Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Best of CAL 2017

Critics at Large Summer Meeting, August 4/17 ( r. Kevin Courrier, Danny McMurray, Steve Vineberg, Devin McKinney, Justin Cummings, Bob Douglas and Mark Clamen)

Back in January 2010, David Churchill, Shlomo Schwartzberg and I came up with the idea of Critics At Large. We envisioned a daily online arts journal that would provide for us the freedom to write – a freedom we were beginning to lose working in magazines and newspapers. Growing rapidly tired of plying our trade in a field where desperate careerism was taking the place of collegiality and editors were beginning to reward expedience, we wanted to remain more true to the pleasures of critical writing. We also wanted to discover what kind of reader we could cultivate and who they might turn out to be. Over the last eight years, many things changed in both our writing and in our audience. For one thing, Critics At Large became less a haven for frustrated writers and more an accomodating home for a diverse and hopeful group who saw the magazine as a possibility. We began attracting a motley crew from various backgrounds who helped change Critics at Large for the better. A number of men and women, young and old, experienced and not, came to shape our identity rather than take on the one we already had. Along that path, we also attracted veteran arts critics who wanted to continue to address the work that inspired them, but we also drew inexperienced writers trying to find the true value of having a voice to speak with. When I read individual pieces each day, I marvel at the sheer range of material and the keen passion each writer brings to their subject. As for our readers, not only have they been rapidly growing, but the diversity of opinion in the magazine has helped us reach out to a much wider audience.What became most important for me, as one of its co-founders, was watching Critics At Large grow beyond my own expectations into a continually morphing organism that embraces the freedom our writers bring to it. For those who believe that arts criticism isn't about having the right opinion, but instead is a means by which the writer and reader mutually discover their own personal relationship to the arts, I think we are succeeding in getting there. As a way to celebrate that goal, and, I suppose, to amply demonstrate it, here is a look back at some of my own favourite pieces from 2017. They aren't presented in any order of preference. Rather than commenting on the writer and their work, I've selected specific quotes that I think best reflects their value to me as critics. As I continue on as editor, writer, and reader, I can truly say that I'm proud to call them colleagues.

Kevin Courrier
Critics At Large

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Activism and Art: Looking Back on the Free Southern Theater with Seret Scott

Seret Scott

Political activism and art have always had a complicated relationship: art can enhance the power of an activist message, while the sense of purpose imparted by a political message can elevate a work of art. However, the imperatives of creating great art and serving an activist agenda often conflict, diluting the political themes of a given work or rendering it painfully didactic.

In normal times, the task of reconciling these contradictory impulses might not feel as urgent. However, as virtually anyone who’s vaguely familiar with contemporary politics in the United States is aware, these aren’t normal times. The election of Donald Trump and the emergence of a distinctly fascist strain of politics in the world’s most powerful democracy has led to the politicization of nearly everything, from late-night talk shows to professional sports leagues.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Poet Dionne Brand (1984)

Dionne Brand, in 2016. (Photo: Andrea Karr)

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 1984, I sat down with Canadian poet, novelist, and essayist Dionne Brand.

Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Dionne Brand emigrated to Canada in 1970. In 1978, she published her first book of poetry,  Fore Day Morning: Poems. When we spoke in 1984, her fourth, Chronicles of the Hostile Sun, has just been published by Williams-Wallace. Brand was Toronto's Poet Laureate from 2009-2012 and she was admitted to the Order of Canada earlier in 2017. Her most recent publication was the novel Love Enough, published in 2014.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Dionne Brand as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1984.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Best Games of 2017: Anime, Automatons, & Adventure

Yoko Taro’s Nier: Automata was released in February.

The impulse to categorize, rank, and quantify games is a natural one, given the sheer volume that’s available to play in any given year. But it’s also antithetical to deeper thinking and incisive critical analysis; it’s the same petty list-making that has turned film discussion on the internet into a virulent Petri dish of tribal toxicity. “Best of Year” discourse is small-minded, superfluous, and uninspired – but dang if it isn’t a lot of fun, too.

I’m not above a little treat now and then. Here’s a list of the best games I played in 2017. Happy Holidays!

–  Justin Cummings

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Some Dark Holler: The Oxford American Annual Southern Music Issue, Winter 2017

This year’s 19th annual music issue of The Oxford American features alt-country musician Sturgill Simpson on the cover with a defiant, rebel-like smirk suggesting the music from his home state, Kentucky, is back with an in-your-face attitude. But the cover portrait is nothing but a gentle ruse because this 99th issue is an ambitious collection of essays about finding “the middle ground,” that is, where artists remove themselves from their physical environment to find their voice while acknowledging the pull of home. The Kentucky music scene, like most of the southern United States, is shaped by the rural geography and its urban centers, which is why this particular issue is so passionate about discussing the contrasts between the socioeconomic backgrounds of the musicians who call the state home.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Illyria: Stage Folk

John Magaro and Fran Kranz in Richard Nelson's Illyria. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Richard Nelson must be the most prolific playwright in America. Within the last several years he wrote the four Apple Family plays and the three Gabriel plays; the published texts of his work take up most of a shelf at the Drama Book Shop in Manhattan. And though I haven’t liked everything of his that I’ve seen or read, much of his work is first-rate, including some – like Nikolai and the Others, his 2013 portrait of the community of émigré Russian artists in New York after the Second World War, with Michael Cerveris and John Glover as Balanchine and Stravinsky – that deserved much more attention than it received. There hasn’t been much chatter about his latest, Illyria, which received a fine production at the Public, directed by Nelson himself, that closed a couple of weeks ago. Illyria is about the young Joe Papp, struggling to keep his first Shakespeare festival, in Central Park, alive in 1958 despite poor houses, fading finances and the menacing political climate: when the play begins, Papp (John Magaro, in a gruff, vivid performance) has just been fired from his job as a TV producer because the House Un-American Activities Committee has shown an interest in him. It’s a good play – well constructed, with a stage full of interesting, articulate characters whose conversation is well worth tuning into. And for theatre buffs, this glimpse into the scrambling, scrapping lives of young, idealistic, would-be-world-beating thespians of six decades ago has a special appeal and a special charm.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Who’ll Remember The Buns, Podgy? The Beatles’ Christmas Records

Happy Christmas Beatle People! The Christmas Records, a vinyl collection, was released on December 15.

The interwebs – lately anxious over the coming monetization, courtesy of the Federal Communications Commission, of the entire internet; and dispirited as Donald Trump and the GOP delivered a historic largesse to themselves and to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans – were lit up for a few happy hours earlier this month. Via YouTube and other outlets, a recording few had ever heard, and almost as few believed to be real, came to light: an 18-minute remnant of Unforgettable, something put together in late 1965 by Paul McCartney for the sole enjoyment of his fellow Beatles. I and many others first learned of this item in All Together Now (1975), by Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik, the first attempt at a complete Beatles discography, where (in a section on “Bootlegs”) it was generically dubbed Paul’s Christmas Album. “Perhaps the rarest Beatle recording in existence,” the authors called it. “It’s a special treat for the other three. Paul recorded a special album in which he appears as an announcer, a singer and a comedian. Only four copies were ever pressed.” For years I doubted this: it sounded too much like something dreamed up by a fan, floated as a joke, and then transformed via rumor from fetish to fact. (After all, the same section of the same book asserted the existence of such unreleased Beatles songs as “Pink Litmus Paper Shirt,” “Colliding Circles,” and “Four Nights in Moscow” [!]; only in 1999 was it revealed that most of these titles were the prankish inventions of a Beatle bystander.)

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Year of Reading: My Favourite Books of 2017

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of We Were Eight Years in Power. (Photo: Gabriella Demczuk)

With the exception of A God in Ruins, all of the books discussed below were published in 2017. I did not realize until I assembled this list that every entry consists of either at least two historical timelines or the bleeding of the past into the present either through investigative reportage or by way of past memories surfacing into the present consciousness of characters Bob Douglas

Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow is the most outstanding book I read this year, original and beautifully written, spiced with a soupçon of Tolstoyan flavour. A Russian Count juxtaposes his early life in Czarist Russia with his current life; he was sentenced in 1922 to permanent house arrest at the Metropol Hotel. Through his impeccable manners and urbanity, he skillfully negotiates alliances that will result over thirty years later in a courageous attempt to dramatically alter the life of a young woman who has become his de facto daughter. A book to be savored and reread.

Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins is a most satisfying novel, punctuated with drama, poignancy and humour. Superior to its predecessor, Life After Life, which played too promiscuously with the concept of time, allowing its protagonist, Ursula Todd, to constantly relive her life, A God in Ruins focuses on a single life, that of Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy, narrated in out-of-order chapters. Teddy never fulfills the promise that he briefly showed as a minor character in the earlier novel, apart from one major exception. He excels as a skipper for a crew of bomber pilots during World War Two, and these chapters, which have been impeccably researched, are among the most powerful in the novel. His civilian life afterwards never reaches that level of intensity in part because no one wants to hear him talk about the war and partly because of circumstances. His less-than-satisfying marriage is tragically cut short and he is left with a ghastly daughter, Viola, who turns out to be a ghastly mother. Late in the novel we are given a major clue to Teddy’s fraught relationship with Viola. By the time we finish reading, we realize that Atkinson has pieced together a beautifully rendered mosaic that is deeply moving.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Interview with Canadian Novelist David Adams Richards (1988)

 David Adams Richards in 2008. (Photo: Bruce Peters)

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 1988, I sat down with Canadian novelist, essayist, and screenwriter David Adams Richards.

At the time of our conversation, Richards's novel Nights Below Station Street has recently been awarded the Governor General's Award for English-language fiction. Nights Below Station Street was the first book in his Miramichi trilogy, which includes Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace (1990) and For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down (1993).

Born in Newcastle, New Brunswick, Richards has over the course of his career published 16 novels (the most recent being 2016's Principles to Live By) and works of non-fiction, including Lines on the Water: A Fisherman's Life on the Miramichi, which won the Governor General's Award for non-fiction in 1998. This past August, he was appointed to the Senate of Canada by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with David Adams Richards as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1988.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Moving Gallery: Faces Places

Agnès Varda and JR in Faces Places.

On the surface, Faces Places, the new documentary gem co-directed by famed Belgian-born French filmmaker Agnès Varda (Cléo From 5 to 7, The Gleaners and I) and the French artist/photographer who goes by the name JR -- wherein the pair traverses the French countryside taking pictures of various villagers, blowing them up and then pasting them on walls and buildings -- may not seem like much. But despite its seemingly simple skein, Faces Places is a remarkable document, a poignant rumination on tradition, modernity, mortality, love, perception, imagery and many other subjects. It’s a film that you won’t soon forget.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Smashing The Mirror – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Mark Hamill in Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi.

Note: This review contains major spoilers for Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi.

I’ve shed a tear or two in a movie theatre in my time. A lump in the throat, a welling in the eyes. It’s been known to happen. But until now, I had never fully cried in a theatre. I’d never been in a situation where a film cracked open the floodgates and allowed undignified public weeping to overtake me. I’ve learned that it’s not sad stories that trigger this for me, but rather stories of hope and love, stories of support and cooperation. I didn’t cry at the sad endings of Logan or Blade Runner this year, but you put on The Return of the King? It’s A Wonderful Life? I’m a guaranteed mess. I honestly was not prepared for Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi to cut me so deeply, and it has as much to do with the way the film challenges the legacy of Star Wars and my connection to it as it does with the film’s own smart, subversive, deeply emotional storytelling.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

From Stax to Daptone and Back Again: Rob Bowman's Soulsville, U.S.A.

Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (the ST and AX, respectively), ca. 1957, founding Stax Records.

Canadian music journalist Rob Bowman has given all of us soul music lovers a wonderful gift in the form of his deeply researched book, Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records (Schirmer Trade Books, 2003). It’s the inside story of the men and women behind what came to be known historically as the legendary “Stax sound.” His book, which he took twelve fetishistic years to compile, and which has made him the premiere expert on both the music and the business operations of a truly iconic label, simply has to be one of the most in-depth studies ever conducted and published on a single record company. In it, he explores the music, of course, but also the politics inside the organization, its finances, lawsuits, interracial harmonies and discords, studio location in an urban black neighborhood, key staff members, promotional strategies, distribution, every hiring or firing and, most importantly, the creative interplay between the soulful musical artists and their gifted producers. And what producers they were.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Time Has Come Today: Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Of all the great contemporary actors, is it possible that Denzel Washington is the most mystifying? As the defiant private who stood up to his hated sergeant in Norman Jewison's A Soldier's Story (1984), Washington sent currents of electricity through the film. But though he seemed a perfect fit for the charismatic black power leader in Spike Lee's 1992 Malcolm X, he resembled a lifeless icon. His spellbinding matchmaker, Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, in Kenneth Branagh's 1993 adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing was answered later the same year with the dull and earnest attorney who finds redemption defending a lawyer with AIDs in Philadelphia. When he plays the snappy private investigator Easy Rollins in Carl Franklin's crackling Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), Washington has some of the quick reflexes of Bogart's Sam Spade, but when he portrays the wrongly imprisoned boxer, Rubin Carter, in The Hurricane (1999), his energy gets sucked up by the character's nobility. Washington is exciting to watch when he gets to fill a role using a card shark's bravado, as he did as the hostage negotiator in Spike Lee's 2006 Inside Man, or when he underplayed the veteran railroad engineer trying to stop a runaway train in Tony Scott's Unstoppable (2010). But more recently, in Fences, he adds little imagination to the role of the embittered sanitation worker. That's because the character is completely worked out in the soapbox speeches playwright August Wilson wrote for him, and when the part is already fully thought through, Washington seems to simply fall back on his actor's skill and leave out his personality. He either becomes part of the scenery or he ends up chewing it. But if the role leaves more room for him to move, he can find surprising corners of the character that can magnetize the camera – and the audience. That's what he does in Tony Gilroy's new picture, Roman J. Israel, Esq., where he has plenty of space to be inventive. He gives an exciting and original performance – even when the film eventually gets muddled in dramatic confusion.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Young Marx: Catch as Catch Can

Laura Elphinstone and Rory Kinnear in Young Marx at London's Bridge Theatre. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

The big news on the London theatre scene this fall was the opening of the Bridge Theatre near London Bridge, the first new commercial theatre in the city in eighty years, under the artistic direction of Nicholas Hytner (who held that position at the National Theatre during its most recent prestigious period). The Bridge’s inaugural production is Young Marx, a new play by Richard Bean – whose One Man, Two Guv’nors was a gigantic and deserved hit for the National – and Clive Coleman. Hytner has directed a cast led by Rory Kinnear, in my estimation the most talented English actor of his generation, as Karl Marx, Oliver Chris (memorable in One Man) as Frederick Engels and Nancy Carroll (last seen in the splendid Woyzeck at the Old Vic) as Marx’s Prussian-aristocrat wife Jenny Von Westphalen. I caught the show in the NT Live series a couple of weeks ago, and I had a pretty good time. It’s juicy and sumptuous, and the action on Mark Thompson’s revolving Dickensian set (the setting is 1850 London) moves at a clip, though Mark Henderson has underlit it excessively. The ensemble is flawless, with all three of the principal actors cavorting in high style. The problem is that it’s not a very good play.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

To Gather No Moss: Alex Gibney and Blair Foster's Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge

You're likely to be disappointed by Alex Gibney and Blair Foster's two-part four-hour HBO documentary Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge if you're expecting a thorough exposé that trolls through the pop culture magazine's turbulent fifty-year history. For instance, you won't find much of a nuanced portrait of its boy-wonder founder, editor and publisher, Jann Wenner, when they parse through his struggles with sexuality and drugs. They avoid entirely the paradoxical life of Wenner, whose contradictory impulses – both personally and professionally – came to shape the personality of the magazine for half a century. Since the documentary was made under Wenner's aegis, Gibney and Foster also stay pretty clear of addressing directly the popular perception that Rolling Stone Magazine may have begun as an avatar of the counter-culture in 1968, but eventually it became yet another celebrity journal for aspiring yuppies.Yet even if Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge skirts some of the more complex dimensions built into Jann Wenner, and the turbulent direction the magazine would take in its long history, Gibney and Foster don't whitewash their subject either. “[Rolling Stone is] not just about music, but also the things and attitudes that the music embraces,” wrote Wenner earnestly in an editorial published in the debut issue to define its promise. Yet the film recognizes that promises can't always be kept, especially if the culture itself changes in ways you can't possibly predict. So Rolling Stone is currently up for sale, perhaps recognizing that its potent synergy with popular culture is now gone. In light of this coming event, Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge decides to look back at some of the key stories the magazine covered over its fifty years, along with the writers who penned them, to see if (despite the changing tenor of the times and the journal that chronicled those changes) they still managed to live up to their promise.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Raising the Stakes: Tone, Comedy, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Andre Braugher, Andy Samberg and Melissa Fumero in Brooklyn Nine-Nine (photo: Jordin Althaus/Fox) 

From the moment it premiered on Fox in the fall of 2013, Dan Goor and Mike Schur’s comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine has always been something of a low-key high-wire act. In many respects, it’s a conventional workplace sitcom, which is standard fare for a network like Fox and familiar territory for both of its creators (Schur wrote for The Office and created Parks & Recreation, and Goor wrote for the latter show). However, it’s set in a precinct office of the New York Police Department, which complicates some of the usual conventions of a workplace comedy. Much of The Office’s humor was based on the tediousness and unimportance of the work the titular location’s occupants performed, while Parks & Recreation slyly used the seemingly petty and inconsequential concerns of local government officials to push an optimistic message about the potential for civic engagement to lead to positive change.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Virtues and Perils of Being an Equal Opportunity Offender: Real Time with Bill Maher

Real Time with Bill Maher recently concluded its 15th season on HBO.

Considering that I was a devoted aficionado of Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect show when it ran on ABC in the late '90s and early '00s, I can’t explain why it took me until late last year to get into his HBO series Real Time with Bill Maher this after the show had been on the air for well over a decade. Nevertheless, I’ve made up for my neglect with gusto and now never miss an episode. Since Donald Trump became President, a fact that energizes and enrages Maher in equal measure, Real Time with Bill Maher appears more than ever to be an oasis of intelligence in a U.S. media and television landscape too often dominated by ignorance and superficiality. For those of us despairing of the United States since November 2016, Real Time provides hope that all is not lost there, despite the actions of those deplorable voters who put the ignorant, bullying Trump in their country’s driver’s seat. And yet, it’s debatable if the show is making the slightest bit of difference in changing or bettering the political landscape it’s so intent on addressing. But first, the good things about the show.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

An Intricate, Beautiful Thing: Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water.

Last month, when I attended Guillermo del Toro’s exhibition At Home With Monsters at the Art Gallery of Ontario, one of the things that impressed itself most strongly upon me was the filmmaker’s fascination with otherness. The weird, the unsettling, and the macabre have always had a presence in his work, but his more sensitive artistic tendencies are expressed through his fondness for the freaks and outcasts of the world – those deemed to be somehow “other” than the rest of us. It might not be readily apparent in a filmography full of graphic violence and disturbing imagery, but a deep vein of compassion runs through del Toro’s oeuvre, especially for those who seldom receive it from society. The Shape of Water is by far his most compassionate film, celebrating otherness so directly and so proudly that it seems wondrous he managed to get the thing in front of general audiences at all.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Poisoned Well: Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers

Rolling Stone co-founder and publisher Jann Wenner, 1977. (Photo: Claire Maxwell)


“He’s a dick,” said an old acquaintance, a veteran New York newspaperman, when I mentioned Jann Wenner recently. In three words, he expressed what it takes Joe Hagan, author of Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine (Knopf; 547 pp.), an entire book to say. On the largest scale of generalization, the verdict seems unassailable: one gathers it would be difficult to find a Wenner associate who hasn’t at some point felt betrayed or otherwise outraged by him. Yet this major biography of the co-founder, editor, and publisher of Rolling Stone, though it reports innumerable facts, can’t really be credited with telling the truth. In its single-minded focus on proving that Jann Wenner is a dick, it almost utterly ignores the rest of this complex and influential figure’s metaphorical anatomy.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Poet Alden Nowlan (1982)

Poet Alden Nowlan (1933-1983). (Photo Courtesy of Beaverbrook Collection of War Art)

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 1982, I sat down with Canadian poet, novelist, and playwright Alden Nowlan.

Nowlan was born in poverty in Stanley, Nova Scotia, where his father worked as an itinerant manual labourer. His mother abandoned the family when Alden was quite young and left him in the care of his paternal grandmother. Since the family was hard pressed to survive, education wasn't a priority. So Nowlan left school after the fourth grade, but when he discovered the library in the small adjacent town of Windsor, he would travel eighteen miles to stoke his interest in literature. Ultimately, Nowlan settled in Saint John, New Brunswick, where he married Claudine Orser, a typesetter, and became a poet. Having contracted throat cancer in 1966, which he recovered from, he went on to write many poems about mortality. In 1967, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and his collection, Bread, Wine and Salt (Clarke-Irwin, 1967) was awarded the Governor General's Award for Poetry.

At the time of our conversation, Alden Nowlan's final book of original poetry, I Might Not Tell Everybody This, had just been published by Clarke Irwin. Nowlan passed away a year later, in 1983, at the age of 50 from severe emphysema.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Alden Nowlan as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1982.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Parisian Woman: Those Devious Politicos

Uma Thurman and Blair Brown in The Parisian Woman. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The last time I saw Uma Thurman, she appeared, in a remarkable ensemble, in the 2015 NBC miniseries The Slap, which deserved more attention than it got. Now she’s starring in a new Broadway play, Beau Willimon’s The Parisian Woman, and at forty-seven she looks more beautiful than ever – that long, sleek frame, that sculpted goddess’s face. She hasn’t done much previous stage work (she played Célimène in a production of Molière’s The Misanthrope at Classic Stage Company in 1999), but she seems just as comfortable on the stage of the Hudson Theatre as she does on camera, and, with Jane Greenwood’s elegant dresses dripping off her, her presence is mesmerizing.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Changing the Anti-democratic Dial: Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny

Historian Timothy Snyder speaking in 2016.

"Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so."

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.”

“Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny.

Recently, I was fortunate to hear in Toronto a stimulating talk by distinguished Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of the acclaimed monographs Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning and his latest, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books, 2017). His talk was followed by a Q&A with CBC correspondent Susan Ormiston. It turned out that his presentation was more an expansion of the epilogue in On Tyranny that explores two paradigms leading to worldviews that founder on an insufficient knowledge of history, while the interview with Ormiston directly related to the lessons Snyder posits in that slim (a mere 126 pages) but substantive volume.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Call Me by Your Name: Veneer of Romance

Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in Call Me by Your Name.

In Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, an American grad student in his mid-twenties named Oliver (Armie Hammer) spends six weeks in northern Italy during the summer months in residence as a research assistant to an archeologist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has a love affair with Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), his host’s seventeen-year-old son. Neither of the young men identifies himself as gay – the first object of Oliver’s amorous attentions is Chiara (Victoire Du Bois), a neighbor of the Perlmans, and before Elio cements his relationship with Oliver he loses his virginity to Chiara’s daughter Marzia (Esther Garrel). Guadagnino and the screenwriter, James Ivory (adapting a novel by André Aciman), present their romance as a perfect confluence of physical and emotional energies at an ideal time in both their lives – especially Elio’s, since it’s his coming-of-age story – and in an ideal setting, a beautiful old villa in a picturesque town set against the magnificent landscape of Lombardy. (Sayombhu Mukdeeprom photographed.) Elio is a great-looking kid with an air of social and intellectual privilege; he’s fluent in English, French and Italian – his mother (Amira Casar) is Italian – his family has lived all over, he’s an accomplished pianist, and he has a comfortable, bantering relationship with the teenagers of the other summer people in the town. He walks around shirtless in shorts or swim trunks, smoking; he might be the image of the adolescent on holiday, snug in his own skin. But he holds back. He spends more time alone, reading or transcribing music, than he does with the other kids, and when they go to a club he’s the last on the dance floor. We see him eyeballing Oliver, who’s physically expressive – in sports, at a dance, or just lying on the edge of the pool reading – and it’s clear that he both envies the older man and is somewhat resentful of how easily he fits in. Their bedrooms are next door to each other – he has to give up his own room to this American visitor – and the day Oliver shows up, he’s so jet-lagged that he plops himself down on his bed, falls asleep instantly and opts to skip dinner, and Elio is put off by his refusal to act the role of the guest who does what’s expected of him. He thinks that Oliver’s impulsiveness and his manner are arrogant – and the fact that both his parents take to Oliver immediately and aren’t remotely bothered by his style doesn’t help. But Oliver reaches out to him in a friendly way, and Elio loses his skepticism – which is, of course, just a resistance to his own attraction to Oliver.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Chaos to the Core: The Zapple Diaries by Barry Miles

Beatles's manager Allen Klein, John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1969

The title is long but The Zapple Diaries: The Rise and Fall of the Last Beatles Label, the story of The Beatles’s failed business endeavor by Barry Miles, is a fascinating first-hand account. Miles was a personal friend of Paul McCartney when he opened the Indica Bookshop in London that featured art installations and poetry books by the leading avant-garde artists of the day. (One of those artists was Yoko Ono.) He started the bookstore in 1965 with Peter Asher, brother of Jane Asher, McCartney’s girlfriend at the time. Miles reflects on those early days with a kind of pragmatic fondness, “There is no question that without Paul McCartney’s support Indica Books would have gone under several years before it did . . . in 1970.” He says that the Beatle’s involvement was “kept quiet.” But the seeds for starting a new business to record new poets were planted and McCartney was particularly enthusiastic about supporting the Miles/Asher partnership in this manner. While Asher kept the store going, The Beatles hired Miles when they formed Zapple, an imprint of Apple, in 1968. Zapple was created to release “more experimental material” such as spoken word recordings and his job was to approach and record American poets for the new label. His book is about that gig, the artists he recorded and the office politics of The Beatles’ risky new business.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Inventory Management, Vol V: Pure Refinement

Klansmen get chummy with a Nazi grunt in the alternate United States of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.

If you'd like to hear a podcast version of this piece, you can listen to it at this link. Let us know if you want to hear more like this!

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a direct sequel to Wolfenstein: The New Order, picking up directly where that game left off in the alternate 1960s where William “B.J.” Blazkowicz (Brian Bloom) and his band of underground resistance friends fight back against the victorious Nazi Reich, which, as of New Colossus, has successfully colonized the United States. The idea of the “Land of the Free” not being quite so free isn’t new – Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is probably the most famous example of this alt-history idea – but boy, oh boy, does it ever feel like a loaded concept in 2017. And that doesn’t escape the notice of developer MachineGames and publisher Bethesda Softworks, who used this public sentiment to their advantage with marketing material that asked people to “Make America Nazi-Free Again.” There’s never been a better time for a game like New Colossus to come out, because its outlandish conceit has never felt closer to reality.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Coal into Diamond: The Inspiring Story of Gospel Funk

The incredible Sister Rosetta Tharpe, consummate gospel singer and secret inventor of rock 'n roll, soul and visionary funk music, circa 1940.

“I feel like there is an angel inside of me that I am constantly shocking.”Jean Cocteau

“When I’m on stage, I’m trying to do one thing: bring people joy. Just like church does. People don’t go to church to find trouble, they go there to lose it.”James Brown
The word "gospel," of course, literally means good news. But the really good news is that gospel music morphed into the blues, blues morphed into soul, soul morphed into funk, and funk eventually morphed into both rap and hip hop. There will inevitably be another mutation in this wild musical evolutionary chain, but who knows what exotic shape it might take, especially considering the weird fact that hip hop has already become part of mainstream white pop music?

When blues music went on a blind date with gospel music and had too much rhythm and blues to think, that unlikely marriage of heaven and hell gave birth to something called soul. In some ways the parents of both these sacred and profane styles didn’t want their kids going out together, let alone settling down and starting a dance-mad family that would shake up the musical world forever. Thus we entered the fray that would become the saga of gospel funk, and saw its incredible climb to the stellar soul heights after its humble beginnings in the hot holy Southern church pews of America where fervent worship was the only spiritual dish on the community menu.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Out Of The Past: Nothing Personal at the Pace Gallery

Allen Ginsberg, poet, New York City, December 30, 1963 by Richard Avedon.

. . . to grasp again, with fearful hope, the unwilling, unloving human hand.
– James Baldwin, “Nothing Personal” (1964)
To live in a time when so much of the American worst has returned to squat like some demented, incontinent rooster on the White House lawn is to feel locked in a past more horrible for being resurrected in a new century. Jim Crow, voter suppression, the “Southern strategy” gone national: we’re past the body snatchers, and on to zombie politics. It seems clear enough, then, why the Richard Avedon Foundation has chosen now to reintroduce us to Nothing Personal. This large-format volume combining Avedon’s photographs with James Baldwin’s titular essay was published in 1964, at the violent height of what many were calling America’s new civil war. Its organizing observations were of the Civil Rights Movement, long before that historic reckoning had been assigned capital letters; more generally, it was a polemical outcry against dehumanization and alienation, with movie stars, pop stars, writers, socialites, and Louisiana asylum inmates among its subjects. Other themes, writ small or large, were the spatial dynamics of individuals, couples, and groups; the lonesome cause of the intellectuals, several of whom gave Avedon worried looks from within chiaroscuro lighting; and the naked human body.

Through January 13, the Pace Gallery in Manhattan is showing an exhibition based on Nothing Personal; the art publisher Taschen has issued a facsimile of the original, along with a companion catalog containing many of the exhibition items – contact sheets, correspondence, rough drafts – and a fine, elliptical essay by New Yorker critic Hilton Als. The smallish rooms, high ceilings, and clean lighting of the Pace are suited to the modest collection, and allow for great variation in sizing, from Billy Graham at barely more than postcard size to Avedon’s famous mockery of the racist Daughters of the American Revolution, which is blown up to nearly the dimensions of a Bosch mural. (If you’ve never noticed the zit on the left shoulder blade of the matron at the center, you will now.)

Monday, December 4, 2017

Follies at the National: Challenges and Triumphs

Photo by Johan Persson.

The National Theatre has loaded a ton of money into Dominic Cooke’s revival of Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman Follies, the NT Live transcription of which is still doing the rounds. The ensemble numbers thirty-seven, not quite up to the cast of fifty that opened the musical on Broadway in I971 but substantial. Vicki Mortimer’s gargantuan set, its perspective shifting constantly as the Olivier Theatre revolve spins, evokes the dilapidated grandeur of the theatre that housed Dimitri Weissman’s Follies annually between the World Wars and is now scheduled (in 1971) to be converted into an office building. Paule Constable’s eerie lighting accentuates the ghostliness of the proceedings, as the Weissman girls reunite for a one-night-only reunion and we see their younger selves shadowing them as they recreate old production numbers and – in the case of the four principals, Phyllis and Ben Stone (Janie Dee and Philip Quast) and Sally and Buddy Plummer (Imelda Staunton and Peter Forbes), fragments from their early-forties lives, when showgirls Phyllis and Sally shared a flat and law-school classmates Ben and Buddy courted them while Ben and Sally carried on a clandestine love affair. (Zizi Strallen, Alex Young, Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig play, respectively, the younger versions of Phyllis, Sally, Ben and Buddy.) Mortimer’s costumes work fine, too, with a couple of odd, glaring exceptions. Dee’s sack-like party gown is one. The other is Staunton’s, which is green and so leaves the audience puzzled at her insistence, in “Too Many Mornings,” that she should have worn green because she wore green the last time she saw Ben, the man whom she’s fantasized into the love of her life she’s never gotten over.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

All in the Direction: Once on This Island on Broadway

Alex Newell as Asaka and Hailey Kilgore as Ti Moune in Once on This Island. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

A play isn’t just words on a page: a lot depends on how a particular production of a given work succeeds or fails in bringing it to life onstage. That’s one of the fundamental lessons I’m charged with getting across to my students in my introductory theatre courses, and it’s been reinforced for me by the Broadway revival of Once on This Island, which opens this week at Circle in the Square. It’s a textbook example of how a talented director and cast can elevate mediocre material. I’m doubly glad I saw it, because this is probably as good a production of this show as will ever exist, so I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to see another revival.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Vocabulary of Bullets: The Punisher

Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle in The Punisher, on Netflix.

Country, I was a soldier to you.
I did what you asked me to.
It was wrong, and you knew.

Country, now I'm just a stranger to you.
A number, a name; it's true.
Throw me away when you're through.
– "I Wish It Was True" by The White Buffalo/Jake Smith
Now, that’s more like it. After two long years, we finally get a Marvel/Netflix series worthy of the promise demonstrated by the first season of Daredevil and the audacious Jessica Jones. (The last 18 months have given us an uneven sophomore season of Daredevil, the missteps at the end of the otherwise impressive Luke Cage, the terminally sluggish Iron Fist and the fun, action-packed, but ultimately forgettable Defenders team-up miniseries in August.) Frank Castle – a.k.a. The Punisher, played again by Jon Bernthal – was the best thing by far in Daredevil’s second season, and now he is back in The Punisher. If you (like me) lost faith in Netflix’s small urban corner of the MCU sometime during your viewing of Iron Fist (I abandoned the show in the middle of its 8th episode and have never looked back), this first season of The Punisher is likely to bring you back to the fold. Though bloodier by far than any other Netflix/Marvel outing, Punisher offers its most character-driven story since Jones, and its most relevant since Luke Cage.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Books into Misbegotten Movies: Wonderstruck and Murder on the Orient Express

Jaden Michael, Oakes Fegley and Julianne Moore in Wonderstruck.

Todd Haynes got the 1950s in Carol, but he doesn’t even come close to getting the 1920s in Wonderstruck, his movie of Brian Selznick’s children’s book, which Selznick himself adapted. The gimmick in the novel is that it cross-cuts – as anyone who has read The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) knows, Selznick is an overtly cinematic writer – between 1977 and 1927. In the 1977 scenes, a boy from rural Minnesota named Ben, who has recently lost his mother and has been taken in by his aunt and uncle, runs away to seek the man he believes is his father in New York City, following a clue he discovered among his mother’s things. In the 1927 scenes, a girl named Rose runs away from her overprotective father, first to find her famous stage- and movie-star mother Lillian Mayhew and then, when that doesn’t work out very well, her older brother Walter, who works at the Museum of Natural History. Rose was born deaf; Ben was born deaf in one ear, but he’s struck by lightning that takes away the hearing in his other one. That’s a hint of, or perhaps a metaphor for, the greater connection they turn out to share when the two stories come together.