Friday, August 31, 2012

Continuum: The New Politics of Time Travel

Rachel Nichols stars in Continuum on Showcase

I’m a sucker for time travel stories. My first favourite film was Terry Gilliam’s wildly surreal Time Bandits: I was taken to see it for my 11th birthday, and can still vividly recall the delight I felt leaving the theatre that afternoon.  And I’m certainly not alone in my enthusiasm. There is something uniquely compelling about the time travel conceit, and there’s a good reason why it remains one of the more popular subjects in science fiction literature, film, and television. Time travel plots are eminently adaptable – they can be ridiculous or grave, simplistic or painfully complex. They can be camp (Time Bandits), philosophical (La Jetée), juvenile (Hot Tub Time Machine), geeky (Frequently Asked Questions about Time Travel), or can just plain mess with your head (Primer). From the giddy fun of the Back to the Future trilogy, to the patently movie-of-the-week quality of The Philadelphia Experiment, to the smash and grab Snipes/Stallone vehicle Demolition Man, I have eagerly consumed them all. The Harlan Ellison-authored original Star Trek classic “City on the Edge of Forever” set the standard for me at an early age – somehow covering many of the light and heavy aspects of time travel in one brief hour of television. But when it comes to series television, the results have been more hit and miss. From the Time Bandits-inspired, delightfully cheesy, perhaps rightfully short-lived Voyagers!, to the more human-centred (and often sublime) Quantum Leap almost a decade later,  the too-quickly-cancelled Journeyman on NBC, and the BBC’s magnificent Life on Mars, time travel is a challenging format for a continuing series. And so when Showcase premiered its new science fiction/police drama Continuum in late May 2012, I made sure to tune in.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Satan is Real: The Story of the Louvin Brothers

You will, if you are of a certain age and inclination, recall the conflicting sides of Donald Duck’s personality. They were represented by an angel and a devil. Each one gave him advice and encouragement and left him the free will to choose. This dichotomy has been displayed in literature, film, and parenting since time began. The Louvin Brothers (Charlie and Ira Loudermilk) were a pair of brothers who sang deep country music. Ira was the dark-haired handsome one who played the mandolin and sang the high tenor part. He was a womanizer, a drunkard, and had a bad temper. He was a scallywag with a beautiful voice. Charlie was the good boy – he didn’t drink, was married to one woman for decades, he played guitar and sang the low harmonies. The Louvin Brothers began their career in the 1940s. They called themselves the Louvins because people mispronounced Loudermilk. As the Loudermilk brothers they learned their harmonies from their mother who taught them old folk songs as they did their chores around the house, and from the sacred harp singing at the local church. The influence they had on country music is immeasurable. Satan Is Real was the name of their most iconic record album; it is also the title of Charlie Louvin’s autobiography.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Concert of Epic Proportions: Bruce Springsteen in Toronto – August 24, 2012

Bruce Springsteen Concert - Toronto - August 24, 2012

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Is a three-hour and forty-five minute Bruce Springsteen concert just too much? Yes and no. I knew going in to last Friday’s Springsteen concert at Toronto’s Skydome (I refuse to call it the Rogers Centre because it sounds too much like a shopping mall) that that was what 40,000 of us were probably going to experience. But until you live through this emotional roller-coaster – the driven, full-on, balls-to-the-wall party which is a concert by Bruce Springsteen – you really don’t know what to expect. For years, Springsteen has maintained that if you pay good money to see him perform, whether the concert is in New York City or Poughkeepsie, you are going to get a show of equal skill, length and passion. (And unlike other performers – I’m looking at you, Madonna – who gouge their customers to see them “live,” Springsteen’s tickets are kept at a very reasonable price, and he and his band actually perform and sing live.) There’s no question he fulfilled that promise on Friday night.

Musical tastes change, and I basically stopped paying attention to Springsteen’s output in the mid 1990s. I’ve heard songs here and there over the years from after that period that I've liked (especially his fine 9/11 album, The Rising, and tracks from his new CD, Wrecking Ball), but I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as a fan anymore. I found myself at the concert more out of curiosity than as someone committed to his music. Our seats were of the nose-bleed variety, a scant seven rows from the top. We were also on an oblique angle to the stage. This was a problem because I don’t really think they properly figured out where to put the video screens. One was on far stage left (unseen by us); the big main screen was centre stage behind the band (again out of view); and then there was the one on stage right that we could see (or could have if it hadn’t been partially blocked by light scaffolding). And yet even with this huge limitation within the rotten, echoing sound of the Skydome, on this gorgeous night when the open dome made the sound even worse, this was one of the finest concerts I’ve ever seen.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Robert Hughes: Another Iconoclast Departs

Robert Hughes (1938-2012)

I first encountered the writings of the late art critic Robert Hughes, who recently died after a long illness at age 74, when he wrote for TIME magazine. As a long time subscriber to the magazine, I’d always paid attention to film, book and music and theatre critics, in TIME and elsewhere, but I had never really read or liked art criticism until Hughes came on the scene. Reading someone discoursing on artists I was mostly unfamiliar with – I wasn’t one for art galleries in my younger years – I sensed two salient points about him. One is that he didn’t suffer fools, or in his case bad art and bad artists, gladly, just like my other favourite curmudgeons, Harlan Ellison and the late Christopher Hitchens; and two, he brought the very highest standards of criticism to his writing. TIME has generally had critics a cut or two above the bland norm – currently Lev Grossman on books, James Poniewozik on television and Richard Zoglin on theatre fulfill that function adequately – but Hughes was something new. He was scathing – his critiques of artists like Julian Schnabel or Jeff Koons, whom he delightfully called 'The Princeling of Kitsch,' made an indelible impression on me. (Many years later I saw an exhibit by artist/ photographer Jeff Wall, a similarly themed modern figure, in Chicago and though I couldn’t entirely dismiss his oeuvre, I did feel that I was being confronted by a fraud. I suspect subconsciously Hughes’ trenchant criticism of modern art was percolating in the back of my mind.) But it wasn’t until I read his eye-opening book Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America (Oxford University Press, 1993) – detailing the then corrosive effects of political correctness on the political and artistic climate in the United States – that I fully realized how gutsy, vital and important Hughes was to the current discourse on culture and politics among intelligent and open-minded people.

Monday, August 27, 2012

French Without Tears: The Popular Music of Another Time

The cast of French Without Tears at the Shaw Festival (Photo: David Cooper)

French Without Tears at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake comes half a year too late for the Terence Rattigan centennial, but productions of this skillfully assembled entertainment are too rare for caviling – especially considering what a fine job director Kate Lynch and her (mostly) young cast have done with this one. It was the play that made Rattigan famous: the 1935 West End production ran for years and the play was filmed in 1940. To my knowledge he never wrote anything else like it. It’s a distinctly thirties mix of drawing-room comedy, junior division, and romantic comedy; the closest American equivalent would probably be something like Having Wonderful Time, the Arthur Kober play set at a Catskills adult summer camp that was filmed, quite enjoyably, in 1938 with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Ginger Rogers. French Without Tears is about a group of privileged young Englishmen living together in a villa in France over the summer and studying French in preparation for the Diplomatic Corps or international business. Except for the most juvenile among them, Kenneth (known as Babe and played by Billy Lake), whose haplessness at acquiring the language preoccupies him – the opening image, which gets repeated, is of him slamming his head against the dining-room table – the boys’ focus isn’t, of course, their studies, but women. One of them, Brian (Craig Pike), has been paying his attentions to a local (offstage) flirt named Chi-Chi. The others orbit around Babe’s sister Diana (Robin Evan Willis), who is officially dating Kit (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) but enjoys unsettling Alan (Ben Sanders), the most intellectually gifted of the crew, and the handsome newcomer Bill Rogers (Martin Happer), a naval lieutenant-commander a little older than the others. (The title of the play derives from a now démodé promise once offered by language instruction programs.)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Some Good Men and Women Feelin' Bad: Recent Blues Albums

Two guys named Anthony, at Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago  (Photo by D. Kidney)

I spent the week before last in Chicago, on vacation with my wife and another couple. We stayed at a beautifully appointed boutique hotel in the Gold Coast, easily within a short taxi ride from most of Chicago’s feature attractions. There’s the Shedd Aquarium, home to thousands of examples of sea life; the Field Museum, not as I supposed a collection of open-grassy spaces, but rather a natural history museum which featured a wonderful exhibit on the life of Genghis Khan. We saw both these attractions on the first day, separated by a lunch of homemade porchetta sandwich at the famous-on-TV Panozza’s Deli. The second day we took pictures of ourselves reflected in The Bean sculpture, and then studied the Roy Lichtenstein show at the Art Institute of Chicago. All those museums were getting a little tiring … after all here we were in the centre of the blues universe and we hadn’t heard any of that great Chicago music yet! For lunch we taxied over to Buddy Guy’s Legends for some Louisiana cooking and a healthy serving of the blues. Buddy himself was on tour in California, so we didn’t find him leaning against the bar, but Anthony Moser (and another guitarist named Anthony) provided the free music. They sang blues, and funky originals while we enjoyed the beer, gumbo and po’boys.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Neglected Gem #23: The Browning Version (1994)

Albert Finney in The Browning Version

The moment you see Albert Finney in the 1994 film of The Browning Version, you know you’re watching an actor in the grip of a great performance.  If you care about acting, you scarcely dare to miss anything Finney does, because you never know when he’s going to dazzle you:  in the British TV version of the Kingsley Amis ghost story The Green Man, for instance, or in The Playboys, as the alcoholic cop who’s strung up by his love for the independent woman he’s impregnated.  He’s even more amazing in The Browning Version – it surpasses anything I’ve seen him do, with the single exception of the 1982 Shoot the Moon. This was the performance of its year, but it was a trick to catch it on the big screen. Paramount – exactly the wrong studio to handle a British “prestige” picture – tried the movie out in Cannes, and when there wasn’t much response, they nearly dumped it. They didn’t bother screening it in New York or L.A. in time to make the long lead times of the monthlies, and when they opened it in the fall, they gave it a small ad campaign and a very limited release.  It was befuddling that no one at the studio figured out the audience for the Merchant Ivory pictures would happily troop out to see a film like The Browning Version if they knew about it, and even odder than no one could see Finney was a shoe-in for major award nominations if only his work was promoted.  (The Boston Film Critics gave him the Best Actor award despite the fact that the movie opened in the last-resort downtown art house – aborted by Paramount, it was ignored by Sony, the conglomerate that owned almost every theatre in the city at the time.) Ironically, Finney’s own (failed) performance in A Man of No Importance, a lousy movie about a gay bus conductor in fifties Dublin with an Oscar Wilde fixation, got far more notice.

Mike Figgis’s movie is the second film version of what is probably the best known of Terence Rattigan’s plays.  The script is built around the valedictory of an aging English schoolmaster named Andrew Crocker-Harris, a classics instructor at a ritzy boys’ school whose wife has come to despise him and whose students resent his old-fashioned doggedness and rigorousness, unleavened as it is by anything they can translate into humaneness.  In the course of the drama, Crocker-Harris suffers one indignity upon another.  When he finally gets a little pleasure – the one pupil with genuine affection for him gives him, as a retirement offering, Robert Browning’s edition of the Agamemnon – his wife ruins it for him by insisting that the boy was merely being shrewdly manipulative.  Rattigan’s play is small-scale and a little tight-lipped, but it’s poignant, and when Anthony Asquith filmed it in 1951 he had Michael Redgrave to march it through to greatness.  Redgrave laid a gently sibilant, slightly quavering voice like a skin over Crocker-Harris’s slivered bitterness.  As the performance proceeded, the teacher’s masterful control began to flake, and you saw what motivated the sarcasm and the misanthropy and the near-sadistic humiliation he leveled at his boys.  Probably no one in movie history besides Laurence Olivier has ever managed anything like the wit and elegant, intricate layering of Redgrave’s line readings, especially here and in Uncle Vanya and Dead of Night This first Browning Version isn’t the world’s greatest movie (it doesn’t contain a single memorable portrayal outside of Redgrave’s), but it is a great experience.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Klimt Revealed: 150 Anniversary Exhibition in New York City

"Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," Gustav Klimt, 1907. Oil, silver, and gold on canvas.

It quite literally was a dark and stormy afternoon when I slipped recently into New York’s Neue Galerie, seeking shelter from a sudden summer downpour. I had never before ventured through the ornate doors of this tiny museum devoted to German and Austrian art, even though I had walked past the former 19th century mansion where the Neue Galerie is housed – close by the Metropolitan Museum of Art – countless times. I was again heading to the Met this past July when the clouds burst open, making me change my plans. I am glad that I did.

On show was the Gustav Klimt 150th Anniversary exhibition (until Monday, Aug. 27), the only large-scale tribute to the Viennese painter, born July 14, 1862, in North America. In Austria, tributes to the Symbolist painter known as one of the founders of the Vienna Secession movement, a uniquely Austrian interpretation of art nouveau, are more pronounced. There, several internationally acclaimed museums, among them the Albertina, the Belvedere, the Kunsthistorisches, the Leopold and the Wien Museum, continue to honour the painter with various exhibitions highlighting different aspects of Klimt’s artistic legacy. The Neue Galerie show is smaller, if not more intimate than these others, showcasing just 12 items in a multi-media show that includes the cufflinks made for the artist by the Austrian architect Josef Hoffman in 1906. 

I am not a Klimt expert, just a fan. Without intending to trivialize my interest in his work, for my wedding invitation – 17 years ago – I had used Klimt’s famous painting, entitled The Kiss, as the cover art. As a result, for years afterwards, well-intentioned friends sent me all sorts of Klimt memorabilia, thinking me Klimt-obsessed. (I had really just liked the image of lovers entwined in a sinewy embrace.) I now have in my possession a barely-used mug as well as stationary embossed with a reproduction of The Kiss. Like many artistic geniuses whose work has captured the popular imagination, Klimt has permeated the culture but with some of his work having the undesired effect of appearing as kitsch. With this exhibition before me, I all at once had an opportunity to judge for myself what all the fuss was about. What was Klimt’s enduring allure? 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Catastrophic Success: Bomber Boys - Featuring Ewan and Colin McGregor

The Avro Lancaster Bomber

Ten months ago, I wrote about a documentary made by actor Ewan McGregor and his RAF-pilot brother Colin about World War II fliers called The Battle of Britain. At the time, I praised the good, if slight documentary that examined how the men who flew the Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes saved the Allies' collective asses by preventing the Axis from winning the air war over England in 1940. Now comes the sequel, Bomber Boys (BBC/BFS Entertainment – 2012). Ewan and his brother are back, this time examining the successes and failures of RAF Bomber Command of what came after The Battle of Britain. It is also a love letter to what many consider the Allies best bomber aircraft, the Lancaster.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Glimpse of the High and Mighty. And Greedy. And Gaudy.

Jackie Siegel, the Queen of Versailles

She is emblematic of everything that’s wrong and right with America. Jackie Siegel comes across as the antithesis of a feminist. At 43, married to an affluent dirty old man of 74 named David Siegel, the zaftig blonde has an obsession with cosmetic enhancements, is a compulsive consumer, and remains oblivious to the world’s realities. On the other hand, the ditzy woman is sweet and kind, quietly giving money to a high school friend in crisis. Those contradictions make her the ideal subject for a fascinating documentary, The Queen of Versailles. In the non-fiction film genre of human train wrecks – think 2003’s Capturing the Friedmans – this project directed by Lauren Greenfield zeroes in on a billionaire family’s fall from grace. And it once again proves that grace often can be a spectacular facade built on quicksand.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ghost in the Machine: Jasper Johns at the Harvard Art Museums

Cicada (1979)

Jasper Johns/In Press: The Crosshatch Works and the Logic of Print at Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum this summer is a testament to the kind of close looking that small exhibitions make possible. With only twenty-one objects spread out in two galleries, the exhibition focuses in on the way Jasper Johns turns a technique from the printmaker’s arsenal – crosshatching – into a motif in his prints, and the resonant meanings that motif opens up. It’s a view of Johns’ oeuvre that you can drink in endlessly. The exhibition came out of an undergraduate seminar at Harvard in the History of Art and Architecture department, and it’s no surprise – the galleries crackle with the excitement of fresh discoveries.

Jasper Johns fills his paintings and prints with familiar symbols like numbers, letters and flags to strip them of their familiar significance and discover within them both a new range of meanings and a new way of making meaning, not by denotation but through allusions that take you into a rich and imaginative landscape. The crosshatch prints, from the 1960s and 1970s, work no differently. The crosshatch is a set of intersecting parallel lines used in engravings as early as the Renaissance to create the illusion of three dimensions through the modeling of shadow and light. By extracting and enlarging the crosshatch and turning it into a figure, rather than one of the miniscule forms out of which a figure is composed, Johns explores the culture of reproduction and mass production. The exhibition also includes works by Johns that relate to the crosshatch prints by engaging “the logic of print” in other ways, such as text, newsprint collage and letterpress.

an example of the crosshatch technique in engraving
Johns’ crosshatch works are love letters to printmaking: the riddle of process, with its precise calculations, and the sensuous variations and synthetic possibilities you can get out of different media. Scent (1976) uses a crosshatch scheme in purple, green and orange, but the sheet is divided into three sections, and in each Johns uses a different media – lithograph, linocut and woodcut – each with its distinct process and effects, modulating the continuous pattern. Cicada (1979), a screenprint, includes strips of newspaper in its crosshatch pattern, and the design is worked out to look as though it were applied by a cylindrical seal, rolled on so that the pattern could continue beyond the frame of the print. Here, Johns’ screenprint, a contemporary technique, evokes a long history of printmaking, from Mesopotamian seals (the pattern) to engraving (the crosshatch motif) to printing presses (the newsprint collage).

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ragtime at the Shaw Festival: History Lessons for the Already Enlightened

In his novel Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow uses the ragtime era – roughly the period between the turn of the twentieth century and the beginning of the First World War – to investigate the confluence of contradictory impulses as America begins to hog the world spotlight. Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan embody the American dream in its quintessential (Horatio Alger) form, but their domination implies the oppression of wage slaves and the muting of voices that aren’t white and Christian. In Doctorow’s narrative scheme, the white-bread, well-off New Rochelle family, which has no reason to expect to meet anyone who isn’t exactly like them, crosses paths with African Americans (Mother finds a black baby buried but still breathing in her garden and takes in both mother and child), Jewish immigrants (in Atlantic City, Mother makes the acquaintance of Tateh, the Latvian Jewish immigrant who brings his little girl to America and winds up becoming a filmmaker) and the forces of radicalism (Younger Brother, Mother’s sibling, hears Emma Goldman orate in Union Square and later volunteers himself as a bomb maker for the mightily abused black man Coalhouse Walker, a one-time ragtime pianist and the baby’s father).

Ragtime is a relatively compact book with an epic feel. Doctorow is fascinated by all of the strands of this chapter in American history; his modernist contribution is a rich sense of irony.  He juxtaposes opposites: Ford and Morgan with Goldman and Booker T. Washington (Coalhouse's hero); the industrial dream that Ford represents with Tateh's immigrant dream to pull his daughter out of poverty; Ford's automobile with Tateh's moving pictures -- both produced by a mixture of art and technology. He also juxtaposes Coalhouse's rags with the vaudeville show in which Evelyn Nesbit, a celebrity but not an artist, draws curious crowds. Nesbit's husband, Harry Thaw, has killed her lover, the architect Stanford White; this so-called "crime of the century" makes her a star -- at least, for a few moments. In the first phase of his coming of age, Younger Brother falls in love with her. When she rejects him, he turns to other obsessions. Goldman's oratory and Walker's ordeal politicize him, turning him from a callow would-be lover into a warrior for the cause of the downtrodden and disenfranchised. And Harry Houdini’s escape trick becomes a metaphor for the escape trick every successful immigrant masters – yet, like Houdini, never masters completely.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Pleasures of Pop & The Expedience of Politics: Hanif Kureishi's The Black Album (1995)

Within our commodity-driven culture lies a substantially creative battleground between art and product, substance and trivia, liberation and oppression. In Hanif Kureishi's marvellous 1995 novel The Black Album, that ambiguous struggle between the pleasures of pop and the expedience of politics gets played out with a sly devil-may-care humour. The backdrop of the story (aptly named after Prince's famous and controversial bootlegged album which he recorded in 1987 and eventually released in 1994) takes place in London during the tense and horrendous period of the fatwah issued by the Ayatollah in Iran against Salmon Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses

Shahid Hasan is a young Pakastani student at a community college and an aspiring writer who falls in with a faction of conservative Muslims, led by a zealous poet, Riaz, who is given to delivering sermons with titles like "Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve." His true attraction, though, is for Deedee Osgood, a free-spirited and hedonistic ex-Marxist college lecturer, who appeals to his passion for the artistic, spiritual, and sexual freedom that pop culture offers him. (They both dig Prince.) The dramatic conflict at the heart of The Black Album is how Shahid becomes torn between the "appetite for the compelling exhilaration" that he feels with Deedee, and the more ordered and tidy existence put forth by Riaz which he sees as an alternative to the racist abuse continually suffered by Pakistanis under the British ruling class. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Neglected Gem # 22: Une Jeune Fille A La Fenetre (A Young Girl at the Window) (2001)

An impressionistic gem, Une Jeune Fille a la Fenetre (A Young Girl at the Window) signals the arrival of a notable new talent behind the camera. The young girl of the 1920s Quebec-set film is Marthe (Fanny Mallette), who, despite a potentially fatal heart defect, decides to live life to the fullest by leaving her country home to study piano in the city of Montreal. There she befriends a group of bohemians, finds love and also learns of life's harsh realities.

Director Francis Leclerc is less interested in conventional narrative or sentiment than in portraying the dreamlike nature of Fanny's fragile life, which is endangered by any act of defiance, such as smoking and drinking. As Marthe, Fanny Mallette rivets the screen, running a complex gamut of emotions and engaging the heart.  Une Jeune Fille a la Fenetre is not as expansive as it could be (we never see enough of Marthe's grabbing at life's experiences) but it's still effective and memorable.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Rollicking Good Time: Rosanne Cash & Band at Hamilton Place, August 15, 2012

Apparently the city of Hamilton doesn’t know what they missed last night. Rosanne Cash, Johnny’s daughter, played Hamilton Place to a half empty room. I sensed there was trouble selling tickets when they offered 2 for 1 for a week or two in July. They were still advertising “Tickets Available” in yesterday’s newspaper, but the audience must have been saving its money for Bruce Springsteen in October, or The Who next February. Well folks, you missed a great show!

As the lights dimmed right at 8 o’clock the firm fans soon discovered they were in for a full night of music. The opening act were three attractive young ladies in short skirts and cowboy boots who skipped onto the stage. This trio called BelleStarr included the redhead (Miranda Mulholland), the brunette (Stephanie Cadman), and the blonde (Kendal Carson). Miranda and Stephanie carried fiddles, Kendal a guitar, and they proceeded to sing a close-harmony rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” The audience loved it. They played a few originals enhanced by Stephanie’s step-dancing which acted as percussion to drive the tunes. During the intermission, the merch table was surrounded by adoring new fans.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Time Folder: Remembering Film Essayist Chris Marker

"Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place"
                    (T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday)

"L'Éloignement des pays répare en quelque sorte la trop grande proximité des temps."
(The distance between countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of time.)
                                                                                                            (Jean Racine, Bajazet)

Since French filmmaker Chris Marker’s death on July 29th at the age of 91, I've been considering his importance in my own development as a writer and critic. As I rewatched his two best known and influential works this past weekend – the short film, La Jetée, and the feature Sans Soleil – I've come to realize even more his major impact on my writing life. I may have only seen two of his dozens of shorts and features, but the ideas he was working through in them – the nature of time, loss and memory – have been a constant in my own work. From my novel, The Empire of Death, to my critical pieces, especially where I use memoir to decipher my understanding and reaction to a work, the ideas of memory and the inexorable passage of time are always present.

The Woman at Orly in La Jetée

I first encountered Marker's work in the Film Studies program at the University of Toronto in 1979 or 1980. U of T's film program was not about learning the craft of filmmaking, but rather to study films as text (just as one would a novel, poem or historical period). In one class, my professor showed us Marker's remarkable 29-minute short, La Jetée. La Jetée is about a man in the future who has a vivid memory from his childhood of a single incident at Orly Airport in Paris. In the memory, he is with his parents on an outing to watch the airplanes land and depart. At the end of a jetty, the man remembers seeing a beautiful young woman. As he studies her face he also witnesses someone being killed. The memory is not complete, it is just a fragment, and he is determined to understand it. Many years later, after a cataclysmic war, a group of scientists develop a technique to push people into the past (or into the future) in order to find a way to save those who still survive in the post-apocalyptic present. The man with the memory, now a prisoner of the scientists in an underground realm, is chosen because his one vivid recollection of that day is very strong. After several failed attempts, he manages to go back to a time just prior to the incident in his memory. He finds the woman and, during several journeys back, he starts a romantic relationship with her. I will leave the rest of this fine film for you to discover.

Chris Marker
What is so compelling about the film, where it becomes the perfect visual metaphor for memory, is that the whole film (except for one very brief moment) is composed of stills with a narrator describing/clarifying what we are seeing. Marker uses these images (many in repetition) as a representation of how our memory works. Most times when we recall the past we remember it only in fragments. These fragments often get mixed in with other memories, too, as our brain zooms through its 'attic' making up its own associations and connections. Many times, these memory fragments do not play like movies, but instead still images; captured moments. (Ironically, film itself is actually a series of still images that are shot at 24-frames a second which, when projected, tricks the mind into thinking it is seeing a moving image. In fact, all we are seeing is a still image followed rapidly by dozens of other still images cut together to tell us a story.)

Marker is also making references to influences on his own work, be they writers (Jules Verne), philosophers (Roland Barthes) or filmmakers (Alfred Hitchcock, especially his film Vertigo). He also takes one brief five-second moment to eschew still images. As we look at the beautiful young woman sleeping on a bed she awakens, looks at the camera and smiles slightly. But these aren't stills, this is actual film. The woman moves. It is deeply erotic sequence, even startling, in a film that, except for this, is made up of stills. It is as Spalding Gray once said in one of his own filmed essay/lectures, "a perfect moment." 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Down on the Bayou: A Resilient Demimonde and a Determined Child

In John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, a 1940 classic adapted from a John Steinbeck novel, Ma Joad proclaims the populist message: “They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ‘cause we’re the people.” She’s trapped in what was a genuine climate-propelled diaspora during the early 1930s. A severe drought had devastated states like Oklahoma known as “The Dust Bowl,” where growing food was soon an impossibility. Untold thousands of subsistence farmers hoped to resettle in more hospitable regions of the country while remaining nostalgic about their prairie roots.

The equally beleaguered characters in Beasts of the Southern Wild face homelessness after a hurricane floods “The Bathtub,” their hardscrabble habitat on the wrong side of a Louisiana levee. Across the divide, oil refineries pump out pollution. “Ain’t that ugly over there?” asks a little African-American girl named Hushpuppy, the movie’s amazing protagonist. “We got the prettiest place on Earth.” Although that place might look like a trash heap to outsiders, it’s beloved by those who have carved out a meager but unfettered existence there. She also intuits things beyond her day-to-day concerns, delivering a voice-over narration with a populist message that’s equally ecological: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.”

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Edgard Varèse & The Bomb That Would Explode the Musical World

                                       Edgard Varèse
On the night of May 29, 1913, Edgard Varèse sat in attendance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris watching the infamous performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. This was an evening considered by some to mark the spiritual birth of the 20th Century. While abuse was being hurled at the stage, and indignation toward this "barbaric" music raged around him, Varèse calmly wondered what all the fuss was about. After all, many composers were already growing tired of tonality. They had already begun resenting the adherence to a single key as the only accepted foundation for musical composition. Arnold Schoenberg, the Austro-Hungarian composer born in 1874, even developed his own solution: the twelve-tone system, an approach allowing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale to be played before the first note is played again. This open-ended arrangement offered composers the opportunity to compose disciplined atonal music that would be equivalent to the most traditional tonal system.

Following up on Schoenberg's daring, Anton Webern, an Austrian composer who studied with Schoenberg, reinterpreted the twelve-tone form by writing with an abstract sparseness that provided space for the ear to gradually discover the melody. Igor Stravinsky, always the contrarian, headed in a different direction. He was less interested in harmony and more dedicated to what music critic Frank Rossiter once described as "a return to the artistic ideals (and often to the specific musical forms) of the pre-romantic era." Varèse though took an even more radical route. He decided to question the very principles of Western music altogether. Varèse embarked on a search for what he thought could be a new music, one filled with the sounds of sirens, woodblocks, and eventually electronic tape. His impact on the culture may have appeared subterranean, but it was acutely felt among a diverse group of musicians. Most significantly, Frank Zappa would carry his legacy. But he also attracted the ear of be-bop legend Charlie Parker (who wanted Varèse to take him on as a student). His reach also extended to some of Zappa's contemporaries including progressive rock groups like King Crimson and Pink Floyd (who utilized Varèse's tape experiments), John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Revolution 9" from The Beatles' White Album is just about inconceivable without him. Even the pop rock group Chicago chipped in with their own little ditty "A Hit for Varèse" in 1971.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Modest Production That Must Not Be Undervalued: A Month in the Country at Williamstown

Jeremy Strong & Jessica Collins in A Month In the Country
It’s tempting to call Ivan Turgenev’s play A Month in the Country Chekhovian, but he wrote it in 1849-1850, nearly half a century before Chekhov produced The Seagull, the first of his four dramatic masterpieces. Richard Nelson’s marvellous production, which rounds off the mainstage season at Williamstown this summer, makes it clearer than ever how much of a debt Chekhov owes Turgenev. The provincial boredom and restlessness of the setting – a Russian country estate in the 1840s – anticipates the mood of scenes in all four of Chekhov's plays; the opening scene, where the mistress of the house, Natalya (Jessica Collins), grows impatient while her friend Mikhail Rakitin (Jeremy Strong) reads to her, shows up specifically at the top of act two of The Seagull. And the exchange between Natalya and her seventeen-year-old ward, Vera (Charlotte Bydwell), where she urges Vera to confide her feelings for Natalya’s son’s new Moscow tutor Belyaev (Julian Cihi), whom she herself is taken with, ends up – though considerably transformed – as the celebrated sharing of confidences between Elena and Sonia in Uncle Vanya. (It’s even in roughly the same spot in the play, halfway through.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

When the Political Becomes Personal: Soulpepper's Production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible

Hannah Miller in Soulpepper's Production of The Cruicble - Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The Salem witch trials of 1692 do, at first glance, seem so awfully far away. Oh those Puritans and their superstitions! How primitive! 

But American playwright Arthur Miller thought differently. In them he found what he thoughts was an apt metaphor for the ills plaguing his own day. His 1953 play, The Crucible, revisits that historic event to expose the venality of modern times. The result is an allegory about the abuse of power that still resonates with audiences some 60 years after its New York premiere. To see it on stage at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts where Soulpepper Theatre Company is performing The Crucible now through Sept. 22, is to feel the deadly chill of those hysterical persecutions all over again.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Off the Shelf: Jim McBride's The Big Easy

From time to time, I'll haul down a DVD from my collection, throw it into the player and see if it still holds up. In most cases, it's been years since I've seen it, tastes change and there is always the possibility that I'll go, 'what the heck was I thinking?' The last time I did that was in February 2010, a month after we launched Critics at Large, when I looked at Toby Hooper's delightfully bananacakes film Lifeforce (1985). This past weekend I pulled down another 1980s picture, one that I actually liked, not because it was catawampus, but because, except for the predictable cop plot, it was a good, adult character piece: Jim McBride's The Big Easy (1987).

Friday, August 10, 2012

Talking Out of Turn #31: Robertson Davies (1985)

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, the executive producer of 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.

In the chapter on memoir in the Eighties, Mythologizing the Self, which includes interviews with Wallace Shawn describing the highly personal film My Dinner with Andre, D.M.Thomas exploring Freud and the Holocaust in his novel, The White Hotel and William Diehl discussing how he used pulp fiction to work out his violent impulses, the idea was to illustrate how the decade brought forth a few biographical artists who attempted to link themselves to the collective memory of the audience with the purpose of creating a shared mythology out of their experiences. Perhaps no writer could have done more to enhance that goal than the renowned playwright, scholar and novelist Robertson Davies. Besides bringing his personal fascination with Jungian psychology into his 1970 book Fifth Business (which would form the basis of The Deptford Trilogy including the 1972 The Manticore and, in 1975, World of Wonders), Davies continued to provide psychological inquiry as a means to examining academic life in The Rebel Angels (1981), the conclusion of which became the starting point for Davies's next work, What's Bred in the Bone (1985). This book which would then become part of The Cornish Trilogy, an examination of the life of Francis Cornish, an art restorer with a mercurial past, whose demons become part of a larger mythology. Since myth plays such a huge role in the dramas of Robertson Davies, we began the interview with the question of just how big a part destiny plays in shaping a character.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Remembering the Munich Massacre: One Day in September and Munich

The refusal of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists with a moment of silence at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Games, is, of course, appalling and indefensible. Deborah Lipstadt states in a piece she wrote for Tablet magazine that the decision is motivated by anti-Semitism. I’m not sure I’d go that far, though anti-Semitism is never far from the surface in modern Europe, but certainly it’s a political decision. Ankie Spitzer, widow of fencing coach Andre Spitzer, one of the Israeli victims at Munich, indicated in the August 6 issue of Sports Illustrated, in a piece on the 40th anniversary of the massacre, that Jacques Rogge, IOC head, had told her that there were more than 40 Arab delegations at the Games. Without spelling that out, his comments clearly suggested that the requested moment of silence might embarrass them as they likely would not want to observe it. (Only Jordan’s King Hussein, among all Arab leaders, actually condemned the terror attacks when they occurred. Palestinian reaction since the Munich massacre has ranged from the attendance of members of the debut Palestinian Olympic team at a memorial to the Israelis held at the 1996 games in Atlanta to recent comments by the head of the Palestine Olympic Committee that the request for the IOC to grant a minute of silence for the murdered athletes was "racist". Make of that what you will.) Whatever the actual reasons for the IOC’s slight, it puts into perspective the two most significant films made on the Munich massacre and its aftermath, Kevin Macdonald’s powerful documentary One Day in September (1999) and Steven Spielberg’s conflicted but memorable drama Munich (2005). They do what Rogge and IOC have refused to do: remember the Israeli athletes and what happened to them at the Olympics.

Ankie Spitzer is one of the main interviewees in Macdonald’s Oscar-winning film, juxtaposed for maximum effect with the compelling interview with Jamal Al-Gashey, reputedly the only surviving Palestinian terrorist from Munich (There’s some question now whether that is indeed the case.) Al-Gashey, in hiding in Africa, is matter of fact and unrepentant about what he did, but viewers of the documentary will likely be just as aghast and angry at the German authorities, who, in effect, botched the rescue attempt of the nine remaining Israeli hostages (two were killed in the initial attack in their rooms), a disaster that Ankie Spitzer, for one, blames for her husband’s and the others’ deaths.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Non-Zombie Walking Dead: Awakened but Not Exactly Alive

When I was about 13 or so, my recently widowed grandmother told me that every night for a week she would hear the chains rattle on the front door of her Bronx apartment and footsteps in the hallway. Then, Grandpa Charlie was standing at the foot of the bed. He wanted her to find a certain key in the desk drawer of his office in Manhattan’s garment district! In relating this story, Grandma Bess laughed and sighed: “There’s a Yiddish saying the old people in Russia used to have: ‘Der toten kommen.’ The dead walk. I never believed it but I guess they were right.”

Even though my adolescent imagination had conjured up images of some vast hidden wealth, apparently there was no key to be found, no wealth to be had. Just Charlie, worrying about business affairs even after his passage into the Great Beyond. If der toten kommen, maybe it’s not necessarily for anything important. In The Awakening, a gorgeous-looking new British film, it’s possible that the dead walk, talk, threaten and perhaps even kill. But Florence Cathcart, the lead female character played by luminous Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, 2006), doesn’t think so. In London of 1921, she’s a fierce professional debunker who helps the police expose con artists. Early on, Florence goes underground to disrupt a phony seance – a terrifically staged scene in which she proclaims, “You’re charlatans!” – and reveals a kind of unspoken protofeminist sensibility.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Thickness of a Thought: Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth

As humanity grows well past seven billion people, our small planet begins to feel smaller. Many millions of us cluster around densely packed urban centres, with personal space – let alone land – an uncommon luxury. But what if the opposite were suddenly true? Instead of one Earth, we could walk between millions, with possibility of one day waking up as the only human mind on an entire world?

The Long Earth springs such an event on us one not-so-distant tomorrow, with the consequences explored by two renowned British imaginations: Terry Pratchett, known for his other, more fantastic alternate world in the Discworld series; and Stephen Baxter, a science fiction author with several trilogies under his belt (you may also have heard of his previous co-author, some fellow named Arthur C. Clarke...). Their first collaboration, The Long Earth brings out some of the best elements of each author's style – although those expecting the sillier, more outlandish aspects of Pratchett's fantasy won't find it here. Instead the novel follows a solid, if somewhat predictable science fiction exploration of how humans cope with the technological development of "Steppers": devices that allow instantaneous – if slightly nauseating – shifts from one version of planet Earth (and surrounding universe) to another. When the designs for such a machine get posted online, everyone from tech geeks to inquisitive children start building a way out of our congested world. With gold and natural resources now aplenty – but un-Steppable iron suddenly needed – the traditional ideas of value and wealth get turned on their heads. In search of both, people set out across a line of Earths that are much like ours, but with one small difference... none of them appear to have humans.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Juicing Up the Classics: The Importance of Being Earnest at Williamstown

The Importance of Being Earnest
The only hard-and-fast rule about refurbishing a classic play should be that any new production has to be true to the spirit of the text. And that’s a broad requirement: to my mind, Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film of Hamlet, set in New York at the millennium, and Alfonso Cuarón’s 1997 Great Expectations, where the hero becomes a young painter from the Gulf Coast whose mysterious mentor sets him up in a studio in Manhattan, both fit it. But some plays are so tied to the period in which they were written that removing them from it throws them into limbo.

I think that’s true of Chekhov’s dramas, in which the relationship between the women and men on stage and the culture that produced them is so specific. That’s one of the reasons that the Sydney Theatre Company’s touring production of Uncle Vanya, adapted by Andrew Upton and directed by Tamás Ascher, didn’t work at all for me. Actually I’m not sure when this version is meant to take place – as Yelena, Cate Blanchett (Upton’s wife) seems to be, from her costumes, living in the 1950s but the men’s suits look to be circa World War I – but the setting feels like the Australian outback, and though I imagine Upton and Ascher have sound reasons for making a connection between it and turn-of-the-century provincial Russia, I didn’t buy the switch, so instead of making a play that is timeless (in terms of theme and character) more relevant – a pointless aim – ironically it ends up being less convincing.

Uncle Vanya at the Sydney Theatre Company
So does the coarsening of Astrov’s language (he suspects the Professor, with his aches and pains, of bullshitting rather than shamming, as most translations, have it, and so forth). Ascher’s production is impressively staged and quite handsome, but I found it so uninvolving that I ducked out at intermission, right after the reconciliation scene between Yelena and her stepdaughter Sonya (Hayley McElhinney), which Ascher chose to stage as a drunken revel between a pair of schoolgirls, with a lot of eruptive laughter and flopping about the stage. It’s a serious liability in a Chekhov play when you don’t care about a single character. So I guess there’s another hard-and-fast rule after all: you have to give the audience an emotional reason to come back after intermission.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Pioneers Making History: Criterion's Release of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps & Chaplin's The Gold Rush

A few years ago, when I was working on my book Artificial Paradise, about the dark side of The Beatles' utopian dream, I was speaking to a friend who was a clerk in a Toronto music store. In the midst of our conversation about my work, he described to me his own experience hearing The Beatles' music. "The first album I really discovered was Revolver," he told me. "Then I went back to With The Beatles and later found Rubber Soul." What was jarring, of course, was that he began his quest with one of their later 1966 albums, arguably their best, before jumping back to their second record in 1963, a fiercely eclectic songbook primer of hard rock, balladry and R&B, before landing in 1965 on the band's most radical reinterpretation of American rhythm and blues and folk. What startled me most was his seemingly arbitrary dance through history. And it left me wondering how he could ever begin to make sense of it.

For me, I had heard those records as they were being released so the history was clear. I followed each new innovation as a daring, breathtaking leap into this future that was always in the process of being imagined. For him, being much younger, it was all about looking back. Therefore he had to create some new way to hear what that history was, maybe even figure out why it happened in the way it did, and perhaps discover his own way to understand why it mattered. What he did was create his own context for hearing the music, a means to escape the official history which had by then become received wisdom rather than fresh experience. By scrambling time, he made The Beatles music seem new again. He felt as if this great music had finally been freed from the pedigree of its own history.

Alfred Hitchcock directing The 39 Steps

Recently watching Alfred Hitchcock's cleverly entertaining and satisfying 1935 spy thriller The 39 Steps and Charlie Chaplin's comedic gem The Gold Rush (1925), newly re-released in sparkling remastered DVD prints by Criterion, I thought back on that conversation with the clerk. Like him with The Beatles, I didn't live through the era of Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin. Both artists were already legendary by the time I was old enough to even go to the movies. So how could I possibly experience their work as it was first seen by audiences? (A friend of mine once lamented that he regretted not being able to see Robert Altman's Nashville with fresh eyes. How could he, he complained, when he had already read all the many reviews that gave it a certain stature before he ever got to lay his own receptors on it?)  By the time I saw my first Hitchcock picture, he was already regarded as the Master of Suspense. Charlie Chaplin was firmly established as the personification of the Little Tramp, an iconic figure who was hanging on posters proudly in people's bedrooms. Their reputations seemed larger than the work they created.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Notes on the Problem of Tone in Recent Movies

Note to readers: This post contains spoilers.

This Pixar animated fairy tale Brave has a lot of charm; it’s one of the few movies this summer that I’ve been able to send friends to. But it takes a wrong turn in the middle that’s almost disastrous. The heroine, a bright, tomboyish Scottish princess named Merida, has reached the age to be courted, but she has no interest in any of her suitors and she bests them easily at the archery competition that’s meant to determine which one is worthy of her hand. Merida hopes that she can win her mother’s sympathy but instead the queen is furious at her unladylike behavior. So – in the film’s most inventive sequence – the princess enlists the help of a witch who promises to deliver a potion that will alter the queen’s perspective. What it does is to transform Queen Elinor into a bear. The scenes that follow, in which Elinor continues to attempt to act in a queenly manner while her body keeps working against her (and while she’s unable to communicate except through gesture), are comical, and Merida’s efforts to keep her father, a celebrated bear hunter, from seeing Elinor while trying frantically to track down an antidote underscore the princess’s imagination and resourcefulness, certainly appropriate in a coming-of-age story. The problem is what we might call tonal follow-through.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Will It Go Round in Circles: Fernando Meirelles' 360

Desperate to earn money, a downhearted young woman is about to debut with a Vienna escort service. Her family quarrels in their dingy Bratislava apartment. An Algerian dentist stalks his Russian hygienist in Paris. Two bodies writhe on a bed during an adulterous affair in London. A recovering alcoholic attends an AA meeting in Phoenix. Several miserable passengers endure a long wait when their flights are delayed by snow at a Denver airport. So much anguish, so many destinations, so little time. Actually, at 113 minutes, 360 seems twice as long while tracking the sexual encounters – or lack thereof – among various troubled characters across the globe.

The well-credentialed team of filmmakers includes director Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener, 2005) and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, 2006) but their collaboration winds up as less than the sum of its many moving parts. The script is adapted from an 1897 play, La Ronde, that Max Ophuls covered onscreen in 1950 with star Simone Signoret; Roger Vadim did the same 14 years later with Jane Fonda but employed a new title, Circle of Love. What goes around, as everyone knows by now, comes around.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Bad Faith: The Dark Knight Rises

As fans of superhero pictures (and that’s most of the world, evidently) know, the Batman series divides into three categories. There are the Tim Burtons, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), with their magnificent, High Romantic Anton Furst designs and Michael Keaton as a brooding, mysterious Bruce Wayne – a portrayal that, in a better world, would have made him an actor to be cherished forever. Burton put a premium on character and let the stories unravel like fairy tales. The Joel Schumacher entries, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997), were extravagantly (but not wittily) overdesigned; they were like arcades, or gay roller discos, and they underused their stars, Val Kilmer and George Clooney respectively, so that afterwards you couldn't remember anything they’d done.

Then Christopher Nolan took over the franchise in 2005 with Batman Begins, which he also co-wrote with Davis G. Goyer. Nolan brought art-house credentials (Memento, a wildly overrated puzzle picture that didn’t make basic plot sense) and a grim relentlessness that I would have said was precisely the wrong kind of approach for a comic-book adventure. And the concept was misconceived. Bruce (Christian Bale), like the character Michael Keaton played in the Burton pictures, has never been able to move past the pointless deaths of his parents, before his eyes, at the hands of a mugger, but it isn’t grief that motivates this Bruce; it’s guilt. As a boy, Bruce was so terrified of bats as a result of falling down a well on his dad’s estate that, when his parents took him to see the operetta Die Fledermaus (The Bat), the prop bats on stage distressed him and he asked to be taken home early. They encountered the mugger on a deserted street outside the opera house; if Bruce had only been able to control his phobia, his parents might be alive today. So when, years later, returning to a Gotham City overrun with gangsters and all manner of corruption, he chooses to disguise himself as a bat, it’s his way of conquering those childhood fears and doing penance for the fact that his inability to handle them led his parents to their deaths. (The real corruption – or at least stupidity of a monumental order – must have been at Warner Brothers, where this plot premise made it past the pitch stage.) But first there’s a long sequence at a Tibetan monastery, which seems to belong in some other movie altogether, where Wayne is trained in martial arts by mystics (the westerner among them is Ra’s Al Ghul, played by Liam Neeson, whose goatee is more expressive than his performance) who turn out to be the League of Shadows, fanatics with a sort of Sodom and Gomorrah God complex, dedicated to wiping out cities overrun with evil, like Gotham. So Bruce has to defeat them – temporarily, at least – and stage an escape before he can return to battle the more homegrown evil in his own hometown.

Bruce Wayne and his murdered parents in Batman Begins 

The chief villain in Batman Begins, though, is the sinister Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), who, as The Scarecrow, poisons his victims with a psychotropic aerosol that maddens them and projects their worst fears onto his burlap mask. Perhaps I’m hopelessly old-fashioned, but I consider it a sign of bad faith in a director of a comic-book movie that he thinks nothing of putting his audience through the same misery as the characters entrapped in their cruelest fantasies – like the maggots foisted on a screaming Katie Holmes (as Bruce’s childhood friend Rachel Dawes, now an ADA of impressive moral fiber and courage). By the time Crane had pumped enough aerosol in the streets of Gotham in the climax to send paranoid zombies after Rachel and some unfortunate little boy, I was looking around for something to throw at the screen.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Sinfully Good: Andrea England's Hope & Other Sins

When I was a young guy, hopeful about breaking into the singer/songwriter market I wanted to call my first record Love and Other Delights.  It seemed to capture the essence of what my songs were about. Andrea England has topped that by choosing Hope & Other Sins as the title for her new release. It’s definitely more thought-provoking, and when combined with A Man Called Wrycraft’s startling and gorgeous cover art it sets an expectation for England’s third CD to dig far deeper into the listener’s subconscious and really tug at your heart and head. The production, by Blackie & the Rodeo Kings’ Colin Linden, helps fulfil those expectations.