Monday, December 31, 2018

Bernardo Bertolucci and The Conformist

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Stefania Sandrelli in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970).

The Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, who died last November, had a patchwork career dotted with brilliance. He made only sixteen full-length movies in a career that spanned a full half-century. Three were masterpieces: Before the Revolution (1964), his second film, made when he was only twenty-four (two years younger than Orson Welles had been when he released Citizen Kane); The Conformist (1970), which catapulted him into the realm of the most admired international directors; and Last Tango in Paris (1972), controversial at the time and still controversial. Of the others, only one, the 1998 Besieged, set in Rome, about an English pianist and composer (David Thewlis) who finds radical means to prove his love for his African housekeeper (Thandie Newton), works from start to finish. 1900 (1977), a grandiose five-hour epic that spans the first half of the twentieth century, has magnificent sequences and others that are melodramatic or rendered fatuous by a dogged, simplistic Marxist didacticism. The Last Emperor (1987), has a glorious first hour that Bertolucci spends the next two undercutting because, his schoolboy Marxism rearing its head again, he feels duty bound to promote the rigors of Communist China above the wasteful extravagances of the child emperor Pu-Yi’s insulated life in the Forbidden City. (It’s richly ironic that the film won the Oscar for Best Picture: the Academy embraced it as if it were a lavish historical epic by David Lean, apparently missing the fact that Bertolucci had intended it as an anti-epic.) The Dreamers (2003), filmed against the backdrop of the Paris ’68 student riots, has a romantic sweep but the material is too thin to support it. Even Last Tango is far from perfect: its raw, Strindbergian exploration of an affair between an émigré American tormented by his wife’s suicide (Marlon Brando, in his most tumultuous and unprotected performance) and a bourgeoisie half his age (Maria Schneider), is intercut with scenes where her callow filmmaker boyfriend (Jean-Pierre Léaud) shoots scenes of her playacting for a silly, self-indulgent slice of cinema vérité.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Nonsense and Sensibility: Mary Poppins Returns

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Nathanael Saleh and Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns. (Photo: Jay Maidment)

Author P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins was tart, acerbic, dowdy and spindly, had a life of her own (her adventures with Bert in the chalk painting had no Banks children in tow), and thought a great deal of herself. Julie Andrews’s Mary Poppins, in the 1964 Disney movie, was dowdy and pretty in a clean-scrubbed sort of way, looked in the mirror a lot, and didn’t seem to think of anything. It’s an Oscar-winning performance that really isn’t much of one. Time Magazine stated, “If she did nothing but stand there smiling for a few hours, she would cast her radiance. It would be enough.” Apparently, both Andrews and the Academy agreed. Her Oscar was also a reaction to her not getting on film a role she made famous on Broadway, which may be why the disheveled hat Andrews wears as Poppins bears more than passing resemblance to Eliza Doolittle’s flower girl get-up in My Fair Lady, and why the song David Tomlinson sings as Mr. Banks, "The Life I Lead," sounds suspiciously Henry Higgins-ish. To be fair, Andrews does seem to be having a lively time when she and Dick Van Dyke danced to “Supercalifragi . . . ” -- well, you know the rest. But in general, she's rather fuzzy where she needs to be crisp. There’s a lack of clear choices in her portrayal; she seems to be coasting. In contrast, Emily Blunt in the new sequel Mary Poppins Returns is witty, sharp-tongued, and game for anything. She adores nonsense, and loathes fools. Spectacularly dressed (by Sandy Powell), she looks great and knows it. With her ramrod posture, impeccable line readings, and great timing, as well as a wicked sense of fun, Blunt is sublime. She bridges the distance between Travers and Andrews with an interpretation all her own.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

A Tale of One City: Widows

Jacki Weaver and Elizabeth Debicki in Widows.

A heist film is usually focused on the heist: who’s the mark, what’s the take, who brings what skills to the table, what goes wrong, and how do they get away with it? Steve McQueen’s Widows turns all of that on its head, giving us a heist film about a band of unskilled reluctant criminals stealing for someone else from a place they have to determine for themselves. The plan of this particular heist is pretty straightforward; it’s everything else that’s hard. And that “everything else” encompasses the very idea of the city of Chicago, where the movie is set.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Giant Missteps: Roma and If Beale Street Could Talk

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma.

During the credits of Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white memory picture about growing up in Mexico City in the early 1970s, an invisible hand splashes bucket after bucket of water on the tiles of a walled-in terrace attached to the home of a well-to-do family in a neighborhood known as Roma. After the second inundation, a rectangle of light, jagged at the top as if someone had carved a small hunk out of it, appears in the middle of the frame – presumably a piece of sky, as a tiny plane passes through it. It’s a remarkable shot, though Cuarón (who photographed the movie, as well as directing and writing and, with Adam Gough, co-editing it) never explains exactly what we’re seeing – is there a skylight up there? – and we can’t tell what it’s supposed to mean. This quote from the filmmaker from a Variety interview might help: “Borges talks about how memory is an opaque, shattered mirror, but I see it more as a crack in the wall. The crack is whatever pain happened in the past. We tend to put several coats of paint over it, trying to cover that crack. But it’s still there.” I said it might help: the liquid is water, not paint, and it reveals the crack rather than attempting to cover it up, and anyway whatever pain is associated with the past for Cuarón presumably resides inside that house, not in the sky above it. Anyway, why should we need to read an interview with him in order to guess how the hell we’re supposed to read this image, which he lingers on for the entire credits sequence? Sitting through Roma, we certainly know one thing: we’re supposed to believe we’re watching art. It’s meticulously made, without a single scene that feels like it wasn’t planned carefully beforehand. Man, what I wouldn’t have given for a spontaneous moment where you sense that one of the actors improvised a reaction and Cuarón kept it in the film because it surprised him or because he loved the performer. Roma doesn’t unfold, so we don’t get wrapped up in it; it presents itself to us and we’re there as witnesses to the artistry of its compositions. It’s deadly.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Cultural Offerings for the Holidays

Jonny Lee Miller, Jon Michael Hill and Lucy Liu CBS's Elementary.

It can be difficult to decide what to buy people for the holidays, what with so much stuff available out there. So here is my annual list of holiday suggestions, (hopefully) suitable presents for the film/book buff, music lover and TV aficionado in your circle.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Wavelength: The Uncanny Work of Dénesh Ghyczy

When the Real Day Breaks, by Dénesh Ghyczy, 2018, 130 x 170 cm.

“The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but also what he sees inside himself. If he sees nothing within, then he should stop painting what is in front of him.”
– Caspar David Friedrich

We live in a world of binary elements, each competing for our attention, not so much in a conflict of opposites as in a dance, a conversation between components of a single whole which has been fragmented by our own dualistic perceptions. At the beating heart of the work of Dénesh Ghyczy is a basic dichotomy between the built and the unbuilt environment: the natural world of sleek proportional harmonies resulting from the reconciliation of opposing forces into inherent organic designs, and the human habitation world of gridded proportional harmonies resulting from our recognition of certain embedded ratios and balances as we build our dwelling places.

The fact that there is a window in almost every painting can make it easy to forget that every painting already is a window: one differentiating the viewer and the view by only the slenderest of threads, an experiential thread that also unites us all in the viewing. Windows within windows: looking in, opening out. A slightly voyeuristic frisson accompanies our watching Boy in a Window and When Real Day Breaks, for instance, since we are watching people who are watching. Perhaps someone else is also watching us watching them watching: we can all practically hear the day breaking.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Raw Material: Manasie Akpaliapik and Inua of the Seas

A detail from The Effects of Colonialization, Past and Present by Manasie Akpaliapik.

Manasie Akpaliapik has not had an easy time of it. An Inuit carver born in 1955 at a hunting camp north of Baffin Island, he suffered a devastating personal loss when his wife and young children died in a house fire nearly 40 years ago. He soon after used art to assuage the grief and alcohol to numb the pain. While his expressionistic carvings brought him a high degree of success (his work is in the permanent collections of Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada, in addition to other major national and international art institutions), the booze ended up dominating. By 2007, Akpaliapik, one of the greatest Inuit carvers of our time, was behind bars for disorderly conduct in a Southern Ontario jail, away from his people, away from his art.

But here’s the happy ending (so far). Akpaliapik is back. Now sober, the artist celebrated for his expressionistic handling of found raw materials like tusks, antlers and animal bone is once again carving whalebone – his material of choice – etching into its tough, tensile surface scenes from his troubled life. The most poignant of his pictorial self-portraits populate The Effects of Colonialization, Past and Present, a 72-by-65-by-30cm sculpture carved from a section of a 120-year-old bowhead whale skull.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Bio-Downer: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Lee Israel was a freelance journalist who enjoyed some success writing celebrity bios (her 1980 book on the columnist Dorothy Kilgallen was a bestseller) before running dry and turning, in a particularly imaginative response to desperation, to forging letters by famous people and selling them to book shops with a sideline in memorabilia. Eventually the FBI tracked her down but she managed to escape prison – a sympathetic judge gave her probation – and the last thing she wrote, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, is an account of her odd and abbreviated life of crime. The title is from one of the letters she invents and ascribes to Dorothy Parker, in which Parker quips that her drunken escapades have offended so many of her friends that she ought to have little cards printed that beg their forgiveness. The misanthropic Israel was drawn to brittle, acerbic wits like Parker and Noël Coward and she had enough of a gift for epigrams to emulate their styles; her book, which takes about an hour and a half to read, is enjoyably nasty-minded. She juxtaposes samples of her handiwork with sketches about how she plied her illicit craft. But Marielle Heller’s movie version, from a screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, is somber and cautionary. It portrays Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy) as a tragic heroine, a reclusive dipsomaniac who is so terrified of rejection that she can’t sustain a romantic relationship – she’s still haunted by the failure of her last one – or even a friendship, and lavishes all her affection on her aging cat. (The movie begins with her losing an editing job because she imbibes at work and tells her supervisor to fuck off.) Moreover, as her editor (Jane Curtin, in a sharp-eyed cameo) points out, she doesn’t have the nerve to forget about projects no one in 1991 could care less about – her latest, if she can recover from a bad case of writer’s block, is a book on Fanny Brice – and write something that reflects her own voice. The idea that biography is somehow a dodge for a real writer should be news to, say, Gary Giddins, who just came out with the second volume of his study of Bing Crosby, which I can’t wait to sit down with. Toward the end of the movie, in a heartfelt statement before the judge sentences her, Lee owns up to the reason she has never taken her agent’s counsel: that she’s always been afraid of rejection on the literary front, too.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

A Dumb Fun Sub Movie Is Better Than None: Hunter Killer

Gerard Butler (left) in Hunter Killer.

If you hadn’t already guessed from the film’s name and poster typeface, Hunter Killer is a retro action B-movie in the techno-fetishistic style of a Tom Clancy adaptation. Joe Glass (Gerard Butler) ascends from the rank and file to captain his first submarine on a mission to investigate a missing American sub, which they find sunk alongside a Russian sub. Unable to contact Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko), the U.S. sends out a Navy SEAL recon team, which discovers that Zakarin is being held captive at a Russian naval base in a coup led by war-hungry Defense Minister Durov (Mikhail Gorevoy). Naturally, the sub and the SEALs are brought together to form a mission to extract Zakarin. Needless to say, they succeed by a hair.

There are numerous resemblances to The Hunt for Red October (1990): some crew are rescued from the downed Russian sub, whose captain (the late Michael Nyqvist) proves indispensable for navigating the U.S. sub into the Russian naval base, and for getting it out in one piece; a stateside bureaucratic argument over how to deal with the coup results in both prepping for war and greenlighting the maverick rescue op, which is also headed by a black admiral (here played by Common); there’s a traitor in the Russian crew, though here it’s only a minor plot point; and, heck, the Russians even speak English amongst themselves.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Halves: Man in the Ring and The Lifespan of a Fact

Kyle Vincent Terry and John Douglas Thompson in Michael Cristofer's Man in the Ring. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Michael Cristofer’s new play Man in the Ring, receiving its premiere at Boston’s Huntington Theatre, is the biography of Emile Griffith, the middleweight boxing champ of the late fifties and sixties, born on St. Thomas. It’s a fascinating story about a man whose life is haunted by demons – of Benny “Kid” Paret, who died as a result of the Griffith’s last victory over him in the ring, and, in Cristofer’s portrait, of his bisexuality. (Cristofer recreates the vicious beating Griffith received outside a gay bar in 1992.) Cristofer’s dramatic strategy is to tell it in flashback through the point of view of an aging Emile (John Douglas Thompson), living in New York with Luis (Victor Almanzar), a younger man who nurses him through his struggles with dementia pugilistica.

Michael Greif has given the work an exciting production, gracefully staged and visually beautiful. David Zinn designed the set, which is delineated at the wings by staggered fire-escape balconies and upstage by a curved cyclorama on which Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully’s projections evoke the period urban feel as well as echoing key moments in the play, Brechtian style. Zinn relies on muted colors, blacks and browns and sepias, while Emilio Sosa’s costumes provide exotic flashes of color that link back to Emile’s island birthplace. The brilliant lighting design is by Ben Stanton, who takes a leaf from Raging Bull cinematographer Michael Chapman’s book: blinding, crackling flashbulbs heighten the fight scenes. Matt Tierney created the vibrant sound design, and Michael McElroy arranged the music, Caribbean hymns and folk songs that, like the titles, have a Brechtian function. The supporting cast is flawless; the standout performances are by the charismatic Kyle Vincent Terry as young Emile, Almanzar as both Luis (who was Griffith’s adopted son) and a male lover, and Sean Boyce Johnson as Benny Paret, but Starla Benford as Emile’s mother, Emelda, and Gordon Clapp as his manager, Howie Albert, are also memorable. Towering above them is the majestic John Douglas Thompson. His portrayal of the physiologically and psychically impaired Griffith, who stumbles through the play like a wounded colossus, howling like Lear against the immovable universe, is surely one of the highlights of the theatrical season, here or anywhere.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Soundtrack for The Immobile Flaneur: The Seductive Music of Nas Hedron

“Music is frozen architecture and architecture is frozen music.” – Goethe

Museum of Dreams. That was the title that my friend and fellow broadcaster the late Kevin Courrier and I gave to an episode of a pilot for a radio program we were working on together a few years back. The program was called Musical Chairs, with each weekly episode devoted to a particular theme and featuring drastically diverse musical examples evoking a given subject. That particular installment was about “The City,” and it offered a wide range of international music, including songs, instrumentals, pop, folk, jazz, classical and avant-garde, all of which personified life in an urban setting: what it meant to be city dwellers, all of us strangers living together in close proximity. My notion was that every city was a kind of museum collecting all the dreams, and even perhaps the nightmares for that matter, of all the inhabitants it had hosted throughout its history. Maybe even the dreams of future inhabitants would be stored in this urban museum, people who hadn’t even arrived there yet.

We had songs by Bruce Cockburn from Inner City Front, a concerto by Aaron Copeland called "Quiet City," The Lovin’ Spoonful’s "Summer in the City," Ornette Coleman’s "Skies Over America" jazz suite, Scott Walker’s enigmatic "Farmer in the City," Stevie Wonder’s "Living For the City," and the mysterious chamber work by American composer Charles Ives, "Central Park in the Dark," among others. The idea being to freak out as many listeners as possible by exploring one single, simple subject and theme, the city and its sounds, through as many divergent threads of musical styles as possible. In between tracks, Kevin and I would chat about how and why we each had chosen our alternating selections to play for the other (and the audience). If only I had known back then (mid-'80s) about the music of Nas Hedron, we could have programmed a whole episode, maybe even several, come to think of it, merely by playing a flock of Hedron’s own shimmering compositions.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Found Footage: Mountain (2017) and Shirkers (2018)

A scene from Jennifer Peedom's Mountain (2017).

I want to discuss two films that, to a significant degree, are stitched together from previously existing footage.

Mountain (2017) is a feature-length video essay, directed by Jennifer Peedom and mostly shot by Renan Ozturk, on the symbolic relationship between human and mountain. Mountain porn is to be expected – the gorgeous, absolutely stunning vistas and panoramas and drone shots – but what is not expected is just how much this 74-minute-long film effortlessly includes: mountaintop cyclists and motorcyclists, skiers with and without parachutes, tightrope walkers, shots of individual snowflakes (turns out they’re not flat), lava, nosediving helicopters, vertigo-inducing helmet-cam shots of regular and free solo climbers, an athlete wipe-out reel, a critique of extreme sports online branding, and a critique of mountain tourism. Not to mention the poetry of Willem Dafoe’s narration, taken from Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind. It’s truly an awesome experience.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Magic Season – Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Eddie Redmayne and Callum Turner in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

We can all agree that the more franchises crowd the multiplexes, the more difficult it is for other sorts of pictures to get seen – indeed, to get made at all. Still, some of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had at the movies this year have been at the latest entries in various series: Incredibles 2, Mission Impossible: Fallout, Ant-Man and the Wasp, even the much-maligned Solo. However, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald towers above the others. It confirms that, visually and emotionally, this particular franchise is on the same level as the recently concluded Planet of the Apes trilogy.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Remembering Kevin Courrier: A Friendship Cemented Through Music

Kevin Courrier passed away on October 12. He would have turned 64 years old today.

I was already very interested in movies when I became friends with Kevin Courrier, the late co-founder of Critics At Large, in the late eighties/early nineties, not long after I graduated from Ryerson Polytechnic Institute (now Ryerson University) in Toronto and began reviewing films professionally on a freelance basis. We bonded over our affinity for American filmmakers Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg, who were disdained by many of our colleagues, and shared a love of other directors, such as Satyajit Ray (The Apu Trilogy) and Louis Malle (Lacombe, Lucien, Vanya on 42nd Street). But I think I learnt more about music from Kevin than from anyone else. As much as Kevin knew cinema, and he certainly did, I’d say he knew music even better.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Weeps Happiness: The Dysfunctional Drama of the White Album

The Beatles' "Mad Day Out" (July 28, 1968). (Photo credit: Apple Corps Ltd.)

Devin: I'd love to follow up on that White Album idea for CAL we discussed at the Toronto gathering. I'll write back more in the coming weeks as today I am caught up in medical appointments. But I wanted to let you know right away that I'm in.
By the way, Habs is short for Les Habitants which were, at one time, the farmers of Quebec in the 17th Century.
Best to you both.

– An email from Kevin Courrier, July 24, 2018.

This is the modified text of a talk delivered at “The Beatles’ The White Album: An International Symposium,” Monmouth University, West Long Branch, NJ, November 11, 2018. It was, and is, dedicated to Kevin Courrier.

*   *   *

All art is, at once, surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
– Oscar Wilde

With Wilde’s words in mind, listen again to the White Album, or simply its opening. About seven seconds into the first track, “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” as we hear the descent of a jet – a masterful, momentous sound, universally recognized – there’s another, much odder sound: a sound that is not monumental at all, and that no one could recognize. If you know The Beatles, you know the sound; you can hear it in your head this moment if you try. But what is it? A throat imitating a guitar? A guitar imitating a throat? It’s like something out of Spike Jones. Yet it isn’t to any apparent purpose, comedic or musical. It’s simply there. It has always been there. And whether we’ve thought about it or not, it has influenced how we hear every sound that follows it.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Bernhardt/Hamlet: The Player’s Life

Janet McTeer in Bernhardt/Hamlet. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

It’s hard to imagine that devout theatrephiles wouldn’t fall for Theresa Rebeck’s new play Bernhardt/Hamlet, which has just completed its run at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre. It’s a gossipy, diverting backstage comedy, set in 1897, about Sarah Bernhardt’s decision, relatively late in her career, to play Hamlet. Rebeck has taken considerable liberties with the historical facts. In her version Bernhardt (played by Janet McTeer) and the neo-Romantic playwright Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner, hamming with fervor), in several of whose plays she starred, are also lovers, and she begs him to rewrite Shakespeare’s text for her so that it’s more prosaic; she complains that she’s getting mired in the poetry. And the play builds to a second-act encounter with Rostand’s wife Rosamond (the talented Ito Aghayere, impressive in Mlima’s Tale at the Public last spring), who begs her to liberate him from the task, which is driving him to distraction and getting in the way of his completing Cyrano de Bergerac. It doesn’t matter very much that these details are Rebeck’s invention, since Bernhardt/Hamlet has a grandiose, tall-tale style and the narrative ideas are very amusing.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Runaway Train: John Neumeier’s Anna Karenina

Svetlana Lunkina as Anna Karenina in John Neumeier’s Anna Karenina. (Photo: Kiran West)

John Neumeier’s Anna Karenina, at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until Sunday, is a classic novel turned into a train wreck of a ballet. Running over three hours in length and said to have cost $1.9 million to produce, this meandering two-act narrative dance – the first co-production of the National Ballet of Canada, the Bolshoi and the Hamburg Ballet – is not just overlong but overdone. Superfluous scenes, anachronistic details, misplaced humour, histrionics and a surfeit of clichés not only try the patience; they threaten to kill empathy for one of the greatest female characters created in the whole of art.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How I Felt toward This Film about Halfway Through: Hostile (2017)

Brittany Ashworth in Hostile (2017).

Writer-director Mathieu Turi’s debut is a zombie post-apocalypse thriller cum meditation on a romantic relationship, brazenly tied together. Despite heartfelt acting and high production values (on a low budget, no less!), the melodramatic direction, tone-deaf dialogue, predictable plot, and overly intellectual transitions caused me to check out, mentally if not physically, about a fourth of the way into this under-ninety-minute effort. Elevated horror Hostile (2017) is not.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Unlikely Musicals: Girl from the North Country and Allelujah!

Kimber Sprawl and Sydney James Harcourt in Girl from the North Country. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The mood of sorrow in Conor McPherson’s beautiful new play Girl from the North Country, reaching down as deep as the deepest well, is both aching and piercing, and when you walk out of the Public Theatre at the end (where it’s about to end its sold-out run) it hobbles you: my step was slower, my mind a little befogged, and I had the impression that I was carrying something heavy and unresolvable with me. Yet the evening is often joyous. The seventeen-member ensemble, each performing at capacity, sings the Bob Dylan songs in Simon Hale’s exquisite arrangements – there are twenty in all – with brio and with full hearts. The music decorates the air and makes the show swing, even when it comments on lost love, even when the narrative context of the lyrics turns them ironic. And though the overarching theme is loneliness, the music also imbues what we see on the stage with an unmistakable feeling of community, in the sense of a common humanity. I found myself thinking of Our Town – with Robert Joy, as the narrator, Dr. Walker, almost taking on the role of the omniscient Stage Manager in the last minutes – and of Spoon River Anthology, as well as of Pennies from Heaven, because of the Depression-era setting and because Girl from the North Country is a Brechtian jukebox musical.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Dancing from the Shadows: Akram Khan's XENOS

Akram Khan in XENOS. (Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez)

In XENOS, dancer/choreographer Akram Khan’s solo journey into the heart of darkness, death is a perpetual presence. It haunts the stage in both poetic and elemental ways. A mound of black dirt. A phonograph doubling as a search light. Nothing is sacred. Nothing safe. There is no romancing the inevitable in this poignant meditation on the suffering of First World War soldiers; the soul is excavated, the flesh exposed and the mind racked to breaking point. Love, beauty and all we – as a so-called civilized people – hold dear end up buried and presumed lost. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. XENOS – the word is Greek for "stranger" – is like King Lear distilled to the essence of the howl, howl, howl upon the heath: an unrelenting portrait of life as viewed from the shadows.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Art of the Ordinary: A Revolution in Meaning

Andy Warhol and Brillo Boxes, the Stable Gallery, New York City, 1964. (Photo: Fred McDarrah)

Images, our great and primitive passion . . . ” – Walter Benjamin, ca. 1930
Richard Deming's new book Art of the Ordinary (Cornell University Press) explores a major revolution in the meaning of what art is and what it’s supposed to do. Its subtitle sums it up rather nicely: the everyday domain of art, film, philosophy and poetry. Cutting across literature, film, art, and philosophy, Art of the Ordinary is a trailblazing, cross-disciplinary engagement with the ordinary and the everyday. Because, writes Deming, the ordinary is always at hand, it is, in fact, too familiar for us to perceive it and become fully aware of it. The ordinary, he argues, is what most needs to be discovered and yet can never be approached, since to do so is to immediately change it.

Art of the Ordinary explores how philosophical questions can be revealed in surprising places – as in a stand-up comic’s routine, for instance, or a Brillo box, or a Hollywood movie. From negotiations with the primary materials of culture and community, ways of reading "self" and "other" are made available, deepening one’s ability to respond to ethical, social, and political dilemmas. Deming picks out key figures, such as the philosophers Stanley Cavell, Arthur Danto, and Richard Wollheim, poet John Ashbery, artist Andy Warhol and comedian Steven Wright, to showcase the foundational concepts of language, ethics, and society.

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Waverly Gallery and the Ineffable Elaine May

Elaine May in The Waverly Gallery. (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Since her early days with Mike Nichols, Elaine May has occupied a magical space where high comedy overlaps with revue-sketch comedy. At eighty-six she still possesses the combination of qualities that made her Nichols’ inspired collaborator and that made her a rara avis in movies like In the Spirit and Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks: razor wit, a loopy, uncategorizable presence, an insistent if quirky humanity, and the impulse to take wild leaps of imagination, sometimes linking traits of character that we don’t expect to find together. She always seems self-invented – as if what we see on screen or on stage is the living embodiment of her writing style. (You could say the same about Christopher Durang, which is the reason that, if you’ve seen him in a role he’s written for himself, it’s so tough to get his voice out of your head when someone else plays it.) As Gladys Green, the New York-Jewish gallery owner she plays in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, who is sinking into dementia, the pixieish May gives an enchanting performance. One might say that watching her is like getting a master class in acting, but the fact is that she’s so weirdly unlike anyone else that you could hardly tell a young actor to go and do likewise. The only actress I can think of who’s remotely like her is her gifted daughter, Jeannie Berlin, whose career May ignited by giving her the role of the abandoned bride in her unconventional 1972 romantic comedy The Heartbreak Kid.

Friday, November 2, 2018

All Work and No Play: Bohemian Rhapsody

Gwilym Lee and Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody.

Rock and roll has long seemed wedded to the movies despite the fact that film started a good 50 years before those percussive, jangling refrains entered the mainstream. But the immediacy, intimacy, and gigantism of that shimmering screen is so related to the feeling of excess engendered in rock and pop that it can seem like they have always been intertwined. (A movie like Rebel Without a Cause was so steeped in the youthful mythos of rock that it’s still surprising to realize it was released before rock existed as a mass phenomenon.) Thus it’s no surprise that the lives of rock gods and goddesses have served as fodder for numerous screenplays and treatments. The rock-and-roll biopic is a genre unto itself. The best of these pictures tend to hinge on who portrays the pop deity – if the actor is able to tear into both the myth and reality of their subject, the results can be spectacular, even if the movie itself is so-so. Jamie Foxx was terrific as Ray Charles, Joaquin Phoenix’s astonishing turn as Johnny Cash, and to a lesser extent, Reese Witherspoon’s as June Carter Cash, still haunt me, and Jessica Lange’s Patsy Cline was a revelation. (Lange also had the great fortune to have Robert Getchell writing sharp, incisive dialogue for her.) Both Paul Dano and John Cusack broke my heart as The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy, and Beyoncé was mesmerizing as Etta James in the too little-seen Cadillac Records, to name just a few. Even if the movie is out-and-out terrible, a great star turn can make the experience worthwhile. It’s hard to see how Lady Sings the Blues could be much worse, just as it’s almost as hard to see how Diana Ross’s performance could be much better. (Go have the argument whether Lady is a jazz or blues biopic somewhere else: Ross’s performance is pure rock and roll.) But rock cinema is also riddled with great promise greatly denied: Dennis Quaid put all sorts of effort into his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis, but never really came to life. Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison was stillborn (perhaps due to director Oliver Stone’s apparent belief there’s no greater rock star than himself), and let’s not talk about Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Ghosts of October (4): Whistle and I’ll Come To You

An illustration for “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’” in M.R. James’s Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary (1904).

Over the past month, leading up to Halloween, Devin McKinney has highlighted some of his favorite ghost stories, in fiction and film. See Parts 1, 2, and 3
here, here, and here.

“‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’” (the title quotes a lyric from Robert Burns) was written in 1904 by M.R. James, whose ghost stories are as venerated a Christmas tradition in the UK as those of Dickens. James was a Cambridge University provost, librarian, and antiquarian, and his best work grew out of a passion for buried history, with aggressive spirits released from crypts and clods of earth by unwary scholar-diggers. In “Whistle,” a professor named Parkins vacations in a coastal town. At a colleague’s request, he examines a site where lodges of the Knights Templar are known to have stood, to see if the ground appears promising for archeology. While poking about in a nearby cemetery (similar to the one found in The Green Man; Kingsley Amis had read James), Parkins unearths “a metal tube about four inches long, and evidently of some considerable age.” He takes it with him – and perceives, as he walks along the beach toward his hotel, something seeming to follow him through the dusk: “the shape of a rather indistinct personage in the distance.” That night, in his room, he finds the tube to be a whistle, bearing a Latin inscription which translates as Who is this who is coming? He cleans out the whistle, and blows it. And something comes to him.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Shakespeare x 2: Measure for Measure and King Lear

Petr Rykov and Anna Khalilulina in Cheek by Jowl and the Pushkin Theatre’s Measure for Measure. (Photo:Johan Persson)

The collaboration by the English company Cheek by Jowl and the Pushkin Theatre from Russia on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure runs for an uninterrupted hour and fifty minutes, and it holds the attention. That is, until the climactic scene where first Isabella and then the Duke of Vienna expose the sexual blackmail Angelo, the Duke’s surrogate during his (supposed) absence, has attempted on Isabella, the convent novice whose brother Claudio has been sentenced to execution for fornication, according to the antiquated law Angelo has elected to reactivate. All the actors are Russian, and two of them, Anna Vardevanian as Isabella and Andrei Kuzichev, are first-rate. Their two big scenes – the one in which Isabella pleads for her brother’s life and the one in which Angelo presses his sexual attentions on her – are mesmerizing.  Cheek by Jowl’s Declan Donnellan has chosen to stage the sexual extortion as a near-rape; he’s far from the first director to do so, and given the sexual politics of this era he certainly won’t be the last. But though the staging is extremely effective, it’s mostly the intensity and variety of the two performances that make both encounters so gripping. And the slimming down of Shakespeare’s text (which mostly affects the scenes built around the madam, Mistress Overdone, played by Elmira Mirel, and her associate Pompey, played by Alexey Rakhmanov) help to shape the production so that it leads inexorably to the centerpiece Angelo-Isabella scenes.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Being and Nothingness: Miranda July's The Future (2011)

Hamish Linklater and Miranda July in The Future (2011).

Philosophers distinguish between two kinds of nothingness. Oukontic nothingness is the kind you’d normally think of when you read the word “nothing,” defined as pure lack, the kind for which, as Gertrude Stein once said, “there is no there there.” The other kind is meontic nothingness, and it’s a nothingness you can do things with, like (to use a simile) the compressed air in a submerged submarine relative to the surrounding water. In terms of the extremes of cinema, oukontic nothingness could be used to characterize films that have no value, or films that are utterly inept at conveying whatever they’re supposed to: Gotti (2018), for instance. Meontic nothingness, on the other hand, could be another way to describe pure cinema, the je ne sais quoi that tells you, “This is a work of cinematic art.” The Future (2011), written and directed by and starring Miranda July, is an ingenious work of meontic nothingness.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Radio Daze: Fond Memories of an Aggravating Angel

Photo by John Marsonet.

“To deal with the history of cultures means to abandon oneself to potential chaos and yet to retain a deep belief in the basic ordination and meaning of things. It is a very serious task. One requiring a great lightness of spirit.” Hermann Hesse, Magister Ludi

I definitely miss being on a weekly radio program. From about 1988 until the end of the 20th century, I was the visual art critic for CJRT-FM in Toronto, a wonderful community-based station with an eclectic mix of programming and hosts covering every aspect of popular culture, from classical music, folk and jazz, to BBC-imported Goon Shows and compelling ideas-based documentaries. The program on which I appeared every Wednesday to review an exhibition, interview an artist, curator or museum official, discuss an architectural design site and occasionally assess art books of mainstream interest, was appropriately called On the Arts, and that’s exactly what it was, with a day each week exclusively devoted to music, films, theatre, art, design, books and art politics.  It just now seems so perfectly 20th-century, in fact, that kind of diversity of interests, since independent public radio (and television for that matter) has become such a rare thing to behold or behear. (Critics At Large has been sharing excerpts of the program as podcasts.)

One of the other joys of my radio days was the fact that it was through this medium that I was able to cross paths with a delightful friend of over thirty years, the late, great Kevin Courrier, who passed away (or went to spirit, as he would have called it) in mid-October of this year. The path to Kevin, however, first led me to encounter the irascible, sardonic, sarcastic, infuriating and brilliant Tom Fulton, Kevin’s co-host at CJRT-FM and his mentor of many years: the man who Kevin said helped him “find his voice.” Kevin in turn helped me find my own voice, guiding me through the odd vagaries and quirks of the radio broadcast medium of expression.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Ghosts of October (3): The Hour After Westerly

Author Robert M. Coates.

Each week this month, leading up to Halloween, Devin McKinney is highlighting one of his favorite ghost stories, in fiction or film. See Parts 1 and 2 here and here.

To read, see, or otherwise experience a great ghost story is to feel the slow descent of a benign curse. But we who are addicted to the art of the ghostly know, for we are always being reminded, that most ghost stories fail. They simply don’t scare. Worse, they don’t haunt. They give us plenty of whimsy and cliché. What they don’t give us is the vibration of imaginative contact with the otherworldly. We search for works of poetic imagination which skillfully convey the feel of quiet and disquiet, of distant forms and impalpable presences, and which will leave something inside of us: their ghosts, in a word. And seldom, so seldom, do we find it.

But eventually we may discover that our operative addiction is being fed sub rosa by works which, though they have little or no supernatural element, are nonetheless haunted. It’s inspiriting (no pun intended) to find that, if our antennae are so attuned, “ghostly” needn’t be a matter of content. It can also be one of style, approach, apperception; or it may be embedded thematically, in narratives of characters who realize they are becoming, or have become, ghosts of a kind. While some variant on “the fantastic” – the term used by structuralist critic Tzvetan Todorov in his 1970 study of that title – might do for taxonomic purposes, I’ve always preferred to call this undeclared subgenre simply “the ghost story without ghosts.”

Monday, October 22, 2018

Trying to Make the Old New Again in Oklahoma! and A Star Is Born

Jordan Barbour and Jonathan Luke Stevens in Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival  (Photo: Jenny Graham)

Every few years or so someone mounts a major revival of Oklahoma! (1943) or Carousel (1945) on Broadway or in the West End – or in the West End and then on Broadway – and critics fall over themselves proclaiming that this rendition of a Rodgers and Hammerstein blockbuster is fresh and relevant and reaffirms their rock-bound standing in the musical-theatre canon. But no production in my experience has managed to transcend the tinny, pedantic banalities of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics or the embarrassing pseudo-populist vernacular, which makes the fake poetry in The Grapes of Wrath sound like Walt Whitman by comparison. God knows I should have known better, but I checked in on the latest Broadway Carousel, directed by Jack O’Brien. But though the choreographer, Joshua Peck, came up with one thrilling number (“Blow High, Blow Low,” showcasing the dazzling high stepping of Amar Ramasar as Jigger Craigin), the dialogue, with its hopeless attempt at mimicking the sound of turn-of-the-century Mainers, sank the performances of the talented cast, Jessie Mueller, Joshua Henry, Lindsay Mendez and Renee Fleming among them. (Plus there was no fucking carousel.)

There are two new versions of Oklahoma! these days, one on each coast. I skipped Daniel Fish’s at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn (which prompted The New York Times’s Ben Brantley and Jesse Green, in “conversation” on the front page of the arts section, to outdo each other with kudos) but sat through Bill Rauch’s, which is selling out the big house at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where Rauch is artistic director. Rauch and Fish seem to be in competition for the most up-to-date twenty-first-century revival of a classic musical. At St. Ann’s Ado Annie is in a wheelchair, but Rauch has cast a man, Jonathan Luke Stevens, as Ado Andy, and a woman, Tatiana Wechsler, as Curly. Two same-sex couples versus one disabled actor: Rauch wins the virtue sweepstakes hands down.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Spear That Smote You: Phoenix (2014)

Nina Hoss in Phoenix (2014).

The danger with allegories, especially historical allegories, is that they can subsume the story with which they’re spun. To defend against this, it’s not enough to offer some telling details, which ultimately only hints at an underlying specificity; such an allegory has to string together coherent narratives in two distinct registers at once in a high-strung balancing act. Phoenix (2014) manages this remarkable feat, and both narratives are outstanding to boot.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Ghosts of October (2): Vanished! A Video Séance

Victoria Seifert as Voirrey Irving in Vanished! A Video Séance (1999).

Each week this month, leading up to Halloween, Devin McKinney is highlighting one of his favorite ghost stories, in fiction or film. See Part 1 here
In 1931, a tiny, furry creature with humanoid hands, voice, and intelligence was said to have materialized at Doarlish Cashen, a remote farm near the village of Dalby on the Isle of Man, two hours’ boat ride from England’s west coast. The farm’s inhabitants, the Irving family, had begun to hear scuffling and chattering in their attic, followed by a high-pitched, gibbering voice. Quickly picking up English from its hosts, the voice’s owner gave its name as Gef, and claimed to be an 80-year-old marsh mongoose brought to England in the previous century. Initially reticent, Gef soon came into view and moved about the house freely. Despite its causing no end of poltergeist mischief (midnight cacophonies, food stolen, messes left), the Irvings became attached to the creature, and it to them. Word of the family’s fantastic guest reached the village, and then the mainland, where Gef became a sensation in the popular press and psychical societies. Many visitors came, some going away convinced of the unbelievable, others that a hoax was on; Harry Price, the preeminent ghost hunter of the day, investigated with admirable pomp, holding séances and writing a book. (As much showman as scientist, Price was cagily inconclusive in his findings.) But neither solid confirmation nor a definitive debunking was presented, and after a few years, the public fascination with the case faded. So, apparently, did Gef.

Vanished! A Video Séance (1999) begins on a whistling wind and an image, only briefly held, of Doarlish Cashen – a rough, charmless place, in open country. Then we watch the textured skin of a female neck work up and down in excruciatingly slow motion to the magnified sounds of swallowing, which evolve into a series of primordial growls and roars. This wordless prelude lasts perhaps a minute, though it seems longer, long enough for you to do two things – discern that these are the sounds of a spirit entering the body and voice-box of a human host; and reflect on the abstractness of what you are seeing and hearing. In successive shots, the Irvings – father James (Julian Curry), mother Margaret (Rosemary McHale), and teenage daughter Voirrey (Victoria Seifert) – explain that they have been called up to relate incidents in their lives from years ago. Unless you know something of the backstory, you will have no idea of who these people are, or why they’ve been summoned. But you will wait to find out, because the tone is so plain and grave, the actors so fixated. This will not be a conventional spook show.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Diversions: The Drowsy Chaperone and Sherlock’s Last Case

The cast of Goodspeed Opera House's production of The Drowsy Chaperone. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The Drowsy Chaperone is one of the high points in twenty-first-century American musical theatre. First produced on Broadway in 2006 in a rambunctious, irresistible production that is still the best thing director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw has ever done, it’s a parody of a 1920s musical comedy framed, ingeniously, by a commentary by a middle-aged musicals buff known as Man in Chair. The conceit is that this character, who finds most contemporary theatre unsatisfying – and the modern world exasperating – is sitting alone in his apartment, trying to coax himself out of the blues by listening to his favorite show recording, of a silly, lighthearted musical called The Drowsy Chaperone. Bob Martin, who wrote the book along with his fellow Canadian, Don McKellar, was the original Man in Chair; the ebullient, sometimes loony songs are by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, and the lyrics often make you laugh out loud – a genuine rarity.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Kevin Courrier (1954-2018)

Kevin Courrier, November 23, 1954-October 12, 2018. (Photo: John Marsonet)

It is with profound sadness that we announce the passing of Kevin Courrier on October 12 after a three-year battle with cancer. Kevin co-founded Critics At Large in January 2010 along with Shlomo Schwartzberg and the late David Churchill and served as editor-in-chief until his illness compelled him to retire early this year. He also contributed hundreds of pieces, mostly on movies and music. Even after he was no longer able to write for the website, he continued to be heard here – literally as well as figuratively – on podcasts that had originated as interviews with a wide range of artists on the CJRT-FM radio show On the Arts throughout the 1980s.

Kevin was a fine writer and a formidable critic. He had a grasp of the popular arts that was simultaneously dazzlingly broad and effortlessly deep. He was a compendium of information about music and movies and he had a precise memory that never faltered, even in his final months. He had a rare – one might say unparalleled – gift for making unexpected and resonant connections between disparate works and ideas, unshakeable common sense, and the ability to make the complex lucid, whether on larger canvases (his books on Randy Newman, The Beatles, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart) or smaller ones (his work on this website, the culmination of a career in journalism). These same qualities were apparent in the extraordinarily popular classes on film he gave to audiences of seniors in a variety of Toronto venues.

We offer below a small selection of reviews and articles that showcase his remarkable talent. We will miss his voice.

– The editorial team of Critics At Large

Out of This World: John Coltrane in Seattle (1965) September 24, 2015 

Lost Man – O.J.: Made in America June 23, 2016

You Probably Don't Even Hear It When It Happens: The Sopranos & The Death of the Gangster Hero August 26, 2016

A Change Is Gonna Come: The End of the Obama Era January 20, 2017

Bridge Over Troubled Water: The Fiftieth Anniversary of Bobby Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" July 11, 2017

Run Through the Jungle: Ken Burns & Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War October 1, 2017

Deplorable: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri January 9, 2018

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Behind the Mirror: The Cinematic Uncanny of Michael Curtiz

A scene from Michael Curtiz's final film The Comancheros (1961).

“Hide in the mirror. No one will look for you there.”  – Ljupka Cvetnova

“Movies are magic.”  – Van Dyke Parks

When I was coming of age in the mid-60s in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills, there wasn’t much to do apart from reading books and watching television. Well, there were some other activities, but they were illegal back then. And one of the accidental benefits of primitive television in the days, before the advent of cable, TCM and Netflix, was the ironic fact that old movie studios used to provide the bulk of late-night programming in the form of classic films from the golden age. Especially late-late-late night television, for the likes of me, for whom there was no better way to come down from the excitement of attending all-day outdoor rock festivals with ten stellar bands.

As a result I caught magical glimpses of some of the great cinematic gems and enjoyed many of my favourite flicks in a film festival occurring only in my own mind. It turned out that many of my favourites were produced and directed by the same quietly titanic but toweringly talented individual. Back then I was also able to actually rent 16-mm versions, along with the projector, from our local library (another thing of the past) and even to order the films themselves by mail order from outfits called Blackhawk and Castle Films. I used to screen these at home for friends, often with my own substituted soundtracks, in the case of some grand silent masterpieces.

Where to begin to unravel the wildly multi-phrenic universe of one of the most gifted and underrated geniuses in film history: Michael Curtiz? Perhaps by asking a basic question: what might all the following drastically divergent and highly stylized visual entertainments have in common? Just one single but remarkable thing, which was the result of the commercial ascendancy of Hollywood after both the end of the First and the Second World Wars, when a flood of talented newcomers washed up on its sunny shores from a conflict-ravaged Europe.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Modernists: Naked and Uncle Vanya

Tara Franklin and James Barry in the Berkshire Theatre Group production of Naked. (Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware)

Among the virtues of the Berkshire Theatre Group is its dedication to reviving forgotten plays, both American and European. The BTG summer season included The Petrified Forest, and currently you can see an excellent mounting of Luigi Pirandello’s Naked. Italy’s famous modernist playwright, who invented a new style of theatre, theatre of identity (usually known simply as Pirandellian theatre), with Six Characters in Search of an Author in 1921, wrote Naked the following year. It was a remarkably prolific time for Pirandello, who turned out fourteen plays and a novel between 1921 and 1929; Naked was one of three plays he wrote in 1922 alone, including his second masterpiece, Henry IV. But I’d never read or seen it before. It’s rarely performed, and though I have six or eight Pirandello plays on my shelves, Naked isn’t among them. BTG is using the Nicholas Wright translation, which was produced at the Almeida in London nearly twenty years ago 2000 with Juliette Binoche and then in New York with Mira Sorvino.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Writing as a Sensual Act: In Conversation with Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is Advice for Future Corpses. (Photo: Robbie McClaran)

Sallie Tisdale, a literary libertine, is laid out on a divan in a downtown Toronto bar called Harmony Lounge, gorging on cakes and finger sandwiches. It's not that she's ravenous – she just had lunch – it's just that she is loath to deny herself pleasure, any pleasure – food, liquids, sex. Especially sex.

The author of Talk Dirty To Me, a book celebrating orgasms, pornography, fantasies, prostitution and other things that make the libido go bump in the night, became a cause célèbre immediately upon its publication in 1994. She has since authored nine non-fiction books, as well as dozens of articles for The New Yorker, The New Republic and Harper's magazines. Her latest title is Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying, published by Touchstone Books in June.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Neglected Gem: Breach (2007)

Ryan Phillippe and Chris Cooper in Breach (2007).

Like his previous film, the 2003 Shattered Glass, writer-director Billy Ray’s Breach is a true-life narrative that builds to the uncovering of a fraud. In Shattered Glass the fraud was Stephen Glass (played by Hayden Christensen), the wunderkind journalist for The New Republic, who, it turned out, had concocted most of his stories. In Breach it’s Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), a CIA operative whose 2001 arrest revealed him as the most egregious spy in American history. Both of these movies are extremely suspenseful, but not in conventional ways, because there’s no surprise about the identity of either of the two perpetrators. Once a Forbes writer (Steve Zahn) starts to unravel one of Glass’s articles, we know where the film is going, and the only revelation in Breach – which comes in the early middle of the movie – is that the reason the CIA sets the aspiring young agent, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Philippe), in Hanssen’s office and on his tail isn’t, as Eric is originally told, that his new boss is a pornographer but that he’s a traitor. What appears to draw Ray to both his subjects is astonishment that they could have been who they were and gotten away with what they did for so long. What creates the suspense in both pictures is the way they move from incredulousness to certainty: both ours and that of the other major male characters – Eric in Breach, Steve Glass’s editor Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) in Shattered Glass – who have the charge of bringing them down.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Ghosts of October (1): The Green Man

Albert Finney, Sarah Berger and Linda Marlowe in the BBC's The Green Man (1990).

Each week this month, leading up to Halloween, Devin McKinney will highlight one of his favorite ghost stories, in fiction or film.

Even those of us who seek to avoid the intentional fallacy may be susceptible to the true (or “true”) stories that surround cherished works. The best of them add a dash of predestination, and suggest creativity mystically mingling with other invisible elements of our world. Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man (1969), one of my favorite novels of the supernatural, engendered one of the best such true-slash-“true” stories I know of. Trailing the novel are one short memoir, two television adaptations, and at least enough frisson to warm a pot of tea – making the novel not merely a discrete artwork, but also the main hall in an eccentric house of adaptation and spinoff. (As it happens, the novel is named for a house – the country inn, tended by a sex-obsessed alcoholic and haunted by a centuries-old curse, which is its main setting.)