Saturday, September 8, 2012

Talking Out of Turn #32: Barbara Branden on Ayn Rand (1986)

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.

Tom Fulton, the executive producer of On the Arts

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 Icons Revisited, I included a number of writers who re-examined past iconic figures whose personalities still continued to overshadow the decade. Some of the writers included historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on the Kennedy family, John Malcolm Brinnin on Truman Capote, Heather Robertson's fictionalized biographies on former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, former leftist activist (now neo-conservative) David Horowitz who, along with Peter Collier, wrote a riveting and complex study of the Ford family empire, and Barbara Branden on the controversial author Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged), a writer whose work has had a strong influence on the current Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism illicits a strong reaction from just about everyone who reads her work (especially young adolescents who identify with her heroes' battles against conformity and mediocrity). Yet most of us know little of Rand's personal life. Barbara Branden, who along with her husband Nathaniel, became one of her early followers and closest friends in 1950. (Branden and her former husband also co-founded the Nathaniel Branden Institute which gave courses on Rand's philosophy.) In 1954, however, Nathaniel began a secret romantic affair with Rand with the reluctant permission of both their spouses (Barbara and Frank O'Connor). Rand terminated her association with Nathaniel Branden by 1968 however after she discovered that he had become involved with actress Patricia Scott more than four years earlier. She likewise disassociated herself from Barbara Branden for keeping this fact from her.

In 1986, Barbara Branden wrote a memoir, The Passion of Ayn Rand (Doubleday), that not only unveiled this polarizing figure, she also illustrated the perils of blind faith and idolatry. The book later became an Emmy-award winning film in 1999 with Helen Mirren portraying Ayn Rand, and Eric Stoltz as Nathaniel and Julie Delpy as Barbara.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Usual Mixed Bag: Summer Movie Roundup

Over the years, the meaning of summer movies has changed. As a teen, I remember that about the only films released in hot weather were the blockbusters, the James Bonds, the Star Wars etc. Then things began to change and serious, foreign language, subtitled movies also were sent out to the populace. Nowadays, it’s a veritable smorgasbord of movies on view, though the biggest box office and attendant media coverage still accrues to tent-pole films like The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers. And while it seems like the kids rule the roost because of all the publicity given to the younger skewing  movies (though many adults go to them, too), there really is a choice for all film tastes. Here is a look at some recent summer releases in Toronto, most still in our theatres and probably in yours, as well. It’s the usual mixed bag when it comes to quality.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Bourne Series: A Touch of the Human

At some point fairly late in The Bourne Identity, the first (2002) film in the series culled from the Robert Ludlum bestsellers, the amnesiac hero known as Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) – using impressive secret-agent skills he’s continually startled to find he possesses – figures out that one of an apparently unending series of assassins sent out to hunt him down has located the house where he and his companion Marie (Franka Potente) have spent the night. So he quietly sends their host, an old lover of Marie’s, with his two little kids to safety in their basement, then grabs a rifle and leads the unseen hit man (Clive Owen) out into the woods for a face-off. It may seem like a trivial concern, but I was grateful to the director, Doug Liman, and the screenwriters, Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron, for having the decency to remove two innocent children from danger before we had time to get anxious over their well-being. It struck me as almost chivalric on the filmmakers’ part to consider the feelings of the audience – to recognize that you can tense up a thriller without making it a sadistic experience.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Cooperstown Culture (Part Two): American Impressionism at The Fenimore Art Museum

Fenimore Art Museum
In between my opera escapades, which I alluded to yesterday in my discussion of Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars, I made time to stop by the Fenimore Art Museum on the outskirts of the village. In the late 1930s, Stephen Clark, a wealthy philanthropist, made an agreement with the New York State Historical Association to convert his newly-built mansion on the shores of Lake Otsego into an art museum (Clark also convinced Major League Baseball to build the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown; his brother Sterling founded the Clark Museum in Williamstown, MA). Today, the Fenimore houses one of the finest collections of Indian art and American folk art around. And the temporary exhibits it’s hosted in recent years, including 2009’s exhibition of American artists in Rome and last year’s Edward Hopper show, have been wonderful treats for this region. The current exhibit, American Impressionism: Paintings of Life and Light (on through September 16th), continues this trend.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Cooperstown Culture (Part One): The Glimmerglass Opera Company production of Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars

The Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Nick Coccoma, to our group.

Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can never go home, and there’s a lot of truth in that. Once you’ve grown, you can’t experience home the way you did in youth. But one of the more pleasant surprises in life comes from experiencing your home in new ways, often through the eyes of first-time visitors. This revelation happened to me twice this summer when I returned to my place of origin in Cooperstown, NY – once with friends who had never been and, more recently, on my own. Cooperstown is, of course, famous as the home of baseball, the location of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. If baseball constitutes America’s de facto religion, Cooperstown is its Mecca. Each summer, some 300,000 zealots descend on this sleepy village of two-thousand residents to pay homage to their favorite ballplayers, immortalized on gold-leafed plaques in an atrium that’s got the unsettling feel of a shrine. I’m a baseball fan, but more in spite of growing up in Cooperstown than because of it. To those who live there, the baseball craze makes for an annoying sideshow suffered in what is just an ordinary place to work and raise a family.

And yet Cooperstown is special, but, as many others have come to learn, not just or even mostly because of baseball. Once an important meeting place and residence for the native Iroquois tribes, this region of central New York played an important frontier role in colonial and post-Revolutionary America. The scion of the town’s founder, James Fenimore Cooper, became America’s first novelist and made the Cooperstown area setting to many of his Leatherstocking Tales, of which The Last of the Mohicans is the most famous. In the 19th century, the county grew into the nation’s leader in hop production. It boasts great natural beauty, with the village’s quaint streets sitting at the southern shore of the nine-mile Otsego Lake, the source of the Susquehanna River. The longest river on the east coast, the Susquehanna contributes the largest amount of fresh water to the Chesapeake Bay of any single source.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Lola and Doc: Come Back Little Sheba at Shaw

Corrine Koslo and Ric Reid in Come Back Little Sheba at the Shaw Festival (All Photos by David Cooper)

William Inge’s reputation as a playwright seems to have outlived his plays; they don’t get revived much. But though he’s not in the class of our finest southern playwrights (Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers), his work, which embodies a 1950s realist esthetic, is interesting. The movie versions of Come Back, Little Sheba and A Loss of Roses (the film’s title is The Stripper) linger in the memory for the performances of the leading actresses, Shirley Booth and Joanne Woodward respectively, in the roles of profoundly disappointed women. That’s the Inge archetype; the spinster schoolteacher in Picnic, Rosemary, fits it too, though she’s a supporting character. One of the reasons that Picnic is Inge’s signal achievement – it’s considerably better than the popular 1955 movie suggests – is that it provides a wider spectrum of characters than the others. Still, I was pleased to see the Shaw Festival’s mounting of Sheba, even though Jackie Maxwell’s production is clumsy. It showcases two talented actors, Corrine Koslo as Lola Delaney and Ric Reid as her husband Doc, and unlike most shows it improves as it goes along: the second act is poignant, even gripping.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Dwelling in the Details: The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

Author Steven Pinker

I’m often told I dwell too much on words. During many an impassioned discussion I’ve heard people scoff “Semantics!” with a dismissive wave of the hand, as if I’m being too picky about the details (although what they’re often frustrated by is, in fact, pragmatics...but, well, you get the idea). But why not focus on the details, on accuracy? Human language can offer such a glorious range of nuance and character, and it provides one of the most crucial of links between our individual worlds and thoughts. Though not without their limitations, words form so much of our daily life. Yet we often lose sight of exactly how language shapes us, or how we shape it. As Linguist Steven Pinker rightly puts it, language helps to form, and is crucially formed by, The Stuff of Thought.

The book serves as Pinker’s third volume in two separate trilogies: one about language and the mind (which includes The Language Instinct and Words and Rules) and another on human psychology (featuring How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate). Each of these titles themselves make metaphorical, yet bold statements about the nature of our species. The Stuff of Thought rounds out each series with yet another declaration, confidently stating the ways in which human nature gets reflected in our language. Pinker argues that the linguistic tools we use, often without thinking, show us a great deal about ourselves, from our mental models to our culture to naming conventions.