Thursday, November 30, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Elizabeth Waterston (1987)

Author Lucy Maud Montgomery, born on November 30, 1874.

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 writers and artists from all fields. In 1987, I sat down with Canadian editor, critic and biographer Elizabeth Hillman Waterston.

On this day in 1874, Lucy Maud Montgomery was born. Montgomery is best known as the author of Anne of Green Gables (1908) and a series of related novels and short stories, including Chronicles of Avonlea. Among Waterston's vast and varied writing are several books devoted to the life and work of L.M. Montgomery, including five volumes (and two complete collections) of Montgomery's journals, which she co-edited with Mary Henley Rubio. When Waterston and I spoke in 1987, The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Vol. II. had just been published by Oxford University Press.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Elizabeth Waterston. as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1987.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Injustice for All: Justice League

Ezra Miller, Ben Affleck, and Gal Gadot in Justice League.

If awards were given out for excellence in setting the cinematic bar as low as possible, like some kind of bizarro-world Hollywood limbo contest, then Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice would have run away with all of them. Everything was in Justice League’s favour to succeed where its predecessor failed. This was it! This one was for all the marbles. The marketing was proud to show us a confident new direction for the DC Extended Universe that would diverge from the dour, mirthless tone of its previous films, offering a new way forward with colour and levity and likeable characters, which was totally their idea in the first place and not at all based on the success of those other crappy comic book movies. The news of the recent tragedy in director Zack Snyder’s personal life, horrible as it was, came with a silver lining for diehard fans in the form of replacement director Joss Whedon, who was sure to steer the ship into warmer waters by injecting the film with his trademark self-deprecating humour and wry character work. The stage was set for a proper course correction, and the opportunity was ripe to subvert the expectations of everyone in the audience with a working brain.

That Justice League – in which newcomers Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and The Flash (Ezra Miller) join the established trinity of Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and the recently “deceased” Superman (Henry Cavill) – does manage to subvert expectations, but in the wrong direction, is a whole new kind of disappointing. I thought I was spent; I didn’t realize there was still enough gas left in the emotional tank for this movie to burn through in a single flatulent spurt of acceleration that ended with me wrapped around a telephone pole. I thought it would be impossible to be disappointed by Justice League. I was an idiot, apparently.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Nostalgia Is What It Used To Be: My Dear Departed Past by Dave Frishberg

Dave Frishberg's autobiography My Dear Departed Past was published by Backbeat Books earlier this year.

I was about twenty pages into Dave Frishberg’s autobiography when the Hoagy Carmichael song “Stardust” lurched into my head. Specifically, the lines from the opening verse, “Love is now the stardust of yesterday / The music of the years gone by." Perhaps it was simpatico because Frishberg’s favourite book was The Stardust Road, written by Carmichael in 1946. That autobiography, by one of America’s best songwriters, made “a big impression” on Frishberg, whose particular songwriting style comes out of Tin Pan Alley, although he doesn’t admit that in My Dear Departed Past (Backbeat Books). But his book does reveal his influences in a nostalgic way.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Brigadoon: Love and Loss

Robert Fairchild in Brigadoon at New York's City Center. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The 1947 musical fantasy Brigadoon was the fourth collaboration between Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music), but it was the one that put them on the musical-theatre map. It ran for nearly two years and became a staple of regional and community theatres; there were three revivals on Broadway within a decade and a half of the end of its original run. Now it’s revived only rarely, having somehow acquired the reputation of being syrupy and old-fashioned, like a Rudolf Friml or Sigmund Romberg operetta from the twenties. That’s inaccurate. I think it’s a beauty, and that the score is one of the glories of the golden age of Broadway musicals. The 1954 movie adaptation – directed, with a surprising lack of conviction, by Vincente Minnelli, and starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse – didn’t get at the show’s charm; nor did a 1966 TV version with Robert Goulet and Sally Ann Howes, though it did have the great dancer Edward Villella repeating his performance from the 1963 New York City Center production in the principal dance role, Harry Beaton. But anyone lucky enough to catch one of the performances of the staged concert of Brigadoon, once again at City Center, between November 15 and 19 got a taste of what made – and makes – the musical so special. Christopher Wheeldon, the deservedly lauded director-choreographer of the 2015 An American in Paris, staged the show exquisitely with no set except for a bridge, some simple projections, and a motif of hickory branches that he used in the choreography and, in one dialogue scene, to stand in for the arms of chairs. Though obviously a far more modest presentation than his work for An American in Paris, this Brigadoon was so evocative and imaginative that I’m tempted to say that it was just about as good. The music director was Rob Berman, conducting the Encores! orchestra. Visually, musically and emotionally it was a thrilling evening of musical theatre.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Grammar of Refuge: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone

Author Jenny Erpenbeck.

“It is accounted a sin to turn any man away from your door.”
– Tacitus, quoted by a character in Go, Went, Gone.

As I write, German politics is on the cusp of a political crisis. Angela Merkel has provided a beacon of stability and pragmatism, if not vision and eloquence, for the last dozen years in governing the economic powerhouse of the European Community. Earlier this autumn, her centrist Christian Democrats lost sixty-five seats in the Reichstag while the extreme-far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), gained ninety-four seats – with thirteen percent of the vote – primarily in the former GDR. The AfD, which chillingly speaks about the Volk that evokes a dark period in German history, capitalized on voter fear of immigrants after Merkel allowed over one million migrants in 2015-16 to enter Germany, even though the people who voted for AfD were relatively untouched by the flow of refugees. Merkel’s inability so far to forge a coalition that sidelines the AfD may result in Germans heading back to the polls – perhaps giving that xenophobic, anti-Islam party more seats.

In this dispiriting time, a tonic that I would offer is the originally fresh novels of Jenny Erpenbeck, The Visitation, End of Days and the latest in her loose trilogy, the extraordinary and timely Go, Went, Gone (New Directions, 2017, translated by Susan Bernofsky). Erpenbeck, who was born and grew up in the former East Berlin, is attuned to the turbulence of German history in the twentieth century. The Visitation narrates that history through the lives of the successive inhabitants of a grand house by a lake who end up being dislodged because the changing political environment renders their continued presence dangerously precarious. The novel is reminiscent of Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room. End of Days is a cleverly constructed novel that spans a century from Galicia at the turn of the twentieth century to the united Federal Republic of Germany that is perhaps refracted through the long life of one woman. I say “perhaps” because Erpenbeck repeatedly kills her off then revives her, the first time just after her birth by slightly changing the circumstances that led to her death, later as a desperate teenager who commits suicide, then as a middle-aged victim of a Stalinist purge.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Solitary Woman: Listening to Sinéad O’Connor

(Photo: Donal Moloney/Courtesy of the artist, via NPR)

These are dangerous days
To say what you feel is to lay your own grave
— Sinéad O’Connor,
“Black Boys on Mopeds”

I’ve seldom experienced so profound a silence as the one heard on the night of October 3, 1992, just after Sinéad O’Connor, appearing as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II. It was her second spot of the show; there was no band around her, only candles burning on a stool. She began a song which many recognized and many didn’t as Bob Marley’s “War,” itself a Haile Selassie speech set to music. The performance, while gripping, was also strident and dull. The song went on, first crawling then flying then crawling, as fiery and ponderous as a dragon. The drama, if it was that, lay in the way the singer’s eyes seemed to both ice over and flare up as she neared the climax. She knew what she was going to do.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Surrender Not The Future: ProArteDanza at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre

ProArteDanza performing Future Perfect Continuous. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

 Dance might not be able to save the planet from ecological catastrophe. But it can illuminate some of the anxieties surrounding the future of the planet, exposing the human vulnerabilities hiding in the shadows of emotionless science. To recycle or not to recycle, that is not the only question – nor is it the sole response to a world melting before our eyes. In Future Perfect Continuous, a new hybrid work of spoken dance which opened ProArteDanza’s 2017 season at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre at the beginning of November, choreographer Matjash Mrozewski grapples with climate change and environmental degradation, presenting them as large and inchoate themes affecting us all but in multifarious ways.

The former National Ballet of Canada dancer collaborated with award-winning playwright Anna Chatterton on the text spoken by ProArteDanza’s distinctive performers as they move. The spoken collage of rumination, argument and expressions of hope and fear makes palpable the ambiguities that have made global warming something of an existential quagmire for the 21st century. The ensemble of 12 dancers, doubling as actors, are not eco-warriors but more eco-worriers who struggle with the very real role humans play in putting the earth at risk. They push the right buttons, giving the audience plenty to think about. Fake news, or an inconvenient truth? The fact of the matter is that no one is certain, a central dilemma of the piece. “I don’t want to know. I already know” is an utterance shared by several players. No one can say climate change isn’t confusing.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Inventory Management Vol IV – Boys with Toys: The Battlefront II Debacle

Star Wars Battlefront II was released by EA on November 17.

The past week in gaming was inundated with news about Star Wars Battlefront II, but stories about the game itself were in short supply. Instead, headlines were focused on the game’s internal economy, specifically the “loot boxes” that many modern games use to generate a revenue stream beyond the initial purchase price for the game disc. Battlefront publisher EA was in the crosshairs yet again for what the public has long considered predatory, consumer-hostile practices, but something was different this time. The “conversation” online – though I’m loath to ennoble the childish vitriol hurled at publisher and developer alike by calling it that – had reached a fever pitch. It felt like a dam had burst, despite the fact that we’d collectively chosen to ignore the spurts of water leaking through.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Camel Wore a Nightie: Appreciating the Artful Music of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart

Frank Zappa and Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart).

“Musical structure? I think it’s really a laugh. Frankly, I don’t see what you need all those sandbags for, just to keep your river in place . . . ”
– Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart)
Back when I was still living in Toronto, before moving to Vancouver, when we could still see more of each other, my good friend Kevin Courrier and I used to enjoy arguing about drastically different kinds of music and films. Though we also shared many favourites of the same genres, and though our arguments were only pretend in nature, we often enjoyed disputing the merits of films that told human stories in a narrative way viewers could relate to their own lives (his preference) versus films that were cold, antiseptic visual experiments of a photographic and philosophical nature (my preference).

Being a fine film critic, of course, he did embrace many highly demanding and experimental cinematic achievements, as long as they privileged the art (the tale) over the artist (the teller), whereas I was always more accepting of the morbidly self-indulgent and self-absorbed (even solipsistic) filmmakers who eschewed the audience altogether in favour of their own personal visions. I remember with great delight one disagreement about the way in which visual artist/directors such as Tarkovsky or Angelopolous, or Greenaway, say, would appear to set up their camera and simply walk away, allowing us to stare at a tree for what felt like a small eternity. I saw movies as a form of painting with film.

I recall once driving him crazy with the admittedly silly claim that, as far as I was concerned, it was perfectly okay for a clearly self-obsessed director such as Werner Herzog to cause the deaths of a few extras on the mountain while filming Fitzcarraldo (with fellow loony Kinksi) as long as it resulted in that amazing finished artifact. It was a remark delivered only half tongue-in-cheek but it proved very effective (to roil and rile up a close friend) at the time I intoned nit. I’ll admit that I’ve since softened my icy solipsistic tone and my apparent allegiance to works of art that are hyper-subjective and massively obsessive.

Bongo Fury by Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, 1974.
Courrier, who along with his late friend David Churchill was one of the founders of Critics At Large, and I, perhaps best known as an art critic, also loved to pretend to clash over which side of the Frank Zappa canon should be taken more or most seriously. I would often elaborate a stern disdain for what I facetiously termed his “comedy music,” the satirical jibes at pop culture that he delivered so incisively, and I maintained a preference for his “serious music,” either the serious rock with less banter, or the serious neo-classical with no lyrics at all. So in a way, the same clash of friendly sentiments can also be identified in a collision of drastically acquired tastes such as Zappa and his frequently bonkers collaborator Don Van Vliet.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Arthur Lee He Sees Everything Like This: Forever Changes At 50

Love at the time of Forever Changes: (left to right) John Echols, Bryan MacLean, Ken Forssi, Arthur Lee, and Michael Stuart. (Photo: Ronnie Haran)

Love’s Forever Changes (sometimes written as Love Forever Changes – inaccurate, but a nice idea) is as confounding an artifact today as it was, judging from contemporary testimony, 50 years ago. Emerging in November 1967 from the febrile mind of leader and chief singer-songwriter Arthur Lee, it had no real antecedents, not even in that strange and fruitful year. The group’s previous albums, Love (1966) and Da Capo (1967), were full of acid and wit, refining the song structures of proto-punk and the mental derangements of what would, much later, be called “psych.” Forever Changes, by startling contrast, was predicated on orchestral flourishes, rococo melody, and a worldview more pixilated than psychedelic, more desperate than nihilistic. And though reviewers lauded the record at once for its prettiness, it was simply too strange to be seen as much more than an artsy boutique for window-shopping along rock’s main thoroughfare – which at that time led to such surefire world-beaters as Electric Flag and The Incredible String Band.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Tartuffe: Tripping over Molière

Melissa Miller and Brett Gelman in Huntington Theatre's Tartuffe. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

I can’t think of a great playwright who stymies directors with the frequency of Molière. (That may not be true in France; my experience of Molière productions is limited to Canada, the U.S. and England.) His satirical high comedies are vibrant and hilarious on the page, but on stage they tend to fall into two categories: lethal academic readings in which the actors seem straitjacketed by their seventeenth-century costumes and – far more common over the last several decades – showy high-concept editions, heavy on farce, that push relentlessly for laughs. Peter DuBois’s Tartuffe at the Huntington Theatre is an example of the second, with one exception: I can’t figure out what the hell the concept is supposed to be, and there’s no director’s note in the program to provide assistance. The quote from DuBois in the press material, “Boston is going to see 2017 alive on stage within the framework of a 17th century farce, and the result will be satirical, smart, and a gut-buster,” doesn’t help. And what’s the significance of the lipstick-smeared pig on the poster? The setting is contemporary, though Tartuffe himself (played by Brett Gelman), the pious hypocrite whose hold over the aristocrat Orgon (Frank Wood) his beleaguered family is struggling to loosen, has been dressed by Anita Yavich as a cross between a Medieval monk and an imam. 2017 is represented not satirically but superficially, through a series of recognizable accoutrements, the most emphatic of which is a smart phone that Orgon’s son Damis (Matthew Bretschneider) uses to take selfies, and the substitution of a soldier in camouflage gear (Omar Robinso) for a messenger from the king to enact the happy ending. If DuBois has some idea in mind about how the play reflects our world, he hasn’t worked it out. The opening is a series of blackout sketches that mostly frame the two men in various comic-strip interactions that are clearly meant to be hilarious but are merely puzzling. The physical comedy is frantic and the actors have been coached to sprint through their lines, which at least has the effect of bringing the show in at two hours and ten minutes, including intermission – though, as habitual theatregoers know to our sorrow, time is relative, and it’s a long two hours. (I started checking my watch after forty-five minutes.)

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Coping, Honestly: Adult Life Skills

Jodie Whittaker in Adult Life Skills (2016).

One of the more interesting film festivals in the film festival-heavy city of Toronto is the European Union Film Festival (EUFF), featuring one film from each of the 28 members of the European Union. It’s actually a world-wide phenomenon with various countries and cities signing on at different times and not necessarily showing the same films. (Toronto’s edition, which runs Nov. 9-23, is the 13th here. But though the film fests in Vancouver – in its 20th incarnation – and Canada’s capital Ottawa – in its 32nd year – have been around longer, they’re not showing more than 25 films, which makes Toronto’s the more accurate representation of the EU film output.) Executive Director Jérémie Abessira works with local consulates and cultural organizations to book the films – often Toronto premieres - and then offers free screenings to Toronto’s filmgoing audience. A select number of tickets to each film can be booked online for a $10 fee but if you’re prepared to line up, it’s gratis. My experience is, except for hot tickets like the annual French entry, most people get into most of the films they want to see. Most significantly, as far as I’m concerned, these are always films made for an adult, discerning audience. In other words, no superhero movies here.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Temporal Things and a Creeping Sense of Dread: The Fiction of John Darnielle

Author and musician John Darnielle

Paper-based role-playing games and video rental stores in rural Iowa might seem unlikely subjects for a 21st-century novel. Both provide amusements rooted in a past that is simultaneously too recent to have yet become a part of history and too distant to be clearly remembered by just about anyone under 40. Yet the obscurity of these subjects lends them to Wolf in White Van and Universal Harvester, two novels by John Darnielle.

Darnielle is best known as the founding and primary member of the indie rock band The Mountain Goats, a group which has effectively consisted of him and a changing cast of musicians with whom he collaborates (when he doesn’t simply play solo). Darnielle’s garnered a well-deserved reputation for crafting off-kilter but deeply absorbing songs about everything from his troubled childhood to small-time professional wrestling. Those songs have gradually become more lavish in terms of their instrumentation, but Darnielle’s keen eye for characterization and narrative remains.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Living with Regret: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson in Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).

In the last few years, beginning with Frances Ha in 2012, writer-director Noah Baumbach’s comedies have felt like latter-day adaptations of the sensibility I always associated with Paul Mazursky’s in the 1970s and 80s: satirical yet compassionate, hip yet skeptical, partly hopeful and partly rueful. And like Mazursky, he’s become the master of the mixed tone. Frances Ha, whose hapless heroine (played by Greta Gerwig) goes to Paris for a weekend and doesn’t know what to do once she arrives, is hilarious and poignant in equal measure; she evokes our exasperation but also our protectiveness. The paralyzed documentary filmmaker Ben Stiller portrays in While We’re Young (2015) can’t separate out his bid for artistic independence from his own ego, and he falls into one trap after another of his own making, but his efforts, increasingly desperate, to stay on his own wavelength – and to prevent himself from turning into a middle-aged cliché – are touching somehow. As with Mazursky, it’s not necessarily that you recognize these characters from your own life; both men work in very distinct, almost rarefied, narrative realms. It’s that you can see that Baumbach recognizes them – that they represent parts of himself, and his willingness to identify with him even when they’re being ridiculous is the mark of a great humanistic spirit. Pauline Kael called Mazursky a hip Chekhov, and that’s the territory where Baumbach, too, hangs his hat.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Hyde and C.K.

Louis C.K. performing on-stage in 2015. (Photo: Charles Sykes)

The current explosion of allegations of sexual abuse and predatory behavior by powerful men in the entertainment industry is a sign of health. A year after a solid minority of the American electorate chose as our president a man who sees women as accessory items to be bought, used, and judged on their looks – and who has sought to empower and has surrounded himself with misogynists, homophobes, and racists – people with stories to tell are coming forward, in some cases after decades of fearful silence, and exposing rich, influential, deeply entrenched power players as monsters. It's clear by now that a seismic shift in public perception and a redefinition of what's acceptable behavior – and not just the behavior of the predators themselves, but those who become complicit in their actions by keeping their secrets and giving them cover – is necessary if the toxic slime infecting the culture and impacting people's careers is going to be cleared away. Some of the ugliest behavior has been on the part of men who've been shaping the culture for more than a generation, like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. But those two are also past their prime as movers and shakers and had plenty of enemies who were happy to see them fall. When it became general knowledge that Cosby is a serial rapist, the news had a special shock built into it because of the millions of TV viewers who, having first discovered him at the midpoint of his career, thought of him as a dispenser of paternal wisdom and family values, both in real life and as the star of The Cosby Show. And Weinstein worked hard at molding his sham image as a nurturer of talent and the businessman hero who made independent American cinema possible and popular. But did anyone in the year of our lord 2017 actually like them?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Soundtrack for the Imagination: Small Town by Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan. (Photo: John Rogers)

The art of the duet is on full display on the recent ECM release by guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan. The album is called Small Town yet the music is often larger than life, containing a pallette of places big and small. It hits so many imaginative and emotional notes that I consider it the best album of 2017.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok – What Were You The God Of, Again?

Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok.

“I don’t hang with the Avengers any more. It all got too corporate.” – Thor, Thor: Ragnarok
You’d be justified in thinking I’ve been too kind to Marvel’s most recent films. They really are singularly excellent at the art of seduction; of presenting you with dazzling visual spectacle anchored by just enough plot and character coherence that you leave the theatre feeling satisfied, even if their appeal begins to wither once you’re back outside. I really have no desire to ever watch Doctor Strange again, even though I gave it a glowing review. I can understand the shame that sometimes follows, where you feel you’ve somehow been duped. But I don’t ever feel taken advantage of, personally. Disposable, enjoyable, escapist chicanery on the silver screen is as much an essential part of a balanced cinematic diet as anything else. It’s quite enough for me that Marvel’s legion of technicians, production designers, digital artists, costumers, and stunt performers work their asses off to deliver what most moviegoers see as exciting one-off experiences (especially since the sequel is already coming down the pike right behind the one you just saw, guaranteeing that these talented people are still getting work). I don’t hate the formula. The formula works.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The State of Siege: Fascism Dramatized

Members of Troupe du Théâtre de la Ville perform The State of Siege. (Photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

It was brave of Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota and his Paris-based Troupe du Théâtre de la Ville to take on The State of Siege (L’État de siège), a play by Albert Camus that was roundly panned in its original production in 1948 and has pretty much stayed on the shelf ever since. That Demarcy-Mota and his ensemble of thirteen actors have been able to make so much of the play – the production, which Arts Emerson brought into Boston for four performances, is wonderful – is almost miraculous. Theatre students don’t study the dramatic works of Camus and Sartre these days, but when I was in university in the late sixties and early seventies Sartre’s The Flies and Camus’s Caligula were staples on any modern drama syllabus, along with other now-forgotten mid-century French playwrights like Anouilh, Giraudoux and Cocteau. I remember finding The Flies (a version of The Oresteia) intriguing and I’ve always been curious to see the 1951 movie version, but no one gets excited about the existentialist writers any more, and Camus was never much of a dramatist. (His novel The Stranger, the most famous fictional work he ever penned, holds up.) The State of Siege isn’t even striking as an existential work, though it does bring back the era when French theatre was the playground for intellectuals who delighted in defying the reign of realism. It’s a symbolist drama that begins when a passing comet brings a plague to a seacoast city and fascists take advantage of the fear of the citizens and the resulting chaos to impose a severe, repressive rule of order. This is the second time Camus used the idea of a plague as a premise and a symbol; the previous year he had written his novel The Plague.  (The State of Siege is not an adaptation.)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Reconstruction and Deconstruction: Ta-Nehisi Coates's We Were Eight Years in Power

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Photo: Stephen Voss)

“We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity.”
– Thomas Miller, South Carolina Congressman, 1895
“The beauty in his [Baldwin’s] writing wasn’t just style or ornament but an unparalleled ability to see what was before him clearly and then lay that vision, with that same clarity, before the world.”
– Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power

The Congressman quoted in the first epigraph was an African-American who, in a futile effort, was attempting to make the case that blacks in the legislature had provided competent government, so why should whites attempt to disenfranchise blacks with poll taxes and literacy tests? It was not necessary for him to add the terrorist attacks from the Klan against blacks who attempted to vote. A few years later the civil rights icon, W.E.B. Du Bois, offered an insightful response: “If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.’’ These two quotations provide the title and the thesis of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest offering, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (One World, 2017). The good government that Obama provided generated a racist backlash in which Donald Trump was the major beneficiary. Coates’s book is structured around eight essays, one for each year of the Obama presidency, written originally for The Atlantic, for which he is a national correspondent, and concludes with a blistering epilogue on the white supremacist ideology of Trump in all its “truculent and sanctimonious power.”

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Remembrance Day Podcast, Part II: Interview with Robin Phillips (1983)

Brent Carver, Martha Henry, and William Hutt in The Wars (1983).

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 writers and artists from all fields. In 1983, I sat down with actor and stage and film director Robin Phillips.

At the time of our conversation, Phillips's film adaptation of Timothy Findley's 1977 novel The Wars had just been released. (My interview with Findley himself was shared here yesterday.) This was a few years before Phillips would make his triumphant return to the Stratford Festival in Ontario, directing Cymbeline and The School for Scandal on the mainstage, along with a double bill that same season of The Critic and Oedipus Rex. Robin Phillips passed away in 2015 at the age of seventy-three.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Robin Phillips as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1983.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Remembrance Day Podcast, Part I: Interview with Timothy Findley (1983)

Timothy Findley.

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 writers and artists from all fields. In 1983, I sat down with Canadian novelist Timothy Findley.

With Remembrance Day upon us, it is timely to revisit the conversation I had with Findley about his novel The Wars, set during the First World War. Originally published in 1977, The Wars follows Robert Ross, a nineteen-year-old Canadian who enlists in World War I after the death of his beloved older sister in an attempt to escape both his grief and the social norms of oppressive Victorian society. Adapted for the screen in 1983, the film was written by Findley himself and directed by Robin Phillips. (We will be be sharing my interview with Phillips here tomorrow in Part II of this special Remembrance Day post.)

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Timothy Findley as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1983.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Dreaming the Present: CBS’s Me, Myself & I

 Bobby Moynihan and Jaleel White in CBS's Me, Myself & I.

Optimism comes in many forms. In a person, it can describe a kind of unshakable belief, despite evidence to the contrary, that everything will work out for the best. On these terms, pessimism is the obverse: a similarly stubborn confidence that everything will, inevitably, fall apart. Both postures take advantage of the openness of the future, a time when this moment – whatever it happens to be – can (and will) be otherwise. Hope and hopelessness also come in comparable flavours, but being “hopeful” on these terms can be disappointing. In short, once tomorrow comes and shows itself, you can regret holding on to that hope for as long as you did (the way you can regret a financial investment that never pays off). Hope – understood as awaiting a future that you are certain will come – can, in short, be mistaken. That future may, in fact, never come, and that hope can thereby flip, quite naturally, to despair.

But hope for the future, as powerful as that can be, is not the only form of hope. There is also what Walter Benjamin called “hopeless hope” – a way of being in time that is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, because it is a kind of hope detached from any wish and so awaits neither confirmation nor disappointment. (French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas approaches something similar when he writes of “hope for the present” which, rather than deferring the present moment for the future, welcomes futurity and the fullness of possibility into the present.) These two forms of hope can, of course, be confused with one another, even for the one who holds them. And so we reach Alex Riley, the three-time protagonist of CBS’s now ill-fated comedy Me, Myself & I.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Perceptual Strategies: New Works from Yehouda Chaki

Orange Mountain meets Blue Mountain, by Yehouda Chaki. (Oil on Canvas, 80 x 136 in.)

“We are the bees of the invisible world. We perpetually gather the honey of the visible world in order to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible one.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
Originally studying art in Tel Aviv, Israel and then in Paris, France, before settling in Montreal, Canada, Yehouda Chaki has absorbed the light and energy of many locales around the world in his lengthy career as an observer of nature and its sensual machinery. If you’re fortunate enough to be encountering his intense landscapes and still lifes for the first time, you’re in for a tasteful treat. Indeed, even better, this time (at his forthcoming exhibit at Toronto's Odon Wagner Gallery, opening on December 1) there are also edgy portrait studies to engage the intrepid visitor: portraits that are saturated with the souls of their subjects and not merely facial representations, portraits that often even feel like microscopic mountains. The fact that he so expertly shifts his sensitive gaze from the formats of portrait (close up to) then to still life (nearby to) and then also to landscape (far away from) is for me one of the key hallmarks of his magisterial work.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Critic's Crypt: On a Century of Horror Cinema, Part II

Welcome back to this special Critic’s Crypt retrospective, where I explore almost a hundred years of horror cinema over a marathon month of screenings. In Part I, we covered the classical 1930s, the subversive 1950s, and the revolutionary 1970s. Now, for Part II, we pick up the trail of horror history with the loud and lurid 1980s.

– Justin Cummings

Monday, November 6, 2017

In Pieces: Rags

Sean MacLaughlin, Samantha Massell, and Christian Michael Camporin in Rags. (Photo:Diane Sobolewski)

Rags failed spectacularly on Broadway in 1986, closing after eighteen previews and four performances. Rumors of trouble during the Boston tryouts may have dogged the New York opening, though my recollection is that they focused on the unreliability of the star, opera diva Teresa Stratas in her musical-theatre debut, who kept missing performances. (That’s the reason I didn’t make an effort to see the show – I didn’t want to be disappointed if Stratas, a great actress as well as a great singer, didn’t appear that night.) So I was staggered when, on the advice of a friend, I bought a copy of the original cast album, recorded with Julia Migenes-Johnson substituting for Stratas. It’s not just that the score is lush and thrilling, Charles Strouse’s music inviting comparisons to Jerome Kern and Kurt Weill and Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics displaying a specificity and emotional authenticity that none of his previous work for the theatre could have led anyone to anticipate. It’s also that the story the songs develop and embellish, as the plot synopsis in the liner notes confirms, is a complex and multi-leveled examination of the experience of Jewish immigrants living in New York at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. The book writer, Joseph Stein, was most famous for writing Fiddler on the Roof, and Rags seems intended as an unofficial sequel.The protagonist is Rebecca Hershkowitz, who comes to America with her little boy David to escape the Russian pogroms, though her husband Nathan, who preceded them to these shores, doesn’t know they’re seeking him and she doesn’t connect with him until the end of the first act. In the meantime she works in a sweatshop and is drawn somewhat reluctantly into the life of her new home. The musical is her coming of age, which is prompted not only by the hardship of her time in America but also by the people around her: David’s curiosity and openness to the new world, the anger of her friend Bella Cohen at the poverty they can’t rise above, and the labor organizer Saul, who at first unsettles her and then gets her thinking. (They’re also attracted to one another.) Nathan, it happens, has changed his name to Nat Harris and gone to work for the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine. When they find each other again, he promises to take her out of the slums to a sheltered, luxurious uptown existence, but Bella’s death in the Triangle Factory fire radicalizes her and she leaves Nathan’s world for Saul’s. The finale is bittersweet: Rebecca’s moral triumph and her self-discovery are filtered through the tragedy of Bella’s death and the deaths of her co-workers and mediated by the reprise of the first chorus number, “Greenhorns,” which views the wave of immigrants as mere grist for the economic mill rather than as human beings striving to find happiness. That’s the view that Saul and Rebecca have pledged to fight, and the fight has just started.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Sibling Lament – Frankie & Bobby: The Rest of Our Story by Bob Zappa

Frank Zappa in 1969. (Photo: Ron Case)

Two years ago I wrote a review of Bob Zappa’s first self-published book, Frankie & Bobby: Growing Up Zappa. It was an invaluable resource considering I just finished the manuscript to my own book about his brother Frank slated for release the following spring. I was in contact with Bob Zappa regarding his first memoir and, at the time, he told me that a follow-up volume was in the works since his first book only took the story of his life with his brother until 1967. This new volume, also self-published, picks up where the first book left off by bringing Bob’s life and times to the present day.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Running On: This Is Us and the Demands of Network Drama

When I wrote about This Is Us last year, I noted that the NBC drama, along with creator Dan Fogelman’s now-defunct Fox baseball show Pitch, represented a more adventurous approach to storytelling, at least for traditionally risk-averse network television. To a large degree, that’s just the nature of the medium; it’s hard to achieve the sort of narrative freshness and surprise that the most popular cable shows rely upon, because a network show’s season is almost always considerably longer. The typical network drama produces over 20 episodes, as opposed to approximately 13 for a cable drama like FX’s The Americans. At their best, shows like The Good Wife or Buffy the Vampire Slayer have made a virtue of necessity, employing a case-of-the-week format that allowed them to create compelling self-contained episodes, such as Buffy’s “Hush” and “Once More With Feeling,” or entries in the series that unexpectedly become launching points for major arcs, such as Good Wife‘s “Red Team/Blue Team,” which kick-started one of that show’s creative high points.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Neglected Gem # 109: Hunger (1966)

Per Oscarsson in Hunger (1966)

Per Oscarsson has mostly been forgotten now, but in the sixties and seventies he was considered one of the great Swedish actors of his generation. Stage-trained (he was a notable Hamlet), he had a strongly theatrical presence on camera, and a daring style that was grounded in psychological realism but stretched imaginatively beyond it. In Jan Troell’s The New Land he had a striking presence in the small role of the minister who joins the community of the Swedish settlers in Minnesota, bringing comfort and relief to the devout Kristina (Liv Ullmann), who has suffered from the lack of a spiritual adviser since emigrating with her husband Karl-Oscar (Max von Sydow). Sam Peckinpah employed him in the part of the itinerant handyman in his 1966 TV adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine, where his jangling, inwardly focused performance was on par with the brilliant ones given by Jason Robards and Olivia De Havilland as his farm-owning employers. Oscarsson died in 2010; his last appearances were as Holger Palmgren in the Swedish film and TV versions of the Stieg Larsson thrillers.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Critic's Crypt: On a Century of Horror Cinema, Part I

I’m never one to shirk my responsibilities as a festive moviegoer. Certain times of year call for certain cinematic experiences, and when crisp, melancholy October rolls around I like to ring in the season by cloaking myself in the darkness of the horror genre. There’s no better environment in which to contemplate mortality than amongst the autumn leaves, as they die their violently colourful deaths.

In October of the Year of Our Lord 2017 I watched no fewer than twenty-one horror movies. They spanned a myriad of subgenres across nearly a century of cinema, from the supernatural to the psychological to the downright silly. There’s no way to cover them all in a single Critic’s Crypt, so I’ve broken them down by decade and attempted to chart a course through the murky, tempest-tossed waters of horror history. Follow me, brave spookophile, into these briny and limitless depths!

– Justin Cummings

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Sensual and Strong: The Return of the Canada All Star Ballet Gala

Maria Kochetkova and Carlo Di Lanno, both of San Francisco Ballet, dancing the pas de deux from Christoper Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, one of a dozen premieres presented at the Canada All Star Ballet Gala in Toronto. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

Second time strong. The follow-up edition to last season’s inaugural Canada All Star Ballet Gala gained in power with a sophisticated showcase of classical, neoclassical and contemporary ballet as performed by 17 new-generation ballet luminaries from nine of the world’s leading classical dance companies. Artistic director Svetlana Lunkina, the Bolshoi Ballet star who today is a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, curated the three-hour program whose one-time only performance played to a capacity audience at Toronto’s Sony Centre on Saturday night. She produced the show and also danced in it, raising her own barre high while making way for emerging talents like Anastasia Lukina from the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, and Dmitry Vyskubenko from the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich, both 19 years old. The evening delivered on a promise of new discoveries.