Saturday, June 11, 2011

Train Wreck: J.J. Abrams' Super 8

In Super 8, this summer's highly anticipated SF thriller, writer/director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg create a cluttered junkyard of a movie. While many of the unabashedly positive reviews suggest a work that's both thrilling and full of feeling, Super 8 is actually quite the opposite. Abrams and Spielberg have filled the picture with so many conflicting invocations of previous movies, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Stand By Me, that it has no voice of its own. Super 8 is an inchoate hall of mirrors that casts reflections of popular film tropes rather than a coherently exciting story.

Initially they do seize on a compelling dramatic idea. In the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio, in the late seventies, a group of young friends gather to make a Super 8 zombie movie. Living in their small industrial town, the only cultural feeding ground for these kids is the playground of pop music, television and horror films. There is a shaggy dog thrill they get from testing their loyalties and smarts (not to mention, their raging hormones) by acting them out in their low-budget monster extravaganza.(I also spent my teenage years in the small industrial city of Oshawa, Ontario, doing super 8 horror films with my friends.).

When they attempt to get 'production values' on the cheap by shooting a love scene one night at an abandoned train station, these budding artists get more than they bargained for when they witness and film a train derailment. They also discover that it was no ordinary train wreck. But rather than going on to explore how these eager filmmakers use their amateur craft to uncover a possible military conspiracy, Abrams takes leave for his own cultural feeding ground: Spielbergland. In creating a tribute to his film idol, Abrams ends up however denying himself an identity.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Trapped in Amber: Henri Clouzot's Diabolique

The movies we love (and sometimes hate) don't change. They are static things forever locked on film (or digital imagery). What changes is us. As we grow and mature our tastes evolve. But the movies? They are like the bug trapped in amber. They exist unchangeable. When I was seven, my parents threw a birthday party for me and my friends. After a lunch and some games, we were treated to a matinee in our local cinema to the relatively new movie for our small Ontario town. I loved the 2 ½ hour movie we watched. But don't think I thought it was the 'best film I'd ever seen,' but I sure enjoyed it. 

The movie? Doctor Dolittle, a movie considered terrible on almost every level (even at the time). And, yes, it is. About 13 years ago, I tried re-watching it with my young niece and nephew; I couldn't make it through an hour. And yet, this loved-it-yesterday-but-not-today experience is not confined to films considered bad. In the 1970s, I finally saw on television a 1955 French thriller by Henri Clouzot called Diabolique. I adored the twists and turns this film took. A month ago, the DVD company Criterion released a pristine version of the film as part of their exemplary collection. I had not seen the film since that night in the 1970s, so I jumped at the chance to see it again. Imagine my surprise when I ended up finding it dull, emotionally icy, dated and on some levels reprehensible. However, to this day, the picture is considered a masterpiece of thriller film-making. It influenced not only Alfred Hitchcock (his film Vertigo is based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, authors of the book that was the source for Diabolique), but also, in the current era, Brian Singer's The Usual Suspects and mu
ch of the work of M. Night Shyamalan (god, help us), amongst others. Diabolique's plot is pretty simple.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #19: Gloria Steinem (1983)

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.

Tom Fulton of On the Arts.
In the early days, when feminism was still called "women's liberation," the emphasis was on equal rights for women, the control over reproduction and challenging existing stereotypes. But between 1980 and 1990, a number of different economic and political issues rose to the surface. As freedoms were won, questions began to be raised about what happens to the spirit of the struggle itself. Feminism (like any political organism) was faced with the difficulty of evolving and diversifying its views in order to accommodate different voices and the possibilities of continued reform.

Before her leadership was challenged by reformists like Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe and Christina Hoff Summers, though, Gloria Steinem was still the most outspoken feminist to be heard in the eighties. Steinem had earlier been a columnist for New York magazine and co-founded Ms. magazine in 1972. Her first piece of significant writing had come three years earlier with her article, "After Black Power, Women's Liberation," which first brought her and the modern feminist movement to national attention.

Gloria Steinem.
In the chapter, The Many of Faces of Feminism, I included some feminist voices, including authors Judith Guest (Ordinary People) and Erica Jong (Fear of Flying), poet Lorna Crozier (The Garden Going On Without Us) and film director Lizzie Borden (Working Girls), who were speaking out during the Reagan years. The talk with Steinem, however, foretold the growing impact of the American right's so-called Moral Majority with its attempts to undermine the feminist reforms of the previous decade.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron R.I.P.

When Gil Scott-Heron died last week at age 62, he left behind a planet on which revolutions inevitably will be televised. They’re already being televised, you-tubed, texted, Facebooked and Tweeted in places like Iran, Bahrain, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen. To freedom-seeking residents of the Middle East and North Africa, information carried by the media and every social network brings comfort in the knowledge that the whole world is watching. 

 Gil Scott-Heron in 1974

But even though the whole world was watching Chicago police beat up unarmed protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, perhaps TV seemed like an enemy without much redeeming value back in 1971. That’s the the year the singer-songwriter released his most famous composition, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The spoken-word piece, from his debut Small Talk at 125th and Lenox album, targeted the distractions and manipulations of advertising that promised to “put a tiger in your tank” or “fight germs that may cause bad breath.” He also ridiculed what passed for entertainment four decades ago. But nightly news coverage of the Vietnam War, the black liberation movement, inner city turmoil and the villainous Nixon administration presented additional fodder for his withering scrutiny.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Most Boring Movie Ever Watched: Morgan Spurlock’s The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Disclaimer: I fell asleep during this movie. Granted, it was the late movie on a Tuesday night after a full day of work, a softball game, and endless errands. It’s also not the first time I’ve turned the cinema into my personal napping studio. But still, after Super Size Me (2004), I had grand expectations for Spurlock’s next documentary. I’m not a cinephile or a film connoisseur. I’m just an ordinary moviegoer hoping to learn something and be diverted for a few hours. Super Size Me confronted us and demanded that we reconsider the consequences of every empty calorie we consume. I hoped for a similar challenge with POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. I expected Spurlock to ask the tough questions about product placement, selling-out and the effect advertising has on rampant consumerism.

I received no such challenge. The film was essentially a poorly-edited and loosely-connected series of meetings that Spurlock arranged in an attempt to secure sponsorships for his film. One reviewer pointed out that this is cleverly “very meta.” Fair enough, but it would also be “very meta” to catalog a book about the Dewey Decimal system – and equally as dull. Many of us spend our lives attending meetings and can think of nothing more monotonous that watching someone else do the same thing for two hours with no comic or cunning interpretation. It’s this interpretive twist that makes the mundane mischievous. Consider the TV show The Office: who would have thought it would be entertaining to watch pedestrian clerical workers all day? Yet the result is wildly amusing, an acute depiction of the ridiculousness of office life. Spurlock had the same potential with this movie, but missed the mark.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Tumbling for Alice: National Ballet's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Photo by Manuel de los Galanes)

Letter to Lewis Carroll:

Took a tumble down the rabbit hole on Saturday night, courtesy the National Ballet of Canada’s vivid presentation of the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and what a wonderful experience it was. Bumped into the most delightful creatures, a lot of them born of your own imagination – the white rabbit, the nasty queen of hearts, the grinning Cheshire cat, and, of course, Alice, dear sweet Alice, who fell first down the dizzying spiral towards that veritable garden of visual delights punctuating the journey.

Your marvellous book, Alice in Wonderland, was the inspiration behind it all, and who knew such a literary classic would lend itself so delightfully to both a balletic translation and original score? Composer Joby Talbot has created a brilliant, bubbling, boisterous piece of music that readily captures the kaleidoscopic character of your own multi-tone prose-style and verse.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Marilyn Monroe: More Than Just a Pretty Face

Marilyn Monroe
As a child, I always looked forward to a Saturday night movie. Especially when we watched a Marilyn Monroe flick. In my pyjamas, I would curl up next to my father as we both became mesmerized (obviously for different reasons) by this actress’ every move. From the devious wife in Niagara (1953), to her signature comedic roles in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), she stole every show. I, like generations of viewers before, became completely enamoured with Marilyn.

The actress, who would have been 85-years-old back on June 1st, is still a cultural icon all these years after her untimely passing on August 5th, 1962. From her Andy Warhol portrait to the unforgettable scene in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch (where she stood over a subway grate and her white dress blew all around her), Marilyn Monroe is recognized today even by those who were not even born during the star’s lifetime. Her image remains an emblem for beauty, femininity and sexuality.