Saturday, July 16, 2011

Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History: Nice Girls Just Don't Get It

"Laura, you’re being far too nice to those people!” My colleague scolds me after I hang up the phone. While he’s humorously alluding to my pleasant demeanour with a patron; he may not be too far off the mark. In fact, he has touched on an issue that, I just realize, has held me back for the majority of my life. Like many other women, I was raised on a strict regime that included rules and mantras such as: “stop asking questions,” “keep those things to yourself,” “if you want people to like you, then you should (…),” and of course “be nice.” As rebellious as I was, this philosophy was more or less inbedded in me. I became far too nice.

Fortunately, a recent publication touches on the solution to this very issue. Lois P. Frankel and Carol Frohlinger’s Nice Girls Just Don’t Get It (Crown Archetype, 2011) is directed at women who “feel invisible, taken advantage of, treated less than respectfully, or at a loss for how to get the things you most want in life.” No strangers to dishing out advice to nice girls – Frankel is best known for her bestselling Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, while Frohlinger, also an author, is the founder of Negotiating Women, Inc., an advisory firm dedicated to helping organizations advance women into leadership roles. Their work includes some sage advice that all “nice girls” should consider.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Real Teens, Real Issues: TV's Degrassi

It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure, I suppose, but I’ve just recently re-acquainted myself with Degrassi, the long-running TV series about teens in a Toronto community high school. (I am decades out of high school myself so I feel a bit sheepish admitting I like the series, an unnecessary reaction since Degrassi, ultimately, is all about fine television.) I watched it quite regularly in the '80s but somehow forgot about it after its ten-year hiatus and didn’t check back in with when it returned as Degrassi: The Next Generation, something I now regret. I was flipping the dial on a Friday a few months back when I came across a late Season 10 episode on MuchMusic and was instantly hooked all over again, eventually catching up with the entire season due to MuchMusic’s repeats. Season 11 begins on Monday July 18 on MuchMusic – Canada ’s version of the American music channel MTV – and the U.S. channel TeenNick. Judging by the exciting goings-on last season, it promises to be another gripping and fascinating installment in the ongoing saga of the kids of Degrassi.

It’s hard to believe but the show, in one form or another, has been around since 1979, beginning with its first incarnation as The Kids of Degrassi Street (1979-86) on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the country's public TV network. (Linda Schuyler and Kit Hood were its creators, but only the former is still involved with the show.) That was followed by Degrassi Junior High (1987-89), Degrassi High (1989-91), both on CBC and, finally, Degrassi: The Next Generation, which premiered in 2001, moving to CTV, Canada's leading private television network, which also owns MuchMusic. It changed its name to just plain Degrassi last season. (This being Canada, the first few episodes of The Kids of Degrassi Street were one offs, and the early seasons were abbreviated ones, as in the British television mode, ranging anywhere from 4-11 episodes. Growing exponentially, last season Degrassi hit a high of 45 episodes, 22 two part episodes, each a half hour in length, and one half hour documentary whereby some of the cast went to India to help build, appropriately enough, a schoolhouse. Overall there are close to 20 actual season’s worth of shows revolving around Degrassi.) As in real life, every few years, the Degrassi kids graduate high school and are replaced by a new crop of high schoolers. In fact, this year’s season will be split in two, with 29 episodes, running for seven weeks wrapping up the 2010/2011 school year, and another 16 shows, starting in the fall, chronicling the next school year, which means a batch of current Degrassi Grade 12ers will graduate. As such shows about teens go, it’s always been a uniquely intelligent and honest series about young people. It is perhaps the most impressive example of this particular genre.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

It Can Happen Here: The Cosmology of Falling Skies

The end of the world apparently can’t come soon enough for Hollywood. While doomsday movies have been a staple for decades, the recent plethora of apocalypse fare hints at some sort of self-loathing in an industry known for boundless self-admiration. Or is it merely tapping into the collective consciousness of a populace that’s “facing a dying nation,” to borrow a poignant lyric from Hair’s “Let the Sunshine In”? Make that “facing a dying planet” and you have the current state of despair among those alarmed about the deteriorating environment and the ever-present peril of nuclear annihilation.

Now halfway through its ten-episode summer debut on TNT and already renewed for another season, Falling Skies substitutes an alien invasion for endangered polar bears and Pakistan’s arsenal. The somewhat derivative series begins six months after 90 percent of humanity has perished in the initial conflagration. Ragtag survivors in and around Boston band together to fight the “Skitters,” enormous spider-like sentient beings, and their even more gigantic metallic robots, dubbed “Mechs.” The chief writer and creator, Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan – 1998, and The Patriot – 2000) is a Harvard grad who reportedly still lives in Cambridge. Although ostensibly set in the Bay State, the series is shot in Toronto – the hometown of Graham Yost, who shares executive producer chores with Steven Spielberg. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Etymology and Evolution: Ingredients For Innovation

Those who know me may find it strange (not ironic - that word is the subject of a future review) that I’m discussing the concept of innovation. According to some definitions of the word, I would be one of society’s least innovative people. I don’t own a cell phone, car, or anything that starts with an i. I’m not on Facebook, don’t subscribe to Netflix and still believe the foremost meaning of the word tablet describes the medium on which Moses inscribed the Ten Commandments. But meanings change; words are fluid and dynamic. Just like tablet has come to express multiple ideas, the concept of innovation has morphed and evolved too. So being a decidedly late adopter does not preclude me from being an innovator.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Echoes: James Deaver's Carte Blanche and Arthur Phillips' The Tragedy of Arthur

When critics review summer books they inevitably focus on the latest big thriller, or some highly anticipated romantic novel (dismissively labelled as 'chick lit'). But why should that be all that one reads? Are readers that confined to genre that this is all they've come to accept during the lazy, crazy days of summer? Depends on the reader. This reader, with his all-over-the-damn-place tastes, rarely confines himself to one style of writing when it comes to summer reading. In fact, two novels I've recently embraced as 'summer books' could not, on the surface, be more different. James Deaver is a respected thriller writer (though I've never read any of his work before this) but he is the latest author approached by the Ian Fleming estate to be given the task to continue the James Bond series. The result is the thoroughly entertaining Carte Blanche (Simon & Schuster, 2011). Arthur Phillips' The Tragedy of Arthur (Random House, 2011) could be more sharply defined as literary fiction, so it was far more challenging. But I found both reads thoroughly absorbing, whether it was hot outside or not. Interestingly, both books, as you will see, are recreations/copying of the work of writers from the past.

Deaver's Carte Blanche pretends that the Bond films do not exist. Instead, he embraces the universe as created by Ian Fleming. In his novels and short stories, Fleming loved to go on about the luxuries that surrounded him in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Bollinger, Aston Martin cars, etc. Deaver pays homage to  Fleming's style at the start but then he seems to get caught up in minutia of brand names without really doing it with the same zeal that Fleming brought to his books. He seems to be aping Fleming rather than expanding upon him.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Catching the Spirit: The Film Music of Ry Cooder

"What you’re trying to do is catch the spirit of a picture. And that means sometimes you go contrary to what’s on the screen, and sometimes you go with what’s on the screen. It’s a matter of instinct; if your instincts are good, it’s going to work for you.”David Raksin (Laura, The Bad and The Beautiful).

I used to think about this music (blues, gospel, etc.)…as being environments…so I’d look for chances to add this music to the environment in the film…I didn’t go to school to learn this…it has more to do with your own personal awareness.”—Ry Cooder.

The first time I heard Ry Cooder’s guitar was in a film score. The blues-soaked bottleneck featured in Donald Cammell's 1970 film Performance (seen in a small New York City theatre) captured my attention even more than Mick Jagger’s acting debut. I rushed to Times Square the next morning to buy the soundtrack, which wasn't yet released. It was months before I was able to find it — and I've been hooked on slide guitar music ever since. The music in Performance was overseen by Jack Nitzsche. Cooder was merely a hired hand. Yet it’s Cooder’s work (on Jagger & Richards' "Memo From Turner" and Randy Newman's performance of "Gone Dead Train") that is memorable.

"Jack Nitzsche was doin’ Candy…in those days they didn’t have rock’n’roll movie scores…played a lot of blues, Howlin’ Wolf…just sound…Mac Rebennack on piano, Earl Palmer on drums…the producer didn’t understand at all, he wondered where the strings were, where was the orchestra…then Jack did Performance which was essentially the same score…I learned…watch the film and play somethin’…”— Ry Cooder.

“Watch the film and play somethin’!” It seems like the simplest advice. But can it really be that easy? 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Polished to a Shine: The Glass Menagerie at Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto

Nancy Palk & Gemma James-Smith in The Glass Menagerie.

Tennessee Williams called his semi-autobiographical 1944 play, The Glass Menagerie, a memory play, using it to travel back in time to when he was growing up in the American South, a would-be writer with a paranoid-schizophrenic older sister whom his parents had institutionally lobotomized, and for which he never forgave them.

That sounds like the stuff of tragedy. But when writing his first and most famous play, Williams made it as varied and prismatic as the fragile figurines immortalized in the title, qualities polished to a shine by a new and brilliant production of The Glass Menagerie that Soulpepper Theatre Company (the critically acclaimed company that is beginning to receive justifiable international acclaim) is presenting in rep at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts through to September. Far from being a one-note drama full of sadness, this play about the fictional Wingfield family is lightened and brightened by laughter and the big, bold dreams of matriarch Amanda, the glue holding her fragile family together.

Director Ted Dykstra (co-writer and star of the acclaimed play, 2 Pianos, 4 Hands) must be credited for drawing out the complexities in a play that is often presented simply as a study in disappointment, with Amanda typically seen as delusional and not as the dreamer she is here portrayed by Soulpepper founding member Nancy Palk, a truly gifted Canadian actress who graces the role with nuance and huge dollops of empathy.

You need only think back to the 1950 film version to know that productions of The Glass Menagerie tend to be overbearing, forgoing the lyricism and humour that really are the playwright’s abiding strengths. In the film, Amanda was played by a hysterical Gertrude Lawrence, an actress Williams himself decried as being all wrong for the part, eventually publicly calling her casting “a dismal error,” and the film itself “a dishonest” reading of his work.