Saturday, November 25, 2017

Solitary Woman: Listening to Sinéad O’Connor

(Photo: Donal Moloney/Courtesy of the artist, via NPR)

These are dangerous days
To say what you feel is to lay your own grave
— Sinéad O’Connor,
“Black Boys on Mopeds”

I’ve seldom experienced so profound a silence as the one heard on the night of October 3, 1992, just after Sinéad O’Connor, appearing as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II. It was her second spot of the show; there was no band around her, only candles burning on a stool. She began a song which many recognized and many didn’t as Bob Marley’s “War,” itself a Haile Selassie speech set to music. The performance, while gripping, was also strident and dull. The song went on, first crawling then flying then crawling, as fiery and ponderous as a dragon. The drama, if it was that, lay in the way the singer’s eyes seemed to both ice over and flare up as she neared the climax. She knew what she was going to do.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Surrender Not The Future: ProArteDanza at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre

ProArteDanza performing Future Perfect Continuous. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

 Dance might not be able to save the planet from ecological catastrophe. But it can illuminate some of the anxieties surrounding the future of the planet, exposing the human vulnerabilities hiding in the shadows of emotionless science. To recycle or not to recycle, that is not the only question – nor is it the sole response to a world melting before our eyes. In Future Perfect Continuous, a new hybrid work of spoken dance which opened ProArteDanza’s 2017 season at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre at the beginning of November, choreographer Matjash Mrozewski grapples with climate change and environmental degradation, presenting them as large and inchoate themes affecting us all but in multifarious ways.

The former National Ballet of Canada dancer collaborated with award-winning playwright Anna Chatterton on the text spoken by ProArteDanza’s distinctive performers as they move. The spoken collage of rumination, argument and expressions of hope and fear makes palpable the ambiguities that have made global warming something of an existential quagmire for the 21st century. The ensemble of 12 dancers, doubling as actors, are not eco-warriors but more eco-worriers who struggle with the very real role humans play in putting the earth at risk. They push the right buttons, giving the audience plenty to think about. Fake news, or an inconvenient truth? The fact of the matter is that no one is certain, a central dilemma of the piece. “I don’t want to know. I already know” is an utterance shared by several players. No one can say climate change isn’t confusing.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Inventory Management Vol IV – Boys with Toys: The Battlefront II Debacle

Star Wars Battlefront II was released by EA on November 17.

The past week in gaming was inundated with news about Star Wars Battlefront II, but stories about the game itself were in short supply. Instead, headlines were focused on the game’s internal economy, specifically the “loot boxes” that many modern games use to generate a revenue stream beyond the initial purchase price for the game disc. Battlefront publisher EA was in the crosshairs yet again for what the public has long considered predatory, consumer-hostile practices, but something was different this time. The “conversation” online – though I’m loath to ennoble the childish vitriol hurled at publisher and developer alike by calling it that – had reached a fever pitch. It felt like a dam had burst, despite the fact that we’d collectively chosen to ignore the spurts of water leaking through.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Camel Wore a Nightie: Appreciating the Artful Music of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart

Frank Zappa and Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart).

“Musical structure? I think it’s really a laugh. Frankly, I don’t see what you need all those sandbags for, just to keep your river in place . . . ”
– Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart)
Back when I was still living in Toronto, before moving to Vancouver, when we could still see more of each other, my good friend Kevin Courrier and I used to enjoy arguing about drastically different kinds of music and films. Though we also shared many favourites of the same genres, and though our arguments were only pretend in nature, we often enjoyed disputing the merits of films that told human stories in a narrative way viewers could relate to their own lives (his preference) versus films that were cold, antiseptic visual experiments of a photographic and philosophical nature (my preference).

Being a fine film critic, of course, he did embrace many highly demanding and experimental cinematic achievements, as long as they privileged the art (the tale) over the artist (the teller), whereas I was always more accepting of the morbidly self-indulgent and self-absorbed (even solipsistic) filmmakers who eschewed the audience altogether in favour of their own personal visions. I remember with great delight one disagreement about the way in which visual artist/directors such as Tarkovsky or Angelopolous, or Greenaway, say, would appear to set up their camera and simply walk away, allowing us to stare at a tree for what felt like a small eternity. I saw movies as a form of painting with film.

I recall once driving him crazy with the admittedly silly claim that, as far as I was concerned, it was perfectly okay for a clearly self-obsessed director such as Werner Herzog to cause the deaths of a few extras on the mountain while filming Fitzcarraldo (with fellow loony Kinksi) as long as it resulted in that amazing finished artifact. It was a remark delivered only half tongue-in-cheek but it proved very effective (to roil and rile up a close friend) at the time I intoned nit. I’ll admit that I’ve since softened my icy solipsistic tone and my apparent allegiance to works of art that are hyper-subjective and massively obsessive.

Bongo Fury by Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, 1974.
Courrier, who along with his late friend David Churchill was one of the founders of Critics At Large, and I, perhaps best known as an art critic, also loved to pretend to clash over which side of the Frank Zappa canon should be taken more or most seriously. I would often elaborate a stern disdain for what I facetiously termed his “comedy music,” the satirical jibes at pop culture that he delivered so incisively, and I maintained a preference for his “serious music,” either the serious rock with less banter, or the serious neo-classical with no lyrics at all. So in a way, the same clash of friendly sentiments can also be identified in a collision of drastically acquired tastes such as Zappa and his frequently bonkers collaborator Don Van Vliet.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Arthur Lee He Sees Everything Like This: Forever Changes At 50

Love at the time of Forever Changes: (left to right) John Echols, Bryan MacLean, Ken Forssi, Arthur Lee, and Michael Stuart. (Photo: Ronnie Haran)

Love’s Forever Changes (sometimes written as Love Forever Changes – inaccurate, but a nice idea) is as confounding an artifact today as it was, judging from contemporary testimony, 50 years ago. Emerging in November 1967 from the febrile mind of leader and chief singer-songwriter Arthur Lee, it had no real antecedents, not even in that strange and fruitful year. The group’s previous albums, Love (1966) and Da Capo (1967), were full of acid and wit, refining the song structures of proto-punk and the mental derangements of what would, much later, be called “psych.” Forever Changes, by startling contrast, was predicated on orchestral flourishes, rococo melody, and a worldview more pixilated than psychedelic, more desperate than nihilistic. And though reviewers lauded the record at once for its prettiness, it was simply too strange to be seen as much more than an artsy boutique for window-shopping along rock’s main thoroughfare – which at that time led to such surefire world-beaters as Electric Flag and The Incredible String Band.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Tartuffe: Tripping over Molière

Melissa Miller and Brett Gelman in Huntington Theatre's Tartuffe. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

I can’t think of a great playwright who stymies directors with the frequency of Molière. (That may not be true in France; my experience of Molière productions is limited to Canada, the U.S. and England.) His satirical high comedies are vibrant and hilarious on the page, but on stage they tend to fall into two categories: lethal academic readings in which the actors seem straitjacketed by their seventeenth-century costumes and – far more common over the last several decades – showy high-concept editions, heavy on farce, that push relentlessly for laughs. Peter DuBois’s Tartuffe at the Huntington Theatre is an example of the second, with one exception: I can’t figure out what the hell the concept is supposed to be, and there’s no director’s note in the program to provide assistance. The quote from DuBois in the press material, “Boston is going to see 2017 alive on stage within the framework of a 17th century farce, and the result will be satirical, smart, and a gut-buster,” doesn’t help. And what’s the significance of the lipstick-smeared pig on the poster? The setting is contemporary, though Tartuffe himself (played by Brett Gelman), the pious hypocrite whose hold over the aristocrat Orgon (Frank Wood) his beleaguered family is struggling to loosen, has been dressed by Anita Yavich as a cross between a Medieval monk and an imam. 2017 is represented not satirically but superficially, through a series of recognizable accoutrements, the most emphatic of which is a smart phone that Orgon’s son Damis (Matthew Bretschneider) uses to take selfies, and the substitution of a soldier in camouflage gear (Omar Robinso) for a messenger from the king to enact the happy ending. If DuBois has some idea in mind about how the play reflects our world, he hasn’t worked it out. The opening is a series of blackout sketches that mostly frame the two men in various comic-strip interactions that are clearly meant to be hilarious but are merely puzzling. The physical comedy is frantic and the actors have been coached to sprint through their lines, which at least has the effect of bringing the show in at two hours and ten minutes, including intermission – though, as habitual theatregoers know to our sorrow, time is relative, and it’s a long two hours. (I started checking my watch after forty-five minutes.)

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Coping, Honestly: Adult Life Skills

Jodie Whittaker in Adult Life Skills (2016).

One of the more interesting film festivals in the film festival-heavy city of Toronto is the European Union Film Festival (EUFF), featuring one film from each of the 28 members of the European Union. It’s actually a world-wide phenomenon with various countries and cities signing on at different times and not necessarily showing the same films. (Toronto’s edition, which runs Nov. 9-23, is the 13th here. But though the film fests in Vancouver – in its 20th incarnation – and Canada’s capital Ottawa – in its 32nd year – have been around longer, they’re not showing more than 25 films, which makes Toronto’s the more accurate representation of the EU film output.) Executive Director Jérémie Abessira works with local consulates and cultural organizations to book the films – often Toronto premieres - and then offers free screenings to Toronto’s filmgoing audience. A select number of tickets to each film can be booked online for a $10 fee but if you’re prepared to line up, it’s gratis. My experience is, except for hot tickets like the annual French entry, most people get into most of the films they want to see. Most significantly, as far as I’m concerned, these are always films made for an adult, discerning audience. In other words, no superhero movies here.