Saturday, February 1, 2014

Road Maps Home: Rosanne Cash's The River & The Thread

Five years ago, Rosanne Cash released an album called The List (Blue Note). It was a collection of songs that her father, Johnny Cash, considered standards in the Americana songbook. It was and remains an important musical connection to her past. With the release of The River & The Thread, (Blue Note) Cash has extended the reach of her father’s favourite songs by writing her own “list” and the results are nothing short of superb.

The River & The Thread weaves its way through the American south like the Mississippi river. To me, it’s a collection of short stories set to music with the insightful assistance of Cash’s husband and musical partner, John Levanthal. The pair has written and produced a beautiful, unadorned album that is more than just a traveller’s diary. It’s a geographic and spiritual road map. The record opens with the philosophical “A Feather’s not a Bird,” a slightly ambiguous song about the importance of change and being open to it. She sings, “a feather’s not a bird, the rain is not the sea, but the river runs through me.” Perhaps she’s taking on the role of a spiritual conduit of American history? The record, or journey, continues as Cash tells the story of a woman who continues to work the land in spite of impending floods every year ("The Sunken Lands").

Friday, January 31, 2014

Movin' On: Rosanne Cash Live at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre

Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

For my entire life I have been trying to give voice to the rhythms and words that underscore, propel, and inform me. Because my peripheral vision is more acute than my direct powers of observation, and my love of an A-minor chord is more charged and refined than my understanding of my own psyche, I have often attempted to explain my experiences to myself through songs: by writing them, singing them, listening to them, deconstructing them, and letting them fill me like food and water. I have charted my life through not only the songs I’ve composed, but the songs I’ve discovered, the songs that have been given to me, the songs that are part of my legacy and ancestry. Through them I’ve often found meaning and relief, while at other times I’ve failed to recognize or understand a rhythm or a theme until it became urgent or ingrained and I finally came across a song that captured that experience…My life has been circumscribed by music…”

Rosanne Cash said all that in the introduction to her brilliant 2011 memoir Composed. And last Saturday night at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre, she and her band took a sold out audience on a journey through music that no one will soon forget. The Performing Arts Centre in Burlington is a gem. Medium-sized it maintains an intimacy and warmth that makes it a first choice as a venue for acoustic music such as Rosanne plays. There is a carpark directly next door offering free parking after 6pm and all day on weekends. This is a bonus if you’re used to theatres in Toronto, or other big cities. And the icy cold didn’t affect us either since the car park is connected by a bridge to the theatre. Genius.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Higher Depths: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Release of Aki Kaurismaki's La Vie de Boheme

When the Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismaki first appeared on the world film scene in the late 1980s, he risked being typecast as a sort of Nordic-European doppelgänger to Jim Jarmusch, who shared Kaurismaki’s dry wit, his fixation on slightly outdated lowlife-bohemian milieus, and devotion to visual and narrative spareness. Like Jarmusch, Kaurismaki has sometimes rushed into production with only one joke in mind – as in his rock-band road movie Leningrad Cowboys Go America, which boasted a cameo by Jarmusch himself – and one audience member in mind, himself. La Vie de Boheme, which has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection, was Kaurismaki’s most full-bodied and accessibly funny picture to date when it was first released in 1992. (He’s since topped himself, with The Man Without A Past, his 2002 comedy about an amnesiac who reinvents himself as a promotor of “rhythm music,” i.e., jumpy, stripped-down rock and roll.) In some ways, this, too, is a one-joke movie, but the director loves the joke, and the people who embody it, so much that it takes on the quality of a world view.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fare-Thee-Well Pete Seeger: A Folksinger Who Really Cared

One summer at Camp Kinderland in the late 1950s my eight-year-old sister approached Pete Seeger, who often performed at this Upstate New York enclave that promoted politically progressive ideas and folk music . She mentioned that I – then about 15 – had met him on a recent boat cruise around Manhattan. He supposedly remembered. I have no recollection of such a cruise but will gladly keep that encounter in my mind’s treasure trove of those who went before. Seeger’s death this week at age 94 makes me think of a tune we used to belt out at Kinderland: “Passing through/passing through/ Sometimes happy/ sometimes blue/ glad that I ran into you/ Tell the people that you saw me passing through...” (Listen to "Passing Through" here.)

As adolescents, my friends and I went to every possible Seeger concert in New York City. It was the equivalent of today’s youngsters never missing, say, a Justin Timberlake show. But instead of singing about personal romance, our hero generally addressed the more universal “love between my brothers and my sisters/ all over this land ...” That snatch of lyrics comes from “If I Had a Hammer,” a leftie anthem Seeger co-wrote in 1949 that was made famous more than a decade later by Peter, Paul and Mary. Although he experienced blacklisting and censorship during the McCarthy Era, Seeger always maintained Americans had the right to express any views, however unpopular – or far ahead of their time – they might be. He was a Communist with a capital C before disillusionment about the Soviet Union transformed him into a lower-case communist. His celebrated unionization, justice, tolerance and peace, while fighting against dangerous signs of fascism. His weapons: a banjo and not-so-fabulous vocals driven to greatness by sheer passion. CBS didn’t allow broadcast of Seeger’s Vietnam protest song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” when he appeared on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967. After an outcry, he reprised it on the program the following year but the network excised the last verse. No matter how much the government or corporations tried to marginalize him, Seeger somehow went on to inspire generations of activists and just plain music lovers.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Luigi’s Legacy: Reflecting On 30 Years of Second Place

A year ago this month, someone at Nintendo must have snorted awake at their desk, shaken off their New Year’s hangover and said, “Hey! Luigi has been around for 30 years now. Should we do something about that?” The result was a branding of 2013 as “The Year of Luigi," a hastily-manufactured tribute to a character which Nintendo seems to think nobody cares about. All the marketing focused on Luigi stealing the spotlight from his older brother Mario by adding Luigi-flavoured content to pre-existing games, and releasing sequels to first-party titles in which Luigi plays a supporting role. The attitude seemed to be one of playful mischievousness, hinting that while we want to give Luigi his due, don’t worry – the hero you all know and love will be back in 2014. Well, I’m going to give the downtrodden underdog the benefit of the doubt, and explore why he might just be more interesting and memorable than his extremely famous Bro.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Hamlet of Hamlets

Rory Kinnear as Hamlet

Nicholas Hytner’s production of Hamlet at the National Theatre, which was transmitted in HD in 2010 and recently had an encore screening, is set in a distinctly modern police state where the omnipresence of security is such a familiar sight in the court of Denmark that the characters have stopped noticing them. Polonius (David Calder) and Ophelia (Ruth Negga) talk freely in front of one guard, though the topic of their conversation is her romantic relationship with Hamlet (Rory Kinnear), and when Polonius confronts her about it, he produces a file containing photos of them together. Spying is a natural impulse to Polonius, who sends Reynaldo (Victor Power) off to France to check on his son Laertes (Alex Lanipekun) and later gives his daughter a walkie-talkie concealed in a Bible so that he and King Claudius (Patrick Malahide) can hear how Hamlet reacts when she returns his love gifts. The way Calder plays the old counselor, he has a passion for spying. He’s proud of himself for his ability to tender this service to his king – though when he tells his son, “This above all: to thine own self be true,” he pauses, unsettled, and you wonder if, just for a moment, he contemplates the possibility that he’s violated his own principles (at least since Claudius took over the throne). After Hamlet kills him by accident in his mother’s bedroom and Claudius can’t get him to stop clowning long enough to tell him where he stowed the body, one of the king’s men opens an attaché case full of torture instruments, and Hamlet, who has been handcuffed, acquiesces. Instead of being a fop (as he’s usually played), Osric (Nick Sampson) is the same military man who had a hand in Hamlet’s deportation to England – where he was supposed to be executed on the English king’s orders – and when he invites Hamlet to take part in the duel with Laertes, it’s obvious to us that he’s in on the conspiracy.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Yes We're Soldiers": BBC's Bluestone 42 and FOX's Enlisted

War is never funny. But, on-screen at least, life in the army is another story. The culture, bureaucracy, and general absurdity of life in uniform has been mined for comedy and satire for centuries, and for good reason. Military service in times of war and especially during eras of conscription has become an (often involuntary) rite of passage for men. And as Catch-22 and M*A*S*H (both the novels and the films) demonstrate, the most fertile ground for comedy often comes from putting men into the army that simply shouldn't be there. But WWII, Korea, and Vietnam are long past, and our collective memory of the draft has faded considerably in the last few decades. Even as the US, Canada, and NATO forces are in their second decade of continual war in Afghanistan, military service remains the choice of the relatively few men and women who take that professional route as the choice of a few, it is difficult to mine for experience that can be shared with larger television audiences. In short, the time of Sgt. Bilko, F Troop, and McHale's Navy are over. War hasn't gone away, but the politics of warfare especially since 2001 have grown far more contested. In short, to apply a too-on-the-nose metaphor, the army sitcom has become a minefield.

All which of makes the fact that there are currently two army-centred comedies on television all the more notable. And they are set in our present era. (Stories set during a contemporary war have long been the purview of propaganda mills see the short-term industry of WWII-era Hollywood films.) Of the two series, one will begin its second season in April and another is just beginning the first is British and the other is American. It is perhaps not surprising that the BBC 3 series, Bluestone 42, is the raunchier, more biting, and as a result more consistently hilarious series, but Enlisted, which premiered on FOX two weeks ago, while still taking its first steps, already has charm to spare and has demonstrated a lot of potential.