Saturday, December 3, 2016

American Pastoral: The Assimilation Dream

Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connelly in American Pastoral

The house I grew up in was in a gracious suburb of Montreal that had been restricted by a “gentleman’s agreement” – that is, no houses were sold to Jews – until, in the early fifties, it expanded northward and the old rules were no longer imposed on the new properties. Still, when my parents bought our house we were the first Jews on the street, and though most of our neighbors were warm and welcoming (a Chinese family was already ensconced two doors down), there was one family at the end of the block that refused to acknowledge us. I was only three or four when my father bought the first television set on the street, so I only learned from him years later about the day these anti-Semites showed up at our door, like all of our other neighbors, to get a peek at this brand-new marvel. “What did you do?” I asked my dad, but of course I knew him well enough to anticipate his answer: “I invited them in.” My father, a man of unassailable integrity, was also an accommodating one; he believed in people getting along, and he made his philosophy work – he counted non-Jews as well as Jews among his friends all his life.

I thought of my father when I read Philip Roth’s great 1997 novel American Pastoral – now a movie, directed by and starring Ewan McGregor – which offers, as one of its two great themes, the idea of assimilation as the essential dream of Jewish Americans and then dismantles it. Its protagonist is Seymour “Swede” Levov, a Jewish kid from Newark who, through a combination of uncanny athletic gifts (in high school he’s a football, basketball and baseball star) and golden-boy Wasp looks, gets to live the charmed life denied to most Jews in the forties and fifties. Roth’s narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, who pals around with Swede’s kid brother Jerry and, like all the other Newark youngsters, basks in Seymour’s reflected glory, refers to him as “our very own Swede, a boy as close to a goy as we were going to get” whose “steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask” permitted him to wear his Jewishness lightly. “[T]hrough the Swede,” Nathan explains, “the neighborhood entered into a fantasy about itself and about the world . . . our families could forget the way things actually work . . .” (They could also forget about the war; this part of the story takes place in the early forties.) The Swede takes over his father’s glove business, Newark Maid, but he successfully defies his father’s insular mentality and marries a Gentile, Dawn Dwyer, Miss New Jersey of 1949, and moves out to the country – Old Rimrock, N.J., bona fide Wasp territory. (Swede Levov anticipates another indelible Roth creation, Coleman Silk in The Human Stain, a black man so light-skinned he can pass for white.) Nathan, crossing paths with him again in the mid-nineties, assumes that his life has been “most simple and most ordinary and therefore just great, right in the American grain.” But then he runs into Jerry shortly after at their forty-fifth high school reunion and finds out that the Swede, recently and unexpectedly dead, lived for three decades under the cloud of a tragedy: his daughter Merry, radicalized as a teenager during the Vietnam War, had bombed the Old Rimrock post office and gone underground.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Everybody Knows: The Ubiquitous Leonard Cohen in the Movies

A young Leonard Cohen, in Donald Brittain's 1965 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen...Mr. Leonard Cohen.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Leonard Cohen since his passing earlier this month, unexpectedly but at the ripe old age of 82 – remembering the great concert of his I attended in Toronto in 2008, the humbleness he displayed on stage, and the sheer joy he felt in being so loved so late in his life. You just know he could not have imagined this highly positive outcome of his career trajectory. My good friend Bram Eisenthal, who worked then at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, the synagogue that Cohen attended in Montreal, and whose cantor and choir are featured in several of the songs in Cohen’s poignant last album You Want it Darker (2016), sent him my concert review – and while I have no idea if he actually saw it, much less read it, I was thrilled to know that he might have. And as a Montrealer, I've visited where he lived and can recall sitting in Ben’s Delicatessen, a while before it permanently closed, not really enjoying the food (the quality of its fare had declined) but still content to know I was eating in one of Leonard’s hangouts.

A couple of days after the announcement of Leonard Cohen’s death, I was watching a fine 2016 French movie, Irreplaceable (Médecin de champagne), part of the lineup at Toronto’s edition of the European Union Film Festival, about a country doctor (François Cluzet) whose life is upended when he develops a tumour and has to allow a female medical practitioner (Marianne Denicourt) to help him in his duties. Late in the movie, both doctors attend a village dance where a country band slides into a decent rendition of Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah,” a moment which prompted a bit of a murmur from the audience as it seemed so particularly apt to pay tribute to Leonard in this way so soon after the shocking news of his death. (The moment was entirely serendipitous, of course, but still…) But it also struck me as nothing new, as I can’t think of any artist who has been featured the way he has in movies. It’s not simply that his songs or covers of them have graced so many movies and TV shows over the years (more than 50 at least), but the diversity of the filmmakers who have utilized his songs in their works has intrigued me and made me ponder on why he, of all singers-songwriters out there, has struck such a chord with so many of them.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Well-Dressed Heartbreak: Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals.

Tom Ford may be a household name thanks to his work in the fashion industry as former creative director for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent before launching his eponymous label in 2006, but many may be surprised to know that he considers his sartorial success to be a stepping stone for his grander aims as a filmmaker. His initial foray into the world of cinema, with the 2009 Colin Firth and Julianne Moore drama A Single Man, was met with critical acclaim (and an Oscar nomination for Firth). Seven years later, his newest film, the noir thriller Nocturnal Animals, proves that A Single Man’s success was no accident and that Ford is good for much more than nice (read: stunning, impeccably tailored, outrageously classy, should-be-in-every-man’s-wardrobe) suits.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Talking Out of Turn #48 (Podcast): Wallace Shawn (1981)

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory in My Dinner With André (1981).

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, I 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 Clive Barker). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I were trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. 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.

In a decade that many considered to be drowning in narcissism, I decided to include interviews in Talking Out of Turn with artists who posed alternatives to self-centeredness in the eighties when it came to examining the self. That included the Canadian poet bp Nichol, whose life work in both narrative and experimental poetry was almost always autobiographical in nature; D.M. Thomas, who inserted the theories of Freud and the horror of the Holocaust into fiction in The White Hotel (1981); and William Diehl, a pulp fiction writer (Chameleon, Sharky's Machine) who was also a pacifist: he wrote violent dramas to purge himself of the turbulence within him. The chapter on biography also included Wallace Shawn talking about the process of making (with Louis Malle and André Gregory) the highly experimental fictional documentary My Dinner with André (1981). My Dinner with Andréa film about two men having dinner and discussing personal and philosophical issues, created an unusual – yet still dramatic – form of autobiography that Shawn considered frightfully raw,

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Wallace Shawn as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1981.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Zappa for President: Frank Zappa’s Political Legacy

Now that the 2016 American election is over, pending a recount in Wisconsin, we turn our thoughts to the political pundits of days gone by. Mark Twain often advised potential candidates running for public office, “You should always tell the truth because it’s easier to remember.” Essayist Gore Vidal also commented on the poor slate of candidates for President when he quipped that “the United States was founded by the brightest people in the country  and we haven’t seen them since.” And it comes as no surprise that Frank Zappa’s comment, “When God created Republicans, he gave up on everything else” (to Alan Thicke, in a 1984 appearance on the short-lived Thicke of the Night), is an equally appropriate remark in 2016.

One might not immediately think of Frank Zappa as even having a political legacy, but it’s easy to find. The first stop is his debut record Freak Out!, which was released in 1966 by Verve. The key track: “Trouble Every Day,” about the Watts riots in Los Angeles. Frank takes a stand and is bold enough to admit that he, as a white guy, bore some of the responsibility. As he states in the middle of the song:
Hey, you know something, people?
I’m not black
But there’s a whole lots a times
I wish I could say I’m not white
It was a bold thing to say fifty years ago that still has relevance today. Zappa was putting himself on record (literally) regarding his politics. It was his sense of the changing political and cultural scene that fueled his ideas. Freak Out! was more than just another rock ‘n’ roll album. Zappa gave himself permission to express his political views, which was pretty common during the Vietnam War, and while Zappa wasn’t going to march in the streets for peace, he certainly wasn’t going to sit back and ignore the violent changes around him.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Unmemorable Revivals: Plenty and Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Rachel Weisz and Bryon Jennings (background) in Plenty, at New York's Public Theater. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

David Hare’s Plenty, currently receiving its first New York revival at the Public (where it was originally produced in 1982), is the portrait of an Englishwoman named Susan Traherne who experienced the most fulfilling part of her life during World War II, when she was a Special Operatives Executive courier in France. That nothing in her subsequent life has come close to bringing her that kind of satisfaction has made her restless and unhinged. She meets her husband, Raymond Brock, in Brussels in 1947 when he’s working for the Foreign Office there, and he marries her, as much out of kindness as out of love, when she’s at a low ebb in the early fifties; their union barely survives her manic eruptions, one of which forces him to resign his post at the embassy in Iran and derails his career, and it falls apart at last in the early sixties. Plenty is a complicated work with a fascinating subject that only a few other writers have tackled: how do you negotiate the rest of your life after an exciting, romantic period of total engagement that can never be equaled? (One of the characters in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, a one-time RAF flyer, suffers from this kind of letdown, and it’s the fate of the protagonist in Willa Cather’s beautiful 1923 novel One of Ours.) But as is sometimes the case with Hare’s plays, Plenty works better in your head when you’re reflecting on it afterwards than it does in performance. I’m not sure why, exactly: Hare is an unusually intelligent writer and the material is certainly dramatic, but I felt the same detachment from it in the new David Leveaux production, with Rachel Weisz as Susan, as I had when I saw the 1985 movie version, directed by Fred Schepisi, with Meryl Streep in the role.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Retreating to Ruth Ware's In a Dark, Dark Wood

Ruth Ware's debut novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, was published last summer by Simon & Schuster. (Photo: Ollie Grove)

In the week before the recent American election, I was feeling anxious – with good reason, as it turned out. Despite the polls, I felt a need to escape the tumult about the election. The World Series did not particularly interest me so I decided to dip into an absorbing page turner that would distract me. I found that Ruth Ware’s debut novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood (Simon & Schuster, 2015), satisfied my needs.

The narrator, Leonora Shaw, a reclusive crime writer, receives an email from someone she has not met inviting her to attend a hen weekend (a bachelorette weekend, in North American parlance) to celebrate the upcoming wedding of an old college friend at a house in the Northumberland English countryside. Nora – the various names that she and others affix to her are an important ingredient of the plot – living alone in London and valuing her privacy, has no interest in spending time with people she does not know or hardly knows. She is uncertain as to why she has been invited since she and the bride-to-be, Clare, once best friends, are now estranged, not having seen each other since college ten years earlier. Furthermore, she has not been invited to the wedding. She doesn’t even know whom Clare is marrying and she does not ask. If she had, she would not have attended the party – but then there would have been no novel, or a very different one. (This question is raised at one point in the story.) But the maid of honour, Flo, is insistent that Clare wants her there, and maybe it would be pleasurable to reconnect after all these years. Reluctantly, Nora agrees, but as soon as she arrives at this remote, modernist glass house, we know that this is not the kind of getaway that she anticipated. Things go terribly wrong: old tensions arise, tempers fray, painful secrets from the past spill out, an ominous shotgun hangs on the fireplace wall, and the entrance of an intruder is followed by a tragedy.