Monday, June 30, 2014

Cole Porter, Late and Early

Paul Anthony Stewart and Elizabeth Stanley in Kiss Me, Kate at Barrington Stage (Photo by Kevin Sprague)

Any short list of great American musicals would have to include Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, with its witty, ingenious book by Bella and Samuel Spewack. The Spewacks turn The Taming of the Shrew into a backstage meta-musical about a musical-comedy version of Shakespeare’s comedy starring a once-married pair of gigantic egos whose behavior around each other suggests a modern variant on Petruchio and Katherine’s. You can’t do much to bury the misogyny in Shakespeare’s comedy – unless, like the great English company Propeller, you make it the critical focus of the show, i.e., deconstruct it – but Kiss Me, Kate gets away from it by making the two main characters, Fred Graham (who is also directing the musical within the musical) and his leading lady Lilli Vanessi, equally foolish and equally culpable. They hark back to the protagonists of Twentieth Century (and the musical based on it, On the Twentieth Century), played memorably in the sensationally funny 1934 Howard Hawks movie by John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, and those of the lesser known but also funny 1937 comedy It’s Love I’m After (played by Leslie Howard and Bette Davis).

Sunday, June 29, 2014

When Faith Becomes Dangerous: Philip Kerr’s Prayer

Over two years ago, Lawrence Krauss posted an article in The Guardian about the vehement animosity expressed toward individuals who were not believers. A 16-year-old atheist from Rhode Island had to take time off from school after being threatened and targeted by an online hate campaign for requesting that a Christian banner be removed from her school. She is even described on the radio by a state representative as an "evil little thing." Krauss also alludes to a study that suggested that atheists were among the most distrusted groups in society on par with rapists. The article goes on to suggest that science itself has become suspect among believers. The most chilling implication of this piece is the length that believers will go to disparage and demonize unbelievers, including scientists. It convinced me that Philip Kerr’s Prayer (Putnam, 2014), his latest standalone novel, has an unnerving basis in reality. Kerr, who is probably most well-known for his historical crime novels featuring the sardonic German detective, Bernie Gunther, has now turned his attention to the role of faith in modern society and to its dark underbelly. Faith in God – or not – initially appears to be the underlying theme throughout Prayer.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Rob Lowe and Robert Wagner, Looking Backward

Rob Lowe’s second book of memoirs, Love Life (Simon & Schuster, 2014), has an affable rambling quality. He told his story in a linear fashion in his earlier book, Stories I Only Tell My Friends, and this time he elects to linger on a few select items loosely gathered around the title, which he translates broadly. Much of the book focuses on the things he loves: his wife of nearly a quarter of a century, Cheryl; his two sons, Matthew and John Owen; acting. But he also talks about sex, and about alcoholism, as a way, both for him and for the people he met when he went into treatment, of recovering lost life. (Lowe stopped drinking in 1990.) It’s a lovely little book – much better, I think, than the conventional Stories I Only Tell My Friends, which isn’t terrible by any means but has a sanctimonious side and (perhaps inevitably) a starry side, and practically drowns in superlatives. Love Life feels more relaxed, and the qualities in Lowe that come through in the first volume – his intelligence, his down-to-earth-ness, and his willingness to own up to his own follies – anchor the second one. Liking and trusting the author’s voice are key when you settle down with a memoir; I was utterly charmed by Diane Keaton’s in Then Again, and I became very fond of Lowe’s in Love Life, though God knows he’s not the person I’d consult for movie or TV recommendations. (In both Lowe’s and Keaton’s books the process was underscored by the fact that I listened to them on CD read by the authors.)

Friday, June 27, 2014

As the Spirit Moves You: Interview with Bobby McFerrin

Photo by Carol Friedman

Bobby McFerrin is performing at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival tonight (June 27) and what a gift that is. The singer of the hit single, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," has fans around the world. And justifiably so. McFerrin is a unique vocalist. He uses his voice to create its own music, using a range of octave-climbing sound to hit his audience where it matters most – way deep, in the verdant valley of the soul. Born in New York City in 1950, the son of classical singers, McFerrin, grew up surrounded by all types of music, from gospel to Sly and the Family Stone. But no matter the source, for McFerrin music uplifts. It inspires, bringing listeners closer to an understanding of what it means to be alive. It's a belief born of belief. A devout Christian, Even when whistling a happy tune McFerrin he thinks of music as a conduit to the spiritual life. That's the gift of song, he explains in an interview  one of the few he grants  touching on God and good vibrations. Here's more of that conversation:

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Magnolia: The Celluloid Ghosts of Mississippi

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night (1967)

August is the Mississippi of the calendar. It's beastly hot and muggy. It has a dismal history. Nothing good ever happens in it. And the United States would be better off without it.
– David Plotz, Slate

I grew up in Mississippi. When people who come from other parts of the United States hear that their old stomping grounds are in the news, they may feel a twinge of nostalgia and even pride.When Mississippi is in the news, as it’s been this past week, due to a high-profile Senate race, exiles from the Magnolia state are more likely to cringe. (The election in question pitted a long-time pork-barrel conservative hack against an unhinged Tea Party challenger who, in order to clarify the difference between himself and the old-style Republican who had sent barrels of government money home to rebuild after Katrina devastated the area, promised crowds that, once elected, “I’m not going to do anything for you!”) There was a time when the name “Mississippi” was connected to carefree rural pleasures—mint julips, ridin’ the steamboat down the Big River, that sort of thing—as typified in the 1935 movie Mississippi, starring W. C. Fields and Bing Crosby, and boasting a score by Rodgers and Hart. A hugely entertaining movie, Mississippi had never been officially released on home video in America until it became available through one of those online DVD-R services last year. Is it paranoid of me to suspect that the big companies didn’t want to touch it because they figured most people would assume from the title that it showed Larson E. Whipsnade and Der Bingle hanging African-Americans up by the their feet and roasting them alive?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Costly Grace: The Immigrant

Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant

In director James Gray’s previous full-length feature film, 2008’s Two Lovers, a dejected, thirty-year old, bipolar Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) comes home one night to his parents’ Coney Island apartment after a failed date with his shiksa goddess neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). But his evening takes a surprising turn when Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of his father’s business partner, shows up unexpectedly. They share some nervous tension and giggles over his family’s ancestral photos at first. Yet their initial tentative kiss soon turns soft, and they make love in his bedroom until morning. Gray underscores the entire scene with arias from a CD of Leonard’s, the Puccini beautifully matching the rhythms of the lovers: Crescendo, climax, diminuendo. The operatic current runs strong in this director. Even his 2007 crime drama, We Own the Night, with its ‘80s club scene and Russian Mafia, had a redemptive arc to it right out of classical melodrama. The Immigrant, the new film he also wrote (with Ric Menello), brings that operatic impulse unabashedly to the fore. And the result is as luminous and affecting as its imitated art form.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Extra Lives: Four Documentaries on Gaming

Billy Mitchell in King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

As a window into the fascination of global life and the odd and wonderful stories that course through it, documentaries are ideally suited to the subject of gaming. There are fewer subcultures more passionate, more insular, more enduring, and more compelling than “those who play games.” I view video game documentaries, whose numbers seem to have swelled considerably in the past five years, with twofold appreciation: I identify with the culture they depict, being a lifelong gamer myself, surrounding myself with other enthusiasts, and now working with those people to create games; and I believe they buzz with the same electric fascination for the casual viewer as, say, a documentary about tribal Amazonian natives. Gamers are imaginative, competitive, and wildly varied, so the scope of such a film can be as wide as human diversity itself. Simply put, video game documentaries can make for an enthralling watch, even if you’re not a gamer, and there are four I particularly recommend.

I can personally attest to the high-pressure atmosphere of game development. Games – especially those made with the technologically-staggering consumer hardware of the modern gaming age – are almost indecent in their complexity. Many work with all the intricacy of film, requiring scripts, directors, producers, actors, composers, technicians, etc, overlaid with the added architecture of interactivity. It should be fairly obvious that it’s monumentally more complicated to allow someone’s input to influence what happens on a screen than to charge them twelve bucks to sit down and be silent. But not all games are triple-A blockbusters. In fact, digital delivery has not only nearly rendered the physical game disc obsolete, but allowed an influx of independently-made games to flood the global market. Pretty much anyone can make a game these days. So what happens when an independent developer – usually one or two programmers, working from home – takes on the kind of challenge that a massive studio, with a thousand-strong staff, endures every day?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Tinghir-Jerusalem: Songs from Dislocated Hearts

A scene from Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah

Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah (Tinghir-Jérusalem: Les échos du Mellah, 2013) is the first film by Moroccan-French filmmaker Kamal Hachkar, and seemingly a product of a journey he's been on for much of his adult life. In Tinghir-Jerusalem, we join Hachkar as he travels from the foothills of Morocco's Atlas Mountains, to Israel, and back again. Born in Tinghir, Morocco, of Muslim Berber descent, Hachkar emigrated to France with his parents at the age of 6 months. Growing up, mainly in France, he was inculcated with strong ties to his birth place, but when he sought to flesh out those stories himself, one recurring and unasked question haunted him: What, after millennia of living side-by-side, happened to the Jews of Tinghir? This is the question that drives him – and the movie – forward.

The film has been honoured at numerous film festivals, including winning Best Film at Morocco's Rabat International Film Festival for Human Rights and Best Documentary at Israel's Jewish Eye Festival, both in 2012. (This diversity of acclaim is the first and strongest indication of the sincerity of the young filmmaker's voice.) Armed with a cameraman, a book of published photos, and a seemingly uncharted wealth of natural charm, Hachkar knocks on doors and in minutes finds the kindred exiled hearts of his subjects. (One unplanned encounter with a Jewish Berber woman specifically will live long in your memory after viewing. Her pleasure, and her anguish, in recollecting her Muslim neigbours – from Casablanca in her case – is palpable and affecting.) Like the best film documentaries, Tinghir-Jerusalem paints a powerful portrait of a complicated historical and political moment, with humility and without didactism. Hachkar is as much a subject of his film as the numerous individuals he gathers together: a searching voice more interested in bringing people together than in resolving any big questions of history.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Mothers and Sons: The Latest Wisdom on Gay Issues from Terrence McNally

Frederick Weller and Tyne Daly in Mothers and Sons (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Terrence McNally has written dozens of plays and musicals, four of which have won him Tony Awards, yet as a piece of dramaturgy, his latest, Mothers and Sons, is inept. For the first forty minutes or so the characters stand around and deliver exposition; then they stand around making angry speeches; then they go back to presenting exposition. The standing-around part can be blamed on the director, Sheryl Kaller – this is the most static Broadway play I’ve seen in years – but you’d have to be pretty inventive to create some forward movement in a play that’s almost nothing but speeches.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Alternate History SF: So Many Worlds to Explore

Believe it or not, the idea of alternate history, or counter-factual worlds as it’s also known, where historical events turned out differently from our world, dates as far back as the 4th century BC. That's when the Roman historian Livy contemplated an alternative 4th century BC in which Alexander the Great of Macedonia expanded his empire westward instead of eastward, thus meeting up with the Romans and in Livy’s view, losing to them in battle. Had that happened, the geographical realities of our time and who ruled where would have been significantly altered.

Since then, everyone from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Winston Churchill has pondered what might have been. Hawthorne’s "P.'s Correspondence," published in 1845, speculated on a different 1845 where famous people such as Napoleon Bonaparte were still alive. Churchill’s alternate history speculation, “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” (part of the 1931 anthology If It Had Happened Otherwise) postulates a Civil War won by the South, which along with the idea of Nazi Germany winning World War Two remains the most frequently written about alternate history scenario. Both of those turnabouts could have happened, which is the point of examining alternate history, recognition that history can literally turn on a dime or on a specific event – such as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which was the main trigger of World War One, or 9/11, whose ramifications are still being felt today. Had either of those events not happened, where would we now be? (Richard Ned Lebow’s fascinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World Without World War One offers up speculations on a history without both world wars had the archduke not been assassinated one hundred years ago this week.) But just because there are so many alternate histories being written – new ones seem to come out weekly – does not mean that they are all of equal quality, or equally plausible. How and why alternate histories convince us, or work as literature, have as much to do with the writer’s biases, talents and abilities to believably explain the altered course of history and those who make it.

Friday, June 20, 2014

If The World Wars Had Never Happened: C.J. Sansom’s Dominion and Richard Ned Lebow's Franz Ferdinand Lives!

The alternate history genre shows no sign of abating as writers and academics continue to play with the what-if concept of history turning out differently. Two recent books take provocative new looks at our world wars, mostly to good literary effect.

On the surface, C.J. Sansom’s Dominion (Random House Canada 2014, but published in the U.K. in 2012) would seem to be tilling old ground. After Robert Harris’s Fatherland, Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Jo Walton’s Small Change Trilogy (Farthing, Ha’penny, Half a Crown) and others, what more can do with the science fiction trope of a Fascist Britain and a victorious Nazi Germany? Lots, actually, as Sansom’s Dominion is a far superior novel to many of the most lauded in the genre. It’s an atmospheric, tense and well-drawn portrait of a world that fortunately did not come into existence but, as the British writer makes clear, could easily have done so if the political developments of the time had deviated just a bit from the historical record. (Like a snowball rolling down a hill, that deviation would result, finally, in a vastly altered world from our own).

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Green and Red: Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves

Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg in Night Moves

Night Moves, which Kelly Reichardt directed from a script she wrote with Jonathan Raymond, has been described as a thriller, and I guess that it is, though it is a largely intellectualized thriller of ideas, with a minimum of action and suspense that’s undercut by the fact that it’s never hard to guess where the story is going. What saves it from being numbingly conceptual is the way the principal actors draw you into their twisted states of mind and the clammy heat they generate together. Jesse Eisenberg plays Josh, an environmentalist who works on a sustainable co-op in Oregon. No longer satisfied with the long-range, practical tactics for preserving the environment that are practiced by the co-op head, he’s planning to blow up a hydroelectric dam.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Talking Out of Turn #33: Vito Russo (1981)

author Vito Russo

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 radically 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 who were only 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 (e.g. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone) which made it look as if they hadn't read the outline. Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be simply 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 uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews a couple of years ago, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large. I'll let the readers judge their merit rather than marketing folks. 

Talking Out of Turn had one section devoted to reviewers who ran against the current of popular thinking in the Eighties. That chapter included discussions with Globe and Mail film critic and author Jay Scott (Midnight Matinees) who spoke about how, despite being one of Canada's sharpest and wittiest writers on movies, he was initially a reluctant critic; author Margaret Atwood, who turned to literary criticism in her 1986 book Second Words, discussed  from an author's perspective  the value of criticism and how it was changing for the worse during this decade; New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who had returned to writing in the Eighties after a brief hiatus as a consultant in Hollywood, talked to me in 1983 about how the Reagan decade was already having a deadening impact on the movie industry; and Vito Russo, who in 1981, wrote a book called The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movieswhich examined the way gays and lesbians had been portrayed in the history of American movies.

In his book, Russo moves from decade to decade, weaving into his narrative a chronological and thematic awareness of the various representations of gay life; that is, the attitudes that lay hidden and closeted in American culture. He examines with both humour and affectionate insight the early work of 'movie sissies' like actors Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn, who gave form to what couldn't be acknowledged openly. Russo moves from these 'buddy movies' of the Thirties and Forties to contemporary representations which often ranged from predatory and psychotic (Cruising, American Gigolo) to victims (Advise and Consent, The Children's Hour). He even delves into hidden homosexual dynamics not acknowledged such as the unspoken love between Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd) in Ben-Hur (1959), the covert lesbian attraction that Elizabeth Wilson has for Kim Stanley's Marilyn Monroe character in The Goddess (1958), and the originally cut scene between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960), where Olivier's Roman general admits his bi-sexuality to his slave Antoninus (Curtis) whom he's trying to seduce.

The Celluloid Closet was made into a fine documentary in 1995 by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman where they had the benefit of using Russo's book to select clips that supported his thesis. This fall, at Ryerson University, I'll be teaching a course through the LIFE Institute based on their material. Since this interview with Vito Russo takes place over thirty years ago, just as the AIDS epidemic was first becoming national news, there isn't the sense of dread here that came to overshadow the rest of the decade. (Although he was a huge activist bringing awareness to the needs of the LGBT community, by the end of the decade, AIDS would also claim Russo himself.) Looking back to 1981, it was a year when dozens of Toronto police officers conducted simultaneous raids on Toronto's most popular bathhouses and arrested more than 300 gay men. Times may have indeed changed since those raids, but certain attitudes haven't (including having a mayor who continues to spout invective towards homosexuals – even ignoring them as citizens – without much of a whisper of protest from his supporters). Since Toronto is hosting WorldPride this year, it just seemed fitting to post this talk with Vito Russo on the eve of the celebration.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ad Nauseum: Edge of Tomorrow

Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow

Summer blockbuster season is a polarizing time – movies showing in June and July tend to be either incredibly well-received or universally reviled. It’s difficult for a film to quietly exist in this climate, like an interesting person who goes unnoticed at a party because everyone is busy shouting. Seems as though everyone is talking about Edge of Tomorrow right now – it’s currently riding a massive wave of good press that feels amazingly at odds with its advertising, which promises a ferociously forgettable experience to any discerning moviegoer. Turns out the reality is somewhere in between: it’s nowhere near as good as you’re hearing, but it’s not as bad as you’d expect, either.

The plot is Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers: Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage (a hearty action hero name that smacks appropriately of the 1980s), a military media liason who is sent to the front lines against his will when an invading alien force annexes Europe. During the storming of a French beach, he is killed in action, but wakes up at the dawn of the previous morning. He continues to relive the same battle over and over, until he finds a legendary soldier, Rita Vratasky (played by a very taciturn Emily Blunt), who demands that he “find her when he wakes up.” Turns out this ultimate distaff supersolider, known as “The Angel of Verdun” by the media and “Full Metal Bitch” among the ranks, was afflicted with the same time-looping curse, and they must now team up to stop the alien invasion from ever occurring. If this synopsis is making you yawn, you’re not alone. The trailers for Edge of Tomorrow do an excellent job of encapsulating the aggressively formulaic plot, but they undersell the film’s real draw: a genuine sense of fun.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Race Riff: Smart People

Eunice Wong, McKinley Belcher III (top), Miranda Craigwell, Roderick Hill in Smart People (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

When I was I was in graduate school I directed an African American freshman in a production of David Rabe’s Vietnam War play The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel. He had to play a working-class black soldier who spoke in jive, and though he was a stunningly gifted performer (who went on to a successful acting career) for a while he struggled with the requirements of the role. Here he was, a sophisticated young urban black man, a journalist’s son who’d gotten into Stanford, and I was asking him to sound like some hip street-corner dude. The fact that I was a white guy – and so was Rabe – couldn’t have helped.

My actor figured it out and gave a brilliant performance, and over the years I’d forgotten how resistant he was in the initial stages. What brought it back to mind was Lydia R. Diamond’s vivid and hilarious new Cambridge-set play Smart People, the season closer for Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company. Somehow I missed Diamond’s last collaboration with the Huntington, Stick Fly (2010), and missed it again during its New York run, and now I feel foolish because I had such a good time at Smart People. It’s a four-handed high comedy (as the title suggests) that mines the same awkward, slippery, rich territory as Bruce Norris’s great Clybourne Park. Diamond’s not up to Norris – she has a weakness for speechifying that keeps stopping the play cold, and she tends to fumble shifts in tone – but she’s very talented. The play is about how race sets up class expectations and the often ridiculous tangles that intelligent, educated, sensitive twenty-first-century liberals get themselves into as they try to negotiate the treacherous waters of race. The four characters are Jackson (McKinley Belcher III), a black surgeon who moonlights at a clinic he opened in a poor neighborhood; his friend Brian (Roderick Hill), a white Harvard neuroscientist whose study on racism in whites is getting him in trouble with his institution; Ginny (Eunice Wong), a half-Chinese, half-Japanese psychologist, also on the Harvard faculty, who’s conducting research on depression and low esteem in low-income Chinese women; and Valerie (Miranda Craigwell), an African American actor who dates Jackson (briefly) and gets part-time work in Brian’s lab when Harvard begins to pull his funding. All four are opinionated, tough-minded, outspoken and articulate, which makes them ideal figures for comedy of manners. They’re also touchy, quick to assume – through bitter experience – that other people tend to operate out of deep-dyed prejudices they mostly don’t know they possess. So they sally forth into conversational gambits with their dukes up.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Quests for Truth: The Thrillers of Philip Kraske

Although the content of Philip Kraske’s four political thrillers substantially vary from one another, an observant reader will quickly recognize his left-of-centre politics and his jaundiced view of American political institutions and of political operators at home and abroad, the media circus and of the presence of corrupt, malevolent law enforcement officials. Kraske, an American who spent his formative years growing up in Minnesota before decamping for abroad, possesses a gimlet-eyed grasp of American life and a deep distrust of official versions. At the same time, he is no mere polemicist. His writing is vivid, his dialogue crackles, and his novels are stocked with wonderfully realized characters distinguished by their decency, their search for truth and their desire to make courageous and humane choices under difficult circumstances. (We met briefly in Madrid December 2013 where he has lived since the 1980s, we have had some email correspondence and we share the same publisher, Encompass Editions.)

His first and most overly political novel, Mockery (2010, second edition 2012) is a satire of that genre of political books on presidential elections, from Theodore White’s analysis of the 1960 election to Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s behind-the-scenes scoops on the last two American elections. Kraske imagines a scenario where Sam Walker, an obscure author of history books is tricked by his editors into writing “contemporary history.” After receiving and following up on an anonymous written tip, he writes a sensational exposé about how scandals sank the two major-party presidential candidates and swung victory to the Independent candidate – and it turns out that he got it all wrong. Believing initially that he needed to tie up a few loose ends for a new prologue, Walker doggedly retraces his investigative steps. He eventually writes an addendum that details what he believes really happened, including the attempt to derail his efforts through a honey trap thereby destroying his credibility. (It is hard to imagine Walker’s real life counterparts admitting that their story was untrue and undertaking a similar re-examination.) His refurbished account challenges the accepted narrative provided by the major media companies of a party worker who owns up to her mistake and is transformed into a national icon with an office in the White House and a shoo-in to be elected to Congress. As a result, his editors will not touch it.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Musical Narratives and Streams: Interview with Gregory Porter

Gregory Porter (Photo by John Watson)

Gregory Porter has been called the new voice of jazz, and his velvet-rich baritone yields no argument. Since arriving on the scene just five years ago, the 42-year-old California-born, New York-based vocalist, songwriter and actor has become the darling of the international jazz scene. This year, he plays Newport followed by a much-anticipated appearance at this year’s TD Toronto Jazz Festival on June 20. His Toronto concert is being hosted by local radio station, JazzFm91, which has been giving Porter ample air-play even before his heady win at this year’s Grammys for best jazz vocal album. A former football scholarship student at San Diego State University, the 6’4” 255-pound singer fell into music after a freshman shoulder injury sidelined his athletic career. The music came naturally enough. The son of a minister, Porter started singing as a child. His influences while growing up included Danny Hathaway and others in his mother’s record collection. Porter eventually created a musical about his relationship to the music of his youth in 2004’s Nat King Cole and Me  A Musical Healing, a theatrical production in which he wrote his own music as well as acted. Since then, he has focused on music full-time, putting out three records: 2010’s Water, 2012’s Be Good and 2013’s Liquid Spirit. He plans to work with orchestras next, Porter said in a recent interview from his Brooklyn home in which he talked about the all-inclusive embrace of jazz and the evolution of the love song. Here’s more of that conversation.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Neglected Gem #58: What Happened Was . . . (1994)

Karen Sillas and Tom Noonan in What Happened Was... (1994)

As Tom Noonan’s 1994 two-hander What Happened Was . . . begins, Jackie (Karen Sillas), an executive assistant at a Manhattan law firm, gets ready for a date; she’s invited one of the paralegals, Michael (Noonan), home for a meal. Sillas has a sensuous vulnerability, and as Jackie rushes about, semi-distracted, driven by something unspoken – loneliness? sexual desperation? – we’re hypnotized by her mysterious inward focus, her almost balletic gracefulness, her unexpected tempo shifts.What we’re watching might be an acting exercise performed by a stunningly gifted actress. We register that there’s nothing to the scene, really, except Sillas’s invention, her ability to keep the moves fresh through a conviction to stake out every corner of this woman’s personality and through the high premium Jackie places on how well the evening turns out.

In fact, all of What Happened Was . . . – which began as a stage play, written by Noonan – isn’t much more than an extended acting-class encounter on the theme of the tensions underpinning an attempt at a romantic interlude. Michael is a cynical know-it-all who’s made himself persona non grata among the lawyers at the firm, but he’s impressed Jackie, whom he pays attention to at the office and who thinks he’s smart and funny. But from the moment he arrives, too early, things start to go wrong. He’s so nervous and ill at ease he can’t shut up, and he makes a faux pas right off the bat by mocking her title at work (“Is that what they call secretaries now?”). She takes the wrong tack when she tells him she’s always defending him to co-workers who don’t see how insecure he really is. The movie, which is beautifully acted and directed, is a kind of sonata spun on their eccentricities and crossed signals. It’s slight – and the more serious it gets, the thinner it feels. (The script keeps reminding you of Paddy Chayefsky and other dramatists of the kinescope era who liked to write about the “little people.”) But you’re absolutely held by the two actors.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Treading Water: NBC's Crossbones

John Malkovich as Blackbeard, on NBC's Crossbones

Pirate stories were useful in the first few decades of Hollywood, when movie studios were in need of action vehicles for dashing, acrobatic male stars, most notably Douglas Fairbanks and, some years later, the young Errol Flynn. The last classic example of the genre is probably the 1952 The Crimson Pirate, in which Burt Lancaster and his stuntman-sidekick (and former partner in a gravity-defying act the two had performed for circus and vaudeville audiences) ricocheted all over the sets as if they were in a pinball game, grinning like happy monkeys while their bodies were doing things that most people would have trouble even thinking about doing without their features slipping into expressions of bug-eyed terror.

By then, the fashion in American action movie heroes had already begun shifting irrevocably away from men who express themselves gracefully in movement towards men who can convincingly perform acts of violence, even sadistic action, while cloaking themselves in an air of self-righteousness. Nobody ever suggested that Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson slap on an eye patch and a gold earring and slide down a sail with a knife between his teeth. But for reasons that defy logic, Hollywood directors have still sometimes tried to revive the pirate genre. Most of these labors of love—Swashbuckler (1976), Roman Polanksi’s Pirates (1986), Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995)—are remembered solely for the spectacular scale of their cost and subsequent commercial failure, and the fact that they starred, respectively, Robert Shaw (at a point when he was forty-seven years old, alcoholic, and two years away from his death), Walter Matthau (outfitted with a wooden leg and a costume like a wedding cake), and the dream team of Geena Davis and Matthew Modine, really presses the point that the people responsible for the movies themselves had no idea what the appeal of the successful films in the genre was based on.

The first Pirates of the Caribbean film only superficially resembles an exception to the rule that the genre has seen its day: like The Haunted Mansion, The Country Bears, and Brad Bird’s upcoming Tomorrowland, it actually belongs to that strange contemporary subgenre, big-budget movies “based” on Disney theme park attractions. According to solidly based conventional wisdom, the real secret of Pirates of the Caribbean’s box-office success was the bottomless entertainment value of Johnny Depp’s peacock-strutting performance, and the publicity surrounding NBC’s summer series Crossbones—the second pirate show of the year, after Starz’s Black Sails—has centered on another mighty hambone, John Malkovich, who makes his series TV debut as Edward Teach, A.K.A. Blackbeard, plotting and tending his legend in semi-retirement on an island in the Bahamas where he holds sway as Commodore.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Trash and Art: Interview with Film Critic and Author Adam Nayman on Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls

There has probably no movie from Hollywood that has been so reviled and eviscerated as Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995). Having already established himself in the Netherlands as their resident l'enfant terrible in films like Spetters (1980) and The Fourth Man (1983) for their explicit sexuality and violence, Verhoeven would come to Hollywood in the Eighties to continue drawing moustaches on sacred cows in racy thrillers like Basic Instinct (1992) and SF satires like Robocop (1987). But if those films were hugely popular for their outrageous daring, Showgirls, a film about a drifter, Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), who hitchhikes to Las Vegas to find fame and fortune by climbing from stripper to showgirl, was greeted with a tsunami of raspberries (including the 1995 Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture).

In the subsequent years, Showgirls has been reassessed, but often in the way Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) gets redeemed, by embracing its badness as a form of pleasure. Film critic Adam Nayman in his book It Doesn't Suck. Showgirls (ECW Press, 2014), however, isn't interested in acclaiming it for its badness, or in heaping empty superlatives at an unappreciated masterpiece. Nayman's vastly entertaining and probing book gets to the core of the prickly undercurrents that upset so many viewers and critics at the time (and even touches on areas that could continue to start arguments today). 

Adam Nayman is a Toronto film critic who has written for The Grid and writes for The Globe and Mail. He is also a contributing editor to Cinemascope. Along with writing about film for the Village Voice, L.A. Weekly, Film Comment, Cineaste and Reverse Shot, he also teaches film studies at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. Nayman is also a programmer for the Toronto Jewish Film Society.

Unlike myself, who saw Showgirls as a professional film critic back in 1995 and experienced the hate first-hand, Adam Nayman became a critic long after the hailstorm, which is where we began our interview.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Mixed Menu: Jon Favreau’s Chef

Emjay Anthony, Jon Favreau and Sophia Vergara in Chef.

In his new comedy, Chef, Jon Favreau directs himself as a culinary artist whose life implodes with his very messy, very public break from a high-end L.A. restaurant. But it becomes the best thing that’s happened to him when he creates his own food-truck with his adolescent son – a fly by the seat of your pants operation that’s as much fun as it is delicious. That’s a great idea for a comedy, and certainly it’s an improvement over his last feature film project, 2011’s Cowboys and Aliens (which should have been camp hilarity but had entirely the wrong tone). The problem with Chef isn’t the tone, for the most part, but its structure. Favreau hasn’t thought through the whole picture – it’s underdeveloped and bizarrely slow moving in places. The result is material that’s scrumptious one scene (to the eye, ear, and stomach) then flat the next. In a word, uneven.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Audra McDonald, Sutton Foster and Those Damn Yankees

Audra McDonald and Shelton Becton (left) in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. (Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva)

Playing Billie Holiday in 1959, just months before her death, in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Audra McDonald does an uncanny vocal impersonation of the great jazz singer in her late phase, when heroin had worn her astonishingly pliable buttered-rum contralto down to a nub yet her phrasing hadn’t lost its ability to wipe you out and she could still swing. It’s an impressive stunt – but it’s a stunt, and one that I wish McDonald, who has the finest instrument among today’s musical-theatre stars, hadn’t attempted. I had the same problem when, more than forty years ago, Diana Ross mimicked Holiday’s voice in the movie Lady Sings the Blues. It’s one thing when an actress who isn’t a singer plays a famous vocalist and lip-syncs her songs: in the title role of the TV movie Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, Judy Davis got so far into the character that when you heard Garland’s singing voice come out of her, the results were spookily convincing. (It’s the best work Davis has ever done, which means, of course, that it’s one of the greatest performances ever put on the screen.) It’s quite another thing when one towering singer buries her own style and picks up another’s. I understand why McDonald chose to go this route: Holiday’s sound is distinctive and famous, like Garland’s. But so is Audra McDonald’s – and, certainly, Diana Ross’.

Actually I wish McDonald had passed on this project altogether. Lanie Robertson’s play (which I reviewed twenty years ago at Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company, when an actress named Rose Weaver took the part) is nothing but a series of monologues strung around fourteen songs – some of them Holiday standards (“What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” “God Bless the Child,” “Easy Living,” “Strange Fruit,” “Don’t Explain” and “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”) and some fairly obscure. (The final number, George Cory and Douglas Cross’ “Deep Song,” which I’d never heard Holiday sing until Charlie Haden built a beautiful instrumental around it on his 1992 album Haunted Heart, is a personal favorite.) Holiday, performing in a dive in South Philly because, as a result of her drug conviction, she’s lost her cabaret card in New York, is drunk and high when she staggers onto the stage to accompany a three-piece combo, and in the course of the evening she gets drunker and higher. The set-up is both dramatically hobbled and purely melodramatic and the script is bald; it barely qualifies as a play at all. And McDonald, normally a splendid actress, gives a shrill, maudlin performance interrupted by a couple of moments of authentic power: one when she remembers getting the news of her father’s death and one when she talks bitterly about the humiliation of losing the right to perform professionally in New York, where she’d become famous in the thirties.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Tragi-Comic: Jeff Lemire's Essex County Trilogy

Hockey captures the essence of Canadian experience in the New World. In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold, hockey is the chance of life, and an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive.
                         – Stephen Leacock (quoted by Jeff Lemire in Essex Country)

In April, DC comics launched Justice League Unlimited, an ongoing comic series to be set primarily in Canada. The series is helmed by Canadian writer Jeff Lemire and artist Mike McKone and marks the return of Adam Strange (now newly Canadian!) to DC's New 52 universe, along with a other Justice League mainstays like Martian Manhunter, Supergirl, and Green Arrow. Originally titled Justice League Canada (that suggestive name still remains as the title of the series' first main story arc), the series also promises to introduce a new DC teen hero of Lemire's own creation: Equinox, a sixteen-year-old girl of Cree descent who hails from Moose Factory, Ontario (pop. 2500). The next issue of Justice League United goes on sale on June 11, but if you want a taste of Lemire's unequalled talent while you await the debut of DC's first First Nations hero, the best place to begin is with his now-classic Essex County Trilogy.

The three books – originally published as Tales From the Farm (2008), Ghost Stories (2008), The Country Nurse (2009) before being collected as the Essex County Trilogy in 2011 by Top Shelf – earned Lemire international acclaim, including a Harvey Award nomination for Best New Talent in 2008 and an Eisner nomination for the collection itself in 2010. Set in Lemire's home turf of Essex County, Ontario, the books are rendered with stark black-and-white lines and often minimal dialogue. While for many, the vast and urban Toronto likely dominates their image of life in Ontario, drive just 350 kilometres southwest from the city, and you will find suburban sprawl turn to prairie and longstanding farming communities with centuries-old histories. In three volumes, Lemire paints an unparalleled portrait of loss and survival, set among the fields, farms, and frozen rivers of small-town Ontario. Read individually, the books are powerful and poignant; read together, they tell an quiet but epic generational story that is as Canadian as it is universal.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Eight Arms to Hold You: The Criterion Collection Celebrates the Fiftieth Anniversary of A Hard Day's Night

"The first rock and roll movies had little or nothing to do with rock and roll music, and everything to do with the rock and roll ethos," wrote Greil Marcus in his assessment of the genre. That ethos he describes was present in many Fifties pictures where adolescents were no longer accepting the proscribed values of the status quo. You could see it in Marlon Brando's defiance in The Wild One (1953), where when asked about what he was rebelling against, he replied, "Whaddya got?" You could recognize it in the painfully vulnerable James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), as he attempts to wake up his incognizant parents to the misunderstood youth they were alienating. The distilled essence of what would soon become rock 'n' roll was weaved into the fabric of those movies. According to Marcus, though, its power wasn't fully comprehended until Bill Haley & the Comets drove home the combined sociological screeds of The Wild One and Rebel in The Blackboard Jungle (1955), with its opening blast of "Rock Around the Clock."

After that, aspiring rock artists started lining up to see their possible future on the silver screen; and John Lennon began thinking that maybe this was a cool job. The Beatles were first turned on by The Girl Can't Help It (1956), which featured Little Richard in the opening credits singing the title song. The plot was largely superfluous, but significantly, it was about how the music business was run by the mob (giving a whole new meaning to the word hitmen). Besides grooving to Little Richard, Gene Vincent, the Platters and Eddie Cochran, youngsters also swooned as the buxom bombshell Jayne Mansfield strutting by in her tight clothes, clutching milk bottles to her heaving breasts. In 1956, having been one of those kids first stunned by Brando, Elvis Presley stepped onto the screen in the Civil War drama Love Me Tender, where two brothers fight over politics and the love of Debra Paget. His elegiac ballad, "Love Me Tender," which maybe planted the early seeds for McCartney's eventual "Yesterday." But it was his role as the violent rockabilly singer Vince Everett in 1957's Jailhouse Rock where the rock ethos fused effortlessly with the music. From there, just as the rock movie began, it seemed almost over. Except for the tabloid chic of High School Confidential (1958), which delved pruriently into a teen dope ring, it was the sanitized Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach party movies and Elvis's decline in Hollywood.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Breaking Out of Genre: Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band's Landmarks

Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band (Photo by Kristian Hill)

Is it possible to create music that goes beyond category? For the editors of Downbeat Magazine, who create a separate category for such a notion in their annual polls, the answer is an unqualified "yes." For drummer and composer Brian Blade, it could be the boundary-free category that best describes his music and his band because the category of jazz is simply not the best descriptor.

Landmarks (Blue Note) is the most recent release from the superlative, Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band. It's a thoughtful exploration of "place," geographically and emotionally speaking. This blend of nostalgia and location goes a long way on Landmarks, a concept album that took years to make, but worth the patience and investment of time required. The reason is entirely based on leader Brian Blade's demanding schedule. Blade is constantly working. He's principle drummer for Daniel Lanois and he's in demand as an arranger and bandleader for special projects, including the 2013 tribute to Joni Mitchell held in Massey Hall in Toronto. He also plays for the unstoppable Wayne Shorter. So when he gets the chance to record with the Fellowship Band, it's an opportunity he rarely gives up. Brian Blade leads the group, drums, with Jon Cowherd, piano, Melvin Butler, reeds, Chris Thomas, double bass and Myron Walden, bass clarinet and saxophone. For this record, guitarists, Melvin Sewell and Jeff Parker, complement the band.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Afterlife: Abel Gance's J'Accuse & George Romero's Night of the Living Dead

In 1919, when French director Abel Gance made his anti-war drama J'Accuse, the picture was perfumed with the scent of death, and informed by endless reports he received of his friends dying at the front during WW1. But unlike many anti-war pictures, good and bad, J'Accuse wasn't designed as political agit-prop. "I'm not interested in politics," he would later remind film archivist and author Kevin Brownlow in his book on the silent film era, The Parades Gone By. "But I am against war, because war is futile. Ten or twenty years afterward, one reflects that millions have died and all for nothing. One has found friends among one's old enemies, and enemies among one's friends." Gance had good cause to skirt the expediency of political agendas and reflect more soberly on matters of life and death. He had once been drafted into the French Army Section Cinématographique, but ended up being discharged due to ill-health, which likely spared his life. He would then go on to a film career that would include the tragic drama La Roue (1923) and his landmark epic Napoleon (1927).

Being consumed by thoughts of the dead, especially the war dead, is not unusual for a film director – especially a pioneer like Gance who would along with D.W. Griffith invent a cinematic language that would change the course of dramatic narrative. With this awareness of an emerging art also came the knowledge that moving pictures could provide houses for lingering ghosts who would haunt us for decades. The photograph froze a moment in time, but a movie depicted time in motion, and breathed air into and gave life to the people who were part of the picture. In the years to follow, as actors would become movie stars, their iconic selves – from James Dean in his rebellious red jacket to Marilyn Monroe in her billowing white dress – would fix themselves in the collective unconscious, unchanged by time, and even untainted by their own early, tragic deaths. Where in life, mortality claims everyone; in film, you can live forever and remain fully intact. Somewhere today streaming in cyberspace, James Dean still pleads to be understood by a revolving cast of indifferent adults in what is perhaps another afterlife.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Bigger Than Life: I Am Divine

I Am Divine, Jeffrey Schwarz’s affectionate, scrapbook-style documentary about the actor Glenn Milstead, who achieved fame as his drag persona Divine, opens in early 1988, when John Waters’ Hairspray had its première in Waters’ and Milstead’s home town of Baltimore. It’s the logical high point of Divine’s career. Hairspray was the eighth feature film Divine appeared in, all but two of which were John Waters productions. (Before their 16-mm first feature, 1969’s Mondo Trasho, they also made three shorts together, including The Diane Linkletter Story, with Divine in the title role, and Eat Your Makeup, which included a re-enactment of the assassination of President Kennedy, with Divine, in a black wig and pillbox hat, as Jackie.)

Hairspray was a breakthrough for the two collaborators; a low-rent nostalgic musical comedy set in the early 1960s, the movie managed to satirize message movies while wholeheartedly embodying the all-accepting, liberating spirit that drives people to push past the boundaries of racial separation and repressive sexual identities. It’s a movie in which white and black kids don’t think in racist terms, because they enjoy dancing with each other too much, and are too turned on by each other, to accept social segregation. It was also the first of the Waters-Divine movies in which Divine wasn’t the leading lady; that role fell to the 19-year-old Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad the chubby star of a local TV dance show, whose celebrity challenges conventional standards of beauty.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Childhood's End: Revisting Coraline, Pleasantville and Watchmen

When I was a kid, I used to love those pop-up books where, when you turned each page, the characters (and their peculiar characteristics) would jump out at you. In Henry Selick’s animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s SF fantasy novel Coraline (2009), he elegantly employs 3-D to essentially invoke the same effect (as Martin Scorsese would later do with wondrous aplomb in his 2011 Hugo). Yet you don’t find yourself thinking about how Selick (A Nightmare Before Christmas) achieves the kind of macabre splendour he does here, but rather, you become saturated by the tempest of a young girl’s runaway imagination. Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning) has just moved into Palace Apartments with her socially-conscious parents, Mel (voice of Teri Hatcher) and Charlie (voice of John Hodgman), who are so busy working on their new gardening book they don’t notice that their precocious daughter could care less about foliage and dirt. Due to her parents’ neglect, she becomes curious about a tiny door in their living room wall. Although she initially fails to find out what’s inside, one night, a small mouse leads her behind the door where she encounters a replica of her family – except these parents are “perfect” and cater to her every whim and desire. What Coraline soon realizes, though, when she sees that her “other” parents have buttons for eyes, is that things aren’t as perfect as they seem.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Morality Play: The Emergence of Ethics in Video Games

Dialogue choice, from Bethesda’s Fallout

Video games, perhaps more than any art form, have the ability to engage their audience personally. This makes them an ideal forum for grappling with the difficult questions art has always sought to identify and answer. Games are not a passive experience; you have a direct effect on the outcome, so you are involved personally in how you arrive there. Nobody would question your willingness to tap a button and zap the alien aggressors in a Space Invaders arcade cabinet – but the more “realistic” that video games become, the more pertinent these questions become. If the invading aliens were depicted with a unique culture or societal structure, distinct from our own, with a religious system that drives them to invade, or a fanatical government which forces them to subjugate us – if, in other words, you came to understand them as beings, and not just pixels on a screen – would you hesitate before pushing that button? As we have been able to render fictional settings with greater and greater detail and verisimilitude in games, the question changed from “What can the player do in our game?” to “How should the player feel about what they can do in our game?” Morality and ethics are a part of the postmodern video gaming experience, whether it’s recognizable or not, and their effect can be drastic and potent.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Tempest: A.R.T.’s Magic Show

Nate Dendy, Tom Nelis, and Charlotte Graham in The Tempest  (Photo: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey)

The American Repertory Theater’s new mounting of The Tempest is part nineteenth-century-style theatrical spectacle, part magic show – overlapping entities). The adaptors and co-directors are Aaron Posner and Teller (of Penn and Teller), and the magic, which includes card tricks, cheeky bits of business like a kinetic hankie with a will of its own, and real stage sorcery (Prospero levitates a sleeping Miranda in act two), is witty, ticklish and occasionally dazzling. The idea of Teller working on a production of this particular Shakespearean romance, with its sorcerer protagonist, struck me as irresistible, and I was high on him after seeing his documentary Tim’s Vermeer, in which an inventor deconstructs and then reproduces the Dutch master’s particular brand of magic – his process for developing his distinctive approach to realism. So I had high hopes going in. But this Tempest is more than I could have wished for.