Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Wordless World: Shaun Tan’s Approach to the Silent Graphic Novel

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Catharine Charlesworth, to our group.

Opening Shaun Tan’s The Arrival feels like cracking the spine on an old, treasured photo album. Both written and illustrated by the Australian artist, the entire book looks as if aged by time and travel: from the cover, with its seemingly-tattered binding and leathery texture to the washed-out sepia tones of the illustrations. This motif is entirely appropriate, as The Arrival reflects on immigration, of the wonder and confusion of making a new life in a foreign land. The narrative follows a nameless protagonist: a young father, who leaves his wife and daughter in their monster-ridden homeland to travel overseas in search of work, in hopes of making enough money to bring his family to live with him. The Arrival tells a classic immigrant story, and Tan’s design choices help him to convey it in a way that appears both familiar and fantastical.

Unlike most graphic novels, The Arrival tells its story entirely in illustrations. A wordless graphic novel, it contains no speech bubbles, no textual narration – no real written language of any sort. Because of this, the characters lack – in the traditional sense – any explicit internal dialogue or distinctive voice. Yet Tan has done this intentionally. His lack of detailed personality makes Tan’s hero a sort of Everyman: a character onto whom the audience can project their own experiences of immigration and transnationalism. The story at the heart of The Arrival has been told before, in many different tongues. To make this fantastical version accessible to cultures worldwide, Tan tells it in the transcendent language of images. The only written “words” in the book are in a made-up alphabet. These represent, rather than any particular phrases, the idea of writing, and its ability to baffle, humble, and alienate one who does not understand it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Not Quite Magical: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo

Hugo, the film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s modern children’s classic The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is both an impressive achievement and a disappointing movie. On the one hand, it marks something of a return to form for director Martin Scorsese, who’s floundered of late with choppy films like Gangs of New York (2002) and The Departed  (2006), and superficial ones like Shutter Island (2010). Yet, while he directs the picture with supreme self-confidence, he doesn’t quite bring the right light and airy tone to the movie's subject matter.

That story owes something to the magic of early cinema, and also to the recent steampunk genre, which marries Victorian attitudes to advanced technology to create alternate worlds that are similar but not quite like our own. (It’s a pallid genre that usually leaves me cold, but in Hugo it actually possesses some frisson and verve.) It’s also a classic tale of a boy finding himself, growing up and learning that life contains both hardships and joys.

The earliest parts of the film fare the best as Scorsese, screenwriter John Logan (Rango) and cinematographer Robert Richardson (Shutter Island, Inglourious Basterds) craft a unique world, mostly set in the main train station in Paris in the early 1930s. Shot in 3D, Hugo is a live action movie with a lovely animated, fantastical look and feel. I’m still not a fan of the process, but this is one case where it nevertheless adds something to the whole.

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a young, sensitive boy who lives in the train station where he makes sure the giant clocks run on time, and does his level best to stay out of the clutches of the station’s police inspector, Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) – a disaffected war veteran who loves to catch the boys who hide out at the station and send them to (presumably nasty) orphanages. When Hugo is caught stealing by toy shop owner Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), events are set in motion whereby he will find out who the mysterious Georges really is, meet Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) and discover where the broken automaton brought to him by his inventor father (Jude Law) actually came from. (It was his attempt to steal parts for the robot which saw him caught by the store owner.) That journey is compelling and richly depicted, but also emotionally flat.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Stealing Voices & Naming Names: Tim Riley's Biography of John Lennon

Just about the only scene I enjoyed in Walter Hill's action comedy 48 Hrs (1982) was when Nick Nolte's bleery-eyed cracker cop reluctantly visits prison to spring the slick hustler Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) to help him capture Hammond's former partners in crime. As Nolte approaches the cell, Murphy is listening to his Walkman, oblivious to Nolte hell, oblivious to the world while lost in the falsetto notes of Sting's affected soul strutting in The Police's hit song "Roxanne." Murphy is singing along, note for note, not only matching Sting, but surpassing him. What comes across initially as parody quickly takes hold as the only true version of the song. The notes Murphy hits are exactly the same as Sting's, but you actually believe Murphy's tale of a streetwalker. He may be thinking of someone he loves, or perhaps, a broken girl that he left on the outside before he started doing time. (Sting never convinces you that he even knows a streetwalker. He merely convinces you that he walks on the street.)

While it's hardly an example of divine retribution, of stealing back what Pat Boone once stole from Little Richard, but whenever I now hear The Police singing "Roxanne," I crack up. I can't hear Sting anymore. It's Eddie Murphy's voice that replaces him in my mind. No need to Bring Me the Head of Gordon Sumner, as Howard Hampton put it once in one of his delightfully cranky essays, Sting's no longer worthy of being a trophy. In 48 Hrs, a film that shrewdly exploited racial tensions for cheap laughs, and provided what critic Pauline Kael rightly called "an eighties minstrel show," Eddie Murphy came to own "Roxanne," turning it from a minstrel number into a real soul song. (Nick Nolte, who could care less, rips the headphones from Murphy's head before he can even finish the song.) Yet that's the sheer beauty of getting to test the worth of an artist's voice, to see if you can steal what they've claimed as their own. It's partly what drives cover bands, too, who try to both emulate their idols and potentially steal the thunder of the idols they adore. But you can't steal someone's thunder if it's not put there to steal.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ridley Second Guessing Ridley: Ridley Scott's Director's Cut of Kingdom of Heaven

I was tempted to label this particular post as “Produced and Abandoned,” but I couldn't quite justify a film that cost $130 million to make and grossed $211 million worldwide as being “abandoned.” And yet, on the basis of the theatrical cut which was released in 2005, Ridley Scott's crusader epic, Kingdom of Heaven was, pun intended, sacrificed on the altar of commerce. Released at 145 minutes, the theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven is a god-awful mess. Incoherent and simplistic, the film faded from my memory pretty quickly after I saw it on DVD in 2006. In fact, the only things I remember from the film were some good action scenes and two reasonably credible performances: one by Orlando Bloom in the lead; and the other, uncredited, by Ed Norton as King Baldwin (his character is a leper and so we never see his face as it is hidden by a silver mask).

All of which was too bad, since the premise was promising. Balian (Bloom) is a blacksmith in a small French village who one day is approached by Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson). Godfrey reveals to the pauper Balian that he is in fact Godfrey's abandoned bastard son. Godfrey convinces him to join him and his men as they travel to Jerusalem to defend the city they, the crusaders, have held for 100 years. En route, they are set upon and Godfrey is critically wounded. Balian takes over and, after a shipwreck and other travails, arrives in Jerusalem. As the heir to Godfrey, Balian inherits villa and land outside of Jerusalem that appears to be infertile. Using his knowledge of landscape, he and his servants find water and make the property thrive. At the same time in Jerusalem, he is introduced to the ongoing political turmoil of the city. King Baldwin is a Christian king respected by the Muslims and Jews as he has always treated all three religions with equal respect. Behind his back, the Templars and others are plotting to overthrow him and seize the city for themselves. Prime villains here are Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson). Through their villainy, the 100-year long peace between the Christians and the Muslims implodes. The Muslim leader, Saladin (Nasser Memarzia), is an honourable man, and after a great conflict, allows the remaining crusaders and their families, including Balian, to leave Jerusalem unharmed. There's more, but that's the basic premise.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Trailer Park Tragedy: Hume Baugh's Crush

Crush, at the Factory Theatre Studio in Toronto from December 1-11.

As my theatre going consort predicted prior to our viewing of Hume Baugh’s Crush, “I’m prepared for dark, dark, dark.” Let's just say he was well-prepared. Originally debuted at Summerworks in 2008, the freshly revised “trailer park tragedy” about “love, loneliness, and the lies we tell ourselves” opened at the Factory Theatre on December 1st under the director Mark Cassidy. It is indeed dark. Until December 11th, theatre goers can be both frustrated and entertained by the self-inflicted sadness of three characters.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Jazz Babies: Cotton Club Parade

In the 1920s and especially the ‘30s, the Cotton Club in Harlem represented the intersection of white and black popular culture – talented white songwriters like Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields wrote material for extraordinary African American performers like Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne, Avon Long, and Duke Ellington and His Orchestra (who also, of course, performed Ellington’s own compositions and those of his collaborator Billy Strayhorn). The club was on the corner of Lenox and 142nd Street; originally the Club Deluxe, it was opened by Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, in 1920, and when it failed a white gangster, Owen “Owney” Madden, and his syndicate bought it up, renamed it and staged a flamboyant reopening in 1923. The bitter irony was that, for the next seventeen years – as long as the Cotton Club operated – it welcomed white audiences only; even the families of the performers were denied admission. Yet for a black musician or dancer, appearing there meant you had catapulted into the white show-business world. (If you want to find out more about The Cotton Club Revues, Jim Haskins’s The Cotton Club: A Pictorial and Social History of the Most Famous Symbol of the Jazz Era, published in 1977, is helpful. Stay away from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 movie The Cotton Club, which is fiction – and lousy fiction at that. And of course you can get the original recordings remastered on CD, some of which come from live broadcasts. One you don’t want to skip is Fields and McHugh’s “On the Sunny Side of the Street” by Ellington’s band, sung by his favorite vocalist Ivie Anderson, she of the bourbon-and-water contralto, and featuring a tasty solo by soprano sax player Johnny Hodges at the beginning a truly sublime one at the end by trumpeter Lawrence Brown. It’s heaven.)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Windmills of His Mind: Remembering Paul Motian 1931-2011

Paul Motian (1931-2011)

On November 22, 2011 the jazz world lost Paul Motian, one its best musicians. The drummer, who was born in 1931, was still active in his 80thyear with a recent gig at the famed Village Vanguard in New York. It was a testament to his endurance as one of the most important players of the Modern Jazz era.

Born in Philadelphia and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, Motian started playing the drums at the age of twelve. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War moving on to the Manhattan School of Music in 1954. His early professional years were spent in the company of Lennie Tristano, the innovative be-bop pianist that led to a meeting with Tristano’s student, Bill Evans. It was an important era in the post-bop, modern era of jazz which was suddenly interested in expanding the palette beyond Charlie Parker’s ideas. The music was becoming more introspective and harmonically sophisticated. In 1957, he made his first record with Evans and bassist Teddy Kotick called, New Jazz Conceptions (Riverside).