Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Author's Voice: Chimes of Freedom – The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International

Film critic André Bazin
The French film critic André Bazin once offered that the reason we get so few great movies from great books is that film directors are intimidated by the author's voice. He speculated that the film adapter, who obviously loves the work of fiction, feels in danger of falling short of the book's greatness. Therefore, Bazin thought, it was much easier for filmmakers to make great movies out of ordinary books, bad books, or even pulp fiction. It's an interesting theory. He's right, for example, that there are few great films made out of classic writers such as Dostoyevsky (remember William Shatner in Richard Brooks' woebegotten The Brothers Karamazov?), Virginia Woolf (let's just give a huge pass to Michael Cunningham's nod to Woolf in The Hours), or Tolstoy (War and Peace with Rod Steiger, anyone?). But Jim Thompson (The Grifters), Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye) have provided some pretty terrific pictures. Coppola's The Godfather may be the best example of a great film coming out of a mostly lousy book. The only exception to Bazin's rule perhaps is Charles Dickens, celebrating his 200th birthday this year somewhere in the great beyond, who has had more good movies made from his books than any other great writer. But that's likely due to Dickens writing in a popular dramatic style; that is, constructing his stories in a manner that anticipated the model for film narrative which D.W. Griffith would build upon in his first silent pictures. (Outside of Dickens, Henry James and James Joyce might be two other exceptions.)

In considering André Bazin's general observation, I wondered if the same held true for singer/songwriters and the endless number of tribute albums we see these days. The foundation of the American songbook, the infamous Tin Pan Alley, was built solely by songwriters who composed simply so that others could interpret their songs. But this all changed in the Sixties when The Beatles (who wrote and sang their own material) turned Tin Pan Alley into a premature graveyard for the tunesmith. Just consider that you can probably count on the fingers of both hands the number of memorable Beatle cover songs. Which is to say that these four lads from Liverpool were so successful in putting their own distinct voices on their tracks that no one else could claim those songs as their own. Bob Dylan, on the other hand, is in a whole other league. Besides being one of the best modern songwriters, as well as the most prolific, and one who has put a very distinct voice on his own material, he also wrote his songs for others to sing. And sing them they did. From Joan Baez, to the 1910 Fruitgum Company, to William Shatner, to The Byrds, they've all tackled Dylan - good and bad. But in performing his songs, each artist has had to deal with Bob Dylan's canny and incomparable voice, to claim it, reject it, or risk failure in trying to do both.

The new omnibus 4-CD set Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan, a vast selection of Dylan songs that features 73 cover tracks by over 80 artists, has its fair share of both successes and failures. But its sheer range of both material (from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan to Time Out of Mind) and genre artists makes it a fascinating listen. Chimes of Freedom, which includes indie rockers (Silversun Pickups), young pop hit makers (Miley Cyrus, Adele, Kesha), reggae favourites (Ziggy Marley), punk bands (Bad Religion, Rise Against), rappers (K'naan) and veterans (Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Pete Townshend and Steve Earle), also celebrates 50 years of Amnesty International which, given their sometimes paradoxical political agendas, makes them an interesting bedfellow for Dylan who walked away from leading charges to the barricades. Be that as it may, no other songwriter could provide a more nuanced selection of social and political material than Bob Dylan. After all, he basically took the topical folk song, which traditionally served the social cause by denying the singer a subjective role in singing it, and turned that tradition inside out. For Dylan, the topical song was purely subjective, where he performed it from his own perspective and not with a socialist realist objectivity. But he also wrote love songs, surreal adventures, blues and gospel, which opens up the territory for such a variety of performers that populate Chimes Of Freedom.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Delicate Gem: Monsieur Lazhar

Mohamed Fellag stars in Monsieur Lazhar

Though Quebec is one of Canada’s more multicultural and diverse provinces, largely because of Montreal's population mix, its cinema has usually failed to reflect that reality. That’s partly because Canada’s cultural policies too neatly divide Canadian film funding into French and English increments: French for Quebec and English for the rest of the country. Thus Montreal Anglophones wanting to make movies in Quebec are usually out of luck, and Francophones wanting to shoot movies in Ontario, which has some sizable French-language enclaves, are equally so. And since that’s the case, Quebec’s French filmmakers are much more likely to make films about their own communities with less attention paid to the other cultures they bump up against. That was the source of some controversy when Anglophone filmmaker Jacob Tierney (The Trotsky) complained – in a French language newspaper interview – that Quebec cinema wasn’t reflecting the multicultural realities of the day. (He did, unfortunately, feel the need to distance himself from the late Mordecai Richler who famously and accurately commented that Quebec nationalists who spoke of Quebec for Quebeckers did not envision people named O’Reilly, Ginsberg and Wong among them. While French filmmakers weren’t being racist so much as myopic, the salient point and end result is identical.) The other reason that a cultural omission exists in Quebec cinema is likely because majorities tend not to try to understand or feature the concerns of minorities. That however is beginning to change. Denis Villeneuve’s excellent Incendies dealt with an Arab family trying to make a new life in Quebec. And Philippe Falardeau’s very fine new movie Monsieur Lazhar is filtered through the prism of a refugee interacting with, and trying to make his way through, a dominant French Canadian landscape.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Elementary: BBC's Sherlock – Season Two

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson

One of the great joys of writing for this website is discovering hidden treasures that you can share with the reader. Sometimes you can also warn folks, too, about the dreck that litters the popular culture landscape. But for me the biggest pleasure I get is when one of my colleagues unearths something, writes about it and turns me on to it. That is exactly what Mark Clamen did nearly two years ago when he reviewed the first season of the new BBC TV version of Sherlock Holmes, called simply Sherlock. Up until Mark reviewed it I didn't know it existed. And until that moment I'd also never heard of Benedict Cumberbatch (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; National Theatre’s Frankenstein) who was cast as Sherlock Holmes.

Because of his review (he'd seen it in advance of its Canadian premiere), I was able to keep my eye out for it when the first season was finally broadcast on the Canadian cable channel, Showcase (it played on PBS in several markets, but not on my Buffalo-based PBS station for some reason). I won't rehash Mark's review, but suffice it to say that adapters – Mark Gatiss (who also plays Mycroft Holmes on the show) and Steven Moffat (creator of another fascinating but finally unsuccessful updating with his version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, called Jekyll) – have brilliantly updated to our current era these stories based on Arthur Conan Doyle's. Some of the updating is inspired with twisty variations to the original stories. Some of the updating is incredibly simple, but very effective. For example, Dr. John Watson (a really good Martin Freeman) is a veteran of a war in Afghanistan, just as the Dr. Watson was in Doyle's original stories. Some things never change.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Short Excursion into the Novel: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

When I first read The Eyre Affair (Hodder & Stoughton, 2001) a decade ago, its whimsical world enthralled, yet also perplexed me. Certain that many of its quips and literary references had flown clear over my young head, I felt inspired to go brush up on classic English literature. For The Eyre Affair is a book lover’s book, as Jasper Fforde weaves the familiar with the outlandish to create a novel that pays tribute to the cultural legacy of stories, while crafting a tale that’s remarkably original and unexpectedly smart.

Fforde's first novel, The Eyre Affair shows us mid-80s England through the looking glass, as described by police detective Thursday Next. In Thursday’s world, literature remains the pop culture medium of choice, the Crimean war rages on, and dodos make excellent pets. When an unusual book theft turns out to have links to Thursday’s past, she’s called in to help investigate. What follows is action-adventure that ranges from gripping thriller to Monty Pythonesque lunacy, climaxing with a voyage into Charlotte Brontë’s opus itself.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Two Hearts: Contrary Views on Valentine's Day

Note to Readers: Since today is Valentine's Day, which always brings out strong feelings in just about everyone, we thought we'd address this romantic celebration from two completely different views. What is perhaps uncharacteristic about the following two posts, from Laura Warner and Mari-Beth Slade, is that the single woman still embraces the sentiments of Valentine's Day while the married one could just as easily give it a pass. As always, we leave the reader to choose for themselves. Enjoy.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Why We Go to the Theatre: Rosemary Harris and David Hyde Pierce

Jim Dale, Carla Gugino, and Rosemary Harris in The Road to Mecca

In the Broadway revival of Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca by the Roundabout Theatre Company, the luminous Rosemary Harris plays Miss Helen, an aging Afrikaner widow in a small South African village (in an arid section of the country known as Karoo) in the mid-1970s who reaches out to a younger friend, Elsa Barlow (Carla Gugino), a Capetown schoolteacher, at a time of personal crisis. Miss Helen is an artist whose fanciful sculptures of animals and other creatures fill her yard and have unsettled her conventional neighbors for years. She and Elsa became friends when the younger woman, passing through the Karoo, stopped to admire the art – and Miss Helen, used to a mixture of disdain, mockery and dismissal from the other villagers, warmed to her enthusiasm. Elsa, too, is a renegade: she keeps getting in trouble with the school board because she encourages her students, who are black, to speak and write about equality. She loves Miss Helen because she sees her as that rarity, a truly free spirit, and that freedom is manifested in what she calls her Mecca, that yard full of wild creations that the close, churchgoing village of New Bethesda finds creepy, even shocking. But Miss Helen hasn’t been able to make any art for some time, and she fears that her inner vision – the images that appear to her, guiding her hand – may have stopped for good, leaving her in darkness. The desperate tone of her last letter has drawn Elsa to her cottage for a visit. She arrives just at the point at which the local minister, Marius Byleveld (Jim Dale), has almost persuaded Miss Helen to give up her solitary house and go into a home.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Spy in the Cinematic House of Peril: Nobody is Safe

Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds hit the road in Safe House

If you’re looking for a current movie about clandestine government operatives who betray their brethren, go see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. If you’re looking for a current movie about clandestine government operatives who betray their brethren starring Denzel Washington, Safe House is your best bet at the moment – though not necessarily one that will stick with you beyond that juncture. The former thriller, adapted from a 1974 John le Carre novel, keeps its bloodshed to a minimum and adheres to the great British tradition of allowing tension to build under an otherwise laconic surface. The latter film revels in splatter, ramping up dastardly deeds with typical Hollywood adrenaline.

Washington employs his usual charisma and clever thespian chops as Tobin Frost, a CIA agent gone rogue for the past decade. The question is whether or not he’s really a sociopath, like the corrupt cop the actor essayed in Training Day (2001). When his Safe House antihero gets a chip containing a hush-hush file, he injects the damn thing under his skin to escape detection before beginning a 115-minute chase scene. There are actually numerous chase scenes, but the unrelenting action becomes a big blur. Frost is targeted by a seemingly never-ending supply of generic mercenaries so downright evil that the story almost veers into horror-flick territory, in which a monstrous entity continually rises from the dead. There’s one chief bad guy in particular (Fares Fares, a name so nice he uses it twice) who I thought had at least a dozen bullets pumped into him, yet the thug manages to pop up unscathed in the final denouement.