Saturday, September 17, 2011

Oldies But Goldies: Toronto Heritage Dance Recycles Vintage Works Into Something New

Patricia Beatty
The heads in the audience, for the most part, were gray and nodding as around them swirled pre-show chatter touching on the weather, doctor’s appointments and 25th anniversary reunions. It was definitely an older crowd that gathered inside Toronto’s Winchester Street Theatre (80 Winchester Street) on Thursday night for an evening of dance, an art form notorious for its love affair with youth. Many in the house were ex-dancers whose own leaping days were far behind them. They had come not entirely for nostalgia’s sake, although the event gave reason enough for reminiscing: the program at hand promised an evening of revivals by local dance pioneers as well as the welcome return to the stage of some beloved local dancers, long retired. But more enticing (and worthy of a late night) was that this modern dance show, while celebrating the past, was actually something novel, marking as it did the debut of Toronto Heritage Dance, the new kid on the Canadian dance block with a backpack jammed with history.

The brainchild of veteran dance producer Nenagh Leigh in collaboration with Patricia Beatty, Toronto Heritage Dance aims to use work from the not-so-distant past (the oldest work on the current program is just 40) to jumpstart new creations for the 21st century. The idea, elaborated Leigh during a brief intermission chat, is to get audiences used to the idea of preservation as a means of fostering a re-invigorated dance future. Vintage is all the rage in fashion, film and home decor. So why not apply the trend to locally made dance? 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Out of Gas: Drive

Until Drive, his latest film, actor Ryan Gosling could always be counted on to deliver consistently good performances; often he was the best thing about a bad movie. He shone in The Believer (2001), as a Jewish-born neo-Nazi, and in Half Nelson (2006) as a drug addicted junior high school teacher. Even though the films were otherwise mediocre, those parts were juicy. Gosling was also the sole bright spot in this summer’s dismal, overrated romantic comedy/drama Crazy, Stupid, Love. – his first foray into comedy. Playing a Lothario who took on a hapless shlub (Steve Carrell), who has just been dumped by his wife, in a successful bid to turn him into a winner with the ladies, allowed Gosling to lighten up for a change and just have fun with his part. (The film’s second half flattened his role when his character was tamed by falling in love with a young woman.) And sometimes his fine acting matched the quality of the movie itself, such as in Lars and the Real Girl (2007), where he was utterly convincing as a man in love with a sex doll, and in this year’s Blue Valentine, where he registered strongly as a desperate man trying to deal with the painful reality of his busted marriage. So, with such good judgement in parts, if not in films, what is Gosling doing in an idiotic, empty-headed movie such as Drive? This one doesn’t offer him anything of value at all.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Death Knell: The End of the DVD Store

The end is nigh. The days of the DVD store are numbered and there is little any of us can do about it. The announcement this spring that the collapse of Blockbuster US was going to force the actually profitable Blockbuster Canada into bankruptcy with it signalled the end of an era. (Blockbuster Canada was a separate company, but associated enough that the debt holders in the US could force the Canadian version to sell off its wares and close.) Rogers is still up and running, but rumours are rampant that they want to get out of the DVD rental business.

Don't get me wrong, I know there is a somewhat healthy independent industry still thriving, but when you live in a middlebrow city like Markham (just north of Toronto), your options are pretty limited. In fact, Markham's last independent shop, the terrific DVD Mansion, moved to Woodbridge (20 kilometres to the west of Markham) 18 months ago. That leaves, for the entire city of Markham, one little, bitty Rogers store (and nobody knows how much longer that will stay open). Regardless of what you thought of Blockbuster, the stores were big and they had a lot of films. Okay, 90% of them were of the Hollywood big budget variety from the last 4 to 5 years, but there was still that 10%. My local Blockbuster had a pretty healthy foreign language film collection, and it wasn't afraid to bring in a copy of micro-budgeted films like the terrific The Eclipse (which I rented at Blockbuster and wrote about here). They also had a section dedicated to promoting Canadian films, a few dozen pictures from Hollywood's golden era, plus you could get the occasional Criterion edition of classic films. Rogers? Not so much. If you want to see Hollywood pictures (or the occasional B flick) or some TV series from last three to five years, then you were in luck. Anything else, forget it. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How Much History? Paul Simon's “The Sound of Silence” at Ground Zero

Paul Simon at the 9/11 Memorial on Sunday
In the conclusion of his 1981 book Deep Blues, his musical and cultural exploration of the Mississippi Delta blues, the late music critic Robert Palmer wrote, "How much thought...can be hidden in a few short lines of poetry? How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string?" You could spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating the depth in those very fine lines. You might even say that Palmer spent his whole book in quest of that riddle. In the new paperback edition of Blues & Chaos (Scribner, 2011) – a collection of Palmer's essays first published in hardcover two years ago –  that sojourn is outlined in a much more literal manner, one suited to a fine music historian. The editor, Anthony DeCurtis, has thematically designed the book as a journey into the vast mystery of music itself, which includes blues, jazz, rock and world music. But he begins the book with Robert Palmer's 1975 Downbeat magazine essay, "What is American Music?" In it, Palmer claims that "American music is non-proprietary ... in that American composers (and performers) innovate and move on."

That spirit of being non-proprietary made me think of many American artists, but mostly of Woody Guthrie, who once said that he didn't write songs, but pulled them out of the air. When a performing artist can create a work by reaching into the air, rather than simply claiming ownership of it, he/she taps into the essence of exactly how much history will be transmitted from the moment they begin to perform. The artist who innovates discovers a work's meaning rather than imposing meaning on it. As an audience, we can then discover how much history is transmitted when the song begins to change the artist who created it. That's what struck me most when I heard Paul Simon begin his classic song, "The Sound of Silence," during the events at Ground Zero this past Sunday. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Remarkable Polymath: The Cinema of Michael Winterbottom

Director Michael Winterbottom
It may be because he’s so prolific, putting out at least one film most years and sometimes more; or maybe because he has no discernable visual style (Bringing Up Baby’s director Howard Hawks didn't either); or simply because he rarely makes a film in the same genre twice in a row; but for whatever reason, British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom may be the most unheralded director around. He’s also one of the most interesting ones, too, which makes his below-the-radar state somewhat unjust.

Since he began making TV films in 1989 through to his recently completed film Trishna, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles, but set in India, which will be released next year, Winterbottom has amassed 25 credits in just 22 years, most of those being feature films. He’s also tackled virtually every genre under the sun (except for horror) from domestic dramas (Family, 1994; Wonderland, 1999) to literary adaptations (Jude, 1996; A Cock and Bull Story, 2006), from westerns (The Claim, 2003) to science fiction movies (Code 46, 2006), film noir (I Want You,1998), to comedy/dramas (24 Hour Party People, 2002), even a unique love story interspersed with hardcore, genuine sex scenes and live concert scenes (9 Songs, 2004). That wide-ranging interest in disparate subject matter and characters might, in a minor filmmaker, result in a lot of diverse movies that didn’t necessarily succeed as art/entertainment. But except for a few duds (the overwrought psychological thriller Butterfly Kiss, 1995; his simplistic fact-based post 9/11 drama The Road to Guatanamo, 2006), most of his output stands out, particularly his very fine topical dramas which centre on war (Welcome to Sarajevo, 1997) and displaced peoples (In This World, 2003), and his more offbeat offerings (Code 46, 24 Hour Party People, 9 Songs). The other fact you need to know about his movies is that many of them don’t often play commercially in North America or in limited release at best. (I wouldn’t have seen some of his earliest films, such as I Want You and With or Without You, 1999, if they hadn't been featured at a now-defunct British film festival in Toronto which showcased Winterbottom’s movies as its centrepiece.) More likely they’ll pop up at various film festivals before heading straight to pay-TV and DVD.  The Killer Inside Me (which had a limited theatrical release in the U.S. but never played in Canada) was released on DVD last year and recently premiered on The Movie Network in Canada, as did A Summer in Genoa. Both premiered on TV at almost the same time as one of Winterbtottom's rarer commercial releases in Canada, The Trip. Remarkably, The Trip has hung on since it opened earlier this summer. The trio offers a chance for film-goers to gain a perspective on the director and his strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Musicals in Revival: Anything Goes & How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Except for Kiss Me, Kate, no Cole Porter show has been revived as often as Anything Goes, the 1934 shipboard musical he wrote with P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Wodehouse and Bolton penned the original script, about a shipwreck; when the cruise ship the S.S. Morro Castle went down in a fire weeks before rehearsals were scheduled to start, marking the worst maritime disaster of the decade. Lindsay, who was also directing, and Crouse quickly refashioned the plot as a romantic farce about a young man who stows away on a ship to stop one of its passengers, the girl he loves, from marrying the man her mother has picked for her and through the device of a purloined passport ends up being mistaken for a celebrated gangster.

The book of the musical as it was finally produced is peerlessly silly, though every time it’s mounted afresh on Broadway someone is hired to tinker with it: the version that is currently intoxicating Manhattan audiences carries credits to Crouse’s son Timothy and Stephen Sondheim’s sometime collaborator John Weidman. Even the Porter score gets treated as a work in progress. All productions include “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “All Through the Night” and the title tune, and since the sixties “It’s De-Lovely” from Red, Hot and Blue and “Friendship” from Du Barry Was a Lady are common bonuses. The 2011 edition adds “Easy to Love” (which Porter wrote for the film Born to Dance) and “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye” (from an obscure British play called O Mistress Mine) while restoring the often excised “There’ll Always Be a Lady Fair,” “The Gypsy in Me” and “Buddie, Beware.”

Purists may whine, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference what tiny omissions and additions script doctors make to Anything Goes or how the Porter repertoire gets mined, as long as the shape of the original is retained and the mainstays of the score don’t go missing. After all, it’s not Fiddler on the Roof. The Porter songbook is rich in variety but the adjectives we might apply to one of his songs effervescent, brittle, madcap, flamboyantly witty would fit any of the others, and only Kiss Me, Kate (indisputably his finest score) is so intricately tied to a dramatic context that its songs can’t be slipped with impunity into other shows. That said, I think that the creative team behind the newest revival, headed by director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall and music supervisor-arranger Rob Fisher, has assembled the most pleasing combination of originals and interpolations yet. And it’s hard to imagine them being performed more delightfully.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9/11

To commemorate the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, tomorrow, starting at 8:46 a.m. EDT (the exact moment the first plane hit the first tower), we at Critics At Large will be running a series of posts throughout the day written by members of the site. Seven of us have each written an essay that looks at the cultural (including personal and public) ramifications that have come about as a result of this tragedy. So to our registered followers, whether directly to the site or via Facebook, please note you will be receiving seven notifications throughout the day that a new piece has gone up. We will be posting once an hour, with the last piece – Deirdre Kelly's devastating on-the-ground-in-New York-on-9/11 piece – going up at 2:46 p.m. EDT. Each essay is as unique and individualistic as the writers who crafted them. Please let us know what you think by adding your thoughts to our comment section.

-- The writers of

Overcoming the Irrational: Flying in the Post 9/11 World

Today, at 11:06am local time, I will board flight UA906 from San Francisco to Chicago. The planes hijacked on September 11, 2001, were also transcontinental flights, chosen by terrorists because they were loaded with jet fuel. I’m not generally a superstitious being, but as I get ready to board this flight I am a little anxious. Traumatic events tend to augment our irrational tendencies, on both a personal and societal level. After 9/11, many people were afraid to fly, although statisticians tried to convince us that we were safer than ever. Airport security was upped to inane levels, although would-be terrorists had likely developed more sophisticated techniques than hiding metal in their flip flops. Crises often catalyze change, and in many ways 9/11 has changed our world for the good, making us more compassionate, considerate, and careful. Still, it was too high a price to pay for the compassion, consideration, and care we should have been showing each other anyway. 9/11 has worked its way into our literature, film, television, and collective conscious. Throughout today, as we reflect on the impact of the events of a decade ago, let’s turn our temptation for paranoia into a catalyst for change. That’s what I’ll be reflecting on during my 4-hour flight this morning.

Mari-Beth Slade is a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax. She enjoys hearing new ideas and challenging assumptions. When not hard at work, she appreciates sharing food, wine and conversations with her family and friends.

2001: A Terrorized Odyssey

“The mystic chords of memory,” President Abraham Lincoln suggested during his first inaugural address in 1861, should be tempered by “the better angels of our nature.”

On an early autumn morning 150 years later, the mystic chords of memory became rooted in infamy that would change almost every political, social and cultural sphere on the planet. There’s no going back to the widespread innocence and ignorance that existed before the momentous events of 9/11, which many of us often replay in our minds.

I’d like to think my better angels will eventually diminish the feelings of fury about who wreaked so much misery and about an American government’s failure to be vigilant despite dire forewarnings. After a decade, the immediate fear has subsided but the rage continues and the wound never quite heals.

Here is an account of memories, reconstructed as faithfully as possible, from my sojourn at the Toronto International Film Festival when the worst demons of our nature came calling:

Trying to Comprehend the Incomprehensible: Artists and Musicians Coming to Terms with 9/11

9/11 Tribute - Photo by David Kidney
September 11, 2001, started out as a very ordinary day. Woke up to the radio, had my shower, cereal for breakfast, took the bus to work. It didn’t start to get weird until just before 9am. I received a phone call from one of the technicians in my office.

“A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!”

I laughed. “Joe, New York City is a ‘no fly zone,’ planes don’t fly over the city!”

“Well it was on the radio.”

“You must’ve misunderstood … what was it, a Piper Cub?”

Twenty minutes later he called back. “Dave, another plane crashed into the World Trade Center!”

9/11: Popular Culture's Partial Truths

After 9/11, pundits weighed in on how the popular culture was going to treat this unique, horrific event and how it would change because of what happened in America on that fateful day. I remember comments about the immediate death of irony, pace Roger Rosenblatt in Time magazine, and musings about a supposed new seriousness in American culture. Well, neither has happened, as in many ways the U.S. has gone further along a superficial route with its TV reality shows still thriving and becoming even more idiotic and fatuous. Much of Hollywood’s output is increasingly given over to tedious remakes, unimaginative sequels and empty-headed comedies. You can also see that disintegration of thought in the political arena where complex issues are routinely debased with cheap sloganeering and carelessly used language such as Rick Perry’s recent labelling the act of U.S. Reserve Chair’s Ben Bernanke’s printing of U.S. money as ‘almost treasonous.’ In the case of depictions of 9/11, however, popular culture has taken a different route, not making light of the tragedy, but for various, sometimes complex reasons, refusing to look at it in a clear light and thus veering away from examining the reality of the terror attacks and what they actually meant.

Mirrors: 9/11 and the New Media

One night, about four years ago, I was sitting in front of my computer at work, just killing time and finishing some e-mails. As I was about to head home, a Chinese employee in her mid-thirties just happened by my office to chat. In no particular hurry to leave, I asked her to sit and soon we began talking about her short time in Canada as well as the journey that brought her here from Beijing. Our conversation quickly got around to world affairs and some of the historical events that touched, perhaps even changed our lives. After I rhymed off some of the key ones for me – from JFK's assassination to 9/11 – I suggested that for her the massacre of the students at Tiananmen Square in 1989 had to be a seminal event. Instead of nodding in full recognition of the terrible slaughter of that June, she looked at me with the puzzled expression of someone left out of the loop of a conversation.

Certainly I must be confusing this horror with some other place, some other country, some other time, her face told me. While I insisted on what I knew to be historical fact, she was adamant that Tiananmen Square never saw such a calamity. For her, not only had Tiananmen Square never happened, student leader Chai Ling never existed, nor did the iconic sight of the sole protester standing in front of the tank; an image that, for many, stood for both the resiliency of human defiance as well as its futility when it's up against enormous odds. In her mind, there never were such odds at stake. Her expression of denial proved wrong the hopeful young female student speaking to the BBC who, in the middle of the protests, told the reporter, "What can they do to us? We have our whole future ahead of us, and we've seen it." The student obviously didn't see a future where one of her own citizens had no knowledge, or even a recognition of the events that prompted her to see a better future, a time she saw ahead as a period of democratic freedom that China has yet to attain.

Paralysis: The Day the Words Ended

“What's that Bin guy's name?” I asked Ron Bowering, who'd just told me that two airplanes had deliberately crashed into New York's World Trade Center towers. And so it began. As I outlined last year in my analysis of the U2 song, “Beautiful Day,” everything began to change for me on that day. In the case of U2, the song's meaning was transformed, but in so many other ways my attitude and outlook also began to morph into something different.

Throughout the rest of that horrifying day, windows opened onto a whole other reality. For about an hour after I watched the first tower fall on a TV in a boardroom, I tried to work. In my day job, I write feature and sales copy about fine wines and spirits, so I tried, vainly, to go back to it. Finally, I knew I needed to get out, so I grabbed a work colleague and we walked down to the water's edge at the Toronto harbour. Everything was quiet as we talked and tried to make sense of things. A handful of images from our moment by the harbour persist today: hundreds of seagulls knew something had happened because they surrounded us, just walking rather than flying, as if they had received the no-fly order too; a bus circled aimlessly around in the background (we were in an unused parking lot where bus drivers were obviously given lessons); just before we returned to work, a single-engine plane approached the island airport. We both found that odd since we had heard that all North American airplanes had been grounded (clearly this pilot didn't get the memo). We went back to work and I sat at my keyboard to start again on our latest 'magalogue' about the wonderful world of wine. I opened the program, rested my fingers on keyboard and, nothing. I thought, “What the fuck does it matter that I'm telling people about wine when the world was ending?” I couldn't type, I couldn't think about anything else except what was happening in New York, and, later, Washington and Pennsylvania. And then it seemed to be getting worse. A friend called and said there was gunfire in the streets of New York. Another friend told me the Sears Tower in Chicago was down. It was like the end of days.

Seven Days in September

This wasn’t my war. It wasn’t even my city. And it wasn’t supposed to have been my assignment that day, or for the nearly 10 days that followed. But I was in New York on 9/11 -- definitely the wrong place at the wrong time -- and found I was swept up in the chaos and other forces beyond my control.

I had been there already for days, covering the fashion shows that had been unfolding inside the tents at Bryant Park as part of New York Fashion Week. That morning, as terrorists flew jet planes into the World Trade Center, I was just about to take my seat alongside a catwalk teeming with pregnant models showcasing a new line of maternity wear by American designer Liz Lange, a fashion runway first.

But I didn’t end up reporting on that.