Saturday, June 18, 2016

Podcast: Interview with Novelist Alice Hoffman (1985)

Author Alice Hoffman in 2008. (Photo: Deborah Feingold)

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 1985, one of those interviews was with novelist Alice Hoffman, who had just published her fifth book, Fortune's Daughter. In addition to her novels, she also had written the screenplay for Robert Mandel's 1983 film Independence Day (starring Kathleen Quinlan). Her 1995 novel Practical Magic would be adapted for the screen in 1998. The author of The Dovekeepers (2011), Hoffman's most recent novel is The Marriage of Oppositespublished last year by Simon & Schuster.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Alice Hoffman as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1985.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Through the Mirror Darkly: The Gothic Dimension of the 2016 Presidential Election (Part II)

Louisiana politician Huey Long, during a radio broadcast, January 1930.

The following is Part II of Through the Mirror Darkly: The Gothic Dimension of the 2016 Presidential Election. Part I was published here yesterday. The piece is an edited adaptation of an address I presented at the Mensa Society International Conference in Toronto on June 11.  – bd

The bigoted nativism that Trump stokes is not unique in the American historical experience. In 1780, papist immigrants were targeted allegedly for their fecundity; in 1850, the scapegoat was the Chinese who allegedly could not assimilate; in 1920, Jews were feared because they threatened the economy. The cartoon does not take into account the no-nothing movement that became the American Party in 1854 which called for the end of Catholic immigrants from Germany and Ireland. But these historical episodes were generally relegated to the political fringes and no major Presidential candidate took them seriously as a major plank in their election campaign.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Through the Mirror Darkly: The Gothic Dimension of the 2016 Presidential Election (Part I)

“The Gothic thrives in a world where those in authority – the supposed exemplars of the good – are under suspicion.”
– Mark Edmundson, Nightmare on Main Street, 1997.
The Gothic is a “demonic history text … in which its common thread is the singularity and monstrosity of the Other.”
Louis Gross, Redefining the American Gothic, 1989

The following is an edited adaptation of an address I presented at the Mensa Society International Conference in Toronto on June 11.  – bd

If I were to deliver a political overview about the current Presidential election campaign, I would be substituting Hilary Clinton for Barack Obama. Given that I'm more interested here in delving into Gothic undercurrents, I think it is more apt to explore the values that represent vastly divergent visions of America, and they are best personified by the President and the Republican Party’s standard bearer, Donald Trump. Obama embodies a multicultural, inclusive perspective, a worldview that exemplifies the best of twenty-first century America. At the same time, he champions a cornerstone of traditional American culture, that of civic nationalism – a citizenship that depends upon shared values. Donald Trump represents a more atavistic view of America, a throwback to an earlier era when racist and misogynous beliefs had legitimacy for large numbers of Americans. His incendiary rhetoric also suggests a belief that citizenship should be based on ethnicity or race, an ideology that almost destroyed Europe in the 1940s and is once again acquiring populist currency in parts of Europe, a form of ethnic nationalism that flouts the rule of law, celebrates the strong man, and fosters a contempt for and persecution of minorities and immigrants. Trump, like the Presidents of Russia and Turkey, exploits terrorism and cultivates chauvinism by fuelling a backlash against immigrants and minorities.

American Gothic, by Gordon Parks (1942).
I'm not offering as an example of an earlier era the historical painting, Grant Wood’s 1930 American Gothic, the most iconic in America (even for its countless parodies). Gordon Parks' 1942 photograph of the same name is more significant given that an African-American woman with her broom and mop is staring out at us with an out of focus American flag behind her. She is more emblematic of someone in a state of quasi servitude. This photograph also suggests that some Americans harbour a more ambiguous relationship with America because their value as citizens is not as esteemed as others. Over a half a century later, Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize winner for literature, expands upon this idea by exploring how European-American authors have marginalized and ignored African-Americans, or used them as a screen to project Caucasian savagery (even deprived them of their humanity by demonizing them). Although her slim 2008 monograph, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, largely draws upon literary texts from the American canon to develop these ideas, I suggest that her insights can also be applied to the larger culture.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Legacy from a Great Musician: Allen Toussaint’s American Tunes

Allen Toussaint (1938-2015) performing in Vienna, June 2015. (Photo: Jean-François Lixon)

On a hot summer night in 2006 in Montreal, a free, outdoor concert was held that was billed as a Tribute to Paul Simon. Among the performers was Allen Toussaint: musician, producer, composer and one of New Orleans’ favourite sons. Toussaint performed two songs that evening: “Take Me to The Mardi Gras” and “American Tune” (featuring Elvis Costello). Ironically, on the night in question, Toussaint could have easily been the honoree, having penned hits for the Pointer Sisters, Lee Dorsey and Aaron Neville among others. He produced, arranged and played keyboards on Labelle’s hit record “Lady Marmalade” in 1974, one of the biggest hits that year. Glen Campbell had a mainstream country hit with “Southern Nights” written by Toussaint that went to Number 1 on the Pop Charts in 1977.

But I suspect most people in the audience had no idea that they were hearing from an artist with as rich and diverse contribution to American music as Allen Toussaint. He rarely performed in public and worked “behind the scenes” – in fact he preferred it. During the fifties and sixties when he was writing songs he even used his mother’s name Naomi Neville or Al Tousan as the composer. The solitude of the studio away from the public eye was Toussaint’s refuge of creativity in a resilient career away from the spotlight.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Electricity: Macbeth at the Stratford Festival

Brigit Wilson, Deidre Gillard-Rowlings, and Lanise Antoine Shelley in Macbeth at the Stratford Festival. (Photo: David Hou)

For me, the first measure of a Macbeth is the witches. The “weird sisters,” as they call themselves, are can’t-miss characters: They are central to Macbeth’s story, their lines are full of memorable poetry – people who have never seen the Scottish play know “Double, double toil and trouble” – chanting and prophesying. Actresses must love playing these parts. (I’ve occasionally seen them played by men, but it’s not common; and “weird siblings” doesn’t have the same ring to it.)

The witches in the Stratford Festival’s Macbeth – Brigit Wilson, Deidre Gillard-Rowlings and Lanise Antoine Shelley – are excellent, gruesome and dark and scary, and their reading of Shakespeare’s macabre verses is outstanding. The witch-scene staging, by the festival’s Artistic Director, Antoni Cimolino, is first-rate. The cauldron scene, in particular, is easily the best I’ve seen, and the witches’ disappearance at the end of it is an actual coup de théâtre. Macbeth’s “Where are they? Gone?” has never been so apropos.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Tappin’ Life: What the Eye Hears, Shuffle Along, Tappin’ Thru Life

Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain (1952).

Brian Siebert’s hefty (612-page), comprehensive book on tap dance, published last year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, carries the poetic title What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing. The author lays out his premise in the introduction:
Most dance arises from an interaction between music and movement. But because tap can be both dancing to music and dancing as music, it’s especially concerned with the combination. As the tap dancer Paul Draper once explained, “What the eye sees is sharpened by what the ear hears, and the ear hears more clearly that which sight enhances.” A dancer jumps up at tilt with bent knees, shaping his legs into a bell; when, still in the air, he brings his heels together, that bell rings. 
And he slams that premise home in every conceivable way, some of them incidental and quirky, like his evaluation of tap on vinyl (a paragraph on Fred Astaire’s tapping on mid-1920s recordings of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “Crazy Feet” offers an evocative example) and his parenthetical claim that “the right hand of the bop pianist Bud Powell produced, to my ear, some of the [1940’s] era’s greatest tapping.” The Illustrated London News, reviewing a performance by the great mid-nineteenth-century black dancer Juba, or Master Juba, proclaimed him “a musician as well as a dancer,” and that’s how Siebert talks about the hundreds of dancers he memorializes in this marvelous book – as men and women who make sublime music with their feet.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

If History Has Taught Us Anything....Excerpt from the Introduction to Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part II.

Back in 1994, when I was just beginning a free-lance career, I had an idea for a book about American movies. That year, I'd seen Ivan Reitman's sentimental comedy Dave, starring Kevin Kline as a conservative President who falls into a coma and is replaced by a look-a-like (also played by Kline) so as not to send the public into a panic. Of course, the "new" President is more liberal and ultimately alters the policies of the true President. To my mind, it was as if we were watching George H. Bush morph into Bill Clinton in one movie. From that comedy, came the idea for Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

I wanted Reflections to examine how key American movies from the Kennedy era onward had soaked up the political and cultural ideals of the time they were made. By delving into the American experience (from Kennedy to Clinton), I thought the book could capture, through a number of films, how the dashed hopes of the Sixties were reflected back in the resurgence of liberal idealism in the Clinton Nineties. After drawing up an outline, I sent the proposal off to publishers who all sent it back saying that it would never sell. One Canadian publisher almost squeaked it through, but their marketing division headed them off at the pass. From there, I went on to co-write a book (with Critics at Large colleague and friend Susan Green) on the TV show, Law & Order, plus later do my own books about Frank Zappa, Randy Newman, the album Trout Mask Replica and The Beatles. All the while, I kept updating Reflections, seeing my idea change in the wake of Monica Lewinsky, Clinton's impeachment, the 2000 election of Bush, 9/11, and finally the rise of Barack Obama. For the past number of years, Reflections has also been a hugely successful lecture series. Here is an excerpt from the book's introduction.

- Kevin Courrier.

American films in the last fifty-odd years have come to soak up the political and cultural ideals of the time in which they were made and they often reflected a turbulent quest to define a nation. From the dashed optimism of the Kennedy era through to the renewed idealism that led Barack Obama to the White House, American movies, good and bad, were tissue samples of their age. Many of these pictures – from The Manchurian Candidate (1962) to The Butler (2013) – helped create a hall of mirrors that resembled the climatic shootout in Orson Welles's The Lady From Shanghai (1947) where you had to shatter a lot of glass to see what was going on. The construction of a hall of mirrors, however, isn't usually a conscious act although sometimes there is intent. You can see a deliberate version of one in Live Free or Die Hard (2007), the fourth installment of the Die Hard action franchise starring Bruce Willis as the terrorist fighting New York cop, John McClane, when he goes up against a group of cyber-insurgents who have hacked into the government's computers. To announce their desire to start a "fire sale," they launch an attack designed to target the nation's reliance on computer controls. To convey this, they edited together a video montage made up of segments of Presidential speeches from Roosevelt to Bush to put their message across. In creating a hall of mirrors effect, where various Presidents end up unwittingly uttering threats to the nation rather than the assurances their original speeches intended, the terrorists simply pull off a clever gag. ("I tried to find more Nixon," says one key hacker with an air of disappointment.) Their distortion of history turns into an obvious stunt, and one that we can see right through. It doesn't make a rent in our consciousness. We are still assured, despite the terrorists' initial control over American cyberspace, that John McClane will come to the rescue to get control back. But there are other hall of mirrors moments that aren't assuring, or designed as stunts, and instead seem embroidered into the fabric of a narrative that creeps out of its corners to spook us.