on new episodes of the best shows currently in production: Breaking Bad on AMC, Curb Your Enthusiasm and True Blood on HBO, and the sublimely brilliant Louie on FX. (And, for our Canadian readers, Showcase has been airing the much anticipated second season of the endlessly original British sci-fi import Misfits since early June.) And there was a lot of serious, dramatic, and important television that aired in the past year.

But if I’m being honest, what I often really want to watch at the end of a long summer day should be as easy to digest as summer reading – the televisual equivalent of a new Sue Grafton novel. In this era of dark comedy and intense psychological drama, it is sometimes easy to forget that great television can often be simply diverting, escapist, and just plain entertaining. After all, NBC’s Parks and Recreation is not only one of the most good-natured shows on television: it’s also one of its funniest.

Over the past several weeks, two new shows and one returning favourite have populated the television equivalent of my beach reading list: Franklin & Bash, Suits, and Warehouse 13. What these shows may lack in gravitas, they more than make up for in sheer fun.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #21: Alan Sillitoe (1981)

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.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Higgins and Eliza: Pygmalion & My Fair Lady

The West End revival (at the Garrick Theatre) of Shaw’s Pygmalion appears to be a vanity project for a miscast Rupert Everett. Everett is famous for velvet-gloved high-style comedy; his way of tossing off a line can turn the romantic comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) or the Michael Hoffman film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999) into high comedy. Shaw, of course, wrote high comedies, and it’s easy to imagine Everett in some of them. (A decade ago he would have made a superb Jack Tanner in Man and Superman, perhaps opposite Helena Bonham Carter as Ann.) But the role of the misanthropic phonetician and voice teacher Henry Higgins doesn’t suit him. He doesn’t know what to do with Higgins’s unmannerly explosions  his big scenes flatline. And the role provides no outlet for his understated sexiness; it wastes him and it’s wasted on him.

His Eliza Doolittle, Kara Tointon, isn’t right either. Eliza is generally played by an actress of natural elegance – Wendy Hiller in the 1938 movie (playing opposite Leslie Howard), Audrey Hepburn in the screen version of My Fair Lady – who slums merrily for the first three acts and then comes into her own after the Embassy Ball. At this point Higgins has succeeded so brilliantly into turning the Cockney flower girl into a princess that at the end she’s truly in limbo, having been irrevocably educated past her origins. Tointon doesn’t have the aristocratic grace to be convincing as a transformed Eliza in the second half, but she’s too actressy to be plausible as the Covent Garden guttersnipe. She’s competent but you can feel her straining for her effects. She’s at her best in the third act (just before intermission) when Higgins brings her along to his mother’s for tea to try her out on the guests who wander into her salon, including the callow Freddy Eynsford-Hill (played by another triple-decker name, Peter Sandys-Clarke), who falls for her. (Diana Rigg strolls through the part of Mrs. Higgins like a gracious guest star on a wobbly TV variety hour.) The joke in this scene is that at this juncture in her education, Eliza has learned both the dialect and the manners of an upper-crust young woman phonetically, so the Eliza we saw in the first and second acts keeps rattling around inside the varnished shell like broken pieces of pottery. Tointon’s handling of the scene is a comic routine but a clever and entertaining one.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Dated: Clarence Brown’s Night Flight

Within the ongoing blizzard of DVD/Blu-Ray releases for the latest blockbusters, I'm happy to see that some of the major companies still feel the need to open their vaults to artifacts from a bygone era. They root around and pull out a film from a dusty corner, clean it up and put it out into the world. Such is the case with Warner Brothers who a couple of weeks back released the MGM-produced 1933 film Night Flight. Sometimes, however, these films are generally forgotten for a variety of reasons and, if I'm being honest, Night Flight probably should have been one of them.

In fact, if not for its pretty amazing cast – John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy and Helen Hays; the director Clarence Brown, who made several Garbo flicks in the silent era and the 1930s, plus the '40s family classics National Velvet (1944) and The Yearling (1946); not to mention, the author of the source material, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (The Little Prince) –  this one probably would have stayed put. 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Downbeat Goes On

Despite the changes in the music business, particularly from a technological point of view, criticism is still relevant. This particular website is dedicated to reviewing the arts by distinguishing itself as an honest broker of artistic endeavors around the world. Downbeat magazine, which has been the best and longest lasting periodical of jazz, has just issued its 59th annual Critics Poll (August 2011).  As a monthly journal that has adapted well to change, its Critic's Poll and Reader's Poll is an important barometer of what's being heard and reviewed in music.

The August 2011 edition of Downbeat features the critic’s picks for the best in jazz of the past 12 months and as a critic who did not participate in the poll, I was happy to see certain musicians getting recognition, namely, American pianist and composer, Jason Moran. His album Ten (Blue Note, 2010) was voted the best of the year. Moran himself was voted as Artist of the Year and he led the poll in the Piano category by getting more points than Keith Jarrett and last year's poll-winner Brad Mehldau. This is fine company, to say the least, and while I'm generally fickle about "best of" lists, I was very happy to see Moran grace the cover of the magazine and win three categories. Ten made my own list of the top records in 2010, and I have to admit that I'm feeling vindicated for trusting my ears and choosing new releases off the beaten path and rarely with a high profile. Nevertheless, with all the great music and musicians vying for our attention, which is bloody difficult in the 21st Century, it’s nice to see the so-called purists at Downbeat support up-and-coming musicians. In fact, that’s been an important part of their mandate since the beginning.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Man vs. Ape: Fact Trumps Fiction

A scene from Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The five original movies in the Planet of the Apes series, which came out between 1968-1973, were entertaining fun, though only the first one, Planet of the Apes (1968) – which was loosely based on  Pierre’s Boulle’s novel La planète des singes (Monkey Planet – 1963) – could actually be called a quality film. Yet as enticing as the concept of apes taking over the Earth with mankind reduced to the status of ‘animals’ was, the films copped out when it came to explaining how apes actually came to dominate our planet. In a nutshell, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) saw three apes escaping from future Earth when it was destroyed by a nuclear bomb and reaching our present day Earth through a time warp. While there, one of them gave birth to a son, who, in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), eventually led the rebellion that brought the apes to power. But how apes gained super intelligence and learned to speak was never dealt with since the time travel scenario neatly avoided that subject. It was one of those wrap-around puzzles – human astronauts travelled into the future and landed on a planet run by apes, eventually destroyed the planet but not before some intelligent apes escaped and came to present-day Earth and created the future where apes ruled until human astronauts landed on the planet. It never made real sense. The latest movie in the Apes series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, aims to remedy that conundrum. But though it offers a (tepid) explanation for how and why the evolution of the apes began, it’s not a very satisfying answer (I won’t spoil that revelation for you), much like the film itself. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Long Player: Andy Neill’s Had Me a Real Good Time: The Faces Before, During and After

“Why don’t we form a skiffle group?”
“Yeah, great...” After five minutes I said, “What’s a skiffle group?”
(Recalled by Kenney Jones, drummer of the Faces)
This quote taken from Andy Neill’s massive biography of the Faces, Had Me a Real Good Time: The Faces Before, During and After (Omnibus Press, 2011), pretty much sums up the whole attitude of the members of what many called the second greatest rock band in the world. (You can guess who is considered the greatest.) I saw them in concert only one time, thirty-nine years ago, at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. They were drunk, and loose, and fun, and they rocked the joint. Rod Stewart, Ron Wood, Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones came together in 1970 and left a legacy of only five albums, but they cut a swath through rock’n’roll that has never fully healed. 

The book is indeed huge. Someone (might’ve been Ron Wood) described it as “Bible-sized” and it is clumsy to hold, and hard to read. Another recent biography of session musician Nicky Hopkins (And on Piano…Nicky Hopkins by Julian Dawson) covers much of the same ground and is more elegantly written. But that just shows the difference between pianist Hopkins and the Faces. Hopkins came to the studio on time, did his work for as long as it took, and went home for a cuppa with his Mum. The Faces, well…didn’t do that.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Peep Show: The Death of Amy Winehouse

You’ll never get my mind right
Like two ships passing in the night
Want the same thing when we lay
Otherwise, mine’s a different way.

Amy Winehouse “In My Bed.”

A week ago Saturday, I was preparing my film clips for my lecture series Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma at the Revue Cinema when the breaking news on television announced that singer Amy Winehouse had been found dead in her apartment. While the news could hardly seem surprising given her continuous struggle with substance and personal abuse, not to mention her disastrous recent concert tour (which seemed to invoke any number of Hollywood melodramas you cared to call up), it still seemed unreal. As the day wore on and my work was finished, I turned to more television coverage only to see that many others seemed to share my unsettled reaction to the news. While some writers trotted out the usual clichés about “the good dying young” and the eerie coincidence of her joining “The 27 Club” (which contains other dead 27-year-old performers like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain) others grappled with words to describe their grief. While I searched for my own, I realized that some of the answers were right within the lecture series I was doing.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

An Inconvenient Conversation: Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together

I’ve always been an advocate for technology. As an information professional, my regard and respect for the tools that help us access, analyse and communicate this currency of our knowledge economy are vital to both our existence and success. Personally and professionally, our social networks matter more than ever to our careers. I do believe it is important to adapt and adopt, or be left behind.

That being said, I also believe that the age-old ability to personally connect with ourselves (and with one another) remains imperative to the human experience. A recent stream of events and observations has had me thinking: do our digital tools and connections distract us from caring for those real and most vital relationships? Every so often, I find myself amongst those who tend to sneak a peek at my phone, or email, when I should otherwise be in the moment. I’ve also observed that this addiction has been inherited by the heir to my legacy. My two-year-old once greeted me at the airport gates yelling “Mommy! Black cell phone!” (Well, at least she said my name first.) With any touch screen in her fingers, she goes to work. Even at her tender young age, she knows what all the apps do. What ever happened to just sitting in a sandbox and digging a hole? There’s probably now an app for that.

Of course this behaviour is not quarantined to my household. The epidemic is far more unrestrained outside. I have friends who have informed me that if I do not text, I just won’t reach them. I have others with whom I’ve shared my innermost secrets, via the cold Facebook chat interface. The final straw came when I was recently informed via text messaging that an otherwise seemingly wonderful relationship was ending. (Haven’t been dumped digitally yet? Oh man, you’re missing out! It’s a whole new level of character building worthlessness.) I had to wonder when and how did my important relationships become these aloof, disposable applications? These issues are explored further in MIT technology and society professor Sherry Turkle’s publication Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (Basic Books, 2010). Turkle examines how technology becoming less a tool to use in our relationships, and more so the relationship. How we have become so used to carrying out our emotional lives via gadgets and social networking it has led to the “emotional dumbing down” of our society. Throughout her work, she illustrates how while technology has allowed us to achieve great things, our “inability to be separated from these compelling machines” has taken us away from our real lives and relationships. While we are more connected then ever, we are also lonelier than ever. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Lessons in Playwriting: Haunting Julia, Rocket to the Moon and Cause Célèbre

Alan Ayckbourn wrote Haunting Julia in 1994 but it didn’t receive a London premiere until this year – when it opened far from the West End, at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. But it’s a lovely little play, a three-handed ghost story that disseminates some compelling themes through extremely well-drawn characters, and the modest production, directed by Andrew Hall, does the text full justice. The characters are three men, all of whose lives have been deeply affected by their contact with a prodigious undergraduate musician who killed herself several years earlier. Joe Lukin (Christopher Timothy) is her father, whose care for her – he and her mother moved to be closer to her when she began university – drove her to take a flat on her own, which he has now converted into The Julia Lukin Centre, a sort of museum that preserves her old environs and in which, creepily, a recording narrates in the first person a sentimental, air-brushed chronicle of her life. Andy Rollinson (Dominic Hecht) was her boy friend; he found her body. Now he’s a high school music teacher with a family of his own, but he’s kept up his relationship with Joe and his wife. The play begins when Joe guides Andy through the newly constructed centre – it’s clear to us, if not to Joe, that Andy finds the experience profoundly uncomfortable – and then presents what he believes is evidence that her ghost is haunting it. The third character is a psychic named Ken Chase (Richard O’Callaghan) who turns out to be someone who actually knew her, the janitor who lived downstairs from her with his family, whom she often visited.

Timothy, Hecht, and O'Callaghan (Photo Tristram Kenton)
The play is about the loneliness of genius, about the unrelenting demands of the muse, and about the smothering kind of parental love that can both impede adulthood and drive a grown-up child mad. It’s also about moving on from the powerful grip of a first love – that’s Andy’s story. Ayckbourn doesn’t underline any of these ideas; he allows them to leak out through the development of the narrative, which is a series of surprising revelations after each of which we feel we understand the characters, including the absent Julia, a little better. One of my favorites, really just a detail but an inspired one, is Ken’s referring to the dead girl as Julie, because that’s what he and his family used to call her when, divested of her obligations to her music and to her parents, she dropped by to share their ordinary lives.