Saturday, June 16, 2018

Synchronicity: The Haunting of Renata

Maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m the one who is haunted and not her, or not the photographs of this compelling, spooky, charming and frightening photographer. Maybe I like being spooked. I admit it. I search for it, I have an appetite for the melancholy readiness to witness the poetry of everyday life posing right in front of us so brazenly that it’s all but a mirage, ghostly and seemingly invisible to the average happy eye. Most of these arresting images are from 2016.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Neglected Gem: Twilight (1998)

Paul Newman and Susan Sarandon in Twilight (1998).

The writer-director Robert Benton adapted Richard Russo’s novel Nobody’s Fool to the screen in 1994, and the movie’s depiction of small-town lives interlocked in a hop-along Rube Goldberg fashion has a lot of charm. The dawdling humor and the performances of the three leading actors, Paul Newman, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith, almost make up for the way the story is shaped as the salvation of Newman’s character, an irascible old bastard who has to learn the value of his family and of friendship, to face old demons, to patch up his son’s ailing marriage, and to teach his grandson not to be afraid. That’s a hefty load of personal growth for 112 minutes. I prefer Twilight, which Benton made four years later from an original screenplay that he and Russo co-wrote, an autumnal detective noir in which the major characters are all aging Angelenos. Newman is Harry Ross, an ex-drunk ex-cop turned P.I. who’s been living rent-free in the home of the last client who employed him, Jack Ames (Gene Hackman), and his actress wife Catherine (Susan Sarandon). Officially Jack is Ross’s employer, but it’s really a sinecure. Ames’s daughter Mel (Reese Witherspoon) wounded Harry when he tried to get her back – for Ames – after she’d run away with her gold-digger boyfriend, so keeping Harry on the payroll is Jack’s way of compensating him. Mostly he retains Harry as a poker buddy. But he does send him on the occasional errand, and one of these has the feel of a blackmail pay-off – especially when it turns up the corpse of another retired cop (M. Emmet Walsh, who gets a good moment or two of screen time before the picture kills him off).

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Medium of the Message: Form and Function in Documentary Film

A scene from Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson (2016).

Documentaries are often – aesthetically speaking – very, very boring. Man on Wire (2008), which holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, put me to sleep at the theater (though a lack of sleep the night before surely didn’t help). The problem is that, just as a majority of fiction filmmakers think that plot is key and forget the rest, and just as a good number of filmmakers of a more literary bent make the same mistake with character (consider Blue Valentine, 2010), documentaries are often so focused on the truth of their subject matter, and how important it is for it to be spread far and wide, that they prioritize writing an exposé over making a film. Such motivations are noble and worthy, but they are political rather than aesthetic, and as such they can be equally well served using other media. In other words, this common kind of documentary doesn’t consider itself first and foremost a film. Not all documentaries are like this, of course. The Act of Becoming (2015), about John Williams's sleeper-hit novel Stoner, is a good case in point.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

How Green is my Cabaret: Ireland’s RIOT at Luminato

RIOT runs until June 16 in Toronto. (Photo: Fiona Morgan)

RIOT, the hit Irish variety show kicking up a storm at this year’s Luminato festival, is just that: a riotously varied free-for-all that’s funny, subversive and wildly entertaining. Created and directed by Jennifer Jennings and Philip McMahon, founders of the Irish theatre company, Thisispopbaby, the globe-trotting sensation debuted at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2016 and is now in Toronto for 18 shows, concluding June 16 at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre. You’ll likely have to riot to get tickets as strong word of mouth has made them extremely popular. The reason is simple.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Band of Brothers – Michael Barclay’s The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip

Gord Downie performing with The Tragically Hip in Vancouver in 2016. (Photo: Andrew Chin)

Michael Barclay’s biography of The Tragically Hip, published by ECW, is a comprehensive tome about one of Canada’s favourite rock groups and Gord Downie, the band’s popular front man and lyricist, whose final years battling cancer made front-page news. Barclay takes a holistic approach to the tale and invites his reader to think about his book with a smaller narrative arc. He states from the top that “half of this book is a chronological history . . . the other half extrapolates on various themes throughout the band’s 32-year career . . . All chapters are written in a way that they can be read in isolation . . . in whatever order you like.” I’m sure the author had good intentions in setting up his history in this fashion, but it’s bad advice. By creating a split focus, right down non-sequential chapters, he lessens the impact of the book overall.

Barclay’s opening salvo is a successful dissertation on “what makes a band, and especially The Hip, ‘Canadian’.” This particular notion of a so-called Canadian sound continues to be fodder for Canadian critics who need to discuss such things and Barclay is no exception. For him the band’s “Canadianness” is based not only on their subject matter, but on their lifestyle as well; the group relishes its privacy and is friendly to the point of doing the dishes at house parties. In a way, this reduces what being Canadian is to a stereotype and the members of the Hip are polite to a fault.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Effigies of Wickedness!, The Rink, Brief Encounter: Words and Music

Lucy McCormick, Le Gateau Chocolat, Peter Brathwaite, and Katie Bray in Effigies of Wickedness! (Photo: Helen Murray)

When the Nazis staged an exhibition of “degenerate music” in Düsseldorf in 1938, the accompanying manifesto characterized the targeted music – some the work of Jewish and black artists, much of it political and cynical and satirical, some of it experimental – as “effigies of wickedness.” The current co-production of the Gate Theatre and the English National Opera, a cabaret of German songs from 1920 through 1939 but mostly representing the Weimar era (which officially ended with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933), has taken that phrase as its title. This is social and political theatre – Brechtian theatre – at its most potent. In the Gate’s compact Notting Hill space above a pub, four dazzling singer-actors – Peter Brathwaite, Katie Bray, Lucy McCormick and the drag performer Le Gateau Chocolat – and three wonderful musicians (Geri Allen, Cassie Kinoshi and Fra Rustumji), under the direction of the Gate’s artistic director Ellen McDougall and the musical direction of Phil Cornwell, present fourteen songs, most of them translated into English by Seiriol Davies and David Tushingham. Many who love Bob Fosse’s Cabaret may understand that the Kit Kat Klub numbers are imitating a style of commentary art songs that was popular in the late twenties and early thirties, but we know almost nothing from the repertoire of Berlin’s kabarett theatre: the score of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (1928), perhaps a smattering of songs from their Happy End and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1929 and 1930 respectively). The only tune I recognized in Effigies of Wickedness! was “Petroleum Song” (lyric by Felix Gasbarra), which Teresa Stratas recorded in her magnificent two-album set of Weill songs nearly thirty years ago. All the others were revelations to me, and every one is a gem. The production illuminates the work of forgotten composers like Misha Spoliansky, Hanns Eisler and Frederick Hollander, whose name may be familiar to Marlene Dietrich aficionados. (He wrote the music for The Blue Angel and, emigrating to Hollywood in the crush of German-Jewish artists fleeing Hitler in the early thirties, worked on several of her American movies as well as many others.)

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Gripping Courtroom Drama: Full Disclosure by Beverly McLachlin

Photo: Roy Grogan

Beverley McLachlin retired early this year after serving eighteen years as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the first woman to hold that lofty position. According to an excellent profile by Sean Fine, McLachlin "shape(d) fundamental rights as much as any judge in the country's history from the legalization of assisted dying to a huge expansion of Indigenous rights to a rebalancing of how police and the legal system treat people accused of crimes."

Inspired by the example of P. D. James, a mystery writer she admired who maintained a day job and wrote by night, McLachlin began in the early hours of the morning for about a year before her departure from the Supreme Court to write a novel that had been percolating within her for over thirty years. The result of that effort is Full Disclosure (Simon & Schuster, 2018) and I am pleased to report that her debut novel is an engaging, well-written, dialogue-driven courtroom drama that has a distinctive Canadian sensibility.