Saturday, February 4, 2012

Rocka My Soul: The Ecstasy That is Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Robert Battle's The Hunt. Photo by Paul Kolnik

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has landed in Toronto, and with an enormous amount of noise in the form of screams, cheers and ear-splitting hurrahs. The arrival of the New York-based troupe on our side of the border has always been cause for celebration; there’s no beating the potent physicality of the dancers, or the raw, often visceral connectedness an audience member feels for the choreography, often by a range of modern and contemporary dance artists.

But this time, there was added incentive for the standing ovation that greeted the company when on Thursday it gave the first of four scheduled performances at Toronto's Sony Centre of the Performing Arts. The run concludes today with matinee and evening performances of a mixed program. Since July, the 30-member ensemble has been guided by newly appointed director Robert Battle, a former dancer turned choreographer whose association with the Ailey company stems from 1999 when he was first appointed artist-in-residence.

Friday, February 3, 2012

There Are No Happy Endings: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’s Feel Good 9/11 Spin

Ten years after 9/11 and Hollywood filmmakers are still not sure how to handle cinematic depictions of the tragedy. They obviously and understandably won’t excuse the terrorists for their horrendous crimes. Nor will they blame the United States for what happened that fateful day as one ignorant Toronto film writer did when she wrote that America was both the victim and architect of 9/11. But they also can’t handle dealing with the raw emotions still evoked from that horrible day on Sept. 11, 2001. Excepting for United 93 (2006), Paul Greengrass’s emotionally powerful depiction of the occurrences on board one of the doomed flights, they’ve been content to stick to simple emotions such as were on display in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006). American independent filmmakers have been more forthright on the subject, but generally have used their platform rather myopically, either assailing supposed Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11 (Civic Duty, 2007) or to criticize American attitudes towards immigrants post 9/11 (The Visitor, 2007). None of the films on the subject, however, have tried to gloss over what happened then or put a positive spin on the tragedy, until now, with the unfortunate release of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. And feel good movies about 9/11 are no more palatable or less offensive than feel good movies on the Holocaust like Life is Beautiful (1997) or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008).

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and the Death of the Auteur Theory

The “pantheon” of worst films is usually topped by fare such as Edward D. Wood Jr’s Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959). No question. It is truly terrible. But naming a picture like that the “worst film ever made” is too easy. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. The man had no talent so it was easy for him to make a truly awful movie. What I think should be considered when creating a list of the worst films ever made are the filmmaking skills and ambition of the director. Michael Cimino had both. His The Deer Hunter (1978) won the Oscar for Best Picture, and his debut, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), was a quality character-driven action picture that starred Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. The film he made after The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, gets my nomination for the worst film ever made because Cimino had talent and ambition. He was also (and still remains) a megalomaniac.

And just in case you think I’m now shooting fish in a barrel, labeling a film “the worst ever made” by jumping on the bandwagon of what everybody already knows, I was actually at the Toronto debut screening on November 20, 1980. Most people never saw the full version on the big screen since it was pulled from release after that evening and only briefly returned in a severely cut form (the long version is now on DVD; the short version is not). Going in, I knew very little about what had happened the night before at its world premiere in New York City (and the savage review it got from The New York Times critic Vincent Canby). Sure, I admit, I had heard a brief report on the radio that the screening had not gone well, but that was all I knew (remember, this was prior to texting and Google and we had to rely on newspapers, radio and TV). I thought little of the report since I preferred to make up my own mind.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Still Alive and Well: Leonard Cohen's Old Ideas

One warm evening in the spring of 2008, I filed into the Sony Centre in downtown Toronto where you could feel in this company of strangers a communal certainty that what we were about to witness was something captivating. Moments later, garbed in a grey suit and fedora, a Canadian legend took the stage. The applause only ceased when the opening chords of “Dance Me To The End of Love” wafted over us. So began our intimate three-hour encounter with the Canadian icon Leonard Cohen. Like many of his recordings, the performance was simple but urbane; humble but iconic; mournful but beautiful; thus making each detail unforgettable.

Several years after that epic world tour, in his 77th year, Cohen returned to the studio. The result is Old Ideas (Sony Music Canada., 2012) the twelfth studio album in his 44 year career and the first since Dear Heather in 2004. Living off of the vivid memory of that evening almost four years ago, the announcement of Old Ideas was a warm welcome. The album itself proof that Cohen’s artistic crux is still aglow in his twilight years. A Montreal native, Cohen was a published poet before his twentieth birthday. His poetic and literary accomplishments, which also include two novels that capture the quintessential melancholy of CanLit, might have established his foundation, but it is through song, however, that he became immortalized.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Talking Out of Turn #27: Christopher Dewdney (1984/87/88)

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 host of On the Arts at CJRT-FM
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.

One section of the book dealt with Occupying the Margins, a chapter that examined the role of marginal art on eighties culture. By the Eighties, contemporary composers like Philip Glass, R. Murray Schafer and John Cage had already made a significant impact in pop circles with the help of David Bowie, Brian Eno and The Talking Heads. There were also sound poets like Bob Cobbing and bill bissett who expanded the notion of what was considered verse. While Canadian writer Christopher Dewdney is not a sound poet, he does look at language the way a geologist might examine layers of rock. Being the son of the renowned archaeologist, Selwyn Dewdney, none of this should perhaps come as a surprise. But throughout the Eighties, Christopher Dewdney shifted between works of non-fiction (The Immaculate Perception, 1986) , fiction and poetry (Radiant Inventory, 1988). Since we talked frequently during the decade and covered most of those books, I've fused together three excerpts from those talks into one post.

Monday, January 30, 2012

A Spook in Afghanistan: Blood and Gifts

Jeremy Davidson, Gabriel Ruiz and Jefferson Mays in Blood and Gifts at Lincoln Center

The compelling Blood and Gifts, by the American playwright J.T. Rogers, focuses on the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States between 1981 and 1991. The protagonist is Jim Warnock, a thirty-something CIA operative based over the border in Pakistan, whose assignment is to supervise the covert arming of Afghan resistance fighters. His official liaison with themujahideen is the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, which – for political reasons of their own – has jockeyed successfully for control of the distribution of American aid and has chosen to back the most extreme of the Afghan fighters, the violent right-wing Islamist Hekmatyar. But Warnock reaches out to one of the other commanders, Abdullah Khan, taking clandestine road trips into the mountains where Khan and his men are camped out and funneling weapons his way (as well as boom boxes and rock ‘n’ roll for Khan’s impetuous young second-in-command, Saeed) in exchange for intel.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are: Battling Beasts on the Big Screen

The Grey certainly is a far cry from Never Cry Wolf. In the new thriller, the CGI and animatronic canis lupus creatures are preternaturally immense, relentless carnivores with an appetite for human flesh. The earlier film by Carroll Ballard, which came out in 1983 and was adapted from Farley Mowat’s wonderful 1963 book of the same title, makes the case that wolves feed primarily on rodents. Both movies are in the Arctic adventure genre. The chief distinction may be that the older story is about man learning to understand and coexist with nature while the current release depicts man versus nature in a bloody mismatch.

Yet The Grey, which stars Liam Neeson as the alpha male among a pack of survivors stranded in the vast Alaskan tundra after their transport plane crashes, is a surprisingly meditative saga. As they try to elude the snarling predators by trekking through deep snow without weapons, these guys somehow find time to debate whether or not there is a God. If the answer is yes, we see little evidence that a supreme being is on their side. In addition to the threat of territorial wolves, the men are just as likely to face doom in the form of hypoxia, storms, heights and river rapids amid the beautifully photographed (by Masanobu Takayanagi) vistas of British Columbia, standing in for America’s largest and least populated state.