Saturday, September 30, 2017

Remembering the Communist Experience in Romania and Bulgaria, Part Two: Haunts From the Gulag - Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land

author Elizabeth Kostova

(Part One of Remembering the Communist Experience in Romania and Bulgaria can be read here.)

When Elizabeth Kostova was twelve, she spent a year living and travelling in Eastern Europe, which she later remarked was “a formative experience.” She became enthralled by the Dracula stories that her father, who taught that year at a college in Slovenia, provided for her. Years later in 2006, she published her debut international bestseller novel, The Historian, which likely received its initial genesis from those childhood memories. The Historian is a large, baggy novel that extends over three generations – the 1970s, the 1950s and the 1930s – and involves the search for the fifteenth-century Wallachian tyrant, Vlad Tepes. The eponymous historian decamps to find her father, who has disappeared after discovering a strange book in his library, as did his mentor almost twenty years earlier. They had set out to discover the tomb of Vlad/Dracula, believing he was still alive and responsible, as he later acknowledges, for orchestrating the horrors of the twentieth century.

The Historian is based on the erroneous historical assumption that Vlad the Impaler is the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But this is, of course, a novel and an enjoyable romp to read. One of its pleasures is Kostova’s knowledge of the geographical areas that her characters travel, especially Bulgaria, the setting for the last third of the book. Having embarked on several trips to this country, Kostova now lives there with her Bulgarian husband. Her latest novel, The Shadow Land (Ballantine Books), has a tighter focus with only two timelines that gradually intersect, well-developed characters and a gripping account of a vital historical issue – the destructive power of Communism in Bulgaria – that many contemporary Bulgarians minimize or about which have no awareness. Because of these attributes, The Shadow Land is a more accomplished and a more moving novel than her Gothic thriller.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Beauty of Action, Beauty of Character: The Criterion Collection Release of Only Angels Have Wings

Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings

The opening twenty minutes of the 1939 Only Angel Have Wings are a marvel – emotionally and tonally double-jointed, with a loose, jocular quality and a spontaneous energy, underscored by the overlapping of Jules Furthman’s expert hard-boiled dialogue, that masks the astonishing control of the director, Howard Hawks. A pair of flyboys, Joe (Noah Beery Jr.) and Les (Allyn Joslyn), who work for a South American airmail service, pick up Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a singer with an evening’s layover before she’s to re-embark on the boat to Panama. They buy her drinks and offer her a steak dinner at the bar-restaurant owned by Dutchy (Sig Rumann), whose money provides the operating budget for the mail company. But their boss, Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), interrupts the meal to send Joe out on a mail run, through the rain and fog that stalled Bonnie’s ship here in the tiny town of Barranca. Joe doesn’t make it. When the weather makes his passage impractical and Geoff radios him to come on back, he’s so eager to resume his courtship of Bonnie that he insists on short-shrifting his landing rather than hanging out in the skies long enough for Geoff and his best buddy and employee Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell) to wave him in safely. Joe’s plane hits a tree and crashes. Bonnie’s devastated – and appalled at what she sees as a lack of gravity among Carter and the other pilots in the face of this tragedy. What she doesn’t understand at first is that their joking is a form of gallantry and their apparent insensitivity is the only way they can keep going when death is always hovering over them; unspoken grief underlines their raucousness. Eventually she gets it: when she sits down at the piano and leads some of the others in a rendition of “Some of These Days,” she cottons onto the feeling of camaraderie at Barranca Airlines. The miraculously extended episode ends with one of those unconventional depictions of community that Hawks is justly famous for.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

On The Cold Side of War – Star Trek: Discovery

Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery.

Note: This piece contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery.

The world needs Star Trek now as much as it ever did.

I don’t need to enumerate the problems we’re facing in our communities and society at large, because your eyes and ears are full of them already. Something that’s largely absent from our feeds, though – unless you really dig for it – is a sense of hope, a promise that things could be better. That we, as human beings, could be better. This is the distilled essence of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision for Star Trek, and it often gets lost in new incarnations of the Trek mythos, wrapped up as they so often are in their own zeitgeists and styles and disparate audiences. Star Trek: Discovery, the new Trek for our new zeitgeist, stumbles in its own way towards that lofty ideal – but ultimately, I was left with that feeling of hope that I so desperately crave.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Loyalty, Mastery, Mystery: Nicholas Jennings’s Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot in 1976.

I was eager to read Nicholas Jennings’s Lightfoot (Viking; 328 pp.), the first biography of the Canadian singer-songwriter, for what are probably typical reasons. I’ve loved Gordon Lightfoot’s music, much of it, for most of my life; and we tend to want to know more about people who impress us, especially if a certain mystery attaches to them and to the sources of their achievement. Lightfoot has never been self-revealing in obvious ways, in either his lyrics or (to the degree that one has even registered them) his public statements. His best music transfixes partly because it comes across as effortless, contented, and fully formed, with no show of raw nerves or violent ambivalence à la Dylan or Lennon. Placid yet strong, it maintains just the right emotional distance. Surely Lightfoot’s unique gift is driven by at least a few tangible, knowable secrets; surely having a sense of the man will only deepen the music. But having read the Jennings book, I question whether Gordon Lightfoot’s art – his in particular – can benefit in any way from a biographical context. I wonder if even a better book than this would likewise cut against what makes his music alluring. And I suspect that there’s a reason we’ve been able to love that music so well for so long while knowing so little about the man who made it.  

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Writer B. W. Powe (1987)

Marshall McLuhan in 1973.

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to writers and artists from all fields. In 1987, I sat down with Canadian writer and scholar B. W. Powe.

At the time of our conversation Powe's landmark book, The Solitary Outlaw (Lester & Orpen Dennys), had just been published. He was a student of Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye at the University of Toronto, and the book explores the role of the intellectual in a post-literate age by profiling Pierre Trudeau, Wyndham Lewis, Glenn Gould, Elias Canetti, and McLuhan. Since 1987, Powe has published books of poetry, fiction, criticism, and philosophy. His latest publication, in 2016, is The Tigers of Perception, a multi-media lyric essay. Powe is currently a professor of English at Toronto's York University, where he has taught since 1984.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with B. W. Powe as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1987.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Treasurer: Mother and Son

Peter Friedman and Deanna Dunagan in The Treasurer. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Max Posner’s The Treasurer, which is receiving a tip-top production by David Cromer for Playwrights Horizon (at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater in New York City), is a lopsided comedy-drama that begins as an exploration of the guilt a middle-aged son (Peter Friedman) feels over his lack of affection for an aging mother (Deanna Dunagan). What I mean by “lopsided” is that Posner’s play doesn’t head at its theme directly; it keeps getting derailed and turned around. It’s absurdist in style, but acknowledging that fact doesn’t resolve its shaggy-dog quality. And by the end of its ninety-five minutes I realized that I didn’t want a resolution – that its meandering is part of its charm and also part of what makes it touching.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Spontaneous Combustion: The Gestural Paintings of Marija Jaukovic

I Don’t Know Anything / I Know Nothing by  Marija Jaukovic (2015, oil on panel 4 x4 ft.)

“What is this life, if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?” – W.H. Davies

If we do force ourselves and take the time to stop and actually stare at reality, we notice right away that the longer we stare the more blurred it becomes around the edges, until eventually the borderline between being awake and being in a dream dissolves entirely. That is ultimately the true purpose of any visual art that does more than merely decorate reality, or even portray it accurately, and instead provides us with a window, not looking outward but looking inside, where every borderline disappears before our extended gaze and thoughts themselves become forms. What great paintings offer us is a balsamic reduction of reality. Whether we actually use it to spice up our daily lives is, of cours,e up to us.

Some paintings are an immediate seduction for the eye. Like dancing in the dark, or dancing with your own shadow on the wall, they invite the mesmerized viewer into a sensual theatre microscopic in scale and yet as large as a galaxy of forms. Removing all limits to our perception as well as our conception, the boldly compelling and subtly captivating paintings of Marija Jaukovic expand or contract depending on the consciousness of the observer. Their paradoxical stance, somewhere in between the domains of a savage abstraction and emotive expressionism, offers us a glimpse of an interior realm where form and feeling are fused in an erotic embrace of practically tantric dimensions. The spirit of a mid-20th century movement known as Art Brut hovers over her recent work like a misty vapor descending from history’s archive of images and ideas, as does the ghost of its principal progenitor, Jean Dubuffet. Like that visionary French painter, the Toronto-based Jaukovic makes a wealth of psychic content from the raw material of apparently povera sources. That is their primary paradox, and their principal appeal: their secretive stagecraft is the ability to manifest a maximum of visual and visceral impact while utilizing a minimum of economical means to do so. As such, they ironically introduce us to a unique zone of maximal minimalism.