Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Pining Spirit: Perth County Conspiracy...Does Not Exist

This piece is an edited and revised version of a script I wrote for the radio documentary "Dream Time: The Story of Perth County Conspiracy...Does Not Exist" for CBC Radio's Inside the Music

Back in 1970, the passions of the Sixties counter-culture seemed spent. The Beatles, who had inspired the communal spirit of that age, had bitterly broken up. For one thing, John Lennon had just declared that the dream was over. George Harrison then wistfully told us that all things must pass. But not so in Canada. That same year, singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn gently urged us to go to the country. Joni Mitchell lamented getting back to the garden in her song about the Woodstock Festival. And in Stratford, Ontario, a town known for its Shakespearean Festival, a group of musicians, actors and a café owner converged to create a folk/rock ensemble calling itself Perth County Conspiracy. Every night, in a local haunt called The Black Swan, run by proprietor Harry Finley, musicians Richard Keelan and Cedric Smith began to work their magic at midnight. With a collection of politically irreverent and mystical songs, they created a challenging theatrical experience for those curious Stratford Festival patrons looking for something a little unexpected and out of the ordinary.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Neglected Gem #65: My Son the Fanatic (1997)

Om Puri in My Son the Fanatic

Hanif Kureishi’s screenplay for My Son the Fanatic (which he adapted from one of his stories) takes you right back to the glory days of Cinema Four, in the mid-eighties, when he and Stephen Frears turned out My Beautiful Laundrette and Neil Jordan made Mona Lisa and five or six times a year something fresh and provocative came out of England or Ireland. It has the kind of complicated humor you find in Kureishi’s best novels, The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album.

In fact, one of the big influences on Kureishi and his collaborator, the director Udayan Prasad – like Kureishi, a gifted Anglo-Pakistani with an eye for the mixed pleasures of the cultural mix – is Mona Lisa; the other is Taxi Driver. The irresistibly warm, larger-than-life actor Om Puri, who’s sort of a Pakistani equivalent to Topol (the star of the screen version of Fiddler on the Roof), plays Parvez, a London taxi driver who revels in the joys of assimilation. He listens to Sarah Vaughan and Louis Armstrong – though his wife Minoo (Gopi Desai), who’s more traditional, complains that the music he loves is “too trumpety.” Parvez finds himself drawn, sexually and emotionally, to one of his customers, a white whore named Bettina (Rachel Griffiths). His best friend, Fizzy (Harish Patel, in a merry performance), runs a successful restaurant; he’s a very model of the immigrant whose new life has turned out to be a triumph. And Parvez’s son Farid (Akbar Kurtha) is engaged to a young white woman, the daughter of a police chief. But whereas Parvez hears a welcoming note in his new in-laws’ reception of Farid’s family, Farid hears condescension and implicit resentment (and he’s probably correct). So he walks out on his fiancée, who seems to love him very much, and embraces fundamentalist Islam. He gets involved with a group of young Muslims whose loyalties are to a rather dim leader; they elect Parvez’s home as the guru’s guest house during his visit to England. They also cook up some trouble: a violent attack on the local prostitutes, whom they see as an embodiment of Anglo vice.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Hizzoner: Dan Harmon

Dan Harmon (left) with members of the cast of Community

The TV creator Dan Harmon has a devoted fan base of comedy geeks and other nerds who revere him for his offbeat sensibility—Gillian Jacobs, one of the cast members on Harmon’s best-known project, Community, credits him with “reaching out to people who aren’t used to be reached out to”—and his equally offbeat career path. Luckily for normal people who might investigate Harmon’s corpus to see what all the noise is about, he’s also a brilliantly original comic talent whose work acquired new depth over the course of the three (out of five) seasons of Community that he wrote on and supervised. When the show premiered in 2009, it looked like a scattershot gag comedy about a bunch of misfits—a smarmily charismatic phony lawyer, a sanctimonious leftie, a movie addict whose immersion in cinematic unreality is sometimes indistinguishable from autism, a fervently Christian single mom—who form a study group at a low-rent community college. Harmon gradually turned it into a forum where he could parody all manner of obsessions from science fiction tropes and role-action game playing to My Dinner with Andre, and he also dug ever deeper into the characters, using their developing relationships with one another to illuminate their fears, delusions, and insecurities.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Heart of Darkness: Foxcatcher

Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher

Bennett Miller’s 2005 film Capote started out as a literary biopic about the novelist that became something more: an unsettling examination of the title character’s jealousy, self-absorption, and manipulative relationship with Perry Smith, the chief subject of In Cold Blood. His follow-up picture, Moneyball (2011), had a comic tone that belied a similar interest in a solitary male figure – in that case, baseball general manager Billy Beane. With Foxcatcher, he brings these two movies together in a sense, borrowing the dark mood and material from the former, the athletic subject matter from the latter. The film treats Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an amateur wrestler who won gold at the 1984 Olympics; his brother and coach, Dave (Mark Ruffalo); and the twisted connection they develop with blue blood millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell). The picture’s really not a sports movie. If Truman Capote’s neuroses came to overshadow the enjoyment of his writing, here the warped psyches of the main characters – especially Mr. Carell’s – occlude the thrill of athletic glory entirely. The film is a picture of a Freudian nightmare. It works by mood and feeling, needling under your skin and leaving a corrosive taste in your mouth.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Rags to Ruin: Blue Ruin

Macon Blair in Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin
I love it when indie films show up on Netflix, untethered by restrictive studio release structures and desperate for a wider audience. It often means that I can catch up on films I missed from earlier in the year – like the dark, tense, and oddly beautiful Blue Ruin.

A police cruiser pulls up alongside a dilapidated Pontiac, parked by the boardwalk. Our protagonist, Dwight (Macon Blair) – shaggy, bearded, and filthy – is sleeping inside after a night of scavenging trash bins for food. We think, oh no, the jig is up, but the cop’s not here to arrest him or tell him to get lost. She speaks softly to him, calling him by name, telling him to come with her to the station so she can deliver a hammer blow to what’s left of his life: the man who murdered his parents has been freed from prison. This is the setup of Blue Ruin, directed and written by independent filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier, and it’s both the beginning and the end for poor Dwight.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Schwartz and Dietz, Comden and Green

Michael McKean, Tony Sheldon, and Tracey-Ullman in The Band Wagon (All Photos by Joan Marcus)

Of the great songwriters and songwriting teams of the twenties, thirties and forties, perhaps only Arthur Schwartz (music) and Howard Dietz (lyrics) have fallen into obscurity. That’s less because Schwartz often collaborated with other lyricists (especially Dorothy Fields) than because the shows he and Dietz wrote together haven’t survived.  Some were revues, which are always too topical for revival – The Grand Street Follies of 1926 and 1929, The Little Show and The Second Little Show, Three’s a Crowd, At Home Abroad, Inside U.S.A. The others produced some lovely songs but they divided up into only moderate successes and downright failures. The musical the partners are best known for, The Band Wagon, was reportedly one of the last great revues, brittle and sophisticated – and it boasted a superb score. It was the last show to co-star Fred Astaire and his first and apparently most brilliant dancing partner, his sister Adele, who had played opposite him in the Gershwins’ Lady, Be Good! and Funny Face and whose insouciant flapper personality was iconic for the Jazz Age. After The Band Wagon closed, Adele married a lord and retired from show business, and Fred performed solo in only one more play, Cole Porter’s Gay Divorce, before he trekked west to try his hand in Hollywood.

The irresistibly companionable and hilarious movie entitled The Band Wagon has no connection to the 1931 Broadway show except for the songwriters. Arthur Freed, who ran the musicals unit at M-G-M in the forties and fifties, had the idea of devising a movie to take advantage of the George and Ira Gershwin songbook. George had been dead for nearly a decade and a half when An American in Paris was released in 1951, and it was such a huge hit, even garnering the Academy Award for Best Picture, that two years later Freed produced The Band Wagon (1953), which essentially did the same for Schwartz and Dietz. (Vincente Minnelli directed both movies.) The team wrote one new song for the picture, “That’s Entertainment,” and Schwartz supplied the music for the “Girl Hunt” ballet, a Mickey Spillane parody that comes almost at the end of the film.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Perils of Resistance: The Last Sentence and This Life

Pernilla August and Jesper Christensen in The Last Sentence

One of Toronto’s less acknowledged film festivals, the European Union Film Festival, is just wrapping up its tenth edition (it ends today). Somewhat fanciful in nature, it is comprised of entries, one per country, from the 28 countries who comprise the European Union. (Countries that never joined the EU, like Norway and Switzerland, are unrepresented here. Admission is free, though this year patrons are being allowed to book specific films online if they commit to a $10 donation.) But there is no overarching theme in the programming, which can include features, documentaries, even shorts (last year’s UK program) from this year or recent years. Nevertheless, as in most film festivals, themes can be found. The two Scandinavian movies I checked out, Jan Troell’s The Last Sentence and Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis’s This Life, hailing from Norway’s neighbors, Sweden and Denmark, respectively, both deal with resistance against the Nazis and tell little-known stories about genuine heroes. But only one of them attains the level of art.