Saturday, October 29, 2016

Living in Hell: J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and the White Working Class

Author J.D. Vance. (Photo: Naomi McColloch)

It’s hard to say which is the most arresting anecdote in J.D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. There’s the story about the time his beloved grandmother – “Mamaw” to Vance and his sister – nearly blew off an interloper’s head in backwoods Kentucky during her girlhood. There’s the one that Vance recounts about his opioid-addicted mother nearly swerving off the road while screaming at him, then chasing him and forcing him to take shelter in a neighbor’s house, only to break down the door just before the cops showed up. Then there are the fleeting but haunting images of rural poverty that he witnesses when he returns to “hillbilly” country, such as the eight pairs of eyes, belonging to hungry and neglected children, that he catches staring out at him from a rundown shack.

Vance’s memoir, which recounts his early life as the son of self-described “hillbillies,” isn’t all despair and misery, however. His grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, seem to have fled their small Kentucky community to settle in Middletown because of a teenage pregnancy scandal. Miscarriages, alcoholism, and domestic violence followed, but eventually the couple achieved an unconventional but workable equilibrium, which allowed them to provide a degree of stability to Vance and his sister Lindsay when their mother’s life went off the rails. There’s a fair degree of warmth in the book, as well as recurring moments when he steps back from the narrative of his life to cite experts who have studied the social decay of the white working-class milieu from which he comes. It’s an admirable attempt to provide some perspective and to contextualize his personal experiences. In some ways, it’s eye-opening: hillbilly culture, according to Vance, is indeed violent, but it’s also not quite the reactionary, Bible-thumping stereotype advanced by those who are unfamiliar with his world.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Let's Get Small: Netflix's Easy

Malin Akerman and Orlando Bloom in Easy.

The Netflix series Easy was created by the independent filmmaker Joe Swanberg (V/H/S), who also directed, produced, and edited it, and is the sole writer credited on each of its eight half-hour episodes. It’s an anthology series set in Chicago, a collection of self-contained stories about the relationship and career problems of a couple of dozen characters, some of whom make fleeting appearances in one episode but may return to play a more prominent role in another. Many of the characters are involved in some kind of creative work, from acting or writing to setting up an illegal dare one say, “indie” brewery. And most of them are in their twenties or thirties and either just getting the hang of adult life or struggling with the conflict between reaping the rewards of committing to a long-term relationship or starting a family and settling into a rut and closing off other unexplored possibilities. (There are also a few older characters who are weighed down by regrets and blown chances: Jane Adams as an aging actress and Marc Maron as an autobiographical cartoonist who’s one part Robert Crumb to two parts Marc Maron.)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Critic’s Crypt: Threequel Thursday – The Exorcist III & A Nightmare on Elm Street 3

Ed Flanders and George C. Scott in The Exorcist III (1990).

The Halloween movie season is, for me, as much about discovering new favourites as revisiting old ones. Classics like Suspiria, Poltergeist, Halloween, and Evil Dead 2 are like friends I welcome back each year with open arms and a beaming heart, and I’m ever eager to add new friends to that group. That’s why I make time every October to fill in the gaps in my horror repertoire that represent the sequels, prequels, and other continuations of movies I already know and love. Over time I’d heard many good things about two such cinematic hellspawns, which both happened to be the third entry (a.k.a. “threequel”) in a series that suffered from a sub-par sequel: The Exorcist III (1990) and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987).

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Love Me T.O.: In Conversation with Author Piers Hemmingsen

A Beatles' press conference at Maple Leaf Gardens before they took the stage on Aug. 17, 1965. (Photo: John Rowlands)

Canadian Beatles authority Piers Hemmingsen served as guest curator on the multimedia BEATLES 50 T.O. exhibition, and this Saturday he will give a talk at Toronto's Market Gallery, where the show continues until Nov. 12, explaining his role and the role Canada played in making the Fabs famous in North America. The author of the recently self-published book, The Beatles in Canada: The Origins of Beatlemania!, Hemmingsen is a retired computer programmer who spent the last seven years investigating the topic. He knows what he's talking about.

His sizeable tome -- an expansive 468 pages -- grafts little-known fact to revealing interviews with such important early Beatles figures as Paul White, the former Capitol Records Canada singles promoter who in 1963 was the first to release a Beatles' record – "Love Me Do" – in North America. Canadians reacted. More than 100,000 eventually signed on to join the Toronto edition of a Beatles fan club that ended up being the biggest of its kind in the world. The U.S. had nothing comparable. When the Beatles touched down in New York in February 1964 for the first of three Ed Sullivan Show appearances, Toronto sent down two of its teenagers to handle the deluge of fan mail. Beatlemania had erupted on the continent and Canada helped make it happen, ushering in the pop-centred British Invasion which would come to shape the 1960s.

Those sparks flew for the first time over 50 years ago with Toronto, or T.O. as it is familiarly known, emerging as the North American city where the Beatles played the most during their touring years. Their last concert in Canada took place at Maple Leaf Gardens, the city's major hockey arena, in 1966. That transitional year forms the focus of When the Beatles Rocked Toronto -- whose displays of rare Beatles memorabilia, including the infamous "butcher" album cover, Hemmingsen organized, borrowing from public and private archives across the country as well as his own collection.

"The Beatles’ story is a great story. They were never happy to live with what they had already recorded and they always strived to improve with each new release," said Hemmingsen during a conversation which took place earlier this week in Toronto. "There was a start and an end, just like life. Their messages of love and peace are universal messages that will reverberate for a long time to come."

Here's more of that conversation:

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Critic’s Crypt: Extreme Home Makeover – The Amityville Horrors, Old and New

James Brolin and Margot Kidder in The Amityville Horror (1979).

I’m going to open with a confession: despite moonlighting as a film and television critic, I have a notoriously bad memory for film and television. Friends and coworkers regularly quote movies and TV shows to me, often ones I’ve seen and loved, and I respond with a blank stare. I used to try to maintain my cultured façade by discreetly Googling the reference in question but I’ve given up on that as I’ve gotten older (… mostly because sometimes I get caught). My abysmally bad memory is how I wound up writing this piece. My colleague Justin suggested I do a Critic’s Crypt piece: maybe I could compare an original with a remake. The horror genre is rife with remakes! So I said, “Sure! I’ll write on The Amityville Horror! I love that movie.”

Upon re-watching “that movie,” I’ve recognized that I don’t actually love it. Rather, I fell into the trap of misremembering a classic – and it cost me five hours of my life. Let this be a lesson.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Minimalists: New Plays by Simon Stephens and Steve Martin, and Camelot in Westport

Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker in Simon Stephens' Heisenberg, at New York's Manhattan Theatre Club. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

In his two-hander Heisenberg, Simon Stephens sets out to provide a dramatic illustration of Heisenberg’s principle that the more precisely you measure an object, the more it eludes your attempts. His guinea pigs are Alex Priest (Denis Arndt), a seventy-five-year-old Irish butcher and lifelong bachelor residing in London, and Georgie Burns (Mary Louise Parker), a transplanted American thirty-three years his junior who approaches him in the street, a complete stranger, and kisses him on the neck – an action that occurs just before the play begins. Georgie explains that from behind Alex looked so much like her recently deceased husband that she couldn’t help herself; she also identifies herself as a waitress at London’s legendary restaurant Ottolenghi. In their second encounter, at his shop, she recants, insisting that everything she’s told him was a lie. Now she says that she works at a receptionist in an elementary school, that her husband left her and their son has emigrated to America, cutting off all contact with her. After Georgie and Alex become lovers, she asks him for money to look for her son in Hackensack, his last known location. Did she decide to try to get money out of Alex after sleeping with him, or was he a mark she targeted from the outset?

Sunday, October 23, 2016

New Harlem Renaissance: Marvel's Luke Cage

Mike Colter as Luke Cage, in Marvel's Luke Cage on Netflix.

Five months have passed since the events of the first season of Jessica Jones, and the scene has now shifted uptown from Hell's Kitchen to Harlem, where Luke Cage (Mike Colter, The Good Wife) has been keeping to himself, working two minimum-wage jobs and living anonymously above a Chinese restaurant. He has revealed his abilities to 'Pop' Henry (Frankie Fraison), a paternal figure who runs a barbershop where Cage works, but otherwise is largely content to sweep hair and wash dishes. All that changes when a kid from the shop, also under Pop's wing, gets caught up in some dirty business with local drug dealer and club owner, Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes (Mahershala Ali, House of Cards). Cage stops laying in the cut and steps – hoodie, bulletproof skin and all – on to the streets. There is a lot that is great about Luke Cage, even more that is very good, and, unfortunately much that is ultimately disappointing.