Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Future of Nostalgia: Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone

Whenever a film, television show or book captures something genuine and unique it runs a risk. Like most classic art, it carries an unfortunate weight as it becomes ingrained in popular culture –  we parody it to tame its power over us. To do that, we usually dilute it. In attempting to recapture its magic, to hold it dear, we ironically tame what attracted us to it in the first place. Nevertheless its power still remains because the work exists independent of time and our need to possess it. One such example of this paradox is The Twilight Zone. It wasn’t just great television, it was one of the most indelibly imaginative programs created. You couldn't tame its power.

Chances are if you haven’t seen a single episode of the original series (that ran from 1959-1964), you've likely come across some reference to a parody of it over the past fifty years. The Twilight Zone has been referenced in everything from Leave It To Beaver to Seinfeld and The Simpsons. I'm remembering, in particular, an episode of The Simpsons where Bart is the only boy who can see a gremlin on the side of the bus. That episode cleverly parodied a The Twilight Zone thriller originally immortalized by William Shatner in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." But homage is a tricky mistress. The Twilight Zone didn't have any recurring characters outside of its creator and host Rod Serling, who acted as the connecting thread. Without any discernible characters then, the show relied on the surprises from their dramatic twists at the end. Serling’s stories essentially focused on real people in extraordinary circumstances. He illustrated men and women who were awarded a second chance to rise up, or fall further into the doldrums of their lives. These stories reached an audience fifty years ago and in spite of the many parodies they haven’t missed a beat since.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Floundering: Why Can't American Cinema Get SF Right?

A scene from Never Let Me Go (2010)
If literary science fiction, which I read regularly, tends to be better at bringing ideas and concepts to life than it is at evoking memorable characters, science fiction movies tend to do the opposite. They often deliver strong characterization and vivid protagonists but generally falter at inserting those people into an imagined future or alternate world that functions logically and believably.

Take Never Let Me Go, the highly critically acclaimed 2010 British film based on a dystopian novel by Kazuo Ishjguro. Admittedly, I haven’t read the book, but the film makes no interior sense whatsoever. The movie’s opening crawl indicates that in 1952 breakthrough scientific experiments cured most diseases and by 1967 the average lifespan was over 100 years old. Yet the inhabitants of that different world use the same technology – radios, cassette tapes – in the same time-frames as we do. That’s simply ridiculous considering the remarkable dramatic medical advancements of Never Let Me Go, which we still haven't achieved in 2011. Should they not have matched their medical breakthroughs by equally great leaps in technological know-how, especially because mankind would have been spared the need to find the cure for cancer and other illnesses and thus had more time to innovate in other fields? A world where illness has been largely eradicated by the '50s is one where DVD players and computers would have been common by the '60s and astronauts would likely have landed on Mars by the '80s. To postulate that the England of Never Let Me Go would look and feel the same as our own is nonsense. Similarly, the movie’s revelation that its main characters – SPOILERS FOLLOW – a trio of young people (beautifully acted by Keira Knightly, Andrew Garfield and Casey Mulligan) were actually clones that were only being kept alive until their vital organs were needed for transplant to their ageing/dying humans is also illogical. (Director Mark Romanek doesn’t do a good job of springing that news on the viewer, I figured it out pretty early on.) If their world was so cruel as to use them for this purpose – and remember they assumed they were fully human – why give them lives, an education and jobs before yanking it all away from them? It would be far more realistic if their 'world' was just made up of false memoires implanted into their brains while they lay in suspended animation or something along those lines. 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Fiendish Slumber Party: A Movie About Perpetual Shut-Eye

A scene from John Carpenter's 1988 film, They Live.

For many fans, the lasting value of They Live is rooted in silly, macho one-liners like “I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass – and I’m all out of bubble gum.” Others enjoy John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi thriller because it so perfectly nails how the purveyors of pop culture, commerce and politics long ago sold their souls to the devil. Well, not Satan exactly, but amoral Masters of the Universe who control humanity by promoting greed, ignorance and apathy. In the cult film loosely adapted from a Ray Nelson short story, Eight O’Clock in the Morning, these demonic forces are actually ghoulish extraterrestrials disguised as mainstream Americans – some critics have dubbed them Young Republicans – walking amongst us.

Their hideous forms can’t be seen by the naked eye, only through special sunglasses known as Hoffman lenses (portrayed by Ray-Ban Wayfarers or a similar cheap knockoff) developed in an underground resistance movement. The first onscreen glimpse of the monsters that lie beneath comes courtesy of an unsuspecting drifter, Nada (pro wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper), a name that means “nothing” in Spanish. His moment of truth takes place when he dons the hipster shades and suddenly – switching from color to black-and-white – witnesses myriad ways that the populace has been hypnotized with subliminal messages such as “Obey,” “Consume” and “Stay Asleep.” They are commands on TV, in magazines and on billboards with which Carpenter intended to exemplify the somnambulistic dangers of the Reagan presidency. Given a possible remake currently in the pipeline, nowadays the same theme could effectively target the regressive Tea Party mentality.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

For the Love of Vinyl

Dr. Disc's vinyl
In recent months I’ve noticed a strong resurgence in the availability of vinyl. For instance, this month Dr. Disc, a local record store in Hamilton, is celebrating its 20th anniversary. They are quite chuffed about it; after all, the news from many places is that record stores are closing. Dr. Disc is doing quite well thanks, in fact, they throwing a month long party for all. Everything in the store is “Buy one get one free” (or BOGO if you will), and I’ve been down several times to take advantage of the deals. They’ve even booked a succession of local bands to play live concerts on the roof of the building. Last Friday night, we stood in the parking lot below enjoying the hot blues of the Steve Strongman Band and the cool breezes of downtown Hamilton.

After the set, before the next band stepped up, we had to go inside to have a look.  Strongman has encouraged us, “What better way to celebrate a birthday than by spending a couple hundred bucks!?!” I looked through the “Used and New 45s” section. There were oldies on the Apple label, plus some Stax records, but most of the records there were new releases. Sealed in plastic bags with warning stickers saying “Please Do Not Open” these little treasures looked magical. There was a series from Third Man Records, the label started by Jack White of the White Stripes. They featured unfamiliar names and faces shot elegantly against a blue background; inside black vinyl, in a white sleeve, one song per side. The attraction?  Most of the songs were produced by Jack White III. And many featured him on guitar or drums.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Chamber of the Sublime: Bill Frisell’s Sign of Life

Sometimes music has a way of gently penetrating the heart and soul. For guitarist and composer Bill Frisell, it’s the quality of sublime sound that fills the unique music of the 858 Quartet on their new album, Sign Of Life (Savoy Jazz, 2011). The 858 Quartet features Jenny Scheinman on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola, Hank Roberts on cello and Frisell on electric guitar. Each musician brings a distinct sensibility to the music. This group first recorded together in 2005 on the limited release, Richter 858, featuring compositions by Frisell based on paintings by German artist Gerhard Richter.

Sign of Life is a series of short musical ideas that are often revisited during the course of the album. Seventeen tracks grace the record and although they're light, they're not lightweight. For me, Frisell's music is always about life's subtleties; both its gentleness and its grace. The music best exemplifies Frisell’s risk-taking style, as we sway from track-to-track without fear of falling. What makes this new album special, though, is the musical interplay. It's a complete collaboration between the textures of the instruments and the musicians. That quality is particularly evident on "It's a Long Story" (Parts 1 and 2). Rather than develop a theme and improvise on it, the players weave their way forward by blending and contrasting their styles. As Frisell admits in the liner notes, arrangements are "on the spot and subject to change." So what we have here is music where the composition comes out of the improvisation rather than the other way around. In other words, they don’t necessarily start from a written work.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Two Richards

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Steve Vineberg, to our group.

Two versions of Richard III are playing simultaneously in London this summer: one by Edward Hall’s all-male Propeller Company in Hampstead, and at the Old Vic a sellout version directed by Sam Mendes with the departing artistic director Kevin Spacey in the title role – the latest product of the Mendes-Spacey Bridge Project, in which English and American actors share the stage. It’s not difficult to imagine Spacey as Richard, Shakespeare’s wittiest and most charismatic villain. The problem is that his performance is exactly as you imagine it; it contains no surprises. It was bold of Spacey to shift focus from a movie career to the English boards, and those of us who had grown weary of his trademark switchblade irony – especially deadly when he offered it in combination with sentimental masochism in films like Pay It Forward, K-Pax and Beyond the Sea – hoped that it would fit him up with some new ways into his characters. Indeed he’s been better in his recent pictures (particularly Shrink), and his Richard is certainly an impressive technical achievement. He handles the language deftly, easily holding his own among the skilled English actors and providing a role model for his American cohorts (none of whom, alas, comes close to emulating him). And God knows he commands the stage, as any Richard needs to: he’s often hilarious and always mesmerizing.

Richard III is perhaps the only play Shakespeare ever wrote that functions solely as a star vehicle. Richard plots to obtain the throne; once he’s got it, about halfway through the play, he plots to secure it; and he resorts directly to the most direct method – murder. With the exception of his sister-in-law, Queen Elizabeth (whose brother and sons he kills), and the cursing, half-mad old Queen Margaret, the major supporting characters are all dupes who make the mistake of underestimating him and who pay the ultimate price for their bad judgment. (Lady Anne, whom he courts over the coffin of her father-in-law – whom he killed, as well as her husband – doesn’t exactly underestimate him, but she’s weak enough to walk into his trap with her eyes open. He marries her and then disposes of her when she no longer suits his purposes.) His male victims are merely foils for Richard, whose gleeful scheming, confided to the audience in the manner of a medieval Vice, is the play’s dramatic arc until the good Richmond gathers an army against him toward the end and Richard simply runs out of luck. Put another way, the forces of evil, as always in Shakespeare, eventually burn themselves out: the ghosts of Richard’s victims unite on the eve of battle to trouble his sleep and bless Richmond. The plot structure isn’t much different from Macbeth’s, but aside from a psychologically complex protagonist, that play has Lady Macbeth. It’s also compact, whereas Richard III drags on; Mendes’s production clocks in at three and a quarter hours, and it’s paced well. There’s not much to focus on besides Richard’s merry villainy.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma

Voyeurism has always been an integral part of the appeal of motion pictures. However, over the years, the taboo of watching and staring into the lives of others was made largely acceptable by movies that didn't implicate us in our peeping. But Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma changed all that. They turned that taboo of staring and watching into a dramatic strategy where both directors forced us to face our own perverse fantasies and forbidden desires.

I first set out to examine this theme in a course I taught last winter at Ryerson University through the LIFE Institute. Partly, the idea for the series was due to my interest in both directors. Their films not only shaped my fascination as a moviegoer, but their work also implicitly led to my eventually wanting to be a critic. Being a critic then showed me that there were are also significant differences in their respective strategies. Where Hitchcock set out to become a master entertainer of exciting spy thrillers and dramas, De Palma questioned with ironic humour the very nature of what makes exciting drama. If Hitchcock desired (and won) a mass audience that made him one of the most highly regarded and respected commercial directors, De Palma became the opposite. He would often alienate audiences because of his ironic desire to treat movie conventions and storytelling in an irreverent way. In doing so, he deliberately (and cheerfully) undermined our desire for a happy resolution to the picture. Hitchcock may have been a genius at manipulating our responses by pulling the rug out from under our expectations in his dramas; but De Palma, in borrowing some of Hitchcock’s cinematic language (as well as the language of Buñuel, Polanski and Godard), used conventional drama to take us deeper and further into more contemporary issues of sexual fear and political unrest. In Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, I decided to pair films from their body of work that I felt best mirrored the different ways they work with voyeurism. The series continues tomorrow night at the Revue Cinema.