Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Cracked Mirrors, Part One: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Singer-Songwriter

Brian Wilson in action, 1966.

“The men and women who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror.” Marcel Proust

The inimitable Elvis Costello once remarked, with his typical sarcastic bravado, that writing about music was like dancing about architecture. Now, far be it from me to contradict one of our greatest singer-songwriters, as well as one so prominently featured as a prominent Island in my own musical criticism over the years. However, some exception must be taken to the talented Mr. Costello’s observation. First of all, let’s readily admit that he is utterly correct, in so far as music, and especially the songs that it conveys to us, are both best appreciated in the temporal immediacy of the listening experience itself. But reflecting on their origins, their blueprint, so to speak, can often clarify how such songs so powerfully occupy the landscape of both our overall culture and our own personal lives. 

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).

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.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Mixed Bag

Jasna Djuricic in Quo Vadis, Aida?

This article contains reviews of Quo Vadis, Aida?, Uncle Frank and Georgetown.

Quo Vadis, Aida?, set at the end of the Bosnian War, is a remarkably taut piece of classical political filmmaking. The writer-director, Jasmila Zbanic, a Bosnian-Yugoslavian native residing in Berlin, has been working in film since 1998 and turning out features for a decade and a half, but I believe this is the first of her movies to open in North America, likely a happy side effect of its nomination for the Foreign Film Oscar. Zbanic’s subject is the series of events that led to the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre, where a combination of the hatred of the Serbs for the Muslims of the town of Srebrenica and the pathetic inadequacy of UNPROFOR, the peacekeeping force of the United Nations, to protect them led to the slaughter of the entire adult male population and the dispersion of the women and children. The Dutchbat peacekeepers established a UN enclave within the town but were too lightly armed to stave off the Bosnian Serb Army under Ratko Mladić’s command, which forced its way in, separated out the men, and bused them to their deaths. (Earlier they lacked the supplies to offer food and water to the Bosnians inside the gate, and lack of space obliged thousands of townspeople to wait outside; some, terrified of the arrival of Mladić’s soldiers, escaped to the woods.)

Monday, August 16, 2021

Stillwater Doesn’t Run Deep

Camille Cottin in Stillwater.

There are two terrific scenes early on in Stillwater, the new movie from director Tom McCarthy. Matt Damon plays Bill, an Oklahoma oil rigger and construction worker who takes periodic trips to Marseilles to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who’s in prison there for killing her female lover while Allison was a college student. Like Amanda Knox, whose story partly inspired the movie’s set-up, Allison has continuously proclaimed her innocence.  She’s sure that Lina’s murderer was a seedy young man, one of Lina’s assortment of lovers, whom the police were unable to track down. On this visit she hands her father a letter she’s written in French to her lawyer (Anne Le Ny), asking her to follow up on a young Arab woman who claims to have seen Allison’s suspect. The lawyer dismisses it as a dead end, but Bill doesn’t have the heart to disappoint his daughter – who’s already sat in a cell for five years – so he decides to do some checking of his own. He begins by asking Virginie (Camille Cottin), a French actress and single mother with whom he’s made a connection, to translate the letter for him, and as she does so she realizes with a shock that man she has just met is the father of the American college student who was the subject of the highest-profile local news story of recent years. You can see Virginie struggling to work through her own responses – mostly amazement and compassion. (Cottin is very good.)  When Bill opts to find the young woman Virginie agrees to come along to serve as translator. But the meeting, which takes place at a café deep in the heart of an Arab neighborhood, is a disaster: as soon as they start asking questions, the young woman’s friend warns her that she’s going to get herself in trouble and frightens her into walking out. Virginie has to explain to a frustrated, confused Bill that the issue is race – a white Marseillaise and a white American in territory where they don’t belong are trying to squeeze information out of an Arab – and the tensions resonate with the story of Allison’s court case, where she was portrayed as a white foreigner preying on an Arab woman.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

My Salinger Year: Coming of Age Among the New York Literati

Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley in My Salinger Year.

Margaret Qualley was frighteningly good as Pussycat, the Manson girl who hitches a ride with Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, and she brought sweetness and steadiness to the role of Ann Reinking in the TV miniseries Fosse/Verdon. (A trained dancer before she switched to acting, she’s been cast opposite Jamie Bell in a new movie about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.) But her approach to the central role in My Salinger Year, based on Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of working at the Manhattan literary agency Harold Ober Associates in the mid-1990s, doesn’t make sense. Joanna is an aspiring poet who leaves Berkeley (where she’s a graduate student) and a relationship with a gifted musician (Hamza Haq) to move in with a college pal (Seána Kerslake) and immerse herself in the New York literary world.  She’s fortunate enough to land a job as assistant to Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), a formidable force and a relentless boss whose most famous client is J.D. Salinger. Joanna is enchanted: since Salinger has decided to put out his final published work, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” a novella The New Yorker published in 1965, in hardback, the agency is a-twitter, and she even gets to speak to him on the phone – he’s unfailingly kind and encourages her writing. Besides typing letters from an ancient Dictaphone – Margaret isn’t on board with computer technology – the mainstay of her job is responding to the scads of letters from the notoriously reclusive Salinger’s fans and people who want things from him, like commencement addresses. (Tim Post plays Salinger, whose face we never see.) Joanna is whip-smart, imaginative and resourceful; she learns fast, she has a mind of her own and she isn’t cowed by Margaret. I haven’t read the book, but this version of the heroine – the screenplay was written by the film’s director, the Québecois Philippe Falardeau – comes across as a rather flattering presentation of its author in her twenties. Still, it’s a good part. But Qualley plays her as moony-eyed, desperate to please, with an appeasing smile plastered on her face and a tiny, blurry voice that almost makes her sound like she’s baby-talking.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Dolittle: Animal Magnetism

Robert Downey and Poly in Dolittle.

Dolittle received punitive reviews when it showed up on Prime last year, but I decided to check it out recently because I’ve always been partial to the material – the Hugh Lofting series of books, which came out between 1920 and 1948, were among my childhood favorites – and the thought of casting Robert Downey as the quirky Victorian veterinarian who can speak the languages of his patients sounded irresistible. Downey is the third cinematic Dolittle. Rex Harrison played him in the paralytic 1967 musical Doctor Dolittle, which is now remembered only for the Oscar-winning song “Talk to the Animals.” (The fact that it was nominated for Best Picture, apparently just because 20th Century-Fox had squandered so much money on it, now seems perplexing, but in his essential book Pictures at a Revolution Mark Harris makes sense of it, uses the 1967 competition for the award as an emblem for the shift from the old Hollywood to the new Hollywood.) Eddie Murphy was the star of the 1998 movie of the same name, which was lamely plotted but the director, Betty Thomas, cleverly used the animals as an out-of-control vaudeville show. The idea of the Murphy version is that, learning of the doctor’s gift, animals show up at all hours to secure treatment for their ills (psychological as well as physical); he can’t tune them out, they never shut up, and their non-stop cacophony is often hilarious. So are the voice actors, like Chris Rock, Norm McDonald, Albert Brooks, John Leguizamo, Reni Santoni, Paul Reubens, Gilbert Gottfried, and Garry Shandling and Julie Kavner as a pair of squabbling pigeons with sex problems. And Murphy is a good sport:  he allows himself to be upstaged by every animal in the picture. (A sequel came out in 2001.)

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Whirlpool of Fate and Nana: Novice Renoir

Catherine Hessling and Harold Levingston in Whirlpool of Fate (1925).

Kino’s release of Whirlpool of Fate and Nana is a boon to Jean Renoir completists like me who have rarely had the chance to catch any of his silent movies. There were nine, including two shorts and one, Backbiters, that he co-directed with Albert Dieudonné, and most of them starred Catherine Hessling, his father Auguste Renoir’s last model, to whom he was married at the time. (They separated in 1930.) Until these Kino additions the only one I’d seen was The Little Match Girl (1928), in which Hessling plays Hans Christian Andersen’s tragic heroine – and though it was many years ago I remember how lovely it is.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Naturalism in Space: Stowaway

Shamier Anderson, Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, and Toni Collette in Stowaway (2021).

“To Build a Fire,” Jack London’s most anthologized short story, follows a guy in the Yukon trying furiously to build a fire ahead of an oncoming blizzard. Each time he tries, something goes wrong. On the surface, the plot of Stowaway, written by director Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison, seems similar. Plotwise, all you really need to know is that it’s set on an unstoppable resource-limited spaceship, and it’s called StowawayOver the nearly two-hour running time, only one thing goes right, and it’s not enough.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Reality Redux: The Elegiac Paintings of Heather McLeod

“Painting is the representation of visible forms. The essence of realism is the negation of the ideal.”– Gustave Courbet, 1830.

Given the almost vertiginous diversity for self-expression available to contemporary visual artists in this day and age, I never tire of pointing out that far from being a million different subjects and themes for them to explore, or a million different formats for them to utilize in the execution of their works, there are in fact only four of each. Always have been, always will be. There’s something a little reassuring in this stylistic consistency and yet also a little daunting, given that every artist wakes up in the morning with art history breathing down their neck. So then, subjects and themes: self, society, nature, spirituality. Formats and delivery systems: portrait, still life, landscape, abstract. All the other aesthetic style vehicles can be distilled down to these two basic formal groupings, no matter how divergent or drastically experimental they might become. Also, whether the medium is painting or photography, cinema or video, installation or digital, is beside the point since these subjects and themes are embedded in the proportional harmony of our DNA via the golden section, and thus are impossible to evade, even if we wanted to do so. 

Monday, July 12, 2021

Random Notes on Recent Performances

Nina Hoss in The Audition (2019)

The focus of the German actress Nina Hoss is so precise and intense it’s almost freaky: when she levels her gaze at someone she’s a little like Sissy Spacek as Carrie choosing a victim for her revenge. That isn’t to say that Hoss brings a sinister quality to her performances, just that her concentration is so unencumbered that it can be unsettling. She burns holes in the screen. Hoss has mostly been associated with the director Christian Petzold, who directed her in Barbara (where she plays an East German doctor in the days before the Berlin Wall fell, sent to a remote rural village as punishment for her attempts to escape to the West) and Phoenix (where she’s a Jewish nightclub singer, a Holocaust survivor still in love with the non-Jewish husband who probably turned her in). North American viewers would recognize her from Homeland. In the recent German picture The Audition she’s a violin teacher at a conservatory whose determination to see a student she fought to get admitted shine in his probationary audition triggers all the troubled corners of her life – her own paralyzing perfectionism as a performer, her inability to make simple decisions, her relationships with her husband and her teenage son (who’s also a student at the conservatory). The movie, directed by Ina Weisse, is very good, despite an ending that seems to shift it into some other movie altogether. But Hoss is its undeniable raison d’être. She is a master of ambivalence: one of those laser looks can uncover two or three layers of meaning. Her scenes with Simon Abkarian as her husband, an instrument maker who either suspects or has worked out that she’s sleeping with a colleague (who’s also one of his customers), carry contradictions of meaning and intention like invisible splinters.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Drawings In Space: The Stitched Images of Gisoo Kim

Diary / Gisoo Kim, stitched yarn on photo-collage, 2020. (Gisoo Kim)
“Avant-garde art is yoga for the mind.” – Khang Kijarro Nguyen

Human consciousness is such a fragile and changeable thing. Being in the presence of provocative art can alter the entire field of our experience to a sometimes surprising degree. It’s almost as if the room temperature suddenly changes and our skin feels different, while our minds start racing in all kind of intriguing directions. This is also totally relative, since one person will react to one kind of work while another will respond to something utterly different, often even without either of them being able to quite grasp what the other is experiencing, unless they use their own experience of being transported as a kind of barometer. Then: ohhhh, you mean that when you listen to a Johannes Brahms symphony you feel the same kind of frisson as I do when I listen to a Miles Davis jazz solo? Now I get it. And the same is true of visual art, or design, or sculpture, or anything else. A Vermeer painted interior might have the identical impact as a Mark Rothko abstract, once two different viewers realize they’re both observing representations of the ineffable essence of perceptual majesty. The imagery only appears different on the surface, while the mechanics of reverie remain the same at the deeper internal level, where it matters. 

Monday, July 5, 2021

Clare Peploe: All for Love

Mira Sorvino and Jay Rodan in The Triumph of Love (2001).

One can do almost anything for love,” the aging art historian Basil Sharp (Sebastian Shaw) tells his dearest friend, the émigré English photographer Katherine (Jacqueline Bisset), near the end of Clare Peploe’s 1987 film High Season. Katherine is living on a Greek island with her thirteen-year-old daughter Chloe (Ruby Baker), but she’s broke and in danger of losing her house. Her one chance of achieving solvency is to sell a vase Sharpie gave her some years ago to a Greco-English art dealer, Konstantinis (Robert Stephens), who knows he can sell it at an exorbitant price; the trick is to get it out of Greece, which has famously declared a moratorium on the removal of national treasures. So Katherine begs Sharpie to betray his professional ethics and certify the vase a fake. The line I’ve quoted above is his justification for agreeing to do so – though, as with everything else in this vibrant, hilarious farce (which Peploe wrote with her brother Mark), there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Roy Halston & Ewan McGregor

Ewan McGregor and Krysta Rodriguez in Halston, now streaming on Netflix.

Ewan McGregor does the finest work in his career in the title role of Halston, the absorbing five-episode Netflix series, created and directed by Daniel Minahan, about the multi-talented fashion designer who turned himself into a commodity, lost control of his brand and died of AIDS-related cancer, at 57, in 1990. McGregor became a star very early in his career, as a junkie in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, where he combined an essential sweetness and earnestness with a punk bravado. You looked at those soft, pampered, boyish looks and that level gaze at the camera and you couldn’t figure out where the element of danger was coming from. But he’s been a reliable leading man for so many years now (Trainspotting is a quarter of a century old) that I’m not sure either audiences or critics still notice just how good he still is – in films like The Ghost Writer and Our Kind of Traitor and Christopher Robin. He’s always had impressive, sometimes startling, range, but what he pulls off in Halston is so dramatically different from anything he’s tried before that this time I think it’s impossible to miss the caliber of his acting. Roy Halston – he dropped the first name after he moved on from making hats (most famously the pillbox hat Jackie Kennedy wore to JFK’s inauguration) to designing dresses – is a kid from Iowa and Indiana who moved to New York City and built a persona for himself from the ground up, like Cary Grant or Truman Capote. He stopped sounding like a Midwesterner; he didn’t sound quite like anybody else. McGregor digs into Halston’s showmanship, his charisma and his imperiousness, but though he’s witty and sometimes hilarious, it’s not a campy performance.  You’re always aware of his reflectiveness – of the man who’s looking at himself in an invisible mirror – and of an undercurrent of loneliness and dissatisfaction. This is acting of genuine depth.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Fabula: Painting is a Permanent Language

New and recent works by Fabiana Salomao, featured in her studio solo exhibition at 468 Queen Street East in Toronto, June 10-30 2021.  (All images: Courtesy of Noah Lalonde)

“A pictorial element has no other meaning than itself, and thus the picture has no other meaning than itself.” – Theo Van Doesberg, 1930.

Freedom from the inherent limits of realistic representation: that’s what concrete art, or concretism, was and still is all about. I’ve always had a deep fondness for the Dutch art movement De Stijl (The Style), founded in 1917 and lasting for about a decade, before morphing into what we now know as the international neo-plasticist style of the Concrete (Konkret). The most famous of these abstract purists was Piet Mondrian, but I’ve always leaned to the slightly more organic images of his compatriot Theo Van Doesberg, especially when one notes the amazing historical trajectory from his own early works all the way forward to some American 1960’s exponents of sheer rigor, Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella. One thing is held in common by all the aesthetically linked artists who explored the edges of pure abstraction, whether it be geometric or biomorphic in nature and tone: a love of the formal elements of balance, harmony, rhythm, and an affection for those chance constructions which seem to convey the spiritual aspects of our embodied condition, those encouraging transcendence.

Monday, June 21, 2021

In the Heights: Soft Soap

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in In the Heights.

You know you’re in trouble at the opening of In the Heights, the new movie of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, which premiered in 2007 and moved to Broadway the following year. On an unidentified beach, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is entertaining four beautiful brown children with the story of his young adulthood in Washington Heights, where he ran a neighborhood bodega.  The kids have obviously been chosen for their adorableness quotient: they never stop smiling and their eyes twinkle. And the director, John M. Chu, lingers on every twinkle, as if he were shooting a video ad for a summer camp.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Off the Shelf: Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Yoshiaki Hanayagi and Kinuyo Tanaka in Sansho the Bailiff (1954).

“A slave becoming a governor, that’s a true fairy tale!” – Sansho to Zushio in Sansho the Bailiff

Of the three filmmakers I think of as the supreme masters of Japanese cinema – Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa and Kon Ichikawa – Mizoguchi arrived and departed earliest. But even though he died of leukemia in 1956, at the age of 58, he had an amazing career that began in the silent era and produced 86 movies. (Nearly two-thirds of them have been lost.) Among his late pictures are several that may have been Japan’s first feminist movies: The Life of O-haru, Street of Shame and A Geisha, which deal candidly with traditional options for women at different points in Japanese society. But his signal qualities are his painterly style – no Japanese director has approached more closely, or more poignantly, the enchanted delicacy of Japanese prints – and his narrative sweep. The Mizoguchi movies I love best are like tales from The Arabian Nights: the erotic ghost story Ugetsu (1953), the dark Cinderella story The Princess Yang Kwei Fei (1955) and especially Sansho the Bailiff (1954), which is his masterpiece.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Pretension Wreckers: Peter Stanfield's A Band with Built-In Hate, The Who from Pop Art to Punk

Published by Reaktion Books, distributed by University of Chicago Press.
“The Who began as a spectacle. Then they became spectacular. They asked: what were the limits of rock and rock? Could the power of music actually change the way you think and feel? The singer-songwriter-listener relationship has only gown deeper after all these years.” – Eddie Vedder

“Can You See the Real Me?” Pete Townshend opined in one of his signature songs of simultaneous self-revelation and concealment. It was an ironic question directed at the whole pop culture he had come to embody almost single-handedly. Things had become pretty fancy in the heady and hyper-stylized world of pop music, and a lot more Serious than its rocking progenitors – Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley – had probably ever intended. They had almost gotten out of hand and morphed it from pop into art, by way of The Beatles. Someone had to come along and return it to its raw roots, to shake up the pop party and storm the pretentious castle. But this being rock music, they had to do it in an even more bombastic and outrageously artful fashion than the very stylistic inflation whose seeming pretensions they were so avidly trying to wreck. Enter, stage far far left, The Who. 

Monday, June 7, 2021

New from Criterion: Masculine Féminin

Jean-Pierre Léaud and Chantal Goya in Masculine Féminin (1966).

Between 1960 and 1967 Jean-Luc Godard made fifteen features, all of them vibrant, provocative and almost impossibly innovative, many of them masterpieces. What filmmakers in the history of movies had streaks that were in any way comparable? I can think of only five: D.W. Griffith in the teens and early twenties, Buster Keaton in the twenties, Jean Renoir in the thirties, Satyajit Ray between the mid-1950s and the mid-1980s (his lasted the longest) and Robert Altman between 1970 and 1975 (his was the most concentrated). Masculin Féminin, which Criterion has just released on Blu-Ray and DVD in an immaculately restored print, was the eleventh of these pictures; it came right after Pierrot le Fou (which is referenced in this movie) and before Made in U.S.A. It’s one of my favorite Godards but I realized as I sat down to watch the Blu-Ray that the last time I saw it was thirty years ago, on a drab videotape. Viewing it again with the black-and-white images returned to their original, tactile quality – showcasing Godard’s ability to make contemporary Paris look newly minted – is a revelation. He isn’t working here with his greatest cinematographer, Raoul Coutard; Willy Kurant’s lighting doesn’t knock your eye out the way Coutard’s does, but the movie still looks terrific.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Oslo, Stage to Screen

Salim Dau and Jeff Wilbusch in Oslo..

Given the peculiarly insulated nature of theatre, despite its success on Broadway too few people are familiar with J.T. Rogers’s play Oslo, which dramatizes the story of the Oslo Peace Accords that came heartbreakingly close to bringing an end to the bloodshed between the Israelis and the Palestinians in 1993. (The play won the 2017 Tony Award.) So the HBO film version – directed, like the play, by Bartlett Sher – affords the opportunity for many more lovers of serious theatre to access what is, I believe, the best American play since Bruce Norris’s 2012 Clybourne Park. Oslo does, however, pose several daunting challenges to a filmmaker, especially one who is making his debut behind the camera. One can, as Rogers does in the screenplay, eliminate some of the more obvious theatrical touches, like the direct address to the audience and the elusive narrative structure of the first act: it begins with the allegedly accidental revelation of a secret and then flashes back to establish the necessity for the secret as well as the need to expose it and make the exposure look like an accident. (This trickery is highly pleasurable in the theatre, but on screen it would be more likely to clutter up the storytelling. Rogers was smart to get rid of it.) On the other hand, you can’t just place the actors in realist settings and pretend they’re speaking in realist prose. The language tends to be oratorical, in the manner of much historical drama: the characters often talk at each other, making political points, tossing gauntlets at each other and escalating to grandiloquent eruptions. This isn’t intended as a criticism – the dialogue is elegant and forceful and often quite beautiful. Either a director has to go for broke, throwing strict realism to the winds, or figure out how to make the language work on the screen so it doesn’t sound like posturing.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

How to Throw Your Voice Visually: Becoming Photography

Chuck Samuels: Becoming Photography (Kerber Verlag, 2021).
 
“From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art.” – Michel Foucault

Much of what we now define as the poetics of images, the aesthetics of the camera, and the politics of photography comes to us from the thoughtful pens of cultural theorists such as the German critic Walter Benjamin, the French philosopher Roland Barthes, the American polemicist Susan Sontag, and the British art historian John Berger. Their speculations on what makes photography not only an art form but a special and privileged form of modernist consciousness have paved the way for a deep appreciation of both the magic potential and the seductive powers of technological reproduction. Our ways of seeing and thinking about seeing have often been guided by their ruminations on what happens when we photograph something or someone, and their penetrating analysis of the photographic arts has inspired and influenced generations of image-makers. 

Monday, May 24, 2021

New on Criterion: History Is Made at Night

Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur in History Is Made at Night (1937).

There are romantic comedies that veer into high comedy (like Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner) and movies that blur the line between high comedy and melodrama (like Dinner at Eight). History Is Made at Night, out in a sparkling new Blu-Ray from Criterion (also available on a standard DVD), is a mélange of the three. It’s finally rather lunatic but very entertaining.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Two Women, Two Windows

Amy Adams in The Woman in the Window (2021).

In Joe Wright’s creepy new chiller The Woman in the Window, Amy Adams gives a splendid, unsettling performance as Anna Fox, a child psychologist living alone in an old house in Upper Manhattan. She and her husband Ed (Anthony Mackie) have separated, but she keeps in daily touch with him and their daughter (Mariah Bozeman); Anna is agoraphobic and Ed tries to talk her through her anxieties. Since she can’t make it out the door, she has a tenant, David (Wyatt Russell), a musician with handyman experience who checks in on her and does a variety of small jobs. But things turn sinister when the Russell family moves in across the street. First she meets Ethan (Fred Hechinger), a nervous teenage boy who brings over a lavender candle as a gift from his mother. Then the mother herself, Jane (Julianne Moore), appears. She’s a kind of free spirit with a wild laugh whose unfiltered conversation draws the lonely Anna in. Finally Anna meets the father, Alistair (Gary Oldman), who is abrupt and unpleasant; when he demands to know if any other members of his family have visited Anna, she instinctively lies about Jane – and she begins to suspect that Alistair is abusing one or both of the other two. Then she sees Jane being slashed by a knife in the Russell house, her attacker concealed from view. When she calls their home in a panic, Alistair shows up at her doorstep and warns her to leave his family alone. She calls the police, who arrive with the full Russell family in tow, claiming that nothing untoward has happened. But the woman who claims to be Jane Russell – and is now played by Jennifer Jason Leigh – doesn’t look remotely like the woman who came to visit Anna and introduced herself as Ethan’s mother.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

S O L A C E: The Art of Intimate Absence – Theme for an Imaginary Exhibition

Dreamwalk, Mimi Gellman, Edward Day Gallery, Giclee print, 2002. (Image courtesy of the artists)

Note: All images are courtesy of the artists.

“In dreams begin responsibilities . . . ”– Delmore Schwartz

In the museum of dreams, anything is possible. Perhaps prompted by viral circumstances, I imagined an installation of images, objects, films, videos and performances addressing social issues of import which impact everyone in today’s world: anyone who wonders how we maintain our mutual bond as people and cultures during a challenging time of collective isolation. The three well-known artists contemplated, Mimi Gellman, Vessna Perunovich and Nayra Martin Reyes, have a unique but shared interest in exploring isolation and identity politics, gender issues, exile and refuge, persona and displacement, and travel, in what I am designating as a post-proximity world. They express through their artifacts a transnational and humanist domain which is essential for us if we are all to survive the challenges facing our global cultures at this precarious moment in our common history. They each approach a new vista verging on the merger of safe place and secure shelter with vulnerable empathy and alienated exclusion.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Detective Story: C.B. Strike

Holliday Grainger and Tom Burke in C.B. Strike.

I fell for J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike detective novels at the beginning of the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, which she published in 2013. (She uses a nom de plume for these books, Robert Galbraith, but the beans were spilled after the first one was published.) As fans of the Harry Potter books might have expected, they’re intricately plotted, with wide-ranging, sharply drawn characters, and you wrap yourself up in them; once I start one I have to stave off the impulse to do absolutely nothing else until it’s done but turn the pages. She’s written five; the latest, Troubled Blood, came out last September. Her heroes, Strike and Robin Ellacott, run a successful London detective agency, though she starts, in The Cuckoo’s Calling, as a temp who gets a gig at Strike’s ragtaggle business. In the course of solving the crime, the killing of a famous model that the cops have dismissed as a suicide, both Strike and Robin herself discover her gift for investigation; and by the end of the novel he’s agreed to make her his partner. 

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Simple Joys: Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli in the Royal Opera House's 2017 production of  Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (Photo: Andrej Uspenski/ROH)

One could spend years looking at all the dramatic adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense masterpiece Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. His tale of a girl who’s either too big or too small, who tries to follow the rules even as they keep changing without reason or purpose, seems pretty much like childhood as I remember it (any kid who’s stood under an amusement park attraction’s height-limit sign only to be told they’re too short to ride knows exactly how Alice feels), so it’s no wonder this 150-year-old tale has remained a favorite of children and adults, and why it’s been retold in so many different renderings. Many also include elements of Carroll’s equally well-known sequel Through the Looking Glass, even though the only characters the two books have in common are Alice and her cat Dinah. Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land have separate denizens and different rules and guiding principles, as much as nonsense can be said to have such things. A deck of cards rules Wonderland while the game of chess and the mirror-inspired idea of oppositeness permeate Looking-Glass Land, but adaptors across the globe have felt free to mix and match elements from both. Some of these variations are abject failures; I would include the 1951 Disney cartoon, with its flat, unimaginative look and dull protagonist – Disney’s inadequacy at portraying young girls and women is one trend that’s lasted – and the 1933 Paramount Studios version, which features everyone who ever set foot on the lot and surprisingly ugly sets and costumes. Others are weird successes of a kind: the Czech animator Jan Švankmajer’s creepy and fascinating Alice from 1988; Tim Burton’s overblown 2010 Alice in Wonderland, which nevertheless has a distinctive look and very good performances from Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Crispin Glover. A surprisingly funny 1949 British movie with Carol Marsh as Alice and stop-motion puppets designed by Lou Bunin was suppressed for years in the U.S. by Disney, unsurprisingly. There have also been a number of television dramatizations, including a 1983 Great Performances broadcast that features a lovely performance by Richard Burton as the White Knight and a horrendous one by his daughter Kate as a bitter and sarcastic Alice, and a rather inert 1955 production with Elsa Lanchester and Eva Le Gallienne as the Red and White Queens. But I’ve never seen an adaptation that fully captures and expands upon the realms Carroll created. Until now. 

Monday, May 3, 2021

George Segal, 1934-2021

George Segal in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

When George Segal died at eighty-seven on March 23, most people would have recognized him as the co-star of the hit TV sitcoms The Goldbergs (which began in 2013 and is still running) and Just Shoot Me! (1997-2003). The long second act of his career, beginning around 1987, unfolded almost entirely on the small screen; his occasional movie appearances were in supporting roles in undistinguished pictures. But between the mid-sixties and the mid-seventies he was a force to be reckoned with. Strikingly handsome, charismatic, with an infectious warmth, he was groomed initially for romantic leading-man roles. The first picture he had a significant role in was Stanley Kramer’s 1965 Ship of Fools, though the movie was idiotic and the part – a painter chafing against the possessiveness of his well-heeled girlfriend (Elizabeth Ashley) – was wan and underwritten. But in King Rat (released the same year), cast as Corporal King, a scavenger in the officers’ section of a Japanese POW camp, he commanded the screen, and it was obvious that he had far more to offer than looks and charm. King was the kind of part a young Clark Gable would have played, but Gable would have made sure to make the character likable; Segal doesn’t, and the writer-director, Bryan Forbes (adapting a James Clavell novel), allows him some complicated scenes and reserves of mystery. His exchanges with James Fox as a British officer who forges an unexpected friendship with King are the emotional core of the film.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Human Heart for Sale, Well Worn: Hemingway

Our erstwhile safari guide in 1954, appearing to contemplate checking out of the mortal hotel after being honoured with a Nobel Prize. (John F. Kennedy Archival Library)

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn." – Ernest Hemingway, ca. 1927.

The opening epigram pretty much perfectly sums up the essence of Ernest Hemingway’s strange magic. Ostensibly the result of a drunken wager between fellow writers about who could write the shortest story, but also based on an actual journalistic article about a tragic 1910 fire in the Spokane Press, this early example of flash fiction spookily captures some of the inherently sad ekphrasis that so saturated Hemingway’s heavy soul (even if the sodden tale might be slightly apocryphal). He was, of course, the winner of that bet, pocketing ten dollars for his effortless ease and demonstrating an uncanny skill at restrained understatement which surely must have originated in his own early jobs as a news reporter. Including for my hometown paper, The Toronto Star.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

French Exit: Guessing Game

Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Coyne in French Exit.

The Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt evades categories. I encountered his second book, The Sisters Brothers (2011), when Jacques Audiard made a beautiful movie of it three years ago; the source material, which I checked out afterwards, turned out to be beautiful, too – strange, poetic, unpredictable. It’s the story of a pair of brothers in California and Oregon at the time of the Gold Rush who are employed as hit men by the head of a syndicate; their latest target is a prospector and chemist who has invented a formula to locate gold nuggets in the water. (Their boss wants the brothers to torture him for the formula and then kill him.) But the inventor’s ingenuous personality has co-opted the tracker hired by the boss to find him, and the brothers wind up combining forces with them rather than discharging their professional obligation. It’s part fairy tale, part horror story, and it has the damnedest element of redemption embedded in it. French Exit, deWitt’s fourth (and latest) book, has nothing remotely in common with The Sisters Brothers except perhaps for its strangeness. Its heroine is Frances Price, a glamorous, self-willed widow who lives extravagantly with her unemployed mid-twenties son Malcolm in Manhattan. When her cash dwindles, she sells everything and moves them to Paris, where her best friend Joan (Susan Coyne) owns a pied à terre that’s lying unused.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Love and Its Discontents: The Park (2016)

Naomie Vogt-Roby and Maxime Bachellerie in Damien Manivel’s The Park (Le parc, 2016).

Damien Manivel’s The Park (Le parc, 2016), co-written with cinematographer Isabel Pagliai, starts off nice and easy, but it quickly turns bonkers in the best way possible.

Naomie (Naomie Vogt-Roby, just 15 when she made the film) meets a boy (Maxime Bachellerie) at a large woodsy park on a first date. She’s short and sensible; he’s lanky and shy. The two teenagers sit together awkwardly, converse awkwardly, walk around awkwardly, and before you know it are kissing in a secluded spot. I’ve just praised another film for its naturalistic romance, but here the romance succeeds precisely because it’s so overdetermined. The transformation of two clumsy teenage strangers into a mutually attracted couple is a kind of magic that’s almost impossible to replicate onscreen, so the film doesn’t even try. Each scene is a vignette – they walk around, they look at squirrels, they discuss their families, she does a handstand – that, combined in the right order as they are here, sketch the development of a romance. But in true cinematic fashion, how we get from one vignette to another is hidden in the editing (by William Laboury), left as an exercise for the viewer, and whatever we can come up with is infinitely more convincing than what could have been put on the screen.

Monday, April 12, 2021

No Rock Bottom to the Life: Mark Harris’s Biography of Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols directs Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966).

Mark Harris wrote two of my favorite contemporary books about movies, Pictures at a Revolution (2008, about the transition from the old to the new Hollywood in the late 1960s) and Five Came Back (2014, about the five major Hollywood directors who made documentaries during the Second World War). But after reading his new 600-page biography of Mike Nichols, I can’t figure out why he the hell he wrote it.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Telling Stories: Tana Oshima’s Theater of Cruelty

Theater of Cruelty, by Tana Oshima.

“At first I thought my work was about desecration, but instead it became a more complex landscape of human relationships. I hope to put something of these feelings into the portraits that I made of the characters, which were all landscapes in themselves.” – Ralph Steadman

Both English artist William Hogarth in the 1750’s with his Harlot’s Progress and Gin Alley series of lithographs and Thomas Nast, the American cartoonist, in the 1850’s with his biting caricatures of politician Boss Tweed in The Atlantic Monthly were notable and notorious early exponents of using graphic art as a weapon of social commentary. Paradoxically, both of their stellar careers raise an initial question about the popular mode of utilizing incisive graphics to address pertinent issues in a mass marker mode. Why, though, we might ask, is Hogarth considered a great artist while Nast, though highly acclaimed for his depictions that eventually even defeated a corrupt political figure, is still considered a “cartoonist”? 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Neglected Gem: Heart of a Dog (2015)

One of Laurie Anderson's paintings of Lolabelle.

The avant-garde artist and composer Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog belongs in the special group of movies that defy categorization, like Dimitri Kirsanoff’s 1926 Menilmontant, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1956 Le mystère Picasso (wherein Picasso creates paintings directly on the screen), and Chris Marker’s 1962 sci-fi short La jetée (which is made up almost entirely of still shots). The ones Anderson approaches more closely are Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) and Bruce Weber’s Chop Suey (2001), essays written on film that shift, with the flickering fluidity of dreams, from one topic to another and that seem to redefine cinema as a variant of collage. (Anderson employs actual collage in some scenes, in the way Godard does in his 1960s movies.) Comparing Heart of a Dog to Chop Suey and especially to Sans Soleil is meant to be very high praise. Anderson’s film didn’t attract much attention when it was released in 2015, but Criterion put out a gorgeous disc of it and I’d say it’s indispensable viewing for anyone who cares to see what an artist with a breathtaking imagination and visual gifts can do with the art of film.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Tom Hanks Double Bill: News of the World and Greyhound

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in News of the World.

When movie lovers look for a studio-era comparison to Tom Hanks, the star who crops up most often is Jimmy Stewart: the folksy charm, the avuncular warmth. You certainly wouldn’t imagine anyone else being cast as Walt Disney (in Saving Mr. Banks, which didn’t do much for Hanks) or Fred Rogers (in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which was worth watching for Hanks alone). But just as often I find myself thinking of Gregory Peck, though Peck was a terribly dull actor and Hanks is a superlative one. Audiences responded to what they perceived as a core of decency in Peck; in Barbara Kopple’s 1999 documentary A Conversation with Gregory Peck, the educated, articulate Angelenos, most of whom had grown up with Peck’s movies, spoke to him from their seats as if they were questioning Atticus Finch. Hanks has the same quality, but he doesn’t shy away from interior conflict – Peck was hopelessly fake whenever he was called on to play darker notes – and he conveys decency dramatically. That’s what he does as Fred Rogers, and the intricacy and subtlety of his acting transcend the ridiculous script, which swallows up poor Matthew Rhys as the main character, a cynical journalist Rogers is called on to rescue.