Saturday, July 19, 2014

Critic's Notes & Frames, Vol. VIII

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:

I know this is going to sound sacrilegious in some circles, but I was never that wild about The Ramones (Hackamore Brick's 1970 One Kiss Leads to Another had more imagination for me than Rocket to Russia). But, having said that, there are a couple of Ramones tracks that found their way onto my playlist. One was "She Talks to Rainbows" from their 1995 album, ¡Adios Amigos!. This number seems to harken back to the psychedelic period of the Sixties, except for its punk attitude. If this song had been sung in the Sixties, the lady who talks to trees rather than her lover would have been celebrated for having a higher consciousness. The Ramones, to their eternal credit, are left baffled and blue.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Five Came Back: How the Second World War Changed Five Directors

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War marks the second time in a row the film critic and historian Mark Harris has got hold of a great book subject. His 2008 volume, Pictures at a Revolution, uses the five movies nominated for the 1967 Best Picture Oscar – Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night – to talk about the death of the old Hollywood, which still believed in the values of the big-studio era of the thirties, forties and fifties, and the shift to the new Hollywood, with its link to counterculture audiences. Harris’s strategy is ingenious, and the book is one of the best historical studies of a movie era ever published. In Five Came Back – another quintet – he turns to the work that John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra, “the most influential and imaginative American film directors to volunteer for service,” did for the Armed Forces during the Second World War.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Brain Freeze: Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer

Well, it was bound to happen one day. And today is that day. We try our best to run new reviews daily and we've succeeded for the past four years in doing so. With a growing archive, however, it sometimes gets hard to remember whether we've already reviewed a work - especially if that work has had a problematic release schedule. Of course, we sometimes deliberately run two reviews of the same film, play, or book, when there are contrary opinions at issue. But until today, it was never inadvertent. Justin Cummings had already reviewed Snowpiercer back in June (before it opened theatrically in Canada) and I simply forgot that he had done so for a number of reasons that don't require delving into here. So sit back and enjoy Phil Dyess-Nugent's sharp take on a problematic film. My apologies to Justin. His equally smart review can be found here.

Kevin Courrier,
Critics at Large.  

Snowpiercer, the first English-language production directed by the Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, blundered into the news last year, when it was reported that its North American distributor, Harvey Weinstein, intended to cut twenty minutes from the director’s version. The resulting explosion of outrage and indignation got Weinstein to back off. The movie has mostly gotten great reviews since it opened in America, and it’s tempting to think that some of that is a show of support for the director and his commitment to his full, 128-minute vision, like the Best Picture award that the Los Angeles Film Critics Association lavished on Terry Gilliam’s Brazil prior to its North American release, when the director was still battling Universal Pictures over which version would make it into theaters in the U.S.

With Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006), Bong established himself as one of the freshest, boldest new filmmakers of recent years, and the ambitious Snowpiercer is his first feature since 2009’s Mother. So it’s easy to pick sides in a fight between him and Harvey Weinstein. I myself remained excited about Snowpiercer even after I saw a trailer for it that, if it had been for a movie that had sprung from the loins of some heavyweight American shlockmeister like Michael Bay, would have set off alarm systems at Indiewire and inspired a dozen editorials about the death of film. Well, I thought to myself when Bong’s name appeared at the climax of a chaotic flood of butt-ugly images and baffling moments, probably whoever cut this together had no idea how to suggest the nuances of the complete work.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Talking Out of Turn #34: JG Ballard (1987)

author JG Ballard.

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.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. 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.

One chapter in the book dealt with biographical fiction and how during the Eighties many biographies that filled book shelves were confessional melodramas. But there were also a number of other artists I talked to who found more creative ways incorporating memoir by using it to further understand themselves rather than simply documenting their time. JG Ballard (Crash, The Unlimited Dream Factory), a British novelist, short-story writer and essayist was one such individual who sometimes wrote fiction to get inside aspects of his own life and experience. Born in the Shanghai International Settlement in 1930, Ballard wrote about the Japanese attack on the city in 1943 in his 1984 book, Empire of the Sun (which Steven Spielberg would turn into a film in 1987). During the Japanese occupation, Ballard lived in an internment camp with his family where he would also do his schooling. In the film, however, his family gets separated from him and the story recounts his survival without them.When Ballard came in to talk with me, he had just published The Day of Creation. In this book, a doctor with the World Health Organization in Central Africa discovers how a civil war deprives him of patients so he devotes himself instead to bringing water to the region which ultimately forms a dangerous obsession. Both books are about the effects of war on the individual and the trauma of loss, but finding truth in personal experience is where we started our conversation.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Human Make Good Movie: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

2016: a virus (dubbed “simian flu”) is transferred from apes to people, and signals the collapse of human civilization. Now, ten years later, only isolated pockets of survivors remain to comb through the overgrown wreckage of San Francisco, fighting to stay warm, get someone on the radio, and turn the lights back on. To the latter end, a group led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) ventures across the Golden Gate into Muir Woods, where a hydro dam might still be salvageable for power, and where – unfortunately for all involved – a generation of hyper-intelligent apes has begun to form a society led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), the chimpanzee whose marvelous mind was gifted to him in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The two fledgling cultures come to realize that their differences might be too profound to overcome, and the stage is set for monkeys to wield machine guns while riding bareback through pillars of flame. No, seriously.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Playwrights: Benefactors, A Great Wilderness, The Normal Heart, A Little Night Music

Walton Wilson, David Adkins, and Barbara Sims in Benefactors (Photo by Emily Faulkner)

Eric Hill’s compelling production of Benefactors at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn space in Stockbridge provides audiences with an opportunity to become acquainted with an intelligent, intriguing text by Michael Frayn that doesn’t receive many revivals. (It won the Olivier Award for best new play in 1984.) The play, set between 1968 and 1970, is a four-hander about the relationship between David (David Adkins), an architect with a commitment to providing housing for the poor, and his wife Jane (Corinna May) and their neighbors across the road, Colin (Walton Wilson), a journalist, and Sheila (Barbara Sims). David and Colin have known each other since university, and when they find themselves living in close proximity the two couples and their children are constantly in and out of each other’s houses. Colin is a difficult man with a contrary temperament and a tendency to belittle his wife; self-effacing, easily intimidated, and somewhat in awe of David and Jane, Sheila barely opens her mouth at first when the quartet gets together for dinner. But she begins to spend more and more time hanging out with Jane during the day, and eventually confides her fears that Colin is going to leave her. To help her develop a life of her own, Jane encourages David to hire Sheila as a secretary – to take over the work Jane herself has been doing for him – and the shift ushers in a new phase of their lives.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Joyce Carol Oates' The Accursed: The Navigator of Gothic Landscapes

Novelist Joyce Carol Oates, author of The Accursed

Joyce Carol Oates is one of America’s most distinctive, award-winning authors and among its most prolific. She has published over fifty novels, as well as a number of plays and novellas, many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction including a memoir. Although consistently innovative, her fiction roughly divides into the Gothic that began in 1980 with the publication of Bellefleur, and intense realism. Her most recent novels The Accursed (HarperCollins 2013) and Carthage (HarperCollins2014) are representative of these categories and illustrate the range of her creative writing. She began working on The Accursed in the 1980s, put it aside, and did not return to it until 2012. The following is a review of that novel while a subsequent entry will explore Carthage.

Just as in the preface of the first foreign language edition of Dracula (1901) Bram Stoker attests to the authenticity of the events, however improbable, described in the novel so The Accursed begins with an “author’s note” written purportedly in 1984 by an amateur historian, M.W. van Dyck II. Similarly, the structure of The Accursed – its letters, private journals, diaries, a sermon, and a patchwork of narratives delivered with their own unique voice – resembles that of Dracula; this is a feature that Oates likely intended because there are scattered allusions to her predecessor’s great Victorian novel, especially in two of the most vividly rendered chapters set in the Bog Kingdom, the dark netherworld of Princeton's privileged monde. Moreover, to reinforce the Gothic flavour, Oates suggests echoes of the beast people in The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells and the seductive Countess in the Bog Kingdom, whose namesake is the protagonist of Camilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Her debt to American Gothic is abundantly evident in how she reworks themes from the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne. For good measure, she sprinkles references to the spiritualist Madam Blavatsky.

Oates frames The Accursed using a manuscript with the same title written by the aging M.W. van Dyck who serves both as editor and writer of chapter commentaries. After dismissing previous professional works on the subject, van Dyck lists his qualifications for documenting the so-called Crosswicks Curse, which afflicted the college town of Princeton, N.J. in the years 1905 and 1906. He has a personal stake in the investigation: he was born in Princeton in 1906 to parents afflicted by the curse. Being a native Princetonian, a descendant of one of the town’s most august families, and a graduate of its university (where Oates still currently teaches), van Dyck claims that he is “privy to many materials unavailable to other historians.” Oates’ conceit is its greatest strength but readers, who are not devotees of the author, will require some stamina to complete this fascinating but daunting novel.