Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Ellipsis: The Art of Benny Profane

Future Relics: Image Object #1: “How to Want What You Have”(Cabinet interior view)
Carpet, painting, poem, rulers, teacups, light bulb, coin, pocket watch, film canisters

Ellipsis: The Art of Benny Profane is an imagined exhibition curated by Donald Brackett.

1. Exhibiting the Living Archive
One day after an especially long and arduous shift in the dream factory, the art critic arrived home to discover his mailbox stuffed with letters from artists, from painters and icon makers to be more exact, each one proposing a highly appealing yet physically impossible exhibition. They had the tone of epistles from an extinct race, and from a long ago time, each one lamenting their personal sentence to The Outpost. Comparisons between Kafka's "In The Penal Colony" would not at all be out of order here, for sure enough, each icon maker does in fact bear a personal tattoo identifying his or her affiliations in the hierarchy of art history: a dream tattooed.

So it came to pass that either in their own media or in a different one unknown to them, they were choosing to express, albeit only metaphysically since most of the concepts could never be realized by the curator, their feelings as exiles from the mainstream of twenty-first-century culture, in that traditional form of lamentation so richly played out in the classical period.

It then became clear that they were all “painters,” of course, because only painters among all icon makers have been awarded a fugitive status rare in aesthetics, and only because of the insistent glare of the present digital domain. Both the notion of the "fugitive status" and also the notion of the archive of collected artists’ musings on "impossible to realize" Utopian visual projects, emerged as a result of ongoing triadic conversations among the art critic, the curator and the artist.

In the shadow of the ghost of history, while pondering these relationships, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps extinction is only an intermission, an interruption, an ellipsis between one stage of our cultural narrative and another. It was at this point that I became accidentally familiar with the seductive faux-archival work of Benny Profane.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Poet Patrick Lane (1987)

Patrick Lane giving the Convocation Address at the University of Victoria in 2013. (Photo courtesy of UVic Photo Services)

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 poet and novelist Patrick Lane.

Over his 50+-year career, Patrick Lane has published more than two dozen books of poetry. In 1978, he won the Governor General's Award for Poetry, and has since been nominated twice again for the same honour. In 2014, Governor General David Johnston inducted him into the Order of Canada for his contributions to Canadian poetry and literature. When I sat down with Lane in 1987 his book Selected Poems had just been published. His most recent book of poetry was Washita, in 2014. In two weeks, on February 13, his much-anticipated second novel Deep River Night will be published by McClelland & Stewart.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Patrick Lane as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1987.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Farinelli and the King: Identity as a Straitjacket

Mark Rylance (with Melody Grove) in Farinelli and the King. (Photo: Marc Brenner and Simon Annand)

Farinelli and the King, currently on Broadway, marks the seventh time I’ve seen Mark Rylance on stage. In the play, written by his wife Claire van Kampen, he plays Spain’s King Philippe V – bipolar according to historical record but mad as a hatter in the stage version – who is cured, more or less, when his second wife, Isabella (Melody Grove) persuades the gifted castrato singer Carlo Farinelli (Sam Crane) to abandon his London career and move to the Spanish court in Madrid. Rylance may be the funniest comic actor I’ve ever seen live (in the all-male Shakespeare’s Globe production of Twelfth Night, where he played Olivia, in David Hirson’s La Bête, and especially in Matthew Warchus’s 2008 production of the farce Boeing-Boeing), but I’m not always as enthusiastic when I see him in straight roles. He was certainly effective in a supporting part in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, for which he won an Oscar last March, but the problem with his grandiose, scenery-chewing “straight” appearances, as Richard III (which he played in rep along with Twelfth Night) or as Philippe V, is that if you see several of them you get hip to his trademark affects – the stuttering, the interpolated “uhs” and “ums,” the brusquely cut-off phrases, the flattening out of questions so they sound like statements of fact, the deliberate end-line drops, and so on. Part of Rylance’s vocal genius is that he’s witty enough to employ for ironic effect what would be merely bad habits in most actors, like the end-line drops and refusal to put question marks at the end of questions, but what can be endlessly amusing in a comedian can become tiresome in a dramatic actor. And I’m afraid that, early in Farinelli and the King, I ran out of patience for his bag of tricks.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

We Migrants: Mohsin Hamid's Exit West

Author Mohsin Hamid. (Photo: Ed Kashi)

Mohsin Hamid's most recent and timely novel Exit West (Riverhead Books, 2017) is set in a nameless, besieged country likely in the Middle East where Saeed and Nadia, the book’s protagonists (and the only two characters named), meet in an evening class and embark on a courtship. Initially, they reside in "a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war." That is soon to change as their tentative, gentle relationship contrasts with their country teetering on the lip of a precipice as it disintegrates into war.

In the first half of this remarkable novel, Hamid charts their growing relationship amid the backdrop of a city spiralling out of control, requiring the young lovers to leave. Although the graphic details he provides feel authentic, Exit West is not a realistic novel à la Jenny Erpenbeck's Go, Went, Gone. There is an abstract quality about the vagueness of its setting, its characters, and its narrative that Hamid renders in exquisite prose with occasionally longish, orotund sentences. He is primarily focused on highlighting the universality of societies at war with themselves and how civilians respond to the chaos closing in on them.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Joke-Delivery Systems: Checking in on Some Network Comedies

Dylan McDermott in L.A. to Vegas

The Fox sitcom L.A. to Vegas is a lot like the titular flight that it chronicles: it’s quick, it’s fun without offering much of substance, and it doesn’t ask much of you in terms of investment (financial in the case of the flight, emotional in the case of the show). There something disarmingly straightforward about the title card that appears before each episode: “There are people who fly every weekend from L.A. to Vegas. This is their story.” As that introduction wryly suggests, this is a comedy with very little on its mind other than providing its cast with a vehicle to deliver zingy one-liners.

Friday, January 26, 2018

In Her Own Voice: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Alex Borstein and Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

This review contains minor spoilers for the first season of Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Last March, Amazon’s Spring Pilot Season had few bright lights. (Previous seasons boasted an embarrassment of riches for the streaming channel, with many of those entries still going strong – and garnering regular Emmy nods – even years later.) But this March, there was one pilot that shone as brightly as its sparkling lead character: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Created, written, and directed by Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls), the pilot episode of Mrs. Maisel introduced itself with such energy and style that I am sure I was not alone in my eager anticipation of the series. (Amazon clearly knew what it had, quickly picking up the show for two seasons.) In late November, the first full season (consisting of 8 episodes) premiered, and more than lived up to the promise of its pilot. In the midst of a film and television season awash in cynicism and bile, the arrival of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was a winter television wonderland.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Load Checkpoint: Metal Gear Solid (1998) – The Real Way To Live

A glimpse of Metal Gear Solid, released in September 1998.

Some games can only be understood within the broader context of the franchise they belong to. Load Checkpoint is a gaming retrospective column that explores the evolving sagas of some of the most beloved properties in the business, tracing their histories and the impact they have on the medium as a whole. – Justin Cummings

Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid franchise started small, beginning with the original Metal Gear on the Japanese MSX2 computer system in 1987. An innovative title for the time, showcasing tactical military action, a unique inventory system, and rudimentary stealth mechanics, it was soon ported to Nintendo’s Famicom system and then overseas to the Nintendo Entertainment System the following year. While the NES port was crippled by poor dialogue translations and unsupervised design changes, the popularity of the brand – which introduced the world to the super-spy named Solid Snake and his nemesis, Big Boss – was clear enough to warrant a Japan-exclusive sequel, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, and would eventually lead to one of the watershed titles of the early 3D era in the late 1990s.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Hometowner: Tom Wilson’s Beautiful Scars

Tom Wilson on stage in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, in 2017, performing as part of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. (Photo: Donna Harper)

Tom Wilson is one of my favourite musicians and songwriters. His edgy tunes, full of wit and street-wise wisdom, grace the discographies of Wilson’s bands – Junkhouse, Lee Harvey Osmond and Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, the latter one of Canada’s finest alt-country groups. His autobiography Beautiful Scars (Doubleday Canada), released last fall, uses, like his songs, a mix of sharpness and charm in every chapter. In his economical style he offers great memories about his life in music. But the most revealing part of his story is when he discovers that he’s from the Mohawk Nation, specifically the Kahnawake community in the province of Quebec, which was kept secret from him until 2016.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

It’s all Crete to Me: Heraklion, Greece

Sunset over Dragon Island, Crete, Greece.

Just beyond the coast of Crete, near the port city of Heraklion (Iraklion), is a long stretch of craggy islands that the locals familiarly call The Sleeping Dragon. Cock your head slightly to one side and squint your imagination just a little and it is possible to see the monster's long neck curling under his hoary body.

On the beach, a tanned and muscled Cretan lazily spears hunks of feta and explains the significance of dragons in the rocks. George, it turns out, is a freelance photographer with National Geographic. He has just come back from a few years spent in California and speaks English with an accent that hails from somewhere between Salonika and St. Louis.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool: A Farewell to Gloria

Jamie Bell and Annette Bening in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool.

The stunning blonde character actress Gloria Grahame brought more than just her trademark pout to movies like Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (where Lee Marvin throws hot coffee in her face), Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (for which she won the 1952 Supporting Actress Oscar), Crossfire and In a Lonely Place. She made her characters’ vulnerability touching and sexy at the same time. But her Hollywood heyday lasted only about a decade, though she continued to work, on screen and on stage, until she died at fifty-seven of stomach cancer and peritonitis in 1981. Annette Bening, who plays Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, is inspired casting, just as Michelle Williams was as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, and like Williams she gives a magnificent performance, on par with her best work (Bugsy, The Grifters, In Dreams). The movie is about the last two years of Grahame’s life and her relationship with an aspiring young English actor named Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), whom she meets when he’s only twenty-eight. (Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay is based on Turner’s memoir.) It begins when she collapses in her dressing room during rehearsals for a production of The Glass Menagerie in the English provinces and Peter, no longer involved with her, shows up to bring her home to Liverpool, where his adoring parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) take her in and care for her. It’s clear from Peter and Gloria’s reunion that their romance ended badly; we see it in a series of flashbacks to London in 1979, where they met while staying in the same boarding house, and Los Angeles and New York, where he visited her. Her reappearance in his life reactivates his feelings for her, just as he learns what she carefully concealed from him when they were lovers: that she’s dying.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Art of the Roast

Checking the color of the coffee beans during the roasting process.

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Ellen Perry, to our group.

On June 18, 2007, David Fullerton taught his last high-school English class and went into the coffee business. He had purchased a café on Main Street in Worcester, Massachusetts – put it on his credit card, in fact – and launched a new roasting operation. He decided that he liked the name the previous owners had given to the café, Acoustic Java, so he kept that – though any connection to music is, at this point, largely metaphorical. But Fullerton likes literature and appreciates a good metaphor: Acoustic Java’s motto is now “As music tames the savage beast, coffee civilizes man unkind”; and its coupons look like concert tickets.

On a January morning, I’m sitting with Fullerton at his second Worcester location, a building that used to be part of the Whittall Mills, a 19th-century carpet company. It’s a typical New England mill, so the roasting area is enormous, and the ceilings are high and supported by sturdy beams. By contrast, the adjacent tasting room is cozy, its brick wall lined with bookshelves and original art; but it also has a capacious view through plate-glass windows into the roasting operations. Fullerton wants to offer his customers “a spectacle . . . an authentic one.” He wants them to see something of what happens to their coffee before Patrick, the barista, pours it into their cup.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Going in Circles: Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel

Justin Timberlake and Kate Winslet in Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel 

It's been decades since Woody Allen was the comic voice of the shaggy and diminutive outsider. In those first seventies films (Bananas, Love and Death, Sleeper), Allen not only cleverly tweaked the WASP stereotypes that came to define masculinity and femininity; he also satirized them as role models. The eager audiences who strongly welcomed Allen's verbal and physical slapstick – a whirling affront to cultural and sexual repression – also came to relax around their own neurosis and self-doubt. Describing him as "the first post-Freudian movie comedian," critic Pauline Kael said that Allen was "the first to use his awareness of his own sexual insecurities as the basis for his humor, and when he turned psychodrama into comedy he seemed to speak – to joke – for all of us." But all of that changed once he won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director with Annie Hall in 1978. The massive success of that seminal comedy about neurosis found Woody Allen no longer perched on the outside of mainstream culture. Once accepted by the insiders of Hollywood (for a film that was partly a poison-pen letter to L.A.), he seemed to feel that he had to earn his keep in the Insider's Club. Now viewing making comedy as something akin to embracing the Golden Calf, Allen began to strive for seriousness and started emulating those dramatic artists he worshiped as his betters.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Fakery: Lady Bird

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird.

Written and directed by the actress Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird is the coming-of-age story of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a Sacramento teenager whose quirks include her insistence on renaming herself Lady Bird. At the Catholic school she attends, she’s an underachiever, though she’s smart and creative; her social circle is pretty much restricted to her best pal Julie (Beanie Feldstein), who’s overweight and as much an outsider as she is. At home she’s constantly at odds with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), whose anxiety over money since Lady Bird’s dad, Larry (Tracy Letts), lost his job has turned her into a sour, one-note nag. The movie covers Lady Bird’s senior year, when she falls for two boys (Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet), one after another, both of whom disappoint her in different ways, flirts with social acceptance by fibbing her way into a friendship with a cool kid (Odeya Rush), and, behind her mother’s back (but with the collusion of her sympathetic father), applies to NYU, a college beyond the family’s financial means. It is, like most coming-of-age narratives that focus on the high school experience, about the protagonist’s figuring out who she is (and who she isn’t).

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Inventory Management, Vol VI: Gotta Go Fast!

Awesome Games Done Quick took places in the Washington, D.C. area, January 7 through 14.

It’s late January, which means another Games Done Quick event has come and gone. This year, the speedrunning community beat 2017’s total by raising almost $2.3 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation over the course of the week-long event. As a colleague of mine so aptly put it, this is one of the few times of the year that we can collectively be proud to be part of gaming society, canceling out the toxicity and pettiness of normal gaming culture with an event fueled by togetherness, commiseration, and hope. I want to celebrate that spirit with this look at some of my favourite moments from this year’s Awesome Games Done Quick.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Poker Face: Molly's Game

Jessica Chastain (left) in Molly's Game. (Photo: Michael Gibson)

As Molly Bloom in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's directing debut, Molly's Game, Jessica Chastain is something of an enigma. Playing a real-life high-stakes entrepreneur who ran exclusive poker games in New York and Los Angeles for over a decade until she was arrested by the FBI, Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, A Most Violent Year) turns opaqueness into an acting style. Her glamourous deadpan tells us little about the restless hunger that propelled Bloom into hosting a motley collection of players – including Hollywood celebrities (like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire), business tycoons, gambling addicts and Russian mobsters (which would lead to federal charges against her). Chastain dons a poker face like her clients, but it reveals even less about what's going on with her than the faces of the card sharps at her table bluffing their way to a kill. In Molly's Game, the motivating force – what is hidden behind all her risky moves – is missing in the performance. It's missing in the movie, too, because Sorkin can't identify with the low cunning it takes to pull off what Bloom accomplished. He has higher ideals in his head and they've clouded his thinking.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Arcade of the Aura: In Case of Future Break Glass

“The dream has grown gray. The gray coating of dust on things is its best part. Dreams are now a shortcut to banality. Technology consigns the outer image of things to a long farewell, like banknotes that are bound to lose their value. It is then that the hand retrieves the outer cast in dreams and, even as they are slipping away, makes contact with familiar contours. . . . [W]hich side does an object turn toward dreams? What point is its most decrepit? It is the side worn through by habit and patched with cheap maxims. The side which things turn toward the dream is kitsch.”  Walter Benjamin, 1936
Part One: Encountering the Aura

The great German culture critic Walter Benjamin warned us early on, perhaps too early for him to be fully believed, that our relentlessly elegant procession into the machine age was also leading us into a zone where representation replaces reality. His awkward prescience may also have been compounded by the fact that few people understood fully what he was talking about, since television was in its early stages and the computer, and of course the internet, had yet to be invented.

Photography and its nervous cousin the movies were the only talismanic augers he could have used to declare that the ritual aura associated with the historical transmission of our embodied meanings in varied art formats was in danger of eroding, decaying and disappearing entirely as a result of the eventual existence of copies without an original. Like most time-ghosts (the literal meaning of the word zeitgeist) he had his finger on the pulse of a throbbing wrist that he alone could witness and interview.

He warned us that we were plunging headlong into the long farewell of a kitsch conglomerate in which meaning was incorporated into automatic systems while its former embodiments were dis-incorporated phantoms shimmering under showers of imaginary gold. Nonetheless, he invented a future conceptually, which we currently occupy physically, psychically and psychologically and which I identify as cyber-kitsch: the perpetual present.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Mala: Less Is Less

Melinda Lopez stars in Mala.. (Photo:  Paul Marotta/ArtsEmerson)

Melinda Lopez’s solo performance Mala (produced by the Huntington Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion) is a reflection on the aging and deaths of her Cuban émigré parents and especially of her mother, who, her body weakened, her mind softening, overcome by terror and anger, calls her daughter mala (a bad person). The idea of the piece is that Lopez’s exhaustion with her mother’s demands and her uncertainty about how to handle her make her question whether or not she is that thing her mother accuses her of being. But the self-interrogation at the core of the play is disingenuous. There was  never a moment during Mala’s eighty-minute running time when I believed that Lopez seriously questioned her own virtuousness as she related her tireless at-home care for her mother, her anticipation of what it would be like for the older woman to slip away from life (as her father already had), her response to her mother’s apparent obliviousness – understandable, of course,  under the physical and psychological circumstances – to Lopez’s uninterrupted devotion. The piece is a celebration of Lopez’s sensitivity; her sensitivity is, in fact, the tissue of which the play is constructed. And I grew very weary of it, and finally resentful that I was set up in scene after scene to admire it.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Marriage of Drama and History: The Crown

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II with Matt Smith as Prince Philip in The Crown.

The elements of good drama based on real people – believable three-dimensional characters, conflict, and an engrossing plot – often do not make good history. Historians and biographers must sift through documents and interviews with people who knew the subjects and fashion a portrait that adheres to the record. They may speculate, but speculations must be grounded in an evidentiary base. Screenwriters and directors have more creative freedom to imagine what might have been, to reassemble chronology, and to create dialogue and motives for their characters as long as they are plausible. Based on my viewing of two seasons of The Crown (on Netflix) that cover the 1950s and early 1960s, I would argue that a smooth synthesis of history and drama has been achieved.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Beyond Raisin: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

playwright Lorraine Hansberry

Any attempt to assess the entirety of Lorraine Hansberry’s career quickly runs into the inescapable fact of her untimely death. Since she was only 34 when she died, Hansberry’s entire legacy has become identified with her first play, A Raisin in the Sun. Although the play will always retain a firm place in the American theatrical canon, not least because it was the first on Broadway to be written by an African-American woman as well as the first to be staged by an African-American director, that status has also made it a target for a range of criticism, from Pauline Kael’s dismissal of its filmed version as proof “that a Negro family can be as dreary as a white family” to attacks on its perceived political and social complacency by George C. Wolfe, who mercilessly mocked it in a section of his play The Colored Museum.

A new documentary, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, attempts to reorient our understanding of Hansberry by placing the success of Raisin in the context of Hansberry’s overall life and career. Written and directed by Tracy Heather Strain, the film airs on PBS on January 19. (I should disclose that I viewed the film as preparation for an interview that I conducted with Strain for my podcast on theatre history.)

Friday, January 12, 2018

War Stories: 1945 and Last Flag Flying

A scene from Ferenc Török's 1945.

1945, by the Hungarian director Ferenc Török, written by Török and Gábor T. Szántó, is a startling piece of work – acerbic and mournful, satirical and humane. It’s set in a tiny Hungarian town just after the end of World War II, when the residents are beginning to get used to the presence of the Russians, some of whom are full of their own new-found power. (One young soldier demands that a civilian alighting from the midday train trade his more elegant hat for the soldier’s rumpled one.) The movie isn’t about the new Soviet presence, however; that’s merely one of the elements Török mixes to create a complex historical portrait. It’s a symbolic ghost story in which the dark secrets of the townspeople – their collusion, for base personal reasons, in the removal of the local Jews to the death camps – come to light when two strangers, Orthodox Jewish Holocaust survivors, enter the town on that same train on mysterious business (burying the dead, as it turns out), unsettling the guilty residents.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

End of Binge: Netflix’s Bright

Will Smith and Joel Edgerton in Netflix's Bright. (Photo: Matt Kennedy/Netflix)

Netflix wants to dominate the movie market. They want you to stay home and watch their original programming – like Bright, a Los Angeles cop movie starring Will Smith and Joel Edgerton – instead of leaving your couch and spending money at a multiplex. Bright is a big play for them, meant to be proof that their previous forays into original programming were just precursors to the main event: fresh big-budget blockbusters that you can watch from home. Netflix was convinced that this sure-fire hit, directed by David Ayer and written by Max Landis, would end this argument before it even began. Anyone who’s seen Bright will tell you that it . . . doesn’t do that.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Here’s Johnny: The Man Who Carried Cash by Julie Chadwick

Johnny Cash and manager Saul Holiff at Saul's Hollywood apartment, circa 1968. (Photo: Ron Joy)

How rare it is to read a biography whose prologue begins with the description of a man’s suicide, but so it goes for Julie Chadwick’s candid and well-researched biography of Saul Holiff, who, for a short and significant time, was the manager of Johnny Cash. It’s an auspicious opening to The Man Who Carried Cash: Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash, and the Making of an American Icon (Dundurn). While the prologue reveals nothing about the relationship between Holiff and Cash, nor fully explains why Holiff took his own life, it does try to set the stage for the story of a struggling country music artist and his Canadian fixer.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Deplorable: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

It felt pretty close to doing full penance just getting through all the grisly condescension and sanctimony of Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. That the picture has been garnering huge acclaim and numerous Best Film awards maybe shouldn't be too surprising given the current political climate. Dialogue in the Trump era has coarsened into Twitter feuds, talking heads on radio (who don't actually talk, but yell), and news anchors on television staking out positions rather than discussing issues, and a poisonous air of tabloid prurience perfumes the culture. People do little reflecting now and plenty more reacting. So Three Billboards keeps itself pretty busy staking out positions and reacting loudly in a cartoon atmosphere filled with ugly caricatures. Instead of reflecting on the current calamity, or even satirizing it cleverly, McDonagh chooses to distort the mood of the country and exploit it for pure effect. And the calculating unpleasantness of Three Billboards, with its queasy mixture of slapstick violence and sentimentality, would be bad enough were it not also trying to say something important. The film deliberately abandons any claim to dramatic realism, or even coherence, in order to manipulate and sway frustrated liberal sentiments and prejudices by crudely calling out "the deplorables" – the yahoos-in-a-basket whom Hillary Clinton identified as Trump's supporters in a misguided campaign speech. But the picture, with dialogue as broadly obvious as a billboard, ends up itself being deplorable by endorsing the same demagogic tactics that made Trump president in the first place.

Monday, January 8, 2018

To Own Your Creation: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Children

Krysty Swann and Robert Fairchild in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (Photo: Shirin Tinati)

Robert Fairchild gives a supremely touching performance as The Monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which just ended a brief run at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City. His role in Eve Wolf’s adaptation is a hybrid of dance (which he choreographed) and acting, and Fairchild, the New York City Ballet alum who spent most of the last couple of years playing Jerry Mulligan in the stage adaptation of An American in Paris, is a great dancer who also happens to be a fine actor. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was produced by a company that calls itself Ensemble for the Romantic Century, and Fairchild’s Monster, childlike and exuberant, fragile and openhearted, gets at the Romantic (capital “R”) core of Shelley’s novel, in which a man-made creation struggles to understand his place in the universe and rebels against his creator.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Marvel’s Runaways: Do You Know Where Your Children Are?

Lyrica Okano, Ariela Barer, Rhenzy Feliz, Virginia Gardner and Gregg Sulkin in Marvel's Runaways, on Hulu.

On November 21, Hulu premiered Marvel’s Runaways (or Runaways). The Hulu original series has been airing weekly ever since, and its ten-episode first season will be concluding this Tuesday night (January 9). It is an adaptation of the critically acclaimed 2003 Marvel comic series, and like any adaptation of beloved material, it was anticipated with a mix of excitement and cautious expectation. My own reaction to hearing of the series' going into production early last year was: “Wow, I can’t wait to see how they will screw this up.” Our recent history of comic-book adaptations, which reached fever pitch with the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the large and small screens, and DC’s own parallel efforts (currently in the form of its growing – and consistently uneven – stable of CW’s television series), has done nothing to reassure audiences that such adaptations will be of a reliable quality. (The less said here of DC's big-screen productions the better.  Its television offerings began with Arrow in 2012 and the most successful, in my mind, has been Legends of Tomorrow, whose 3rd season continues next month.)

Like all of Marvel’s current television productions, Runaways takes place within the same continuity universe as the tent-pole movies that show up in theatres every few months, but, in the nine episodes that have aired so far, there have been no sign-posts at all of that universe – and this has been to Runaways’ benefit. As fascinating as it sometimes is to explore the small corner of the MCU the Netflix series have staked out, that ever-enlarging story has been more often a burden rather than a gift when it comes to storytelling, because the pressure of that continuity invariably goes only in one direction. (The flagship Marvel series, ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., has battled mightily under that weight for five seasons, and most recently has come up with some rather creative solutions: last year setting the latter half of its story in an entirely virtual universe and this year thrusting its heroes into a deep, alternate future.) But absent even the lip service often paid by Netflix Marvel shows to their noisy big-screen cousins, Runaways feels firmly set in a narrative universe all its own, providing the new series the space to find its own unique voice.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Critic's Notes & Frames Vol. XXV

There was always a sly self-deprecation and a sweet sensuality in pianist Fats Domino's voice which added great warmth and emotional intensity to his work. After building a solid rapport with black audiences in the early fifties, he infiltrated the white charts later in the decade with a succession of crossover hits including the moody "Blue Monday," the rollicking "Whole Lotta Loving," and the subversive "Blueberry Hill." Since Fats (who went to spirit in 2017) didn't possess in his voice the swagger of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, he preferred seduction to aggression and the words would often be couched in innuendo. Randy Newman learned much from Fats Domino in both style and humour. He also did some of the arrangements on Fats is Back!, Domino's 1969 comeback album. Fats returned the favour by covering Newman's Domino-inspired "Have You Seen My Baby?" from 12 Songs. One can't imagine Domino covering, as critic Scott Montgomery once mused, Newman's songs about sex and arson ("Let's Burn Down the Cornfield"), a genteel rapist ("Suzanne"), or suicide by way of a beach cleaning machine ("Lucinda"). But "Have You Seen My Baby," which borrows its opening line from Ernie K-Doe, is right in Fats's wheelhouse. It's a playful romp that easily takes its place in the canon of great New Orleans rhythm and blues – especially with shrewd Newman lines like "I say, 'Please don't talk to strangers, baby' / But she always do / She say, 'I'll talk to strangers if I want to / 'Cause I'm a stranger, too.'"

Friday, January 5, 2018

Delectable Samples: A 2017 Arts Roundup

Robert Lepage in 887.

Since I rarely write about the arts, I welcome the opportunity to briefly comment upon what I enjoyed most this year, even though several of the pieces below have been reviewed by colleagues at Critics At Large. Apart from, perhaps, television, my sampling from the arts scene is relatively small yet I did experience some wonderful aesthetic moments. – Bob Douglas

Two theatre productions I attended this year were outstanding. Auteur Robert Lepage’s one-man bravura performance in 887 unspools the interplay between the fragmented recollections of his family life and the perils of collective Quebec memory from the 1960s to the present. 887 was the number of the apartment building on Murray Avenue in Quebec City where Lepage spent his formative years. The staging is jaw-dropping: a revolving set showing the interior of his current apartment and the exterior of his childhood home that reveals a doll’s-house replica of that apartment complex, toy cars, puppets and hand shadows. The catalyst for these reveries occurred in 2010 when the organizers of a cultural anniversary invited Lepage to recite by heart a 1968 poem, “Speak White.” He found that he could not learn the lines until he had explored his family history, particularly his relationship with his absent father, and how the personal dynamics intersected with the larger world of nationalist politics.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Poet Marilyn Bowering (1984)

Marilyn Bowering, in 2016. (Photo courtesy of

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 1984, I sat down with Canadian poet, novelist and playwright Marilyn Bowering.

Marilyn Bowering published her first book of poetry, The Liberation of Newfoundland, in 1973. When we spoke in 1984, her seventh, The Sunday Before Winter, had just been released. The book would earn her a nomination for a Governor General's Award later that same year. She went on to garner a second nomination in 1996 for Autobiography. Bowering's most recent book of poetry, entitled Threshold, was published in 2015.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Marilyn Bowering as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1984.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Embodied Meanings: The Haunting Worlds of Joseba Eskubi

Untitled #1, 2016, by Joseba Eskubi. (20 x 29 cm, acrylic).

"He who fights with monsters should be careful. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Aphorism 146, Beyond Good and Evil

This artist’s visions are almost indescribable. But not quite. His style used to be known somewhat as biomorphic abstraction. But not quite. The Spaniard Joseba Eskubi works with soft, amorphous and organic forms in a universe of perpetual decay, entropy, erosion and healing. They are exquisitely beautiful as well as terrifying. Perhaps all the most beautiful paintings, when it comes right down to it, are also closely aligned with terror. His paintings appear to occupy a surreal world. And yet they are nonetheless accurate depictions of the realms and domains we all travel to in dreams. His work is often focused on a single organic figure which appears to be filled with dark secrets, low, hidden movements and peculiar metamorphoses, and they are often overflowing with the kind of tension which arises from staring frequently into the abyss. In fact, perhaps, his charming little diagrams are maybe the way the abyss sees us when it stares back.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Black Day in July: Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit

Will Poulter and Anthony Mackie in Detroit.

There certainly couldn't have been a more timely film released last summer than Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit, which dramatized the 1967 five-day race riots in the Motor City that left 43 dead and close to 1,200 injured. Besides commemorating the 50th anniversary of this ugly tragedy, Detroit is also a powerful, unsettling and politically prescient piece of dramatic realism that creates a reverberating link to a number of contemporary events. As we've seen, race relations in the early stages of the Trump era have deteriorated so badly that within weeks of the movie's release neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched openly and defiantly in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans without fear of recrimination.The fact that Detroit disappeared from screens – without a whisper – within weeks of Charlottesville, amply demonstrates that the picture is still in need of a hearing.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Richard Wilbur, 1921-2017: Molière’s Emissary

Richard Wilbur passed away on October 14, 2017, at the age of 96.

Among the many achievements of the poet Richard Wilbur, who died in October, perhaps his least recognized is the work he did as a translator of neoclassical French playwrights – Racine, Corneille and especially Molière. Wilbur translated ten of Molière’s plays, originally written in Alexandrine couplets (six beats to the line), into iambic pentameter, which is a more natural meter for English speakers, as my wonderful undergraduate Shakespeare professor, Alan Levitan, liked to illustrate with the spontaneous iambic line, “Give me a chocolate ice cream cone with sprinkles.” In his introduction to his first interaction with Molière, The Misanthrope (1955), Wilbur argues, “The constant of rhythm and rhyme was needed, in the translation as in the original, for bridging great gaps between high comedy and farce, lofty diction and ordinary talk, deep character and shallow. . . . [W]hile prose might preserve the thematic structure of the play, other ‘musical’ elements would be lost, in particular the frequently intricate arrangements of balancing half-lines, lines, couplets, quatrains, and sestets. There is no question that words, when dancing within such patterns, are not their prosaic selves, but have a wholly different mood and meaning.” By way of example, he offers a prose translation of one speech from the play, adding, “Even if that were better rendered, it would still be plain that Molière’s logic loses all its baroque exuberance in prose; it sounds lawyerish; without rhyme and verse to phrase and emphasize the steps of its progression, the logic becomes obscure . . . not crystalline and followable as it was meant to be.”