Saturday, April 30, 2016

Advocacy and Accuracy: Kirby Dick's The Hunting Ground

A scene from Kirby Dick's The Hunting Ground.

“Despite significant progress over the last few years, too many woman and men on and off college campuses are still victims of sexual abuse.”
– Vice President Joe Biden at the 2015 Academy Awards 
The persuasive power of advocacy journalism and documentaries is undeniable, but they have their detractors in large part because they offer viewers only one perspective or one that is not even-handed. Think of the conversation around An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 Oscar-winning film about Al Gore's efforts to explain global warning. Yet Guggenheim’s recent foray, He Named Me Malala, is an inspiring portrait of the Pakistani teenager and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai, which I expect has few detractors, at least in the West. Or consider the highly popular Making of a Murderer, the Netflix series that revisits and forcibly challenges a decade-old murder conviction. This documentary series, reminiscent of Errol Morris’ 1988 pioneering The Thin Blue Line has elicited viewers’ visceral outrage about the original conviction. Although the filmmakers have been generally praised for their muckraking efforts, a few critics, notably Kathryn Schulz writing in The New Yorker, persuasively provides a counter argument.

A similar controversy has been stirred by the incendiary The Hunting Ground about the prevalence of sexual assault on American campuses and the apparent indifference of university administrators in addressing the complaints of the victims. Writer-director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering, who previously collaborated on the documentaries Outrage, about homophobia among American political elites, and The Invisible War, about sexual assault and its cover up in the military, do provide a disturbing picture of a serious problem. If seen in isolation from the critical responses to the film, most viewers likely will be enraged by what has been occurring on American campuses as portrayed in The Hunting Ground.

Friday, April 29, 2016

First-Person Hitler: Look Who's Back

Franziska Wulf and Oliver Masucci in Look Who's Back, currently streaming on Netflix.

“In the year 2014, if someone comes to the central square in Bayreuth [Germany] pretending to be Hitler and if that is tolerated by the general public, then I have to say: that is bad for Germany…"
– an unnamed German citizen, in an unscripted scene from Look Who's Back

"I can work with this."
– "Adolf Hitler" in Look Who's Back
In 2012, author Timur Vermes' comic novel Er ist wieder da (He is Back, in English) was published in Germany, and it quickly became a bestseller. The satirical story, told from the point of view of Adolf Hitler, describes the unlikely scenario of Hitler suddenly returning to modern-day Germany (then 2011), becoming a YouTube sensation, and eventually, in the book's final pages, mobilizing his fame to return to politics. The book was translated into English in 2014 by Jamie Bulloch as Look Who's Back (MacLehose Press). Last year, the novel was adapted into a film by German filmmaker David Wnendt (Wetlands, 2013). Three weeks ago, the English-subtitled version of Look Who's Back appeared on Netflix.

Reading Look Who's Back in English is a strange experience. Despite its controversial protagonist, its true subject matter is our own times, the cult of celebrity, and of course the state and self-understanding of contemporary Germany. The English-language translation helpfully includes an appendix that offers non-German readers a crib sheet on the lesser-known Nazis whose names appear in the book, a primer on German political parties and their acronyms, and some background on popular German TV personalities. Though most of the references will still fail to resonate for those of us who aren't current on German chat shows and comedians, we still share enough of the world for most of Vermes' satire to land. In the novel, everyone responds to "Hitler" as if he himself were the satirist, a bold comedian taking broad swipes at culture at large – a truth teller, a Method comic with a square mustache and a Nazi uniform. As a character and a narrator, Vermes' Hitler is a man who knows fully who he is and what he believes and seems utterly unable to dissemble – but no-one he who hears him takes him at his word. Instead, it is received as brilliant and pointed cultural critique, and he is eventually embraced by politicians and people of all political (and non-political) stripes. No-one takes Hitler seriously, it is implied, because no-one seems to take themselves very seriously.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Neglected Gem # 92: And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003)

Antonio Banderas, Matt Day, Carl Dillard and Eion Bailey in And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003).

The HBO movie And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is a satirical comedy that the writer, Larry Gelbart, built up from an oddball historical footnote: in 1914 Pancho Villa invited Mutual Films to send their star director, D.W. Griffith, to Mexico to film the revolution. In his tabloids, William Randolph Hearst was editorializing fervently against Villa’s uprising, so Villa hoped that he could counter his bad press by going Hollywood – or at least Fort Lee, New Jersey, which in 1914 was where American movies were being made. I have no idea how faithful Gelbart is to the facts (a prefatory note tells us, “The improbability of events depicted in this film is the surest indication that they actually did occur”), but he landed on an irresistible subject and the movie, directed by Bruce Beresford, is terrific. In it, Antonio Banderas gives a sly and exuberant performance as Villa – it’s an ideal role for him – and the talented young actor Eion Bailey (who later played a major role in Band of Brothers and recurring roles on ER and Ray Donovan) is Frank Thayer, whom Harry Aitken (Jim Broadbent), the head of Mutual, sends down instead because Griffith’s too busy. The movie is shaped as Thayer’s coming of age: he falls in love with the revolution, becomes Villa’s buddy and romanticizes him, and then he has to acknowledge the more unpleasant truths about him. He even gets the girl – the actress Teddy Sampson (Alexa Davalos), who appears in the movie he makes about Villa. Dramatically, Gelbart and Beresford need Thayer to filter Villa’s actions, which are complicated and sometimes contradictory. But though Bailey is very good and his story is interesting in its own right, it’s Banderas’s Villa who mesmerizes the camera and claims ownership of the movie. Beresford shores up the two leading men with a colorful supporting cast: Broadbent, Michael McKean as William Christy Cabanne, who takes over from Thayer and makes a commercial seven-reeler about Villa, and Kyle Chandler as Raoul Walsh, who stars in it; Saul Rubinek as Villa’s American liaison; Colm Feore as Griffith; Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Anthony Stewart Head as William Benton, a rich Englishman whose Mexican ranch Villa bleeds of its cattle (and then shoots Benton when he objects); and especially Alan Arkin as Sam Drebben, a Bronx-Jewish mobster who goes to battle with Villa. Arkin’s performance, gruff and robust and hilarious, ranks with the blistering comic work he did in the seventies in movies like Hearts of the West, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and The In-Laws.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Podcast: Interview with Robert Moog (1986)

Inventor Robert "Bob" Moog. (Photo courtesy of The Bob Moog Foundation)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) 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 1986, one of those interviews was with engineer Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer and pioneer of electronic music. He passed away in August 2005, at the age of 71.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Robert Moog as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1986.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Swords, Sorcery, & Social Justice – The Huntsman: Winter's War

Emily Blunt (left) and Charlize Theron in The Huntsman: Winter's War.

Watching The Huntsman: Winter’s War, a sequel to a fantasy retelling of Snow White that I never bothered to see, I got the distinct impression that I was watching something made for someone else. The elaborate costuming, hammy overacting, and romantic subplots should have been clues, but all it took was a cursory scan of the audience filing out of the cinema afterward for me to finally realize who that “someone else” was. I was surrounded by my comrades, my kin, my counterparts in the endorsement of shlocky fantasy cinema: female nerds.

I make the distinction from any other brand of nerd simply because I believe – at least in terms of what our modern theatres have to offer – that they’re an ill-served subset of our culture. Examples of enjoyable fantasy cinema aimed at a female audience are few and far between, and I think that’s deplorable. For every big-budget adolescent male power fantasy, from Hercules to Gods of Egypt, there’s a pathetic Mortal Instruments or a forgotten Beautiful Creatures, like stringy bones tossed to a starving dog. Our culture gives these dedicated dorks no real choice: they can enjoy, despite themselves, the male-dominated films that are given reasonable budgets and good marketing, or they can settle for the scraps left over. Many girls adore Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films – mostly because they’re excellent – but they do so in spite of the trilogy’s almost medieval lack of female representation. Really, there’s no reason we can’t incorporate elements that are relatable to women into these crappy fantasy films, is there? This isn’t the nineties anymore, when Happy Meals were as segregated as the two halves of the dance floor at a Hasidic wedding. Everyone deserves a trashterpiece now and again, right?

Monday, April 25, 2016

Constructing Musicals: Jack Viertel’s The Secret Life of the American Musical

Cast of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway, 1977. (Photo: Bobby Bank)

Jack Viertel’s new book The Secret Life of the American Musical (Sarah Crichton Books) is a gift for those of us who love musical theatre; I read it over just a couple of days and would have devoured it in a single sitting if time had allowed. Viertel, a one-time dramaturg, drama critic and arts editor who is now, among many other accomplishments, the artistic director of City Center’s Encores! series, has taught musical theatre at NYU’s Tisch School for the last ten years, and this volume emerged from his classes as well as from his extensive experience with musicals over the past three decades. I suspect it would be impossible to find anyone who knows more about the subject, and in The Secret Life of the American Musical he offers a comprehensive master class in how good musicals are constructed. Even for those of us who have seen and listened to hundreds of musicals, the book is a series of revelations – mostly because of his method of juxtaposing shows that are vastly different in style, tone and subject matter to show how the same principles operate across the spectrum.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Off the Shelf: John Gregory Dunne's Monster (1997)

When studying film in college during the Seventies, I read critical books that were about the themes, issues and the craft of movie-making. But by the Eighties and Nineties, most of the books I encountered – good ones, I'll admit – like Final Cut (about the Heaven's Gate disaster), Outrageous Conduct (about the Twilight Zone tragedy) and The Devil's Candy (about The Bonfire of the Vanities fiasco) were more about the failure of the American movie industry. (Ironically, most made for more compelling drama than the films that inspired them.) Now it would be tempting to add John Gregory Dunne's Monster (Random House, 1997) to this ignominious list, but for the fact that it is not much more interesting than the movie that spawned it. Monster initially reads as an absorbing and a painfully comic tale that pits the creative writer, with his unreasonable demands, against the corporate system, one that produces inhabitants who wear pinstripe suits with suspenders, slick their hair back with grease and have Perrier breath. But the book loses its nerve part way through and turns pretty schizoid. If the first half of Monster suggests how Hollywood's corporate brass turn writers into cookie-cutters, by the end, Dunne is practically providing trays to put the cookies on.