Monday, April 22, 2013

Tribute to David: Susan Green

David Churchill (1959-2013) in October 2010.

Given the sad passing of our friend and colleague David Churchill, we've decided to honour him in a manner totally fitting to our memory of him. Since he was such a strong advocate of Critics at Large from the beginning, he was quick to initiate ideas. One thing he was quite fond of were omnibus projects like the Remembering 9/11 collection (which led to our first e-book) and the Titanic 100th Anniversary commemoration. Therefore, we felt strongly that we could best salute our late columnist by creating an Omnibus of David. From April 16 until April 24, we plan to publish – daily – the best of David Churchill as chosen by our writers

Today's piece is from Susan Green

The Editors at Critics at Large.

"It’s all part of life,” David Churchill wrote to me in early December about his health crisis.

Despite the geographic distance between us
Burlington, Vermont is 400 miles from Toronto he was certainly an important part of my life. Although we’d known each other for more than two decades, most of our communications in recent years were via email and concerned his editing of my Critics at Large pieces.

Messages from David were invariably funny, even when debating our differences of opinion or the fine points of grammar. There was once an energetic dust-up about the proper use of commas. Commas! But we were always quick to acknowledge our mutual affection and respect. His encouragement meant the world to me. His sharp wit kept me entertained.

In September 2011, I thought I could detect my own respiratory distress after seeing Contagion, about a super flu that decimates humankind but ultimately is stopped with a miracle drug developed by America’s neighbor to the north. When I sent him the review, this was David’s observation on the coincidence of my possible sniffles and a movie pandemic: “Thanks, darling. Go wipe your nose. I think it's running. And NO we aren't going to give you the antidote. We Canadians clearly aren't that nice :)” Except, of course, he at least really was.

In February, I inadvertently left a Federal passport office with a ballpoint pen bearing the U.S. State Department insignia. In response to the photo of it that I posted on my Facebook page, David commented: “Do I hear a knocking on your front door? Run, Susan, run!” I assured him the sound was merely a government drone overhead. 

David’s sense of humor, ranging from whimsical to barbed, certainly infused his own very smart postings. In a mostly negative 2011 review of The Killing, an AMC murder mystery set in the water-logged Pacific Northwest, his hilariously visceral description of a scene drenched by persistent precipitation: “while the Rain...Just...Poured...Down.” The constant drizzle bothered me, as well, although I liked many other aspects of the series.

David, from the shoot-out at Spadina Garden (Oct 2010)
We heartily agreed, however, about AMC’s Rubicon a spy bleak spy thriller that began well but went steadily downhill and was cancelled after the first season. His 2010 critique suggested the drama was promising, but he began to feel increasingly repelled. In October of that year, I trekked to Ontario for the book launch of David’s excellent novel, The Empire of Death. We also were both part of a Critics at Large meal (Critics at Spadina Garden!) the night before. When talking about our mutual Rubicon disappointment, we zeroed in on an actress on the show who had been truly annoying. David perfectly mimicked her only facial expression: a combination of insipid and wounded. As I recall, nobody else at the table got the joke, but we cracked up.

A few months ago, I told David about a political journalist named Norman Cousins who reportedly had cured himself of a terminal disease in the late 1960s by taking massive doses of vitamin C and watching every Marx Brothers comedy ever made. His reply: “Need a copy of The Court Jester. The ‘vessel with the pestle has the brew that is poison’ routine always gets me laughing like a little kid.”

That little kid in David, whose giggle was memorable, had a playful nature. At the Spadina Garden gathering, he and I had a few moments of silliness attempting to out-shoot each other with our digital cameras.

When too much time went by between my pitches to him with story ideas, David would often prompt me with just two words: “Nudge. Nudge.”

In November 2011, he sent this reassurance about my confusion when it came to some formatting issues: “Any questions, your beloved editor is here to answer them.” 

Oh, how I wish. 

– Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

Gutting The Killing

I have wasted 13 hours of the only life I'm ever going to have on a self-important piece of crap called The Killing. Brought onto AMC as their next 'great show' to go with Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, The Killing started strongly, as I outlined here. The premise was simple. Set in a rain-soaked Seattle, The Killing was about an attractive young girl, Rosie Larsen (Katie Findlay), who was kidnapped and killed by an unknown assailant. The story was broken into three strands: Mitch and Stan Larsen (Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton) and their boys dealing with the tragedy of Rosie's death; the cops, Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder (Mireilles Enos and Joel Kinnaman), investigating her murder; and the election campaign between the young uniter, Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell), and the moustache-twirling corrupt current mayor, Lesley Adams (Tom Butler). Rosie's body was found in the trunk of a car owned by the Richmond campaign. Each episode represented one day of the investigation.

Michelle Forbes
Fine. Okay. Good start. Then things started to go terribly wrong. The rain fell and fell and fell and fell. People wandered around rooms so under-lit that it is impossible to see what was going on. To use a line my colleague, Kevin Courrier, likes to use at times like this, I wanted to give them all flashlights. After the revelation of Rosie's death, the whole show's various arcs took on layers of grief and never did anything with them. The Killing has been celebrated by its fans because they claim 'it is the first show to actually get at the truth of the grief a family goes through after the lost of a child.' What The Killing actually did was hit one note of bereavement and then played it again and again and again and again. Michelle Forbes is a wonderful actress whose work I have always enjoyed (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 24, Durham County, Battlestar Galatica, etc). She brings a vibrancy to anything she's ever been in, but here she is asked to play a rag doll. With her hair permanently draped over her eyes, she locks her gaze on the middle distance and then... nothing. That's where she starts; that's where she ends. This is an unplayable character. 

If you want to really see how grief tears a family apart, hunt down a little-known Canadian TV movie starring Saul Rubinek and directed by Robin Spry called Obsessed (1988), about a mother (Kerrie Keane) trying to bring to justice a man (Rubinek) who killed her son in a hit and run accident. It's almost unwatchable (especially during the first ten minutes) because it's so intense, but once you see this you'll never forget it. It became a conventional revenge picture by the end, but until then it was very effective.

I have always been rather susceptible to honest, well-played emotion in films and TV shows, and Obsessed's opening still has an impact on my memory 23 years after I saw it. There was not one moment in The Killing that came close to eliciting any emotional reaction from me other than derision and boredom. The biggest issue, I think, is the source material. Based on a Danish TV series from 2007 called Forbrydelsen, adaptor Veena Sud (Cold Case) clearly had no clue how to shed the show's Scandinavian roots. I didn’t for a minute believe that any of these characters existed in any USA city I've ever seen. I've visited Seattle (and Vancouver, which stands in for Seattle). It's a beautiful city with some of the friendliest people I've ever met. The “Seattle” of The Killing is drab, dreary, dank, bleak, depressed place that is so damp and awful it makes almost no sense that anybody would ever live there. Even when the sun comes out, it's like it is shot through a grim filter. Then there are the characters. Kevin and I always kid about the morose nature of many Ingmar Bergman pictures. There's a famous shot from the film (I think) Shame where a man sits on a set of stairs and holds his head in despair. We dubbed this moment “Ingie-like.” This is 13 hours of every character pulling “Ingie-like” poses. It got so bad that in the third last episode the show abandoned solving the crime altogether just so Linden and Holder could sit in a car, while the Rain… Just… Poured... Down. Then they tried to find Linden's missing 13-year-old son. It took the whole damn hour and we learned nothing new about Linden (just a little bit about Holder and that was it). It should have been covered in 10 minutes, not sixty.

Joel Kinnaman & Mireille Enos
Everybody has guilt, shame or skeletons-in-the-closet here: Linden is a bad mother and emotionally fragile woman who gives up a potentially happy life in sunny Sonoma to solve the crime in sombre Seattle; Holder is a reformed alcoholic who has more than one secret; Richmond is on the surface a 'good guy,' but he's a serial philanderer, amongst other things; Adams' corruption makes Nixon look like an honest man; Stan Larsen used to run with an eastern European mobster of some sort, etc. It becomes wearying when every character is as depressed and filled with sin as the next. There is nobody to ground the viewer; nobody to hang on to. We latch on to Holder at one point because he's sarcastic and sardonic (and well played by Kinnaman), but in the finale ... well, never mind.

Even the red herrings are irritating. They introduce a sub-plot where Rosie's Muslim school teacher, Bennet Ahmed (Brandon Jay McLaren), might be guilty. Word is leaked. Stan and his crony/shadow, Belko (Brendon Sexton III – another red herring, by the by) kidnap Ahmed and beat him nearly to death. Of course, Ahmed's completely innocent, but the show's creators have to rub our noses in it further by bringing Stan down, one of the few characters here who was trying to pull himself out of the sludge his family was mired in. We can't have anybody get out of this with their dignity intact. The Killing never trusts its viewers to “get” what they’re trying to do, thus the over reliance on the rain machines, dim lighting and sad, blank faces. We get it! The landscape is a reflection of the story. Wow. Deep.

The Killing, because it is so filled with grief, is considered by many people to be a wise piece of work that gets at the reality behind horrific crimes like this. Nonsense. This show is no different than an idiotic Adam Sandler picture such as Grown-Ups. It knows its audience and plays right to them. Show them misery and they are happy; point your camera at it and say “aren't we all horrible.” But when a show like this offers no insight into what grief really means, it is no better than a frat comedy. At least the frat comedy has no illusions that it’s creating high art. The people behind The Killing think they are doing exactly that. That is the real crime. 

originally published on June 23, 2011.

 David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of DeathYou can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information


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