Saturday, August 18, 2012

Neglected Gem # 22: Une Jeune Fille A La Fenetre (A Young Girl at the Window) (2001)

An impressionistic gem, Une Jeune Fille a la Fenetre (A Young Girl at the Window) signals the arrival of a notable new talent behind the camera. The young girl of the 1920s Quebec-set film is Marthe (Fanny Mallette), who, despite a potentially fatal heart defect, decides to live life to the fullest by leaving her country home to study piano in the city of Montreal. There she befriends a group of bohemians, finds love and also learns of life's harsh realities.

Director Francis Leclerc is less interested in conventional narrative or sentiment than in portraying the dreamlike nature of Fanny's fragile life, which is endangered by any act of defiance, such as smoking and drinking. As Marthe, Fanny Mallette rivets the screen, running a complex gamut of emotions and engaging the heart.  Une Jeune Fille a la Fenetre is not as expansive as it could be (we never see enough of Marthe's grabbing at life's experiences) but it's still effective and memorable.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Rollicking Good Time: Rosanne Cash & Band at Hamilton Place, August 15, 2012

Apparently the city of Hamilton doesn’t know what they missed last night. Rosanne Cash, Johnny’s daughter, played Hamilton Place to a half empty room. I sensed there was trouble selling tickets when they offered 2 for 1 for a week or two in July. They were still advertising “Tickets Available” in yesterday’s newspaper, but the audience must have been saving its money for Bruce Springsteen in October, or The Who next February. Well folks, you missed a great show!

As the lights dimmed right at 8 o’clock the firm fans soon discovered they were in for a full night of music. The opening act were three attractive young ladies in short skirts and cowboy boots who skipped onto the stage. This trio called BelleStarr included the redhead (Miranda Mulholland), the brunette (Stephanie Cadman), and the blonde (Kendal Carson). Miranda and Stephanie carried fiddles, Kendal a guitar, and they proceeded to sing a close-harmony rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” The audience loved it. They played a few originals enhanced by Stephanie’s step-dancing which acted as percussion to drive the tunes. During the intermission, the merch table was surrounded by adoring new fans.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Time Folder: Remembering Film Essayist Chris Marker

"Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place"
                    (T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday)

"L'Éloignement des pays répare en quelque sorte la trop grande proximité des temps."
(The distance between countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of time.)
                                                                                                            (Jean Racine, Bajazet)

Since French filmmaker Chris Marker’s death on July 29th at the age of 91, I've been considering his importance in my own development as a writer and critic. As I rewatched his two best known and influential works this past weekend – the short film, La Jetée, and the feature Sans Soleil – I've come to realize even more his major impact on my writing life. I may have only seen two of his dozens of shorts and features, but the ideas he was working through in them – the nature of time, loss and memory – have been a constant in my own work. From my novel, The Empire of Death, to my critical pieces, especially where I use memoir to decipher my understanding and reaction to a work, the ideas of memory and the inexorable passage of time are always present.

The Woman at Orly in La Jetée

I first encountered Marker's work in the Film Studies program at the University of Toronto in 1979 or 1980. U of T's film program was not about learning the craft of filmmaking, but rather to study films as text (just as one would a novel, poem or historical period). In one class, my professor showed us Marker's remarkable 29-minute short, La Jetée. La Jetée is about a man in the future who has a vivid memory from his childhood of a single incident at Orly Airport in Paris. In the memory, he is with his parents on an outing to watch the airplanes land and depart. At the end of a jetty, the man remembers seeing a beautiful young woman. As he studies her face he also witnesses someone being killed. The memory is not complete, it is just a fragment, and he is determined to understand it. Many years later, after a cataclysmic war, a group of scientists develop a technique to push people into the past (or into the future) in order to find a way to save those who still survive in the post-apocalyptic present. The man with the memory, now a prisoner of the scientists in an underground realm, is chosen because his one vivid recollection of that day is very strong. After several failed attempts, he manages to go back to a time just prior to the incident in his memory. He finds the woman and, during several journeys back, he starts a romantic relationship with her. I will leave the rest of this fine film for you to discover.

Chris Marker
What is so compelling about the film, where it becomes the perfect visual metaphor for memory, is that the whole film (except for one very brief moment) is composed of stills with a narrator describing/clarifying what we are seeing. Marker uses these images (many in repetition) as a representation of how our memory works. Most times when we recall the past we remember it only in fragments. These fragments often get mixed in with other memories, too, as our brain zooms through its 'attic' making up its own associations and connections. Many times, these memory fragments do not play like movies, but instead still images; captured moments. (Ironically, film itself is actually a series of still images that are shot at 24-frames a second which, when projected, tricks the mind into thinking it is seeing a moving image. In fact, all we are seeing is a still image followed rapidly by dozens of other still images cut together to tell us a story.)

Marker is also making references to influences on his own work, be they writers (Jules Verne), philosophers (Roland Barthes) or filmmakers (Alfred Hitchcock, especially his film Vertigo). He also takes one brief five-second moment to eschew still images. As we look at the beautiful young woman sleeping on a bed she awakens, looks at the camera and smiles slightly. But these aren't stills, this is actual film. The woman moves. It is deeply erotic sequence, even startling, in a film that, except for this, is made up of stills. It is as Spalding Gray once said in one of his own filmed essay/lectures, "a perfect moment." 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Down on the Bayou: A Resilient Demimonde and a Determined Child

In John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, a 1940 classic adapted from a John Steinbeck novel, Ma Joad proclaims the populist message: “They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ‘cause we’re the people.” She’s trapped in what was a genuine climate-propelled diaspora during the early 1930s. A severe drought had devastated states like Oklahoma known as “The Dust Bowl,” where growing food was soon an impossibility. Untold thousands of subsistence farmers hoped to resettle in more hospitable regions of the country while remaining nostalgic about their prairie roots.

The equally beleaguered characters in Beasts of the Southern Wild face homelessness after a hurricane floods “The Bathtub,” their hardscrabble habitat on the wrong side of a Louisiana levee. Across the divide, oil refineries pump out pollution. “Ain’t that ugly over there?” asks a little African-American girl named Hushpuppy, the movie’s amazing protagonist. “We got the prettiest place on Earth.” Although that place might look like a trash heap to outsiders, it’s beloved by those who have carved out a meager but unfettered existence there. She also intuits things beyond her day-to-day concerns, delivering a voice-over narration with a populist message that’s equally ecological: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.”

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Edgard Varèse & The Bomb That Would Explode the Musical World

                                       Edgard Varèse
On the night of May 29, 1913, Edgard Varèse sat in attendance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris watching the infamous performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. This was an evening considered by some to mark the spiritual birth of the 20th Century. While abuse was being hurled at the stage, and indignation toward this "barbaric" music raged around him, Varèse calmly wondered what all the fuss was about. After all, many composers were already growing tired of tonality. They had already begun resenting the adherence to a single key as the only accepted foundation for musical composition. Arnold Schoenberg, the Austro-Hungarian composer born in 1874, even developed his own solution: the twelve-tone system, an approach allowing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale to be played before the first note is played again. This open-ended arrangement offered composers the opportunity to compose disciplined atonal music that would be equivalent to the most traditional tonal system.

Following up on Schoenberg's daring, Anton Webern, an Austrian composer who studied with Schoenberg, reinterpreted the twelve-tone form by writing with an abstract sparseness that provided space for the ear to gradually discover the melody. Igor Stravinsky, always the contrarian, headed in a different direction. He was less interested in harmony and more dedicated to what music critic Frank Rossiter once described as "a return to the artistic ideals (and often to the specific musical forms) of the pre-romantic era." Varèse though took an even more radical route. He decided to question the very principles of Western music altogether. Varèse embarked on a search for what he thought could be a new music, one filled with the sounds of sirens, woodblocks, and eventually electronic tape. His impact on the culture may have appeared subterranean, but it was acutely felt among a diverse group of musicians. Most significantly, Frank Zappa would carry his legacy. But he also attracted the ear of be-bop legend Charlie Parker (who wanted Varèse to take him on as a student). His reach also extended to some of Zappa's contemporaries including progressive rock groups like King Crimson and Pink Floyd (who utilized Varèse's tape experiments), John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Revolution 9" from The Beatles' White Album is just about inconceivable without him. Even the pop rock group Chicago chipped in with their own little ditty "A Hit for Varèse" in 1971.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Modest Production That Must Not Be Undervalued: A Month in the Country at Williamstown

Jeremy Strong & Jessica Collins in A Month In the Country
It’s tempting to call Ivan Turgenev’s play A Month in the Country Chekhovian, but he wrote it in 1849-1850, nearly half a century before Chekhov produced The Seagull, the first of his four dramatic masterpieces. Richard Nelson’s marvellous production, which rounds off the mainstage season at Williamstown this summer, makes it clearer than ever how much of a debt Chekhov owes Turgenev. The provincial boredom and restlessness of the setting – a Russian country estate in the 1840s – anticipates the mood of scenes in all four of Chekhov's plays; the opening scene, where the mistress of the house, Natalya (Jessica Collins), grows impatient while her friend Mikhail Rakitin (Jeremy Strong) reads to her, shows up specifically at the top of act two of The Seagull. And the exchange between Natalya and her seventeen-year-old ward, Vera (Charlotte Bydwell), where she urges Vera to confide her feelings for Natalya’s son’s new Moscow tutor Belyaev (Julian Cihi), whom she herself is taken with, ends up – though considerably transformed – as the celebrated sharing of confidences between Elena and Sonia in Uncle Vanya. (It’s even in roughly the same spot in the play, halfway through.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

When the Political Becomes Personal: Soulpepper's Production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible

Hannah Miller in Soulpepper's Production of The Cruicble - Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The Salem witch trials of 1692 do, at first glance, seem so awfully far away. Oh those Puritans and their superstitions! How primitive! 

But American playwright Arthur Miller thought differently. In them he found what he thoughts was an apt metaphor for the ills plaguing his own day. His 1953 play, The Crucible, revisits that historic event to expose the venality of modern times. The result is an allegory about the abuse of power that still resonates with audiences some 60 years after its New York premiere. To see it on stage at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts where Soulpepper Theatre Company is performing The Crucible now through Sept. 22, is to feel the deadly chill of those hysterical persecutions all over again.