Saturday, April 7, 2012

Contains Almost No Robots or Explosions: The Internet is a Playground by David Thorne

When I was little, I often wished for a book with an infinite number of pages. It would simply carry on the story as I read it, it would never get boring, and it would provide my life with magic and amusement wherever I went. Of course at that age I didn’t realize that never-ending stories would be problematic, or that the web was about to be invented. These days people carry hundreds of volumes in their pockets, and hold in their phones a vast network of reading material that expands by the day. Whether the new forms of interactivity this lends to the once-humble book is for good or ill is a matter of debate, yet digital pages simply have more options than their static print counterparts.

Which is what makes The Internet is a Playground (Tarcher/Penguin, 2011) a rather ironic title to find in print. The volume amasses the emails, articles, and other written musings of David Thorne, an Australian satirist and design director. His blog, 27b/6, hosts most of these online exchanges, many of which have gone viral. The more notorious of these involve lost cats, pie charts, and Thorne’s attempt to repay monetary debt with a drawing of a spider.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Venus Rising: A Conversation with Kristin Scott Thomas (1995)

When Kristin Scott Thomas strides into a room, she holds her head proudly as if sniffing a rarefied air that only her lungs find pleasing. She is a regal beauty, turning the heads of all the men seated at the bar as she approaches my table, suggesting a darker, more exotic Grace Kelly. But do not call her 'aristocratic.' Mention that word and she winces as if lemon juice had just violated her taste buds. Thomas is an actor whose beauty is often accentuated by undercurrents which charge dramatically to the surface. She imbues British etiquette with teeth that hunger for something more than just shallow pleasantries.

Educated at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, Thomas made her film debut in Under the Cherry Moon (1986) as an heiress who humanizes Prince's preening gigolo. She didn't, however, really step into the spotlight until she portrayed the cynical Fiona in the Oscar-nominated hit Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Before she would become renown in The English Patient (1996), Gosford Park (2001), I've Loved You For So Long (2008), and more recently, Sarah's Key (2010), Thomas appeared in Angels and Insects (1995). In the picture, she played Matty Crompton, the impoverished relative of an aristocratic Victorian family. As a budding feminist, Matty attempts to define what independence means to her. It's a quality you could say that Kristin Scott Thomas, as an actor, has embodied all along.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A University’s Odd Universe: Where Damsels Go To Dance

Carrie MacLemore, Annaleigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke and Greta Gerwi star in Damsels in Distress

Mix 1930s screwball comedy with 1950s kitsch, while providing a wink and a nod to a smattering of contemporary concerns. What do you get? Damsels in Distress, the first film from writer-director Whit Stillman in 13 years. Back then, he was a young indie darling thanks to his award-winning Metropolitan (1990) and The Last Days of Disco (1998), with a less acclaimed Barcelona (1994) tossed in for good measure. Now middle-aged, his interests remain rooted in the discreet charm of the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” as a Disco denizen refers to her fading social milieu. This fascination may be the perfect fit for a filmmaker whose mother was a genuine debutante and whose godfather was the man who coined the term WASP to describe White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

There are at least two black students in evidence, including Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), at Seven Oaks University, a fictitious New England school that is the focus of Damsels. But she’s British, so perhaps that releases her from the burden of U.S. ethnic divisions. The emphasis is on class – seemingly upper – instead of race, but Stillman certainly offers no examination of the American Dream like that found in, say, The Great Gatsby. Literary classics aside, money isn’t really mentioned in the screenplay, except when the self-exiled lead protagonist Violet (Greta Gerwig) briefly checks into a Motel 4 as a less expensive alternative to the low-grade Motel 6. Fluffy fun until the story begins to run out of steam, the Stillman picture both ridicules and celebrates its clueless, anachronistic characters.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Dusty Sings Newman: "I've Been Wrong Before"

Music critic Rob Hoerburger, in his illuminating liner notes for The Dusty Springfield Anthology (1997), described the husky-voiced artist's impact on popular music in this way: "Dionne Warwick was more polished and Diana Ross sexier and Martha Reeves tougher and Aretha, well, Aretha. But Dusty Springfield, the beehived Brit, was always the smartest, the most literate, the wisest." In a career that spanned more than 35 years, she was also one of the finest white soul singers to emerge in the Sixties. Springfield covered, in the most significant and delicate ways, the gamut of soul, yet she also extended herself to perform lushly orchestrated pop and disco. Dusty Springfield not only could mine the emotions buried within a song, she would sometimes find emotions that weren't even planted there. Like Jackie DeShannon, Springfield's roots actually began in folk music. The trio she began with her brother, called The Springfields, made an early success of "Silver Threads and Golden Needles" in 1962. But Dusty left the band early in 1963 to pursue a solo career. It wasn't long before she quickly climbed the charts with the exquisite "I Only Want to Be With You" in 1964, quickly followed by the majestic "Wishin' and Hopin'."

When she was recording her album, Everything's Coming Up Dusty (retitled You Don't Have to Say You Love Me in the U.S. after the title song became a huge hit) in 1966, which was sumptuously seeped in R&B, Springfield made a decision to include tracks by the great pop practitioners Burt Bacharach ("Long After Tonight is Over"), Goffin/King ("I Can't Hear You," "Oh No! Not My Baby"), and a new song by a West Coast songwriter named Randy Newman. (We were still a few years away from hearing the sly and subversive satirist of "Sail Away" and "Rednecks.") Since the mid-Sixties, Newman had been a songwriter-for-hire at Metric Music (the West Coast equivalent of the Brill Building in New York) churning out conventional pop tunes for just about anyone who'd sing them. But the Newman song Dusty Springfield chose to perform, "I've Been Wrong Before," turned out to be arguably his strongest, most memorable of those numbers.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Working Alone: Kenny Werner’s Me, Myself & I

American musician Kenny Werner is one of those slightly unsung piano players whose work as a sideman often goes unnoticed (even though he’s recorded with John Scofield, Dave Holland and led his own trio for many years). On his new album, Me, Myself & I (Justin Time, 2012), which is set for release April 10th, Werner is left to his own devices on a solo piano recording that is full of great humour, spontaneity and grace. It was recorded in Montreal last June during the festival at a small club called the Upstairs Jazz Bar and Grill.

The album contains seven compositions featuring a mix of the old and new. It opens with a mysterious study of Monk’s “Round Midnight” as Werner extends the track with a heady progression of melodic ideas. It’s an introspective version of the tune, where the rhythm and the musical idiosyncrasies of its composer sets up the listener for the entire album. Werner shows remarkable touch here, offering a distinctly sensitive rendition of the song.

Monday, April 2, 2012

On Being British: David Lean and Noel Coward

No filmmaker in the history of English cinema has ever devoted himself to the subject of being British as David Lean did. It was his great theme. He explored it in one way in his Dickens adaptations (Great Expectations and Oliver Twist) and in the comedy Hobson’s Choice, where the two main characters, a willful slob and his fierce, unyielding daughter, are as quintessentially English types as the figures who populate Dickens’s novels. His most celebrated and perhaps most indelible creation, Captain Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai – played by his favorite actor, Alec Guinness – was a satirical portrait of the sensibility that upheld the crumbling British Empire, clinging religiously to tradition and regulations and choosing polish and follow-through over common sense. Lean’s final picture (and one of his finest), based on E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, directly addressed the issues of empire and examined the qualities of the colonial English by pitting them against the Indians and demonstrating the futility of their attempts to emulate their masters.

It seems fitting, therefore, that Lean’s first four movies were all collaborations with Noël Coward, the jack of all show-biz hyphenates (playwright-screenwriter, producer-director, actor-singer, composer-lyricist), who perfected a dramatic language built on English understatement, English middle-class and working-class English cliché, and that celebrated English repression of emotion that is in fact sentimental at its core. Coward is otherwise (and best) known for his high comedies, two of which, Private Lives and Design for Living, are masterworks of the genre, perfect specimens of how a prodigiously gifted playwright can subsume tragic depths in brittle, inconsequential-seeming farce. (The first is a portrait of the marriage of two people who are both profoundly in love with each other and profoundly unsuited to living with each other – or, most likely, in the world. The second is about a trio of true social revolutionaries, and it’s still shocking.) But many of his plays were depictions of bourgeois English life that reveled in presenting unexceptional characters caught in soap-opera situations, and it’s the paradox of his career that he was able to shift so easily back and forth between these two sorts of plays. And every now and then he paused to write an operetta.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

In the Key of Studs Terkel: Craig Taylor's Londoners

Big Ben from Trafalgar Square - Photo by David Churchill

Over the years, I have been fortunate to visit cities considered some of the most exciting in the world: New York, Paris, Rome, Bombay and London. Like many before me, I fell in love with each one of them for their own unique reasons. Heck, Paris so inspired me during my one and only (so far) visit that it became the setting, and partial inspiration, for my first novel, The Empire of Death. But it is without question London that has its siren call still singing in my ears. I've only been there twice, but upon my return home each time I've longed to go back so I could continue to explore this great and historic city. Sure, two trips barely scratches the surface of this locale, but for whatever reason (perhaps because England is half my heritage – Irish being the other) it is a city I feel instantly comfortable and at home in, even if they don't seem to know they drive on the wrong side of the road.

Little Driver pub - East London - Photo by David Churchill

When I travel, the first thing I always do is toss my suitcases into my hotel room and go for a stroll around the neighbourhood. The last time I was in London in 2009, I stayed at a lovely little hotel in the east end near the Bow Street Tube station called City Stay (its appeal, beyond good rates, is that they had a kitchen you can cook your own meals in as long as you bring in your own food – it saved me a bundle). Across the road is a terrific working class pub, called Little Driver, which instantly became my local after a long day exploring. (I did an edit on The Empire of Death there while enjoying their perfect-temperature drafts of Guinness. Isn't that what pubs and coffee shops are for, drinking and writing?)

Craig Taylor - Author of Londoners
This is a very long way to introduce a wonderful oral history of London compiled by Craig Taylor, called Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told By Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long For It (Ecco/Harper Collins – 2012), to give it its full title. The book is inspired by the work of the great American oral historian Studs Terkel (Working, The Good War, Hard Times, and many others). Taylor, an ex-pat Canadian living in London (ironically, he's lived there for several years before he felt comfortable to call himself a Londoner – he didn't think he'd earned it), like me became enthralled with the city, but unlike me he made the decision to make it his new home. As he walked around the city, he began to pick up conversations with the people all around him. He realized there were so many stories, so many voices, that he had to compile the voices in order to, as he says, give us a “snapshot of how London is now.” It sure took him a great deal of time. The project took five years: he burned through 300 AA batteries, and the transcripts took up almost a million words. With the help of his hard-working editor, Matt Weiland, he winnowed the hundreds of interviews down to 90 voices. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to roll this much data into a coherent and compelling text, but regardless of how he did it, he has succeeded admirably.