Saturday, January 29, 2011

Strange Things Happening Every Day: Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Graham Parker

"There's something about the gospel blues that's so deep the world can't stand it," gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe once pronounced. In the Forties, Tharpe was quite the fiery performer who could play a steel-bodied guitar like Chuck Berry and swing her hips like Elvis Presley. She often captured in her recordings the persuasive force of gospel blues to the degree that you could comprehend the power it held and why the world couldn't stand it. But, by 1944, Tharpe was herself wavering between the sins of the secular world and the promise of God's kingdom. So she gave voice to those struggles in her rollicking single, "Strange Things Happening Every Day":

On that great Judgment Day
When they drive them all away
There are strange things happening every day.

The view she offered us was no less apocalyptic than most gospel blues like Charley Patton's "High Water Everywhere," or Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night," only Tharpe sounded ecstatic. She told us that even if you could never fully comprehend God's will, it might still be experienced and accepted through the mystery of miracles and salvation. After all, strange things do happen to mankind every day:

Friday, January 28, 2011

Recent Documentaries: Exploitative (Part 2)

At first glance, Yael Hersonski's A Film Unfinished is seemingly cut from the same moral cloth as Inside Job and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (see yesterday's review of both those films) Those two political films, respectively, exposed the forces behind the recent worldwide economic meltdown and laid bare the events leading to the downfall of one politician who was prepared to tackle Wall Street and its greedy minions head-on, and both came from a deep and justified well of anger. A Film Unfinished initially seems similar in tone, but actually this is one offensive documentary that left a bad taste in my mouth.

A German-Israeli co-production, but made by an Israeli filmmaker, A Film Unfinished is a look at a recently unearthed, and unfinished, propaganda film made by the Nazis and shot in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. The ghetto was eventually liquidated by the Germans in 1943, and all its remaining Jewish inhabitants killed, but only after a staunch and heroic resistance (one which lasted nearly a full month). Using footage from the never-before-seen, until now, propaganda film, which was titled Das Ghetto, and incorporating some docudrama techniques (not something I much like) of a post World War Two trial which touched on the making of the film (and also interviews with a few survivours from the ghetto), A Film Unfinished ostensibly brings something new to the subject of the Holocaust. The problem is that the movie exploits far more than it illuminates.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Recent Documentaries: Informative (Part 1)

I have a theory about documentaries. If you're a halfway decent filmmaker, and you've picked a good subject for a film, then, presto, you'll come up with a worthwhile documentary. It's when you don't have the instincts to shape a good doc, or have chosen a subject you can't do justice to, that pitfalls can and do occur. Because very few documentaries are made with box office in mind, most of the fact-based films that are released are usually made for the right reasons either to inform or educate on issues which cry out to be addressed, or to open windows on worlds we know little about. As for the difference between good and great docs, such as Capturing the Friedmans (2003) or Man on Wire (2008), well, that's a whole different ballgame, having as much to do with the story depicted on screen as they do with the person doing the depicting. 

Last year's best documentary films, Frederick Wisemans's La danse, Banksy's Oscar nominated Exit Through the Gift Shop and Jeff Malmberg's Marwencol, coincidentally all dealt with art: Wiseman's comprehensive, probing behind-the-scenes look at a famous French ballet troupe; Banksy's witty take on L.A, street artists and their British inspiration; Malmberg's moving portrait of a mentally damaged man's unique and therapeutic art project. (See my Best Films of the year list for more on those movies.) Three more recent, and comparatively lesser, documentary movies, Inside Job, Client 9 and A Film Unfinished, deal with history, from the ripped-from-the-headlines present to the relatively recent past.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

So Bad It's Good?: Cruise Into Terror (1978)

Last year, on February 6th, I wrote a brief piece on the wretched TV movie called Cruise Into Terror. Two days before, I’d inaugurated an on-again, off-again series (mostly off) called Mini Masterpieces in Mediocre Movies. The purpose was to look at one sequence in a specific film and examine why it worked and the rest didn’t. The film I did on that occasion was James Cameron’s mediocre The Abyss. During the writing, I added a sidebar on Cruise Into Terror because its last line – “That there is a devil, there is no doubt, but is he trying to get into us or is he trying to get out” – had stuck with me (in the piece, I said it was the only good thing about the film). During the editing of The Abyss post, the sidebar was just not working out, so I removed it and planned to run it as a standalone. It was so short, we decided to title it David's Mini-Masterpiece Addendum and it ran two days later.

Over the last year, this little bitty post has become one of our most popular pieces (and hopefully not because it’s so fast to read – we timed it; it takes less than 30 seconds). Often in the top 10, it returned again this past week to top five status. So, it was decided I had to see this thing again and determine why my short post was so popular. I thought I had it on video tape, but when I went through my boxed tapes (yes, I own a functioning VCR that I still use) I couldn’t find it. My colleague, Kevin Courrier, told me the whole film, in 10 minute chunks, was posted on Youtube. So, that’s how I watched it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Read All About It! Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists

Every single person we pass each day has a story, a history, one that’s rich with broken hearts, broken dreams, personal triumphs and secrets. Regardless of how hard-hitting, aloof, or kind-hearted these people may seem, no doubt there are many layers that lay beneath the surface of their lives layers we likely never get to see. Since it would probably be too overwhelming for us to consider, we don’t too often reflect on those hidden depths. But Tom Rachman’s debut novel The Imperfec-tionists (Dial Press, 2010) does. He examines with thoroughness many of those layers as they exist in a colourful assortment of characters.

The Imperfectionists revolves around an English newspaper in Rome circa 2007. The novel reads likes a series of short stories. It profiles the staff members, plus one reader, of the paper. Each chapter is dedicated to cracking open the life of one of the characters and then relentlessly showing us what makes them tick. While many of the characters play supporting roles, in the novel's multiple chapters, they soon become misunderstood colleagues outside of their section. The chapters themselves get linked together with excerpts of the paper’s beginnings. From its Mad Men-like origins in the 1950s, by founder Cyrus Ott, to the present day, run by Ott’s uninterested grandson Oliver, The Imperfectionists deftly explores the challenges that so many papers face today in competition with their online counterparts. (Rachman, born in London, England, raised in Vancouver, Canada, is a journalist himself, having worked in both Rome and Paris.) But it also begs the question: Just how reflective is The Imperfectionists to the realities of Rachman’s former colleagues? Or is Rachman just onto something much deeper. Are these tragedies isolated to one’s profession, or to one’s lifestyle?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #11: Julia Reichert/James Klein (1985)

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 of the book's chapters, The Arc of the Cold War, dealt with both its peak and decline since the Soviet Union would dissolve by December 1991. The interviews in this chapter, which included SF author Frederik Pohl on his novel Chernoybl and spy novelist Fletcher Knebel's Crossing in Berlin, provided a cross-section of observations about the psychology of the Cold War rather than detailing the different aspects of it. In their film, Seeing Red, documentary filmmakers Julia Reichert and James Klein examined the early years of the American Communist movement, its beginnings in the thirties, its rise in the WW II years, the later disillusionment with Stalin, and then its legacy in the eighties. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Prism of History: Daniel Francis’s Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-1919, Canada’s First War on Terror

When you look at the world through the prism of history, the events that unfold today can appear luminously connected to the events of the past. In Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-1919, Canada’s First War on Terror (Arsenal Pulp, 2010) by historian Daniel Francis, this valuable prism comes with a fascinating story.

Francis is an historian based in Vancouver and he’s written over twenty books about Canadian history, including the Encyclopedia of British Columbia. His latest book covers 24 months in Canadian history, namely the post-war years leading up to the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. His premise is simple. In the years after the First World War, political activism by the masses was at its peak. Led by Unions, people felt the urgent need to achieve economic equality and launched an often highly charged political battle against the Federal government and industry for better rates of pay, better working conditions and more say in the political process. This revolt, leading up to the Winnipeg General Strike, was characterized as the “Red Scare” by the government and media of the day.