Monday, January 14, 2019

Four Period Pieces

 Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots. (Photo: Liam Daniel)

This piece contains reviews for Mary Queen of Scots,The Favourite, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and At Eternity’s Gate

The promise of a movie about the struggle between Queen Elizabeth I and her Scottish cousin, Mary Stuart, who claimed her right to inherit the throne of England and wound up with her head on an executioner’s block, is the chance to see a dramatic clash between two charismatic actresses. But so far it hasn’t worked out very well for the Elizabeths. In the 1971 Mary, Queen of Scots Vanessa Redgrave’s lyrical performance as Mary made a far stronger impression than Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth (a role that she played later – and famously – on television), and in the new version, Mary Queen of Scots without the comma, Saiorse Ronan’s Mary is pretty much the whole show. That’s not the fault of Margot Robbie, who plays Elizabeth, but of Beau Willimon, who wrote the screenplay (based on John Guy’s book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart), and the director, Josie Rourke. They’ve chosen a dopey faux-feminist take on the historical narrative in which it’s the manipulative men in the two queens’ lives who keep messing everything up. (As if you had to transform the conflict between two female monarchs into a feminist story!) That point of view makes some sense for Mary, who is, at various times, at the mercy of the whims and power grabs of her half-brother James (James McArdle), her protector, Bothwell (Martin Compston), her homosexual husband, Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden), his father, the Earl of Lennox (Brendan Coyle), and the Protestant reformer-minister John Knox (David Tennant), who uses every opportunity to proselytize against the Catholic Mary. (He manages to rev up the Scottish populace against her “whorish” ways, though she scarcely gets to sleep with anyone.) But the notion that Elizabeth, the most powerful woman in the history of England – perhaps the most powerful monarch after Cleopatra – has to buckle to a bunch of men who are in every way her inferior is dumbfounding. This unfortunate reading of the part diminishes Robbie, who is a fine actress (especially, I think, in The Legend of Tarzan and Z for Zachariah). When these two monarchs finally meet, clandestinely, spark should fly. Instead Rourke stages their tête-à-tête so that they’re not even facing each other until halfway through the scene.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Behind Closed Doors: The Limits To Freedom of Expression

Thomas Couture’s 1873 contemplation The Thorny Path, aka the courtesans’s carriers.

A review of the new book The Thorny Path: Pornography in Twentieth Century Britain by Jamie Stoops, from McGill-Queens University Press.

“The thorny path bears some of the sweetest flowers in life, and when with naked feet we walk upon a flinty soil, we often find diamonds.” – Elizabeth Prentiss, 1843.

“The pornographer’s path is thorny and there may yet be some unforeseen hitch, but you will see we have not been idle.” – Special Operations, British Intelligence, 1943.
Tastes in good taste and bad come and go like shifting weather patterns. Except that it is psychological weather, maybe even metaphysical meteorology. Cole Porter hit the proverbial nail on the social head in his satirical song, “Anything Goes," in 1934. “Times have changed. ... / In olden days, a glimpse of stocking / was looked on as something shocking. / But now, God knows, / anything goes. / Good authors too who once knew better words. / Now only use four-letter words / Writing prose. / Anything goes. ... / If bare limbs you like, / if Mae West you like, / or me undressed you like / why, nobody will oppose. / Anything goes.”

The mention of authors was pertinent indeed, since this was only six years after D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover went on trial for obscenity, and only twelve years after James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses suffered a similar fate in 1922.  History has since redeemed both works of course, and we are still left to wonder how works of art of such subtle insight into the human condition could ever have been considered pornographic in the first place. Nobody knows.

The fascinating new book from McGill-Queens University Press, The Thorny Path by Jamie Stoops, is one that can legitimately be called a seriously scholarly study of smut. A high-minded book, true, yet also an utterly accessible tome about a supposedly low-minded subject, by a serious academic who has made a career out of wondering where the acceptable edges of social behaviour might be located, it reminds us all that “obscenity” is not only in the eye of the beholder but also mostly in the mind of the thinker.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

CAL's Ninth Anniverary and Interview with Robertson Davies (1985)

Kevin Courrier's interview with Robertson Davies was conducted in 1985.

This week marks the ninth anniversary of Critics At Large. On January 7, 2010, Kevin Courrier, with Shlomo Schwartzberg and the late David Churchill, launched this site as a daily online arts journal that would provide veteran and new critics an independent space to publish outside the constraints of conventional media. That we are still going strong after nine years is a testament to Kevin's vision and personality. Since we lost Kevin in October, this anniversary is a bittersweet time for all of us here at Critics At Large. Throughout his three-year struggle with cancer, Kevin continued to lead us with passion and purpose, regularly contributing as a critic and equally powerfully as our first and always best reader. Kevin was a colleague and a mentor and a friend to each of us. I will remember him always as the man who found no greater pleasure than in guiding others to find their own unique voices, as he did himself in his decades-long career.

With every new year, as our editor-in-chief Kevin had a tradition of re-reading our previous year's pieces and selecting among them the ones that resonated most powerfully with him. With his untimely passing still so present for all of us, we felt that there was no better way to close the previous year and begin this new one with the sound of his voice.

During the '80s, Kevin was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts at CJRT-FM in Toronto, and throughout that decade conducted countless interviews with artists of all fields. Over the years, we have published numerous interviews here on Critics At Large. Today, I have chosen the one with author Robertson Davies (conducted in 1985, around the time of the publication Davies's novel What's Bred in the Bone, previously appearing here only in transcribed excerpts) because the short conversation powerfully demonstrates the depth and intimacy Kevin created in every conversation he had, on radio and off.

Kevin lived better – more fully, more intentionally – than anyone I have ever met and his work and life will never cease to be an inspiration for me – as a critic, as a lover of the arts, and as a human being. I can't think of no better way to begin a new year and our tenth year of publication than to spend a few minutes with Kevin, one more time.

Mark Clamen
Critics At Large

Here is Kevin Courrier's interview with Robertson Davies as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1985.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Blaze: Inspiration

Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat in Blaze.

Blaze, Ethan Hawke’s biography of the Austin-based country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley (born Michael David Fuller), who died in 1989 at the age of thirty-nine, leaves you in a haze. When I shut it off, close to midnight, I found myself shuffling aimlessly around my apartment, not knowing what the hell to do with myself; I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t read, and God knows I couldn’t think of watching anything else. I finally called the one friend I knew had seen it and was as gobsmacked by it as I was, because only talking about it could settle me down. How did Hawke become a director of this caliber? (His documentary Seymour: An Introduction, which came out in 2014, was quirky and interesting, but it didn’t provide any clues that he was heading in this direction.) Blaze has a dreamy, contemplative quality layered onto the mood of an all-night rock ‘n’ roll binge, and it’s as fresh and experimental as the early French New Wave pictures – but instead of blending movies and literature, it’s a heady mix of movies and music, and it’s quintessentially American, with a rough-hewn, bardic Beat poeticism. Hawke starts with his hero (Ben Dickey), gets on his wavelength, and moves in closer and closer. He approaches his subject from several angles – mostly in scenes focused on his relationship with Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), in musical performances (generally in sparsely attended low-rent joints), and in the stories his musician friends Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton) tell about him in a long, rambling interview with a radio D.J. (played, appropriately enough, by Hawke himself). Not a single scene is worked through conventionally in either the writing – Hawke and Rosen wrote the screenplay, based on her memoir Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley – or the direction. The rhythms are unfamiliar and take some getting used to, and the film goes on too long, as if Hawke just didn’t want to let go of his subject. I didn’t blame him. By the end I felt I knew Foley inside and out, and I was so mesmerized by him, and by the peculiar melancholy of the picture, that I too wanted to hang on just a little bit longer.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Elaborate Simplicity: Yotam Ottolenghi's Simple

Chef Yotam Ottolenghi is the author of Simple. (Photo: Chris Floyd)

If you're familiar with Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbooks and you make a few of the recipes in Simple, you might find yourself tempted to suggest modifications to his title. Simple for Ottolenghi might be more apt, or perhaps Simpler than NOPI. (Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully's 2015 NOPI: The Cookbook offered such notoriously elaborate recipes that even some admiring reviewers admitted that they would probably only use it for special occasions.) Coming only two years after Diana Henry's collection of the same name, it's particularly difficult to deny that Ottolenghi's notion of simplicity is . . . involved.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

2018 in Games: Detectives, Dads, & Dang Ol' Cowpokes

There’s no way you could contain 2018 in a list, no matter how long. The year was too chaotic, and too much incredible art rose up to counter the encroaching dark. I’m pretty much done with numbered lists in general – so no "Top Ten" this year. Instead, I thought it would be useful to find new angles to help contextualize and categorize the video games that kept me enthralled. Enjoy, and here's to a 2019 filled with even more game-making and game-playing.