Saturday, July 30, 2016

Talking Out of Turn #45 (Podcast): Film Critic Jay Scott (1985)

Jay Scott was film critic for The Globe and Mail from 1977 until his death in 1993.

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 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 concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton, host and producer of On the Arts.
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., Doris Kearns Goodwin sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be 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 recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

Talking Out of Turn had one section devoted to reviewers who ran against the current of popular thinking in the Eighties. That chapter included discussions with New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who had returned to writing in the Eighties after a brief hiatus as a consultant in Hollywood, talked to me in 1983 about how the Reagan decade was already having a deadening impact on the movie industry; author Margaret Atwood, who turned to literary criticism in her 1986 book Second Words, discussed  from an author's perspective  the value of criticism and how it was changing for the worse during this decade; Vito Russo, who in 1981, wrote a book called The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movieswhich examined the way gays and lesbians had been portrayed in the history of American movies; and Globe and Mail film critic and author Jay Scott (Midnight Matinees) who spoke about how, despite being one of Canada's sharpest and wittiest writers on movies, he was initially a reluctant critic.

One of Canada's best film critics, Jay Scott died from AIDS on July 30, 1993 – 23 years ago today – but in his short life he left quite a mark on the Canadian cultural scene. When he sat down with me in his hotel room in 1985, we were both in Montreal covering the Film Festival and talking about his book of criticism, Midnight Matinees, which had just come out. He spoke about how his passionate love for movies would ultimately grow into a life of film criticism. No surprise that after our long chat, we both ran off to catch Paul Morrissey's Mixed Blood. I think he enjoyed it more than me.

– Kevin Courrier.

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

Friday, July 29, 2016

Eleanor Roosevelt through Different Lenses (Part 2): Patricia Bell-Scott’s The Firebrand and the First Lady

Part 1 of Bob Douglas' Eleanor Roosevelt through Different Lenses was published here on Sunday. 

Reading The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship, I noted that although it covers much of the same material and sources as Ken Burns' The Roosevelts, Patricia Bell-Scott offers a new angle and brings Eleanor Roosevelt into sharper focus with a fuller, more rounded portrait, rendering her a more complex individual than served up in the documentary television series. She continued to encourage her husband to live up to his promises and professed ideals but what is different about The Firebrand is that she in turn was challenged by Pauli Murray (1910-85), an African-American socialist activist, lawyer, poet and first African-American female Episcopal priest.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Course Correction: Star Trek Beyond

Chris Pine as Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek Beyond.

It may seem strange to say, but Star Trek Beyond is sort of the movie we need right now. In a month that has seen more atrocities committed than most of us can stomach, and the needless shooting of yet another black citizen in the U.S. just this week (and then the trailer, that almost felt like a response, for a Marvel Netflix series about an invincible black man), it’s encouraging to see that even our summer blockbusters have the good taste to be about unity, harmony, and hope. Even in the guise of fluffy escapism, Beyond is one of the pieces of entertainment out there right now that helps us address the problems we’re battling in the real world – the problems that prompted Roddenberry to create the brand in the first place. In that sense, Beyond feels the most like real Star Trek of any of these "nuTrek" films – and that also makes it the best of them, too.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Lovesick Movie: I Saw the Light

Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams in Marc Abraham's I Saw the Light.

Hank Williams was born in a two-room cabin in Mount Olive, Alabama in 1923. He was an over-active child whose enthusiasm for constant play was subdued by the gift of a guitar at the age of seven. The cheap instrument was from his mother and could be considered a blessing and a curse for the young boy who was one restless soul. Williams took lessons from a black street singer by the name of Teetot who taught him a few blues licks and how to sing. He also learned how to drink and to quell his hyperactive soul with alcohol, in between writing songs. By the time he was 21 years old he had his own band, his own radio show and a growing audience. Hank Williams sang about God, love and loss, and having a good time, which was quite the appeal in post-war America. His sound was a mix of country, swing and the earliest form of rockabilly that appealed to the teens. As a man he was charming but reckless with his health and his two wives. He died young while riding in the back seat of one his prized Cadillacs. It’s the kind of stuff that would make a great movie – unfortunately that movie isn’t I Saw the Light, starring Tom Hiddleston as Williams.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Rules of Engagement: Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky

Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky is the kind of procedural thriller that clears your head while simultaneously keeping you in breathless suspense. Guy Hibbert's compelling script with its taut intelligence gets into a great subject here: drone warfare. What Eye in the Sky sets out to unravel with sharp slivers of nuance is the moral ambivalence felt by those who execute high-tech strikes against Islamic extremists. Operating from a distance and using drone aircraft and sophisticated camera surveillance, pilots, soldiers and politicians get pulled into the queasy voyeurism of a video battleground. They may be in complete control of the hardware to reduce the collateral damage of innocent human life, but we see that people will always unwittingly stray into the target area. Eye in the Sky skillfully maps out their dramatic strategy, while implicating us as witnesses, but the picture is about our inability to control human behaviour  no matter how sophisticated the technology is. Unlike Hood's earlier Rendition (2007), which focused on the CIA's practice of extraordinary rendition, Eye in the Sky doesn't craft its tale so that every little detail falls neatly into place. Rendition was so concerned about being on the right side of every issue that the audience barely had to break a sweat picking sides. By the end, Eye in the Sky brings comfort and certainty to no one.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Hither and Yon: Theatre Round-Up

The Cast of Goodspeed's Bye Bye Birdie. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

This piece contains reviews of Bye Bye Birdie (Goodspeed Opera House), Alice in Wonderland (Shaw Festival), The Stone Witch (Berkshire Theatre Group), and Romance Novels for Dummies (Williamstown Theatre Festival).

Framed by Daniel Brodie’s nostalgic projections that reminds us what we saw on TV in 1960, the revival of Bye Bye Birdie at the Goodspeed Opera House is a little uneven but quite enjoyable, and I don’t think that the director, Jenn Thompson, can be faulted for most of the problems. Time hasn’t been kind to Michael Stewart’s book, a satirical take on the pop-cultural phenomenon of Elvis Presley and his imitators that felt fresh as the country cartwheeled into the sixties and for at least a few years thereafter. Stewart was inspired by Presley’s 1957 army induction. When Birdie is drafted, Rosie, the quick-witted secretary to his combination manager-songwriter Albert Peterson, comes up with the idea of picking one teenage girl from the legion of Conrad’s fans to receive a goodbye kiss from him on The Ed Sullivan Show, guaranteeing that the song with which he serenades her, “One Last Kiss,” will become a big enough hit to bankroll Albert’s departure from the music business and enable him to marry Rosie – a fiancée almost as long-suffering as Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls – and realize his original dream to become an English teacher. The adolescent they pick at random, Kim McAfee, has just become pinned to her jittery boy friend, Hugo Peabody. Conrad’s descent upon her small Ohio town, Sweet Apple, doesn’t just unnerve Hugo; it puts all of the teenagers into a state of hormonal hysteria. Albert’s possessive mother, Mae, who views Rosie as competition, arrives on the scene, too, to block her marital plans.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Eleanor Roosevelt through Different Lenses (Part 1): Ken Burns' The Roosevelts

Eleanor Roosevelt speaking at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. (Photo: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)

Since Ken Burns adapted David McCullough's book, The Great Bridge, about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, to an Academy Award winning Brooklyn Bridge (1981), he has produced and directed numerous masterful feature length documentaries for PBS. His signature trademarks are a combination of still photos, archival film footage, unseen actors reading the words of historical characters, apt American music and an array of historians, journalists and (if possible) surviving contemporaries who offer compelling anecdotes and insights into the era, an issue and the characters. Burns avoids dramatic re-enactments. His oeuvre includes The Statue of Liberty (1985), the iconic The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), The West (1996), Lewis & Clark (1997), Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Dust Bowl (2012), The Central Park Five (2013). Most recently PBS has aired Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies (2015), a six-hour treatment of Indian-American physician Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer prize-winning biography of cancer, the one film Burns did not direct because he was so personally connected to the subject: his mother died of cancer when he was a young boy. In 2016, he returned to directing and producing the thrilling Jackie Robinson that excelled in weaving together sport, politics and race.

It is, however, Burns’ 2014 mammoth seven-part, fourteen-hour The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, on the private and public lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, that is the one I will be discussing today – focusing mostly on the second generation of Roosevelts. As with many of the films cited above, Burns collaborated with biographer and historian Geoffrey C. Ward, who wrote the elegant and accessible script and is one of the historians – along with Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Jon Meacham and journalist George Will – who offers trenchant insights. Actor Peter Coyote won an Emmy award for his compelling narration. The stellar cast of actors’ voices include Meryl Streep for Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Giamatti for Teddy Roosevelt, and Edward Herrmann for FDR, an astute choice since he persuasively played the role in the television series Eleanor and Franklin (1976) and Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years (1977).