Saturday, March 18, 2017

Courage, Compassion, and Hopelessness: The White Helmets

A White Helmets volunteer in Aleppo after an airstrike (Beha el Halebi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images).

For the last six years, death has rained from the sky onto the people of Syria. Unchallenged by any regional or foreign powers, the air force of Bashar al-Assad, more recently supplemented by the attack jets of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, have purposely slaughtered civilians in a bid to wipe out the Syrian opposition. Amid chemical attacks, crude “barrel bombs” dumped out of helicopters onto playgrounds and schools, and “double-tap” strikes that target rescuers who rush to save the victims of a first wave of bombings, Syria’s people have been systematically slaughtered. The world has largely shrugged in indifference.

While horrifying images of the ruins of Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, capped off the grim parade of news that darkened 2016, a more hopeful story has emerged from the recent rise to prominence of the White Helmets, as the members of the Syria Civil Defense organization are known. These unarmed volunteers don their signature headgear and desperately attempt to pull survivors from the rubble of civilian targets flattened by Putin and Assad’s fighter jets and attack helicopters. Amid Syria’s seemingly endless agony, they’re a rare beacon of humanitarian spirit.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Talking Out of Turn #51 (Podcast): Bob Swaim (1983)

A scene from Bob Swaim's La Balance (1982).

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, I did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it. 

Tom Fulton, host and producer of On the Arts.
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (e.g., 
Doris Kearns Goodwin sitting alongside Clive Barker). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I were trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. The book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

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

When I sat down with Bob Swaim in 1983, his French-language film La Balance (starring Nathalie Baye and Philippe Léotard) had just premiered at the Toronto Festival of Festivals (now the Toronto International Film Festival). Set in the Paris that the American-born Swaim had made his home for more than 15 years, the crime drama stood apart from other action films by forgoing the vigilante qualities of Hollywood action flicks of the era.

– Kevin Courrier.

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

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Inheritance: Peter Reich's A Book of Dreams (1973)

(l. to r.) Eva Reich, Jerome Siskind, Peter Reich, Wilhelm Reich, Ilse Ollendorff (Peter's mother) in Maine.

"I am in Lewisburg [Penitentiary]. I am calm, certain in my thoughts, and doing mathematics most of the time. I am kind of 'above things,' fully aware of what is up. Do not worry too much about me, though anything might happen. I know, Pete, that you are strong and decent. At first I thought that you should not visit me here. I do not know. With the world in turmoil I now feel that a boy your age should experience what is coming his way – fully digest it without getting a 'belly ache,' so to speak, nor getting off the right track of truth, fact, honesty, fair play, and being above board – never a sneak ..." 
– Letter from Wilhelm Reich to his son, Peter, aged 13, from prison, March 19, 1957.
When my mother passed away recently from cancer, I fulfilled a promise I made to eulogize her at the memorial. For the first time, however, I decided not to write the tribute as I had for other friends and relatives I'd lost in the past. It might seem to be a strange choice since we choose our friends over time and throughout our life, but we begin in the womb of our mothers. You would think that my eulogy would need the care of consideration and thoughts first consigned to paper. But as I was growing up, I came to know a formidable and peripatetic woman who was as daunting as she was fascinating. For one thing, Sheila Courrier-Vezeau had done many things by the time I was 10. Besides being a striking model in her late teens, she would soon after get her pilot's license. To this day, I still have a distinct memory and knowledge of all the cloud formations she taught me when we took to the sky. If she longed for the stars, she also dove into the depths of the water when she learned to scuba dive. I would often go up to Tobermory, Ontario, in the Great Lakes on summer camping trips, trekking into the woods, while she sought out small shipwrecks.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

No More Guns in the Valley: James Mangold’s Logan

Dafne Keen and Hugh Jackman in Logan.

Logan is perhaps the most unusual Marvel film yet made. It more closely resembles director James Mangold’s 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma than its own predecessor, 2013’s The Wolverine (also directed by Mangold), not just in looks, but in spirit. Logan has more of the Western in it than the popcorn-fueled superhero norm; it’s absolutely insane to think that it shares DNA with last year’s X-Men: Apocalypse. It doesn’t feel like a superhero movie, or an X-Men movie, at all. It feels like a swan song, haunting and terribly sad. It also feels like the first time that anyone has been able to truly make a meal of the character of Wolverine – so, of course, it has to be the last time.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Immersive: The Neo-Baroque Paintings of James Verbicky

“Sometimes, in order to accurately imitate the original, it is necessary to put something that is not really in the original into its portrait.”  – Lorenzo Bernini
Everything that is happening is happening in our mind. That just might be the skeleton key to the doors of perception. While William Blake wrote about cleansing those doors, and Aldous Huxley characterized those perceptual doors as what lies in between the known and unknown, James Verbicky paints intense and immersive images of the windows of perception. He doesn’t, of course, depict what is seen by looking through them but rather what we experience by looking at them, thus permitting us to be witnesses to the act of accumulating layers of meaning via visual information itself. By doing, so he also engages our imaginations at a visceral level, at the foundational and entrancing level of what has come to be called the optical unconscious. Verbicky’s sumptuous paintings plumb the depths of our media-saturated domain of simultaneous imagery and they are visual verbs, virtually pulsing with dynamic and dreamy data formations.

That optical unconscious, a term first coined by the German critic Walter Benjamin in the 1930's, is the dwelling place of the visual aura in artworks. It resides at the edge of what he called the expressionless: the terminal zone where nothing more can be expressed and at which the truth content of a work of art reveals itself via the aura. The visual aura is not some mystical cloud, but rather an emotional distance which continues to expand regardless of how close you are to the work. James Verbicky’s seductively layered images amount to a veritable archaeology of that visual aura and its portal to the optical unconscious, and this painter is thus an archaeologist of the spectacle of social space itself.

Monday, March 13, 2017

It’s a Gray World: Man from Nebraska

Annette O'Toole and Reed Birney in Second Stage's production of Man from Nebraska. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Man from Nebraska by Tracy Letts (August: Osage County, Superior Donuts) – currently at New York's Second Stage Theatre – is the latest entry in the life-of-quiet-desperation sweepstakes, following closely on the heels of last season’s Tony Award-winning The Humans. The protagonist, Ken Carpenter (played by Reed Birney, star of The Humans), is a Lincoln insurance salesman approaching sixty – with two grown daughters and a mother (Kathleen Peirce) struggling with end-of-life issues – who gets out of bed in the middle of the night, panicked and weeping, because he’s lost his faith. (He’s a Baptist.) His wife Nancy (Annette O’Toole) is sympathetic but stymied, and his daughter Ashley (Annika Boras), who works with him, has no experience of her own to draw on when he tells her about his existential plight. Nancy asks their pastor (William Ragsdale) to talk to Ken, and though he comes across at first as a pleasant man with a cheerleader personality, he offers a suggestion that turns out to be profound for both his parishioners: he urges Ken to take a vacation alone. He travels to London, where he was stationed when he was in the military and of which he has fond memories, and though his crisis of faith leads him to question everything about himself and his past, he manages to makes friends there: Tamyra (Nana Mensah), the bartender at his Leicester Square hotel, and her flatmate Harry (Max Gordon Moore), a gay sculptor. Meanwhile his absence shakes up his wife, whose world is defined by him as much as his has always been defined by his belief in God.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Joie de Mort: Netflix's Santa Clarita Diet

Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant star in Netflix's Santa Clarita Diet.

Early in February, Netflix premiered a new Netflix Original comedy called Santa Clarita Diet. There are many words I could have put in front of the word comedy just now – dark, family, fantasy, horror, zombie, etc. – but none of them on their own would adequately describe this dryly funny, regularly gory, often romantic, and entirely delightful new show. Created by Victor Fresco, Santa Clarita Diet stars Timothy Olyphant (Justified) and Drew Barrymore as Joel and Sheila Hammond, a realtor couple raising their 16-year-old daughter Abby (Australian actor/playwright Liv Hewson) in the very white, button-downed Los Angeles suburb of Santa Clarita, California. High school sweethearts in their 19th year of marriage, Joel and Sheila have clearly settled into a perfectly agreeable rut. ("I wish I was bold," Sheila muses to herself early in the first episode. "I'd like to be 20 percent bolder. No, more: 80 percent. No . . . that's too much. ") Over breakfast they bicker amiably about parenting strategies, kitchen appliances, and new cars, and spend their days hawking suburban homes to potential buyers – until one day, in the middle of an open house, Sheila unexpectedly dies for a few minutes before waking up with a taste for human flesh.

There are many surprising and wonderful things about Santa Clarita, though I don't expect that the presence of zombies is among them. Prior to Santa Clarita's premiere, I believed (and hoped) we were on the other side of the too-popular zombie phenomenon, with two Walking Dead series on AMC and the more consistently entertaining iZombie beginning its third season on The CW on April 4th. But Santa Clarita has learned all the right lessons from the Walking Deads and iZombie, bringing not only brains (sorry about that!) but heart to the story it is telling. It certainly brings the gore – of the cannibalistic, flesh-eating variety – but frankly there's more genuine horror in an average episode of Breaking Bad than in the entirety of Santa Clarita's 10-episode first season. With more in common with a midlife-crisis family comedy than anything in the horror genre, the show has a fairly simple premise, a tight ensemble cast, and a confident sense of its own fun.