Saturday, May 5, 2018

Neglected Gem: Visions of Light (1992)

Greta Garbo, left, on the set of Romance (1930), as photographed by William Daniels, right. (Photo: Getty)

When Gordon Willis, dubbed by fellow cinematographer Conrad Hall “the prince of darkness,” shot The Godfather, he deliberately underlit Brando’s face to preserve Don Corleone’s mystery – so we couldn’t read his soul through his expressive eyes. Vilmos Zsigmond obtained the muted, textured look of McCabe & Mrs. Miller by flashing, i.e., overlaying fog on the film stock. Roman Polanski, working on his first American movie, Rosemary’s Baby, got William Fraker to shoot Ruth Gordon on a bedroom phone so a doorway cut off part of her profile, and Fraker reports that the audience tipped their heads collectively to try to see around that doorway.

These anecdotes are part of the fun of seeing Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography, a documentary by Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy and Stuart Samuels that operates like an enthralling ninety-minute course in the history and techniques of photographing movies. McCarthy, who compiled the script, interviews some two dozen cinematographers, including many of the major American and émigré European ones who were still around in the early nineties (the movie’s focus is almost exclusively on Hollywood), whose impressions of the work of their precursors shape the film’s historical perspective and whose reminiscences bring it into the modern era. This personal-history approach, and the precision and articulateness of the commentary by, among others, Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood, The Day of the Locust), Allen Daviau (E.T.), Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor) gives Visions of Light a dynamism and integrity that compilation documentaries – movies about movies – almost never have. The talk doesn’t feel like filler between the fabulous clips; the clips are actually in the service of the arguments the photographers want to make.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Podcast: Interview with R. Lee Ermey (1987)

R. Lee Ermey in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). Ermey passed away on April 15 at the age of 74.

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 Full Metal Jacket actor R. Lee Ermey.

A former United States Marine Corps staff sergeant, drill instructor, and honorary gunnery sergeant, Ermey spent 14 months on the ground in Vietnam before being medically discharged in 1972 due to injuries sustained in the field. He parlayed this first-hand military experience into a career as an actor and technical advisor, spanning over thirty years of iconic film and television roles. He is still remembered best for his performance as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. Ermey passed away on April 15, 2018, at the age of 74.

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with R. Lee Ermey as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1987.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Grand Experiment – Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War

Josh Brolin as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War.

Note: This review contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War.

In the production logos that precede Disney and Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War, the “io” in “Marvel Studios” slowly morphs into the number 10, signifying the real-life decade that has passed since Iron Man was released in 2008, when this whole “cinematic universe” experiment began in earnest. It is not overstating things to say that this process, whether or not you’ve enjoyed following its peaks and valleys, is unprecedented in cinematic history, and that fact in itself anchors Infinity War in a sense of tangible accomplishment. Much ballyhoo has been made about the fact that the film doesn’t make a lick of sense if you haven’t seen the Marvel movies leading up to this (and if you haven’t, then what exactly is driving you to buy a ticket for this one?), but that attitude belies the mind-boggling time and effort that has gone into setting up these dominoes, so that this film can concern itself primarily with knocking them down. Experiencing the setup is worth it, because Infinity War is nearly three hours of pure payoff.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Context Matters: David Byrne's American Utopia

David Byrne, photographed by Ian Gavan, prior to the announcement of American Utopia.

To fully appreciate the music of David Byrne one has to consider all the elements he delivers that are adjacent to his music. Byrne’s holistic approach asks his audience to participate in his constituent parts, be they music, lyrics, liner notes, cover art, design or concerts (which usually include choreography). For his new American Utopia (Nonesuch), Byrne’s first album of solo compositions since 2008, he brings all of these aforementioned elements to bear akin to Frank Zappa’s MOFO Project/Object. In other words, Byrne provides his own context to each element while elaborating on the larger concept or point that he’s trying to make. It was the case for his last record, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Todo Mundo) and it’s definitely the case for American Utopia. Taken separately, Byrne’s thesis adds up to some very thoughtful art.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Imagining the Unimaginable: Crystal Pite's Betroffenheit

The cast of Betroffenheit. (Photo: Wendy D. Photography)

In Betroffenheit, the award-winning dance/theatre piece choreographed by Vancouver’s Crystal Pite, co-creator and writer Jonathon Young, who plays a central role, reappears in a long brown hair wig and a shiny blue suit in a scene replicating the lurid non-reality of a chemical high. He is the star of an interim lounge lizard act, surrounded by preening fan dancers fronting an aggressive ballroom duo, and partnered by his doppelgänger, the spindly and rubbery Jeremy Spivey. Wearing a painted-on smile, he is black where Young is white. But this isn’t an instance of colourblind casting.

As seen in the Canadian Stage presentation of Betroffenheit that took place at Toronto’s Bluma Appel Theatre on April 22 as part of the 2016 work’s ongoing world tour, Spivey, a member of Pite’s Kidd Pivot contemporary dance company, is Young’s shadow, literally his darker self, and the keeper of his tortured secrets. He echoes Young’s repetitive yelps of pain, and mirrors his contorted body language as he boomerangs across the stage clutching a microphone into which he spews one-liners wrapped in canned laughter – even though what Young is saying isn’t really funny. His antics might look comical, but they are rooted in tragedy.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Top Girls: Thatcher-Era Feminism

Sophia Ramos, Carmen Herlihy, Paula Plum, Carmen Zilles, and Vanessa Kai in Top Girls. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Thirty-six years after the original production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at London’s Royal Court, the play – a revival of which concludes the Huntington Theatre’s mainstage season – feels inescapably like a remnant from the Thatcher years. That’s particularly true of the second act, which culminates in a long quarrel between two sisters, Marlene (Carmen Zilles), a high-powered single woman who works in a London employment agency, and Joyce (Sophia Ramos), a divorcée who stayed behind in the dilapidated working-class exurb Marlene couldn’t wait to escape from. Marlene’s conservative politics are meant to suggest her emotional and moral limitations; this is, after all, a Caryl Churchill play. The playwright tips her hand when it becomes clear that Joyce has raised Marlene’s illegitimate child, Angie (Carmen M. Herlihy), now a developmentally-delayed sixteen-year-old who adores the aunt she seldom gets to see. (You’d think that Churchill might have come up with a more persuavive device than a revelation that seems to have come out of a Victorian melodrama.)

Sunday, April 29, 2018

In the Panel Colony: An Oral History of Fantagraphics Books

Cover art for We Told You So: An Oral History of Fantagraphics Books, by Daniel Clowe.

Fantagraphics, the most important American publisher specializing in comics for the past forty years, was founded in 1976 by Gary Groth, a 22-year-old fanzine publisher and convention organizer, and his business partner, Mark Catron. They were joined a year later by Kim Thompson, a comics enthusiast with a special interest in bringing the work of European creators to the attention of readers in the U.S. Thompson immediately demonstrated his devotion to this mission by reaching into his own pocket to save the company from bankruptcy before hardly anyone had ever heard of it. Soon, enough people had at least heard of it to get mad at it. For the first few years of its existence Fantagraphics didn’t publish its own comics; it didn't start until 1979, by which time Groth, Thompson, and company had cleared a beach head for themselves with The Comics Journal, which published industry news, reviews and critical essays, and long, often very long, interviews with star creators. It saw itself as the only serious magazine dealing with the art of comics, and it probably was the first such publication that has no interest in providing what’s now called fan service. The underground wave of the ‘60s had rolled back, ambitious attempts to restart a movement (Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith’s anthology series Arcade, Mike Friedrich’s “ground level” Star*Reach) had died or were circling the drain, and RAW and the rise of the direct market were not yet on the horizon. Arriving when the comics scene was at a low point, TCJ called out the big companies and the easily satisfied fans who it saw as conspiring to keep American comics in a glossy, four-color rut. The Journal’s tone was often combative, and it was downright apocalyptic in its exchanges with those rival publications, such as Don and Maggie Thompsons’ Comics Buyers’ Guide, that it saw as serving the status quo.