Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Drama of History: The 40th Anniversary of Randy Newman's Good Old Boys

"It's hard to hear a new voice, as hard as it is to listen to an unknown language," D.H. Lawrence wrote in Studies in Classic American Literature (1924). "We just don't listen." Lawrence wasn't just talking about something as basic as the fear of something new. New ideas, as he later suggested, can always be pigeon-holed. "The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything," Lawrence explained. "It can't pigeon-hole a real experience. It can only dodge. The world is a great dodger, and the Americans the greatest. Because they dodge their own very selves." Lawrence was addressing here the varied works of American writers James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. A panoramic and illuminating study, the polemic examines how a number of gifted writers were coming to terms with the experience of a young country still in the process of finding its identity. For an artist who has barely registered on the public's consciousness, except in his movie music and his songs for Pixar pictures, singer/songwriter Randy Newman could be one of Lawrence's great dodgers – an Artful Dodger – and one who deliberately creates paradoxical narratives in his songs. And his music, like the writers of the previous century, has also been on a comparable sojourn. For almost half a century now, the country he depicts with both love and devotion is also riddled with broken promises, violence, paranoia, superstition and arrogance.

Friday, September 12, 2014

An Epic Sans Nostalgia: Yves Beauchemin’s Charles the Bold

One of the most fascinating dimensions of Canadian history, at least for those of us who did not grow up in Canada, is the history of Quebec and its relationship to the rest of Canada. While those south of the border are aware of Montreal as a cosmopolitan, French-speaking, “European-style” city that doesn’t require a trans-Atlantic flight and where the legal drinking age is 18, a deeper appreciation of Quebec – and the economic, religious, political, and cultural transformations it has undergone in the last 70 years – is much more rare. One way to cultivate such appreciation is certainly reading some of the numerous and fascinating histories that are available. A difference approach is available in Yves Beauchemin’s multi-novel series, Charles the Bold (Charles le téméraire).

Beauchemin is the premier Quebecois author of our time: his most famous novel, Le Matou (1981: translated into English in 1986 as The Alley Cat and adapted for film in 1985) is also the most widely-translated work of French Canadian literature of all time, currently available in more than 16 languages. He has received numerous literary awards in both Quebec and France, and the University of Bordeaux organized a colloquium on his work in 2000. Born in 1941, Beauchemin has a degree in literature and art history from the Université de Montréal, and has worked as an editor, journalist, and a researcher. Charles the Bold is not an autobiography, but Beauchemin’s familiarity with the places and communities present in his work make them richer than they might be otherwise, the streets, cafés, and bars as multi-dimensional as the characters.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Happy Valley: Do You Know Where Your Children Are?

Sarah Lancashire as Sergeant Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley

As Catherine Cawood, a police sergeant in the West Yorkshire valleys in the six-episode TV series Happy Valley, Sarah Lancashire gives a performance that’s part kitchen-sink drama, part hard-boiled noir. (The show, which aired on BBC One this past spring, is now available for streaming on Netflix.) It’s the kind of full-bodied, lived-in acting that brings the viewer so close to the character that you may feel that you can smell the cigarette smoke in her hair. The weary, middle-aged Catherine lives with her sister Clare, a recovering drug addict played by the wonderful Siobhan Finneran, whose own hair is a messy rat’s nest that sometimes looks like a bad wig, and is still more flattering than the tight wicked-stepmother ‘do she wore as the conniving servant O’Brien in Downton Abbey. Catherine is also taking care of her small grandson, Ryan (Rhys Connah), who has a perilous habit of asking questions for which there are no simple answers.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Neglected Gem #61: Cadillac Man (1990)

As Joey O’Brien, the down-on-his-luck car salesman in Cadillac Man, Robin Williams has a slightly greasy mustache and the sickly complexion of a third-rater who can’t even pump energy out of his sleaziness any more. He can still pull off something nervy, like working a broken-down funeral procession, trying to sell both the besieged undertaker and the grieving widow (Elaine Stritch), but he looks fatigued from trying so hard. And when he arrives at work late, and the boss’s son, Little Jack Turgeon (Paul Guilfoyle), tells him he’s going to lose his job unless he sells a dozen cars by the end of the weekend, his face is an alarmingly clear map of his feelings: terror and failure are written all over it. Joey used to be a hot-shot, and he spent his money faster than he could make it – on women, mostly – and now he’s way behind. He owes money. His ex-wife Tina (Pamela Reed) is pressing him to contribute to their teenage daughter’s college fund and provide the kid some kind of paternal moral support. His married girl friend, Joy (Fran Drescher), is contemplating leaving her husband (Zack Norman) but isn’t convinced Joey will be as good a provider. And his other girl friend, a would-be designer named Lila (Lori Petty), wears him out, dragging him to clubs where she wants her ridiculous creations to attract attention.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Monkey Business – Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Wen Zhang in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons was an easy sell. I’m drawn to Asian cinema for the same reasons I’m drawn to Asian culture in general: its fascinating singularity makes for a completely fresh perspective. Watching a Hong Kong blockbuster like Journey, which has the honour of capturing both the largest single-day box office gross and the largest total international gross of any Chinese film (taking in $19.6 million and $215 million US dollars, respectively), is like biting into the pickled ginger that comes with an order of sushi: refreshing, exotic, and wonderfully palate-cleansing, especially after a long summer’s barrage of Hollywood values. Journey is a retelling of one of the four great novels of classical Chinese literature, which endure in Asian culture much the same way Grimm’s fairy tales and Aesop’s Fables do in Europe and North America. It tells the story of Tang Sanzang, who gathers a posse of disciples to aid him in a quest to travel west and find a cache of ancient sutra texts, in his relentless pursuit of Buddhist enlightenment. This film adaptation is helmed by Steven Chow, best known for his wacky martial arts extravaganza Kung Fu Hustle, and in translating this ancient tale from scroll to screen he makes sure to include as much fun, sincerity, and humour in his interpretation as possible.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Small Surprise: A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur

Deborah Hay and Kate Hennig in A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur. (Photo:David Cooper)

For its annual lunchtime one-act, an eagerly anticipated tradition, this year the Shaw Festival has picked one of Tennessee Williams’s last and least known plays, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur. (It was first produced in 1979, four years before his death, with Shirley Knight in the lead.) Williams wrote it as a full-length work in two scenes; trimmed by the director, Blair Williams, to just under an hour, it turns out to be one of the highlights of the season.

The play is both raucous and lyrical-tender – a trademark Williams combination. Set in St. Louis in the mid-thirties, it centers on Dorothea (Deborah Hay), a delicate, easily frazzled young woman who teaches high-school civics classes and shares an apartment with Bodey (Kate Hennig), a working-class German-American spinster who calls her Dotty. The two names hint at the tension between the protagonist’s current lifestyle and the one she intends to shift into. Bodey keeps trying to set her up with her twin brother Buddy, a hefty, beer-drinking, cigar-smoking fellow (whom we never meet), but he holds no remote interest for Dotty. On this particular Sunday, Bodey is putting together a picnic for the three of them to share at Creve Coeur, out in the country. But Dotty doesn’t want to encourage Buddy, and unbeknownst to Bodey she’s made arrangements to move in with the art history teacher, Helena (Kaylee Harwood), in a more upscale neighborhood that she can’t really afford. (Dotty isn’t good with money; you might think of one of the lines Williams wrote for Blanche DuBois, whom Dotty is a variation of: “Money just goes. It just goes places.”) Helena always refers to Dotty as Dorothea.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sea of Corruption, Aura of Melancholy: Venice in the Mysteries of Donna Leon

Novelist Donna Leon

Donna Leon is an American-born former English professor who decamped to Venice over thirty years ago. Since 1992, beginning with Death at La Fenice in which her first victim was a conductor who was dispatched in the dressing room of the opera house, she has written a series of exceedingly popular crime novels set in Venice. The Commissario Guido Brunetti detective novels have been widely translated except in Italian at her request. Like the best of this genre, Leon’s police procedurals are a vehicle for exploring wider social issues: toxic waste cover-up, the sex slave trade, the blight of tourism, and above all, official corruption and incompetence, which explains why her novels can end ambiguously, with the guilty not often brought to justice. Part of Brunetti’s problem is that he must find creative ways to bypass – usually assisted by his highly proficient assistant, computer savvy, Signora Elettra – the limitations of his hapless and opportunist boss, Giuseppe Patta, who seems more interested in feathering his political ambitions than in discovering the truth or ever tackling the Mafia. For the most part, Patta believes the socially well-connected are innocent and should not be burdened with a police investigation. His priority is to keep Venice’s reputation clean so that it continues to be a mecca for cash-rich tourists. Forget about the environmental hazards posed by tourism and the peccadilloes of politicians.