Saturday, May 26, 2012

Igor's Boogie: The Rites of Stravinsky

It should come as no surprise that if any one composer could cause a riot, it would be Igor Stravinsky. Unpredictable in nature, and comparable in stature to painter Pablo Picasso, Stravinsky was an enigmatic figure who moved like a chameleon through the cultural world. He made his reputation with his erotically charged masterpieces The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). Throughout these works, you could hear Stravinsky gradually forsaking the world of romanticism which would lead him to ultimately forge a new style of neoclassicism in 1920 with Pulcinella. Yet right at the moment when he was pioneering that phase of his musical career, he joined forces with his serialist adversaries, Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg, who had abandoned classicism altogether. "People always expect the wrong thing of me," Stravinsky once said. "They think they have pinned me down and then all of a sudden – au revoir!"

Born in St. Petersberg in 1882, Stravinsky had such a great aptitude for music that the colourful Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov took him on as a pupil. In 1909, Russia's top impresario, Serge Diaghilev, heard two of Stravinsky's first compositions, Scherzo fantastique and Feu d'artifice, at a concert in St. Petersberg. He was so impressed that he commissioned Stravinsky to write a couple of numbers for a ballet he was producing. Out of that encounter came The Firebird which was an overnight success. While not as daring or innovative as his later ballet scores, The Firebird still had something more foreboding than the exotic colours of Rimsky-Korsakov. Diaghilev could hear immediately that Stravinsky's work had what author Joan Peyser in To Boulez and Beyond called "a latent barbarism." This "latent barbarism" would, of course, be even more explicit in his next work for Diaghlev titled Petrushka. This piece, with its polytonality and sharper rhythms, caused something of a small commotion.

Friday, May 25, 2012

On the Road to Nowhere: Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator

Sacha Baron Cohen stars in The Dictator

How do you top outrageous, frequently brilliant films like Borat (2006) and Bruno (2009)? British actor Sacha Baron Cohen obviously faced that dilemma with his latest movie, The Dictator. His previous two movies already demonstrated – filtered through his boorish Kazakhstani character Borat, and flamboyant gay fashion journalist Bruno – the wide canvas of ignorance, racism, rampant political correctness and anti-gay prejudices and discomfort prevalent in America and the world. Yet, particularly in Borat, it also showcased the United States as a strangely accepting society, which bent over backwards to accept Borat’s odd, even disgusting behaviour, as just something he did that should be tolerated because his were cultural acts. The fact that Borat’s anti-Semitic rants were conducted in Hebrew (Cohen, of course is Jewish) just added to the subversive nature of his movie. And his blatant attempts to outrage, in person, Islamists and Orthodox Jews alike in Bruno testified to his physical courage, to go where few comedians/actor have ever gone before. Yet he also fit into the proud pantheon of gutsy Jewish comics, from the Marx Brothers to Lenny Bruce, who, in various ways, stormed the gates of propriety to expose the hypocrisy and intolerance lying inside.

In that light, Cohen has raised expectations in terms of subject matter and approach to controversial situations and material. Those hopes for an even harder-hitting film have been dashed with The Dictator, a mostly pallid comedy that does nothing new and, in fact, copies much of what has gone before.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Don't Fugeddaboutit: The World of a Jersey Shore Wordsmith

Author Gene Ritchings
Full disclosure: Gene Ritchings was our saving grace. In the late 1990s my Critics at Large colleague, Kevin Courrier, and I went down to New York City for ten days to research a book about NBC’s Law & Order. We’d gotten permission and a promise of access from the show’s creator, Dick Wolf, but that blessing did not necessarily mean instant acceptance in the Big Apple. We were interlopers who needed to conduct interviews that arguably might be more in-depth (and perhaps even invasive) than those done by the usual entertainment media briefly visiting the set.

Initially, the crew seemed to eye us with suspicion and the actors barely noticed our existence – until Ritchings, the production coordinator, took us under his wing. He also bent a few rules to help us navigate the bureaucracy and frenetic schedule that any TV series must establish to keep functioning. “We try to ward off the occasional feeling of being beleaguered and overextended and overworked because that’s the life we chose,” he said then. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

When the Real Pod People Intrude: Oliver Hirschbiegel's The Invasion

In my last post, I talked about the two-dozen plus DVDs I picked up for a buck each at the Rogers rental shutdown. As I stated, a few of the films I grabbed I assumed would be pieces o' crap, such as Oliver Hirschbiegel's The Invasion (2007 - starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig) which I had heard nothing but bad things about. It was the fourth version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so I bought it for $1 to watch at some point just to complete the “collection.” So imagine my surprise when, except for the completely destroyed ending and idiotic bits here and there throughout the film, I found The Invasion well-acted, credibly made and far more pointed than I was expecting it to be.

In the first two versions, the invasion was literally a space-born spore that came to earth (never explained in the Don Siegel's effective 1956 version; carried to our planet on the solar winds in Philip Kaufman's brilliant 1978 version). Abel Ferrara's weak 1993 Body Snatchers also left it unclear where the spores came from, but suggested environmental problems – not space spores – on a military base caused the pods to evolve and take over people. In Hirschbiegel's version, spores have attached themselves to a returning space shuttle which experiences a catastrophic failure. When the shuttle breaks up on re-entry, it spreads the spores across the US (especially around Washington, DC, where most of the film is set) attached to the shuttle's wreckage. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Weasels Ripped My Flesh: Josef Skvorecky's Headed for the Blues (1997)

Last winter when author Josef Skvorecky passed away, we didn't have room to post a proper obituary in Critics at Large. So I thought I'd take the opportunity today to perhaps address something of what his life meant to me through one of his later efforts, Headed for the Blues (1997). Headed for the Blues is actually divided into two books. Beginning with the memoir of the title, and written by the author while looking back at his homeland from his new one in Canada; it is followed by "The Tenor Saxophonist's Story," which consists of 10 short stories written between 1954 and 1956 while Skvorecky was still in Prague. The purpose here, no doubt, is to provide contrasting attitudes about the past – the place and people he left behind – through stories that capture all the reasons why he did depart.

Headed for the Blues examines why those reasons are never cut and dry. What Skvorecky demonstrates, with a cool irony and a sardonic grin, is that just because you leave the traumas of home behind, it doesn't mean that they still can't haunt you. During the opening few pages, Skvorecky confronts us with names, places and distant memories. Yet the story's not told in the chronological sequencing of a conventional remembrance. His thoughts pour out as if they'd been first blended in a Cuisinart. The narrative shifts back and forth through time, too, with sentences that run on as if the author wasn't sure he'd find enough breath to get the words out.

The urgency to speak – to find clarity or certainty – is deliberate, and the book's style, with its jazzy bounce and swing, carries the plot. While it takes a little time to get your bearings (because the rush of words leave you feeling the sensation of stemming a flood), the urgency has a point because this memoir from a Czech exile is an attempt to validate a life during a time of Stalinist repression. It's about how memories – and time itself – can lose its linear shape and meaning in a totalitarian society; a society where it becomes next to impossible to consolidate those memories when the government's role is to deny you the experience of them. Headed for the Blues also pulls the rug out from under all our efforts to find our roots because the story is infused with a homesickness borne out of unresolved efforts to define a home. To paraphrase blues singer Percy Mayfield, it's about being a stranger in your own hometown.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Untimely Demise of Leap of Faith

Raúl Esparza and the cast of Leap of Faith (Photos by Joan Marcus)

On Sunday afternoon May 13th I saw what turned out to be the final performance of a vibrant new musical called Leap of Faith. Upon receiving a baffling (but hardly unprecedented) review by Ben Brantley in The New York Times that referred to it in the opening sentence as a black hole that sucks up everything that gets near it, the production began to bleed money. It did receive a nomination for the Best Musical Tony – normally a stopgap for failing shows; producers keep them open until after the awards in the hope that a prize or two might generate some activity at the box office. Here, though, there was no chance of that, since Leap of Faith received no other nominations -- not for the vivid Alan Mencken-Glenn Slater score, or Christopher Ashley’s direction, or Sergio Trujillo’s terrific choreography, or Robin Wagner’s handsome, ingenious set, or Donald Holder’s lighting or William Ivey Long’s costumes, and, most remarkably, not one single nomination for anyone in the amazingly talented cast. The Best Musical nod, then, was a slap in the face:  the subtext was “We don’t think there’s a single distinguished quality in this musical but there were only half a dozen new musicals this season and you’re not as bad as Bonnie and Clyde.” One wonders if the Tony voters actually went to see Leap of Faith at all or if they read Brantley and opted to stay home. If so, they missed a hell of a show.

Janus Cercone and Warren Leight adapted Leap of Faith from Cercone’s screenplay for the 1992 movie, starring Steve Martin and Debra Winger as a nickel-plated revivalist preacher and his partner in crime, the equally cynical young woman who manages his traveling Jesus circus. In both versions, the Reverend Jonas Nightingale (“Nightengale” in the movie), who’s on the run in other parts of Bible country for passing bad checks and other forms of fraud, decides to pitch his tent in a small Kansas town in the midst of a long drought that has devastated farms and – in the present-day stage edition – exacerbated an already woeful economy. Jonas’s agenda is to take advantage of the locals’ desperation and their need for some, any, brand of hope.  They expect him to heal their various kinds of wounds and to make it rain.  “The beauty part,” as Jonas (Raúl Esparza) explains to us at the beginning of act two, is that if no miracle transpires, “it’s on them:  they didn’t believe enough.”  The material is related to N. Richard Nash’s play The Rainmaker, where a charismatic young man not only promises rain but enchants a spinster who’s given up on the possibility of romance.  (Memorably, Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn played those roles in the 1955 movie version of The Rainmaker, and Woody Harrelson and Jayne Atkinson brought new vitality to them in the 1999 Broadway revival.)  It’s even more closely linked to Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, where a con-man itinerant drummer named Harold Hill plans to rook the citizens of an Iowa town out of their money by convincing them that their children can only be saved from moral decrepitude by playing in a marching band  until the combination of a stiff-backed librarian and her lonely kid brother locate the heart he didn’t know he had.  The idea is the same in all three:  behind the phony show-biz hype lurks a touch of authenticity that hornswaggles even the hardest case. That would be Jonas, who is so unsettled when he manages to heal someone for real that his immediate response is anger, as if he’d been conned. The Rainmaker’s Starbuck, Harold Hill and Jonas are all variants on a classic American type, the magnetic swindler that Melville invented in The Confidence Man. These softer versions allow for a happy ending; if you wanted to take them into darker waters you’d end up with a tragic figure like O’Neill’s Hickey in The Iceman Cometh or an ironic one like Paul in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, whose belief in his own con is a kind of schizophrenia.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Pathos With Laughs: David Storey's Home at Soulpepper

Maria Vacratsis, Michael Hanrahan, Oliver Dennis & Brenda Robins in Home (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company's nuanced staging of Home, written by the British playwright David Storey back in 1970, offers up a whole slew of meanings. The production conjures up different memories and notions of what a home is, but in this important play it’s also about belonging. They have resurrected an almost forgotten gem, a Broadway hit for two of England’s greatest actors, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, and their director, Lindsay Anderson, over forty years ago. This new version opens a door to a whole new perspective on the work without fear of expectation or comparison. For director Albert Schultz, Home is about the absence of family. The play features five characters who are only related only by the place in which they live – unfortunately it is an asylum for the mentally ill.

Home features a day in the life of five characters: three men and two women. Each character is flawed, but not so much to pose any danger to the other. Their behaviour is subtle and suggestive. While the women are tough and strong, the men are emotional wrecks who put on a brave face to disguise their inner pain. The men are played by Oliver Dennis as Jack and Michael Hanrahan as Harry. (Andre Sills plays Alfred, the body builder.) When the play begins, Harry and Jack meet outside in the very spare garden for sunlight and conversation. Ken MacKenzie’s minimalist set features a slowly moving film of clouds in the background while the action takes place downstage. Their talk might be full of wit as they carry on light conversation, but you never make the mistake of considering it lightweight. Each one tries to hide deeper feelings by using words to cover up what ails them. So topics like the weather, meal breaks and family make up their patter. The sad part is the fact that one day becomes like the next for these characters whose only relief comes in the form of reinvention or by changing their personal histories.