Saturday, March 14, 2015

Talking Out of Turn #36: bp Nichol (1988)

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 (e.g. 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 number of years ago, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

Tom Fulton, producer of On the Arts
In a decade, that many considered to be drowning in narcissism, I decided to include interviews in Talking Out of Turn with artists who posed alternatives in the Eighties to self-centredness when it came to examining the self. That included Wallace Shawn talking about the process of making (with Louis Malle and Andre Gregory) the highly experimental fictional documentary My Dinner with Andre (1981), D.M. Thomas inserting into fiction the theories of Freud and the horror of the Holocaust in The White Hotel (1981), and William Diehl, a pulp fiction writer (Chameleon, Sharky's Machine), who was also a pacifist who wrote violent dramas to purge himself of the turbulence he had within him. The chapter on biography also included the Canadian poet bp Nichol whose life work in both narrative and experimental poetry was almost always autobiographical in nature. Whether it was his epic poem, The Martyrology or the more compact Selected Organs (Black Moss Press, 1988), Nichol never lost touch with his personal attachment to language which became a living organism in his work. One might call Selected Organs a body of work and a work of the body. It was also only a portion of a larger volume (planned over eight years) to be titled Organ Music, which featured autobiographical chapters focusing on the organs: The Vagina, The Mouth, The Chest, The Tonsils, The Hips, etc.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Last Man on Earth Meets Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Will Forte is The Last Man on Earth, on Fox.

Everyone's still dead.  Oh, thank God!” – Phil Miller, The Last Man on Earth.
"Oh, I'm very normal. I've had everything normal happen to me. " – Kimmy Schmidt, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
March 2015 has already proven to be the season of the high-concept comedy. Within a few days of one another, television audiences were given two ambitious new comedy series: Fox's The Last Man on Earth and Neflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. True to its distribution model, the entire 13-episode first season of Kimmy Schmidt dropped all at once last Friday, and the Fox comedy will air its fourth episode this Sunday night. On paper, neither premise seems like a recipe for high comedy: The Last Man on Earth follows its titular last man (Will Forte, Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock), the apparently sole survivor of a worldwide plague that has wipe out humanity, while the title character of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a 29-year-old woman (Ellie Kemper, The Office) who moves to New York City after spending the last 15 years living in an underground bunker, kidnapped by cult leader who told her that the world outside has been destroyed. The shows come with impressive, and even parallel, pedigrees – Tina Fey (also SNL and 30 Rock) and 30 Rock writer and showrunner Robert Carlock created Kimmy Schmidt, and along with Forte, the screenwriting and directing partnership of  Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 and 22 Jump Street, The Lego Movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) have brought us Last Man. Once the ambitious conceits are introduced, both comedies are revealed as more familiar genres: The Last Man is fundamentally a romantic comedy (albeit a rom-com ad absurdum), and Kimmy Schmidt is basically a small-town-girl-comes-to-the-big-city story under its hood.  In both cases, that is to their credit; but, side-by-side, it is impossible to deny that the Netflix series is the far stronger, and funnier, of the two.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sins of the Children: David Cronenberg and Bruce Wagner's Maps to the Stars

Julianne Moore in Maps to the Stars.

“Everything is research, in a sense,” says Robert Pattinson in David Cronenberg’s new inside-Hollywood movie, Maps to the Stars. Pattinson’s character, a struggling actor and aspiring screenwriter who supports himself by working as a limo driver, is the resident Tod Hackett figure in this Day of the Locust set-up: he doesn’t represent a central consciousness for the film, but he’s the only character in it who could pass for sane. He’s also the only character on view who seems to be essentially decent, up to the point when, in the name of “research,” he agrees to screw his client, a movie actress and sex symbol (Julianne Moore), in the back seat of the car while it’s parked outside a house where they can be seen by the young woman (Mia Wasikowska) he has been dating.

Maps to the Stars has been in the planning stages for so long that Bruce Wagner, who wrote the script, turned the material into a novel when it looked as if he and Cronenberg would never be able to make the movie. But whenever the scene was first written, with Pattinson in the role, it gets what dirty charge it has from the audience’s knowledge that Pattinson endured his own public humiliation a few years ago when his Twilight co-star and real-life girlfriend, Kristen Stewart, was reported to have had an affair with her director on Snow White and the Huntsman. When Billy Wilder made Sunset Boulevard sixty-five years ago, a Gothic horror satire about Hollywood, with a bitchy, acidic tone and in-jokes, he had the advantage of giving audiences a close-up look at an unfamiliar world. Today, with a twenty-four news cycle that devotes a disproportionate amount of its attention to show-business “news,” most of it shaped to make everyone feel like an insider, it’s like everyone is spending part of their day doing the research to appreciate a movie like this.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Swedish thrillers in a post-Larsson and Mankell World

Memorial to slain Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, in Stockholm. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Readers of Swedish thrillers might wonder what is currently available in the genre since the untimely death of Stieg Larsson in 2004 and the 2011 publication of A Troubled Man by Henning Mankell that completed the Inspector Kurt Wallander series. Mankell still continues to churn out standalones – his most recent is A Treacherous Paradise (2013) – but they do not appear to have garnered the favourable critical responses and wide readership that the Wallander novels achieved. However, it turns out that there is a cornucopia of literary and visual riches from Swedish authors, who like Mankell and Larsson continue to be influenced by the team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö that produced, between 1965 and 1975, the ten-volume Martin Beck series Story of a Crime. Sjöwall and Wahlöö recognized that the crime novel could be a vehicle for social criticism, believing that beneath the vaunted welfare system, the collusion of powerful capitalists with the state produced more inequality and exploitation. Secondly, they debunked the idea of a private or public detective who solved crimes himself, and stressed the collegial nature of police work. Thirdly, they warned of right-wing extremist elements in the police force that could turn Sweden into a dictatorship. In their final 1975 novel, The Terrorists, Sjöwall and Wahlöö chronicle the then far-fetched scenario of the assassination of the unnamed Prime Minister, and his assailant, a disturbed woman, is given a compassionate rendering in court when her lawyer relates her sad story and how society failed her.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Short Circuit: Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie

Die Antwoord's Ninja, Jose Pablo Cantillo, and Chappie in Neill Blomkamp's Chappie.

It used to be that a film depicting “a robotic police force in the crime-ridden future of 2016” was a far-flung concept, usually with at least twenty years’ time for filmgoers to remember to be kind to one another and help prevent such a terrible vision from becoming reality. Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie was released this year, in 2015, which I admit makes me nervous. I hope the world of Chappie is meant to take place in some alternate reality – because if not, then we wasted the time we had, and that future has come to pass.

Anyone who has seen the film’s trailer – or any combination of Short Circuit (1986), Robocop (1987), I, Robot (2004) or even Her (2013) – will already be able to plot out Chappie’s story beats: robot becomes sentient, robot learns the highs and lows of human emotion, robot questions its existence, credits, curtain. Likewise, anyone familiar with Blomkamp’s previous work – especially 2009’s risky, fascinating District 9 – will be unsurprised that he offers more of the same: thoughtful SF quandaries that are lost in a hail of gunfire, and dull storytelling that is disguised by beautiful visual design. That Blomkamp has failed to evolve over the course of his three feature films is a contradictory comfort. His consistency is to be admired, but not at the cost of the high-concept themes and narratives hinted at by his early films. I think I could be forgiven for hoping that by now he’d have found the path away from mindless violence and into the light of refreshing, challenging SF material. Instead, he’s stuck in limbo, and we’re stuck with Chappie.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Juxtapositions: The Mystery of Love and Sex & Lives of the Saints

Mamoudou Athie, Diane Lane, Tony Shalhoub & Gayle Rankin in The Mystery of Love & Sex (Photo:T. Charles Erickson)

Bathsheba Doran’s The Mystery of Love and Sex (Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center) begins with a famous detective-thriller novelist (Tony Shalhoub) and his glamorous wife (Diane Lane) being given dinner in a college dorm by their daughter (Gayle Rankin) and her classmate (Mamoudou Athie), a young African-American man with whom she grew up. The undergrads, Charlotte and Jonny, entertain as if they were an established couple, but they don’t give off couple vibes, and Charlotte’s parents, Howard and Lucinda, are as confused as we are. When Jonny runs off to pick up a missing ingredient for the meal, Charlotte assures them that she and Jonny love each other deeply and intimates that they’re together. That isn’t the case, however, as we find out when the young people are alone. They’re inseparable best friends, but he claims he’s still a virgin and she thinks she’s fallen in love with another woman. She offers to relieve him of his virginity, but he has his eye on someone else. And though she assumes that somehow  they’ll end up together, he envisions himself settling down with another church-going Christian like himself. Charlotte’s an atheist, raised by a New York Jew and a Southern mother who converted to marry him (Lucinda has been persona non grata in her family ever since). Meanwhile Howard and Lucinda are having their own problems: she’s involved with another man.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sensuous Glaciers and Imminent Violence: Uzma Aslam Khan's Thinner than Skin

Author Uzma Aslam Khan at the 2014 Karachi Literature Festival. (Photo by Aliraza Khatri)

I prefer novels that leave me wanting more. While I like a strong narrative and enjoy being able to describe ‘what has happened’ in a book, it is not usually the narrative that renders a work of literature truly memorable. Most plots, it has been noted, have already been used. Loss and lust and love and larceny, murder and mayhem and marriage: authors change the time period and location, but the basic themes stay the same. Sometimes the choice of time period and place, when taken seriously, reveals new manifestations of these themes – but usually that is not enough. That lust is not the same in San Francisco as it is in Karachi is important, and the authors who delve into those differences are usually on the right track. But that respect for context must be combined with that real skill in writing and description, the ability to use language to indicate empathy and frustration and fear without using those tired terms. In Thinner than Skin, Pakistani author Uzma Aslam Khan has crafted a world in which the classic themes of literature appear fresh, surprising, and often painfully sharp.