Saturday, May 2, 2015

Critic's Notes and Frames Vol. XIV

Brett Morgen's new picture, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (which showed at the Toronto Hot Docs Festival and premieres in a few days on American HBO), isn't about taming the inherent violence in rock, it's about what happens when that rebellion becomes inverted and artistic danger ultimately claims the artist. In telling the story of Kurt Cobain, the boyish looking co-founder of Nirvana, Morgen uses an assortment of material from the personal archives of the Cobain family – including Cobain's scrapbook drawings, diary entries, tape compilations and memoirs – to provide an in-depth portrait of his life and work. While Morgen strips away the romantic myths of the suffering artist, he gets at the deeper wounds of a great artist who lives out the suffering in his life until he can't sustain it anymore in his work. Even if, in life, Cobain parodies the Fifties image of the bland suburban American family, his home movies with partner Courtney Love, where they frolic and nod out on heroin, are a horror show Sid-and-Nancy sit-com. Critic Howard Hampton once called Kurt Cobain "a self-assassinating pop star," Mark David Chapman and John Lennon rolled into one, and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck provides us with the clues to that paradoxical dilemma. If the pop stars of the past once sought and desired fame and success, Cobain grew up in an age of skepticism where fame and success were not to be trusted. Morgen's picture gives us a troubling view of an artist whose deeper need to slash his canvases doesn't come from a simple desire to destroy himself, but from a more primal terror of finding no model to build that canvas on.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Talking Out of Turn #37: Louis Malle (1985)

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 (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone) which made it look as if they hadn't bothered to 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 attempting to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the participants. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. When uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews a number of years ago, however, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

Tom Fulton, the host of On the Arts at CJRT-FM.
One chapter, titled The Ghosts of Vietnam, featured interviews with a variety of authors (Robert Stone, Brian Fawcett) and filmmakers (Oliver Stone, Robert Altman) who dealt in their work with various aspects of the legacy of the Vietnam War and how it was felt in the Eighties. The American obsession with Latin and South America during the Reagan years seemed to be an ill-advised attempt to exorcise the ghosts of the earlier conflict. In the case of French film director Louis Malle, though, his country had been involved in a colonial war with Vietnam earlier in the Fifties, but it didn't have the impact on the psyche of France as the later conflict in Algeria would. So Malle, whose work was as diversified as it was probing, whether it was film noir (Elevator to the Gallows), dealing with the Second World War (Lacombe Lucien), autobiographical (Au revoir, les enfants) about the family romance (Murmer of the Heart), the romantic crime drama (Atlantic City), documentary (Phantom India), slapstick comedy (Zazie dans le métro) and theatrical (My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street), decided to tackle the experience of Vietnamese immigrants in the 1985 melodrama, Alamo Bay. Alamo Bay is about a Vietnam War veteran (Ed Harris) who clashes with Vietnamese immigrants who begin a fishing trade in his Texas bay hometown. Sadly, the picture lacked the fine detail for dramatic nuance and keen observation in Malle's greatest films, but it did provide an opportunity for me to talk to him about what was compelling about the theme of the story.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Underappreciated Performances from 2014: A Selection

Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man.

It’s in the nature of movie awards to underscore the work that’s already receiving a glut of (often unmerited) attention and neglect the worthier achievements that slipped by unnoticed. And these days, when there’s so little difference between the movies that get nominated for Academy Awards and the ones that are recognized by critics’ groups, there are fewer chances than ever to bring fine neglected work into the limelight. Since more than any other element in movies, it’s the acting that excites me – and since no movie year, however dim in other respects, is without its long list of impressive performances – the sidelining of deserving actors during awards season always puts me in a funk. Of course, some of the actors who win praise deserve it, like the Oscar-nominated actors from The Imitation Game, Wild, Boyhood and The Theory of Everything. The ones showcased below deserve it too, however, and weren’t so lucky. Since I reviewed some of the performances I liked best on Critics at Large in the course of the year, I won’t recycle my impressions of Al Pacino in The Humbling, Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner, Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis in Get On Up, Keira Knightley in Begin Again, Jessica Lange in In Secret, Mia Wasichowska in Tracks, Agata Kulesza in Ida, Kenneth Branagh in his own film, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Annette Bening in The Face of Love, and the three stars of The Last of Robin Hood (Kevin Kline, Susan Sarandon and Dakota Fanning).

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Between the Covers: Joakim Zander’s The Swimmer, Nele Neuhaus’s The Ice Queen and Laura Lippman’s Hush Hush

The Swimmer (HarperCollins), Swedish author Joakim Zander’s first novel, is a lightning-quick page-turner with sparse, evocative language (courtesy of translator Elizabeth Clark Wessel) and a terrific cast of characters. The novel opens in Damascus, in the summer of 1980. It’s blisteringly hot. An unnamed CIA agent is holed up with the woman he loves and their infant daughter. He is waiting for the right moment to tell her that he must leave Syria, and her and their child. But the baby is feverish, and before he can leave, the woman takes his keys and heads out to find medicine. His car – the car in which he was about to escape, containing money and his next identity – explodes. The explosion is “awful, majestic. It’s a whole battle compressed into one moment.” UA spends the rest of his life trying to find out exactly who placed the bomb, and why. We next meet Klara Waldéen, the young Swedish aide to a European Union parliamentarian in Brussels, and George Lööw, an ambitious and unscrupulous lobbyist working with a giant PR firm, also in Brussels. At the behest of his über-powerful boss, George is about to take on a mysterious new client. It’s gratifying to be sought-after, George thinks, but he’s uneasy because he can’t find out anything about that client. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Shammosh, an Uppsala-based academic and an old friend of Klara’s, is in Brussels taking part in a seminar on Middle East affairs. When he comes into possession of information about bad U.S. behaviour in Iraq and Afghanistan, he also runs into an American hit-team determined to recover that information. He and Klara are pursued in Brussels and Paris, and eventually to a Christmas Eve shootout on a tiny island in the Swedish Archipelago. This book – all crisp dialogue and fast action – is outstanding. Stieg Larsson may be dead, and Henning Mankell has retired Kurt Wallander, but the Swedish thriller is in good hands.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

God Complex: Ex Machina

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina.

So-called “cerebral sci-fi” films are often like superhero origin stories, in that they can succumb to the third-act pitfall of not knowing what to do after their big revelations have landed. The burgeoning superhero finally dons a cape, the intelligent machine finally achieves self-awareness, and everything goes to shit. It’s a disappointing trend that debut director Alex Garland nimbly dodges by marrying the plot for his film, Ex Machina, with its underlying thematic structure – consciousness, manipulation, deceit, purpose, self-interest – in a way that feels both wholly natural and refreshingly unique. As an established screenwriter and novelist (Garland cut his teeth as a Danny Boyle mainstay, penning 28 Days Later and its sequel, as well as 2012’s undervalued Dredd), he’s well-equipped to do it. Strange, though, that one of the genre’s premiere examples of this narrative stumbling block was his own script for Boyle’s Sunshine (2007). Many critics are lambasting Ex Machina for its similarities to that promising-yet-disappointing interstellar excursion, but I don’t think they’re looking closely enough at what it does differently – and what it does better.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Oh, The Poor Bird: Daniel Handler's We Are Pirates

Daniel Handler's novel We Are Pirates was published in February. (Photo by Christopher Seufert)

We have left the land and have gone aboard ship! We have broken down the bridge behind us, nay, more, the land behind us! Well, little ship! look out! Beside thee is the ocean; it is true it does not always roar, and sometimes it spreads out like silk and gold and a gentle reverie. But times will come when you wilt feel that it is infinite, and that there is nothing more frightful than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that felt itself free, and now strikes against the walls of this cage! Alas, if home sickness for the land should attack thee, as if there had been more freedom there, and there is no "land" any longer!
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (Aphorism 124) 

There is little I look forward to more than a new book by Daniel Handler. Handler remains most famous, and rightly so, for his Lemony Snicket books (the gothic-themed 13-volume A Series of Unfortunate Events, and most recently his noirish, not yet completed, 4-volume prequel series All the Wrong Questions). The highest compliment I believe can be paid to a contemporary children's book is that deep and warm-hearted regret that you are too old to have read it as a child – and the Snicket books generate that for me with every page. Handler's voice as Snicket is uniquely clever, passionate, and intimate. As explosively unique as Unfortunate Events were, the new series – told from the point-of-view of a 13-year-old Lemony Snicket – are perhaps even stronger: as morally complex, starker in their themes, and even more often laugh-out-loud funnier. When the final volume of ATWQ is published by Little, Brown and Company this fall, I will return here and say more. But for now, let me say this: Handler knows how to tell a story, and his books – perhaps like the best of literature, children's and otherwise – are lessons on how to hear one.

In February, Bloomsbury Press published We Are Pirates, Daniel Handler's first straight up "adult" book since 2006's Adverbs. Adverbs is a difficult book to describe but an easy book to love. It was hands down my favourite book of that year, and rather than try to explain why, it was much simpler just to tell my friends to read it themselves. (I gifted more than a half-dozen copies of Adverbs over the next two years.) We Are Pirates shares a lot with his earlier book, and though it isn't likely to displace Adverbs either in my heart or my bookshelf, I nonetheless relished every page.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Peace Built on Buried Bones: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is his first new novel since 2005. (Photo by Francesco Guidicini)

Even so, sir, isn’t it a strange then when a man calls another brother who only yesterday slaughtered his children?
–  Master Wistan, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

There was a time when I used to dream about becoming a professional book reviewer – I like to think I had no illusions that it would be easy, but to make a career of reading books and helping other people decide what to read seemed very attractive. But the more that I have come to write about fiction, the more I have come to appreciate the fact that I am not a book reviewer by profession along the real privileges that come with my amateur status. I was recently made aware of those privileges when I encountered Kazuo Ishiguro’s recently published novel, The Buried Giant (Knopf, 2015).