Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Main Course of Action: Kristen Rugg Dovbniak’s Crash Course in Gluten Free Living

Chef Kristen Rugg Dovbniak
Even though it’s pouring rain, I’m contemplating interrupting my lazy Saturday to make the six block trek to the natural foods store. I suddenly need grapeseed oil. That’s what comes from reading Kristen Rugg Dovbniak’s Crash Course in Gluten Free Living (CCGFL): you want to improve your life immediately, even if in very small ways like dressing your salad with grapeseed oil. The book is inspiring in more ways than a typical diet or cookbook. Readers of her blog Cook Bake Nibble can attest to the power in Rugg Dovbniak’s personal account of struggles with digestive issues. Rugg Dovbniak is a relatively new convert to the gluten-free (GF) life, but her story and background as a natural foods chef bring immediate credibility to her work. She has effectively self-diagnosed her condition, single-handedly cured herself and now humbly shares her learning with readers. It’s the perfect example of how to turn life’s lemons into Lemon Cranberry Muffins (page 104), Tangy Lemon Frosting (page 177), or Lemon Almond Biscotti (page 192).

Everyone seems to have food sensitivities these days. Remember when a nut allergy seemed exotic? Not anymore. Now you can buy gluten free, dairy free, kosher, vegan granola bars at any neighborhood market. Twenty years ago, we ridiculed Meg Ryan’s character in When Harry Met Sally for ordering everything “on the side,” but now it’s a form of self-assentation to customize your Starbucks drink in 14 different ways. Rugg Dovbniak, though, is not jumping on the bandwagon for the trendiness. Nor does she encourage her readers to do so. CCGFL not only acknowledges how hard it is to live GF, but devotes the entire fourth chapter to “Living a gluten-free life” – dealing with family, friends, social events, and gluten in alcohol and personal hygiene products (who knew?).

Friday, October 28, 2011

When a Director Loses His Mojo: Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In

Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya star in The Skin I Live In

If you had told me a decade ago that Quentin Tarantino and Kathryn Bigelow would have made two of the best films of recent memory, namely Inglourious Basterds and The Hurt Locker, I wouldn’t have believed you. Their body of work, except for his debut Reservoir Dogs and her second feature Near Dark, never looked to deliver on the promise that they could direct anything that great again. But they did. And if you had suggested that Spanish wunderkind Pedro Almodóvar would become one of the dullest, least interesting directors around, I would have scoffed as well. Yet that’s exactly what happened with him. The Skin I Live In, his latest movie, provides more evidence of a filmmaker who’s become stale in terms of imagination, presentation and content.

It’s not always evident why, in some instances, a director can improve in quantum leaps literally overnight (as Curtis Hanson, for example, did with L.A. Confidential). It's also not clear how they can even do a 360 degree turn in their approach to movie-making (as David Fincher did after the vile, misanthropic likes of Se7en and Fight Club in helming the movies – Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network – which were humane, thoughtful and multilayered, everything his earlier films were not). In the case of Almodóvar, it’s perhaps easier to hazard a guess as to why his promise has pretty much evaporated.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

It Might Get Dull: A Rock Doc With Not Enough Oomph

The four members of U2, who pledged loyalty to each other while still Dublin teenagers in the late 1970s, collectively see “music as a sacrament.” According to lead singer Bono, the rekindling of that unity is “why we’re still here.” It’s evident in From the Sky Down – a documentary about the Irish rockers premiering on Showtime this weekend – that they almost lost their togetherness 20 years ago. The band was coming apart at the seams in the process of creating Achtung Baby, which went on to mark a show-biz turnaround for the musicians (and will be reissued this month for the anniversary.)

The requisite archival footage is plentiful, often allowing a glimpse of the quartet’s abundant hairstyles from days of yore. Producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, an engineer named Flood, and U2‘s favorite photographer, Anton Corbijn, are some of the talking heads on hand to offer reminiscences about the November 1991 release. They witnessed the conflict-ridden 1990 Berlin recording sessions, where Bono and guitarist The Edge versus drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bass player Adam Clayton engaged in tense debates over what direction to take next. A possible breakup loomed.

That battle is the subject of this cinematic profile by David Guggenheim, whose It Might Get Loud explores three generations of guitar gods (including The Edge, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and the White Stripes’ Jack White) with much more depth. The 2008 non-fiction effort conveys a literal sense of sacrament, in fact, through images that suggest the holy hush of the woods as The Edge explains how his realization about forests provided a lesson on achieving clarity.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Still Swinging: Why Pauline Kael Still Angers So Many Critics

Film critic Pauline Kael
It's astonishing and quite craven how often people have to wait until somebody's dead, sometimes long dead, before they dare to start taking a strip off them. Since her passing in 2001, The New Yorker magazine film critic extraordinaire Pauline Kael has been flayed by former 'acolytes,' enemies and competitors. Just when you think the noise is dying down and people can just read her brilliant criticism for what's on the page, not the way she may have 'treated' someone, another rift erupts. For a woman who stopped writing criticism in 1991 and died of Parkinson's disease in 2001, she sure still stirs up a shit storm of emotion amongst current critics.

In the very early 1980s, I met Kael at a book signing in Toronto at a now defunct store called Cine Books. She was in town to promote and sign her then-latest collection of essays compiled from The New Yorker. I arrived a bit late and found that there were only a handful of people left. As circumstances played out, the small crowd thinned and I found myself essentially alone with Kael. I don't know how long we talked (my memory says an hour, but I don't think so), but I remember, if not the details of it, at least sensing her seeming enthusiasm as she listened to me talk about my own desire to be a film critic (I was writing for a now-defunct student newspaper at the University of Toronto called, unimaginatively, The Newspaper). Never once during our chat, even when other people came up and then left, did I feel I was wasting her time. She restarted the conversation and on we talked. It was the sort of thing I needed as a young writer to hear words of encouragement from a critic I admired. Don't get me wrong. I was never a “Paulette,” as her supposed band of young writers who became part of her literal or figurative circle were derisively called. I had my own mind. For all the reviews she wrote that I admired, such as her stunning piece on Brian de Palma's misunderstood masterpiece, Casualties of War (1989), I found others with which I did not agree, such as her lukewarm review of Philip Kaufman's fine The Right Stuff (1983). (It was her review though of Kaufman's 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers that made me want to be a critic in the first place.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #24: Samuel Z. Arkoff (1986)

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.

Tom Fulton of CJRT-FM's On the Arts

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.

Samuel Z. Arkoff
As mainstream movies became more predictable and packaged in the eighties, some filmmakers turned to the fringes. Not all of the work of independent directors though was worthy of being enshrined (any more than all of the Hollywood work earned for itself the right to be trashed). There were good and bad films in both camps. What I wanted to illustrate in the chapter Occupying the Margins: Re-Inventing Movies was the more idiosyncratic styles of people working in the business on both sides of the fence. They included screenwriter Robert Towne, film directors Bill Forsyth, Bob Swaim, James Toback, Mira Nair, Agnes Varda, and the Hollywood mogul Samuel Z. Arkoff. This B-movie cigar-chomper who in the late fifties and early sixties virtually invented the drive-in theatre through the product of his low budget American International Pictures. The wildly diverse repertoire he created for those venues at dusk were pictures like I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Panic in Year ZeroHot Rod Girls, The Wild Angels and Beach Blanket Bingo. The directors in his employ were equally motley: Roger Corman, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich and Dennis Hopper. Since we are approaching Halloween, this interview seemed a timely post.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Tough Shakespeare: All's Well That Ends Well & Cymbeline

Ellie Piercy as Helena/Janie Dee as the Countess of Roussillon. (Photo: Nigel Norrington) 

All’s Well That Ends Well provides too many obstacles for a modern audience to be anyone’s favorite Shakespearean comedy, so it doesn’t get revived very often. But though it isn’t a sublime romantic comedy like Twelfth Night or As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Much Ado About Nothing, and though it isn’t dark enough to be as provocative as Measure for Measure, I think it’s a beautiful play, and John Dove’s version at the Globe this summer reminded me why I love it. Like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s essentially a fairy tale. When the King of France (Sam Cox) is rumored to be on his deathbed, Helena (Ellie Piercy) travels to Paris from her home in Roussillon where she’s the ward to the Countess (Janie Dee) with the medicine bag she inherited from her father, whose medical skills were so elevated they were indistinguishable from white magic. Helena is one of those feisty Shakespearean comic heroines (like Rosalind and Viola) who, with her heart in her mouth, sets out to change her fortunes. She’s desperately in love with the Countess’s son Bertram (Sam Crane), who has gone to the court of France to serve the king, a close friend of his own late father’s. (Dead parents figure importantly in the plot, especially through their surrogates. The King, seeing Bertram’s father in him, assures him, “My son’s no dearer,” though he mostly acts as a disapproving father to him as the plot unfolds. Both the King and the Countess serve Helena in loco parentis.)When she offers to cure the King, whose doctors have pronounced his case hopeless, she stakes her life on the line, but in return she asks him to match her up with any young man in the kingdom. And since this is a fairy tale, her medicine works, and he presents all the most eligible bachelors in the court for her to survey.

In Dove’s production, she dismisses them with record speed and then indicates Bertram as her choice. And the poor bastard is thunderstruck. In many I would guess most   productions of All’s Well he doesn’t even know she’s alive, but here he’s quite fond of her; they grew up together, and in the scene between them before he takes off for Paris he’s playful with her before he kisses her on the forehead and asks her to watch over his mother in his absence. (Piercy makes it obvious that that’s not the kind of kiss she’s been hoping against hope from him.) But she’s the daughter of a poor doctor and his mother’s ward he’s never thought of her as his wife. And he balks at the King’s insistence on telling him whom he should marry. But from the King’s point of view, his honor’s at stake because of the promise he’s made Helena, so he makes it crystal clear to Bertram that if he refuses to marry her he’ll regret it. So the young man makes a pretty and entirely rhetorical speech that places himself in his monarch’s hands and then runs off on his wedding night with his friend Parolles (James Garnon) to join the army and fight in Florence, in a war that France hasn’t officially joined but that the King has permitted his young warriors to serve in if they so choose. (That Shakespeare makes it a war of no special consequence seems deliberate; it undercuts the virtues we might be moved to see in a young man whose motivation is service to his country, not adventure and escape.) Bertram leaves a letter for Helena proclaiming that he will never sleep with her until she can produce the ring on his finger, which bears the Roussillon family crest, and a child fathered by him, an impossibility on the face of it. But Helena has come so far out of love for him that she takes the next extraordinary step: she starts a rumor that she has died, disguises herself as a pilgrim and follows him to Florence, where she persuades a young woman Bertram has been courting, Diana (Naomi Cranston) to agree to bed him if he will give her his ring. What follows is the bed trick, a staple in the dramatic repertoire of Renaissance plays. In the darkness of night, he makes love to a woman he believes to be Diana but who in fact is Helena. Having obtained both his ring and his seed, she comes back from the dead in the final act carrying his child and they live happily ever after.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Rendered Beautifully: Anoushka Shankar’s Traveller

With all the political turmoil in the world today, it’s comforting to know that music continues to be such a unifying force. On her new album Traveller (Deutsche Grammophon), sitarist Anoushka Shankar brings the music and rhythms of India and Spain together in one remarkable recording.

At first glance, it may seem odd to couple the multiple beats of Indian classical music with Spanish flamenco, but that’s not the case. History tells us that flamenco music arrived with the exodus of the so-called “Untouchables” from the Punjab c. 800 AD. These gypsies, who were considered persons of low caste, traveled across Asia through what is now known as the Middle East, eventually settling in Europe. Carrying what was quite possibly all their worldly possessions, including instruments, they brought with them the music and rhythms of their culture and then connected with new sounds along the way. Traveller is an exploration of this cultural merger and Shankar and a host of exceptional Indian and Spanish musicians have beautifully rendered it.