Saturday, April 27, 2013

Road Tested Tales: The Low Highway by Steve Earle & the Dukes (& Duchesses)

In the liner notes to his latest album, Steve Earle beautifully articulates his mission: “There’s something calling me out there. Always has been, ever since I was old enough to stand out on the highway and stick out my thumb.” But rather than write songs that are sentimental and full of longing for the days gone by, Earle has presented us with a wonderfully balanced look at the 21st Century as he sees it. The Low Highway (New West) is Earle’s thirteenth studio album, which was recorded in Nashville last year. Its forty-plus minutes feature 12 songs, all short and to-the-point, that represent an efficient writing style describing the work of Earle in recent years. On this record, his wit is subtle and his stories of people and places are deeply personal. They are road tested and individually crafted offering deep impressions of the current socio-economic climate, particularly in the United States.

The album opens with the title track, a man on the road travelling “from the snow white crown on the mountain tall, to the valley down where the shadows fall.” It’s a song about empty factories, lost veterans and people on the bread line. It's a song so powerful as to echo the stories once told by Woody Guthrie during the Great Depression. But while Guthrie’s point was to speak for a voiceless nation of poor people, Earle’s focus is one of compassion and hope for the voiceless, “wheels turnin' round on the asphalt sing and every sound is a prophecy…and every mile was a prayer I prayed, as I rolled down the low highway.” The album proceeds like a series of rest stops on the road.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Neglected Gem #41: Groove (2000)

Hamish Linklater (left), David Turner, and Lola Glaudini (right) in Groove

At the high school where I taught in my twenties, I chaperoned the bimonthly Friday night dances on a regular basis. That meant that I was in on them from the eager appearance of the first kids, tremulous for a memorable night, through the vestiges of the event, when the disheveled Student Council students, the managers of the school, picked up the pieces of the night and then drove off for pizza and the inevitable post-mortem. In those days I learned to spot the subtle but unmistakable structure that any dance takes – the fact that it’s a drama with highs and lows built in. You could count on the volatile moments at the door (usually when someone in an altered state was denied admittance), the aura of expectation, the bonding, the heartbreak; by one in the morning, you felt you’d lived emotionally through a whole week at least. No movie I’ve ever seen has gotten the anatomy of a big party better than Groove (2000), by the director Greg Harrison (who wrote and edited as well), which is about a rave that takes place in an abandoned warehouse in San Francisco. It’s a small picture, but a true original, and its mood – celebratory, but with flashes of melancholy – stays with you afterwards.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Pure Helium: Jonathan Winters

Jonathan Winters (1925-2013)

Jonathan Winters, who died on April 11, was the funniest man in the world. That was pretty much the official consensus among the informed community of professional comics and the kibitzers in the peanut gallery who cared about comedy to an obsessive degree, and for most of his life, exempting the period from around 1969 or so when Richard Pryor found his voice to a little over a decade later (when he started to lose it), it may have even been true. I was aware of Winters for as long as I can remember, but his ascendency happened before my time, and I was in my teens before I discovered that he was a revered figure, a name to which terms like “greatness” and “genius” were often attached. At the time, that came as a bit of a surprise, like hearing that Captain Kangaroo was considered a front-runner for the Nobel Prize.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tribute to David: Amanda Shubert

David Churchill and Kevin Courrier, circa 1987, in the offices of CJRT-FM in Toronto

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. 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 Amanda Shubert

The Editors at Critics at Large

I want to pay tribute to David through this first Critics at Large podcast – one of his creative initiatives for the website – because those who are familiar with his writing but never knew him personally will immediately recognize the cadences of his speech. The living energy and infectious pace of David’s voice permeated his prose. I think you will also hear in this podcast the open curiosity and intelligence that mark David’s best work.

David and Kevin’s podcast review of Hemingway & Gelhorn also captures the very qualities that went into the formation of Critics at Large and that continue to make this site possible: intellectual excitement for the arts, abiding integrity and respect, and the sheer pleasure of good conversation. While listening to the dialogue of two critics who can literally finish each other’s sentences, you may be reminded, as I am, that the foundational spirit of Critics at Large lies in the long-lasting friendship of colleagues who drew sustenance from each other’s imagination. May that shared imagination continue to sustain all of us who mourn David’s passing.

Amanda Shubert is a doctoral student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tribute to David: Kevin Courrier

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. 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 Kevin Courrier.

– The Editors at Critics at Large.

Three years ago, I had an idea to begin an online arts publication that we would call Critics at Large. Having watched film and other arts journalism become more compromised by survivalist careerism, ineptness and a blatant catering to consumerism, I felt the need to create an alternative. Of course, I thought of two people to include in the project, my friend Shlomo Schwartzberg, who had just been callously slandered by our editor at Boxoffice Magazine in Los Angeles; and my dear friend, David Churchill. What I couldn't foresee was how strongly David would become a peerless advocate of the website. He not only came up with ideas such as an omnibus to commemorate 9/11, but that omnibus also led to our first published e-book which was made up of those pieces. After tirelessly editing that book, he pushed for another series of pieces commemorating the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Many of our writers, including Mark Clamen, Deirdre Kelly, Bob Douglas and Steve Vineberg, came to know David best during this time because he always read their pieces and wrote to every writer encouraging them and offering critical advice. He was the abiding spirit of Critics at Large and we all know that we can’t replace him.

But David has also been my best friend for over three decades so his loss is felt by me as a deeply personal one. We both worked as film critics, disagreeing on about as many movies as we agreed on, but we quickly saw that the common ground for friendship wasn't about seeking the safety of agreement, it was about the risk of respectfully opening up a space for yourself in the person you cared for. With that in mind, I offered him the opportunity to review movies with me back in the Eighties at CJRT-FM where I produced and co-hosted an arts program (On the Arts). Although he took to the format quickly, David’s rapid-fire manner of speaking took some getting used to – even for listeners who sometimes missed his best points. (But he would also come to meet the love of his life there: his darling wife, Rose, as she was our receptionist.) 

David hadn't written criticism for some time when I invited him onboard Critics at Large, but I sensed that he might be ready for the opportunity. Given the recent tragedy of his passing, I'm eternally glad that I followed my instincts because there are now over 170 fine pieces that David contributed to the site. People all week have been, with their touching tributes, reminding me daily of what a stellar critic (and human being) that he was. Not only could he see sides of a work that might glide past you, he sometimes found interesting arguments in hailing work that most people dismissed. (For an example, simply read his fascinating appraisal of The Invasion.) Although we talked plenty on the phone, sometimes for longer than his employers would have permitted, our conversations sometimes took place between our articles. While he truly enjoyed Mad Men, for example, I found it condescendingly artful. I think it frustrated him that I wrote my piece first because he followed with not one, but two passionate and smart posts that implicitly took the underpinnings out of my critique. (Since I bailed on the show after writing my article, I have no idea if I'd agree with David, but his views are sharply argued.) His lovely piece on Last Orders came from one of my promptings for him to seek out his video shelf for ideas when he, Shlomo and myself were still the only writers at Critics at Large. We desperately needed material to continue to run daily and he always responded – sometimes out of desperation. His fun follow-up to an addendum for his Mini-Masterpieces in Bad Movies post (Cruise into Terror) became a running joke for all of us who kept seeing the damn thing become one of our most popular posts.

Today as I tried to find a post of David's to put up, I was stymied. There are so many that I admire and reading them is still a little daunting since his voice (as Shlomo reminded us in his tribute) is so much a part of what he writes. I hear him talking in almost every article and I know how deeply I'm going to miss hearing that voice. It still stings. His voice had a way, as Susan Green reminded us in her tribute, of disarming us. You can hear that disarming quality so clearly, too, in his lament for the late TV show Invasion and his passionate shot at the elitism of film critics and programmers when selecting their best film lists. One other gift David had was a sure instinct for including aspects of personal memoir when he sometimes wrote. And I always encouraged him in this area because he often didn't reveal these kinds of feelings in everyday conversation. (Just read his appraisal of Peter Jackson's misguided The Lovely Bones for a perfect example.) So I decided today to include a piece of David's which happens to be my favourite in that spirit of self-revelation, as a way of bringing his loving personality into clear focus. After his father died in 2010, I could tell he was grieving, but he was doing it quietly. I wanted him to write a tribute to his dad despite his stoicism. But his father and he weren't truly kindred spirits. They weren't rivals exactly, they just had little in common. So when I prompted him to see if there was any common ground between them, or some unexamined area of their life that he might explore, he phoned me back the next day telling me that he might have found something. Of course, he did. It was a movie that they both enjoyed. As a tribute to both men, and in dedication to their families and for those of us they've left behind, I offer David's most compassionate review. 

Rest in peace, my dear friend.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Tribute to David: Mark Clamen

David Churchill (1959-2013)

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 Mark Clamen.

The Editors at Critics at Large.

When I first met David, he was sitting at a table with Kevin Courrier – I would quickly discover that this was exactly as it should be. This was three years ago. It was only a few days after Shlomo Schwartzberg had generously invited me on board to write for Critics at Large, and we all met at a Chinese restaurant on Yonge Street, in Toronto. It was actually at that same restaurant that the three of them had come up with the germ of the idea for the blog several months earlier: a project born from the love of, and perhaps even the need for, writing. Three years is not a very long time, but it is difficult for me today to imagine a time before that Tuesday night. David, Kevin and I would continue to meet regularly, ostensibly to manage the daily operations of publication and to brainstorm upcoming posts and projects but (as I would come to both expect and look forward to) most of our time was spent simply talking. David and Kevin had been friends for decades, and while they never tired of speaking with one another – eagerly beginning and finishing each other's stories – from the first meeting, I never felt like an outsider. The topics of conversation would vary (personal, political, currents events) but at the core was always the arts: movies, music, books and, the one topic I felt I could contribute to, television. David Churchill – a lifelong writer – had only recently returned to arts writing, but this was the only David I have even known: the one whose eyes shone with engagement when you spoke with him. I don't think I've ever felt quite as listened to as when David was on the other side of the table. These regular dinners (which continued until late December of 2012) remain the heart of what Critics at Large has become for me: a warm, inviting, sometimes hilarious and always engaging, inspirational space of friendship, ideas, and a shared love for the popular arts.

David possessed a fearlessness – in living, and in writing – that I’ve always wished to have. That quality of David has long amazed and inspired me, as a writer and critic, but it would be wrong to imply that David was a passive agent of inspiration. Always encouraging and positive, he would often pull me (it seemed quite literally) to produce what he seemed so much surer than I was I could do. Just one example: regularly, over a period of months, he would remind me – gently, jokingly, and always firmly – that I should write a piece for the 9/11 e-book he was editing from the blog’s writers. I had hedged and procrastinated for so long that it still amazes me that he could always find the energy to bring the topic up as often as he did. When I finally did do it (and it wasn’t even remotely the hurdle I had been imagining it was), David’s email response was immediate, unequivocally enthusiastic, and (due to some all-caps profanity) unprintable here. Later that evening, at our regular meeting, I was greeted by David’s wry, bright-eyed smile. Whether he said it out loud that night or not, the words I hear in my mind are all his (words I know I will hear for years to come every time I miraculously meet a deadline): “I always knew you could do it, brother.”

I’ve chosen David’s review of Sherlock’s second season as a tribute, not only because it displays David’s unique voice – that fantastic admixture of enthusiasm and critical attention – but because it reminds of precisely what David brought into my life, and what is now lost to me with his disastrously premature passing. One of the very first pieces I ever wrote for Critics at Large was a review of the show’s first episode. When David finally saw the show, he loved the series as much as I did but he came to it (as we all do) from a different place. Together, I like to see these two pieces as a conversation, a kind of tribute to the energizing space that David could create, just by sitting across the table.

Next year when Sherlock returns for its much-anticipated third season, it will be bittersweet for me. But I’ve already reserved a glass of wine with David’s name on it ready to raise up when the credits roll.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.