Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Landscapes of Film: Interview with Peter Greenaway (1986)

Today would have been Critics at Large co-founder David Churchill's 56th birthday. Earlier this week, I was trying to think of a way to commemorate it in our post today. While his wife, Rose, supplied me with a box of published and unpublished work to consider, I felt the need for something else. But what? So without a solution in mind, I put it to the back of my mind and took to my storage closet the other night to find some book I needed for some other matter. While hunting for this lost hardcover, however, I came across a file in a box which contained a transcribed and unpublished interview with film director Peter Greenaway that David had done back in 1986 when the director was in Toronto for a presentation of his work. Seeing the typewritten series of sheets, where corrections consisted of pencil slashes across words and scribbled insertions, it took me back to a whole other era of writing and editing. But it also brought me back to the moment when David gave it to me to read which was shortly after he did his transcription. 

We had been friends for about two years at that point and already feeling each other out on our favourite films, directors we liked and didn't, and gleefully and teasingly putting each other's views to the test. We were still a year away from doing reviews together on the radio. But he already knew that I was no fan of Peter Greenaway's pictures (which to that point included The Draughtsman's Contract and A Zed and Two Noughts) because I found them to be obsessively formal and the abstract exercises of a patrician; or perhaps, to put it more succinctly, Greenaway was the art historian as beach bully who (to paraphrase critic Terrence Rafferty) kicked art in our faces. So I think David wanted to prove otherwise when he gave me this interview to read. Perhaps he also wished to justify a sensibility that spoke deeply to him at the time. (David was also a huge fan of Alain Renais who had an enormous impact on Greenaway's work.) We had already had our arguments over Stanley Kubrick's later films like The Shining which David would attend whenever it was being revived. "Whenever I feel depressed, I go to see The Shining," he would often say about a film that could send me into fits of depression. I never got an answer out of him as to why it cheered him so (but had he lived, as he intended, to review Rm 237, a documentary about viewers' obsessions with The Shining, I might have gotten my answer). Anyway, I never did get around to reading his interview with Peter Greenaway which I'm sure he saw as a shortcoming of mine. Maybe he wanted me to find it the other night if you believe in interventions from the other side. But as I was reading and editing it today, I could hear his voice threading through this conversation as I could imagine him also grinning somewhere in satisfaction that he finally found a way to get my attention. I can say that after devouring the discussion, I still haven't changed my mind about Peter Greenaway and his films. But neither have I about David's value as a dear friend and great critic. And we all miss him in the pages of Critics at Large.

Kevin Courrier,

dc: As much as you are a filmmaker, you've also been called an enumerator, a cataloger and a classification theorist. How do all these things comprise what you do in films like A Zed and Two Noughts and The Draughtsman's Contract?

pg: All forms of art and human activity are desperate attempts of man to comprehend chaos by cataloging it in some way. Perhaps the supreme image is the map, that extraordinary artifact that's told you where you've been, tells you where you are, and tells you where you're going – all in one plane. Language, of course, is a supreme cataloging device which organizes our thoughts and ideas and puts them into some coherent form. So you could say that all human activity falls along this pattern. It's all a process of cataloging, collating and organizing random data that is forever falling on our ears in order that we can utilize and reuse it. So to actually do that in terms of art is no particularly original thing, but I just find it fascinating. Look at the concepts of the invisible line that runs around the world that indicates the equator. By dividing up the planet into convenient sections in order to comprehend the chaos of time is all part of the same desperate attempt to organize the material.

A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

dc: How did your early years influence your tendency in your pictures to enumerate and catalog things?

pg: My father has considerable interest in ornithology, so that is why I use that influence as a focus in my films. Though I don't know that much about ornithology, my own particular interest in natural history focused in on the collection of British insects. I have a large collection that I recently gave up on because I feel today like it's big game hunting on a smaller scale. As the beetles I collected got rarer and rarer I began to feel like I was plundering. But it was still an area that fascinated me. That is, the careful cataloging where, for instance, I could discern 98 different species of the lady bug which each one is very minutely different from the next.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Women, Interrupted: Hindsight and Younger

Brian Kerwin and Laura Ramsay in Hindsight, on VH1.

Apparently I'm due for a midlife crisis, or at least that's what television is telling me – loudly. Sure. I know how old I am (and if I forget, Facebook is always there to eagerly remind me) but aside from a rapidly greying beard and a still growing list of chronic aches and pains, I have only rarely found myself dwelling morbidly on that fact. But 2015 seems to be the season of the midlife reversal. It began (for me) with Showtime's Happyish, which established quickly, with a bittersweet birthday party around his kitchen table, that its depressive protagonist Thom Payne was celebrating 44 exhausting years. Sure, Thom is played is played by the 49-year-old Steve Coogan, but it was enough to give this Gen-Xer pause. Today, I'm writing about two midlife shows from across the gender divide, VH1's Hindsight and TV Land's Younger. Both series tells stories of 40-something women facing up to the choices they've made, and who – through varying circumstances – suddenly find themselves living lives of women in their mid-20s. The first is essentially an escapist prime time soap with a fantasy flourish, and the second a comedy/drama that delivers laughs and poignant moments of self-discovery, through the lens of some moments of surprisingly pointed social commentary. Both shows have already finished their short first seasons and both were renewed for next year, but if you haven't watched them yet, Younger is the one to catch up on before its new season begins early in 2016.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Neglected Gem #80: Six Ways to Sunday (1997)

Norman Reedus in Six Ways to Sunday (1997).

Norman Reedus’ face hadn’t yet turned into a slit-eyed tribal death mask when he starred in Six Ways to Sunday (1997), a low-budget black comedy that barely made it into a few theaters when it was new and hasn’t established the cult that would give it an afterlife, but that still has a spark and a bent but potent vein of mordant wit. (I first saw it on a DVD that I was able to pick up for six bucks; the now out-of-print DVDs available at Amazon go for more than that now, but in recent months, the movie has also turned up at YouTube. Reedus, best known for his hard-to-resist star turn as the principled white trash zombie killer Darryl on TV’s The Walking Dead, was in his late twenties when he played Sunday’s main character, Harry, an 18-year-old virgin who lives with his mother (Debbie Harry) in a particularly uninviting apartment in a particularly bleak, wintry part of Youngstown, Ohio. Here, he has the sly, baby-fox look of the young Christopher Jones in Wild in the Streets and Three in the Attic. But though Harry is far from defenseless, he’s ill-equipped to outfox anyone, except unwittingly. He’s even invented an imaginary friend, a smiling, finger-popping daddy named Madden (Holter Graham), to protect himself from admitting that he knows more—about things like sex, and violent anger—than he wants to.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Robin Phillips: The Stratford Years

Robin Phillips, in 1977. (Photo via Torstar News Service)

Robin Phillips, who died on July 25 at the age of seventy-three, trained at the Bristol Old Vic and spent a decade as a young actor (he played the title role in the 1969 film of David Copperfield) before turning to directing. I own a copy of a TV movie of Strindberg’s Miss Julie that he directed in 1972 with a stunningly beautiful, sexually daring Helen Mirren playing opposite Donal McCann (a decade and a half before he played Gabriel in John Huston’s The Dead). After two years at the helm of the Greenwich Theatre in England, Phillips took the post of artistic director at Canada’s Stratford Festival and held it for six seasons, 1975 through 1980. I was in my twenties then, living in Montreal, and except for 1976, when I was traveling in Europe, I made sure to visit Stratford once or twice every summer, so I saw roughly a dozen and a half of the shows Phillips directed (or co-directed). I thought at the time that he was the most brilliant stage director I’d encountered in my young, fervent theatergoing life. It was an exciting time to be at Stratford: Phillips brought Maggie Smith, Brian Bedford, Peter Ustinov, Jessica Tandy and Margaret Tyzack to act alongside such Stratford stalwarts as Martha Henry, William Hutt, Douglas Rain, Alan Scarfe, Jack Wetherall and Domini Blythe. (Bedford ended up becoming one of those stalwarts.) Phillips claimed exhaustion when he left Stratford, and no wonder: during two or three of those seasons he staged five plays. His subsequent directing career was halting, though he worked in London and New York and around Canada; nothing evidently nothing he did after 1980 matched up to his achievements at Stratford. But those were glorious years, and I count myself fortunate to have attended so many of his dazzling shows.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Based On A True Story: Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Rinko Kikuchi in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter.

Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi, of Babel and Pacific Rim) searches for things. The oppressively rigid structure of her Tokyo life – represented in her mind-numbing job, her condescending boss, her overbearing mother, and her tiny, stifling apartment – makes her restless, and so she goes out searching for things, perhaps in an attempt to find a purpose for herself as much as any actual buried treasure. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, written and directed by David and Nathan Zellner, opens with Kumiko’s search leading her to a shaded cove, where she uncovers a soggy VHS copy of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996). It’s unclear who left the tape there for her to find, and whose directions she’s followed to get there, but none of that matters: this first, context-free quest establishes the film’s tone of dreamy unreality, and gives Kumiko the first thing she’s had to strive for in years.

Monday, July 27, 2015

All That Jazz: Paradise Blue and The Wild Party

Kristolyn Lloyd and Blair Underwood in Paradise Blue. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Paradise Blue, a new play by Dominique Morisseau at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is set in the African-American community of Blackbottom in Detroit in 1949, during the heyday of bop. Its protagonist, Blue (Blair Underwood), is a jazz trumpeter who owns a club, the Paradise, and headlines the combo that plays there. He’s struggling to attain the zenith of his creative powers while battling the ghosts of his childhood: he saw his father murder his mother. Morisseau intends Blue to embody the musicians in the bop movement, gifted and intellectually self-challenging, restless and haunted. It’s a great subject, but she’s also working with black archetypes that limit the play imaginatively. The quintet of hard-working actors in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s production strive to bring a vibrancy to the play but they’re stuck playing caricatures.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Remembering Theodore Bikel

Theodore Bikel on stage as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

I once met Theodore Bikel, the esteemed singer/actor who, earlier this week, passed away at age 91. It was back in 1998, at a conference encompassing the directors of programming and others involved with the world’s various Jewish film festivals – I was Director of Programming of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival from 1996-2004 – and, for some reason, Bikel was in attendance. Better still, he sat at my table during the conference’s opening ceremony. I remember being quite thrilled to meet him and I introduced myself and we chatted a bit – he seemed nice – and I especially recall this funny joke he told, in his deep baritone voice. The joke goes: The Pope has been invited to ask the first question of the world’s greatest and smartest computer. His question: Is there a God? The answer, from the computer: THERE IS NOW! (Besides being amusing, I think the joke is pretty prescient, as it’s easier to imagine the current Pope Francis being asked to interact with the computer than his two less hip predecessors.) I mention this because Bikel, over his long distinguished career, made quite an impression in big – his theatrical, film and television work – and small – the joke – ways on those who encountered him. Whether it was his involvement with Montreal rap singer Socalled (aka Josh Dolgin) in a smart, catchy re-working of the classic Yiddish song "Belz, Mayn Shtetele Belz" (Belz, my town Belz) in 2007 as "(Rock The) Belz", available as part of the Rough Guide to Klezmer Revolution CD, his role as Rance Mohammitz in Frank Zappa's surreal 1971 film 200 Motels or his powerful turn as the esteemed Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem in his recent one man show Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, Bikel left an indelible mark on those who heard his music or saw his work.