Saturday, December 24, 2011

Forged in the Stars: Neil deGrasse Tyson's Death by Black Hole (and Other Cosmic Quandaries)

I first stumbled upon Neil deGrasse Tyson’s infectious love of space when I saw him interviewed on that most intellectual of science television programmes, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Tyson spoke with the articulation and intelligence born of years as a professional astrophysicist, yet with the youthful enthusiasm of a twelve year-old who dreams of exploring the galaxy. Whether working as an undergraduate lecturer or as director of the Hayden Planetarium, Tyson has committed himself to conveying a wonder and understanding of astronomy to the lay-person. Death by Black Hole (and Other Cosmic Quandaries) succeeds in this goal, depicting the vast and often daunting study of astronomy as a subject of fascinating awe, and as something we all can – and should – attempt to discover ourselves.

Published in 2007 by W. W. Norton & Company, Death by Black Hole assembles several dozen of Tyson’s essays from Natural History magazine, spanning from 1995 to 2005. These range from a discussion of how technology helps humans explore the universe, to how science informs and interweaves with human culture. As suggested by the book’s subtitle, Death by Black Hole takes an inquisitive approach to science, with each essay built around a unique space-based problem. While each chapter can stand alone, the book also manages to maintain enough intrigue and momentum to compel me to read several chapters at a stretch. Though an interest in astronomy certainly helps, the book makes a great introduction to the topic, owing its success to Tyson’s humorous and entertaining approach.

Friday, December 23, 2011

David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Finally, Not Satisfying

First, we had Stieg Larsson’s best selling Millennium trilogy of books. Then, the three Swedish movies based on them. And now, Hollywood has set its sights on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – the film adaption of the first book in the series – on the valid assumption that the project was worth doing since American audiences don’t generally go to foreign language films. But despite a first rate director, David Fincher (Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonThe Social Network), screenwriter, Steve Zaillian (Mission: Impossible, Schindler’s List), and a star-studded cast, including Daniel Craig (the new James Bond, Munich) and Christopher Plummer (The Insider, The Last Station), the movie doesn’t quite cut it, which is unfortunate since the Swedish movies failed to do justice to Larsson’s terrific novels. The American movie didn’t dash my hopes entirely – Fincher’s film-making is generally top notch – but it wasn’t what it should have been, either.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #26: Ralph L.Thomas (1984)

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.

The concept of heroes and villains was greatly simplified in the eighties so I wanted a chapter in the book (Heroes and Villains) that featured artists who examined that idea with a little more complexity. One such individual, film director Ralph Thomas (Ticket to Heaven), had just tackled a Canadian icon: Terry Fox. It had been just three years since Fox, a young athlete who had lost a leg to cancer, decided in 1980 to run cross-Canada to raise money and awareness for cancer research. Tragically, the cancer soon spread and he had to abandon the run after 143 days where he had done 5,373 kilometres (or 3,339 miles). Within a year, he was dead, leading to the annual Terry Fox Run which is now held in over 60 countries each year as the world's largest fund-raiser for the disease.

In his movie, The Terry Fox Story (1983), where amputee actor Eric Fryer played Fox and Robert Duvall portrayed his trainer, Bill Vigars, Thomas certainly set out to capture what made Fox such a distinctly heroic figure, rather than building a momument to him. While the film, in retrospect, would have likely done better on television (as it resembled a TV movie in many ways and was released in the U.S. on Home Box Office), it was given a theatrical run in Canada and people simply didn't run to see it. Nevertheless, The Terry Fox Story went on to win six awards at the 1984 Genie Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Academy Awards) including Best Picture.

We did the interview shortly before the awards ceremony.where Thomas was still searching for clues in understanding why his picture didn't strike the same popular chord that Fox himself had a few years earlier.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Spy vs. Spy: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

“He's a fanatic, so we can stop him, because a fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.”
George Smiley – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

“Failure for a terrorist is just a dress rehearsal for success.”
Ethan Hunt – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
George Smiley and Ethan Hunt are in the same profession. They are spies working clandestinely to keep certain evils, be they communism or individual madmen, from destroying the very fabric of Western civilization. The two movies these characters appear in, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (based on a novel by John Le Carré) and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (the fourth film based on the 1960s TV series), both opened last Friday. What's fascinating about each is that they represent two completely different schools of thought in the depiction of the world of the spy. One, Tinker Tailor, is a cerebral drama about the attempt to uncover a mole (double agent) at the very top of British Secret Service in 1973; the other, M:I – GP, is an action-packed film set in the present day about the attempt to stop a madman from unleashing a nuclear missile on the US. What is equally fascinating is they start in exactly the same way and even in the same city, and yet after those first few opening moments they peel off in two completely different thematic directions.

In M:I – GP, an agent, Trevor Hanaway (played by Lost's Josh Holloway), is in Budapest, Hungary. He and other members of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) are there to intercept a courier who has acquired the launch codes for a nuclear weapon. He is betrayed and shot by a beautiful assassin. In Tinker Tailor, an agent, Jim Prideaux (played by Sherlock Holmes' Mark Strong), is in Budapest, Hungary. He is there because the head of the Circus (British Secret Service), known only as Control (John Hurt), has sent him to meet up with a source who claims to know the name of the mole. It is a trap, and Prideaux is shot by a sweaty waiter. Both films and where they are heading are determined in their establishing shots of Budapest.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Beauty & the Beast: Pauline Butcher's Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa

Until recent years, most of the books about the late American composer Frank Zappa, including my own (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa), have been attempts to provide a proper context for his work. Simply put, for many, the name Frank Zappa only conjures up images of a deranged freak who warns us not to eat the yellow snow. What gets lost in that somewhat uniformed view is a much deeper and complex understanding of how Zappa brought to popular music a ferocious desire to break down the boundaries between high and low culture. He created in his work, until his death from prostate cancer in 1993, a unique and sophisticated form of musical comedy.

By infusing the canon of 20th Century music with his scabrous and outrageous wit (influenced by comedian Lenny Bruce and the irreverent clowning of Spike Jones), Zappa presented musical history through the kaleidoscopic lens of social satire turning that history into a wildly theatrical display of Dadaist farce. He poked fun at middle-class conformity (Freak Out!), the Sixties counterculture (We're Only in it For the Money), Seventies disco (Sheik Yerbouti), the corporate rock industry (Tinsel Town Rebellion), and the fundamentalist narcolepsy of the Reagan era (You Are What You Is). Beginning with his band The Mothers of Invention in the Sixties, Zappa built a formidable career in rock & roll by combining a wide range of styles, including serious contemporary music (inspired by Edgard Varese, Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern and Charles Ives), jazz (Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus), rhythm & blues (Guitar Slim, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson), doo-wop (The Channels), and social and political parody. His career essentially had its roots in the artistic rebellion against the excesses of Romanticism in the late 19th Century beginning with the absurdism of Erik Satie, and then continuing with the birth of serialism that ushered in the modern era of the 20th Century. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Strange Bedfellows: Collaborators

Collaborators – a new play by John Hodge

Many artists in Stalin’s Soviet Union were branded enemies of the state; the lucky ones were robbed of their livelihood but spared their lives. But Stalin had a peculiar fondness for the novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, whom he shielded from the periodic purges that doomed so many others. He even got Bulgakov a job at the Moscow Art Theater at one point – though when his late plays were deemed unacceptable for production, Stalin didn’t intervene. The unorthodox and surprising relationship between the dictator and the author was the starting point for Collaborators, a play by John Hodge (the screenwriter of Trainspotting) that is currently receiving a production at the Cottesloe, the intimate black-box space at London’s National Theatre. (It was shown internationally in HD earlier this month.)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Neglected Gem #9: Jupiter's Wife (1995)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why The Lord of the Rings’s Peter Jackson’s mock 1995 documentary Forgotten Silver didn’t become the cult hit it should have been. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

A sleeper at the 1995 Montreal Film Festival, Jupiter's Wife had its genesis in documentarian Michael Negroponte's curiosity about Maggie, a middle-aged homeless person he spotted in Central Park walking her four dogs. She told him tales about being the daughter of the late actor Robert Ryan and having friends among New York's upper class. Remarkably, all of her stories weren't complete fabrications, as Maggie turned out to be both more and less than she claimed.

Following her around during her daily routine, investigating her background, talking to the people who knew her, Negroponte slowly creates a unique, charming portrait of a rather special person – one who in her own way broke ground for women. Maggie's life is ultimately tragic and sad, but the accomplishment of Jupiter's Wife (shot in video and blown up to 35mm) is that it goes beyond the usual stereotypes of the homeless.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. He will next be teaching a course there on the films of Sidney Lumet, beginning on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.