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.

Vern Thiessen’s adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage was a superb production directed by Albert Schultz (artistic director of Soulpepper), whose virtuosic staging,     coupled with an excellent ensemble cast, made for a most satisfying, if unsettling, theatre experience. After completing its Toronto run, it travelled to New York this past summer. It is about an obsessive relationship between Philip (Gregory Prest), whose orphan status and clubfoot render him vulnerable to Mildred (Michelle Monteith), a manipulative, philistine coquette who both encourages his affections and rejects his advances. Even though he is bolstered by supportive friends, Philip’s mania contributes to his failure as a medical student, financial bankruptcy and deteriorating health. When he becomes the recipient of warm affection from Norah (Sarah Wilson), he cannot sustain the relationship because his susceptibility to Mildred’s seductions intrudes,     thereby destroying any possibility of his happiness. It was often hard to watch the play since the performances never stoop to caricature. The staging, in which actors who are not speaking have functions that include playing instruments, creating sound effects and using their bodies to create picture frames, always keeps us riveted. We may never see a better dramatization of obsession.

Three visual art exhibitions stand out. The retrospective of Georgia O'Keeffe’s paintings and drawings at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto, ranging from her grayish skyscrapers of New York in the 1930s – they were the most memorable for me – to her rust-coloured New Mexican landscapes at the end of her life, demonstrated the variety and power of her art. And yes, she debunks the myth that her flower paintings have a sexual connotation. The show also included photographs of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, but I found them bland in comparison with the couple of enthralling ones by her friend, Ansel Adams, whose images of the Western wilderness are extraordinary.

Philip Carey and Michelle Monteith in Soulpepper Theatre Company’s production of Of Human Bondage (Photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann)

In Vienna this summer, I went to the Albertina to see an exhibition with the anodyne title “Monet to Picasso” and to my surprise it was a thrilling experience. Even in the case of the artists with whom I was familiar – the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, the German Expressionists, the Surrealists and Picasso – much of their output I had not seen before. The most exciting and moving were the Austrian Expressionists and the Russian avant-garde. One painting in particular affected me: Kazmir Malevich’s The Threat of Jail, in which a solitary figure stands in a barren landscape facing a prison in the background, was painted after the artist spent three months in jail in 1930.

Near the year’s end, I attended At Home with Monsters at the AGO, the powerful exhibition devoted to the personal and cultural influences of the filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. His exposure to violence and bullying at an early age likely is a partial explanation for the violence in his films, while some of the cultural influences the 1931 Frankenstein, the 1932 Freaks and the 1980 The Elephant Man – help us to understand the beauty in his work and his love for the outsider. When I saw in his most recent film, The Shape of Water, the cluttered period-detailed 1962 apartments of Elisa (the luminous Sally Hawkins) and her next-door friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins), I was reminded of the exhibition’s recreation of “Bleak House,” del Toro’s house in California.

The Shape of Water and the exhibition evoked the director’s masterpiece, the 2006 Pan’s Labyrinth, because both films illuminate the fascist mind. Cultural and historical conditions aside, Capitan Vidal, the fascist commander in Franco’s Spain, and the zealous American agent in The Shape of Water, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), occupy the same mental space: a tightly-coiled rigidity, contempt for women and anyone else whom they regard as inferior, and a penchant for casually dispensing violence against anyone they deem as the ‘other.’

The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth are also similar in their respective portrayals of women withdrawing into fantasy to escape an insensitive world. The mute janitor, Elisa, who works at a top-secret government research lab, is attracted to an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones, who also played the Faun and the Pale Man in the earlier film). She sees the beauty beneath the fish-like appearance of Amphibian Man, whom she befriends with boiled eggs and music. By contrast, Strickland, who regards the sea monster as an “offence,” flays the fishman with an electric cattle prod to enforce a quiescent obedience, reminiscent of the treatment of John Merrick by his keeper in the early scenes in The Elephant Man. Del Toro’s juxtaposition of Elisa’s warm friendships with Giles and a black female custodian (Octavia Spencer), along with fantasy sequences – including Elisa singing and dancing as if in a 1930s Hollywood musical – with the harsh realism of Cold War paranoia, violence and racism elevates the quality of this film, certainly one of the best I have seen this year.

Daniel Kaluuya in Jordan Peele's Get Out.

The treatment of the ‘other’ is also featured in Get Out, which is part comedy, part horror and most importantly an acerbic social commentary on contemporary race relations. The film dramatizes a state of mind in which, beneath a polite and patronizing veneer of liberalism, resides a malignant impulse: the villains use medical experimentation to engineer contemporary African Americans into specimens of docility suitable for slavery. It may be significant that this film was released in the same year that Roy Moore, the candidate for the Republican Party, mused that America was greatest when slavery existed. Fortunately, his brand of atavism was defeated at the polls, one of the year’s few bright spots.

Maudie, an unsentimental and emotionally powerful biopic set in mid-twentieth-century Nova Scotia, is about the folk artist, Maud Dowley, who suffered from severe arthritis most of her life that gave her a hunched-over appearance, and her relationship with her employer-turned-husband, Everett Lewis. She is movingly played by Sally Hawkins – who looks vastly different than she did in The Shape of Water – and the inarticulate Everett, who could be physically and emotionally abusive, is convincingly played by Ethan Hawke, who uses his body as much as his voice to communicate a myriad of emotions: disgust, resentment mingled with admiration for Maudie’s paintings and a growing love towards her.

My final film recommendation is a little-known Greek film, writer-director Christopher Papakaliatis’s Worlds Apart, which is anchored in the refugee crisis and the EU’s efforts to impose austerity measures on Greece. Set in Athens, the plot is powered by three intersecting stories: a college student falls in love with a Syrian refugee while a dangerous far-right fascist movement swirls around them; a sales manager initiates an affair with a Swedish corporate executive who is tasked to cut jobs at his company; and a retired German émigré (J.K. Simmons, the only actor whom North Americans will likely recognize) meets weekly outside a grocery store with an unhappy Greek housewife. At first a viewer may not grasp where Worlds Apart is going but, as it unfolds, it turns into a tender, heartfelt film that has stayed with me since I saw it a few months ago.

There were a number of television productions I plan on catching up in 2018 (such as the adaptations of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale). Here, I will concentrate on only a few fine series. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s ambitious, ten-part documentary The Vietnam War on PBS was essential viewing, even though I did not always agree with certain interpretations or emphases. Much of the archival footage may be familiar to those who have seen Michael McClear’s 1981 The Ten Thousand Day War or the 1984 Vietnam: A Television History, but what makes the Burns-Novick series unique is the variety of different perspectives from the eighty talking heads: the Vietnamese from both the South and the North, along with American journalists and warriors. I learned much about the politics of the war – such as the fact that Le Duan, not Ho Chi Minh, embodied the real power in North Vietnam and further details about the extent of lying and deception by American politicians and generals. What most fascinated me were the voices and eloquence of journalist Neil Sheehan and of certain veterans. Karl Marlante left an Oxford scholarship to fight in Vietnam. An African American Marine, Roger Harris, who never expected to survive the war, served honourably, yet when he returned home at Logan Airport in uniform bedecked with medals and ribbons he could not flag down a taxi to drive him home to Roxbury. The novelist Tim O’Brien had difficulty looking at the camera. And John Musgrave's passion, pain and insight before, during and after the war, may have been the highlight of the series.

Billy Campbell in Cardinal

A Canadian television show, Cardinal, an adaptation of Giles Blunt’s Forty Words for Sorrow, was remarkable for its portrayal of John Cardinal (Billy Campbell) as a flawed, perhaps corrupted, protagonist who, along with his partner, Lise Dolorme (Karine Vanasse), is searching for a serial killer in Algonquin Bay (Blunt’s fictional version of North Bay). Lise is tasked to investigate her partner at the same time they are pursuing a dangerous killer. The icy white landscape is simultaneously majestic and menacing and, as one who spent eight years of his early life in Sudbury, I can attest that the filmmakers have accurately captured that ambivalence.

The HBO series Big Little Lies was one of the best dramas of this past year. The show explores the psychological effects of violence, and features strong performances from Nicole Kidman as Celeste, who has cast off her corporate lawyer life to be a stay-at-home mom, and Shailene Woodley, playing Jane Chapman, a single mom and outsider trying to raise her son while haunted by a troubled past. The first two episodes may be off-putting to viewers who find it difficult to empathize with the problems of well-heeled women – excluding Jane – who live privileged lives in comfortable beach houses in Monterey, California. At the outset, the death of a person whose identity is not revealed occurs at a school fund-raising event, and the community, serving as a Greek chorus, resorts to contemptuous put-downs to describe certain parents. But stay with it until the end as Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallée increasingly extends his generosity to these characters as a counterpoint to the chorus of judgmental voices. The series is at its best when it explores the dynamics of spousal abuse and the role that the therapist plays in trying to get at the truth.

On Netflix, I highly recommend two series: Mindhunter, set in 1979, when two FBI agents, the younger Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and the veteran Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), set out to explore the motives of incarcerated dangerous criminals with the goal of understanding criminal pathology. Tench understands there is an emotional cost to this pursuit while the more analytical Ford appears oblivious to it until it is almost too late. The other, the Norwegian Nobel – Peace at Any Price, is a captivating thriller about Norway’s involvement in Afghanistan and the political implications of that mission. The leading protagonist, Erling Riiser, is not only a competent commander but a sniper – the opening scene is one of the best I have ever seen – while his wife Johanne is a government official who really does not understand what her husband does until late in the series. I also recommend the Icelandic thriller Trapped, which I have already written about, and The Crown, which will be the subject of an upcoming review.

Finally, I want to recommend a beautifully moving CD by the contemporary Welsh composer, Karl Jenkins, whose Cantata Memoria remembers the 116 children and 28 adults who died in 1966 when a sliding mountain of coal slurry engulfed a school in Alberfan, Wales. It is written in English, Welsh and Latin and features a chorus of children and baritone Bryn Terfel; the music and especially the singing is stunningly powerful. Listen to the solo violin that begins the fourth section – as opposed to movement – and then go out and purchase the CD. As someone who has heard this disc over a hundred times this past year, I can safely assert that you will not regret it.

Photo by Keith Penner.
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

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