Saturday, June 30, 2012

Hey Hey: Neil Young’s Wanderings Can Never Disappoint

In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, director Jonathan Demme explained why he’s been inspired to shoot three documentaries about a certain iconic rocker: “His music was my companion for decades before I even met him.” Amen to that. The Toronto concert footage at the center of Neil Young Journeys includes a rendition of “Ohio,” his wrenching song about four people killed 42 years ago by the National Guard during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University. This was a defining moment in an era that tore America to shreds. Young’s May 2011 performances deliver a gritty reminder, enhanced by a visual display with the names and photos of the May 1970 victims.

Three months later, “Ohio” was also the tune emanating from the sound system of a drug store on the Champs Elysee in Paris, where my husband and I – newlyweds – had landed in an attempt to flee the madness of the United States. “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/ We’re finally on our own/ This summer I hear the drumming/ Four dead in Ohio...” I froze. There is no exit from man-made hell, as Sartre suggested. Wherever we went on a trip through Europe that was more escape hatch than honeymoon, the turmoil back home found a way to haunt us.

Friday, June 29, 2012

English Canadian Cinema’s Failures Continue: Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz

Luke Kirby and Michelle Williams in Take This Waltz.

I’ve long since given up on English Canadian cinema. Unlike its consistently fine French Canadian counterpart (Les invasions barbares, Incendies, Monsieur Lazhar), movies from English Canada rarely register in terms of quality. Be it the stilted, tone-deaf movies of Atom Egoyan (Exotica, Ararat, Chloe), the one-note (of late) silent film inflected movies of Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World), or the run of the mill, unimpressive films of any number of forgettable filmmakers (too many to list), most English Canadian movies are simply awful. They’re dull, underpopulated (as only Canadian movies made outside of Quebec can be), devoid of personality and rarely believable in terms of plotting or dialogue. In fact, with the exception of the spot-on work of Don McKellar (Last Night, TV’s Twitch City) and Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo, This Movie is Broken), and the occasional realistic film (Sabah; Love, Sex and Eating the Bones), most films from Anglo Canada are utterly dispensable. The latest example of our disposable cinema is Sarah Polley’s second feature film, Take This Waltz.

I must admit, I expected better from her since her credits include one superb short (I Shout Love, 2001) and a decent feature debut (Away From Her, 2006), which was marred only by Julie Christie’s mannered, unsubtle performance as an Alzheimer-afflicted woman. Take This Waltz, however, is an utter failure on every level.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bloody Nora That's Good: Oz & James Big Wine Adventure: California

James May & Oz Clarke
Growing up lower middle class in small town Ontario, I never had any exposure to fine wines, or for that matter, wine at all (except for the occasional bottle of Mateus or Baby Duck my parents would buy). Beer and whisky were the preferred beverages around my home for the adults in my life. How it came about that I now make my living writing and talking about wine would have made my 14- or 15-year-old self laugh his arse off. But that's what I do. In 1990, I was working in a wine and spirits retail store. The manager, for some reason, asked if I wanted to set up a fine wine corner in the store. I knew nothing about the beverage, so why he asked me I have no idea. But, since I was bored doing little more than stocking shelves with Bacardi Rum and working cash, I said sure.

Several months later, I was invited to an event to herald the launch of a new red Bordeaux wine called 1725 from the French company Barton & Guestier (B&G). Most Bordeaux red wines are made by blending together Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot (and occasionally other grapes). The tasting allowed us to try not just the finished wine, but also the three grapes on their own to see what the components tasted like outside of the blend. Despite knowing nothing about wine, it was still intriguing to try Cabernet Sauvignon on its own, and then taste it combined with the other two grapes. I thought 1725 was pretty good.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Neglected Gem #19: In America (2003)

Contains Spoilers

The main character in In America (2003), by the Irish writer-director Jim Sheridan, is Johnny (Paddy Considine), an actor from Dublin who brings his family – his wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) and his daughters Christy (Sarah Bolger – The Tudors) and Ariel (Emma Bolger) – to Manhattan after his son Frankie dies of a brain tumor caused by a fall down the stairs. The screenplay, which Sheridan wrote with his own daughters Naomi and Kirsten, is a sort of autobiographical collage. Sheridan and his wife Fran emigrated to New York, put in their time in a tough neighborhood like Hell’s Kitchen – where Johnny and Sarah bring their girls in In America – and Fran gave birth prematurely, just as Sarah does late in the film. But the lost child in real like, Frankie Sheridan, was Jim Sheridan’s kid brother and not his son, and the Sheridan character in the movie is really Christy, the older daughter, who tells the story in voice-over and who walks around with a Camcorder, preserving her family and her impressions of her new environment on videotape. No doubt the fact that so many of the incidents in the film are inspired by Sheridan’s own experiences enhances its authenticity, but his movies are almost unfailingly genuine, and he doesn’t seem capable of a banal impulse. In America is as wondrously unconventional for a coming-to-America movie as My Left Foot was for a triumph-of-the-spirit drama or In the Name of the Father for a prison picture. Not a single sequence in it looks like anything else you’ve ever seen.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Rummaging Through the Dustbin: Greil Marcus's The Dustbin of History (1996)

For all the value we assign to history, both as a field of study in school and for understanding the ways of the world, it's also dead meat. Our best friend's marriage ends and we say it's history. Sports commentators, eager to create an air of finality, always remark: "With that goal in overtime, the playoff series becomes history." One goal and everything that came before it is now superfluous. The winning team moves on; the losing team is history. History might even be worse than dead meat because (to paraphrase Johnny Rotten) it's got nooooo future. It's history.

In high school, we often treated the subject as a function of correcting mistakes. The teacher told us that if we studied what took place back then, then maybe we could prevent it from happening again. Know it and you can control it. History was something you could beat by simply having all the right facts. With certain truths on your side, you could stop time itself in order to properly dissect it. But why should history's dustbin become such a convenient dumping ground for facts left behind like last week's garbage? This is the central question in Greil Marcus's uneven, yet fascinating book The Dustbin of History (Harvard University Press, 1996), which sets out to provide a road map to find some answers.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Young Twits: Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles

In Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, playing an extended run at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, a young man named Leo (Gabriel Ebert) lands on the Manhattan doorstep of his eighty-something grandmother Vera (Mary Louise Wilson) in the middle of the night after biking across the country. He’s a hippie, she’s an old-style Jewish leftist, and they’ve always had a companionable relationship. At this juncture she’s trying to cope with the ravages of age and he’s hiding out, avoiding his parents in St. Paul, avoiding dealing with the death of his best friend Micah on the trip, and attempting to pretend that nothing’s changed in his romantic relationship with Bec (Zoë Winters), who’s furious at him for not showing up at Micah’s funeral.

Herzog wrote one of the few compelling new plays of the 2010-2011 season, After the Revolution, which was lucky enough to receive a fine production at the Williamstown Theater Festival that was repeated in New York at Playwrights Horizons. After the Revolution made good on a terrific idea. Set at the end of the millennium, it was about a young woman, a third-generation Jewish leftist, who graduates from law school and starts a foundation dedicated to defending members of marginalized groups. (Her first cause is an attempt to get a new trial for an incarcerated Black Panther.) She names the foundation after her late grandfather, a cult hero among American Communists, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Then a new history of the period comes out that furnishes evidence that he was actually a Soviet spy. Herzog examines the issue from the point of view of the young woman, whose idealism is shattered, and from the point of view of her father, her uncle and her grandfather’s widow, who stick to the loyalties they’ve grown up with – and she refuses to resolve it. The play ends with the widow telling her step-granddaughter that, in taking an ethical stand against her grandfather, she’s no different from the American right-wingers who oppressed liberals and leftists in the fifties, and Herzog refuses to hold out hope that these two women can ever reconcile.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman: Alain Ducasse's New Cookbook

I love food – thinking about it, talking about it, preparing it, eating it, and even cleaning up after it’s all gone. I also love trying new recipes. Food is such a compelling metaphor for the way we live; we constantly use phrases like “sugar coat it,” “trim the fat,” and “half-baked idea.” The very way ingredients interact is relational, just like people. There’s something magical about combining and modifying raw ingredients to create a delicious finished dish.

Of all the world’s cultures and stereotypes, no one worships food like the French, which is perhaps why I’ve always felt an affinity with them. However, typical French cuisine tends to be too rich, too bready, too meaty and creamy for my palate and sensitive tummy. This is exactly why I was thrilled to hear about Alain Ducasse’s new cookbook Nature: Simple, Healthy, and Good on the site Q by Equinox. Reviewer Eimear Lynch sums it up perfectly: “co-written with nutritionist Paule Neyrat, the book is filled with nutrient-rich, veggie-based recipes that, while healthy, are still decidedly fancy and French.”

Nature is not a 30-minute weeknight dinner cookbook. To use this book effectively, you need to let go of the North American stuff-your-face mindset and move towards the Provençal savor-the-moment mentality. This cookbook demands that you immerse yourself. Each recipe is laid out not as a series of ingredients and instructions, but as a story – beginning, middle and end. Although there are many tempting recipes, it’s difficult to pick one and make it spontaneously. You need to set aside a few weeks to cook only things from the pages of Nature.