Saturday, October 7, 2017

Wait and See: Fox’s Ghosted and ABC’s The Mayor

Adam Scott and Craig Robinson in Fox's Ghosted.

I think I like Ghosted –  though, to be honest, I’m not sure. Even though I’ve watched roughly 22 minutes of Fox’s new paranormal comedy, I have no idea if I’ve seen anything that will be representative of the kind of show that it will eventually become. It’s a dilemma that’s inherent to any attempt to critically evaluate the sort of serial storytelling that’s central to how television currently functions, and one that initially put me off shows that would later become favorites of mine, most notably Parks and Recreation. For a number of reasons, this problem seems particularly acute in the case of Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten’s sitcom version of The X-Files.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Stories and Voices: Richard Wagamese's The Medicine Walk

author Richard Wagamese

I had never heard of Richard Wagamese until earlier this year when his untimely and sudden death at the age of 61 was announced. Over the summer I read his novel, The Medicine Walk (McClelland & Stewart), published in 2014, and I so valued it that I have read three more of his books since.

Wagamese was an Ojibwe from the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in northwestern Ontario. He was a prolific writer. He wrote 6 novels, a book of poetry, and five non-fiction titles. He is best known for his novel, Indian Horse (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012), which won the Burt Award for First Nations, Metis and Inuit Literature. This story has now been made into a film that was premiered at TIFF this past September. Wagamese was also an award-winning journalist and producer. He was the recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media and Communications, the Molson Prize and the Canada Reads People’s Choice Award.

His writing addresses the psychological impact of residential schools on those who suffered through that experience as well as how those events continue to impact their families and communities. His novels also deal with the racism directed at indigenous people, while describing strong relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous characters. His books are imbued with a sense of hope.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A Cry to the Silent Heavens: Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!

Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!

Note: This review contains spoilers for Mother! 

Mother! must have been as painful to make as it is to experience. It’s a brutal expression of faith, misanthropy, and the cycle of creation and destruction, as abstract as it is harrowing. It’s a film that both invites and scorns interpretation, using its broad metaphor and overt symbolism in ways that feel extremely personal. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a cinema setting. It terrified me.

Jennifer Lawrence is “Mother,” and Javier Bardem is “Him.” He struggles to write while she labours to meticulously rebuild the house they share, his childhood home, which was lost in a fire. They are alone in this house in the middle of an endless wilderness – until a houseguest (Ed Harris) drops by, eventually bringing his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) with him. Bardem invites them to stay. They encroach, ever more boldly, upon their hostess’s patience and hospitality, while the film builds aggressively towards a shocking, shattering climax. This is not reality. This is a living nightmare, a parable of impotence and fear and ego, whose scope expands and contracts sickeningly from the incredibly personal to the vast and unknowable.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Gestures in the Dark: The Abstraction of Bianca Biji

Trying So Hard by Bianca Biji,. (2015, 31 x 44 cm.)

"The minute atom has as many degrees of latitude and longitude as the mighty Jupiter."
– James Lendall Basford
Two forms of human communication immediately come to mind when viewing the incisive and dramatic abstract paintings of the Belgian artist Bianca Biji: sign language and calligraphy. In their deft command of a strong but silent gestural language that is both classically modernist and cheekily postmodern at the same time, her paintings summon what Harold Rosenberg in the late '40s and '50s called “action painting.” But they breathe new life into the visceral theatricality of her legitimate precursors, Kline, Tobey and Miró, by injecting fresh fuel to the ongoing fire – especially the sublimely smoldering embers of Franz Kline. It is not at all a negative thing to say that her work engages in a striking visual conversation with Kline in the best possible way: as optical poems.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Poet Al Purdy (1986)

Canadian Poet Al Purdy, 1918-2000. (Photo: John Reeves)

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 1986, I sat down with Canadian poet Al Purdy.

At the time of our conversation, McClelland & Stewart had just released The Collected Poems of Al Purdy, which collected Purdy's best work from the previous 25 years. A published poet since 1944, Purdy published 39 books of poetry in his lifetime and is one of Canada's most celebrated poets. His numerous prizes and honours include the Order of Canada in 1982, the Order of Ontario in 1987, and the Governor General's Award for Poetry for the 1986 volume. Al Purdy passed away in 2000 at the age of 81.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Al Purdy as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1986.


Monday, October 2, 2017

Lost Lake: Hello, Stranger

Quentin Maré and Lynnette R. Freeman in Lost Lake, by Berkshire Theatre Group. (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

In David Auburn’s Lost Lake, Veronica, a New York City nurse, forms an odd, thorny relationship, difficult to categorize, with Hogan, the man who rents her a cabin on a lake for a week in August so she can give her children (and her daughter’s best friend) a vacation. He seems a little slippery and doesn’t follow through on the promises he made to ready the place for her. Moreover, he’s fighting personal demons that he keeps hinting around about – fractured relationships with the local renters’ association, which is suing him; with his teenage daughter, who lives with her mother in Manhattan and won’t give him her e-mail; and with his brother and sister-in-law, whom he lived with for a time and who claim he’s stolen from them. (He also lets it slip, to Veronica’s consternation, that he’s living in his truck on the property he’s renting to her.) But though he presents as a loser and she comes across as confident and tough, it turns out that her life, too, is far from settled: she’s raising two little kids alone because her husband was killed in a hit-and-run two years earlier, and she’s just lost her job. The play, a two-hander that unfolds in a speedy ninety minutes, plays variations on the old dramatic set-up about strangers who meet in unlikely circumstances and are able to reach out to one another. But it never develops as you expect (for one thing, they don’t become lovers), and its unpredictability is part of its charm.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Run Through the Jungle: Ken Burns & Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War

"I said: ‘Yes, my son is dead … One of the reasons he died was so you’d have the right to do this, so go ahead and demonstrate. Have at it. No, I won’t be joining you. But I tell you what, if you ever ring my doorbell again I’ll blow your damned head off with a .357 Magnum." 
– Country singer Jan Howard of Tennessee speaking in The Vietnam War about an anti-war protester she addresses at her door in 1969 
“I think the Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America. . . .  Unfortunately, we’ve never moved really far away from that. And we never recovered.” 
– Veteran Phil Gioia in The Vietnam War

By the time you arrive at the end of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's staggering 10-part and 18-hour documentary, The Vietnam War, you may feel so emotionally devastated by the experience that you won't find it easy to sum up its impact. Nevertheless, many on the left and right have already attempted to do so. They seem to share common ground in their belief that the series, in its desire to capture the war from all sides, cancels out any strong subjective opinion of it. From the left, you get the impression that they lament the absence of Noam Chomsky, as if Burns and Novick didn't go far enough in their condemnation of America's war policy. As for the right, there is a discomfort that if only William F. Buckley were still around he'd be able to put those liberal intellectuals in their place and we wouldn't be seeing so many North Vietnamese soldiers drawing moral equivalences with the American experience. Yet one thing is certain in all this contentious debate: the Vietnam War continues to divide and polarize Americans to the extent that maybe no film could fully heal the breach. The Vietnam War, with all its flaws and virtues, goes further than any other documentary toward mapping out its tragic course, clarifying the poor policy decisions that needlessly cost altogether millions of lives, and illuminating the traumatic experiences of those who fought in it. Unlike many of the confused attempts by dramatic films as varied as The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket to definitively define the conflict, The Vietnam War delves right into the political hubris that created the war rather than rendering it mystical (Apocalypse Now), turning it into a rites-of-passage parable (The Deer Hunter), or reducing the specifics of war trauma to systemic and sadistic conditioning (Full Metal Jacket). At its best, The Vietnam War fully lays out what Burns calls in a recent profile in The New Yorker his "emotional archaeology" so that viewers can come to their own conclusions. But its flaws, some of which grow out of that need to be fair and even-handed, also reveal an unvarying tone which – over such a long stretch – overwhelms the senses.