Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Perils of Resistance: The Last Sentence and This Life

Pernilla August and Jesper Christensen in The Last Sentence

One of Toronto’s less acknowledged film festivals, the European Union Film Festival, is just wrapping up its tenth edition (it ends today). Somewhat fanciful in nature, it is comprised of entries, one per country, from the 28 countries who comprise the European Union. (Countries that never joined the EU, like Norway and Switzerland, are unrepresented here. Admission is free, though this year patrons are being allowed to book specific films online if they commit to a $10 donation.) But there is no overarching theme in the programming, which can include features, documentaries, even shorts (last year’s UK program) from this year or recent years. Nevertheless, as in most film festivals, themes can be found. The two Scandinavian movies I checked out, Jan Troell’s The Last Sentence and Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis’s This Life, hailing from Norway’s neighbors, Sweden and Denmark, respectively, both deal with resistance against the Nazis and tell little-known stories about genuine heroes. But only one of them attains the level of art.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Heart of Darkness in the Novels of Louise Penny

Louise Penny has legions of fans. I once saw a packed house at the Toronto Reference Library enthusiastically waving the latest installment of her Inspector Gamache series in the air so that Penny could photograph the crowd and send it to her publisher. However, I have met a few naysayers who believe her fictional creation of the bucolic rural hamlet of Three Pines in the Quebec Eastern townships, populated by eccentric but kind-hearted residents, iqs too cozy and tidy a la the television series, Morris, Lewis, or PD James’ Inspector Dalgliesh. They contend that Penny’s novels are not sufficiently gritty or cynical in the manner of the television series, Prime Suspect, with Jane Tennison not only under pressure to solve serial murders but forced to contend with sexist hostility from her male underlings, the Ian Rankin novels featuring the anti-social John Rebus, or Michael Connelly’s loner Harry Bosch surrounded by police maleficence or incompetence. In his 2013 Globe and Mail review of the CBC’s production of Still Life, John Doyle dismissed not only the program as “bland” (in which he is spot-on) but Penny’s work as “entertaining yet lacking in complexity and genuine darkness.” He speaks for those who believe that the cerebral but compassionate Armand Gamache, the chief inspector of homicide for the Quebec Sûreté, is too sympathetic or heroic and not as complex and flawed as his counterparts mentioned above. I see their point. But if her critics were to look to the edges of the mystery and the red thread that flows throughout all of the novels, they would recognize the emotional depth and that darkness does envelop – or at least threatens – the tranquil village and especially the province of Quebec where police corruption (a term that seems too mild) is deeply entrenched. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Meditations on Love and Death: L'Enfer (2005), Autumn in New York (2000) and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005)

Karin Viard, Marie Gillain and Emmanuelle Béart in L'Enfer

Danis Tanović's Oscar-winning debut, No Man's Land (2001), drew most of its intrigue from the comic dilemma of two men – a Bosnian and a Serb – reluctantly sharing a trench in a time of war. L'Enfer (2005) is a densely absorbing thriller where three women reluctantly share a spiritual trench in a completely different kind of war. Based on Krysztof Piesiewicz's screenplay, which was originally conceived for the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski and loosely inspired by the second part of Dante's Inferno, L'Enfer is about the kind of erotic unhappiness that burns. Sophie (Emmanuelle Béart) is a married woman who comes to believe that her photographer husband is having an affair with one of his clients. Anne (Marie Gillain) is a young student who is obsessed with one of her professors, a married man who has just split up with his wife. Celine (Karin Viard) is a spinster caring for her invalid mother who begins receiving strange advances made to her by a young man (Guillaume Canet) she meets in a bar.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Transforming Tradition: Bill Clifton's Red Shadows

One of the best parts about listening to music is discovering something new and finding out it was created a generation ago. So it is for Toronto-born pianist, composer and arranger, Bill Clifton. Clifton is not a household name or even a recognized name in the mainstream jazz, but his story and his life in music is one of the most interesting I’ve ever come across, thanks to his second cousin, Michael.

Bill Clifton was born in Toronto in 1917. He grew up in house filled with music entering the Royal Conservatory to study piano at age seven. In high school he was exposed to the sounds of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, early bandleaders looking to advance jazz in clever arrangements that were accessible to a wide audience. Those big band sounds that went beyond the commercial pop songs of the day inspired Clifton to focus on jazz piano and the study of harmony. By 1939 he got a job with one of the pre-eminent bands of the day, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Years earlier, Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin to write “Rhapsody in Blue” for piano and orchestra, so this was definitely a great start to a career in music. Once established in New York City, Clifton became the session player for Whiteman but also put in quality time with Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman and others, including radio work with Bing Crosby at CBS. He also played piano at NBC radio as part of the house band, so times were pretty good well into the 1940s.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sleuths: Peter Robinson's Abattoir Blues, John Sandford's Deadline and Deborah Crombie's To Dwell In Darkness

One of the things I like best about Peter Robinson’s Yorkshire-based series featuring Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks is its terrific ensemble cast, especially the ambitious and troubled DI Annie Cabbot (Banks’s on-again, off-again lover) and tall, beautiful Jamaican immigrant DS Winsome Jackman. Even such relatively minor regular characters as DCs Dougal Wilson and Gerry Masterson, Area Commander Catherine Gervaise, and London DCS Richard (Dirty Dick) Burgess – not to mention the various bad guys, witnesses and victims – are well drawn and utterly believable. As Abattoir Blues opens, army veteran Terry Gilchrist’s dog apparently discovers a large bloodstain – and what appears to be brain matter – in the hangar of a long-abandoned airfield. Meanwhile, Cabbot and Wilson are investigating the case of a stolen tractor, which Cabbot maintains is no job for the Homicide and Major Crimes unit. But as Wilson points out, the new police commissioner thinks rural crime is major. Also, it is a very expensive tractor. As those two get on with their investigation, Jackman heads for the hangar to check out the bloodstain. Cabbot and Wilson end up seeking two young men who may be connected to the tractor-theft, and who are now missing. Jackman and Banks’s inquiries soon cross paths with Cabbot and Wilson’s, especially when a horrible truck accident during a sudden snowstorm produces a particularly grisly discovery. The investigation takes Banks and his team all over the countryside, but also into the worlds of high finance, hobby farming, meat rendering, smuggling, property development and, as unlikely as it sounds, spelunking. And while all that is going on, we see some serious interest developing between Winsome and former soldier Gilchrist. Keep an eye on them in future novels.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

No Such Thing As Stupid Questions: What If? by Randall Munroe

“Do not try any of this at home. The author of this book is an Internet cartoonist, not a health or safety expert. He likes it when things catch fire or explode, which means he does not have your best interests in mind. The publisher and author disclaim responsibility for any adverse effects resulting, directly or indirectly, from information contained in this book.”
– Disclaimer, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What if everyone on earth jumped up and down at exactly the same time? No, seriously – what would really happen? What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at nearly the speed of light? What if you tried to build a periodic table of the elements out of the actual elements comprising it? I don’t know. Of course I don’t know. But I know who you can ask.

Randall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist and now full-time self-employed internet cartoonist, spends a great deal of time putting his well-honed scientific mind to work on the What If blog section of his wildly popular site,, where users submit strange hypothetical questions that he does his best to answer as scientifically as possible. Munroe has kept this blog active for so long that he has now collected enough material to fill a book – one that proves both insightful and hilarious to read.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Old Man and the Old Moon: Small-Time Charmer

Matt Nuernberger, Dan Weschler, Ryan Melia, Curtis Gillen in The PigPen Theatre Co.'s The Old Man and the Old Moon

The PigPen Theatre Co. has been touring around its musical fairy tale, The Old Man and the Old Moon; I missed it at Williamstown last summer but caught up with it in the ArtsEmerson series in Boston. PigPen consists of seven men who got together as freshmen drama students at Carnegie Mellon in 2007, which makes them around twenty-five. And indeed the spirit of the piece, which they devised in collaboration with their director, Stuart Carden, is undergraduate in the best sense: it feels freshly minted, and it’s devoid of even the smallest taint of cynicism or smugness.

The narrative is a shaggy-dog fable about how the phases of the moon evolved. An old man (Ryan Melia) is tasked with filling up the moon every night with liquid light. Then one day his wife (Alex Falberg), stirred by a familiar piece of music she hears on the wind, sails off to follow it, and the old man, distraught, abandons his post to try to find her. He has a series of adventures on the way:  he gets a ride on a war ship and replaces its captain when he’s killed in battle, he gets swallowed up by an enormous fish, and so on. Meanwhile the moon wanes and finally fades out entirely; the nighttime sky is sunk in darkness, there’s nothing to control the tides, and chaos ensues.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Very Human Princess: Louise J. Wilkinson's Eleanor de Montfort

My first entrée to the adult section of the public library where I grew up was Queen Elizabeth I. I don't remember how I first encountered Good Queen Bess – doubtless it was some reference in another book, probably a novel. But when I grew frustrated with the books available in the children's section (a brightly lit annex attached to the main building full of primary colors), most of which featured cartoon illustrations of the Spanish Armada, the kindly library suggested (somewhat doubtfully) that I should check the grown-up books. I still remember climbing the staircase that connected the children's annex with the main library – I had to climb the carpeted steps, past the posters for Laura Bush's literacy campaign, to get to the marble and wood chamber of treasures. The big-people librarian wouldn't give me an adult card (I was ten or eleven, and the circulation desk came up to my nose) but my mother arranged for me to have access on my children's card. It was a small library – to get to the non-fiction and history you went up a circular staircase to a balcony with carved wood railings that circled the entire room. I still remember where the Elizabeth books were – right across from the entrance, on a top shelf that I needed a footstool to reach. And there I plopped my small self to read about Elizabeth, her tragic mother Anne Boleyn, her insane sister Mary and the treacheries of her cousin, Jane Gray.

Eventually I burned out on the Tudors, and somehow – probably at the suggestion of the librarians, bless their souls – I moved on to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Elizabeth I is an easy hero for a young girl. After all, she was a Queen in her own right! Eleanor of Aquitaine was slightly more complicated. She also exercised power in her own right, but often had to use the sort of 'soft power' available to women in the medieval period. I still love both Elizabeth and Eleanor, but I have learned in the intervening twenty years how unusual they both were. Most women in the pre-Modern period didn't wield great international influence, or even much autonomous domestic influence. But that doesn't mean that they were not important and influential in both international and domestic spheres. As Louise J. Wilkinson demonstrates in Eleanor de Montfort: A Rebel Countess in Medieval England (2012) powerful women abound. But unlike Elizabeth I and Eleanor of Aquitaine, it takes dedication to learn about these influential, flawed, and fascinating women  of the Middle Ages. This is certainly the case for Eleanor de Montfort, granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and an absolutely spectacular character in her own right.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Sense of Wonder: Circa's Opus

Circa's Opus at the Brisbane Festival (photo by Michel Cavalca)

The circus recently came to town. But instead of lions and tigers and bears (oh my), 15 aerial-born Australian gymnasts and four barefoot musicians, all members of France’s acclaimed Debussy String Quartet, wowed the eyeballs of everyone packed into Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre of the Arts. The occasion was the North American debut of Circa, a troupe of gravity-defying wonders currently on a world tour. The Brisbane-based company was in Toronto from Nov. 12 through 16, presented by Canadian Stage, and tonight and through Nov. 26 is in Montreal performing at La Tohu, the circus theatre on Jarry St. E. The show there is the same as was recently seen here – Opus, an 85-minute non-stop piece of acrobatic dance theatre that that is a truly one-of-a-kind theatrical experience: equal parts brute strength and soul-tingling poetry. It shouldn't be missed.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ghosts and the City: Hulu's Deadbeat

Andrew T. Jackson and Tyler Labine star in Hulu's Deadbeat

Hulu may have been one of the first streaming services available online (and still offers some of the widest selections of rebroadcast television content from American network and cable sources), but Hulu Plus, its subscription-based younger brother, is still lagging behind the other streamcasters (Netflix, Amazon Prime) for original scripted programming. Hulu Plus has garnered some well-deserved praise for bringing some exclusive UK exports to its American viewers: not only the delightful Moone Boy (Chris O'Dowd's semi-autobiographical coming-of-age comedy set in small-town Ireland in the late 80s) and Showcase's Endgame, the cancelled-too-soon Canadian cult hit, but also co-producing The Wrong Mans, starring Gavin & Stacey's and soon-to-be CBS's Late Late Show host James Corden, with the BBC. (I'll save the details of my unabashed enthusiasm for Corden and the comically intense Wrong Mans for when its much-anticipated second season airs in 2015.) Last spring however Hulu Plus stepped firmly into new and exclusive original programming with the low-key, under the radar, paranormal comedy Deadbeat, which demonstrated the potential for Hulu to play with the big boys.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Sly Fox: The Phil Silvers Show

Billy Sands, Phil Silvers, and Paul Ford in The Phil Silvers Show

Last summer, one of The New York Times’ fourth-string film reviewers wrote a blunt little screed complaining about how many old TV shows are now readily available for viewing thanks to home video, streaming sites, and “classic TV” cable channels such as MeTV, Antenna, and Cozi (whose appeal is probably based on nostalgia for the golden years of Nick at Nite and TV Land as much as it’s based on the days when the shows on such channels were actually new). Some of the writer’s objections to specific shows were based on political correctness: surely those who appreciate Mad Men for its glacial pace, lavishly furnished period anomie, and tsk-tsking attitude toward the male chauvinism of our fathers and grandfathers must view the marriage of Ralph and Alice Kramden as “more sad than funny,” Gilligan’s Island is chock-full of “dismaying stereotypes,” and watching Green Acres can make you feel that rural people in the red states are a bunch of rubes, which is an unacceptable message for a TV show to be peddling unless it’s The Daily Show. Mainly, though, the Times seemed to be concerned that too many people are pissing their lives away binge-watching The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis when they could be doing something constructive, like organizing a recycling drive or watching Rectify.

I’m not sure that the ready availability of fifty-year-old sitcoms is the major societal problem that the Times thinks it is. When it comes to popular culture, I’m of the Libertarian persuasion: the stuff should be out there where anyone who wants it can get their hands on it, and if that makes it easier for those with a tendency toward substance abuse to get a hold of the hard stuff, that’s their cross to bear. From the censorious tone of the Times article, it’s not clear that its author—who I prefer not to refer to by name, because I have a theory that he might really be Candyman—knows that the best comedy of the early years of TV is less faded now than the first season of True Detective, and that some of it is still hard to find. In the case of the great early work of Sid Caesar and the Your Show of Shows crew, Ernie Kovacs, and Steve Allen, we’re dependent on the efforts of cultural archeologists digging through private collections of kinescopes, since much of that material predates the network practice of archiving programs that were originally thought to have no long-term financial value.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Price of Truth: Kill the Messenger

Jeremy Renner as Gary Webb in Kill the Messenger

If last summer’s scenes from Ferguson, M.O. – the corpse of a black man lying in the street; cops armoured up like special forces; residents rioting in a failed neighborhood – drew our outrage, they didn’t earn our surprise. The whole affair was just yet another installment of the forces of law and order versus America’s poor and marginalized – those pictures could have been L.A. in the wake of Rodney King, or the whole country after the killing of Dr. King. With Kill the Messenger, director Michael Cuesta shines the spotlight on a particularly appalling chapter of this saga, telling the story of Gary Webb, a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. America’s “War on Drugs” ranks as one of its most self-destructive and inept policies in history; through it, criminal law has led to social engineering, as entire urban enclaves have crumbled due to the cycling of its young men of color in and out of prison on possession charges. Through Webb, Cuesta revisits an even darker wrinkle in this narrative. But what starts out as a moderately compelling investigative thriller turns into an even more thoughtful, ruminative portrait of a crusading reporter, his private battles, and what it means to have integrity.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Hack Ascendant: Birdman (Or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Michael Keaton in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman

Birdman, the latest effort from Spanish filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, occupies a strange space between the real and the imagined. Its narrative about the efforts of washed-up Hollywood celebrity Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) to remain relevant and keep his quickly-unravelling life under control functions as both a fascinating black comedy, and a Bizarro meta-effort to genuinely revitalize the career of its star. Casting an aging performer in a film about an aging performer requires a tricky balancing act of self-awareness and immersion, and parsing it is likely prohibitively challenging for the average moviegoer. It’s too bad, because those people will miss out on one of the most unique, funny, and poignant films of the year.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Awake and Sing!: Loveless Intimacy

Awake and Sing!, directed by Melia Bensussen, at the Boston's Huntington Theatre Company (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

In a brilliant 1946 essay about Awake and Sing!, Robert Warshow called Clifford Odets the “poet of the Jewish middle class,” and when you hear his dialogue spoken from the stage of the Huntington Theatre in its deeply moving revival of the play you know exactly what Warshow meant. Odets – working from his own first-hand knowledge of Jews fighting to forge an identity in America, his consciousness of the hand-to-mouth struggle of families during the Depression, his Communist principles, his devotion to Chekhov, and his Stanislavskian training as a company actor in the Group Theatre – created a new kind of American drama. In 1935 he was twenty-eight and working at astonishing speed. In that year alone he churned out the agit-prop labor play Waiting for Lefty (which mixed Brechtian and naturalist elements and brought audiences literally to their feet, chanting, “Strike!” at the end along with the actors) and two magnificent realist dramas, Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost. The best of the three – the best thing Odets ever wrote – is the Bronx-set Awake and Sing!, where the Berger family, in Warshow’s phrase, “live on top of one another, in that loveless intimacy which is the obverse of the Jewish virtue of family solidarity.” It’s a matriarchy that Bessie Berger rules over with increasingly desperate tyranny as the family threatens to come apart. Her husband Myron, who dropped out of law school for financial reasons, is a well-meaning, gentle-souled man who long ago ceded authority to his wife and who, in these hard times, has lost his breadwinner role, his work days cut back to three. When Hennie, their elder child, gets pregnant by an out-of-towner she can’t track down (either he gave her a false name or he lied about the company that employed him), Bessie marries her off post-haste to an adoring recent immigrant with a decent job who never questions the baby’s paternity. When Ralph, the younger child, falls in love with a poor girl, Bessie throws up obstacles; so does the girl’s family, and the romance dwindles. Ralph is close to the other inhabitant of this tenement apartment, his grandfather, Jacob, a Marxist who, though he himself is cowed by his daughter, fans the flame of the boy’s dreams and urges him to go out and change the world “so life won’t be printed on dollar bills.”

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Welcome Return to Form: James Ellroy’s Perfidia

He’s back! After a five year absence, James Ellroy has a new novel out, Perfidia (Knopf, 2014), and while it is a return to the characters who inhabited his earlier, and superb, L.A. Quartet series of books (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz, 1987-92), it’s also a return to form for the writer. His last series, the Underworld USA Trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood’s a Rover, 1995-2009), which played out on a national canvas of American history, the JFK assassination, the war in Vietnam etc., struck me as mostly lackadaisical, even pallid, as if Ellroy couldn't quite put his heart into it, realizing that authors like Don DeLillo (Underworld) had already visited the environs he was writing about and he thus couldn't and didn't do much that was new with the themes inherent in the books. (I did finish reading the trilogy so it was hardly a complete botch.) But with Perfidia, the first of a new quartet, titled The Second L.A. Quartet, the profane, vulgar and exciting Ellroy we all know and love is back to his old tricks; if Perfidia isn't exactly a literary stretch for the author, it’s nonetheless a book that plays to his strengths as a writer, offering up memorable characterization, staccato, powerful writing and a profane street level view of Los Angeles’ mean streets and institutions that is uniquely and memorably Ellroy’s own.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Appreciating Victor Fleming

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Victor Fleming's Gone with the Wind
“It’s amazing: you ask people as a trivia question ‘Who directed Gone with the Wind?” and nobody knows; you give them a second clue – it’s the same guy who directed The Wizard of Oz – and they say Mervyn LeRoy. Victor Fleming was either a wonderful director or the luckiest son of a bitch in the world.”  – Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Among the big studio-era Hollywood filmmakers whose sturdy masculinity – an affinity for Westerns and other kinds of action pictures, a love of robust characters (both male and female), a comfortableness with the physical and the outdoors, a skill for shaping the distinctive qualities of all-American movie stars – Victor Fleming has traditionally been shortchanged. John Ford has been glorified, partly because he made the most consciously pictorial movies; he was always after art, and at his best he got it, in Young Mr. Lincoln, The Long Voyage Home, How Green Was My Valley. Howard Hawks, who worked in every genre, parlayed a love of raucousness and sass and tossed-off professionalism into a hard-boiled character ethic that infused all his work, whether he was making a gangster picture like Scarface or an aviator actioner like Only Angels Have Wings or a newspaper movie-cum-romantic comedy like His Girl Friday; his movies were companionable and often so speedy (the overlapping dialogue) that they felt wired. Fleming doesn’t get the same kind of respect. One reason may be that he did his best work in the thirties and very early forties and was dead by the end of the decade, whereas Hawks and Ford continued to make movies for another couple of decades; they were still around and working, if not at the height of their talents, when the film studies programs started operating in the sixties. Another reason, ironically, is that the two most famous projects Fleming was attached to, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, came out the same year, 1939, and because they were vastly different and he wasn’t the only director who worked on either – King Vidor directed the Kansas footage in the first after Fleming prepared it, and Fleming replaced George Cukor in the latter – Fleming has been saddled with a reputation as a hired gun.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Critic's Notes & Frames, Vol. IX

A couple of years ago, I started included a few samplings from my Facebook page, which I've been treating as an ongoing dialogue with various critics, performers, writers and friends about social and cultural matters. (Some have described it as a salon.) Here is even more of the same. As before, it includes borrowings of songs and photos that sometimes others have posted and that I've commented on:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

William Bradford Huie: The Accursed American

Dedicated to Martha Hunt Robertson Huie (1931-2014).

In American English, to call someone a “cuss” was always to say they were stubborn, cranky, intransigent; that they wouldn’t go along. It was also an idiomatic alteration of “accursed,” a dated expression applied to one deemed ungodly and unsociable. Let the word be justly applied to William Bradford Huie, an American writer who risked ostracism and danger from the very communities that, had he gone along, would have most embraced him. A white Southerner, he reported the evils committed by white Southerners; a Cold War militarist, he hounded the military on questions the military didn’t want asked; an advocate of personal and public accountability, he placed blame and named names.

Absorbing, tenacious, eye-opening, Huie’s nonfictions are adventures in investigation, angry commentaries on democracy, rueful essays on post-war American culture, and affirmations of a beleaguered humanism. You feel not that he has caught every conceivable truth, but that he has put as many conflicting truths in play as any single searcher could; that he has shown each perspective straight, but from different angles; and that the force of his summation is earned by insight, work, and an interrogation of prejudice—his own as well as others’.

All but forgotten today, he was, in his time, something like a superstar. He emerged from the Deep South of the 1920s and ‘30s to distinguish himself as a war correspondent, television personality, pioneer of post-war intellectual conservatism, and chronicler of American injustice whose books and by-lines sold as fast as they could be printed. Hollywood bigwigs hot on “adult themes” scrambled to film his racy, tough-talking novels, while the more socially-conscious stars snapped up his nonfiction. He searched, dug, discovered, and let facts be submitted to a candid world. And inevitably, he was marked for death: his sallies in the race wars were damaging enough to necessitate his sleeping “with one eye open and one hand on my automatic shotgun.” 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Supermassive: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar

Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and David Gyasi in Interstellar

I might not be the best person to review Interstellar. I'm fascinated by our universe and deeply moved by its scope and mystery. I think most people, if they take the time to look up from their smartphones into the sky, also know this special feeling of humility and wonder – I simply tend to indulge in it more often. So I am sorely tempted to heap platitudes and justification upon Chris Nolan’s latest (and arguably greatest) effort, because – while hardly a perfect movie – I think its power to remind us of these feelings can be understood by anyone. So meet me halfway: check your cynicism at the door, and I'll do my best to abandon purple prose for sober consideration.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

How War has Affected the Artist

Main Street (1979) by Alex Colville

“I have an inherently dark view of the world and human affairs.”

“I think if anything I am perhaps more inclined than most people are to be polite and considerate because I am aware that human relationships are innately fragile and kind of dangerous."
– Alex Colville
For centuries, artists have depicted the horrors and savagery of war. With his miniature engravings, Jacques Callot catalogued torture, execution and the destruction of buildings during the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century. In his eighty etchings of the Disasters of War and iconic canvasses, May 2, 1808 and May 3, 1808, the acclaimed Spanish artist, Francisco Goya, portrayed with scorching realism the mutilations and terror during the Peninsular War (1808-1814) with France. In the twentieth century, the British government commissioned artists to provide a visual record of the Great War; among the most distinguished were Paul Nash and Christopher R. W. Nevinson. Of the German artists – Franz Marc, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – only Dix spent four years in the trenches serving up unflinching engravings of that terrible time. Subsequently, he, along with other German artists, evoked the war and its painful costs in vivid paintings and drawings.

What were personal repercussions for these artists? We know nothing about Callot, whose graphic works were executed near the end of his life. The hatred in Goya’s repulsiveness of war can be seen in his Black Paintings that he hung on the walls of his last house in Spain before going into exile in France. The despair and disillusionment in these paintings stem in part from the depression he experienced in 1792 when he suffered a serious physical illness and went deaf, so that it is unclear whether the bleakness of his final work was influenced by the gruesome war or more by his general state of mind. Some of the artists of the Great War suffered serious injuries; Beckmann, Grosz and Kirchner had suffered breakdowns. The evidence for their bitterness or misanthropic worldview can be found more in their visual artistry than in their biographies. Similarly, commissioned artists who served in World War Two were deeply affected, but the form it took can largely be found in their artistic expression not in obviously damaged psyches.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Speaking Silence to Power: Jean Guéhenno’s Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944

German soldiers enjoy ice creams in occupied Paris in 1940

Words matter. Words teach, extoll, blame and praise. At their very best and in the hands of those who know how to speak and write, they can open our minds to ideas and possibilities that we never dreamed of. Words are means by which we are alerted to the fact that the world can be other than it is, whether for better or for worse. And using words means assuming a formidable burden of responsibility. When we convince someone that things could be better, we are persuading them that how things are now is not right, or could be changed, encouraging our audience to think about how things could be better and by association what they might do to make that better world a reality. When we convince people that things could be worse, we encourage a certain satisfaction or acceptance of the way things are now, disinclining our audience to action by dangling before them the danger that any action they might take could have negative consequences.

This is not a new insight—philosophers and dramatists throughout the ages have been aware of the dangerous power of words. From Plato and Aristophanes to Leo Strauss and Salman Rushdie, novelists, poets, philosophers, and politicians have understood that words can catalyze and control. But what they have also known is that words are not just volatile for those who hear them—they can also be a danger to those who write them. Jean Guéhenno, the author of the diaries which make up Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944 (Oxford University Press, 2014) was very well aware of this fact, and of the fact that his diaries would have warranted a death sentence if they had been uncovered. But he also knew that there were other ways to write—perhaps light comedies with traditional plots to make people laugh, or even serious essays that didn't address issues of the day. And yet, drawing on his own sensibilities and the works of the great French philosophers who influenced him, Guéhenno came to the conclusion that to write as though there was no Occupation would be like aiding in an infection of a hallucination. The Germans needed French authors to publish, to create the illusion that they were allowing France to be France. Every word made the Occupation more normal, "not so bad." And so, Guéhenno did not write.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Four Decades of the American Musical

Oklahoma! on Broadway in the 1940s.

Half a century ago The Modern Library published Six Plays by Rodgers & Hammerstein and the complete libretti of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas; when I was in grade school, those two books were the earliest purchases I made for my own library of musical-theatre scripts. I recalled my excitement at having these musicals at my fingertips when I received my copy of The Library of America’s new two-volume collection American Musicals.  It’s expertly edited by Laurence Maslon (who was responsible for Kaufman and Co.: Broadway Comedies, their aggregate of George S. Kaufman collaborations) and handsomely packaged, with gorgeous production photos – most of which I’ve never seen before – and copies of show posters and sheet music. Each of the volumes contains the books and lyrics of eight musicals, arranged chronologically and divided roughly into decades, 1927-1949 and 1950-1969.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Vinyl Nirvana: Do Not Sell at Any Price by Amanda Petrusich

I am a collector who has a room filled with vinyl records, those 33s and 45s of my youth—and it turns out that they’re coming back. So when I discovered Amanda Petrusich's Do Not Sell at Any Price (which is subtitled The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records), I was hooked. I had to read it. Not that I’m a collector of 78rpm records, although I do have one or two in my collection, but I fondly recall shuffling through the batch my grandparents had stored under their record player. They had none of the “rarest” things that Ms Petrusich talks about, but instead some big bands and The Happy Gang which were all neatly packaged in albums that truly looked like big bound books with page after page (envelopes really) of heavy black discs. My mother had a bunch, too: Stan Kenton, Artie Shaw, and Rosemary Clooney. She only started listening to blues music later when 78s had been replaced by 33s and 45s. Southwestern Ontario was not a place to go searching for old Paramount blues records. Oh, sure, Richard Newell (King Biscuit Boy) had some (probably brought in from Buffalo), but in our neck of the woods it was mainly jazz. The first 78 that I bought myself was a Duke Ellington record, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” It wasn’t that I was so much a fan of the Duke’s but I had read a very interesting story about his receiving a royalty cheque for this record, and when I saw it at a flea market I just got carried away.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Death Becomes Him: ABC's Forever

Ioan Gruffudd stars in Forever, on ABC

This review contains minor spoilers for the first episode of Forever
The premise of Forever, starring Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd and Alana de la Garza (Law & Order), and airing this fall on ABC, is outlandishly fun to describe (it is the story of "an immortal medical examiner" who consults for the NYPD). It is also oddly familiar – reminding attentive TV viewers of FOX's (ironically) short-lived New Amsterdam (2008), about an immortal New York City homicide detective (and starred Nikolaj Coster-Waldau long before Game of Thrones was a twinkle in HBO's eye), and  Canada’s Forever Knight, the tale of a 800-year-old Toronto police detective/vampire that aired on CTV and CBS back in the 90s. There are a lot of things about Forever that are familiar in fact. It falls firmly into the "consulting detective" genre, which pairs up a by-the-book cop with an idiosyncratic outsider who boasts unorthodox methods and surprising abilities of detection. This list should always begin with Sherlock Holmes – and his two current incarnations, BBC's Sherlock and CBS's Elementary – but really has almost uncountable variations on American TV: from Monk, to The Mentalist, to Numb3rs, to Castle, and beyond. They often share a sense of fun, as the police officer (or FBI agent) balances the frustrations that comes from having an untrained advisor – with all of their emotional and interpersonal quirks – with the undeniable fact that cases keep getting solved with their help. For all its metaphysical conceits, Forever is probably more appealing on these terms to fans of Elementary or Castle, than say Supernatural or Sleepy Hollow. But if you are like me, and a fan of both light crime procedurals and fantasy, you might want to check out Forever, because it's doing a lot right.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

At Home in the Fun House: Pee-wee's Playhouse

To no small great degree, the 1980s were an ugly, depressing time when the secret to pop-culture success lay in congratulating the mass audience on its shallowness and taste for blatancy. Enough time has passed by now that there are actually people who feel some nostalgic affection for Top Gun and The Goonies, and Sylvester Stallone has somehow concocted an entire franchise out of the notion that there’s something old-school lovable about terrible, badly-made action movies in general and himself in particular, but these are lies, and most of what played in the multiplexes during the Reagan years could be safely pitched down the memory toilet and flushed away forever at no loss to anyone. As for the gallery art of the period—the actual art, art that is meant to provide a more exalted alternative to whatever scraps the groundlings are content to munch on—the most typically “80s” work of that time was created by the kind of people—your Schnabels, Basquiats, and Salles—who appear to be charlatans before you read their interviews and realizes that they’re sincere folks who just aren’t that talented or intelligent. Then there’s Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, a little half-hour Saturday morning children’s show that ran on CBS from 1986 to 1991, and which is the exception to both rules.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

If It Bleeds, It Leads: Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, in Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler

In Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, Nightcrawler, there’s a moment in which Lou Bloom (an emaciated, wide-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal) brushes aside a strand of greasy hair and spouts one of his practiced canned phrases: “I like to say, if you’re seeing me, you’re having the worst day of your life.” His grin is skeletal. He isn’t joking, and it’s not just because he sells footage of grisly crime scenes to low-rent Los Angeles news stations, and if you’re seeing him, you’re probably the victim of an armed robbery or a head-on collision. It’s because of the lengths to which he is willing to go in order to acquire that footage.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Paradoxical Sojourn: Bruce Cockburn's Rumours of Glory

Back in 1970, when Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn launched his first eponymous solo album, he happily celebrated the virtues of rural life in songs like "Going to the Country" and "Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon." On his album covers, Cockburn was occasionally seen perched under a tree with his acoustic guitar surrounded by a gentle sprinkling of snow, or maybe next to a warm fireplace, as he was on his third record, Sunwheel Dance (1972).His songs were both poetic and spiritual – at times, even mystical – yet richly evocative and intelligent. Bruce Cockburn seemed content to personify the quiet comforts of Canada’s untamed landscape. But then, in the late Seventies, he moved to the urban enclaves of Toronto. Suddenly, rock, reggae, jazz and electronica would not only bring an untamed sound to his music, but add a harder edged political sensibility to his work, which would sometimes be heard as romantically poetic ("Lovers in a Dangerous Time"), stridently controversial ("If I Had a Rocket Launcher") and didactic ("Call it Democracy"). Today his memoir Rumours Of Glory (HarperCollins) — which chronicles of his Christian faith and activism — arrives in stores to join a Cockburn curated 9–disc CD and DVD companion box set of what you might call a musical biography to serve as a soundtrack to the book. The mammoth CD set, released on his career spanning label, True North, also includes a 90–page book featuring rare photos, extensive track information and new liner notes written by Canadian music critic and author Nicholas Jennings. Because the songs aren't necessarily chronological, as in a traditional box-set, Rumours of Glory contrasts the rustic romanticism in Cockburn’s music along with his growing sensuality and political fervour.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Screen to Stage: Holiday Inn

Tally Sessions (centre) and the cast of Goodspeed's Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn (Photo:Diane Sobolewski)

Nine years ago Walter Bobbie mounted a stage version of the Irving Berlin holiday favorite, White Christmas, with a book by David Ives and Paul Blake and spiffy choreography by Randy Skinner. It was a charmer – more light-fingered and economical than the overscaled 1954 movie – though in one aspect it erred in not being extravagant enough. At the end, after the two protagonists (the characters played by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye on screen) dedicated their show to their beloved old army general and the company settled in for the reprise of the title song, the set should have opened up for a real snowy finale. It was a missed opportunity – but a lovely production.

Now the Goodspeed Opera House has put up another theatrical adaptation of an Irving Berlin movie musical, that earlier holiday classic, 1942’s Holiday Inn, the original source of the Oscar-winning song “White Christmas.” Holiday Inn isn’t a great movie, but it’s pleasantly low-key, it stars Crosby and Fred Astaire, and the score also features “You’re Easy to Dance With,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” and “Happy Holiday,” which gets stuck in your noggin. The screenplay by Claude Binyon and Elmer Rice, from an idea by Berlin, is agreeable piffle. Crosby and Astaire are two-thirds of a show-biz trio, and Crosby’s Jim Hardy is engaged to marry the third member, Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) – or so he believes. The night before he leaves the stage to retire to a Connecticut farm he’s bought, Lila tells him that she’s sticking with Astaire’s Ted Hanover – professionally and romantically. Within a year, farm living defeats Jim; he comes up with a plan to open his new home as an inn-cum-theatre that operates only on holidays, and he lucks onto a leading lady, Linda Mason (the unremarkable Marjorie Reynolds), with whom he falls in love. Then, predictably, Ted shows up, having been jilted by Lila (for a Texas millionaire), in search of a new female dancing partner.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

True Believers: Two Novels Inspired by Historical Actors

Canadian diplomat Herbert Norman and his wife, Irene, in 1956 (Photo courtesy of UBC Library archives)

In April 1957 the distinguished Canadian scholar and diplomat, Herbert Norman, committed suicide by jumping from a roof in Cairo. Canadian-born to missionaries working in Japan, he joined External Affairs in 1939, and during the crazed atmosphere of the early 1950s, he was subjected to a thorough security inquiry by the RCMP, largely because of his left-wing sympathies when he attended Cambridge University during the 1930s. Even though he was vindicated, the Mounties passed on his file to the FBI. His name came up in testimony before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) and again he was given a clean billing. His boss at External Affairs, Lester Pearson, appointed him as Ambassador to Egypt to serve as a conduit between Gamal Abdel Nasser and the West during the Suez Crisis. SISS revived the Norman “case” and to avoid another humiliating security inquiry, Norman took his own life setting off a firestorm of anti-American feelings in Canada.

In 1986 two purportedly scholarly books were published that were diametrically opposed in approach and conclusions: Innocence Is Not Enough: The Life and Death of Herbert Norman by Roger Bowen and No Sense of Evil: Espionage, The Case of Herbert Norman by James Barros. The titles tell us much about the perspective of the authors. Reviewers generally praised Bowen’s offering as a defence of Norman’s integrity and explained his death as a response to the slanders that he had to endure that left him with “no refuge but suicide.” Barros’ thesis that Norman was an agent of the Soviet state “planted in the Canadian diplomatic service” was largely excoriated. In the Canadian Forum, Reg Whittaker reviled No Sense of Evil as a “disgrace to the best tradition of scholarly inquiry” because Barros was not able to present a single piece of evidence to prove that Norman engaged in espionage, was guilty of disloyalty or treason. Yet the Norman controversy did not end here. Barros and MPs supportive of his polemic put such pressure on the government to pursue an independent inquiry that Joe Clark, then Minister for External Affairs, appointed Peyton Lynn, a former diplomat and retired academic, to conduct an investigation in which he was given access to all relevant documents. His report completely exonerated Norman of any wrong doing and proclaimed him a loyal Canadian public servant.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

It Was Only a Car (And a Dog): Keanu Reeves in John Wick

I like surprises. I recognize this isn’t a universally-shared sentiment, but I think that a pleasant, well-executed surprise can lift the fog of a dreary day, and that’s enough reason to like them right there. Of course, if they’re also vehicles for the comeback of one of my favourite action stars, then they’re that much more enjoyable.

The diametric opposite to the origin story, John Wick portrays the seasoned killer character forced to come out of retirement. The film opens at the end, with a dying, post-rampage Wick (the seemingly-ageless Keanu Reeves, wearing patchy stubble and the same “whoa dude” haircut he did in 1989, except when it’s slicked back hitman-style) stumbling out of a bullet-riddled Escalade and replaying a rose-tinted memory of his wife on his iPhone.Then we run backwards in time and see his blossoming relationship, before his wife is overcome by an unnamed illness. There’s a brief funeral scene, Wick looking like a gaunt and grieving lizard all in black, and then he’s barely home again before a pet carrier is delivered to his door, with a note from his dead wife and an adorable puppy inside. Her posthumous gift is meant to allow him to grieve through the focus and love he would devote to this helpless creature, and they form an immediate bond as they shop for kibble and do therapeutic donuts in an airfield. But covetous eyes are watching, and soon, Wick’s car, dog, and peace of mind are under attack. As plots go, it’s stupid – but delightfully so. The film never lets a flimsy premise get in the way of fun or excitement. If I’m honest, I actually love the plot. This kind of film doesn’t need any more substance than “Bad guys kill Keanu’s dog; Keanu goes on murderous rampage,” and I’ll argue until I’m hoarse that a baby beagle is a much more plainly sympathetic character than some underdeveloped family-member-in-danger. If someone murdered my dog, I might feel the need for a little rampagin’ too.