Monday, October 25, 2021

Panem et Circenses: Town Bloody Hall

 Germaine Greer and Norman Mailer in Town Bloody Hall (1979).

Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s Town Bloody Hall (1979) is an unauthorized record of a public “Debate on Women’s Liberation” held in Manhattan in 1971. I say unauthorized because the venue prohibited filming, but the filmmakers came anyway at the behest of Norman Mailer, moderator and author of the anti-feminist essay “The Positive Sex,” which served as the excuse for the event. Four prominent feminists take the stage with him, and the audience is a Who’s Who of the New York literati. You can read here about the fascinating background of the event and the film’s production history.

Monday, October 18, 2021

The Criterion Release of Satyajit Ray’s Devi (1960)

Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore (foreground) in Devi (1960).

By the nineties, the films of the great Indian director Satyajit Ray were in a shocking state of disrepair. Merchant Ivory re-released eight of them to arthouses in 1995, but the company didn’t make any attempt to restore them to their former glory; it simply found the best prints available, and I guess that was better than nothing. But the wizardry performed by the Criterion Collection and L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna on The Apu Trilogy, which collaborated to reconstruct negatives burned in a fire at a London laboratory, resurrected three premier masterpieces of world cinema. (They were returned to theatres six years ago; a thrilling documentary on the Criterion Channel details the process by which they were rebuilt.) Now you can access seventeen Ray pictures on Criterion, including his documentary about the Indian author Rabindranath Tagore, and Three Daughters, the complete short-story film anthology previously unavailable in North America: when I was introduced to it in my twenties – in the years when I discovered Ray and fell deeply in love with his work, it was called Two Daughters. The Ray collection is a treasure trove. A realist-humanist on the order of Jean Renoir, who was his chief influence, Ray ought to be essential viewing for anyone who reveres the art of filmmaking.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The Cinematic Grammar of Prophecy – Dune: Part One

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune (2021).

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One, co-written with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, has many shortcomings. But it succeeds nevertheless because it gets the most important thing right: the mood. Namely, the mood of prophesied destiny. And it’s hard to imagine a more fitting adaptation.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Moral Poetry: Mr. Jones

James Norton in Mr. Jones (2019).

Since most new movies since the lockdown have shown up on the ever-expanding list of streaming platforms rather than as theatrical releases, it has been even more difficult for film buffs to locate good work that is off the beaten path. I’ve tried to cover some interesting new pictures over the last year and a half like The Traitor, Martin Eden, The Jesus Rolls and Miss Juneteenth, but I missed Agnieszka Holland’s Mr. Jones, which is truly remarkable. Its protagonist is the Welshman Gareth Jones (played by James Norton), who, having been let go from his position as foreign advisor (on Russia) to the Liberal Party leader and former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), pursued a career as a journalist, acquiring press credentials in Moscow and breaking the story of Stalin’s hushed-up man-made famine in the Ukraine. Among the plethora of newsworthy stories from this dense, dynamic era, the Holodomor (or Terror-Famine) in the Ukraine is still one of the least known. (A 2017 film, Bitter Harvest, by the German director George Mendeluk covers the event but is really a romantic melodrama with the famine as its setting.) And Jones’s dangerous pursuit of a most inconvenient truth while much of the liberal world was still in thrall to the great socialist experiment is a tale of heroism with which most people aren’t familiar. En route to the Ukraine, Jones slipped away from his Soviet caretaker to investigate on his own; the Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times, Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), had been covering up the true state of affairs in order to ingratiate himself with Stalin, and according to Andrea Chalupa’s screenplay the reporter who put Jones onto the story (Marcin Czarnik) was murdered. Jones, whose mother had worked as a tutor in the Ukraine before marrying his father, embedded himself among the desperate population and saw their suffering first-hand, but the imprisonment and threatened execution of six innocent English engineers was Stalin’s means of extorting his silence. Eventually – after the engineers were freed – he managed to publish the story, against tremendous opposition, in the Hearst papers, and died under mysterious circumstances while working on another story a couple of years later. (He’s thought to have been murdered by Russian spies as an act of retaliation.)

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

The Right Touch: Guillaume Côté’s Immersive Dance Thrills the Senses

Natasha Poon Woo and Larkin Miller in Touch. (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Physical contact – what we all once took for granted – has become a precious commodity in the pandemic. Social distancing, lockdowns and the wearing of masks have frustrated a basic need for human contact, compelling choreographer Guillaume Côté, a long-time National Ballet of Canada principal dancer, to delve deep into what it means to form a human bond. Touch, whose world premiere took place last week (and which will run until November 7) at what is left of the Toronto Star’s former printing press at One Yonge Street, explores the powerful dynamics arising from a close encounter between two people. But it’s much more than that. Billed as an immersive dance show, Touch harnesses laser mapping, light art technology and video integration to create an all-enveloping 3D-world where the quest for forging connections is not just a theme. It’s a stunning achievement.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Great Feats of Recitation: Cosmopolis (2012)

Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis (2012).

Fresh off filming the final Twilight film (2012), Robert Pattinson jumped straight into portraying yet another nearly affectless, pale leading man with stylish hair in Cosmopolis (2012), adapted by director David Cronenberg from the Don DeLillo novel. Rarely have I encountered a film with such single-minded focus: everything here, from production design to camera angles to score, is in service to the dialogue. As it should be.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Respect: Jennifer Hudson, in Fragments; with an Afterword about Dear Evan Hansen

Jennifer Hudson in Respect.

Jennifer Hudson is probably giving a truly great performance as Aretha Franklin in Respect, but the movie is so badly written and so wretchedly cut together that you get it only in bits and pieces. Hudson is ideally cast, and she has the character down: the alternating currents of sassiness and fierceness; the transported Baptist fervor and the clotheshorse flamboyance; the witty, plain-spoken common-sense core and the distant, untouchable edges; the ego and the warmth; the moments where her focus is almost frighteningly precise and intense, as if she were piercing down a steel door with a laser gaze. It’s all there, yet the movie almost never pauses long enough for a scene with any substance, so it’s as if were watching two and a half hours of trailers. The performance only settles in when Hudson sings – gloriously – and even then, maybe half the time, Liesl Tommy, a stage director who has done some TV but whose first feature this is, cuts away in the middle of her numbers. She has Jennifer Hudson singing Aretha Franklin’s ethereal songbook and she thinks there’s something else we’d rather watch?

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Saddest Singer on Earth: Amy Winehouse and The Blues

Introduction:  Welcome to My World

“When I’m singing, I’m happy. I’m doing what I can do, and this is my contribution to life . . .”
– Anita O’Day (an early incarnation of Amy)

Incredibly enough, Amy Winehouse passed away ten years ago this summer. But this is a story about her sad music and the sad music that inspired it, not a story about her problems or the flaws that caused them. Born September 14, 1983 and died July 23, 2011. That’s her biography, plain and simple. Her own autobiography, however, is mostly embedded in her two releases while still vibrantly alive and brazenly sashaying, her debutante surprise Frank in 2003 and her surprisingly mature masterpiece Back to Black in 2006, and that autobiography is considerably more complicated than her actual personal history. They are the light and the dark sides of both her real character and her chosen edgy persona, as well as of her deeply impressive musical artistry, the first one inspired by her love of Sinatra (or rather his ring a ding-ding Rat Pack spirit), the second one inspired by her love of oblivion (or rather by its lack of awareness).

Her story is also about sadness in general and how music can alleviate it in particular. The perplexing beauty of her genre-bending style is evidence that her Back to Black recording achievement absolutely transcended all the many styles and sensibilities it stirred together and became what I would call quintessential pop music, music for ears belonging to a drastically eclectic and diverse listening audience. She clearly invented a hybrid form of her own imagininge that heated up and melted down seamlessly the varied inspirations she inherited and encountered along her own hyper-accelerated passage to pop stardom. Pop music needs to be taken as seriously as it deserves to be as an important art, so defining what makes something great pop music is the logical place to begin.

Torchy Ella Fitgerald in 1947 when roughly the same age as her inheritor. (Photo: Wikicommons)

Was Amy Winehouse a pop genius? Probably, but not of the garden variety we’re more  familiar with such as Madonna or Lady Gaga, and more like the primitive kind modeled by the late John Lennon or Brian Jones. I’m not comparing their music; that would be folly. But I am comparing the rough, untutored, alien brilliance of how they did what they did without even their knowing how to do it. Such artists are driven to do it, despite their shyness, their neuroses, their complexes, their fears, their insecurities, driven to do it the way a wild animal tries to escape from a celebrity trap that it stepped into of its own volition. Amy was the same kind of pop genius as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitgerald, Julie Wilson, Peggy Lee or Anita O’Day, and while it’s true that those names are most often associated with the jazz idiom, they were all superb blues artists who became well known enough to cross over into pop. And Winehouse was perhaps one of the most surprisingly gifted blues musicians to come along in ages. Though she definitely shared a bluesy swing vibe with both Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan, as well as a raunchy in your face self-exposure similar to Janis Joplin and Laura Nyro, she seemed to occupy an outlier status separate from all of them.

She was also a naturally raw and consummate burlesque performer by instinct and intuition if not by temperament, and one who would deftly use the art form of the music video as an amazingly fertile device to seduce and satisfy the audience that loved to watch her suffer through her own version of the Fado torch song. We all simply adored watching her sultry strut, strutting as only she could strut, whether on stage in performance or on video, in recordings or even sauntering down the street trying to escape her shadow. It wasn’t a wild strut like that used by Tina Turner when she asked what love had to do with it, or of Aretha demanding “Respect”; it was more the strut of an exotic bird somehow confusing confidence and fear at the same time and short-circuiting our expectations through a combination of subtle raunch and permanently delayed gratification: the ultimate pop weapon. It was a weapon which would be loaded with heartbreaking and beautiful ammunition and aimed at the musical world in an audaciously brave yet tenderly vulnerable way in Back to Black, a weapon the listening audience wanted to see her shoot, again and again and again, until she finally ran out of ammunition.

Anita O’Day, 1958, A classic torch-song queen who also struggled with substances. (Photo: Shorpy)

By definition, then, pop music is probably something without a precise definition, since we never quite know just who or what is going to strike a huge public chord, but we can certainly identify a range of ingredients that inform its style: the singer-songwriters who most inspired Back to Black may have had different syles of delivery but they all shared a single obsession with being real, and being honest. Eschewing artifice, and often even poetry, in favor of raw truth on its own terms, they often created a whole new kind of poetry. And Winehouse studied them often and well, and though she may have been a disruptive student in class she did her homework,  preparing for the masterpiece she left behind for us shimmering in history.

If the pop song has evolved into the personal and public soundtrack for the last century, as it so clearly seems to have done, what does that tell us about the emotional movie we all live in? In her brief career we were given the gift of her remarkable music in a hyper-personal and confessional way seldom seen or heard before. Joni Mitchell’s brilliant album Blue or Marianne Faithfull’s searing Broken English come to mind, although both of them were skillful survivors. Amy’s was a painful gift, one that – luckily for the rest of us, sitting comfortably at home far away from her talented but troubled fray – just keeps on giving us listening rewards a swift decade and a half later. Winehouse was a Dusty Springfield drenched in darkness, she was Petula Clark from hell, who, instead of taking us all chirpily downtown, took us all down there, lá-bas, where she seemed to spend so much of her short, sad life.

But it’s always important to dismantle a mythology to see what lies at the bottom of it, assuming the figure being mythologized stands at the top. One of the best ways to do this is to try and focus as much as possible on the artworks the artist actually made, and that is the critical intention of this article, so we have to at least attempt to find some kind of borderline between personal pain and musical brilliance. In the end she still somehow able to artfully communicate richly human documents to the rest of us. We just called it entertainment.

Island Records, 2003 (Island).

After all, surely we all have to feel somewhat guilty when a gifted singer such as Winehouse writes a song like “Rehab,” the opening salvo from Back to Black, and we all chime in chorus along with her, “No no no,” instead of what we should have been saying, “Go go go.” Though clearly it was her family, ex-lovers, managers, and agents who should have been intervening, not us, since we were only the guilty beneficiaries of her inspired bedlam. We were perhaps understandably distracted by her high-spirited defiance, even if her rage to live took her away at the horribly popular age of 27. Like all of those other members of that sad club, she was what the poet Pope called a wise fool, a medium who spent her short life at the threshold of the known and unknown, and she left behind only two albums: the first a youthful, healthy and bouncy breakthrough jazz-flavored record, the second that dark and soul-blistering pile of steaming sad brilliance called Back to Black, the masterpiece for which she is rightly remembered with some reverence. 

Back to Black is a documentary movie for our ears because it paints moving pictures of hyper-personal feelings and experiences, just as Dylan does so well, in a manner so image-evocative that the songs are virtually perfect for the persona-rich video medium that was used so effectively to visually promote them. The excellent video for the song “Rehab,” for example, or the even more excellent video for the album’s title song for another, both work so effectively because the songs themselves are already cinematic epics. A song such as the harrowing “Love Is a Losing Game,” for instance, feels like her own Gone with the Wind, but compressed like carbon into a diamond for a mere two minutes and thirty-five seconds. Like the ratio of dog years to human years, in the shimmering world of pop music a decade feels like an eternity. Now is perhaps an ideal time to listen again, probably to cry again, and most importantly, perhaps, to remember just how huge a creative shadow her brief presence has cast across our popular culture.

Why is the Back to Black album from 2006 so important?  Why does it deserve to be called her only masterpiece and cherished? So far there are more than 20 million reasons worldwide. Each one represents a human being from a diverse culture who owns a copy and for whom it has some special personal meaning. It therefore has over 20 million meanings, each one being the true and correct one. After the fifteen years since it was dropped from the sky by a strange and exotic bird flying high overhead, for each listener it has come to symbolize a heartfelt message about the human condition composed especially for them, a message that transcends cultural boundaries and is recognized as that rare and unique work of art which is destined to withstand the test of time. In other words, it is a classic. Some of her special value as a popular culture figure is also, of course, reflected in other tangible forms of recognition such as multiple awards from the music industry. She may well have been a savant; only time would have told, and time, as jazz giant Artie Shaw once astutely remarked, is all we’ve got.

Once something so personal transcends the private realm and breaks through to the universal realm, it gets to be regarded as a classic. A classic is any work of art, whether it is a painting, a book, a film or a musical composition, that instantly makes the viewer, reader or listener feel that the work in question was painted, written or composed for them personally, and it remains permanently situated in the present moment, no matter how much time passes since its initial encounter in the cultural arena. A classic piece of music is not necessarily one that is classical, but rather one that transcends the time in which it was produced, influences everything that follows it and has a shared meaning long afterwards. But in the end, the more compelling reasons for Back to Black’s privileged position in music history are these even more basic ones: how it was composed, how it was produced, how it was recorded, how it was performed live, and perhaps most importantly, how it sounds.

All these years later it still sounds like a predestined marriage between heaven and hell, a combined technical production achievement and poetic musical accomplishment that remains uniquely aloof and untouchable. In a strangely alluring way, there’s everyone else in pop music, and then there’s Amy Winehouse. But perhaps the secret key to the door of her music, or at least one of them, is to firmly place her in the context of the torch song tradition. That way she doesn’t rattle around quite so much in the historical wind and she also appears far less alien and strange than at first glance and hearing. Winehouse didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. It only seemed that way. But she was just the latest model of a storytelling vehicle that has a long established history, though she managed to mash together several idioms in fresh and new way that elevated all of them while vastly extending their reach to a huge global pop audience.

While the blues form she alchemized (along with jazz, rap, reggae, ska and girl group rock and roll) was an African American invention, there are many examples in all human cultures, some of them quite ancient, of songs of lament. Blues singers are the grimy artistic canaries that we all use to lower down into the emotional mineshaft, in order to signal safety, danger or loss in our own lives through these emblematic mournful songs of theirs, raised on musical ropes back up the surface where the rest of us live in comparative comfort and utlize their existential experiences for our amusement. Few did it quite as exquisitely as Winehouse. That might perhaps tell us as much about us and our voyeuristic schadenfruede as it does about her.

How on earth did someone as young as Amy manage to make grief on steroids sound so incredibly beautiful? Apart from Winehouse’s own remarkable voice, her visceral response to music and her uncanny sense of timing and coordination, the question leads us to the inherent artistry of the producer’s integral role in the transformation of feelings into form: the genius of Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi. So then, let’s consider this memorial article: Back to Winehouse/The Album as Artifact, as a kind of a means of reorienting ourselves to what she accomplished against all her odds. Maybe a decade and a half later is perhaps an ideal time for remembering her scintillating songs from the heart, one broken on her own private romantic wheel but made public in a most disconcerting manner. 

Winehouse in her “prime".

“My name is Might-have-been; I am also called No-More, Too-late, and Farewell."
– Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Back to Black/Creative Credits:

Featuring Amy Winehouse and The Dap-Kings
Produced by Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi
Design: Alex Hutchinson 
Management: Raye Cosbert
Photography by: Alex Lake, Harry Benson, Mischa Richter / Cover Photograph: Bryan Adams

Back to Black was released by Island Records on October 27, 2006. It has sold over 20 million copies worldwide, and was awarded five Grammys in 2008: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Album of the Year, Best New Artist of the Year, and Producer of the Year. Winehouse became only the fifth female solo artist to receive five recording awards in one night.

“Rehab”:
Most revealing is her conclusion: “And it’s not just my pride / It’s just till these tears have dried,” suggesting that all her troubles were only temporary and just a response to her heartache, which would, she assumed, have to end sooner or later. Wouldn’t they?

“You Know I’m No Good”:
Clearly identifying herself as a young woman with self-esteem issues, and not afraid to confront them, at least in her art, she declaims with an ironic sort of pride, “I cheated myself, like I knew I would / I told you I was trouble, you know that I’m no good.” Far from being a classic break-up song about a partner who cheated on her with someone else, this tune magnifies the fact that she has cheated on herself, a troubled twist on the classic torch song take, and one of the reasons the public related so deeply to her turmoil.

“Me and Mr. Jones":
“Nobody stands between me and my man, / It’s me and Mr. Jones” repeats the sentiment that not all of her relationships are or have to be of a romantic or physical nature. Naturally she fights with him as much as she would fight with a lover, but in the end her allegiance is to friendship over love, at least for as long as this bouncy tune unfolds.

“Just Friends”:
A core lament that a lover can never be a friend, or at least not the lovers she seems to pick, or the ones that seemed to pick her. Again she references her lover’s competing partner, the one who has taken or is taking him away from her: “When will we get the time to be just friends? / I’m not ashamed but the guilt will kill you, if she don’t.”

“Back to Black”:
The ultimate Phil Spector girl-band tribute, which channels The Supremes in a marvelous way without at all appearing to be copying, and another example of how her gift for fusing styles was authentic and sincere rather than aping or plagiarizing. She is also all three Ronettes, all three Dixie Cups and all three Shirelles merged into a monument to infidelity and its ramifications.

And we all get to listen in on the whole affair. Torch songs have never before reached either this level of intensity or intimacy. It’s hard to imagine they ever will again.

“Love is a Losing Game":
Never has a personal destiny, actually in the hands of a lover the whole time, been cast in so inevitable a shape, so pre-destined that all hope is abandoned. But its abandonment is also sculpted, through time, music and performance, into yet another sonic monument to giving in, giving up, and going on. While we secretly listen in the other room, our ears pressed to the walls that are closing in around her.

“Tears Dry On Their Own
My personal favorite among all of Winehouse’s great anthems. A simple but powerful message: “I don’t understand, why do I stress a man / When there’s so many bigger things at hand?” In a sudden moment of rare clarity she even admits that it’s her own responsibility and that he didn’t owe anything to her, but still she had no capacity to walk away. If only that were the case. Instead we’re left with a perpetual refrain, sung with incredible charm, “He walks away, the sun goes down, / He takes the day, but I’m grown / . . . My tears dry on their own.” But unfortunately there are always more where they came from.

“Wake Up Alone”:
Dread soaked in soul is the best way to characterize her breathtaking music, which has to be heard to be understood. It’s kind of the Finnegans Wake of soul music in that respect: reading the lyrics tells you nothing; hearing them float over the magic beat of The Dap Kings tells you everything you’ll ever want to know about the ambivalence of avant-garde romance.

“Some Unholy War":
She asks an intriguing question about putting it all in writing: who is she writing for in the end? Just the two of them alone, with her “reciting her stomach standing still” . . . it’s like we’re all reading her will. But she will battle on until the bitter finale, “just me, my dignity and this guitar case”? Eventually the song detours to announce that her man was in fact fighting some unholy war, but alas, that war was the one going on between them, a nation of two.

“He Can Only Hold Her”:
A simple song, an ambiguous song, disguised by the customary brilliance of the instrumental and the singer’s gift for an arresting melody riding on a wave of stunning rhythm. In a sense, this one is the essence of what rhythm and blues is all about: a deep sadness seeking to find solace in the arms of accelerated emotions.

The point here is that scintillating talent often arrives early, matures young and flickers out too soon. Almost all the best singer-songwriters in the modern tradition reached a breathtaking peak of talent at almost precisely the same age of 24. Who knows what that means or what it reveals about talented young hearts? As desirable as it may be to divorce her status as a demonic diva from the glorious music she created, it is implicitly difficult to avoid something which is so inherent to the success of one and the doom of the other. For Amy Winehouse, there was no safe place, and that’s what she wrote about. For her, one was company and two was a crowd, and that’s what she wrote about. She was an exemplary storyteller, but her stories were not invented. They didn’t emerge from a shimmering fictional place like Chekhov or Hemingway stories, for example; instead they rose to the surface of a self-actualized and emotionally swampy place, from her own personal experiences in love and life, loss and longing. This too was not exactly new, but nobody else ever did it quite like she did.

It was precisely this degree of almost unbearable self-revelation and honesty that seemed to click with a worldwide listening audience, perhaps one tired of polish and perfection in the pop music industry at the time. Being as shy and obviously self-deprecating as she clearly was, she must have been stunned and a little taken aback by the nearly universal critical acclaim heaped on her, a bonus on top of the already massive popular appeal she had with everyday listeners and lovers of the multiple genres she and her new Svengalis had mashed so perfectly together.

This also, of course, tells us something important and possibly disturbing about the times in which we live.

The intricate fabric of isolation, loneliness and self-absorption, the consequences of merging private and public life, the wildy unconventional, exotic and often raw vocal styles of Back to Black manage to speak to all of us collectively and to actually communicate what we ourselves are feeling. A certain emotional wavelength is superimposed upon all the best pop songs, at least the ones that rise to the condition of works of art, regardless of their stylistic differences, and this is especially the case when stretched across the tightly-wound skin of the best torch-songs. Back to Black, her only masterpiece, had them aplenty, seamlessly collaged together from almost ten different musical styles and traditions. That’s why it will be remembered and played again and again, as long as there are broken or wounded hearts in the world who need its soothing bandages, and as long as music lovers wonder at the mutant heart of music itself.

The subtextual message I hope the reader of this essay takes away in response is two-fold: first, an astonished appreciation for her innate and inborn musical skills, skills that were so instinctual that they couldn’t ever be learned and barely even be practiced; and second, a deep sense of loss over the fact that even her towering creativity couldn’t save her from herself, at least enough to enable her to make more music, the thing she loved to do more than anything else in life. Back to Black provided, and still provides in the fifteen years since it dropped, a fragile building made of breath, a place both safe and dangerous at the same time, a breathturn where our confused and confusing popular culture could take up residence, at least for the duration of a song. How she was able to deliver this architectural feat so skillfully is still a little baffling, at least until we realize a crucial fact about the often disturbing poetry of popular culture.

And that is this, which Proust pointed out:

The men and women who produce works of genius are not always those who live in the most sophisticated or delicate atmospheres, not those whose conversational style is the most intelligent, or whose personal cultural experience is the most extensive, but rather it is those who have had the ability, even the power, to suddenly cease living only for themselves and to somehow transform their personalities into a mirror.

It’s a cracked mirror but it’s also one into which we can all gaze forever. For my part, what I most personally regret, and even almost resent, is the sad the fact that there won’t be any more Winehouse records of this breathtaking caliber to keep us company in the dark night of the soul. Admittedly selfish on my part, but I feel I have to paraphrase that consummate pop surivor, Iggy Pop, when he barked out “I want more!”

I wanted more Amy music, I’m not going to get any, and that just isn’t fair at all. 

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020. His latest work in progress is a new book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, due out in early 2022.

 

Monday, September 20, 2021

Neglected Gem: Take This Waltz (2011)

Seth Rogen and Michelle Williams in Take This Waltz (2011).

The opening and closing images of Take This Waltz, of Margot (Michelle Williams) baking muffins, work in tandem with the folk music on the soundtrack (written by Jonathan Goldsmith) to evoke a melancholy, pensive mood. The writer-director, Sarah Polley, is a master of moods. Take This Waltz was her second film. Her first, Away from Her (2006), was an impressive debut. Adapted from the lovely Alice Munro story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” it told the story of a man (Gordon Pinsent) whose wife (Julie Christie) persuades him to put her in a home when her Alzheimer’s worsens. Polley, one of the most talented of her generation of Canadian actresses and perhaps the brainiest – lovers of the marvelous TV series Slings and Arrows will remember her as Cordelia, opposite William Hutt’s Lear, in the show’s final season – convinced Christie, whom she’d befriended on the set of The Secret Life of Words, to delay retirement to play the ailing heroine. Christie was wonderful – hardly a surprise. And I think you can see, when you watch Take This Waltz, why she let Polley talk her into doing Away from Her. Polley thinks like an actress and a filmmaker; her directorial style comes directly out of her ability to think through a character. What Christie and Michelle Williams have in common is that you can’t tell where intuition takes over from intelligence. The work that the Australian director Gillian Armstrong did with actresses in the 1980s represented a kind of women’s collaboration that generated a more delicately shifting depiction of female characters than you got in other movies. Polley doesn’t have Armstrong’s technical expertise but what she gets from Williams in Take This Waltz (the title comes from a Leonard Cohen song) is comparable to what Armstrong accomplished with Diane Keaton in Mrs. Soffel and Judy Davis in High Tide.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Macroscope: Synchronicity in the Work of Goldner Ildiko and Carrie Meijer

Goldner Ildiko (left) ; Carrie Meijer (right)

“Paintings are music you can look at. Music is painting you can listen to.” – Miles Davis.

I have long thought about and written about paintings as what I call frozen music (a descriptor I borrowed from the great German poet Goethe’s characterization of architecture), so naturally I was delighted when one of my favourite musicians, the legendary trumpeter Miles Davis (who was also a nocturnal painter, as a matter of fact), chose to categorize these two overlapping forms of self-expression in this fashion. Music has always evoked for me a sequence of visual images somehow aligned with the notes at play, and paintings, or any visual images really, also seem to display a still document of rhythm and melody interacting with colour and form. It’s even been demonstrated that the harmonic scale in music follows, or perhaps echoes is a better word, almost precisely the shape and form of flower petals, seashells and bird feathers, all of which are powerful representations of the spiral growth pattern evident in nature. The proportional harmony and ratio of ingredients involved in organic life forms of all kinds exhibit the selfsame pattern, captured famously in the Fibonacci sequence and what is popularly known as the golden mean, where one small section of the pattern maintains the exact same relationship with the bigger portions as the bigger portions do with the whole.

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Courier: The Art of Benedict Cumberbatch

Merab Ninidze and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Courier.

Benedict Cumberbatch has one of his best roles in The Courier (available on Amazon Prime) as Greville Wynne, an English salesman of no great accomplishment who agrees to act as the middleman between MI6 and the CIA and a Russian bigwig named Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) who, in the cause of world peace, offers secrets to Britain and America during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Dominic Cooke’s taut thriller, with a precise, intelligent script by Tom O’Connor, is one of those irresistible stories about a mediocrity who surprises even himself by turning out a hero. And (much as I’ve enjoyed watching him as Doctor Strange) Cumberbatch shows more sides here than any movie has permitted him since he played Alan Turing in the immensely satisfying The Imitation Game – another true-life narrative – seven years ago. It’s admittedly a quirky performance, like one of those deep-cover period-piece portraits Laurence Olivier specialized in during the late phase of his career, when he all but disappeared into his wigs and prosthetics. Cumberbatch doesn’t exactly go in for that kind of physical transformation, but his vocal delivery almost makes a fetish out of Wynne’s Britishisms – his upper-class accent, his narrow vowels and his clipped, practiced aura of professionalism – and he conveys what he’s feeling through tight smiles. Greville’s business ventures take him around the world, but his skills are limited, and he drinks a little too much. The irony of his carrying off the part of a spy is that, according to his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley), he’s incapable of hiding anything. Some time ago she figured out that he was cheating on her – it was his single marital indiscretion – so when he begins to act secretive again, and his trips to Moscow on an alleged business project take up more and more of his time, she assumes that he’s philandering once again.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Stabbed in the Heart: The Twilight Saga (2008-2012)

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in Twilight (2008).

I confess: I too used to shit freely on Twilight (2008). What started changing my mind is the excellent work of its two leads, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, in their work after Twilight, though never again together after their breakup. This, and not my internalized misogyny against media embraced by teenage girls, is the angle from which I have approached these films, based on the four novels by Stephenie Meyer. And they're fascinating.

Monday, September 6, 2021

CODA: Breaking into Something Real

Emilia Jones in CODA.

The last half hour of CODA (playing in theatres and on Apple TV+), about the hearing daughter of a deaf family of Gloucester fishermen who discovers a talent for singing, is sweet and affecting. The heroine, Ruby (Emilia Jones), who has been interpreting for her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and her older brother (Daniel Durant) all of her life, struggles with her sense of obligation to them and her need to assert her independence and live the life she wants. (CODA is an acronym for “children of deaf adults.”) When the sympathetic choir director (Eugenio Derbez) encourages Ruby to apply to Berklee School of Music and she invites her family to watch her perform in the school concert, for the first time they begin to understand what singing means to her, and in a knockout climax they sneak into the balcony of the Berklee auditorium during her audition. With her beloved teacher at the piano, she sings Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and signs the lyrics for the benefit of her family. The scene sounds sentimental and obvious when you describe it, and it’s both of those things, but nothing in it seems pushed or tricked up.