Saturday, May 5, 2012

In Every Person A Universe: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The dream of immortality seems like the ultimate goal. It drives careers, sustains industries, and unites humanity in pursuit of that most precious of resources: time. Most of us fret over how to spend it, with some working to earn more, some wishing it would pass faster, some trying to enjoy what little we get. For one Herietta Lacks, her lifetime was trying, painful, and altogether brief and yet in a very real way, she may well outlive us all.

Released in 2009, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks charts a remarkable history that is at once deeply personal and of global consequence. The book begins with a series of historical flashbacks to Henrietta’s life, as a black woman living in a small Virginia community in 1951 and finding herself diagnosed with cervical cancer. Skloot alternates these with chapters of her own journey of research decades later, as a journalist determined to learn about the donor of the HeLa (‘Hee-la’) cells used in biological research around the world.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Man Who Made Us Listen Outside Our Comfort Zone: Dick Clark (1929-2012)

“I played records, the kids danced, and America watched.” - Dick Clark (1929-2012)

Dick Clark said his job had been simple, “I played records, the kids danced, and America watched.” And it looked simple too. Watching a series of interviews a day or two after his death on April 18, 2012, I was struck by how completely ordinary he was. There was no flash, no attempt to show off any deep research; as he spoke with Creedence Clearwater Revival, or Abba, he appeared to be a regular guy talking to other regular guys (or gals, as the case may be). He might insert a little joke but for the most part it was, “How are things?” or, “What do you do in your spare time?” The fun came from the answers. Van Morrison mumbled, “I go for walks…”

Dick Clark was part of the music scene for most of my life. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, in the Non-Performers category, he joined such luminary managers, producers, and businessmen as Alan Freed, Sam Phillips and Ahmet Ertegun. Does he belong in their company? You’re darn right he does.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Disappearing Act: Cindy Sherman at MoMA

"Untitled #92" - Cindy Sherman, from Centerfolds, 1981, chromogenic color print

The Cindy Sherman retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, on view through June 11, surveys 35 years of work by a master of postmodern photography. Throughout her career, Sherman has steadily mined photographic portraiture for its feminist subversions of how we look and what we take for truth. Her pictures are performances: with the exception of two mid-career series, all of her photographs are portraits of herself in disguise, reflections on gender and stereotype, voyeurism and fantasy, in the era of Hollywood and mass culture. From her groundbreaking Untitled Film Stills, the series that launched her career in the late 1970s, to her 2008 society portraits, Sherman has distinguished herself as a kind of ventriloquist of image and identity, for whom popular and consumer culture are not the subject of her works but the raw material of her perpetual self-transformation.

Not all of this work is equally powerful. The Cindy Sherman of Untitled Film Stills quickly became a celebrity herself – and celebrity, so often the tipping point between the avant-garde and the status quo, seems to have dulled the sharp edge of Sherman’s aesthetic, as well as her social critique. The irony of the retrospective is precisely that it cashes in on the art world celebrity of an artist who became famous for her critique of popular culture. But Sherman has made herself an easy target for such irony. Her early work, singularly haunting and unshakeable, used photographic self-portraiture as a kind of disappearing act: she made herself so visible she disappeared into the work completely. After 1985, her work took on the sickly sheen of a magic trick performed self-consciously, one too many times. It grows cynical about illusion: the mechanism by which the trick was performed became the subject of the art.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

When Movies Still Mattered: 1970s American Cinema

Al Pacino and Marlon Brando in The Godfather

Years ago, I remember watching Rancho Deluxe (1975) – a modern day comedy western starring Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston – and marveling how this rather middling, but entertaining, Hollywood movie was still smart, adult and honest. In fact, even a second-tier movie, such as Rancho Deluxe, from 1970s American cinema (the last Golden Age of American movies) was considerably more worthwhile than almost anything coming out from Hollywood, or American independent cinema, in the 21st century. As I prepare to teach a course on this decade in cinema history, it’s worth speculating on why movies turned out so consistently good and gratifying during that time.

Much has already been written, and showcased, about the era in documentaries such as Easy Rider, Raging Bulls (2002, based on Peter Biskind’s provocative 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood) and A Decade Under the Influence (2003). Both looked at how the younger set of Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, as well as their elders Robert Altman (who didn’t begin his movie career until he was in his 40s) and Paul Mazursky were given the filmmaking reins in a failing and geriatric Hollywood that was out of touch with '60s American culture. Fearing complete failure, the ageing Hollywood had no choice but to take chances with whom it allowed to make movies. Also remarked upon was how a new breed of (often identifiably ethnic) actors and actresses (ordinary looking folk, and not gorgeous looking movie stars: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Jack Nicholson) were allowed to play front and centre in movies that worked off of their eccentricities and plain appearances. But I’d argue that the dominant factor in why the movies were so good and relevant in the '70s was trust. The studio executives generally trusted (to a point) that these maverick moviemakers would still make films that had cachet and appeal and, more significantly, audiences could be expected to follow them in whatever endeavours they undertook in that regard. (The '30 and '40s movies, the last Golden Age before the '70s, did the same in an assumption of literacy on the part of the filmgoing audiences.)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Deceits and Deceptions: Linden MacIntyre's Why Men Lie

Why do we lie? Is it to make ourselves look better? To reinstate emotional boundaries? To hide secrets? To protect ourselves? To protect others? More importantly why do we tend to tell the greatest lies to those closest to us? And, given that this is true, do we ever really know someone? The theme of deception, among other affairs that tend to complicate personal relationships, is deftly explored through Linden MacIntyre’s latest novel Why Men Lie (Random House Canada, 2012). Why Men Lie is the the third installment in a trilogy beginning with his 2006 piece The Long Stretch. (His last book, The Bishop’s Man, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize. MacIntyre is also the co-host of the CBC’s flagship news documentary program the fifth estate.)

Why Men Lie examines the life of Fay (Effie) MacAskill Gillis, originally from Cape Breaton Island, now longtime Toronto resident, professor of Gaelic Studies, and department head at a major university. She is the ex-wife of John Gillis, protagonist from The Long Stretch, and sister to Duncan MacAskill, the priest from The Bishop’s Man. (Both characters appear in the third installment.) As an independent, confident, and successful middle aged woman, Effie is well aware of disappointments that accompany romantic relationships. She is also attuned to the innate ability of men to lie. When Effie is introduced she is writing off her second (and most philandering) husband Alexander Sextus Gillis after she hears of his latest illicit liaison. This fallout is diverted by a chance encounter with a handsome, seemingly well-adjusted, old acquaintance JC Campbell. JC and Effie begin, what seems like, a healthy, mutually respectful relationship. The novel becomes an open examination of her three past relationships and a dissection of her most recent romance with this gentleman from her past.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Deep Blue Sea: Reduced Rattigan

Tom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz in Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea

Among the various revivals staged to pay tribute to the English playwright Terence Rattigan around his 2011 centenary, possibly the most unwelcome is his countryman Terence Davies’ film of Rattigan’s 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea. Davies is a pictorialist, not a dramatist; the movies that made his reputation, Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988 and The Long Day Closes in 1992, were art-house chotchkes, with images that looked too much like tableaux and characters he hadn’t bothered to fill in. You could see the influence of the Brechtian-Freudian writer Dennis Potter (Pennies from Heaven, The Singing Detective), especially in Distant Voices, Still Lives, which contained a number of pub sing-alongs, but he didn’t move through his ideas to any sort of life underneath. Davies is the filmmaker equivalent of the Robin Bailey character in John Boorman’s Catch Us If You Can, who collects pop mementos that, lovingly preserved in an airless setting, removed from any context that might have given them meaning, have become a kind of living dead.

Davies moved on to adaptations with his 2000 version of the Edith Wharton novel The House of Mirth, and Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of the tragic heroine, Lily Bart, gave that movie a raison d’être. But except for her and a few of the supporting players (especially Eleanor Bron and Elizabeth McGovern) it had no more life in it than his previous efforts. You watched the actors parading around in impeccable costumes against impeccable sets, and you didn't believe who they said they were or that they represented the society Wharton wrote about. Most of the actors seemed miscast, and implausible in an early twentieth-century setting, and since Davies encouraged them to read their dialogue with a mannered crispness, you got the sense that he didn't want us to believe them in period. The movie came across as a semi-post-modern take on the novel – which really deserved better. (And it had already received it, in a 1981 television edition starring Geraldine Chaplin.)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

When I'm 24: HBO’s Girls Brings A Smart New Voice To Comedy

Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet star in Girls on HBO

I recently sat down and watched the first two episodes of HBO’s much-publicized new comedy series Girls. Since I had been studiously avoiding most of the press, all I knew going in was that people were excited by it. I didn’t really know why, and I honestly did not know what to expect. Earlier this year, HBO cleared the way for Girls and for Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Veep by letting go of How to Make It in America and Bored to Death, two other Brooklyn-centred comedies which I already miss dearly. But if Girls is really the result of those casualties, it is just possible that those serious losses may not be quite the end of television as we love it.