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 She only started listening to blues music later when 78s had been replaced by 33s and 45s.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.