Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Face with a View: Sean Penn and This Must Be the Place

While visiting Paris last August, a particular movie poster kept catching my eye. Nestled incongruously among the myriad of CGI images of Tintin, Snowy, and Captain Haddock (damn the French were excited about that Tintin movie!) was the strikingly large and dour face of Sean Penn. With teased hair, pale skin, lipstick and eyeliner reminiscent of an 80s-era glam rocker, Penn’s heartbreaking countenance was almost impossible to ignore. I was intrigued. I wrote down the movie’s title, This Must Be the Place (suggestively in English even in this French context), and vowed to find out more about it. The thumbnail description that I soon found left me all the more fascinated: Penn, it seemed, was playing an ageing 80s rock star who, upon the death of his father, ends up on a road trip across America in search of a Nazi war criminal. All that, plus an unapologetic nod to perhaps my favourite Talking Heads’ song, and I was hooked. I returned to Toronto soon after, and waited patiently for the film’s North American release. Months passed, and nothing. By the New Year, I’d forgotten about it completely.

That is, until a few weeks ago, when I finally had the chance to see it – and I’ve been talking it up ever since. This Must Be the Place turns out to be either the strangest road movie ever made or the single quirkiest Holocaust-themed movie since Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (although I should stress that Nazis notwithstanding the two films have absolutely nothing else in common). The only reason I'd hesitate to call This Must Be the Place a Neglected Gem is that I’m hoping there's still time it will find the wider audience it deserves. (The film has played widely in France, Italy and the U.K., but as far as I can tell it hasn’t yet had any theatrical play in the U.S. or Canada. As of today, it certainly hasn’t screened in Toronto.) With the visual punch of Down by Law, and the quirky dialogue, characters and situations of Mystery Train, the movie looks and feels like a lost early Jim Jarmusch project – and no doubt the director intended it to be just that. Written and directed by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino – most famous for The Consequences of Love (2004) and Il Divo (2008) – This Must Be the Place (though it is a Italian/French co-production) is Sorrentino’s first English-language feature, and apparently he wrote the screenplay with Sean Penn specifically in mind. And it is Penn’s film: he’s in practically every scene and his stunning performance carries the whole movie.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Urban Made Poetic: In Conversation With Artist Marco Sassone

Underpass, by Marco Sassone (2011 watercolor on paper, 22 x 30.5 inches)

I work in downtown Toronto, practically next door to the CN Tower which looms just outside my office window. I have grown up with this urban icon and it is now so familiar to me that I barely take notice of it. And yet one day, four years ago, when an artist’s rendering of this upside down exclamation mark in the sky passed across my desk I couldn’t help but stare.

This was the CN Tower as I had not seen it before – presented boldly, in a kaleidoscopic range of colour, which lent it a majesty that I, on my own, would never have discerned in this everyday object in my midst. The image graced the cover of a catalogue for a new exhibition of work by an artist I had never heard of before: Marco Sassone.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Artist and The Technician: Philippe Petit and Nik Wallenda – Wire Walkers

Nik Wallenda over Niagara Falls (June 15, 2012)

“What is the purpose of your visit?”
                                    Canadian Border Guard
“To inspire the world.” 
                                    Nik Wallenda, Niagara Falls, June 15, 2012

“When we inspire ourselves, we inspire others. And when you see mountains, remember mountains can be moved.”
                                    Philippe Petit,, March 2012

On Friday night, June 15, 2012, I watched in complete awe as wire walker Nik Wallenda (the seventh generation of his family to take up the craft) walked on a 5-centimetre-wide wire across the 550-metre expanse of Niagara Falls' Horseshoe Falls. Although a lot of the tension was lessened by sponsor ABC-TV insisting he wear a tether (he said during the crossing that he felt like a “jackass” wearing it), his walk was still an incredible human achievement. Facing whipping winds, cold, a hammering mist off the Falls, and intense moisture everywhere, Wallenda made the walk look, if not easy, at least something he clearly was born to do. As his late grandfather, Karl Wallenda, said years ago, “Being on a tightrope is living; everything else is waiting.”

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Music to Dream By: Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

Recently submissions were being welcomed by the publishers of this excellent collection of books about music sub-titled 33 1/3 (Continuum Press). The series was simple: take an entire album from the pop genre and write about it in any style you like. One of the best was by our own Kevin Courrier called Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica (2007). I was enamored by the series and its love of music and good story telling. As I read more of them, I knew that I could write one too; and so, when the opportunity presented itself, I submitted a proposal for Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway in April, only to be turned down in May. The next logical place for publication was here in Critics at Large. Below is the draft introduction to my book proposal. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Magical Retreat: Sgt. Pepper After 45 Years

The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was released in June 1967, is a lovely confection, a beautifully self-conscious neon sign that celebrated with ample imagination the romantic ideal, where the possibility of true love could transcend all of our problems. (If only.) And in that summer, which came to be termed 'The Summer of Love,' Sgt. Pepper's seamless and mellifluous tone made it appear as if that possibility was indeed well within our grasp. However, the idea for the record, following up on their concept single “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” (two radically different renderings of childhood and originally destined for the album) came out of the opposite sentiment, a 'Summer of Hate' that took place the previous year.

That particular summer, American cities (as they had almost every summer in the mid-Sixties) were burning in reaction to the continued racial unrest. The escalation of the war in Vietnam had also all but diminished President Johnson's War on Poverty. In short, the tenor of violence was becoming exactly as black activist H. Rap Brown had described it then – as American as apple pie. Amidst this chaos, with the mounting frustration over the dashed ideals of the New Frontier of the early Sixties, The Beatles became easy targets for the angry and the disillusioned. You could say they were even, to a large degree, at the apex of those very ideals being dashed. So their 1966 tour, filled with torpor and turmoil, reached its bottom end with record burnings in the Deep South after John Lennon had remarked that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. In that summer, The Beatles found themselves no longer in control of their meteoric success. When they first chose to engage their audience in 1962, with their first single “Love Me Do,” the goal wasn't simply to become entertainers, but to put new demands on the pop audience. They set out to take popular music and their fans to another place. And in the coming years they did just that – and more.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Neglected Gem #18: Blue Sky (1994)

Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones star in Blue Sky

Whenever Jessica Lange tackles Tennessee Williams directly – on TV in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, on Broadway and TV in A Streetcar Named Desire – she seems cowed; she falls back on stagy acting-class clichés no one knew she was even capable of.  But she creates a great Williams character – part Blanche, part Maggie the Cat, part Amanda Wingfield – in Carly Marshall, the glamorous southern belle chafing against her role as an army role and suffering from bi-polar disorder, in the 1994 Blue Sky. Blue Sky was completed in 1991, when Orion was on the verge of bankruptcy, so the movie, like several others, was held back; the director, Tony Richardson, whose final picture it was, didn’t live to see it in release.  It’s not his most consistent work; there are two movies rolling around in it, and unfortunately in the second half the lesser of the two takes over.  But he had every right to be proud of the texture he got in the domestic scenes, and the way he coached his cast, especially Jessica Lange and, as her husband, Major Hank Marshall, Tommy Lee Jones.

The good movie locked inside Blue Sky has some of the sizzle and emotional engagement of From Here to Eternity and The Long Hot Summer It’s the story of Carly, who’s miserable about leaving Hawaii, Hank’s last posting, for airless, remote Nevada.  (The time is the early sixties.) Carly wears her hair in a Marilyn Monroe bob and tosses her head like Monroe; she even gets the rhythm of Monroe’s champagne laughter.  She’s hot stuff; her movie-star affectations (at the end she switches to Liz Taylor) and her flamboyant sexuality are her way of expressing what’s inside her – everything army conduct is supposed to tamp down.  Carly’s a beautiful woman, but she’s terrified of losing her looks.  She stares at herself in the mirror and swears she sees the ghost of the old hag she’s fated to become.  She thinks she’s going to disappear, and – both spooked and fascinated – she seems to be peering for evidence that the process has already begun to happen.  Mirrors mesmerize her, and Lange mesmerizes us.  She climbs inside her mirror and peers around – the psychic equivalent of Cocteau’s Orpheus breaking through to the underworld behind the glass.  At her best, Carly has esprit and a southern graciousness; that’s when her daughters, Alex (Amy Locaine) and Becky (Anna Klempt), can’t resist her.  At her worst, she throws tantrums or loses her self-control and takes on other men.  On the Marshalls’ first day in Nevada, she paces their unattractive new house like a caged cat, then goes wild, screaming and crying, smashing up the car, talking to herself in a local store.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

No Skeletons in the Closet?: Wayward Daughter: An Official Biography of Eliza Carthy and Even More Rock Family Trees

Wayward Daughter is subtitled An Official Biography of Eliza Carthy. We all know what “official” means. You’re not going to get the dirt. Unless it’s an “as told to” book, or credited to the artist “with” a co-author, it’s just the facts, ma’am. And yet, Wayward Daughter sounds like Sophie Parkes is willing to spill the beans, don’t you think? It sounds, from the title alone, that we’ll hear all about Eliza’s shocking teenaged years, the love affairs, drug abuse, debauchery, and all the rest. Trouble is, Eliza was really not that wayward a child. From the beginning, she simply wanted to go into the family trade. If her parents were plumbers or bakers, doctors, or even audio-visual technicians, you’d think that would make for proud moms and dads! Eliza’s parents, however, are England’s leading folk-guitarist Martin Carthy, and his wife the legendary Norma Waterson. Both Norma and Martin have been on the forefront of the British folk music scene for decades. ‘Twas Martin Carthy whose arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” made Paul Simon famous.

In concert with Mom and Dad, and one-time beau Saul Rose, Eliza is a dervish, playing her fiddle with a joy and verve that was contagious. In 1999, I was lucky to have caught them at the Brantford Folk Club, at the Holiday Inn. Waterson:Carthy they called themselves, and still do when they combine to play together. It was an extraordinary night, made more-so by the fact that, during the break, we tipped a pint with Sam Rose, and after the show everyone stuck around to chat and sign CDs. The chatting was the surprise. Norma spoke of her arthritis, Martin of guitar lore, and Eliza … well, Eliza teased her Dad (during the concert, when Martin backed into a table holding a pitcher of water, Eliza joked about her Dad’s “wet bum” for quite a while), made jokes, and generally charmed us all.