Saturday, February 3, 2018

Down That Lonesome Road: Sophie Huber's Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012)

Actor Harry Dean Stanton.

Back in 1984, I was scheduled to do a taped radio interview with actor Harry Dean Stanton from his hotel room during the Toronto International Film Festival. Having been a character actor with memorable supporting parts in numerous films from Cool Hand Luke to The Rose, Stanton had just landed his first real starring role in Wim Wenders' laconic drama, Paris, Texas, where he played a lost soul estranged from his family who wanders out of the desert one day to reunite with them years after disappearing. The studio, 20th Century Fox, was eager under the circumstances to get Stanton plenty of publicity despite the fact that the actor wasn't the least bit comfortable being thrust into the spotlight. Despite his reluctance to be showered with attention, however, he could be thorny. I didn't help my cause that day by accidentally missing the initial press screening and having to attend the Festival one (which was taking place just before I was to go meet Stanton). Paris, Texas turned out to be over 2-1/2 hours long which meant I had to leave the film a half-hour early to make the interview in time. While I wasn't comfortable having to depart the picture early, I still felt confident enough to do the interview after what I had seen. But maybe what I shouldn't have done was tell Stanton that I had had to leave before the film ended because from the time we started rolling tape, he rolled back into a cocoon. Looking at me with complete indifference, he let me ask about fifty questions in ten minutes – questions went beyond Paris, Texas back through his earlier film career and even into his life in music – to which he provided cryptic one-word cryptic answers. Finally exasperated, I turned off the tape recorder and Harry Dean looked at me with the satisfied grin of someone who had just won a round of arm wrestling. As I looked up to say, "Well, that's it," he answered back quickly, "It sure is." He grabbed his jacket and departed the hotel room with such speed that it was if he wanted to leave no trace of ever having being there. For years, I was baffled that we hadn't managed to get past our great divide, but having recently caught up to Sophie Huber's lovely and satisfying documentary, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, I came to recognize something I probably missed that day. (David Kidney first touched on the film for Critics at Large a few years back when he reviewed the soundtrack.) For an actor whose career lit up the background shadows of movies, being visible and being recognized came with certain obligations by those who wished to engage him. As Stanton never said a word, or looked into a camera lens, without making that moment matter, you were expected not to take those moments lightly either.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Justice Served at the High Temple of Art: The Connoisseurship of Paul Magriel

Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer from the Greek Hellenistic Period (3rd to 2nd Century B.C.) from the Met that enthralled Paul Magriel.

Of the millions who flock yearly to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, only a handful know what to look for, and how. It always drove Paul Magriel crazy. "The random business of people walking in, taking in 25 paintings, one after the other, it's just mind-boggling," the self-taught art connoisseur once fumed. "You have to separate your time, your consciousness and your visual sensibility and be so specific about what you're doing and how you're doing it that you get some benefits, otherwise it's such a waste. It's not only a waste – it's an abuse of the artist. You're not giving him justice."

To make sure justice is duly served at the high temple of art that is the Met, in 1982 Magriel began leading unofficial tours of its varied and rich collections. A regular visitor of the museum for more than five decades, he had been dismayed to see so many people shuffling through the Met as if it were a cultural shopping mall, plugged into their Acoustiguides, staring in a daze at dozens of pictures at a time, buzzing around the big exhibits heavily publicized by the museum, and ultimately ignoring the store of treasures in the Met's incomparable holdings of roughly three million objects. He started by taking friends, one or two at a time, on tours that concentrated on his own favorite objects, a range far-reaching in style, theme and material, but all chosen for having given him immense pleasure. After developing four 90 tours of about 25 objects each, word quickly spread.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Frederik Pohl (1987)

Frederik Pohl (1919-2013).

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 renowned science-fiction writer and editor, Frederik Pohl.

Last Monday, we lost another science-fiction and fantasy icon, author Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969; The Dispossessed, 1974), who passed away at the age of 88. I was never privileged to speak with Le Guin, but her passing called up a conversation I had with one of her contemporaries, fellow science-fiction writer Frederik Pohl. Over the course of his 75-year writing career, Pohl authored and co-authored (collaborating with such writers as Isaac Asimov, C. M. Kornbluth, and Arthur C. Clarke) more than 65 novels and dozens of short story collections. In 1987, Pohl had just published his novel Chernobyl, a book conceived and written only months after the terrible disaster at its nuclear plant. Pohl passed away in 2013 at the age of 93.

– Kevin Courrier.

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

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.