Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Rich Musical Journey: Celebrating 20 Years of Rough Guide CDs

A few years ago, I was browsing in one my favourite used CD shops in Toronto (now defunct, alas) and noticed a CD from Israel. Nothing special there necessarily, but I was struck by the fact that the disc was put out by the UK-based Rough Guide label. A British label releasing Israeli music, at a time and from a continent rife with so much anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic, attitudes intrigued me – and even more so, when after purchasing the disc, I found out that the compiler of The Rough Guide to the Music of Israel was a well-travelled Torontonian by the name of Dan (or Daniel) Rosenberg. Not knowing much about how music compilers did their work and being aware that a piece on Rosenberg would be of interest to The Canadian Jewish News, a publication I wrote for at the time, I penned an article on how the disc came to be and on the man himself. And from that moment on, I continued to pick up, buy and listen to the music released the Rough Guide label. (Rough Guide is one of four labels that makes up the World Music Network record label, which also includes Introducing, Think Global, and Riverboat Records –the latter recently celebrating its 25th anniversary) Today marks exactly 20 years since the first Rough Guide CD was released on October 25, 1994, and, now, as the possessor of most of the Rough Guide discs – more than 200 of them, with many still in print – I salute a label that has introduced me not only to so much world music I would know nothing about otherwise but has also educated me on the myriad permutations of that complex genre. It has been a musical journey well worth taking.

Friday, October 24, 2014

When the Dust Bites Back: The Clash's "1977" & The Beatles Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany (1962)

When Joe Strummer announced the arrival of The Clash in 1977, gleefully joining the Punk Revolution that was launched by The Sex Pistols a couple of years earlier, he did it in a song called, naturally enough, "1977." The purpose of punk was to clean house of the rock dinosaurs that no longer stood for the ideals they once claimed. For the British bands that came out of the rubble of the burst dreams of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and other pretenders to the throne, they were worthy of a safety pin through the cheek. Punk proudly stood for nothing, no future, just the bare necessity of pedal-to-the-metal rock. But The Clash refused a claim towards rock nihilism in favour of a new political direction, a tabloid Marxism, to address how England's dreaming had been transformed into an expedient nightmare. To do that, "1977" set out to lay waste to the pioneers of the past who made the mistake of dreaming in the first place. "No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones," Strummer announces off the top like a Depression-era newsboy bellowing the headlines of all the papers he needs to sell. It's a bald claim, one he'd reiterate a few years later in the authoritative "London Calling," when he'd bring forth an apocalypse while telling us that "phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust."

Thursday, October 23, 2014

When in Greece: The Two Faces of January

Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst in The Two Faces of January

After seeing a high-concept, A-list thriller like Gone Girl, with its pushy smugness passing for sophistication and its cynical button-pushing that’s meant to make it seem like a provocative take on contemporary male-female relations—Gillian Flynn, who did the screenplay adaptation of her own novel, launched herself onto the bestseller lists after spending a decade writing for Entertainment Weekly, and it shows—the direct, elegant perversity of a trim, stylish thriller like Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January can feel like a walk in the fresh spring air after spending a week locked in the garage. This is Amini’s directing debut, but in the ‘90s he did the scripts for Iain Softley’s Henry James movie The Wings of the Dove and Michael Winterbottom’s Thomas Hardy adaptation Jude the Obscure.

More recently, he’s been credited with the scripts of such headbanging crime movies as Killshot, from an Elmore Leonard novel, and the Ryan Gosling vehicle Drive. The Two Faces of January has a best-of-both-worlds quality. It’s based on a Patricia Highsmith novel that was first published in 1964, and is set mostly in Greece at the same time. It’s a trim, cutthroat story, but the touristy period settings give it some of the luxurious visual appeal that go with certain classic-lit adaptations. And with Viggo Mortensen, with his intimidatingly sky-scraping frame and Arrow Shirt profile swanking around the Acropolis in a light-colored suit and hat, with Kirsten Dunst as his much younger blonde wife, the atmosphere can suggest an episode of Mad Men where there’s no guarantee anyone will make it out alive.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Serial and the New Podcast Revolution

Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed (centre, top and bottom)

In radio and podcasting circles, the rather geeky milieu that I travel in, there is a bit of thing happening. It's a podcast called Serial, which follows the real-life case of the murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee in 1999, and the arrest and imprisonment of her alleged killer, ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. Sarah Koenig, the host and executive producer of Serial, was approached by the family of the imprisoned man to look into the conviction. We follow Koenig as she picks apart the case. Koenig claims to not know where it will end. Is an innocent man in jail for a crime he didn't commit? Is the real killer still on the loose? Tune in, or rather, subscribe to Serial, and find out.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Glass Cannon: David Ayer’s Fury

Five men operate an M4 Sherman tank in the autumn of World War II, struggling to keep themselves and each other alive. Gordo (Michael Peña), Bible (Shia LaBoeuf), Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal) and their commander Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) lose their front gunner, and he is replaced by the squeaky-clean Norman (Logan Lerman), who must abandon his naïve sense of morality if he is to survive with the others. This is the setup for Fury, directed by David Ayer, which doesn’t do much of anything other than make a great deal of noise, but it does so with expertise and intensity.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Double Stoppard: India Ink and The Real Thing

Rosemary Harris, Bhavesh Patel and Romola Garai in Indian Ink  (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Indian Ink is one of the few plays by the staggeringly prolific Tom Stoppard that never made it to New York in the aftermath of its West End run, so the Roundabout Theatre’s decision to mount it in its smallest (off-Broadway space), the Laura Pels Theatre, is a happy one for theatregoers. I can’t think why it didn’t open in Manhattan in the nineties (it was staged in London in 1995), especially since Arcadia, written two years earlier, was so successful there. Perhaps potential producers thought they were too similar – though that’s not generally a reason for withholding a new play that follows a well-received one. (Quite the opposite.) In Arcadia a pair of contemporary academics try to determine the events that occurred on an English country estate in 1809 where Lord Byron may or may not have been one of the house guests, while we see what really happened, the truth that the scholars can only guess at. In Indian Ink, an English professor named Eldon Pike annotates a new edition of the work of a poet, Flora Crewe, long dead, whose younger sister Eleanor – now an old woman – constitutes her only remaining family. Hopeful about following up with a biography, he searches for one of three paintings of his subject, two of them nudes, two of them done during the few months she spent in India, mostly in Jummapur. Among the people he contacts, aside from Eleanor, are the son of the Indian painter, Nirad Das, whom Flora befriended and posed for, and the son of the local Rajah who invited her to visit him in the course of her stay. Eleanor doesn’t approve of Pike’s long-term project and in her quiet way does what she can to quietly thwart his research. “Biography,” she argues, “is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong.” And Stoppard confirms her analysis by – as in Arcadia – showing us what really happened to Flora in India, in a series of flashbacks that place one fragment of information on top of another until, gradually, we see it all. (We also discover chapters in Eleanor’s life that we hadn’t suspected, and that explain how she began as a Bohemian, like her sister, and metamorphosed into a conservative colonial.)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Opposition to Hitler

The compelling 1959 German film Die Brucke (The Bridge) tells the useless courage of seven German teenagers hastily conscripted into the Nazi army and assigned the responsibility of defending an old stone bridge in the last few days of the war. The High Command knew that the Americans would overrun it and the sergeant in charge of the boys was ordered to pull them back once the Americans arrived, but he was killed by the Gestapo and six of the boys died while the one survivor, who is able to tell the tale that became the basis for a novel and this film, is brutalized by the experience. The first part of this capsule summary is most people’s awareness of the final stages of the war: young men used as fodder to carry out Hitler’s maniacal order that everyone should be participate in the defence of the Volk or die. The second part, that members of the High Command only offered a token of resistance while trying to save lives, including their own, is not as familiar. Military opposition constitutes one subject of University of Toronto scholar, Randall Hansen’s new book, Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance after Operation Valkyrie (Oxford, 2014) even though its dense military chapters can be a daunting read. Its central argument is that opposition to the Fuhrer inside the Reich during the final year of the war, that included both military and civilian resistance, was much more pervasive than has previously been known.