Saturday, August 13, 2011

Who’s the Boss? Bruce Springsteen’s Promise

When I was younger I thought with blistering sincerity that Bruce Springsteen was just too American. While I was only ever familiar with his hit song “Dancing in the Dark,” from his 1984 record Born in the USA, that iconic album cover of his denim-clad posterior presented him prominently before a star-spangled backdrop. Ignorantly, I wrote him off as flag-waving, gun-toting American without much to offer outside of trail-blazing patriotism, something of little use to an adolescent Canadian boy growing up in the suburbs. As with anything else I've learned growing up, I was at least partially wrong in my earlier years. (So was Ronald Reagan, as you may recall, but for a different purpose.) Bruce Springsteen is without a doubt a patriotic American, but in a way I never would have suspected. The performer known as “The Boss” made himself the voice of the disinherited in America.

His popular label “The Boss” always seemed peculiar to me. I never understood why my dad referred to Springsteen with the label he also used to describe the man he was working for. But I was naïve. My dad was planting the seeds of an uprising in my unwilling ears. In The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town (2010), we can see perfectly why Springsteen is known as “The Boss.” The documentary, which explores the trials and tribulations behind that career-defining album, opens a window into how The Boss shrugged off guaranteed rock stardom and fought valiantly, passionately and perhaps insanely for what he believed in. The Promise captures a moment in time over thirty years ago when a fresh-faced musician did the unthinkable: He became his own boss.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Fog of Film: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

Though it’s been a decidedly lacklustre summer at the movies, there’s one film that’s a must see, if you are to believe its almost uniformly rapturous reviews. Apparently, The Tree of Life, the latest opus from Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World) is one for the ages, a masterpiece equivalent to any of the great movies, such as, I suppose, Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, The Seven Samurai, The ‘Apu’ Trilogy, M*A*S*H and The Godfather, Part 1 and II, to name a few important milestones in world cinema. Well, I can’t concur with that view. The Tree of Life is actually pretty mediocre; a movie that traffics in indulgent, pretentious and often empty (albeit) beautiful imagery. It's a film most defined by the word meretricious: …"apparently attractive but in reality has little value:” That evaluation, too, pretty much sums up Malick’s career.

In many ways, and not just because they share similar eccentricities, Terrence Malick reminds me most of Stanley Kubrick, another genuine American talent who, after a strong film-making debut, pretty much flamed out, delivering mostly wretched, excessive movies in his late career. Kubrick, after offering up such gems as Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), then trailed off and dove relentlessly into a sea of forgettable mediocrity. Excepting his fine A Clockwork Orange (1971), his second half, much less prolific, oeuvre included the nonsensical and loopy science fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); the vapid Barry Lyndon (1975), starring a woefully miscast Ryan O’Neal in what is surely the most tedious costume drama ever made; the (deliberately?) botched adaptation of Stephen King’s fine horror novel The Shining (1975); Full Metal Jacket (1987), an incoherent war movie to rival Malick’s own The Thin Red Line (1998); and, of course, Kubrick’s final movie, the ridiculous Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which transposed a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitzler to the end of the 20th century while pretending that its themes of sexual jealousy, wherein the woman merely contemplates an affair, would be reacted to in the same fashion nearly a hundred years on.

Richard Gere and Brooke Adams in Days of Heaven.
Malick, for his part, after a stunning, powerful debut with Badlands (1973), loosely based on the life of thrill killer Charles Starkweather, followed up with Days of Heaven (1978), a beautifully shot, somewhat affecting love triangle set in depression-era America. Though I enjoyed that movie, despite the miscasting of Richard Gere as a manual laborer, it was also laden with a distinct lack of narrative flow and a disinterest in strong characterization. Nevertheless, being a departure from his first film, I felt it was a forgivable deviation and I looked forward to what he would do next. However, after a twenty year hiatus, the Malick who returned to film-making, pretty much stood still as a director, continuing to make movies such as The Thin Red Line and The New World (2005), which, even more so than Days of Heaven, concentrated almost solely on forming pretty pictures, eschewing in the process any vestige of flesh and blood emotional dramas, stories that would have left a lasting impact. The Tree of Life, unfortunately, is more of the same.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Weighed Down by the Truth: Shakespeare by the Sea’s Measure for Measure

As an English literature major, this is difficult for me to admit, but here it is: I don’t like Shakespeare. I want to like him. I should like him. I often pretend to like him, but I don’t. It seems to me that Shakespeare focuses habitually on the lackluster narratives. In Romeo and Juliet, the love story between Romeo and Rosaline always distracted me from the main action. (Ditto for the three witches in Macbeth.) And I agree with Tom Stoppard and W.S. Gilbert that Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are far more intriguing than a self-centered Danish Prince. Naturally, the Shakespearean productions I find most interesting are the ones which embrace and capitalize on the back story. Shakespeare by the Sea (SBTS) is usually quite adept at this, and so I had grand expectations for their rendition of Measure for Measure. Specifically, I’d hoped they would elaborate on the history between Angelo and Mariana, which in Shakespeare’s version happens largely outside the main plot. Generally, I’d hoped for any unexpected interpretation they could offer. I was disappointed.

A Shakespearean theatre company has limited material to work with, even if Shakespeare is one of the most prolific playwrights at 37 full length plays. You can’t do the crowd-pleasing Romeo and Juliet every year. There is an art to choosing which of The Bard’s comedies, tragedies or histories you perform and a quality company chooses their drama based on what’s relevant to the culture in which they’re performing. In this regard, Measure for Measure is an ideal choice. The play’s commentary on how power and pride affect the interpretation of truth and justice is still central to our society: from America’s economic crisis (which producers would have known when they chose the play) to the tragic shootings in Norway (which they could not have known)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Beach TV 2011: Franklin & Bash, Suits, and Warehouse 13

If you’ve been spending this summer catching up on all the television you didn’t get the chance to watch during the year, you’ve likely been missing out on new episodes of the best shows currently in production: Breaking Bad on AMC, Curb Your Enthusiasm and True Blood on HBO, and the sublimely brilliant Louie on FX. (And, for our Canadian readers, Showcase has been airing the much anticipated second season of the endlessly original British sci-fi import Misfits since early June.) And there was a lot of serious, dramatic, and important television that aired in the past year.

But if I’m being honest, what I often really want to watch at the end of a long summer day should be as easy to digest as summer reading – the televisual equivalent of a new Sue Grafton novel. In this era of dark comedy and intense psychological drama, it is sometimes easy to forget that great television can often be simply diverting, escapist, and just plain entertaining. After all, NBC’s Parks and Recreation is not only one of the most good-natured shows on television: it’s also one of its funniest.

Over the past several weeks, two new shows and one returning favourite have populated the television equivalent of my beach reading list: Franklin & Bash, Suits, and Warehouse 13. What these shows may lack in gravitas, they more than make up for in sheer fun.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #21: Alan Sillitoe (1981)

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.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Higgins and Eliza: Pygmalion & My Fair Lady

The West End revival (at the Garrick Theatre) of Shaw’s Pygmalion appears to be a vanity project for a miscast Rupert Everett. Everett is famous for velvet-gloved high-style comedy; his way of tossing off a line can turn the romantic comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) or the Michael Hoffman film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999) into high comedy. Shaw, of course, wrote high comedies, and it’s easy to imagine Everett in some of them. (A decade ago he would have made a superb Jack Tanner in Man and Superman, perhaps opposite Helena Bonham Carter as Ann.) But the role of the misanthropic phonetician and voice teacher Henry Higgins doesn’t suit him. He doesn’t know what to do with Higgins’s unmannerly explosions  his big scenes flatline. And the role provides no outlet for his understated sexiness; it wastes him and it’s wasted on him.

His Eliza Doolittle, Kara Tointon, isn’t right either. Eliza is generally played by an actress of natural elegance – Wendy Hiller in the 1938 movie (playing opposite Leslie Howard), Audrey Hepburn in the screen version of My Fair Lady – who slums merrily for the first three acts and then comes into her own after the Embassy Ball. At this point Higgins has succeeded so brilliantly into turning the Cockney flower girl into a princess that at the end she’s truly in limbo, having been irrevocably educated past her origins. Tointon doesn’t have the aristocratic grace to be convincing as a transformed Eliza in the second half, but she’s too actressy to be plausible as the Covent Garden guttersnipe. She’s competent but you can feel her straining for her effects. She’s at her best in the third act (just before intermission) when Higgins brings her along to his mother’s for tea to try her out on the guests who wander into her salon, including the callow Freddy Eynsford-Hill (played by another triple-decker name, Peter Sandys-Clarke), who falls for her. (Diana Rigg strolls through the part of Mrs. Higgins like a gracious guest star on a wobbly TV variety hour.) The joke in this scene is that at this juncture in her education, Eliza has learned both the dialect and the manners of an upper-crust young woman phonetically, so the Eliza we saw in the first and second acts keeps rattling around inside the varnished shell like broken pieces of pottery. Tointon’s handling of the scene is a comic routine but a clever and entertaining one.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Dated: Clarence Brown’s Night Flight

Within the ongoing blizzard of DVD/Blu-Ray releases for the latest blockbusters, I'm happy to see that some of the major companies still feel the need to open their vaults to artifacts from a bygone era. They root around and pull out a film from a dusty corner, clean it up and put it out into the world. Such is the case with Warner Brothers who a couple of weeks back released the MGM-produced 1933 film Night Flight. Sometimes, however, these films are generally forgotten for a variety of reasons and, if I'm being honest, Night Flight probably should have been one of them.

In fact, if not for its pretty amazing cast – John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy and Helen Hays; the director Clarence Brown, who made several Garbo flicks in the silent era and the 1930s, plus the '40s family classics National Velvet (1944) and The Yearling (1946); not to mention, the author of the source material, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (The Little Prince) –  this one probably would have stayed put.