Saturday, March 24, 2018

Class Clown: NBC’s A.P. Bio

Glenn Howerton as high school teacher, Jack Griffin, in A.P. Bio.

There’s a forced wholesomeness to some network television that’s enough to make you want to puke. The commercially motivated impulse to create entertainment that appeals to some imaginary Middle-American audience easily suckered by anodyne content and blatant moralizing can often lead to a product that feels cynically calculated, rather than the genuine result of a sincere outlook.

That’s part of why I’ve found NBC’s A.P. Bio so refreshing, at least insofar as its early episodes have proven willing to buck that trend. Created by Saturday Night Live alum Mike O’Brien, the comedy follows Jack Griffin (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Glenn Howerton), a former Harvard philosophy professor who’s been forced to retreat in ignominy to Toledo, Ohio, where his old friend Ralph Durbin uses his role as principal at a local high school to get Jack a sinecure teaching Advanced Placement Biology. The concept is fairly straightforward but nevertheless promising: O’Brien is obviously reversing the well-worn trope of the enthusiastic teacher who takes a group of apathetic and often underprivileged kids and gets through to them, inspiring them to achieve their full potential. Instead, the kids are all nerdy, straight-arrow overachievers and the teacher’s an unrepentant asshole (there’s a running gag in which Jack will finish whatever he’s eating as he enters the classroom and then carelessly hurls the remnants in the general direction of the garbage can, which he misses every time).

Friday, March 23, 2018

Psychoanalyst as Sentimentalist: Julia Kristeva's The Samurai

Julia Kristeva in 2008.

Celebrated as the Simone de Beauvoir of our time, Julia Kristeva is a well-known psychoanalyst, literary critic and bi-continental professor whose first novel, The Samurai (Columbia University Press, 1992), a thinly disguised roman à clef, first appeared in Paris just over 25 years ago. Since then the semiotician of desire, as she has also been called, has published five more works of fiction. But this first foray, a not entirely satisfying effort which Barbara Bray translated into English, remains noteworthy for having recreated, in literary terms, the turbulent intellectual atmosphere of Paris in the mid-1960s, along with its pitfalls.

The period of the novel mirrors the time Kristeva, born 1941, first arrived in Paris from Bulgaria as a young research student. Not long after, she became an integral part of the vibrant scene of literary critics, semioticians and psychoanalysts then taking literary theory and criticism in a new, some might say convoluted, direction. Not surprisingly, her novel is steeped in post-modern murkiness. It is deliberately obfuscating and, at times, also obtuse. Kristeva wrote it as a philosophical meditation on the meaning of life, even though, at its heart, it is a love story whose autobiographical elements suggest but never quite deliver on a promise of subjective truth.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Endurance Test: Tomb Raider

Alicia Vikander in Tomb Raider.

The cross-pollination between video games and cinema is something I’ve spoken about here before. A generation of filmmakers raised on games has started to make those influences more immediately apparent in their work, which is to say nothing of the way cinema has informed the way modern games are designed and presented. This evolving media genealogy makes director Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider feel less like an anomaly and more like an inevitability.

As an almost direct adaptation of 2013’s game of the same name, which also sought to reboot the Lara Croft brand from scratch, Tomb Raider is a film infused with the language of video games, but unfortunately much is lost in translation; you could say the film’s dialect is clumsy and uneducated. It lifts action sequences wholesale from the game (featured heavily in the film’s marketing) which retain none of the tension imparted by actually controlling Lara; it borrows characters and storylines from the game but fails to mine them for the same entertainment value; and it discards some of the only narrative and tonal elements that made the game feel distinct from its source material (namely, the Indiana Jones franchise). The result is a film that will appeal neither to fans of the game, who have already paid for a richer version of the same experience, nor to general moviegoing audiences, who will be bored by the film’s cut-and-paste plot and generic action sequences.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Time for Another Round – The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History by David McPherson


As a life-long Torontonian and former clubgoer in my youth, I was enthused to learn that a book about one of my favourite venues, the Horseshoe Tavern, was finally being published. The Horseshoe is one of Toronto’s most important musical treasures, having graced the city’s culture since 1947. But while I share David McPherson’s excitement around the famous club and its revolutionary music programming, I cannot say the same about his book, The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History (Dundurn Press). His writing is inconsistent, graced with too many clichés, section breaks using (* * *), and wiseguy remarks that undermine his extensive research so much that his book has little impact.

McPherson’s conversational style is well-intended. He’s a fan and his respect for the place is sincere, but his niceness often undermines his storytelling. I’ve never understood why self-conscious writers feel they have to endear themselves to the reader in order to place their argument into context: “Come with me now dear reader, on this journey . . . ” Considering all the research and first-person interviews McPherson has done, it makes no sense for him to pare down the 80-year history of the Horseshoe into fewer than 200 pages. Why not savour the experience rather than race through it as quickly as possible? One should be proud of one’s efforts, not embarrassed by them; after all, until another book is written about the Horseshoe, this is the authoritative one.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Unrelated Weirdnesses: Ryan H. Walsh’s Astral Weeks

Van Morrison performing on Boston Common in 1968. (Photo: Dick Iacovello)

The title of Russell H. Greenen’s 1968 novel It Happened in Boston? would have done perfectly for Ryan H. Walsh’s nonfiction narrative Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 (Penguin; 357 pp.). Any reader who knows the Greenen book – a comic fantasia about art forgery and one man’s demand that God account for Himself – suspects that Walsh will engage with it sooner or later. He has to: his book is about cultural developments in and around Boston in the late 1960s, with ’68 as ground zero; the confluence of time, place, and weirdness is too good not to pursue. And indeed, Walsh not only talks about the novel; he interviews the nonagenarian Greenen about actual Boston locations used in it. But disappointingly, the meeting of visions catalyzes no real sparks. If something deeper than happenstance connects the respective matter of the two books, Walsh doesn’t dive for it, while the connection he does reveal is quirky but flat, more of a “huh” than a “wow.” The confluence here, we’re forced to realize, is merely one of time, place, and weirdness – and not all weirdnesses are related.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Skeleton Crew and The Threepenny Opera: The Working Class and the Underclass

Toccarra Cash and Jonathan Louis Dent in Skeleton Crew. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew is performing at Huntington Theatre’s second space in the Calderwood Pavilion, and indeed there are productions currently or scheduled all over the country, including elsewhere in New England. (Dorset Theatre in Vermont has announced it as part of its summer season.) It’s no surprise. Morisseau’s drama, about four Detroit auto factory workers in 2008 dealing with the imminent closing of their plant, is a finely crafted piece of work with distinct, complex characters and plausibly shifting relationships. And under Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s direction, the Huntington production is vivified by four splendid actors, staking out Wilson Chin’s subtle, grounded set: the plant’s locker room-cum-kitchen and break room, with an expressionistic backdrop of elevated car doors that swing into action during scene shifts. Adam Honoré’s lighting and the character touches in Ari Fulton’s costume design also merit commendation.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Philip Glass (1984)

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 celebrated American composer Philip Glass.

Widely recognized as one of my influential composers of the 20th century, over the course of his 50+ year career Glass has composed numerous operas, symphonies, and film scores – including Godfrey Reggio's experimental feature Koyaanisqatsi in 1982. (Three of his film scores have been nominated for Academy Awards: Kundun [1997], The Hours [2002] and Notes on a Scandal [2006].) Earlier this month, the 81-year-old Glass performed at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center, as part of its new Direct Current festival.

– Kevin Courrier.

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