Saturday, December 17, 2016

Genius at Work: Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai's Reset

Choreographer Benjamin Millepied. (Photo: Patrick Fraser)

The life of a ballet dancer is hard, the life of a ballet artistic director even harder, especially when that director is also a maverick choreographer and free thinker who wants to change convention. It's a tall order, and one that ultimately proved too much for Benjamin Millepied to fulfill  but not for lack of trying. The subject of a new and fascinating ballet documentary that opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Dec. 23 and Vancouver's Vancity Theatre on New Year's Day, Millepied is the David who took on the Goliath of the Paris Opera Ballet when, starting in 2014, he helmed the famed institution where classical dance, as we know it, originated nearly 350 years ago.

Born in France, the former New York City Ballet dancer perhaps better known as the Black Swan choreographer who went on to marry that film's star, Natalie Portman, in 2012, Millepied resigned abruptly from the company in February, after only 15 months in the top job. He has since relocated to Los Angeles with his Hollywood movie-star wife to direct a smaller-scale contemporary dance ensemble. But it's his time at the Paris Opera which is the focus here, a watershed moment not just for this visionary dance artist but also for a company wanting to move forward while respecting the past. Reset  or Relève, as the 110-minute film is called in French  emerges as an important document highlighting the need for innovation in dance and the hierarchical structures that get in the way of real progress. "Sometimes it's hard to move a big ship forward," says Paris Opera director Stéphane Lissner early in the film, addressing an underlying problem.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Cyberkitsch: How The Machine Colonized Us When We Weren’t Looking

Walter Benjamin at work in the National Library in Paris, 1937. (Photo: Gisèle Freund)

The present digital age is the ideal time to re-examine the ideas of the great German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin, author of one of the most important essays in the history of art criticism and visual culture appreciation. His 1936 reflections on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (sometimes translated as "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility") is still salient.

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German-Jewish culture critic who made a precarious and eventually doomed living as a unique kind of journalist, one who tried to make clear the impact of our modern mechanized history on our daily lives. His precious but exotic form of journalism captured both the past history of how we got to live so comfortably among our machines as well as the future history of what those machines might be capable of doing, not just for us, but to us. How we became their people and how they forever altered our hearts and minds  in ways not simply good or bad, but more often mysterious, the outcome of which has still yet to be fully determined.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Dream Team: The Last Guardian

The Last Guardian, developed by genDESIGN and Sony's Japan Studio, was released on December 6th. 2016.

In 2006, I played a game called Shadow of the Colossus that changed how I understood game design. During my unforgettable first playthrough, in which I played a young man astride a horse who must travel across vast lands to conquer ancient stone giants, I discovered a new approach to the “rules” of what a game can and must do. Its enigmatic Japanese fantasy storytelling was deeply suggestive in its abstraction, telling me little and explaining even less, and its simplistic design structure – the hunt for and destruction of the titular Colossi encompasses the entirety of the game experience – became indelible in my mind as one of the first examples of true art in gaming, which forced me to confront the reality of what I was doing, posing sharp questions and providing no comforting answers. It was a watershed moment in my gaming life, and made the anticipation painful for director Fumito Ueda’s next game, which began development the next year. Announced as The Last Guardian, telling the story of the shared bond between a boy and a fictional mythological beast, it was set to release in 2011 – but was delayed multiple times due to hardware difficulties with the planned Playstation 3 platform, the departure of Ueda and other development team members, and other difficulties. Its reassignment to Sony Interactive Entertainment’s internal Japan Studio and the shift to a Playstation 4 release in 2012 was met with skepticism, and after several years with no word it was assumed that the title had been shelved. Then in 2015, to the surprise of all at E3, it was paraded out for an official 2016 release, and finally became available last week on the December 6th – a full decade after development first began.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

At the Crossroads: Sting and The Rolling Stones

Sting performing at the Dubai Jazz Festival in 2015. (Photo: Satish Kumar)

In his 2009 book of critical essays called Heroes And Villains (De Capo), music scholar David Hajdu writes, “Rock ‘n’ rollers, as they age, sometimes find themselves outgrowing a music they cannot outlive. … In the past few years, several prominent rockers of a certain age have pursued a novel solution to the problem of growing too old to rock ‘n’ roll – …. They are backdating their careers [by] repositioning themselves so as to be associated with styles of music that preceded
rock. .… Each of these efforts represents not just a detour from rock but also a claim to higher ground.” Hajdu goes on to cite Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Sting as artists who’ve released albums of music dedicated to “the higher ground.”

Two recent releases by the aforementioned Sting, now 65 years old, and the septuagenarian Rolling Stones are a return to the crossroads: a pilgrimage, if you will, to the once fertile soil of their musical roots. On December 2nd, The Rolling Stones released their all-blues album called Blue & Lonesome (Polydor). Last month, Sting released his new “rock” album called 57th & 9th (A&M). Billed as his first rock album in 13 years, the album’s title comes from his favourite intersection in New York, the corner of 57th and 9th, not far from Columbus Circle, in what’s commonly known as Hell’s Kitchen. It’s in this location, as he told Stephen Colbert, where he meditates while waiting for the light to change at the busy crossroads. As he says in the liner notes, “I do most of my thinking while walking … so walking and the conjuring of stories were intrinsically bound together for me.” The result of Sting’s thoughtful walks is his new album of rock songs, but like the terrain of New York City, it’s an uneven journey with very little “newness” to it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Talking Out of Turn #49 (Podcast): Agnès Varda (1986)

Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond (1985), by Agnès Varda.

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. 

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.

As mainstream movies became more predictable and packaged in the eighties, some filmmakers turned to the fringes. Not all of the work of independent directors, though, was worthy of being enshrined (any more than all of the Hollywood work earned for itself the right to be trashed). There were good and bad films in both camps. What I wanted to illustrate in the chapter Occupying the Margins: Re-Inventing Movies was the more idiosyncratic styles of people working in the business on both sides of the fence. They included screenwriter Robert Towne, the Hollywood mogul Samuel Z. Arkoff, the then-emerging sibling filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, and film directors Bill Forsyth, Bob Swaim, James Toback, Mira Nair, and Agnès Varda.

When I sat down with Agnès Varda in 1986, her film Vagabond had just been released in North America. The film, starring Sandrine Bonnaire, dramatized the death of a female vagrant, and traced the steps to her demise. Varda's approach was one of objectivity and detachment. This didn't go down well with those of us who wanted more of the director's vision of this woman's life. In this interview, she counters my arguments on the matter.

– Kevin Courrier.

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

Monday, December 12, 2016

Tammy Grimes, 1934-2016

Brian Bedford and Tammy Grimes in Private Lives, 1970.

Tammy Grimes died at the end of October, many years after her celebrity had faded. If you went to the theatre in New York in the sixties you knew who she was: the ineffable sprite with the gingery brandy-snap contralto and the slightly preposterous bohemian hauteur who was born to play high comedy. The English-accented voice was her own invention – she was born in Lynn, Massachusetts – and if you listen to the original cast album of The Littlest Revue (1956), the first show in which she was featured (she had understudied Kim Stanley’s Cherie in Bus Stop on Broadway the year before), you can hear her trying it out: tentatively on her first solo, “Madly in Love,” more confidently on her second, “I’m Glad I’m Not a Man.” She was a cabaret singer as well as an actress; Noël Coward discovered her at Julius Monk’s Downstairs and nabbed her for his play Look After Lulu!, in which she played the first of several notable Coward heroines – she was Elvira in High Spirits, the 1964 musical of Blithe Spirit, and Amanda in a Broadway revival of Private Lives six years later. Strangely, though, her breakthrough role was that of the indomitable Colorado millionairess, raised in rural poverty and later one of the survivors of the Titanic, in Meredith Willson’s 1960 The Unsinkable Molly Brown. I saw her in it and was delighted by her performance; at ten it didn’t occur to me to wonder where a Colorado mountain gal acquired so cultivated a vocal effect. She book-ended the decade with Tony Awards for it and for Private Lives, in a part that surely suited her better. Due to a weird glitch in the rules (since modified), the first of these awards was for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, even though she played the title character in Molly Brown and was rarely off the stage during its running time. At the time only actors billed above the title were eligible for a leading actor or actress nod and, since Grimes was not considered a star in 1960, her name appeared below the title.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Critic's Notes & Frames Vol. XXI

Brian De Palma's Home Movies is a 1979 low-budget independent film made with the help of his film class at Sarah Lawrence as a hands-on training exercise. (They were given the primary responsibilities of raising money, arranging the shooting schedule, and editing the film, all under De Palma's supervision.) What they got was a spirited primal comedy laced with episodes from De Palma's early life that also came to make sense of his movie obsessions. Kirk Douglas (who had just starred in De Palma's last thriller, The Fury) plays a film instructor who uses the medium as a form of therapy. His prize student Dennis Byrd (Keith Gordon) decides to turn the camera on his family life, which is filled with enough neurotic issues to fuel numerous sessions. Besides competing with a favoured and pompous older brother (the hilarious Gerrit Graham, who played the glam rock star, Beef in De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise), Dennis also has to deal with a mother (Mary Davenport) who pops pills because of her philandering husband (Vincent Gardenia), a physician on whom his son ultimately turns his lens to catch him in the act. When his older sibling brings home his girlfriend, Kristina (Nancy Allen), Dennis is immediately drawn to this striking blonde while still torn by guilt over his parents' marital issues. Home Movies is a shaggy satire with Oedipal gags that pop like party balloons. While the picture has a relaxed charm compared to the fervently exciting thrillers, Carrie and The Fury, that preceded it, the themes of voyeurism and fear would carry over effectively into his next picture, Dressed to Kill, where the comedy and horror have a more lasting after-bite.