Saturday, May 27, 2017

Relentless Beauty: Dion’s Kickin’ Child

Some things take time. For instance, it took time for people to recognize Dion – born Dion DiMucci in the Bronx in 1939 – as one of the most protean figures in rock ‘n’ roll. He has had more distinct artistic phases, and been more impressive in each, than almost anyone. As a teenager fronting his neighborhood group The Belmonts, he was an architect of doo-wop (“I Wonder Why,” “Love Came to Me”); as a soloist, he lit up the early sixties with a string of cool, slick hits (“The Wanderer,” “Ruby Baby,” “Donna the Prima Donna”). He made the Top 40 five times in 1963 alone. Then came The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and Dion, along with his lesser contemporaries, was cast into darkness and doubt. Despite that, and despite a heroin addiction he’d picked up in his teens, he kept recording. He wouldn’t chart again until 1968, with the post-assassination tearjerker “Abraham, Martin and John,” and a supporting album, Dion, that encompassed Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder in a strange and beautiful hippie-folkie mélange. In succeeding decades, as a born-again Christian, he made music that was often banal, and sometimes perversely fascinating (Born to Be with You, his 1975 collaboration with Phil Spector); most recently, he’s done a series of acclaimed blues-based albums, commencing with 2006’s Bronx Blues.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Novelist Judith Guest (1983)

Judith Guest and Robert Redford on the set of Ordinary People in 1980. (Photo courtesy the author)

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 artists from all fields. In 1983, one of those people was American novelist Judith Guest.

When I sat down with Guest, her second novel Second Heaven had just been published. Her first novel, Ordinary People (published in 1976), had been adapted for the screen by Alvin Sargent in 1980 – garnering six Academy Award nominations and winning four, including Best Picture, Best Director (for Robert Redford) and Best Adapted Screenplay.

– Kevin Courrier.

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

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Group Therapy: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Pom Klementieff, Dave Bautista, Chris Pratt, Kurt Russell, and Zoe Saldana, in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Adjusting to the popularity and success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a continuous learning process for me ever since Iron Man in 2008. At first, it was breathlessly exciting to see an interconnected series of films based on beloved characters that was as bright and entertaining as we all hoped comic book adaptations would be (something that the awkward years between Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins couldn’t ever convincingly prove). Then, fatigue set in: we’re closing in on a decade since Robert Downey Jr. made his triumphant career comeback as Tony Stark, and the structural patterns of this entire enterprise have now become clear even to the most willfully oblivious fanboy. The cracks in the façade have started to show, and Marvel Studios now faces its greatest challenge yet in maintaining the momentum of their blockbuster machine, by keeping us all engaged despite the fact that we’re all sick to death of these goddamn superhero movies.

For my part, making this adjustment meant tempering my expectations. I’ve learned never to expect any Marvel movie to be better than the one that preceded it, and this leaves me in a state of nearly always being pleasantly surprised at how competent, engaging, and sometimes genuinely stirring these films manage to be. With few exceptions, the MCU has become very nearly perfect in how authentically “comic-booky” it is: these films are episodic, interconnected, emotionally heightened, character-driven, and disposable in the same way that their source material is. (I admit that I tend to forget each film almost immediately after I see it, and the next one’s sure to be hot on its heels anyway.) There might not be a better example of this formula’s success than James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, and there might not be a better possible follow-up to that film than Vol. 2.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Beyond Borders: The Paintings of Sarah Merry

Gaman Maman 8 (2013) by Sarah Merry. (All works referenced are oil on canvas)

“No painting stops with itself, or is complete in and of itself. It is a continuation of all previous paintings and is renewed in all successive ones . . ." – Clyfford Still
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.

Welcome to such a world, a small but inviting country whose borders are only as firm as the imagination of the visitor and viewer. This is what painting looks like when an artist drives at full speed forward with their foot off the stylistic brakes but with a steady hand on the thematic steering wheel and a firm grasp of the principles at work below the surface of art history. Why slow down as you approach an aesthetic intersection when you can clearly recognize a road sign that links Johannes Vermeer with Helen Frankenthaler, a sign which is telling you to accelerate even more, to speed to your heart’s content? The answer is clear once we become conversant with the subterranean and interior dimensions of painting.

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.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dissidence in Dance: Boris Eifman and Red Giselle

A scene from Eifman Ballet's Red Giselle. (Photo courtesy of Eifman Ballet)

The Red Giselle is a many-layered, historically complex full-length work. Its choreographer, Boris Eifman, is no less complicated. He is the leader of the Eifman Ballet, the contemporary classical Russian ballet company from St. Petersburg currently on a 40th anniversary tour of North America. The company touched down in Toronto for three performances of Red Giselle at the Sony Centre, May 11-13. It next presents the work at New York City Center, June 2 through 11. But let's back up a minute. Contemporary. Classical. Russian. Ballet. These are words not usually found in the same sentence.

Russian ballet is a purist art form. Its origins can be found in the court of Catherine the Great in the 18th century, who brought sophistication to the Russian court by way of the French which she imported from Paris along with French ballet masters. Ballet in Russia has never been mere entertainment. It is a set of rules for idealized behaviour. Embodying that ideal is the ballerina, and in Russia the ballerina rules supreme. Russia is unique in that regard. No other nation reveres the ballerina as much; in Russia, she is both cultural icon and national symbol, a source of pride. Eifman knows the importance of the ballerina's iconography in Russia and pays homage to it in Red Giselle.

Monday, May 22, 2017

High Comedies: Six Degrees of Separation and Present Laughter

Allison Janney and Corey Hawkins in Six Degrees of Separation. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The current Broadway revival of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation begins badly and doesn’t find its feet until its leading lady, Allison Janney, does – about two-thirds of the way through, during her reading of the speech that gives the play its title. The play, a brilliant high comedy, is about the way a young hustler named Paul disrupts the lives of a number of people whose paths he crosses, most (but not quite all) of whom belong to the New York elite of the last decade of the twentieth century. Paul is an outsider in every conceivable way: he’s black (race in this play equates to class), gay and homeless. When a moneyed M.I.T. undergraduate named Trent Conway picks him up on the streets of Boston and takes him home, Paul makes a deal with him – sex in exchange for information about the prep-school classmates in Trent’s address book, now enrolled at various Ivy League colleges. (Trent is delighted to furnish details: not only does he consider he’s getting fair return for the favor, but his sexuality has always made him feel like an outsider too; he fantasizes that he can turn Paul into such an appealing faux aristocrat that when Trent shows up on his arm everyone will just have to accept them both.) Then Paul presents himself at the doors of their parents, bleeding from a self-inflicted stab wound he says he incurred during a mugging, claiming to know their children. He also professes to be the son of Sidney Poitier, and all of the aristocrats whose homes he’s entered on false pretenses are sufficiently impressed to take him in for the night. Paul is a scam artist and a narcissist; he’s also, it turns out, delusional. He starts to believe he really is Sidney Poitier’s son, and then he believes his other invention: that he’s the illegitimate son of Flan Kittredge, the art dealer who, along with his wife Ouisa, shows him the most kindness. Six Degrees of Separation is about connection and imagination as well as class (a theme of all high comedy). But it isn’t centrally about Paul. He’s the catalyst whose interactions with those he comes across – Trent and the aspiring, adventure-seeking young actor from Utah, Rick (Rick and his wife Elizabeth also take Paul in, when they find him sleeping in Central Park) and the Kittredges – act in various ways on their imaginations. The protagonist of the play is Ouisa, who undergoes the most profound change as a result of meeting him.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Post Mortems: Frequency, Making History, and Emerald City

Leighton Meester, Adam Pally, and Yassir Lester in Making History.

Perhaps the biggest event of the television season is the one that didn't happen earlier this month, after an 12th-hour deal between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the major networks and studios averted an imminent writers' strike. True, a WGA strike threatens every decade, but the memory of the 100-day strike of 2007-2008 still looms pretty large, and with television's continually evolving face, the content of these regular negotiations always offers the rawest insight into the state of the industry, as years-old collective agreements hit headlong with new norms: 2007 revolved mainly around the surge of web-streaming, and the most recent almost-strike focused on the now-established shorter seasons of some of television's most prestigious shows. To add to the general anxiety, this year the talks also fell at roughly the same time that the networks were making their final decisions on which shows would be returning for another season and which would be axed. While some of my favourite shows (like ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which sat on the bubble for most of its impressive, often heartbreaking, 4th season) got last-minute pickups, there were a couple of painful casualties. Below are a few of my reflections on the 2016-2017 season that was, and won't be again.