Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bread and Circuses: Battle Royale, The Hunger Games and the Public's Bloodlust

A scene from Battle Royale (2000)

In the lead up to the release of The Hunger Games, many commentators repeatedly mentioned that the book and film were derivative of the Japanese book and film, Battle Royale (the book came out in 1999; the film in 2000), and its sequel Battle Royale II (2003). Having now watched the two Japanese films (but not The Hunger Games itself), the comment, though basically true, is completely beside the point. None of these films are terribly original, since their conceit – the spectacle of citizens watching or following for the purposes of entertainment the slaughter of a specific group of people – is as old as the Ancient Romans' gladiatorial games, and probably much older.

Although I know what my colleague Steve Vineberg meant in his review of The Hunger Games when he said he thought Battle Royale was loathsome, but I don't completely share that view. From a North American perspective, there seems to be no point to the slaughter that takes place in Battle Royale. For those who are unfamiliar with the plot: in an unspecified future, Japanese society has come unstuck with children rebelling against adult rules. As a result, the government passes the BR Act to try to bring the children back under control (and by extension, society). Once a year a middle school class is selected. On what they think is a field trip at the end of the school year, the children (or rather teens on the cusp of adulthood, as all are around 15 years of age) are knocked out by gas, kidnapped and awaken in a military camp on an island. They are told by their former teacher that they have been selected for the annual Battle Royale contest. The contest is simple. The children are released on the island, with various weapons, and, given only three days, must kill each other until only one is left alive. The survivor will be celebrated and revered by the rest of society. Needless to say, after much resistance, they are convinced that it is either play the game, or be executed right then and there (they all have a device around their necks that can be made to remotely explode at any time). So the game begins.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Pseudo Swindler: Ray Wylie Hubbard's The Grifter’s Hymnal

Some songwriters improve with age and experience. In the case of veteran Austin musician Ray Wylie Hubbard, the evidence is heard on his new release, The Grifter’s Hymnal (Bordello Records 2012), one of the finest albums of the year. It’s a testament to his excellent ability, through song, at storytelling. All of which is shaped by a career and life that’s had some interesting turns, both artistically and personally.

Ray Wylie Hubbard is originally from Oklahoma born 65 years ago. His first album was released in 1971 joining a new mix of Alt-Country singers such as Guy Clark. He’s also been associated with the so-called, Outlaw Country performers like Waylon Jennings, Steve Young or Willie Nelson. But unlike those hugely successful artists, Hubbard has been more of a journeyman, quietly recording whenever he can and maintaining his craft playing local venues in Austin, Texas, where he lives. In the past ten years he’s released five albums, The Grifter’s Hymnal, being the most recent.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Outlier: Paul Goodman Changed My Life

2011 was an exceptional year for documentaries about outliers: Bill Cunningham New York, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, Magic Trip (about Ken Kesey), Public Speaking (about Fran Leibowitz), The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby. One of the most fascinating is Jonathan Lee’s Paul Goodman Changed My Life, a study of the prolific anarchist Paul Goodman. Goodman has now been largely forgotten but in the early and mid-sixties his 1959 Growing Up Absurd – one of Lee’s many interviewees, the Esalen Institute president Gordon Wheeler, assures us – could be found on the book shelf of every dorm room in every liberal arts college across the country. (By the time I attended one, in 1968, it had vanished: warmly embraced by the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, Goodman was démodé by the time campus protest turned uglier and more chaotic in the Nixon era.) Growing Up Absurd is part sociology, part philosophy and part politics. Its thesis is that young American men in the Eisenhower years were growing up cognizant of the corrupted state of their institutions – education, government, business, law – and in increasingly hopeless and desperate rebellion against them. It still makes compelling reading, and despite the selectivity of Goodman’s subject matter (he doesn’t address the condition of young women, writing as he does a decade and more before the women’s movement, and out of a peculiarly old-fashioned sensibility about gender politics), the bulk of his observations still seem relevant more than half a century later.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Wizard World Toronto Comic Con: Where Subculture Becomes Community

Comic Cons: fun for the whole family (Photo by Krystle Burkholder)

I’ve long wanted to attend a Comic Con, but the prospect of going to San Diego has always been too expensive, and Toronto’s epic Fan Expo runs in late August when I am invariably out of town. So when the opportunity came to attend Toronto’s Wizard World Comic Con this past weekend, I jumped at the chance. But I have to confess that – despite my long-standing desire – I had little idea of what the event might actually be like.

When I first found out that I was going to Wizard World, a friend of mine described to me his experience of Fan Expo as being like “a party at the end of the world.” I haven’t had the chance to ask him precisely what he meant by this, but the description immediately called to mind the last episode the most recent season of Doctor Who which aired this past September. In that episode, we find The Doctor stranded on Earth at a point when time itself has collapsed and flattened, resulting in a scenario in which all of history is essentially happening at once: Winston Churchill and Cleopatra hold high-level summits and Roman centurions have to negotiate with flying dinosaurs. In my mind, this is what the Con promised – a world without boundaries, a place of all things and all times, all at once. And on that level Wizard World didn’t disappoint. I wandered the floor of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre amidst Imperial Stormtroopers having cigarettes with Warrior Princesses, Ghostbusters and pirates standing in line for pulled pork sandwiches, and an array of tiny Darth Vaders and Iron Men drinking apple juice from their sippy cups. The feel on the floor – among the kiosks selling an endless assortment of Big Bang Theory t-shirts, Star Wars figurines, graphic novels, and medieval weaponry – was of an unapologetic and unselfconscious celebration of all things nerdy. Fandom, without prejudice. And, to be honest, it was awesome. After all, how many places are there in the world where you can bring young children and buy a broadsword?

Photo by Mark Clamen
But in one significant way my friend’s description didn’t quite hold, and my weekend was all the better for it: this convention – unlike the 80,000-plus population of Fan Expo – was less like a party at the end of the world than a "meet and greet" at the end of the world. There was all the content but little of the overwhelming chaos I actually expected to find, and which I honestly wasn’t looking forward to. (I’m no fan of crushing crowds, and even less of interminable lines.) And if the experience didn’t rise to that intensity, it is to Wizard World’s credit. They organized an event large enough to do justice to the full scope of all the overlapping subcultures (from comic books, to classic television, video games, and film; from the subtle and elegant artistry of the comic industry, to the giddy pleasure of faux medieval battles and pillowed swordplay) without losing the humanity of all involved. There was an intimacy to this weekend’s event that was as much a draw as the celebrity headliners.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Once and Next to Normal: Words and Music

Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti star in the stage production of Once

The Broadway musical Once is an adaptation of the enchanting Irish not-quite-romantic musical film from 2007 written and directed by John Carney, with songs by the two stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Carney used to be the bassist for the Irish band The Frames, and Hansard was its lead singer. (He also played the guitarist, Outspan, in the congenial 1991 movie The Commitments.) Hansard has a long, woebegone face pebbled with a rust-colored beard; his eyes are immense, with the peeled look of billiard balls. In Once he plays The Guy, a Dublin busker who holds down a day job at his dad’s vacuum cleaner repair shop and plays guitar and sings when the work day is done and there are still crowds on the streets he can entertain with popular standards. At night, when there’s hardly anyone around so he’s usually entertaining himself, he performs his own compositions, poignant ballads of romantic masochism delivered in a startlingly impassioned style that quavers into an expressive falsetto in the most intimate sections. During one of these twilight interludes he meets The Girl (Irglová), who hears one of his tunes, “Say It to Me Now,” and intuits that it was written for an ex-lover he hasn’t gotten over. The Girl is a Czech émigré who lives with her mother and her young daughter, sells magazines and roses on the street, and occasionally lands a job cleaning houses. But more importantly she’s a musician herself: she can’t afford a piano of her own but a congenial music-store owner lets her come by and play one of his models. When she and The Guy become friends she takes him by the store and plays a little Mendelssohn for him. He can see she’s the real thing – just as she could when she heard him on the street. So they play a duet, a song of his called “Falling Slowly,” harmonizing on the vocals. They sound so heavenly together that you’re sure they belong together, not just as musicians but as a couple, like Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter in Walk the Line.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Lens Wide Open: Adam Nayman Presents The Films of Stanley Kubrick at the Miles Nadal JCC

Director Stanley Kubrick is one of the more paradoxical of major filmmakers. A photographer who became a self-taught movie maker in search of a realist style (Killer's Kiss), Kubrick would eventually become a dedicated formalist making epics (Barry Lyndon). Although he was an American director who began by shooting in real locations (The Killing), he spent most of his late career in a self-imposed hermitage in England inventing locations for his pictures (Full Metal Jacket).While Kubrick is an acclaimed auteur (2001: A Space Odyssey), his films rarely got good reviews when they were released (Eyes Wide Shut). Controversy continually followed him (Lolita, A Clockwork Orange), too. 

Given the perplexities of Kubrick's relatively small body of work, Cinema Scope and Grid Weekly film critic Adam Nayman, who has previously lectured on other controversial directors such as Paul Verhoeven and Catherine Breillat at the JCC Miles Nadal in Toronto, tonight begins a fascinating epic exploration into the long contradictory shadow that Kubrick has cast over the last half-century of American film-making. The Kubrick series is being held every Monday night until June 25th from 7-9pm. Adam and I recently had the opportunity to talk about the series and why he believes that Stanley Kubrick's work still continues to matter thirteen years after his death.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Commemorating the Centenary of the Titanic Disaster

The sinking of the Titanic on April 14/15, 1912, may not have the emotional resonance for us here at Critics at Large that the 9/11 tragedy did, if for no other reason than none of us were alive at the time of that horrible accident. Still, it has implications that affect us all to this day. So, today and tomorrow, we have decided to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the sinking of that great ship in eight pieces that look at the tragic event from a cultural point of view. Ranging from an appropriate opening musical “overture” as selected by Kevin Courrier; to a combination memoir and critical overview of films and documentaries by David Churchill; to insightful commentaries on a variety of other films and music from Steve Vineberg, Mari-Beth Slade, John Corcelli, Andrew Dupuis, David Kidney, and finishing with a discerning look at the broader implications of the Titanic’s sinking from Shlomo Schwartzberg, we think you will find our overview fulfilling as we struggle to come to terms with what this disaster means and has meant. So, to our registered followers, whether via Facebook, Twitter, or email, please note you will be receiving eight notifications beginning with the first piece that will be posted at 11:40 p.m. EDT (the exact moment the Titanic hit the iceberg), and proceeding once an hour until 6:20 a.m. (we switch the post time at 2:20 a.m., to acknowledge the exact moment the great ship sank). As with all works on Critics at Large, the pieces are as individualistic as the people who crafted or selected them. Please let us know what you think by adding your thoughts to our comment section.

– The writers of Critics at Large

Titanic Overture

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

Family History: Titanic Memories

Thomas Burden at 27 years old (over ball), David Churchill's Grandfather

The job awaited him in America. He had already said his good-byes to all his mates in the local pub. Two or three young lasses quietly mourned the fact they were losing “another one” to America. Belfast didn’t hold much future for a Catholic, not in March 1912, so his decision had been made. His brother, Paddy, understood; his sister, Teresa, or Teesie as he called her, didn’t. His Da, James? He’d passed away some time ago. His Ma, Ellen, was resigned, though deeply saddened. 

As the date to sail in April crept closer, his Ma took ill. At first, he thought it was a cold, but then it got worse. He knew he’d never see her again, so after a couple of nights’ reflection, he cashed in his ticket. He would not have been able to live with himself if she passed while he travelled, or shortly after he arrived. He was still disappointed, because the ship was to be on her maiden voyage. He had even occasionally gone down to the Harland and Wolfe shipyards to watch her, and her sister ship Olympic, being built. He’d heard that even in steerage accommodations were acceptable, and the food was far better than he’d been eating recently. He would wait until his Ma was well before he booked again. In the meantime, he went to the telegraph office and sent a message to his prospective employer in Traverse City, Michigan that he would be delayed, he hoped, for no more than a month. 

So, on April 10th, the ship sailed without him. The next day, his Ma showed improvement, and by the 13th, she was well on the road to recovery. He thought nothing about the ship; all that mattered was that his Ma had recovered. On the afternoon of the 13th, he went to the ticket office and booked on a ship that was scheduled to sail in early May: the Lusitania. A good ship, he heard, just not new. He went to the pub that evening, and Mass the next day with his family. He was home and asleep early on the night of the 14th. 

He went to the telegraph office the next morning to let his American employer know when he would be arriving. The office was in an uproar with crowds of people outside. “She went down,” he heard one man say to another. “She’s gone,” said another. “Alfred was on board,” a woman behind him said before she broke into tears. He turned and asked another man outside the telegraph office what had happened. “The Titanic. She’s hit an iceberg and sunk. Over half of the passengers went with her.” Numbness hit his limbs and he felt himself wobble slightly. Another man grabbed his arm or he would have fallen. The man eased him onto a nearby stoop. “Ya all right, mate?” he asked. “I … I was supposed to be on that ship,” he said. 

Passenger Record from the Lusitania
That is Thomas Joseph Burden’s story. He is my grandfather – my mother’s father. Indeed he did have tickets in steerage on the Titanic. His mom did get sick and he cancelled his tickets and came over, finally, a month later on the Lusitania, about three years before it was sunk by a torpedo. Talk about the luck of the Irish. He never spoke much about it. All we knew was the basics: he had a job offer as a newspaper printer in Traverse City, Michigan; had tickets on the Titanic; his mother took sick so he cancelled; he came to America a month later on the Lusitania. So, what you read above is extrapolated from what little we knew. I believe the whole story, because a few years ago I dug through the Ellis Island electronic archives and indeed I did find his name in their records as an immigrant to the US on the Lusitania (see image). I was able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the Lusitania part of the story, so I have no reason to doubt the Titanic part.

Courage and Consolation: The Heroism of the Titanic’s Band

Bandmaster Wallace Hartley
On May 18, 1912, a funeral service was held in the small town of Colne, in Lancashire, England. It drew over thirty thousand people. It was the service for Wallace Hartley, violinist and Bandmaster of the Titanic. The hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee” was played during the funeral. Legend tells us that it was the last piece of music the Titanic band played as the ship went down.

Wallace Hartley was one of eight musicians who chose to stay on board until the very end, playing music to ease the anxiety of the passengers. For me, Hartley and his fellow players performed an inspired act of bravery. While consoling the survivors, their music was the last heard by those who perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. As Canadian historian Adrian Shuman has said “music makes sense of the tragedy” (from the CBC-Radio documentary, Hartley’s Violin). It offered the survivors an important link to the humanity of the story and a contemporary understanding of the power of music to reach out and connect us. Music has always played an important role in communicating and honouring the dead by expressing a deeper and more spiritual form of communion.

Sung Stories: Titanic Blues (illustration by David Kidney)

Illustration by David Kidney

As a boy, back in the Sixties, I used to sing a song called “Were You There When That Great Ship Went Down.” I’m not sure where I first heard it, maybe from my grandmother, or my great-grandmother who looked after my brother and me on Saturday nights. “Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives, were you there when that great ship went down?”

Then later, in 1986, Phil Alvin of The Blasters released a solo album called Un“Sung Stories” which had “Titanic Blues” on Side 2. It was not the same song, but rather an old blues tune that told the story of the Titanic disaster in only a few short verses. The boat hit an iceberg, it sank, and people died – kind of a Reader’s Digest version of the tale.

Remembering A Night to Remember

Adapted by novelist Eric Ambler from Walter Lord’s non-fiction account of the sinking of the Titanic and directed by Roy Ward Baker, A Night to Remember – now available in a newly remastered DVD print from Criterion – is a small classic of understated English filmmaking. It has an enormous cast, and the crowd scenes are impressively staged (and, in the moments when the passengers who haven’t been hoisted onto the inadequate number of lifeboats begin to panic, tense and frightening), but Baker manages to retain a feeling of intimacy. He works modestly, focusing as much as possible on individual characters and details. In the 1997 Titanic, James Cameron took three hours plus to tell a preposterously fictionalized version of the story – almost twice as long as it took the ocean liner to sink. Baker’s film is two-thirds the length of Cameron’s, most of it in real time, and he doesn’t make things up. He doesn’t need to, since the truth is far more dramatic and moving than anything Cameron could devise.

James Cameron and Titanic: Bigger, Not Better

Leo & Kate in James Cameron's Titanic 
This year marks the 100th and 15th anniversary of Titanic – 100 for the ship’s tragic sinking, and 15 for James Cameron’s sinking tragedy. Fifteen years ago, I was one of those teenage girls screaming “Leo!” and lining up at the multiplex to see the movie for the eighth time. Now, slightly more mature and discerning (albeit still with a soft spot for Leonardo DiCaprio), I thought I’d screen the film again. Despite winning eleven Academy Awards, Titanic is still a movie most people won’t admit that they enjoy. Even I was dreading the moment when the cashier at the movie store opened the DVD case and announced “Titanic” to the rest of the queue.

I persevered and brought home the three and a half hour epic. It turns out 15 years does a lot to change perspective. At 15, I thought Rose (Kate Winslet) did the noble and courageous thing by choosing Jack and his charisma over fiancé Cal and his millions. At 30, I question if choosing personal happiness over family responsibility is an act of cowardice, not courage. Although the movie is peppered with clever moments (flippant references to Picasso and Freud are chuckle-worthy), what struck me were the copious resources poured into the making of this film. Perhaps it is fitting that Cameron’s blockbuster came with a record 200-million-dollar price tag. After all, Titanic the ship cost an unprecedented $7.5 million to build back in 1912.

Sinking of a Different Sort: John Huston’s The African Queen

Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen

Contains spoilers.

Before the much swooned over romance of Jack and Rose in James Cameron's Titanic there was the real thing between Charlie and Rose on another doomed boat, the African Queen. John Huston's 1951 film of The African Queen could have been a hell of a downer. The thought of a missionary and a drunkard on a suicidal quest to sink a German gunboat at the dawn of the First World War just doesn’t jump to me as material meant for a sweet and tender romance. Thankfully, it doesn’t end up being a tragic love story. Instead, what’s offered in the story, acting, and tone propels a genuine onscreen romance rather than drag us down.

From the onset, we see the danger. There’s a sense of dread that casts its shadow over Rose (Katharine Hepburn) and Charlie’s (Humphrey Bogart) adventure. Rose loses her reverend brother (Robert Morley) and her mission, but not her faith. Within moments of burying her brother, Rose convinces the gin-soaked steamboat owner Charlie to attack an enemy ship, the Queen Louisa, patrolling an unnamed lake in German East Africa that is holding the British counteroffensive at bay. Their weapon? The African Queen herself, with a make-shift torpedo they crafted from an oxygen tank and explosives attached to her bow. It’s a doomed mission, but you’ll end up praying they sink that bastard gunship and live to celebrate their small victory. The German soldiers are vile, but it’s not Rose’s revenge we’re praying for. We want to see this journey through.