Saturday, May 19, 2012

Talking Out of Turn #29: Leonard Cohen (1984)

Leonard Cohen

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.

When we spoke to poet and singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, he had just come out of a relatively long period of contemplation that dated back to 1979. The culmination of that hermitage was a collection of prayers, psalms, meditations, and contemplative texts he wrote called Book of Mercy (McClelland & Stewart, 1984). Little did any of us know, perhaps not even Cohen himself, that shortly after the publication of this book, his music career would once again catapult him back into the larger public arena.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Neglected Gems #15: Palookaville (1995)

Palookaville, the title of the disarming first feature by Alan Taylor, refers to the generic state of existence shared by the three main characters. Russell (Vincent Gallo), Sid (William Forsythe) and Jerry (Adam Trese) are unemployed friends in their thirties – too old to be living the way they are, and painfully conscious of it. Russell boards with his family; he survives off the salary his brother-in-law (Gareth Williams), a cop, brings home. Russell’s girl, Laurie (Kim Dickens), lives next door, so he has to sneak through their bedroom windows to sleep with her. Sid’s wife left him ten years ago; he lives alone with her photo on the night table, and with his smelly dog. His phone is disconnected, his couch is repossessed, and he takes most of his dinners at Russell’s house (he’s a favorite of Russell’s mom’s). Jerry’s wife Betty (Lisa Gay Hamilton) works in a supermarket, where her manager paws her; when Jerry interrupts a groping session, he blows up and the boss retaliates by firing Betty. Furious, she makes Jerry go back and apologize so she can continue to support the family (they’ve got a baby).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Lot to Be Grateful For: TV Viewers Get an Early Thanksgiving

The cast of Cougar Town

Last week’s episode of ABC’s Cougar Town opened with a scene with Jules (Courtney Cox), Laurie (Busy Philips) and Ellie (Christa Miller) suddenly wondering aloud why they didn’t get to celebrate Thanksgiving together this year. In fact, Cougar Town had an extended hiatus this year, after being bumped first from a September launch and pushed back even further in November in order to make room for some ABC’s new comedies. In the end, Cougar Town’s third season only premiered in mid-February – making a Thanksgiving or Christmas episode effectively impossible this year. Jules however offered a solution: they would celebrate Thanksgiving in May. The episode (titled “It’ll All Work Out") was one of the season's best, playing off the always surprisingly deep relationships that have developed among this handful of goofy characters, and highlighting everything that makes the show such a pleasure to watch. But more than that, it hit home for me.

May is traditionally the month when the networks firm up their schedules for the coming television season and the fates of the current shows are finally confirmed. Last year at this time, I was mourning NBC’s decision to cancel Outsourced, one of my favourite new comedies of the year. The year before, we lost Victor Fresca’s delightfully original Better Off Ted and Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. And in May 2009, NBC announced it would not be renewing Life. For an avid TV fan, in short, May is rarely a good month. But for the past few weeks, I’ve been feeling something I don’t normally feel in the month of May: grateful. And so when Jules and the rest of the Cul-de-Sac Crew sat around the table last week and reflected on how much they have to be thankful for, it was hard for me not to join in.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Kitchen-Sink Gangsters: Down Terrace and London Boulevard

Robin and Robert Hil star in Down Terrace

As I said in my post last year about the death of the DVD rental shop, one thing I would miss was the habit of walking the aisles looking at all the titles and stumbling across a gem I'd never heard of. Then after reading the plot on the back of the box, I decided whether to take a flier and rent it. The Eclipse was one such gem I discovered this way, which I've already discussed here. Now, with the announcement three weeks ago that Rogers would no longer rent DVDs, that window of discovery, for me at least (there are no independent DVD rental shops in the city north of Toronto where I live), has now closed.

However, I had one final chance this past weekend that resulted in, if not huge dividends, at least some very pleasant surprises. Three weeks ago, after Rogers announced their decision, I ventured to our one-remaining store to see what deals I could get. All DVDs were listed as buy one get one free. So, I was able to pick up about 8 or 9 recent films, such as Hugo, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2012), A Dangerous Method, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, plus others, for about $7 each. Over the next two weeks, I went a couple of more times to see if the discount got greater. It had not. But this past Friday I decided to go one more time. The discount was now buying one get two free. They had been pretty picked over, but there were still a few things of interest, such as the three discs of Season Two of The Republic of Doyle. Then just as I was about to wrap it up, the manager came out and announced they had just been informed all DVDs were now $1 each. That changed things. I bought 27 movies. Timing is everything.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Neglected Gems #14: Impromptu (1991)

Hugh Grant as Chopin and Judy Davis as George Sands, in Impromptu

It was a brilliant stroke to cast Judy Davis as the nineteenth-century French novelist George Sand in the 1991 Impromptu. Resolutely bohemian and independent-minded, Sand, who wore suits, smoked cigars and took on a series of lovers, was such a proto-modernist figure that Davis’s very contemporariness – her driven moodiness and tremulous fervor, the eroticized fullness of her presence – seems jarringly right for this woman, as it did when she played a version of D.H. Lawrence’s wife Frieda in Kangaroo. Impromptu, written by Sarah Kernochan and directed by James Lapine (Kernochan’s husband), is a farce populated by celebrities – Sand, Chopin (Hugh Grant), Lizst (Julian Sands) and his mistress, Countess Marie d’Agoult (Bernadette Peters), the playwright Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin) and the painter Eugène Delacroix (Ralph Brown). And Davis’s Sand, offering her love to Chopin with an extravagant combination of sensual abandon and religious devotion, is its emotional core. She hangs outside the closed door of the study where she first hears him play, transported in every fiber of her being; she crawls into his room through the window and lies on the rug, receiving his genius like holy water; she fixes her deep, deep blue eyes on the consumptive composer and begs him to take her strength, which she has too much of. As Davis plays her, this woman is utterly fantastic. Completely conscious, completely self-possessed, she plans every attack on Chopin’s resistance (he finds her terrifying, her finds her appalling). When she thinks he’s turned off by her masculine attire, she shocks everyone by appearing in an evening gown (in the colors of the Polish flag, as a tribute to his homeland). When Marie, scheming to win him herself, cunningly advises her to play the male aggressor and win him as if he were a woman, she shows up at his tailor’s. (Jenny Beavan designed the stunning costumes.) Davis reads Kernochan’s hilarious one-liners with the sureness of a first-rank classical comic actress. What makes her performance extraordinary, however, is the emotional intensity that braces Sand’s outlandish behavior. She can segue in and out of farce on a dime, but when she tells Chopin she loves him, thrusting herself forward as if she were bouncing off some centrifugal force that’s taken hold of her, there’s an ache in her voice and an ache in her wide, naked eyes.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Gatz: Borne Back Ceaselessly into the Past

The cast of Gatz (Scott Shepherd, centre). Photo by Joan Marcus

By the time I caught up with Gatz, the Elevator Repair Service’s staged reading of the entire text of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a few weeks ago, it was in the midst of a second run at the Public Theatre in New York and it had been touring. Gatz, which began performances in 2010, has been an unqualified hit for the company (whose founder, John Collins, directed it); it’s won a raft of awards and on weekends audiences are still lining up in hope of cancellations. The play runs for six hours plus three intermissions, including a ninety-minute dinner break, so it’s a considerable commitment of time and energy. I was certainly glad I’d made the investment but I’m not entirely sure what it was I saw.

The setting, designed by Louisa Thompson, is a contemporary office, indifferently furnished. When the computer of one of the employees (Ben Williams, substituting at the performance I attended for the usual star, Scott Shepherd) stalls, he pulls a copy of Fitzgerald’s novel out of a drawer and begins to read it out loud, and though his reading is interrupted briefly by the passage of time (the day ends; he returns to the office at night and again the next day), it’s continuous. For a while he’s the only reader, taking not only the role of the narrator, Nick Carraway, but the other characters as well, but the positioning of some of his co-workers and the odd prop or gesture echoes the text in an almost offhand way, and eventually some of them join in. Eventually they take the other parts, usually acting them, off book while he remains a reader. However, when Jordan Baker (I saw Annie McNamara, standing in for Susie Sokol) -- the beautiful, confident golf pro whom Nick meets through his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Victoria Vazquez) and her husband Tom (Gary Wilmes) and falls into a romance with – confides in him the story of Daisy’s interrupted romance with the young soldier, bound for the Great War, who turns out to be Nick’s neighbor Jay Gatsby (Jim Fletcher), she reads it rather than acting it. And on the two occasions when Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s gangster associate (based on Arnold Rothstein, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series), turns up, he’s invisible; Nick reads his role like a stage manager going on for an ailing actor.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Canadian Music Man: Bernie Finkelstein's autobiography True North

To paraphrase Gordon Lightfoot, “There was a time in this fair land when the music did not run…” It was not “long before the white man and long before the wheel,” but it was long before Bernie Finkelstein, and “the green dark forest was…silent.” Then Bernie heard the music, and decided to do something about it.

He’s one of the Bernies. Alongside Bernie Fiedler and Bernie Solomon, the Bernies were big in Canadian music. Fiedler ran the Riverboat Coffeehouse, Solomon was a lawyer, and Finkelstein managed Bruce Cockburn and Murray McLauchlan (among others), and their collaboration put everything under one roof: artist management, concert promotion, a record company, music publishing and a concert venue. It was genius, except, as Bernie Finkelstein says in his book True North: A Life in the Music (McClelland & Stewart, 2012), “things in the music business are never straightforward. It’s not a business for the faint of heart.”