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

1) Steve Vineberg: The Wizard of Lies: The Con Man as Misanthrope (June 9/17)

Nathan Darrow, Robert De Niro, and Alessandro Nivola in HBO's The Wizard of Lies.

"In the HBO movie The Wizard of Lies, Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff explores a different sort of con man – one that is, I think, an archetypal American character for the twenty-first century. Under Barry Levinson’s focused, probing direction, De Niro gives his finest performance in years. It’s the De Niro we recognize: charismatic, authoritative, but ill at ease in the world as the result of an essential misanthropy. The casting is perfect, because in the movie’s view – the screenplay by Samuel Baum, Sam Levinson and John Burnham Schwartz is based on Diana Henriques’s 2011 book The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust – Madoff’s ability to manipulate the men and women he defrauded out of an estimated $64.8 billion in the most extensive Ponzi scheme ever perpetrated is based not on charm but on a combination of charisma and an aura of unassailable authority. Madoff, the one-time non-executive chairman of NASDAQ, presented himself to his clients – many of them long-time friends, some of them family members, and one, Elie Wiesel, the image of integrity and an icon in modern Jewish history – as the undisputed expert, the sole man who could navigate the treacherous waters of finance even in the wake of the 2008 economic downturn. Madoff, as we see in the film, shifts in and out of the roles of trusted family friend and adviser, father figure, rabbi and noodge, alternately lecturing and consoling, bullying and reassuring. His aura of immovable certainty is his client’s bulwark. The fact that he isn’t charming is, for these (mostly) Jews who pride themselves on their tough-mindedness and skepticism, part and parcel of what makes him so trustworthy. How can such an irascible, street-smart, no-bullshit guy be, in fact, sitting on a fortune made of paper and feathers? His refusal to kiss his clients’ asses, in tandem with his unchallengeable air of authority, is the ultimate con. When Bernie Madoff turns out to be a fraud, trust really is dead."
Sally Gray and Trevor Howard in They Made Me a Fugitive (1947).

"Director Alberto Cavalcanti (credited just as Cavalcanti), best known for one of the episodes in the British horror omnibus Dead of Night (1945), shot the film in many bombed-out and not-yet-rebuilt parts of Soho, giving the movie a startlingly realistic and melancholy sheen, aided immeasurably by Otto Heller’s stark but ravishing cinematography. (Carol Reed’s The Third Man, from 1949, did the same for Vienna but it was a glossier, shinier movie.) This London is down at its heels and still at war, although now within itself and not with any external enemies. And the citizens who survived World War Two now expect to live large, not caring where the goodies come from; the same can be said for ex-soldiers like Clem, now cast adrift in society. It’s a pretty cynical but honest portrait, and perhaps a harbinger of the '60s British ‘kitchen sink’ dramas (Billy Liar, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, etc.) yet to come. Cavlcanti also shoots the drama in a jagged, off-kilter way, complete with odd camera angles, that ups the suspense considerably; I wonder if Samuel Fuller (Pickup on South Street, 1953; The Crimson Kimono, 1959) knew of this film as his work is reminiscent of it, though his is a heavy-handed, obvious iteration of Cavalcanti’s vision."
Rhiannon Giddens at the 2015 Big Ears Festival Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo: Amos Perrine)

"Freedom Highway never strays too far away from itself as a politically charged album; in fact that’s Giddens’ intention as a composer. In an articulate Oxford American profile recently published called 'Past is Present,' author Gayle Wald describes Giddens' writing process this way: 'clear-eyed conceptualization of music as history: not merely as sonic ornamentation of the past but the past in sonic form.' It’s a solid assessment of Giddens's place in American music. What’s interesting to me is her excellent version of 'Birmingham Sunday' written by the under-recognized Richard Farina. The song reports on the 1963 murder of four girls by the KKK at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama. Giddens takes this classic talking history song and makes it her own because it’s an informed performance rather than Farina’s original as a reporter of history, even though Giddens wasn’t yet born when he wrote it. In her version we can’t hide from the emotional impact of the wrongs of the past; we are involved and in a way, responsible for social injustices. But it’s not about blame or being lectured from a self-righteous artist. It’s about understanding the inhumanity of history through song: a deeper message Freedom Highway offers with passion, grace and a little fire."
Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing

"When it premiered in 1999, The West Wing was a Platonic ideal, an optimistic, aspirational dream about what American politics could someday be. I recently indulged a craving to rewatch it (which, in hindsight, can only be categorized as the screech of my drowning mind grasping for purchase on saner shores), and I was shocked to discover that now, in 2017, it's not just aspirational – it's pure fantasy. The West Wing isn’t terribly realistic, but I never thought I'd see it as downright escapist. I used to think House of Cards was like The West Wing's evil twin, showing us the dark flip side of political motivations and maneuvering – but we live in a world where the Netflix drama's cautionary storytelling has been rendered irrelevant by the much worse reality we've been forced to accept. The political America that The West Wing depicts, a place of competence, hard work, cooperation, and hope, seems as fantastical and far away to my modern eyes as the forest moon of Endor. Maybe that’s why my brain reached out towards it. I just needed to escape, if only for an hour at a time, into a world where things made sense.

The White House of President Josiah Bartlet (played with folksy paternal wit by Martin Sheen) is one that prizes competence above all. The primary staffers under Bartlet – John Spencer’s Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry; his deputy, Bradley Whitford’s Josh Lyman; the communications tag team of Richard Schiff’s Toby Ziegler and Rob Lowe’s Sam Seaborn; and Allison Janney’s Press Secretary, C.J. Cregg – aren’t just the leaders in their respective fields; they’re near-superhuman avatars of professional excellence. That one friend you know who just seems to be operating on a higher level than everyone else, no matter what they do? Each of these characters graduated above that friend, with honours, and then went home and slept with their date. Writer-creator Aaron Sorkin made his bones with The West Wing (his short-lived sitcom Sports Night notwithstanding), and a large part of the show’s success must be attributed to the way its cast embodies the best of humanity. The America of The West Wing is plagued by the same muddy international reputation as the real West Wing, but this is a reputation that Bartlet and his staff constantly seek to shatter through the application of their fierce, creative, ever-firing brains. Is it any wonder that this comes as a relief when my social media feeds are filled with videos of the Press Secretary aggressively making an idiot of himself, the President himself speaking in garbled, incoherent terms, or the entire administration being admonished for its gross incompetence? This is a White House that even Sorkin couldn’t imagine, a place in which reason and discourse aren’t the norm – they’re the enemy. The West Wing couldn’t have anticipated this level of institutionalized ignorance, and so its cleverness and luminosity seem almost tragically deluded by comparison."

5) Mark Clamen: The Vocabulary of Bullets: The Punisher (Dec. 2/17)

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

"The Punisher’s power lies in its sensitive unfolding of Frank Castle’s true battle, the comparatively quiet one raging inside him since his return from his tours of duty. Fronting his own series, Bernthal is given the time and space to deepen a character who, up to now, has spoken primarily through a vocabulary of bullets – and it is entirely to the actor’s credit that he can invest the character with such pathos. Castle’s Special Forces training and experience has not only made him, it's also broken him. And he is joined by an equally broken ensemble cast of characters – some of them friends, some of them foes, and some of them both. This one season gives us many, and varied, characters who are each struggling in their own way to survive – former soldiers, veterans who don’t know to live on when they no longer have a war to fight, each learning to live in, as Castle puts, 'the silence when the gunfire ends.' As raw and sympathetic as this portrayal is, the series also is wise enough not to pretend to offer any solutions, choosing instead to portray the problem itself in all of its urgency.

All superhero narratives, on some level, testify to some degree to a broken or impotent system. (What else does is Commissioner Gordon declaring every time he presses the button that flashes the Bat-Signal above Gotham?) To their credit, Marvel/Netflix has jumped in with both feet on these questions in every one of its shows – most pointedly in the struggle within lawyer/part-time vigilante Matt Murdock. In Daredevil’s second season, the introduction of Frank Castle, a man-sized, gravel-voiced incarnation of Matt’s own inner demons, powerfully externalized that previously internal conflict. (That season’s comparatively less compelling story of Daredevil’s pairing with Elektra and the war with the ancient criminal organization called “The Hand” pales in force to the Castle storyline, and so it is not surprising that the two series which pick up that side of the plot – first Iron Fist, and then, reaching its noisy apex, The Defenders – have been less successful.) Fortunately, The Punisher was waiting in the wings to pick up the other mantle and run with it."

6) Deirdre Kelly: Dance in the Raw: Denmark's Kitt Johnson at Toronto's World Stage (April 14/17)

Kitt Johnson in Rankefod, which opened the World Stage Redux festival in Toronto on April 4. (Photo: Per Morten Abrahamsen)

"[Kitt] Johnson thrillingly embodies the strangeness of prehuman existence with a potently protean body that makes her look less mammalian, more purely organic matter. She performs her transformative dance in a loincloth, bare breasts, limbs and spiny back covered by a thin layer of clay connecting her to the mysteries of the earth. Her hair is pinned back and her face largely hidden in a 50-minute dance unfolding in the shadows of Mogens Kjempff's sublunary lighting design. Sture Ericson's loud and vibrational score teems with oozing, crunching, hissing sound that wrestles the senses into submission.

Rankefod begins with Johnson showing her back to the audience, arching it to look like a carapace. No other body parts are visible. Her head and legs are hidden inside Charlotre Østergaard's set design of gouged and bark-like textures on a blanketing wall of cloth, making her seem more thing than person. Identity remains elusive.

For a long time, it is not even clear that Johnson is female, so effectively does she erase all traces of the anthropomorphic from her dance. To create the illusion of invertebrate life, Johnson commands every ounce of bodily strength and control. She moves at times quickly, spasmodically, elbows sharply bent to resemble sensory antennae stabbing blindly at the dark. At other moments the progression is slow, if barely noticeable. A frightful still life."
The Scream by Kent Monkman. (2017, Acrylic on Canvas)

"More recently, since Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology to Aboriginals over the harm done to children in the Residential schools and the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the focus has been on reconciliation. It has especially been a mantra of Justin Trudeau’s government, but [Peter H.] Russell rightly suggests [in Canada's Odyssey] that the government’s gestures to date have been largely symbolic. The hard part is still to come: self-government and control of homeland resources. Russell is hopeful but I am not certain he is optimistic.

Charlotte Gray’s Promise of Canada covers some of the same material as Russell but it is a very different book. As a biographer and historian, she profiles nine individuals who represent ideas she believes have shaped the country. Two of my favourites are her wonderful portraits of Tommy Douglas, who exemplified the idea that government could be a force for good, and Bertha Wilson, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, whose court decisions underscored the importance of the Charter of Rights as an integral part of the Canadian identity.

Yet it is her sensitive profile of Elijah Harper and his relationship with the indigenous struggle that is most germane to this review. Harper became a national presence when he kiboshed in the Manitoba legislature the Meech Lake Accord, a constitutional agreement that was designed to accommodate Quebec demands to be recognized as a distinct society but did nothing for Aboriginals. Gray takes this defiant moment to demonstrate how he became a symbol of his peoples’ aspirations and frustrations, and it is an astute choice. She sympathetically charts his challenging personal life – his long separation from his parents owing to illness, the trauma of his ten years spent in a residential school, his later financial and marital difficulties – and his chequered professional life as a politician. One of the most attractive features of Gray’s Promise of Canada is her gorgeous colour reproductions by Canadian artists, well-chosen because of what they represent or evoke from different historical periods. One in particular caught my attention: the Cree artist Kent Monkman’s The Academy. There are references to classical sculpture and early Canadian portraits to illustrate the stereotyping of Indians in a longhouse."

8) Phil Dyess-Nugent: Hyde and C.K. (Nov. 16/17)

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?.....

There are people so disgusted with Louis C.K. now that they don't ever want to look at him again, and I can understand that. He did things that a less fortunate man would have seen jail time for, and at the very least he deserves to have the shit sued out of him while he's wondering where his next paycheck might be coming from. But to rewrite his history so that the good creative work he's already done was false and bogus and no longer contains anything of value, or to pretend that every non-disgusting gesture he's ever made in his life was part of a scheme to keep his true repulsive self hidden, strikes me as nutty. (Tig Notaro, who used the masturbation rumors and the lasting effect on C.K.'s victims as plot fuel for her Amazon TV series One Mississippi, has said that she suspects that C.K. pushed her career as an act of pre-emptive spin control.) Or to put it in a way that C.K.'s shunners might better appreciate, you're giving this man a measure of power if you see him as a Hannibal Lecter mastermind instead of a fucked-up dude who didn't always think through the ramifications of what he was doing, who was such a mess that he was very capable of caring about women in a way that comes across in his work while remaining oblivious to what he was doing to the hearts and minds of those who found themselves in a closed room with him, his hand, and his dick. He doesn't deserve to be so powerful that our revulsion towards him redefines the shape of comedy itself. Louis C.K. is an artist whose work can be appreciated or rejected or judged inseparably from the man himself. But people, critics included, are talking about him as if he were a politician, an inspirational figure akin to Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, who has been exposed in a way that makes all his grand words suspect and hollow at the core. They were talking about him like that before his fall from grace, in the same way that many still talk about artists like Beyoncé. It's a confusion of realms that can make for a spectacular garbage fire, but not so much in the way of good art, or good criticism."

Author and playwright Edith Wharton

"The Shadow of a Doubt often comes across as an odd mishmash of contemporary theatrical styles, with Wharton sprinkling Wildean bons mots amidst elements straight out of A Doll’s House or a play like Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, which was one of the most popular and successful attempts at domesticating Ibsen’s style for a British audience. At times, the play’s remarkably self-aware: when Carruthers is menacing Kate in the first act, he says, 'I’m not a stage villain trying to frighten the heroine in order to give the hero a chance to rescue her. I’m simply a poor devil who’s down on his luck.' Wharton also seems to be making a conscious effort to swerve away from melodramatic stereotypes, revealing by the end of the first act the secret – Kate helped Agnes Derwent end her life after what looked like a fatal injury - that would normally drive the plot of a well-made play and set up its climactic scene.

Indeed, that attempt to buck convention, as well as the evident influence of a number of her successful theatrical contemporaries, often makes The Shadow of a Doubt feel somewhat disjointed. Much of the humor is Wildean and comes from Lady Uske, a society matron who, while entertaining, appears to have wandered in from a much lighter comedy happening just offstage. By contrast, the third act has a whiff of gritty social realism, as we see the depths to which Kate sinks once her secret has been revealed, only for the play to end on a (perhaps obligatory) hopeful note. Wharton also ultimately returns to the tropes of the well-made play, revealing her apparently premature revelation of the play’s central secret to be sleight of hand, as there’s yet another, even more explosive, one that stays under wraps until almost the final curtain. The often-sharp dialogue and nuanced characters add to the play’s unexpected narrative twists, and it would certainly be worth a staged reading, but I’m not sure it could ever hold the stage in the same way that some of Wharton’s influences still do."

10) Devin McKinney: Solitary Woman: Listening to Sinéad O'Connor (Nov. 25/17)

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

"As O’Connor sings the album [I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got], a persona builds. Not a fictional character developed through beginnings, middles, and ends, but a set of floating expressions, perceptions, traits—something akin to the “worried man” that Greil Marcus, in Mystery Train (1975), heard coalescing across The Band’s Music from Big Pink. Call her the 'solitary woman': fierce, intelligent, frightened but resolute, and always wanting, despite her claim, what she hasn’t got. Song after song comes through the mouth, mind, and eyes of this woman, through her need to declaim truths that she knows may never be heard or understood, because emotions are too intricate and the truth too painful; or because, as large as she knows her spirit to be, half the time she feels too small to speak above a whisper. In the motel video, O’Connor repeatedly contrasts her enormous will against her 'tiny little fucking body'; as if to dramatize the split between spiritual and physical, guts and fear, her voice moves in the maternal love song 'Three Babies' from a honeyed sweetness to a punkish bray and back, sometimes in a single line. 'Black Boys on Mopeds,' apparently inspired by the suspicious gunshot death, in 1983, of Colin Roach in an English police station, is voiced by a woman leaving her country in bitterness, hoping to spare her son the awareness that weighs on her like a stone. Implicitly, she is alone but for her child, fending for both of them, and the sadness of her leaving is in O’Connor’s decision to sing not in righteousness or resolve but in a tired, heartbroken daze."

11) Donald Brackett: Beyond Borders: The Paintings of Sarah Merry (May 24/17)

"Imagine a world where it’s perfectly acceptable to derive pleasure and joy from whatever kind of art you happen to like, with or without the stamp of approval from some museum director or other. A world where different styles of art are merely shifting countries on a map with blurring borders which easily allows you to travel freely from one to the other without a taste passport stamped by an official in a rumpled uniform that stands for uniformity and not much else. In such a world, the value of a picture, whether it was a drawing, a painting, a photograph or even, for that matter, a movie, would be calculated only in terms of how liberated you felt while viewing it rather than how much you knew about the esoteric industry or arcane labour laws that produced it...Consider it done, because your heart’s content is precisely what should guide you in making the decision to purchase a piece for art for your own personal environment. Visual art, and especially painting, has always been the passionate pursuit of an elusive prey without a speed limit: a domain where sometimes the pursuer can even be ahead of the pursued, and where the astute consumer can be comfortable conversing casually with the artisan who makes their dreams available for your private access. On the planet of painting occupied by Sarah Merry, which orbits the twin suns of representation and abstraction with equal finesse, it is not only feasible but also desirable to shift attention and focus from the real to the imaginary and back again."
The Dewan family visiting Niagara Fall, August 1980. (Photo courtesy of Deepali Dewan)

"There is a fascinating photography exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) this summer with a partner site at the Art Gallery of Mississauga (AGM). The Family Camera is based on the premise that family snapshots play a key role in defining, celebrating and memorializing the idea of family, even if some of those photographs are missing. Many of them record the migration process to Canada of a wide variety of families, and the photographs have been taken not only in Canada but in countries from which the families have migrated. This is an exhibition that is rich in storytelling and history, large and small...Some of the images tell the story of fractured families, where immigrants have left loved ones behind, or where indigenous children have been taken from their families to the residential schools, as a result of government policy. Two sets of images particularly interested me. One set recorded the arrival in Canada of an immigrant, Tommy Ming Lum, from China in 1922 during the period of the Chinese Exclusion Act when only men were allowed to enter Canada and their families had to be left behind. His grandson has lovingly preserved the images, both government-required identity photographs and family images that record the eventual arrival of his wife in Canada and the growth of the family here. The other set of photographs that touched me were images of indigenous children who experienced the residential schools: graphic evidence of this appalling government policy. This section also includes images of an indigenous family by an urban Iroquois, Jeff Thomas, that provide an important perspective because they differ from the usual non-indigenous stereotypical portrayal of 'Indian-ness.'"

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger. 

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