Saturday, January 22, 2011

Blasphemies and Hosannas: A Hymn for the Arts

Ricky Gervais
The funny if rather nasty jokes about Hollywood royalty that comedian Ricky Gervais unleashed while hosting the Golden Globes on January 16 seemed to shock the assembled crowd in designer gowns and tuxedos. I’m betting most viewers, perhaps in their PJs, were far more upset by those ten little words he used in his final quip of the night: “I’d like to thank God...for making me an atheist.”

With that, the sarcastic Brit certainly was skewering all the televised award shows that feature winners, often with an arm raised toward the sky, expressing their appreciation for divine intervention. The Almighty, if there is one, has nothing better to do than make sure some actor or musician or dancer-with-the-stars gets the coveted prize. Although Gervais also was tapping into a sort of bait-and-switch brand of humor, God-fearing people – of which there are many millions in the United States – possibly hoped he would be struck by lightning before even leaving the stage. Presenter Robert Downey Jr., apparently stunned by an introduction that unkindly referred to his rehab for drug addiction a decade ago, mentioned the evening’s “mean-spirited” tone; the devout multitudes watching at home likely felt more concerned about offending the Holy Spirit.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Tati Lives!: The Illusionist

While there’s no shortage of animated movies coming our way each year – and many good ones in the mix – simple, hand-drawn animation the way it used to be done by Disney, among others, is something of a lost art. Except nobody has told French filmmaker Sylvain Chomet that, and as a result he’s producing some of today's finest animated work. The Illusionist, Chomet’s follow-up to his wonderful Les Triplettes de Belleville (2003), is a small gem. It is a continuation of his brilliant cinematic vision while also a departure from his previous feature.

What Chomet has done (and who would have imagined this?) is bring beloved French director Jacques Tati (Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle) back to exquisite life, both in terms of the project itself and as a character in the movie. The Illusionist was originally written in 1956 by Tati and Henri Marquet as a tribute to Tati’s estranged daughter Sophie Tatischeff, but the script was never produced – until now. Changed somewhat – the film’s main location has been moved from Prague to Edinburgh, where Paris-born Chomet now lives – The Illusionist, which is set in the late fifties, is a poignant (platonic) love story between a fading French magician named Tatischeff and Alice, a young Scottish woman he encounters who he eventually ends up living with. Tatischeff is having trouble earning his keep, as his audiences flock to newfangled acts, such as the preening rock and roll Beatles-like group Billy Boy and the Britoons, whom he shares billing with at the outset of the movie. Tatischeff's old-fashioned magic shtick, complete with a rabbit being pulled out of his hat, isn’t cutting it anymore, sending him on a desperate trajectory from Paris to London and, finally, to Edinburgh. There, he and his bad-tempered rabbit settle into a rooming house with Alice. He tries, and usually fails, to bring in enough money for he and Alice to live on. Yet the young girl, who touches him deeply, is also an ingenuous, innocent soul, who believes that Tatischff is actually conjuring up all the presents (a pretty pair of shoes, a beautiful winter coat) he buys her, forcing the magician to find jobs to pay for the gifts. Being cast in the spirit of Tati, those endeavours usually don’t fare well.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Lost Treasures: Shaun Cassidy's Invasion (2005-2006)

“Mommy. You smell different.” (Rose Varon to her mother, Mariel, on Invasion)

According To Jim was on the air for eight seasons featuring 'fat guy, hot wife.' Two and a Half Men? It’s now plowing through its eighth laugh-free season. CSI: Miami? We've been nine years and counting watching David Caruso put on his sunglasses (or is it taking them off ... or is it both?). These shows are drivel. Uninspired, insipid, poorly scripted and acted. How many seasons did Shaun Cassidy's completely brilliant show, Invasion, get? One.

I'm not going to condemn the viewers for their lack of taste (that's too easy, because smart shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Big Love, True Blood, Battlestar Galatica, etc., had or continue to have long runs – albeit on cable). Rather, I just shake my head at Invasion's bad timing. It came on the air about a month after Hurrican Katrina destroyed New Orleans, and, as if the hurricane was the show's fault, the media took it to task. High production costs were another factor. At the end of its only season, Invasion's ratings were no worse than According to Jim's, but ATJ cost a buck ninety to produce, while Invasion ran over $2 million per. It died due to economics and the blindness of the ABC studio heads.

Invasion was about the world we live in now: blended families (divorced couples still attached because of children) attempting to cope with each other; trying to maintain ones individuality in a world that wants you to conform; coming to terms with changes in your body as you age; the painful struggles of teenage boys and girls growing up too fast; the dangerous post 9/11 world where terror can come from abroad, above or your next-door neighbour. It just happened to be wrapped in a science-fiction frame.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #10: Ann Beattie (1986)

Author Ann Beattie in 1986.

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 area of the book concerned the legacy of the sixties. It’s difficult taking into consideration the political landscape of the eighties without examining aspects of the sixties. Many ghosts from that period (i.e. Vietnam, the Cold War, civil rights) continued to linger as unresolved arguments that underscored actions in the eighties. If cynicism became more common twenty years after the idealism sparked by JFK’s 1960 Inaugural address, the voices included in this chapter of Talking Out of Turn set to uncover what the political lessons of the sixties were.

In the work of fiction writer Ann Beattie, questions were raised as to whether those of us who were part of that decade were now trapped in nostalgic reverence for our lost youth; or, were we slowly coming to terms with the hard political lessons of that era? One of her key novels that delved deftly into those issues was Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976), which was made into a 1979 movie by Joan Micklin Silver re-titled Head Over Heels. The story revolves around Charles, a civil servant, who is struggling in the seventies with his ideals from the sixties while trying to maintain his relationship with Laura, the love of his life. With his droll best friend Sam, Charles comes to grips with the ghosts of the past which is where I began my talk with Ann Beattie.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dreams Are Nothing More Than Wishes: Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?

There couldn't be a more apt title for John Scheinfeld’s engaging documentary on the late singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson than Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? Despite the fact that Nilsson was both a prolific pop songwriter and a gifted tenor, perhaps what made Nilsson less than a household name was that he didn't comfortably fit into the niche of a traditional pop crooner. It also took Scheinfeld almost four years to get a distributor for his movie about him. But it’s definitely worth the wait.

Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? examines with both insight and empathy the life of a pop artist whose pining voice cast a larger shadow on a tragic life. While he wrote songs that became hits for The Monkees (“Cuddly Toy”), Three Dog Night (“One”) and Blood, Sweat and Tears (“Without Her”), his only chart successes were other people’s tunes. “Everybody’s Talkin’” (made famous in Midnight Cowboy) was written by Fred Neil, while the Grammy-winning “Without You” was originally a track by the British rock group Badfinger. Nilsson never performed concert tours to promote his albums and his studio work itself became unique in that he did all his own overdubbed harmony vocals. With the help of top-notch players (from Little Feat’s Lowell George to keyboardist Nicky Hopkins), Nilsson became an insulated pop force, someone hidden away in the imagined world of a recording studio. From there, his lovely and quirky ballads and anthems could bring a youthful longing to unrequited wishes.

Monday, January 17, 2011

FX’s Terriers: Catch a Ride with a Trickster and a Travelin’ Man

Terriers (on FX)

For Shady Kanfi

For the most part, the FX Network was good to me in 2010. By mid-summer, they had already premiered three of my favourite new series of the year: in comedy, the hilarious and deeply original Louis C.K. vehicle, Louie; in animation, the surprisingly funny, edgy, and intelligent spy spoof, Archer; and in drama, the hard-boiled contemporary Western, Justified, based on the work of Elmore Leonard and starring Timothy Olyphant. (All three shows have been renewed and will bring us second seasons in 2011.) But the folks at FX weren’t done yet: on September 8th, they premiered Terriers. Created by screenwriter Ted Griffin (Ocean's Eleven) and The Shield creator Shawn Ryan, Terriers stars Donal Logue (Life, Grounded for Life) as Hank Dolworth, an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic, who teams up with Britt Pollack, his best friend and mostly reformed thief (played by Michael Raymond-James, True Blood), to open an unlicensed private investigation firm. Based on the early promos for the series, I had initially positioned the series in relation to The Good Guys, the good-natured buddy-cop show created by Matt Nix (Burn Notice), which premiered on FOX over the summer (and was cancelled last month). But halfway through the opening credits of Terriers (and the original theme song written by the show’s composer Rob Duncan), I knew I was going to be delightfully mistaken. With substantial characters and two charismatic stars, some powerful writing and subtle serial nature, Terriers would soon rise to the level of FX’s spring season hit, Justified. While often hilarious, the show was also carefully plotted, and offered a perfect mix of compelling characters, dark humour, and genuine intrigue. Unfortunately, by early December, FX announced that due to low ratings it was not going to renew Terriers. But whatever its future, Terriers will remain one of the few bright spots in what was an often disappointing new fall TV season.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Two Marks: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn & Money For Nothing

Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail (Jan. 14, 2010)
If we needed further proof that the standards of literacy and education in North America have diminished rapidly, the recent decisions to censor both Mark Twain's classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Dire Strait's satirical song "Money For Nothing" now takes us to pretty embarrassing new depths. That these two events should bookend the current heated debate over the contribution of political rhetoric to the tragic Arizona shootings is hardly accidental. We seem to have lost touch with the true meaning of speech, so much so, that we can no longer tell the difference between what's morally offensive and what isn't.

Mark Twain
In the case of Mark Twain's 1884 novel, a book written during the post-Civil War era, Twain was addressing the turbulent racial tensions that had escalated due to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation to end black slavery. He created a narrative about a young white American in conflict with his culture, one who sought a new form of freedom while journeying down the Mississippi River. Twain also introduced into the story the black character, Jim, a former slave who Finn befriends and learns from. In doing so, Twain sought to attack the growing problems of segregation, prejudice and the continued lynchings by having this main character refute the accepted norms. As Twain once said after the book was published, "A sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience." To achieve this, Twain had to write in the context of the times, from what he knew and the language that he heard, in order to create an authenticity of both character and place. One of the offensive words, of course, was the use of the word "nigger" which was common coin at that time. (Since Jim was also once a slave, he could hardly sound like a Harvard grad in the book either.) None of Twain's nuances seemed to get through to NewSouth Books, however, who have now published an edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the word "nigger" with "slave" and changes the character Injun' Joe's name to Indian Joe. Besides formalizing American slang in the case of Injun' Joe, which then unwittingly makes Indian Joe seem even more derogatory than Injun' Joe, the use of the word "slave" for "nigger" is hardly the proper term for a character who has just earned his freedom. Oh art, where is thy sting?