Saturday, October 14, 2017

Neglected Gem # 108: The Clock (1945)

Robert Walker and Judy Garland in Vincente Minnelli's The Clock (1945)

When it was released in 1945, The Clock was a moderate box-office success. But most people wouldn’t recognize the title today unless they’ve happened across it on Turner Classic Movies, where it’s a perennial. The plot is simple. Corporal Joe Allen (Robert Walker), a soldier on a forty-eight-hour leave in New York before departing for the front falls in love with Alice Maybery (Judy Garland), a secretary he encounters by chance in Penn Station – she trips over his foot at the bottom of an escalator and loses her heel. Drawn to her immediately, he asks her to show him the sights of the city; surprising herself, she agrees, and they spend the afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum. He asks her to meet him that night, and they spend the entire evening together, into the small hours of the morning, when they are befriended by a milkman and wind up making his deliveries for him when he gets hurt. By now Alice and Joe are deeply in love. They decide to get married before he returns to camp, but obtaining a license and getting to the justice of the peace by the end of business hours present challenges they almost fail to overcome. They do overcome them, however, and spend their wedding night in a hotel before Joe has to leave Alice. That’s the entire story.

The Clock gave Garland her first non-musical role, and it was the first non-musical project for its director, Vincente Minnelli, whom she requested as a replacement when the original director, Fred Zinnemann, didn’t work out. Both star and director had just come off Meet Me in St. Louis, an unqualified triumph, and they married as soon as The Clock wrapped; their feelings for each other surely leaked into the picture, which is one of Hollywood’s loveliest romantic dramas. No one ever shot Garland as exquisitely as Minnelli – or lit her like George Folsey, the cinematographer on both movies. (Minnelli directed her in only one subsequent film, The Pirate, and he was behind the camera for her numbers in Ziegfeld Follies and Till the Clouds Roll By as well.)

Friday, October 13, 2017

Infinite Regress: David Foster Wallace & Writing About Writing and Not Writing

David Foster Wallace giving a reading at San Francisco's All Saints Church in 2006 (photo by Steve Rhodes)

It has recently come to my attention that the meaning of life can be found in the 1996 novel by the late American author David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest. I can indeed confirm this, even though it is a delayed realization of some fifteen perplexed years. There are a number of explanations for why it took so long to realize that the meaning of life is easily found in Infinite Jest (page 492, to be exact) but those would not add anything salient to this basic empirical fact. The meaning of life recurs on page 997, as if for some sort of echo effect that manages to reassure the astute reader that, indeed, he or she is on the right track after all. But just where does that track lead? Did DFW find out? If so, after visiting us from 1962 to 2008, he is regrettably no longer able to file his remarkable reports from the front. Or has he only gone on to the actual front? “One never knew, after all, now did one now, did one now did one,” as he himself said in the “radically condensed history of post-industrial life” from his Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, 2007. Late late Wallace.

If one could envisage a large balcony jutting off a big old ornate building somewhere in the Swiss Alps (SA in Wallace-speak), with obscurely wounded inmates lounging on large deck chairs bundled in thick blankets and conversing about the meaning of life in their own distinct accents or dialects, then one could probably see that Harry Haller is there from the novel Steppenwolf, Hans Castorp is there from The Magic Mountain (he is their genial host, in fact), Ulrich is there from The Man Without Qualities, Gwyon is there from The Recognitions, Benny Profane is there from Pynchon's Should Salinger or . . . God, no, who wants to listen to Holden with his constant cringing and whining? Certainly not gentlemen of the caliber of Haller, Castorp and Ulrich. Old-world, you know. He could always sit with Profane, I suppose. After all, it’s a community of shadows of their former selves, or of their creative authors. And Wallace’s Hal Incandenza IJ character is sitting there quietly in the corner, seemingly lost in a private reverie, or maybe he’s just pouting, thinking about Norman Mailer.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Cells Within Cells, Interlinked: Blade Runner 2049

Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049. (Photo: Stephen Vaughan)

Note: This review contains spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.

I have a . . . complicated relationship with Ridley Scott. I’m skeptical enough of his work, both old and new, that the prospect of a sequel to one of his better-loved films – directed by another filmmaker, to boot – was less than appetizing to me. I simply didn’t agree that the world needed more Blade Runner; Scott’s visually gorgeous 1982 tone poem was a sumptuous enough meal for me (if not a very nutritious one), whose working elements felt like they would be next to impossible to recreate. Learning that Denis Villeneuve, one of my favourite filmmakers, was the one being tapped for the sequel only served to complicate my feelings further. The casting of Ryan Gosling as the new blade-running protagonist boded well; the inclusion of Hollywood’s chief aging grumpypants, Harrison Ford, did not. It was nearly impossible to calibrate my expectations, so . . . I chose not to. I tried to ignore the marketing campaign for Blade Runner 2049 (except for the tie-in short films, which I thought were brilliant). I went to see it with very little idea of what I was in for.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Battle of the Sexes: The Limitations of Decency

Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes.

Emma Stone is one of the greatest pleasures to be had at the movies these days. The spark she sets off comes simultaneously from braininess and personal warmth, and in movie after movie she pulls off the trick of suggesting sophistication without a trace of affectation; she’s an old-world Hollywood star with a distinctly twenty-first-century hipness and sexiness. You may think of Jean Arthur or Margaret Sullavan with just a hint of Katharine Hepburn, but it’s emphatically the contemporary world of experience that she inhabits. As Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes taking on Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) on the tennis court in their historic match, she’s playing a story set nearly half a century ago, but it’s a modern breakthrough story, about a superlative athlete who proved, in the early days of the women’s movement, that women could be the equal of men in the sports realm and deserved the same respect (and the same monetary rewards). It’s also the tale of a young woman – King is twenty-nine, the age Stone herself will be in a few weeks – who confronts a gay sexuality concealed under the surface of a superficially happy but dispassionate marriage. Stone gives a beautifully understated performance in which her character’s struggles, disappointments, discoveries and triumphs register as glimmers of emotion in a pool of practiced calm. It’s a perfect intersection of instinct and technique.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Poet Phyllis Webb (1982)

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 1982, I sat down with Canadian poet Phyllis Webb.

At the time of our conversation, Talonbooks had just released The Vision Tree: Selected Poems, which collected selections of her work from 1954-1982. The collection would go on to win the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry later that same year. Over her long career, Webb has also worked for CBC Radio where, in 1965, she created, with William A. Young, the long-running radio program Ideas. Her most recent book of original poetry was 1999's Four Swans in Fulford Harbour.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Phyllis Webb as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1982.


Monday, October 9, 2017

Gaslight: Stage and Screen

Kim Stauffer and Mark H. Dold in Barrington Stage Company's Gaslight. (Photo: Scott Barrow)

The 1938 British chestnut Gaslight is seldom revived; most people know it – if at all – by the 1944 George Cukor movie, which won Ingrid Bergman her first Oscar. (A previous version, made in England in 1940 with Diana Wynyard, shows up on Turner Classic Movies every now and then.) Barrington Stage has chosen the play to close its 2017 season, and it’s the first time I’ve seen it live since another regional group nearly three decades ago produced it under its original Broadway title, Angel Street. Gaslight is a psychological melodrama, set in London in the 1880s, about a woman whose husband is slowly driving her to madness by convincing her that she loses or hides objects in their home and then can’t remember she’s done it, and that, moreover, the footsteps she hears over the ceiling at night and the inexplicable dimming of the gas lamps are all in her mind. Jack Manningham is two kinds of villain: a sadistic domestic tyrant of the Victorian variety as well as a psychopath who killed the previous owner of their house to rob her of some priceless rubies that he was never able to unearth. The murder remained unsolved, and now, fifteen years later, he’s returned with a bride whose fortune he uses to buy up the property so he can continue his search. Driving her into an asylum is his way of getting rid of her. But Bella Manningham is the play’s protagonist, though she’s able to triumph over her husband only with the unlooked-for help of Inspector Rough, a Scotland Yard detective who was a novice on the original investigation and who recognizes Manningham (though he’s changed his name) when he passes him in the street after he and Bella have moved into the murder house.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Just Possibly: ABC's Kevin (Probably) Saves the World

Chloe East and Jason Ritter in ABC's Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.

Yvette: In every generation since the dawn of man, there are 36 righteous souls in the world. And they protect humanity by merely existing. Now there's only one. You, Kevin . . . you are the last of the righteous. 
Kevin: Cool.
The last network series Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters brought us was Reaper, in 2007. Telling the story of a slacker-turned-devil’s helper, Reaper was a blast for the two seasons it ran on the CW. It was cartoonish, noisy, and profane – and hardly had a redemptive bone in its body. Fazekas and Butters’s new fantasy series, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, premiered on ABC last Tuesday, and one thing needs to be said right off the bat: it is nothing like Reaper. Beyond the broad plot of a sad-sack man-boy given a tacitly epic mission that shakes up his mundane existence (a thumbnail that could just as easily describe Chuck), Kevin is as earnest as Reaper was caustic – and, moreover, comes with an unapologetic and often compelling message of hope.