Saturday, August 11, 2012

Off the Shelf: Jim McBride's The Big Easy

From time to time, I'll haul down a DVD from my collection, throw it into the player and see if it still holds up. In most cases, it's been years since I've seen it, tastes change and there is always the possibility that I'll go, 'what the heck was I thinking?' The last time I did that was in February 2010, a month after we launched Critics at Large, when I looked at Toby Hooper's delightfully bananacakes film Lifeforce (1985). This past weekend I pulled down another 1980s picture, one that I actually liked, not because it was catawampus, but because, except for the predictable cop plot, it was a good, adult character piece: Jim McBride's The Big Easy (1987).

Friday, August 10, 2012

Talking Out of Turn #31: Robertson Davies (1985)

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.

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.

In the chapter on memoir in the Eighties, Mythologizing the Self, which includes interviews with Wallace Shawn describing the highly personal film My Dinner with Andre, D.M.Thomas exploring Freud and the Holocaust in his novel, The White Hotel and William Diehl discussing how he used pulp fiction to work out his violent impulses, the idea was to illustrate how the decade brought forth a few biographical artists who attempted to link themselves to the collective memory of the audience with the purpose of creating a shared mythology out of their experiences. Perhaps no writer could have done more to enhance that goal than the renowned playwright, scholar and novelist Robertson Davies. Besides bringing his personal fascination with Jungian psychology into his 1970 book Fifth Business (which would form the basis of The Deptford Trilogy including the 1972 The Manticore and, in 1975, World of Wonders), Davies continued to provide psychological inquiry as a means to examining academic life in The Rebel Angels (1981), the conclusion of which became the starting point for Davies's next work, What's Bred in the Bone (1985). This book which would then become part of The Cornish Trilogy, an examination of the life of Francis Cornish, an art restorer with a mercurial past, whose demons become part of a larger mythology. Since myth plays such a huge role in the dramas of Robertson Davies, we began the interview with the question of just how big a part destiny plays in shaping a character.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Remembering the Munich Massacre: One Day in September and Munich

The refusal of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists with a moment of silence at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Games, is, of course, appalling and indefensible. Deborah Lipstadt states in a piece she wrote for Tablet magazine that the decision is motivated by anti-Semitism. I’m not sure I’d go that far, though anti-Semitism is never far from the surface in modern Europe, but certainly it’s a political decision. Ankie Spitzer, widow of fencing coach Andre Spitzer, one of the Israeli victims at Munich, indicated in the August 6 issue of Sports Illustrated, in a piece on the 40th anniversary of the massacre, that Jacques Rogge, IOC head, had told her that there were more than 40 Arab delegations at the Games. Without spelling that out, his comments clearly suggested that the requested moment of silence might embarrass them as they likely would not want to observe it. (Only Jordan’s King Hussein, among all Arab leaders, actually condemned the terror attacks when they occurred. Palestinian reaction since the Munich massacre has ranged from the attendance of members of the debut Palestinian Olympic team at a memorial to the Israelis held at the 1996 games in Atlanta to recent comments by the head of the Palestine Olympic Committee that the request for the IOC to grant a minute of silence for the murdered athletes was "racist". Make of that what you will.) Whatever the actual reasons for the IOC’s slight, it puts into perspective the two most significant films made on the Munich massacre and its aftermath, Kevin Macdonald’s powerful documentary One Day in September (1999) and Steven Spielberg’s conflicted but memorable drama Munich (2005). They do what Rogge and IOC have refused to do: remember the Israeli athletes and what happened to them at the Olympics.

Ankie Spitzer is one of the main interviewees in Macdonald’s Oscar-winning film, juxtaposed for maximum effect with the compelling interview with Jamal Al-Gashey, reputedly the only surviving Palestinian terrorist from Munich (There’s some question now whether that is indeed the case.) Al-Gashey, in hiding in Africa, is matter of fact and unrepentant about what he did, but viewers of the documentary will likely be just as aghast and angry at the German authorities, who, in effect, botched the rescue attempt of the nine remaining Israeli hostages (two were killed in the initial attack in their rooms), a disaster that Ankie Spitzer, for one, blames for her husband’s and the others’ deaths.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Non-Zombie Walking Dead: Awakened but Not Exactly Alive

When I was about 13 or so, my recently widowed grandmother told me that every night for a week she would hear the chains rattle on the front door of her Bronx apartment and footsteps in the hallway. Then, Grandpa Charlie was standing at the foot of the bed. He wanted her to find a certain key in the desk drawer of his office in Manhattan’s garment district! In relating this story, Grandma Bess laughed and sighed: “There’s a Yiddish saying the old people in Russia used to have: ‘Der toten kommen.’ The dead walk. I never believed it but I guess they were right.”

Even though my adolescent imagination had conjured up images of some vast hidden wealth, apparently there was no key to be found, no wealth to be had. Just Charlie, worrying about business affairs even after his passage into the Great Beyond. If der toten kommen, maybe it’s not necessarily for anything important. In The Awakening, a gorgeous-looking new British film, it’s possible that the dead walk, talk, threaten and perhaps even kill. But Florence Cathcart, the lead female character played by luminous Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, 2006), doesn’t think so. In London of 1921, she’s a fierce professional debunker who helps the police expose con artists. Early on, Florence goes underground to disrupt a phony seance – a terrifically staged scene in which she proclaims, “You’re charlatans!” – and reveals a kind of unspoken protofeminist sensibility.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Thickness of a Thought: Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth

As humanity grows well past seven billion people, our small planet begins to feel smaller. Many millions of us cluster around densely packed urban centres, with personal space – let alone land – an uncommon luxury. But what if the opposite were suddenly true? Instead of one Earth, we could walk between millions, with possibility of one day waking up as the only human mind on an entire world?

The Long Earth springs such an event on us one not-so-distant tomorrow, with the consequences explored by two renowned British imaginations: Terry Pratchett, known for his other, more fantastic alternate world in the Discworld series; and Stephen Baxter, a science fiction author with several trilogies under his belt (you may also have heard of his previous co-author, some fellow named Arthur C. Clarke...). Their first collaboration, The Long Earth brings out some of the best elements of each author's style – although those expecting the sillier, more outlandish aspects of Pratchett's fantasy won't find it here. Instead the novel follows a solid, if somewhat predictable science fiction exploration of how humans cope with the technological development of "Steppers": devices that allow instantaneous – if slightly nauseating – shifts from one version of planet Earth (and surrounding universe) to another. When the designs for such a machine get posted online, everyone from tech geeks to inquisitive children start building a way out of our congested world. With gold and natural resources now aplenty – but un-Steppable iron suddenly needed – the traditional ideas of value and wealth get turned on their heads. In search of both, people set out across a line of Earths that are much like ours, but with one small difference... none of them appear to have humans.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Juicing Up the Classics: The Importance of Being Earnest at Williamstown

The Importance of Being Earnest
The only hard-and-fast rule about refurbishing a classic play should be that any new production has to be true to the spirit of the text. And that’s a broad requirement: to my mind, Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film of Hamlet, set in New York at the millennium, and Alfonso Cuarón’s 1997 Great Expectations, where the hero becomes a young painter from the Gulf Coast whose mysterious mentor sets him up in a studio in Manhattan, both fit it. But some plays are so tied to the period in which they were written that removing them from it throws them into limbo.

I think that’s true of Chekhov’s dramas, in which the relationship between the women and men on stage and the culture that produced them is so specific. That’s one of the reasons that the Sydney Theatre Company’s touring production of Uncle Vanya, adapted by Andrew Upton and directed by Tamás Ascher, didn’t work at all for me. Actually I’m not sure when this version is meant to take place – as Yelena, Cate Blanchett (Upton’s wife) seems to be, from her costumes, living in the 1950s but the men’s suits look to be circa World War I – but the setting feels like the Australian outback, and though I imagine Upton and Ascher have sound reasons for making a connection between it and turn-of-the-century provincial Russia, I didn’t buy the switch, so instead of making a play that is timeless (in terms of theme and character) more relevant – a pointless aim – ironically it ends up being less convincing.

Uncle Vanya at the Sydney Theatre Company
So does the coarsening of Astrov’s language (he suspects the Professor, with his aches and pains, of bullshitting rather than shamming, as most translations, have it, and so forth). Ascher’s production is impressively staged and quite handsome, but I found it so uninvolving that I ducked out at intermission, right after the reconciliation scene between Yelena and her stepdaughter Sonya (Hayley McElhinney), which Ascher chose to stage as a drunken revel between a pair of schoolgirls, with a lot of eruptive laughter and flopping about the stage. It’s a serious liability in a Chekhov play when you don’t care about a single character. So I guess there’s another hard-and-fast rule after all: you have to give the audience an emotional reason to come back after intermission.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Pioneers Making History: Criterion's Release of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps & Chaplin's The Gold Rush

A few years ago, when I was working on my book Artificial Paradise, about the dark side of The Beatles' utopian dream, I was speaking to a friend who was a clerk in a Toronto music store. In the midst of our conversation about my work, he described to me his own experience hearing The Beatles' music. "The first album I really discovered was Revolver," he told me. "Then I went back to With The Beatles and later found Rubber Soul." What was jarring, of course, was that he began his quest with one of their later 1966 albums, arguably their best, before jumping back to their second record in 1963, a fiercely eclectic songbook primer of hard rock, balladry and R&B, before landing in 1965 on the band's most radical reinterpretation of American rhythm and blues and folk. What startled me most was his seemingly arbitrary dance through history. And it left me wondering how he could ever begin to make sense of it.

For me, I had heard those records as they were being released so the history was clear. I followed each new innovation as a daring, breathtaking leap into this future that was always in the process of being imagined. For him, being much younger, it was all about looking back. Therefore he had to create some new way to hear what that history was, maybe even figure out why it happened in the way it did, and perhaps discover his own way to understand why it mattered. What he did was create his own context for hearing the music, a means to escape the official history which had by then become received wisdom rather than fresh experience. By scrambling time, he made The Beatles music seem new again. He felt as if this great music had finally been freed from the pedigree of its own history.

Alfred Hitchcock directing The 39 Steps

Recently watching Alfred Hitchcock's cleverly entertaining and satisfying 1935 spy thriller The 39 Steps and Charlie Chaplin's comedic gem The Gold Rush (1925), newly re-released in sparkling remastered DVD prints by Criterion, I thought back on that conversation with the clerk. Like him with The Beatles, I didn't live through the era of Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin. Both artists were already legendary by the time I was old enough to even go to the movies. So how could I possibly experience their work as it was first seen by audiences? (A friend of mine once lamented that he regretted not being able to see Robert Altman's Nashville with fresh eyes. How could he, he complained, when he had already read all the many reviews that gave it a certain stature before he ever got to lay his own receptors on it?)  By the time I saw my first Hitchcock picture, he was already regarded as the Master of Suspense. Charlie Chaplin was firmly established as the personification of the Little Tramp, an iconic figure who was hanging on posters proudly in people's bedrooms. Their reputations seemed larger than the work they created.