Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Talking Out of Turn: Introduction

This blog contains drafts of chapters that make up the continuing evolution of the book, Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances, which collects my writings on film, music and books, along with interviews and remembrances. Each section of the anthology is posted here in separate headings and not necessarily in the order they will appear in the final book. There will be daily updates published as I add more pieces to each section. So stay tuned.

--Kevin Courrier, June, 2017.       

Talking Out of Turn: Author Bio

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

Talking Out of Turn: Reviews (Part One)

Living in a Song: Crazy Heart

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart

Besides gospel, there is probably no other musical genre in American culture that is so devoted to the quest for roots, or the deep desire for personal transformation, than country music. So when the boozy, destitute country-and-western singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) in Crazy Heart sings “I used to be somebody, but now I’m somebody else,” he carries in his voice those ghosts on the lost highway that carried singers like Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt. (Speaking of gospel, Blake may also be carrying the ghost of Thomas A. Dorsey who wrote “Peace in the Valley,” a song about transcendence that drew the interest of both Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley where, in the song, the singer hopes to “be changed from this creature that I am.”)

Crazy Heart is a movie about people who live in songs, trying to find both the roots of their pain, and the seeds of their own salvation within them. Based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, director Scott Cooper doesn’t do anything startlingly new in terms of storytelling, but he does bring a fresh interpretation to a familiar tale: the redemption of the washed-up artist. It also helps that Cooper has Jeff Bridges at the helm. Looking as bleary as a sleep-deprived Kris Kristofferson, Bridges gives a soulful, yet dry and witty performance as a forlorn singer whose wasted life is at odds with his songwriting talent.

The story follows Blake as he hits the road doing concerts in bowling alleys, or seedy bars, and playing to older, nostalgic folks. They hope to connect to the man whose songs once became an indelible part of their lives. Blake knows that he can’t live up to that image so, although he never misses a show, he makes his participation in them vague and uncertain. (In one funny scene, he departs midway through a song to barf in a back alley before rejoining the group for the tune’s conclusion.) While Bad Blake performs in small towns with pick-up groups (who once admired him), his protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who sings Blake’s songs, sells out huge arenas and records hit albums. Sweet has had the success that continues to elude Bad. But Blake has grown used to dives and middle-aged groupies, hiding his bitterness in a bottle, until he meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a reporter for a Santa-Fe newspaper. Jean is a single-mom who loves country music – and the songs of Bad Blake – and she wants to do a feature piece on him. But rather than discussing his past, Blake sees a possible hopeful future in this grounded, level-headed beauty. At first glance, he remarks, in the spirit of a typical country lyric, “I want to talk about how bad you make this room look.”

Crazy Heart is about how this bond between them, where they share the lonely, hurtful pining in Blake’s songs, can’t create a stable life when the singer is a barely functional alcoholic. But that’s where Crazy Heart is most original. If Blake can’t transcend the life he sings about in his songs, Jean hopes to find in the man the tender vulnerability she hears in his compositions. The film is basically about how popular music sometimes connects with us so strongly that we hope the artist is the person that we hear in their work. That’s why the romance between this solid working mom and this older broken down man is both believable and poignant – and also, why it can’t truly work. It can only inspire another aching lyric in another hurtin’ country song.

While it’s no secret that Jeff Bridges is one of our great actors, what makes him great is his ability to create distinctly personable portraits without a shade of self-consciousness in his acting. (When he does become self-conscious, as in his ridiculous caricature of the director in George Sluizer’s pointless American remake of The Vanishing, he comes across much worse than a more stylish actor might.) Maggie Gyllenhaal is a perfect match for Bridges since she plays Jean’s romantic longing close to the ground. She has no illusions about Blake, only a desire for something resembling what she loves most in his songs, so there is nothing self-destructive in her yearning. Although it’s a small role, Colin Farrell plays a Garth Brooks prototype without a hint of vanity. Tommy Sweet knows that he’s become a huge success because of Blake’s songs, so Farrell doesn’t turn Sweet into a conventional adversary. While the music in the film is composed mostly by T Bone Burnett, Ryan Bingham and Steven Broder, Bridges and Farrell do all their own singing and it brings a documentary naturalism to their performances.

Crazy Heart was co-produced by Robert Duvall (who has a minor part here) so the picture suggests something of the earlier Bruce Beresford movie Tender Mercies. But that film was so arid and minimal that Duvall’s alcoholic singer always seemed at a remote distance. (His stoic pain was depicted as a badge of integrity.) Crazy Heart is much looser and less formal, without the fundamentalist armour of Tender Mercies. The mercies in Crazy Heart instead are transitory, usually fragile, and much like the songs Bad Blake sings in his desire to find a way home.

-- January 16/10

“I have had enough serious interest in the products of the ‘higher’ arts to be very sharply aware that the impulse which leads me to a Humphrey Bogart movie has little in common with the impulse which leads me to the novels of Henry James or the poetry of T.S. Eliot…To define that connection seems to me one of the tasks of film criticism, and the definition must be first of all a personal one. A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he’s that man.”

--Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience, 1955.

We seemed to have come a slippery distance from the time when critic Robert Warshow eagerly expressed curiosity about an impulse, or a justification to make a connection between what is often deemed “high culture” and “low culture.” One look at the TIFF Cinematheque Best of the Decade list tells you that there is no desire, or curiosity, to connect with anything but their own church of refined taste. This is why it is really immaterial to discuss what’s on their list of the best films of the past decade. In examining their choices, I’m sure that we can all find things we love (The Gleaners and IYi Yi), things we dislike (Syndromes and a CenturyCaché), even things we didn’t see and perhaps might want to (Songs from the Second Floor). What is more important is to discuss what isn’t on it – and why.

That question seemed to elude many of the critics who wrote about the series. It’s often been said that the political media has become self-serving and fawning rather than skeptical when it comes to covering politics. But I’d have to extend that view also to our coverage of the arts. The write-ups on the Best of the Decade list revealed a true dearth of critical thinking. What we got instead was friendly consumer reports with enough celebratory bunting and balloons to fill a convention hall. To be critical doesn’t mean necessarily panning the event. I’m speaking actually of pieces that ask thoughtful questions about just what this series represents and maybe why. But I’m afraid that as the gulf between “high culture” and “low culture” has grown wider over the years, the line between criticism and consumer reporting has also narrowed dramatically. But I sense something else going on here as well. The list, which calls itself an ‘alternative,’ is out to make a statement. But it’s not one that sets out to create bridges between the best of “high art” and the best of “low art.” It’s instead about drawing lines in the sand and guarding the gates against the commercial philistines who dare drag dirt into their living room. The Best of the Decade list is not an open and expansive invitation to film lovers; it’s a calling to a hermitage, a hushed seminary for film theorists to worship in.

Over the past few decades, theory began to dominate campuses where many liberal arts scholars and writers have studied. Instead of the more expansive criticism once extolled by cultural critics like Leslie Fiedler, Pauline Kael, Norman O. Brown or Herbert Marcuse, they were replaced by the chilly, detached and cerebral musings of post-structuralists like Derrida, Foucault and Lecan. Theory began sounding the death knoll of criticism. Where criticism teaches you how to think, theory tells you what to think. To be critical means to be in flux, where you’re often forced to struggle with intuition and knowledge, in order to seek some understanding of the truth. “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he’s that man,” as Warshow wrote. Criticism leaves you open to experience – wherever it comes from – to expand your base of knowledge, so that you’re always questioning assumptions. Theory offers you a secure, ready-made solution where you merely gather data to support it (and ignore inconvenient little realities that might refute it).

Many of the movies on the Best of the Decade list are a theorist’s paradise. For instance, if you closely look at their few concessions to American “commercial” fare (A History of ViolenceThe Royal Tenenbaums, and Far From Heaven) they’re not included because of their dramatic content. Dramatically speaking, A History of Violence is barely a coherent story. But theoretically, I suppose, you could sum it up as “the return of the repressed.” Far From Heaven is not really a dramatic rendering of Fifties suburban America. It’s more the movie equivalent of a University position paper on Fifties Hollywood melodramas. But I think that’s what the film curators love it for, the picture’s overtly self-conscious and cerebral tone. Some argue that this list is deliberately exclusive so audiences can experience and discover rare films that never get the attention commercial fare does. But if that’s true, why then isn’t a great director like Jan Troell (As White as in SnowEverlasting Moments), whose films audiences rarely ever see, represented by even a single one of his movies from this past decade? It’s a simple answer. As a lyrical, poetic dramatist, he doesn’t show the formal rigor necessary to earn a seat on their pantheon of major artists. When critic Pauline Kael and Susan Sontag died this past decade, guess who was given a tribute at the Cinematheque? Sontag, with her disdain of popular culture, was by far the favoured choice, unlike Kael who could love Renoir as equally as she did The Ritz Brothers. Isn’t it possible that perhaps both were worthy of the honour? Not if your lines of demarcation separate the artiste from the populist.

There’s no question that what constitutes mass culture today is troubling. When The Dark Knight is considered cutting-edge and Up in the Air is being discussed as if it’s a thoughtful tome on our times, it’s maybe tempting to seek shelter with those guardians of high culture. But, for me, despite the mindless product of mass culture, movies have always been the most democratic art form. Everybody goes to the movies. (It’s a claim that you unfortunately can’t make for opera, art galleries, or poetry readings.) Part of the reason for the huge of appeal of films is that they combine and draw upon the essence of all of the arts. Movies can be equally enjoyable as trashy fun, or they can be sublime works that stir you for decades. The Cinematheque curators, on the other hand, treat film as if it were an art specimen. They evade trash, distrust conventional, popular narrative, and break out in hives at the mere mention of Steven Spielberg (unless it’s Godard putting him down). “[H]igh art can be just as fraudulent, evasive, and pandering towards its own constituencies as the lowest, most shameless Hollywood blockbuster,” wrote Howard Hampton in Born in Flames, his lively book of essays on popular culture. Instead of providing audiences with an alternative to the worst in mass culture, the Cinematheque’s film curators have with this list made themselves an island onto themselves.

-- January 23/10

J.D. Salinger's Cultural Exchange

Dariush Mehrjui's Pari

I'm glad that I read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye outside of any high school English class. Due to that fluke of good fortune, I was free to dip into Salinger’s tale of frustration without all the mythical baggage that comes with it. There's no question that his first novel had an indelibly profound impact on young readers (including very disturbed ones like Mark David Chapman). But the book’s influence also extended to movies as well (most notably in both The Graduate and Rushmore). But Salinger’s novel examined teenage misery with an acute eye. He didn’t enshrine his protagonist Holden Caulfield’s world view – rather he revealed that, in the world of ‘phonies,’ Holden was just as culpable as anyone he criticized. The Graduate (1967) and Rushmore (1998), in their blatant attempt to win over the outsider adolescent fringe of two very different generations, chose to pander to youthful narcissism instead. Both movies dubbed their rebel heroes as vulnerable, but they were largely self-righteous. They made dubious claims, too; since the adult world is automatically corrupt, by extension, it also corrupts its young.

Critic Alfred Kazin once wrote that Salinger chose the world of teenagers for his book to provide "a consciousness [among youths]…to speak for them and virtually to them, in a language that is peculiarly honest…with a vision of things that capture their most secret judgments of the world.” But the book questions that judgment by not allowing the reader to take refuge in Holden’s accusations. Rushmore was (as a friend of mine once wisely commented) like The Catcher in the Rye - if written by Holden Caulfield. No director ever truly got the spirit of Salinger right – although Alan J. Pakula came pretty close in the rarely seen The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), an adaptation of John Nichols 1965 novel about an eccentric teenager named “Pookie” Adams (Liza Minnelli) who experiences a painful coming-of-age during college life when she gets involved with a shy, young man (Wendell Burton).

Wendell Burton and Liza Minnelli in The Sterile Cuckoo 

Although The Catcher in the Rye is a wonderfully rich book that has earned its reputation as one of the great American novels about growing into adulthood, it isn’t my favourite Salinger. I reserve that place for Franny and Zooey (1961), one of his many examinations of the eccentric Glass family (which include the short stories, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters”). The Glass family are a precocious clan torn apart by its sense of isolation and traumatized by the suicide of the oldest son, Seymour, their resident sage. The children, who once made radio appearances as child geniuses, create a unique bond among themselves. (Director Wes Anderson, who made Rushmore, also tried to evoke Franny and Zooey in his prosaic and whimsical The Royal Tenenbaums.) Franny and Zooey is a combination of two novellas. The first follows Franny Glass, a university student who is deeply troubled by the book, The Way of the Pilgrim, which is about achieving spiritual illumination through the chanting of a continuous prayer. In the second novella, she goes home to recover from a nervous breakdown brought on by her desperate need to understand the prayer. Her brother, Zooey, confronts her, helping Franny to face the existential burden being carried by their family as well as the wisdom that their elder brother Seymour left them. (Seymour’s suicide is covered in “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.”) The book is painfully funny. Frayed nerves get plucked by siblings who know each other so well that their banter resembles baggy-pants comedy routines conceived by Alan Watts. But Franny and Zooey is also a rich and moving account about the claiming of spiritual solace – and its cost.

Salinger remained a recluse until his death last week, but he also famously denied anyone the right to do any adaptations of his work. But he likely never considered that some young Iranian film director named Dariush Mehrjui, who was spellbound by Franny and Zooey, would make a movie adaptation in 1995 that was set in his own homeland. The movie, Pari, was also about a young girl who is a student of literature. Like Franny, Pari (Niki Karimi) wrestles with her own spiritual crisis after reading the story of a 5th-century mystic who lost everything in a fire. That book is a legacy from Assad, Pari's older brother, who committed suicide by burning himself alive. Her youngest sibling Dadashy tries to dissuade her from following Assad's path and to resurrect her taste for life.

I was lucky to have caught Pari while attending a series on Iranian cinema that same year. At first, not knowing that Pari was based on Franny and Zooey, I was puzzled that I seemed to recognize the story. Within the first hour, however, I realized exactly what Mehrjui was doing – and what he produced was a remarkably intelligent and thoughtful adaptation of Salinger’s book, something he described as “a cultural exchange.” It’s a shame that Salinger didn’t extend the good will back to Mehrjui. Once his lawyers caught wind of Pari, which was to be screened at the Lincoln Centre in 1998, Salinger had the film pulled from distribution. Pari remains in a cultural abyss.

It’s sad that Salinger has now left us, but the good news might be that his estate may soon liberate film-makers to bring his work to the screen. Who knows? Maybe Pari might even see the light of day again. That would be good news indeed. After all, Salinger's American inheritors so far have failed to capture the author's greatest gifts and insights in their own movies. It took an Iranian, coming to terms honestly with his own culture’s trappings and enlightenments, to finally get it right.

-- February 1/10

Glorious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds

Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds

Although it's unlikely to win Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards (the best film on the list of nominations that I've seen is The Hurt Locker), Inglourious Basterds still comes as something of a happy surprise. Director Quentin Tarantino works from a movie-fed imagination, one that's completely soaked in a love of genre films – art movies, Asian action films, and exploitation pictures. But in his most celebrated works, like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), he made a fetish out of movie love. If Jean-Luc Godard had, according to author Paul Coates, once transformed movie audiences into film critics, Tarantino chose to turn his audience into pop culture junkies who savoured his insider movie references. In recent years, with the hubris of Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2, and more recently, the torpor of Death Proof, Tarantino was pretty much swallowing his own tale. But Inglourious Basterds, an alternate World War II action drama, shows Tarantino bringing his movie intoxication to bear on something more than just indulging a fetish. Without question, it’s his best film.

Inglourious Basterds is a pipe dream soaked in the aroma of old World War Two films. It's a fairy-tale account of the Second World War, where a Jewish guerrilla outfit led by a non-Jewish American southerner, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), wreaks havoc on the occupying Nazi army in France. As they send Adolph Hitler (Martin Wuttke) into fits of rage, Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), known as “the Jew Hunter” (in a self-conscious style worthy of Columbo), also tracks down the Basterds. Although that’s the basic storyline, Inglourious Basterds sets up a number of narratives introduced by chapters (just as he did in Pulp Fiction). But this time the multiple stories deepen the underlying theme of the picture rather than call attention to their cleverness. As for the theme itself, film critic Shlomo Schwartzberg, writing in the Canadian Jewish News, already put his finger on it. “Inglourious Basterds evokes a ‘reality’ that so many Jews, understandably, wish had existed during World War Two,” Schwartzberg writes.”[It’s] a world in which Jews…could have taken charge of their own destiny without being beholden to non-Jews who, mostly, were indifferent to their fate.”

At its core, Schwartzberg’s point makes for a pretty potent subject, an alternate history that could inspire a justifiable blood lust, but (for once) Tarantino doesn’t use cathartic violence as a means to pander to the audience. Instead he wakes us from the illusions that those violent genre movies can create. He shrewdly mixes in real characters, like Hitler and Goebbels (Sylvester Goth), with fictional ones like Landa, German actress Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger invoking Dietrich), who’s working with the Allies; and the Basterd Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), who’s called “The Bear Jew” because of his abilities to club Nazis to death with his baseball bat. The strategy is to set up a dramatic shell-game with our cinematic memory. All through Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s people don disguises, personas and allusions (mostly figures out of film and literature) only to have their masks ultimately stripped away.

Christoph Waltz

Tarantino works deftly with an international ensemble cast that speaks German, French, Italian and English. German actor Christoph Waltz, who deservedly won the Best Actor Prize in Cannes, is a frighteningly slippery figure, an unnerving portrait of the adaptable bureaucrat (by way of Klaus Barbie) who possesses an expedient morality. Waltz is clever enough to uncover the Nazi resistors but he doesn’t (except once) attack them; rather, he asks his prey leading questions that allows each individual to trip into his noose. (In these particular extended scenes, Tarantino has never written sharper dialogue that dramatically pays off.)

While I would have liked the Basterd members to be a little bit more defined, Brad Pitt gives Raine some nicely textured flourishes as a mountain man who doesn’t get turned into a hick. (Imagine an Appalachian Van Johnson playing Patton.) Melanie Laurent is also luminous as Shoshanna Dreyfus, a young Jewish refugee who survives her family’s slaughter at the hands of Landa. While living under an assumed name, she runs a small movie theatre and draws the amorous attention of a young German soldier Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), who becomes a war hero after gunning down a number of Allied soldiers. To provide morale for the troops, Goebbels makes a movie about Zoller (with the soldier getting to portray himself). This marksman appeals to Goebbels to have the movie premiere at Shoshanna’s theatre in order to impress her. While Shoshanna agrees, it’s only so she can launch her own plot to avenge her parents. But unbeknown st to her, the Basterds are also cooking up a plan to trap the entire high command of the Nazi leadership who will also be in attendance. In those final scenes, which contain a few unexpected epiphanies, Inglourious Basterds achieves a grandeur that is both spellbinding and unsettling.

Inglourious Basterds occasionally goes off the rails in tone (especially in some back-story inserts narrated by Samuel Jackson), but this is Tarantino’s most ambitiously fulfilling movie. Without losing any of his swagger, Quentin Tarantino has devised a story that uncorks his talent in a whole new way. By giving meaning and purpose to his abundant technique, he shows us what movie love is truly for.

-- February 2/10

“There is no music that you can say, ‘Oh, that’s Canadian – know what I mean? It’s North American music – different countries, but you hear the exact same music, from blues to cowboy. So rather than talking about Calgary or Montreal, we talked about places that we played in.”

--Robbie Robertson quoted in Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music.

It’s been commonly held for years that Canadian musical performers only achieve their due recognition when they go south of the border. While that remains something of a simplification, there are still many examples to choose from – Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, just to name a few. Fortunately, in his recent book Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music…From Hank Snow to The Band (ECW Press, 2009), author Jason Schneider develops a more substantial rendering of this phenomenon. By examining the Canadian songwriting tradition as a national narrative, he’s able to illustrate how our musical artists subtly permeate the American experience rather than seek out our neighbour’s validation. In a series of essays that chart the careers of Hank Snow, Wilf Carter, Ian & Sylvia and Leonard Cohen, Schneider (Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance) draws a delicate map of our cultural influence in popular music. He doesn’t so much examine how our identity as Canadians is felt in American music, but rather how American popular music has been enriched by our Canadian sensibilities.

Whispering Pines takes its name from the gorgeous Richard Manuel song on The Band’s second album, but it’s also an apt metaphor for how Canadian culture is often understated in its meaning. Where Americans, over time, developed a frontier mentality that brought forth both its riches and its arrogance, Canadians became humbled by the harsh landscape – we endure it and we also envelop ourselves in it. Schneider picks up on our need to explore (rather than conquer) with illustrations that include Hank Snow’s greatest song, “I’m Movin’ On,” Ian & Sylvia’s “Four Strong Winds,” Neil Young’s “Helpless,” Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” and Joni Mitchell’s “Urge For Going.” He ties the emotional reach of those songs to the mythic American folk and country traditions. All through the book, Schneider tells tales where American artists (like Bob Dylan and Ronnie Hawkins) become reoccurring figures who help Canadian performers seek homes abroad.

Schneider unfortunately doesn’t fully illuminate the meanings he finds in the songs of these Canadian artists. But he does have a storyteller’s gift of spinning fascinating yarns so that we can glean the deeper significance of their work for ourselves. Whispering Pines opens with The Band’s last concert (in their original line-up) in 1976, and then uncovers how the stage that evening was filled with Americans and Canadians who had all drunk from the deep well of North American roots music. He closes the book by contemplating their final failing as a group in creating a community out of their art. While this particular framing of Whispering Pines is ambitious, I wish Schneider had done more to create meaning out of The Band’s career (especially since their story runs like a leit motif throughout Whispering Pines). But as a study of the elusive nature of Canadian music, Schneider’s book is an invaluable study. It may not go far enough, yet in its own suggestive way, Whispering Pines reveals just how prominent our best artists and their music have become despite the way they operate in the shadows.

-- February 7/10

Parker Posey in Broken English

I can't think of another movie where a woman's desperate need for a relationship is dealt with both comically and painfully quite like Zoe Cassavetes’ Broken English. There is probably no other actress, either, better than Parker Posey who could delicately negotiate the shifting mood swings that such anxiety inspires. Broken English, which had a very limited release in 2007, isn’t simply about the neurotic funk of being lonely. It’s about an attractive and intelligent woman whose ability to find a passionate and compatible relationship gets impaired by her rash decisions to mate. Cassavetes, who is the daughter of the late actor/director John Cassavetes, has definitely inherited her father’s love of actors but (thankfully) without imposing all his heavy-spirited psycho-dramatics on the picture. Broken English comes closest to invoking the suffused moods of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, or maybe Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (to which Cassavetes pays tribute here).

Posey plays Nora Wilder who works for a boutique hotel in the area of guest-services. It’s an apt job given that she is always looking after everyone else’s needs but her own. After setting up her best friend Audrey (Drea de Matteo, of The Sopranos) with the man she ultimately marries, Nora wonders whether she will ever find Mr. Right for herself. Continually fueled by her anxiety and pressed on by her mom (Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’ real mother) to find a man, Parker stumbles from one painful encounter to the next. But Cassavetes doesn’t belabour Nora’s misery and neither does Posey. Both women recognize that matters of the heart are as much absurdly comic as they are tragic.

One night at a party, Nora meets Julien (Melvil Poupaud), an attractive, but aggressively amorous Parisian, who initially alienates her. But his persistence is also tempered by a tenderness that she ultimately finds appealing. Poupaud portrays Julien as if he’s imagining himself being Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless. (Like Belmondo, he proudly wears a fedora on back of his head while continually nursing a cigarette.) As their romance tentatively unfolds, we see how Nora comes to realize that she has never allowed herself to recognize what she wants out of a relationship. Julien though knows immediately why he desires her, but his innate decency won’t allow him to dominate. He wants her to come around on her own terms.

Posey and Poupaud make the characters endlessly appealing. The couple are continually feeling out the emotional terrain that they uncover in each other – which, for Nora, is sometimes the utter fear of what she’s getting into. Eventually, Julien wants Nora to join him in Paris, but she can’t make the spontaneous decision to leave. Ultimately, with her friend Audrey in tow, Nora takes the leap to find him. But finding Julien turns out not to be as easy as desiring him.

While Broken English doesn’t really represent any radical departure in moviemaking, the subtle shifts in dramatic texture help it transcend becoming merely a traditional genre piece. In the past, Parker Posey has portrayed a compelling cast of fascinating personalities in American independent pictures, but I don’t think she’s had a role that has provided for her as much range as she shows here. Zoe Cassavetes is obviously a director to watch. She has a compelling interest in letting a story find its own meaning rather than imposing meaning on it. Broken English is about the ways that communication in romance can end up frayed and confused, but the film finds a fresh romantic spirit that mends the pieces.

-- February 8/10

Shimmering Alchemy: Death Defying Acts (2008)

Death Defying Acts
There are few directors who can capture the fragile nuances of human emotion quite like Gillian Armstrong. In Mrs. Soffel (1984), she dipped into the deep well of longing that a repressed wife (Diane Keaton) developed for an incarcerated man (Mel Gibson). In High Tide (1987), Armstrong elicited, with great subtlety and sadness, the unrequited yearnings a young daughter (Claudia Karvan) had for a mother (Judy Davis) who had abandoned her years earlier. In her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1994), Armstrong went even farther than the previous adaptations of the classic novel. She captured, with both compassion and insight, the strong family bond of the March family while delicately illustrating the diverse desires and hopes of the growing sisters. In her best work, Armstrong’s great gift is for working between (and within) the lines of the story.

Her latest film, Death Defying Acts (2008), is also about emotional bonds – between mother and daughter; men and women – only it’s not nearly as cohesive, or as satisfyingly worked out. Yet there is still something shimmering about this picture, something ghostly that helps compensate for some of the movie’s dead spots. Part of the picture’s alchemy has to do with the fact that the story is about magic – both what is real and what is fake. Magician Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) is visiting Edinburgh, Scotland in 1926 to offer $10,000 to anyone who can help him contact his dead mother and reveal to him her last words. Thirteen years after her death, Houdini is still possessed by the fact that he wasn’t at her side when she passed away. Meanwhile, two con artists, Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan), have been desperately making their living fleecing customers with a bogus psychic show. (While Mary performs the tricks, Benji sneakily gathers information from the audience needed to help her mother pull off the scam.) When Houdini comes to town, they immediately zero in on the possibility of winning the money. What ensues is a romantic entanglement between Mary and Houdini that’s interrupted by the knowledge that Benji may possess magical gifts that go far beyond scamming.

Part of the failing of Death Defying Acts is the lack of mystery in Catherine Zeta-Jones. Since her lively appearance years ago in The Mask of Zorro (1998), she has been little more than a beautiful blank on the screen. Her earnest approach to her role here makes her seem somewhat indistinct and bland – not believable qualities for a scam artist. Her romantic encounter with Houdini, while intitially part of the seductive rouse, also simplifies the story’s strengths by overshadowing the film’s core dynamic of her relationship with her daughter. Saoirse Ronan, on the other hand, has magic coming out of her fingertips. She equals her startling work as the young precocious Briony Tallis in Atonement (2008). Ronan plays Benji with a mischievous zeal, like a Dickens' gamine, a ploy that masks her adolescent frustrations towards her mother. This young actress performs with such imagination and lyricism that you wish Carol Reed had lived to direct her. Pearce’s Houdini is somewhat stylized, but he doesn’t turn the magician into a cartoon. Unlike the horribly mannered work Pearce has done since his satisfying turn as the straight-arrow cop in L.A. Confidential (1997), Pearce does some nimble work here. He reveals Houdini to be a man who believes that performing magic can cheat the reality of death - except the death that continues to haunt him.

Death Defying Acts gets a lot of its facts wrong (for example, Houdini didn’t die in Montreal, it was in Detroit), but Armstrong’s film is strongest when she shows us how the spirit of magic is sometimes inseparable from human yearning. The cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos is also so beautifully textured so that the characters appear like spectral figures laminated on the screen. The script, by Tony Grison and Brian Ward, might not provide Gillian Armstrong with a full deck, but in Death Defying Moments she still knows how to play the hand that’s dealt her.

-- February 14/10

Although The Beatles got all the credit for spearheading the British Invasion into America in 1964, the first rock band to literally tour the United States was The Dave Clark Five. Driven by a heavy sound that Time Magazine compared to an air hammer, The Dave Clark Five sold in excess of 50 million records and appeared a record 12 times on The Ed Sullivan Show. So, given these accomplishments, why didn't they reign supreme? First of all, musically the band was nowhere near as talented as the Fab Four. Their songs ("Glad All Over," "Bits and Pieces") were driven by a pounding Big Beat, but their timbre ultimately grew deeply monotonous. They were also a colourless group, indistinct in comparison to the madcap Beatles. "Sure they were crude and of course they weren't even a bit hip, but in their churning crassness there was a shout of joy and a sense of fun," wrote critic Lester Bangs in appreciation. Given that their greatest appeal was in that spirit of simple fun, it was a huge shock to discover that in their first movie, Having a Wild Weekend (1965), they would end up providing such depth. To borrow film critic Andrew Sarris's comparison: Having a Wild Weekend is to A Hard Day's Night (1964) what Sarris says Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) is to The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), an uneven, but emotionally richer experience than the former.

Having a Wild Weekend, which was more aptly titled Catch Us If You Can in the United Kingdom, is a story about the cost of being a tool of mindless commercialism. It's about how one defines success, and whether or not it does bring complete happiness, or even satisfaction. Having a Wild Weekend is not about the alienation of youth (always a popular theme), it's about disenfranchisement. The movie examines the price of utopian dreams, how they are defined, or if they can be sustained if they are ever found. A Hard Day's Night celebrated The Beatles' fame, and it did so with great affection. Having a Wild Weekend asks more unfriendly questions about what fame really has to offer. Directed by John Boorman, his first dramatic feature, and written by playwright Peter Nicols (A Day in the Life of Joe Egg), Having a Wild Weekend took a number of risks that A Hard Day's Night chose to avoid.

Dave Clark Five

A Hard Day's Night has The Beatles playing themselves in a film that both mythologizes and celebrates their music. In Having a Wild Weekend, The Dave Clark Five don't play themselves. The movie isn't even about how a rock band achieves fortune. The Dave Clark Five are playing stuntmen working on a TV commercial being produced for an advertising company selling meat. Steve (Dave Clark) is a model who is unhappy with his life. He works with Dinah (Barbara Ferris), the "Butcher Girl" in the company billboard ads. One day, they've had enough of the vapid commercialism, of being turned into products of the advertising firm. In an act of desperate rebellion, they impulsively leave London to explore the English countryside. Their valiant hope is to find a better and more meaningful life, while the advertising company spends the movie trying to hunt them down. What they discover on their journey is more people desperately trying to survive their shattered dreams. They first encounter some squatting hippies on Salisbury Plain in a gutted house smoking grass, but the squatters are seeking something harder - heroin. Although it's 1965, the commune members suggest the dissipated and drugged wanderers of the late sixties, those who would become fodder for the crazed visions of Charles Manson.

They later meet an unhappily married couple (played with bitter perfection by Yootha Joyce and Robin Bailey) who are collectors of arcane objects that help them cling to the past in their extravagant estate. But their antique goods can't heal the angry emotions that continually tear the couple apart. The thrust of Steve and Dinah's journey, throughout the movie, is to get to an island off the mainland in Devon where they can find sanctuary from the corrupted world around them. But the island is as much a phantom refuge as Moscow was for Chekhov's Three Sisters.

It's not hard to understand why Having a Wild Weekend failed to score with the fans of The Dave Clark Five. (The picture bombed.) Instead of playing off of the band's pop appeal, or celebrate the spirit of liberation in the air, John Boorman speculates about what freedom Steve and Dinah could possibly find outside of their own milieu. In many ways, Having a Wild Weekend was a sober meditation on a period that people wished to define as idyllic. Ironically, while the Dave Clark Five would soon drift into relative obscurity next to The Beatles; by 1966, The Beatles themselves would begin to live out aspects of what was so presciently unveiled in Having a Wild Weekend.

-- February 16/10

Deviation From the Norm: Irwin Chusid's Songs in the Key of Z (2000)

"You can't have progress without deviation from the norm," composer Frank Zappa once wrote. Glancing back on the history of popular music, it shouldn't come as any surprise that it contains a long list of deviators. Out of their time, and breaking and remaking all the rules, these innovators dauntlessly set out to change history. While gleefully altering our perceptions of the world, these artists deviate most from the norms we take for granted. American outsiders are the most compelling to watch since they tend to transform themselves along with their work.

In 1925, Louis Armstrong, already a major jazz performer, decided to turn the music on its ear with a series of masterful recordings with the Hot Five and Seven. By reconstructing jazz into a soloist's art form, Armstrong was conveying a secret to all Americans: It's more exciting to stand out from the crowd than it is to join it. A few decades later, a young saxophone player from Kansas City named Charlie Parker decided to answer Armstrong's invitation by breaking the rules of standard harmony. While riffing at lightning speed, Parker ingeniously played within the chords themselves. Soon after, a young truck driver named Elvis Presley walked into Sun Studios in Memphis and made the cocky claim that he sounded like nobody else. Within a few years, he effortlessly altered the face of American music.

On the other hand,there is a whole other breed of outsider, whose talents aren't about innovation, self-transformation or changing the face of the culture. Quite the contrary: these artists live in a world shaped by their own peculiarities, and their music eagerly expresses those oddities. There is no danger that these visionary cranks will set the world aflame, but a compelling world is still tucked away within their music, a world that sets them apart, too, from the bland and homogenous conventions that mark the path to pop stardom. Irwin Chusid, a music historian and the host of WFMU's "Incorrect Music Hour," first termed this mutant strain "outsider music," and he wrote about it in a fascinating book called Songs in the Key of Z (2000).

Focusing on such unusual talents as Daniel Johnston, Joe Meek, Jandek and Wesley Willis, Chusid defined outsider music as "crackpot and visionary music, where all trails lead essentially to one place: "over the edge." In the music of Jandek, for example, a reclusive young Texan who has released over 30 homemade LPs, you hear a distinctly shattered performer. In a voice that sounds like Neil Young after he's been shot full of holes, Jandek seems to be reading suicide notes rather than singing songs. Jack Mudurian is a resident in a nursing home in Boston who professes to "know as many songs as Frank Sinatra did" - actually, he knows a lot more. To prove it, Murdurian once dared a hospital staff member to get his cassette recorder, then offered up an impromptu forty-five minute performance. When he was finished, Mudurian had blurted out a completely improvised and unedited 129-song medley that was gathered on an album called Downloading the Repertoire.

In Freemont, New Hampshire, a trio of sisters, Dorthy, Helen and Betty Wiggins, went into a local studio in 1969 to record an album called Philosophy of the World. Calling themselves The Shaggs (because of their long thick locks), their music couldn't be more disharmonious, with missed beats, shredded chords and innocent, almost naive lyrics. One of their songs, "My Pal Foot Foot," was about their pet cat. Where some dismissed it as one of the worst albums ever made, others insisted Philosophy of the World was one of the most original and indigenous of American records. (Of that, there's no question.) Philosophy of the World continues to cause debate some forty years after its release; Rolling Stone called it one of the most influential alternative releases ever made. Frank Zappa once tried to land The Shaggs as an opening act. Bonnie Raitt referred to them affectionately as castaways on their own musical island. What Chusid's book, and its CD soundtrack attests, is that the grain of outsider temperament, wherein you set the terms of your own acceptance, inspires this motley crew to make their own kind of music. With their faint hope of chart success, the outsider's daunting task still remains a compelling one. While playing out their part as Raitt's castaways, they remain a weird distillation of pure American ambition.

-- February 17/10

Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is less an adaptation of author Dennis Lehane’s mystery thriller than it is a virtual funhouse of the director’s favourite film noir tropes – only there’s no fun in it. As he did in his ridiculous re-make of Cape Fear (1991), Scorsese gets so absorbed invoking the work of various film stylists - including Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie (1943), Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955), Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) - that he can’t find a style of his own to take us inside the drama. Working from a dense but convoluted script (by Laeta Kalogridis), Shutter Island is a cluttered labyrinth that begins as an ingenious detective story but slowly shifts into a psychological character study. However, Scorsese gets so jazzed on creating a surreal atmosphere, aided by the atonal sounds of Ligeti, Penderecki and John Adams, that he clouds the clarity of the story. If it wasn’t for the good work by many of the performers, desperately breathing life into their stock roles, the picture would sink under the weight of the director’s B-movie fetishes.

Set in 1954, Shutter Island tells the story of two newly partnered U.S. marshals, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), who take a ferry across the stormy waters of Boston Harbour to the Ashecliffe Asylum on Shutter Island. They've been assigned to find Rachel Solando, a female inmate who vanished from her cell without a trace. (Rachel was sent to the Island after murdering her three children and arranging them around the dinner table for her husband to find.) On this remote estate, they’re introduced to the chief physician, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), and his cohort, Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), who aid them in their investigation. But from the moment they arrive, while a hurricane brews menacingly outside, the disappearance doesn't add up and stormy memories are starting to cloud Teddy Daniels’ judgment. Daniels begins to suffer from blinding migraines brought on by visions of the trauma he experienced liberating Dachau with Allied Forces and of the later death of his young wife (Michelle Williams). Before long, Daniels suspects that the asylum may be housing sinister experiments brought on by the Cold War paranoia of the Fifties in which he himself may soon become a victim.

Although Shutter Island is full of portentous imagery, the dread it evokes is largely mechanical. In his early work, like Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), Scorsese successfully dramatized psychological turmoil by going deep inside his protagonists’ unrest so that we fully experienced their distorted world view. In Shutter Island, Scorsese stays safely on the outside and portrays Daniels’ hall-of-mirrors world more like a series of abstractions. (His haunting hallucinations, meticulously shot by Robert Richardson, are as literally and dramatically inert as the ones in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.) If David Lynch and Neil Jordan find realism in the dreamscape of surrealism, Scorsese’s strengths (which he abandons here) are in uncovering surreal states in dramatic realism. Shutter Island might be about how we invent comfortable worlds to live in as a defense from memories and impulses too painful and too violent to acknowledge. But that’s also Scorsese’s dilemma here as a director: he creates a comfortable world out of effects from film history to avoid delving too deeply into the dramatic conflicts of his characters. As a director who once wrestled with violence, at times unflinchingly, Martin Scorsese is now taking refuge in formal technique.

Despite the deficiencies of Shutter Island, the actors keep grounding the story. Leonardo DiCaprio fits snugly into the broad fedora and long coat of past noirs, but he also manages – especially late in the picture – to create a searing, tragic portrait that cuts through the morass of the plot. Mark Ruffalo brings a calm, quiet presence to his supporting role that transcends the usual detective story clichés. Emily Mortimer has a beauty of a cameo, too, as an inmate whose burst of anger sends shock waves through the lovely contours of her face; as does Patricia Clarkson, playing a former psychiatrist, whose calm paranoia tells Daniels something about the truth behind the possible horrors he’s beginning to unravel. Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow could both have floated off into hambone heaven, but unlike Jack Nicholson in Scorsese’s last movie, The Departed, they give measured and low-key performances.

A lot has been made over the years about Scorsese’s reverence for the movie past which is why many critics continue to call him a master. And in some of his best work, where he uncovered and revitalized a number of genre conventions, his unbridled love of film did make him a great artist. But in his last few movies – from Gangs of New York (2002) to Shutter Island – his passion has been replaced by an impersonal craftsmanship. He still knows how to make a movie but some of us are now left wondering why he’s making it. You could say that Martin Scorsese is currently on his own Shutter Island, a movie theme park, playing out his role as master and lost in the storm.

-- February 19/10

My good friend Adam Nayman and I were once discussing people who you always expect to miss the point. But we agreed that sometimes - maybe just once in their life - they got it right. That lead me to think about the late singer/songwriter Harry Chapin. Chapin was a composer of short-story songs and they often centered on society’s “little people.” Whether it was the poor sap wistfully remembering a lost love affair in “Taxi,” or the DJ who’s time has faded in “WOLD,” or (worst of all) the dad who doesn’t take time to pay attention to his growing son in “Cats in the Cradle,” Chapin was pop music’s Paddy Chayefsky. All everyone needed was love and attention and the world would be fine.


But one of his early songs, one that rarely gets played on the radio, or even recognized as a Harry Chapin song, is a track called “Sniper.” The title tune from his second album in 1972, “Sniper” wasn’t about the benign, fictional “little” Americans that populated his usual repertoire. This particular song was about a real killer, the American sniper Charles Whitman. Over forty years ago, Whitman stood in a tower at the University of Texas in Austin and shot and killed 14 people and wounded 32 others in a shooting spree on the campus. (The massacre happened shortly after he had murdered both his wife and mother.)

Chapin takes the same approach to this song as he did with many others (if only Whitman had been loved by his mother, he would have been sane). But his neo-Freudian interpretation gets overturned by the sheer force in his singing, in the way the character of Charles Whitman keeps taking over the song and claiming it back from any easy summing up of his life. Chapin’s gift was his ability to get inside the characters in his compositions – whatever one thought of his songs. He spoke in the voice of the person in the tune and made you see the world through their eyes. But in “Sniper,” Chapin got more than he bargained for. On the album, “Sniper” is overproduced with effects, but Chapin still manages to rise above the aural clatter. All through the song’s over nine-minute length, as he describes Whitman’s moments climbing the tower, his glee at firing the gun, the stunned reports of news reporters and witnesses, Chapin is breathlessly swept away by the rage he’s unleashed in the character. Music critic Sean T. Collins deftly touched on some of the sheer intensity of “Sniper”:

“It’s a[n] … unusual topic for the man behind ‘Sunday Morning Sunshine.’ But the earnestness with which Chapin imbued his folksy love songs serves this macabre subject well. Chapin is no more able to hide behind irony or ambiguity here than he is in his more romantic work, forcing the audience to come directly to terms with the horror of the sniper attack, and the tortured character of the sniper himself. Over the course of the song's 9 minutes and 55 seconds, Chapin and his dexterous backup band wind, segue, and careen from tempo to tempo, key to key, style to style. Here they're conveying the quiet of the early morning campus, while the protagonist walks toward the clock tower. Here they're mimicking the buzzing teletype and breaking-news noise of the special reports updating viewers and listeners on the shootings. Here they're deploying simple, sparse staccato to simulate the slaying of yet another too-curious bystander. Here they're using cello and chorus to depict the mournful, vengeful mother fixation of the title character. Here they're building toward the climactic showdown between sniper and police, replete with gas-dropping helicopters and ‘final fusillades.’ And here [they crescendo] to a ‘Day in the Life’-style nihilist's triumph. A band trained for simplicity, their discipline serves them extraordinarily well, tempering excess and making every musical metaphor.”

Of course, the metaphors are obvious and no more open-ended than the ones in “Cats in the Cradle,” but Chapin’s performance overturns his pat conclusions. But if the album version is overproduced, the live performance he gave of the song in 1975 for PBS’s Soundstage, remedies the problem. With no trick sound-effects, “Sniper” gets stripped down to just what his ensemble can re-create on stage. Chapin is almost maniacal here, as if determined to take back control of the song. But Whitman possesses him to the point that you can feel Chapin's band backing away. The audience applauds at the end but likely with relief. I had just come back from school that evening and one of my roommates just happened to be watching Soundstage. As I put my bag down, I stood staring at the TV with an eerie sense of not knowing how far Chapin would go. As the song continued to sing him, I sensed that after that performance, I’d never hear anything of that power from the man again.

And I didn’t.

-- February 25/10

Charles Ives
“The quest for identity runs through American music like a leitmotif,” writes music critic Veronica Slater. “Long before musical nationalism became an issue in Europe, native-born composers in the New World were trying to speak with a voice recognizably theirs and theirs alone.” Americans, according to Slater, rebelled against the rules in both politics and music for good reason. They were after an indigenous art rooted in their own experience of the new land, not what they inherited from the Old World. The map of that rebellion and quest is aptly provided in Frank Rossiter’s rare and illuminating study of American composer Charles Ives in his book Charles Ives & His America (1975).

Born in 1874, in Danbury Connecticut, Ives had little patience for what Slater would call the “elegancies of late-18th-century music.” In the America he envisioned, European decorum had no place to park. According to Rossiter, Charles Ives was born into an America where the chasm between the “cultivating” arts and the “popular” arts was long and wide. Composers in the United States at that time were steeped in the European romantic sensibility that emphasized “the sublime and spiritually exalted in the arts,” as Rossiter puts it. This meant the cultural arbiters of taste in America wouldn’t draw their inspiration from their new roots, but from the Old World values of Handel, Haydn and Beethoven. By the time Ives arrived, American composers of classical music were either trained in European schools or by European teachers in America. In Charles Ives & His America, Rossiter explores how, before Ives, America was cut off from “the popular culture of their own country” because they lacked a tradition of art music comparable to Europe. When Charles Ives began composing, he found the American voice in its folk hymns, marching band music and its patriotic tunes. He radically transformed this popular musical vernacular into mutating soundscapes, as in his boldly dissonant “4th of July,” that used collage and asymmetrical rhythms.

Rossiter also clearly illustrates why Ives’ rebellion against European gentility took on an ebulliently harsh tone. (He called Chopin “soft…with a skirt on;” Mozart was “effeminate.) Like Ernest Hemmingway, Ives defined American art in the narrow terms of masculine assertion. But that was hardly accidental. Film editor and scholar Paul Seydor once asserted in his fascinating study of film director Sam Peckinpah (Peckinpah: The Western Films) that the “artistic revolt in America has…always been masculine in character, with its emphasis on hardness, clarity, simplicity, boldness, difficulty, exploration, independence and rebelliousness.” Since women were excluded from professional and prestigious positions in business, those in the upper classes turned to music for leisure and a livelihood. They embraced the cultivated music of Europe. Early in the 20th century, women made up the majority of audiences at operas and concerts, and the majority of music students, too, and even wrote most of what constituted music criticism. “Women became dominant in cultivated-tradition music because the European system of selecting out and educating a body of males to carry on artistic traditions had never caught hold in America,” Rossiter writes.“And as women’s dominance grew," he explains, "American men retreated from classical music as a threat to their masculinity.” In his work, including Three Places in New England and the Concord Sonata, Ives stripped cultivated music of its genteel attributes as he were unmasking the true American character – and, of course, freeing the country from its colonial past.

That Ives turned to music, though, created a profound conflict. “When other boys…were out driving grocery carts, or doing chores, or playing ball, I felt all wrong [staying] in and [playing] piano,” he wrote in his memoir Memos. If women had represented gentility, they still cultivated American arts and Ives’s revolt is partly an attack on the very foundations that created him. “[R]ebelling against the official culture an artist is necessarily going to find himself betraying or at least suppressing some of his deepest leanings towards art and expression,” continued Seydor about Peckinpah, an artist who certainly shared some of the same conflicts and ambition of Charles Ives.

However, Ives’s ruggedly masculine assertions didn’t grow out of misogyny. He took on gentility, not women. His radically bold work further illustrates that elegance is not part of the American character because the land, and the foundations on which the country was founded, are anything but harmonious and sweet. Ives believed that ruggedness was the only true response to the spiritual legacy of being an American. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in his American Scholar (1837) that “our day of independence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. We have listened to long to the courtly muses of Europe…We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.” Even if music would be one of the last American art forms to walk on its own feet, Charles Ives certainly heard the call to speak his own mind and gave voice to the living speech of the culturally disinherited.

-- March 3/10

Reel to Real: Food Inc., The Cove and The Most Dangerous Man Alive 

Every year at the Oscars, people concentrate primarily on the Best Picture and Acting categories. But I always like focusing on the Best Documentary Feature section because the people who make them – good and bad pictures alike – have something more at stake than the box office results. This is often why their speeches are either the most moving (or the most proselytizing). Of the five nominated films this year, I’ve only seen three of them.

It’s often been said that you are what you eat, but after seeing Robert Kenner’s incendiary documentary Food Inc.– which examines how the fast food industry radically transformed food production in North America into a stomach-churning enterprise — you just might want to redefine those terms. While Food Inc. is thankfully not alarmist in tone, the facts it uncovers are nevertheless alarming. Using as his guides author Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal) and UC Berkeley School of Journalism Professor Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Delight), Kenner examines how the mass-produced food we now consume is not only lacking in proper nutrients; it may also contain potentially harmful bacteria.

Food Inc.

The story begins with McDonalds, who set the template for cheap assembly-line food production, then shows how American farms have now become equally uniform – and at the horrible price of creating unhealthy working conditions for both workers and livestock. We may end up spending less for the food, but we pay dearly for it with increasing cases of diabetes, obesity and E. coli outbreaks. It’s unfortunate, though, that because many of the corporate industrial heads like Monsanto refused to be interviewed for the film, Food Inc. ends up lacking a larger dimension than its agit-prop intent. (Thankfully, due to the co-operation of Walmart, they come across far more ecologically minded than usually assumed.) Like An Inconvenient TruthFood Inc. lays out its argument clearly, but it’s only one side of the story. To be a truly great documentary, Food Inc. needs a few other conflicting morsels of thought to chew on.

On the other hand, The Cove, a documentary that exposes the slaughter of dolphins in the Japanese fishing town of Taiji, has nothing going for it but its agit-prop intentions. It clobbers the audience so intensely that you may experience caution about raising any objections to the film. It’s as if by questioning the movie’s aesthetic you’ll be found guilty of handing out the spears and harpoons to the killers. But that’s exactly the paradigm The Cove sets up – an Us vs Them dynamic that I believe weakens the story. To quickly transform the movie audience into instant activists (just add melodrama and stir), The Cove by-passes a contemplative investigation of the hunt and instead uses nakedly visceral techniques to outrage its viewers.

The Cove

Director Louie Psihoyos (who is a former National Geographic photographer) and animal rights activist Ric O’Barry (a former dolphin trainer) are appalled by the cruelty taking place in the cove (where dolphins are rounded up and either killed for food, or sent to a living death in marine parks), but due to government and fishing industry collusion, they can’t prove it. (Apparently, close to 23,000 dolphins are driven into the cove each year.) So Psihoyos and O’Barry decide to organize a team with thermal cameras and night-vision goggles to slip by the secured location and (with hidden cameras) capture the hunt in order to expose the fishermen. Since The Cove borrows the methods of a thriller it has a certain dramatic kick when we watch the team organize their battle plan like a commando team. And the footage they get is as horrifying as you can imagine. But given our anthropomorphic identification with dolphins, it seems crudely manipulative to use that footage to stir those sentiments in the viewer while simultaneously indicting the hunters. (I somehow doubt that footage of the group massacring electric eels would have the same impact on the movie audience.)

As well as directing the film, Louie Psihoyos is also the co-founder of the Ocean Preservation Society. So The Cove has an ecological agenda that it proudly wears on its sleeve. Now I’m not suggesting that because of this the movie traffics in the bad faith that Michael Moore’s pictures do. What I’m saying is that the film is trying to be a recruitment poster as well as a criminal indictment – and the two don’t mix very comfortably. The Cove is powerful and effective and it outrages and disgusts. But it also gets the audience cheering when the bad guys are outted. The one thing The Cove doesn’t do is encourage you to think.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers not only encourages you to think, the picture’s subject – the ethics of political activism – stands in sharp contrast to what passes for activism today. When Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, he wasn’t just staging guerrilla theatre (as were Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies), he set out to show how American foreign policy towards Southeast Asia and Vietnam was built on a series of lies. Ellsberg had originally been part of what became the strategy behind the Vietnam War, as both an analyst for the Defense Department and a marine, who first held that if the country went communist, it would be part of a domino theory that would ultimately plunge the region into Stalinist totalitarianism. While it turned out that the country eventually did plunge into Stalinist oppression after the Americans left in 1975, with more than one million Vietnamese fleeing by boat (half of whom, ironically, would land in the U.S.), Ellsberg’s change of heart towards the war was justified. He spoke out because a series of Presidents, from Truman to Nixon, had cooked the facts to support the need for U.S. involvement. (His first day working for Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was the same day of the Gulf of Tonkin incident when North Vietnamese ships were believed to have fired torpedoes at U.S. boats. Although the attack was known to be false, President Johnson decided to use this episode to expand the war.) The Pentagon Papers, which were released to The New York Times and other publications, were essentially the secret history of the Vietnam War. Ellsberg went public – risking prison and career – with these documents on the principle that supporting fabrications and brutal dictatorships in order to fight communism was immoral.

The Most Dangerous Man in America 

The Most Dangerous Man in America (the phrase Henry Kissinger used to describe Ellsberg) is told largely from Daniel Ellsberg’s point of view, along with supporting interviews with the late Howard Zinn and self-damning comments from Richard Nixon’s famous secret tapes, but the film-makers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith have also fashioned another crusade. Besides being a compelling historical saga, it is also a personal story of how a man of conscience was motivated to act on the principle of positive rebellion and how those actions changed him from the man that he once was. It’s a little bracing to recall a time when mainstream journalists were after more than just the careerist desire to be hip and consumer friendly. No doubt that careers got made doing groundbreaking stories like The Pentagon Papers, but the risks were also more dangerous. (The Pentagon Papers inspired Nixon to set up his secret government and led to his downfall with Watergate.) Of course, it would be too easy and too simple today to equate Vietnam with the war in Iraq and how pack journalism (like cliques in high school) prefers to go with the flow, but The Most Dangerous Man in America gives one pause over what was gained by Ellsberg’s actions and what’s been lost since.

-- March 7/10

Chow Yun-Fat & Jonathan Ryhs-Meyers in The Children of Huang Shi

It’s bad enough when good movies get dumped on DVD without first getting a theatrical release. But it’s even worse when the DVD release also gets ignored. (DVD reviewers often miss these films because they either don’t know they exist, or their editors don’t care enough to have anyone know they exist.) Whatever the reason, The Children of Huang Shi certainly deserves a better fate than its remaindered status in the Blockbuster cut-out bin.

Based on the true story of George Hogg (Jonathan Ryhs-Meyers), a British photo journalist during the early days of the Japanese occupation of China in 1938, The Children of Huang Shi is about how an opportunistic journalist turns into a true humanitarian. After pretending to be a Red Cross aid worker (in order to sneak into Nanjing to get a big story), Hogg confronts horrific Japanese atrocities and gets captured after photographing them. He gets rescued by a Communist resistance fighter (Chow Yun-Fat) who arranges to have him sent to an orphanage in Huanghshi to assist Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell), the American nurse who is running it. While he’s initially reluctant to care for the 60 orphan boys living there (and they are alternately not too pleased to have him caring for them), he gains their respect by giving them the kind of attention they’d long given up hope of ever getting again.

Depicting a photo journalist who comes to terms with his role in life is not new to director Roger Spottiswoode, who earlier in his career made the satisfying produced-and-abandoned political drama Under Fire (1984). In that film, a contemporary story set in Nicaragua, a photo journalist (Nick Nolte) transforms himself from an objective observer into a committed activist while simultaneously examining the consequences of his actions. The Children of Huang Shi, however, doesn’t contain the same layered ironies that are woven into Under Fire. The dramatic arc of the picture is much more conventional. But the movie remains a beautifully directed piece of work. In particular, the period details, captured by cinematographer Zhào Xiaodīng (who also shot the luminous House of Flying Daggers), are done in deep pastel colours that enrich the narrative's fermenting intensity.

While Jonathan Rhys-Meyers has often been to acting what Rufus Wainwright is to singing (making every gesture a dramatic affectation), he does his least ostentatious performing on the screen yet. Radha Mitchell’s work as the nurse begins rather stiffly but she gradually comes to reveal how the relentless horror eats away at the idealistic zeal that once fueled this woman's work. Chow Yun-Fat has a small part but he demonstrates an abundance of audience rapport. (His smile is as wide as the screen itself when he detonates buildings he knows will annoy the Japanese invaders.) Michelle Yeoh has an even tinier role as a woman who smuggles drugs to assist the children (and to aid a little habit the nurse has been nursing), yet she's striking in every scene carrying the weight of melancholy in her beautifully expressive face. There are a number of Chinese actors in the roles of the children and every one etches vivid portraits of how young promising lives can get reduced to basic survival. The Children of Huang Shi is the kind of movie that is profoundly moving without becoming self-consciously inspirational.

-- March 13/10

Dead End: Paul Greengrass's Green Zone

Matt Damon in Green Zone

In his sane and sobering book The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq (2005), The New Yorker’s political correspondent George Packer opened up one’s perspective on the Bush Administration’s argument for invading Iraq on the danger of their using weapons of mass destruction:

“[Bush’s] 'axis of evil’ speech, coming just weeks after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, signaled the next stage in the war on terrorism and the basis for further action. The speech dramatically expanded the theatre of war, but it also did so on relatively narrow grounds. As [Paul] Wolfowitz told an interviewer after the fall of Baghdad, WMD was the least common denominator: ‘The truth is that reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction.’ Wolfowitz suggested that he himself had bigger ideas – a realignment of American power and influence in the Middle East, away from theocratic Saudi Arabia (home to so many of the 9/11 hijackers), and toward a democratic Iraq, as the beginning of an effort to cleanse the whole region of murderous regimes and ideologues…Resting on a complex and abstract theory, it would also have been much harder to sell to the public.”

It’s a shame that Paul Greengrass in his new film Green Zone also resists such complexity because the movie turns out to be as single-minded in its approach to the Iraq War as the Bush Administration’s. Based on The Washington Post’s correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City (2006), which documented the tumult in the aftermath of the removal of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Green Zone sets out to expose the false pretenses for the coalition’s actions on the grounds that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were never found. Greengrass brought a nuanced understanding of political conflict in his searing study of the Irish Troubles in Bloody Sunday (2002), and created a chilling atmosphere of realism in United 93 (2006) that chronicled events aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which was hijacked during the September 11 attacks, but he fails in Green Zone to illuminate the cause of the hubris back in 2003. Green Zone instead becomes an obtuse, routine conspiracy thriller that gets lost in the shadows.

For about the first half-hour, Greengrass raises our expectations that Green Zone will be about a lot more than just missing WMD. It begins with the horrific fall of Baghdad in a rain of bombs – the ‘shock and awe’ - which Greengrass powerfully recreates like a tableau of fiery furnaces. In the aftermath, Roy Miller (Matt Damon), a warrant officer, is assigned to find Iraq’s mother lode based on military intelligence from a mysterious source. But his crew keeps coming up empty, so Miller questions the brass about the competency of their information. He gets no satisfaction from his superiors; however, he draws the attention of CIA agent Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) who is becoming equally skeptical of the mission. While investigating another site, Miller gets approached by an Iraqi who calls himself "Freddie" (Khalid Abdalla). He tells Miller that he saw General Al-Rawi (Igal Naor), an expert in Iraqi WMD and possible source, at a meeting in a nearby house. Believing that Al-Rawi holds the key to the mystery of the missing WMD, Miller goes AWOL to capture the General. Although Al-Rawi escapes, one of his henchmen is captured with a book that lists his safe houses. When news of the book reaches American administrator Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), a character loosely based on L. Paul Bremer, he charges his forces to find Al-Rawi and the book before Miller can expose the charade that there are no WMD.

Green Zone touches on a number of key events surrounding the fall of Baghdad. That includes the disastrous dissolution of Saddam’s army in the hope of ridding it of his supporters (while not realizing that the army was also made up of terrified anti-Saddam forces who now found themselves justifiably angry and fodder for the coming insurgency), as well as the rejection of the corrupt Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi as the replacement for the deposed despot. But rather than dramatize the folly of American exceptionalism in its sweeping desire to bring democracy to Iraq, as the superb documentary No End in Sight (2007) did, Green Zone gets caught up in the tired story of one man trying to uncover the truth.

Greengrass is usually a master at blending suspense techniques with documentary realism – as he demonstrated in the last two Bourne movies – but here, watching Miller dashing down the dark streets of Baghdad, the action ends up muddled and indistinct. (Miller might not find any WMD but he sure knows how to find his way down dark alleys in a strange city.) Damon gives a competent action performance, but there are no undercurrents to his conflict. He may not want to be lied to by officials, but you never get a sense of what he stands for beyond that. Greg Kinnear makes a great bureaucrat, but he’s conceived in callow terms that don’t come close to capturing the blind arrogance of Bremer. Brendon Gleeson brings some of the sneaky humour that Geoffrey Wright brought to his company man in Casino Royale (2006), but he soon disappears from the film.

A number of critics have lazily suggested that the faults of this picture are due to Greengrass copying the template of his Bourne movies, but the comparison is superficial. (Besides, unlike Miller, Bourne is an amnesiatic operative trying to recover his memory of being part of a clandestine element of the CIA.) Greengrass does, however, ultimately lose touch with the stronger elements of the story. He abandons the engaging political tumult for cheap melodrama - and the movie flags. Miller might heroically uncover a lie, encouraging the audience to cheer, but he still gets nowhere close to the truth. In its attempt to rouse indignation, Green Zone ends up in a dead zone.

-- March 14/10

In my book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream, I was trying to answer a question: How did a group like The Beatles, who wrote songs about love and helped to build a popular culture based on pleasure and inclusion, also attract hatred and murder. To do so, I realized that I'd have to answer another key question: Was The Beatles' utopian dream truly worth it?

Given that the state of the world, in the wake of the band's demise, is not the one they sung about - and hoped for - in "All You Need is Love," it was tempting to ask whether or not The Beatles truly mattered. I thought I was going to have to justify the group solely on the strength of their music until I came across, quite by chance, a book by Larry Kirwan called Liverpool Fantasy (2003). In his book, Kirwan (who was the lead singer of a New York-based Irish rock group called Black 47), imagines England without the emergence of The Beatles. Liverpool Fantasy is a dystopian, yet comical, look at the absence of The Beatles from history. It doesn't spare the reader, but it doesn't ridicule the dream the band created either.

In Liverpool Fantasy, Kirwan asks what might have happened had The Beatles broken up before their thunderbolt song "Please Please Me" had not hit the airwaves and broke them in England in 1962. Their manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin believe that their cover of the quiet ballad "Till There Was You" will do better. While Lennon balks at the suggestion, McCartney is happy to go along (after all, he sings on it). At which point, Lennon storms out of the studio taking George and Ringo with him. The Beatles are no more. Kirwan next cuts to 1987 where the picture of England isn't an artistic renaissance, but a fascist state where the National Front, bearing the slogans of the ultraright Enoch Powell, has struck a coalition with the Tory government. Unemployment is high. Racism is pervasive. And The Beatles never happened.

John Lennon is now a bitter alcoholic on the dole having watched his adolescent hopes come to nothing. His son Julian, angered by his father's emptiness, adopts the fascist dream as his own and joins the National Front. George Harrison ends up a Jesuit priest who finds his spiritual beliefs earlier in life. Without his defining moments in The Beatles, he dispenses empty homilies without hope that things will ever change. (The priest's collar hangs around his neck like a noose.) Ringo lives off the earnings of his wife Maureen's hairdressing salons. Only Paul becomes a musical success, but he's hardly happy about it. Living in Las Vegas, under the name of Paul Montana (a cute play on an early pseudonym, Paul Ramone), McCartney is the one experiencing his "fat Elvis" period rather than Lennon. Divorced and now remarried to an attractive trailer park sharpie, Paul is haunted by nightmares of what might have been.

He's not alone.

Back in Liverpool, Lennon has to live with the curse that the promise of "Please Please Me" was never fulfilled and that thoughts of pleasing aren't now in anyone's vocabulary. Liverpool Fantasy is a stinging black comedy telling us that whatever dark shadow was ultimately cast by The Beatles' utopian spirit, their music created a vision of life that irrevocably changed the way we see the world. Kirwan makes his characters aware of that possibility even though they never get to experience it. (As readers, we experience the absence of what we know to be true about their impact on the world and the culture.) The Beatles do, however, realize that their music would have made a different world than the one they are living in. For instance, when McCartney comes back to the dismal streets of his hometown, the city he abandoned for fame in America, he seeks to reunite with Lennon, Harrison, and Starr to begin again where he left off. But Kirwan is no sentimentalist. There are no second chances. What makes the emotional core of his book so resonant and so true, though, is that he doesn't cheapen The Beatles' lives by redeeming them from past mistakes. Liverpool Fantasy is about how you learn to live with those mistakes - maybe, perhaps, even in spite of them.

-- March 17/10

Cherry Bombs: The Runaways

Given that The Runaways, a new film about the late Seventies all-girl hard rock band, is written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, who cut her teeth doing videos for Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Christine Aguilera and The White Stripes, it’s rather surprising that The Runaways’ music ends up so secondary to their story. Their story doesn't come to much either. Sigismondi gets so caught up in art school impressionism that she loses touch with the theme of the material. Instead of providing the propulsion needed in depicting a young rock band finding its chops, The Runaways gets lost in a haze of rock video clichés and amorphous trysts between lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and lead guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart). The picture develops about as much fizz as stale ginger ale.

The Runaways were a group of underage Southern California female misfits who were molded by L.A.’s freak Svengali Kim Fowley into a pre-punk outfit that confronted their audience, in both song and image, with a provocative jail-bait allure. What they provided was a clever reversal of the male rockers’ sexual obsession with young girls that was often depicted in songs like Andre Williams’ hilarious “Jail Bait,” Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” and The Rolling Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues.” These brash and provocative girls turned that prurient fascination back on the audience with trashy rock like “Cherry Bomb” (a saucy re-write of “Wild Thing”) and “You Drive Me Wild.” While clearly influenced by the polymorphous glam of David Bowie and Sweet, The Runaways also had some of the tough effrontery of The Ramones and The New York Dolls. Fronted by Cherie Currie, a blond punk chanteuse in lingerie, The Runaways had solid back-up with Joan Jett’s surly rhythm guitar, Lita Ford’s stinging lead runs and Sandy West’s kicking-over-the-trash-can drumming. Kim Fowley brought together a group of disaffected middle-class teenagers and made their disaffection part of their group identity. But, the irony is, that fierce independence was built on their total fealty towards him.

Part of this theme does get into the movie, but Sigismondi lacks the dramatic instincts to shape the material in such a way that the group – as a group – makes any sense. We don’t really get to see how the girls bond under Fowley’s sadism. She not only takes great liberties with their story (the film is based on Cherie Currie’s memoir), Sigismondi doesn’t develop that core relationship with Fowley which would ultimately lead to the band’s break-up. Sigismondi chooses instead to focus on the dynamic between Currie and Jett so that the rest of the band becomes invisible supporting players. For the first third of the picture, though, both Fanning and Stewart give credible performances. Fanning has a quiet insolence that makes her a shrewd choice to play Currie. (It’s a shame, though, that she gets stuck playing out conventionally dramatic family scenes with her jealous sister and alcoholic father.) Stewart thankfully loses some of those mannerisms that marred her starring role in Twilight. She downplays Jett’s tough-girl image and illuminates instead the pleasures she gets from her impudent behaviour. Michael Shannon is on hand to play Kim Fowley and though it seems like the ideal Shannon role, he devours so much scenery that the camera needs to duck. Michael Shannon is too perfect for Fowley and his abusive attributes come across more as an actor’s stunt than a true performance. (He looks like a brooding Lurch doing Max Cady out of Scorsese’s Cape Fear.)

The Runaways could have been a terrific rock and roll B-movie blast, something along the lines of American Hot Wax (1978), if only Floria Sigismondi had more confidence in the sauciness of the material and better instincts in directing the actors. (She does have a great original opening shot, though, a female teenage rite-of-passage that promises more than what the movie ultimately delivers on.) The Runaways becomes more and more conventionally flat as it goes on. When the band breaks up and Currie has transcended her drug trials, she hears Joan Jett on the radio sending out her new record, a cover of Tommy James & the Shondells’ ethereal classic “Crimson and Clover.” Sigismondi signals the audience that, through this tune, these girls discover a lasting and loving bond that goes beyond the sordid rock world that tore them apart.

Isn’t it sweet?

Rather than do justice to the cherry bombs The Runaways dropped on the rock audience, Sigismondi’s film turns their tale into punk kitsch.

-- March 24/10

The Ties That Bind: Bong Joon-Ho's Mother

Kim Hye-ja in Mother

Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother is devastatingly good. It begins as a story about a middle-aged single mother in a small South Korean town with a mentally-challenged son who gets incarcerated for the murder of a young woman. But it ultimately goes far beyond the basic mechanics of melodrama. For Bong, the director of Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2007), genre is merely the starting point for a more searing examination of the family ties that bind.

The umbilical chord that holds a mother to her son is also the link between a country divided and a society not far removed from the rituals of authoritarianism. Like Germany in the post-war and Berlin Wall years, Korea is also a severed nation. But unlike the post-war German directors, like Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who used genre pictures as a means to express their guilt and hopelessness, Bong Joon-Ho uses conventional narrative to uncork the violence and pain of being estranged. Given that authoritarianism imposes ritual, Bong is naturally drawn to genres that have rules – but rules he feels compelled to break. The Host, for example, begins as a humorous, wily tribute to Fifties monster movies like Creature of the Black Lagoon and Godzilla, but it quickly becomes a surprisingly stirring drama about family honor and loyalties. When a slimy reptilian monster (a product of chemical pollution) kidnaps the daughter of a rather dim-witted father, he goes on a torturous mission to get her back. The Host evolved into that rare horror film, one that became inconsolably poignant. Mother shares many of The Host’s virtues, as well as some aspects from his first film, Memories of Murder, a procedural about a Korean serial-killer.

After being widowed for many years, Hye-ja (Kim Hye-ja) lives alone with her only son, Do-joon (Won Bin). Although he is 28 years old, he has the impish and impulsive nature of an adolescent eager to please. Do-joon is also deeply impressionable. (His best friend – and only friend - Jin-tae is a born trouble maker who uses Do-joon both as his scapegoat and tool.) When a young woman’s murdered body is found, Do-joon becomes the likely suspect for authorities because he was assumed to be the last person to see her alive. But Bong also makes it clear that Do-joon’s arrest and imprisonment is merely an easy convenience for bureaucratic authorities who are eager to put the case to bed. Without any substantive evidence, the police seize on Do-joon because he’s a simpleton they can compel to confess. Hye-ja though is not content to see her son rot in prison. She quickly – and shrewdly - begins her own investigation to uncover the facts and free her son. But as Hye-ja comes closer to the truth, she also unveils both disturbing memories buried in the family and shocking impulses borne out of maternal desperation.

While Mother is a superbly crafted piece of work, Kim Hye-ja gives the picture depth. Her performance is simply a powerhouse. She is heartbreaking and unnerving, never once giving in to predictable behaviour. Unlike most melodramas about familial strife, Hye-ja doesn’t actively seek out the audience’s sympathies. In fact, her actions sometimes induce embarrassment and horror. Hye-ja looks through the jail cell bars at her callow son and sees a part of herself she’s tried to forget while her son struggles to recover painful memories he’s been forced to bury. It’s a classic twist on motherly love. Won Bin’s performance is also a sly piece of work (not unlike Song Kang-ho’s father in The Host) where the character’s initial goofiness disguises a deeper longing with lasting regrets. The symbiotic nature of the relationship between the mother and son here becomes a two-way mirror that both sustains and perpetrates a dark drama. When they sleep together it doesn’t so much suggest incest as it does the coiling of an anxious desire to remain connected.

Mother gives you the shivers even as it enraptures you.

-- March 30/10

Warfare: Redacted (2007)

When The Hurt Locker won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, it was a refreshing choice. Instead of going with the manufactured posturing of Avatar, the Academy voters instead were drawn to a more original subject: the addiction of war. (The only other recent film that tackled this subject with intelligence and imagination was the 2008 Israeli picture Waltz with Bashir.) While some decried that The Hurt Locker by-passed the political issues surrounding the Iraq War, I think the examination of a different kind of technological war, where cell phones do as much damage as an air strike, has a political aspect that transcends dogma.

Although we've already seen dozens of movies about the Iraq War, few have come close to making sense of its meaning. Allowing that people of different political persuasions will have separate views of just what that meaning is, most dramas (like 2007's Rendition and In the Valley of Elah) have only reduced the conflict to tired platitudes, or banal melodrama. Perhaps The Hurt Locker succeeds so well because it doesn't attempt to summarize what is still in process, but rather, seizes on an aspect of the war that can now be understood. (Let's not forget that during the Vietnam era there were no Hollywood movies about Vietnam - not, at least, until the conflict was over.)

The Hurt Locker, however, wasn't the only picture to provide an original perspective on Iraq. Back in 2007, director Brian De Palma made a low-budget and formally experimental movie that looked at the war using one horrific episode, the rape and murder of a young Iraqi girl by American soldiers, in order to illuminate it. Redacted is a daring, unsettling and irresolvable work for more reasons than just its subject. Rather than simply dramatizing this disturbing story, De Palma, who won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival that year, did something far more incendiary. He's designed a modestly abstract picture that eschews dramatic narrative in order to daringly call into question how we interpret what we see and why we are inclined to repress the things that disturb us. Redacted, which refers to text that is blackened out, or censored, is not just a tract about the government spin as it's applied to the news; it goes further to raise questions about the manner in which we consume images - and how we interpret them.

Essentially, De Palma returned to a theme he explored in one of his best movies, Casualties of War (2009), about a similar rape and murder that took place during the Vietnam War. But in Redacted, he abandons the sweeping expressionistic style that he used in that film, and perfected in thrillers like Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981) and Carlito's Way (1993). He opted for the more lean guerrilla technique he employed early in his career in the underground political satires Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom!(1970). But those low-budget films, made at the end of the sixties, parodied our voyeuristic tendencies while also lampooning political targets. Redacted takes place in a more advanced technological age of voyeurism in which everyone has access to a camera, whether it's digital or a cell phone, providing multiple points of view. And that's what De Palma deploys in Redacted - a dizzying array of perspectives that force us to interpret what we do - and don't - wish to see.

The story opens with the deployed U.S. squadron casually filming each other with their digital cameras. Before long, De Palma introduces other sources into the movie, including a faux French documentary on how the Americans detain Iraqis who may be potentially carrying explosives. When one of the soldiers does get killed, a raid is led on the family of a young woman who crosses their checkpoint daily. The fallout from their crime is presented through a variety of visual media that provide contradictory responses to the horror of what we witnessed. By the end, De Palma confronts us directly with unsettling still images of victims of the Iraq War that, ironically, are redacted for legal reasons.

Those final photos ultimately (and ironically) contributed to the picture's box office failure. The distributor, Magnolia Pictures, were worried about potential lawsuits arising out of using authentic photos of Iraqi war victims, so they redacted the images to protect themselves. De Palma, however, felt that their actions censored his intent. While I believe De Palma has an arguable point, the redacted photos ended up inadvertently adding to the very meaning of his work. The victims become the hidden, indistinct fallout of warfare. In the end, the conflict between the director and distributor escalated to the point where Redacted got swallowed up by the controversy. It never had a decent chance to be seen.

Fortunately, Redacted is on DVD with special documentaries on its making. Although it would be best to see it in a theatre, the intimate scale of the movie also fits any format. However it is viewed, Redacted is a provocative, multi-layered anti-war film whose power sneaks up on you.

-- March 31/10

When That Rough God Goes Riding, the new book by critic Greil Marcus (Mystery TrainThe Shape of Things to Come) opens a lot of doors. It does so by going through the process of randomly dipping into the fascinating and turbulent music of singer/songwriter Van Morrison. Marcus isn't writing a biography here of this perplexing pop figure; nor is he setting out to draw a chronological study of his many albums, from the masterpieces (Astral Weeks), the vastly underrated (Veedon Fleece), the deeply satisfying (Saint Dominic’s PreviewInto the Music), or the failures (Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, Poetic Champions Compose); this book instead is about articulating how listening to Van Morrison is a rich and complex experience.

Morrison began life in East Belfast forming one of the hardest rock groups in the sixties called Them. Their hit song “Gloria” was a blast of teenage lust that left The Rolling Stones sounding mannered by comparison. His solo career, which began with the conventional 1967 pop hit “Brown Eyed-Girl,” turned mystical in the seventies where within his best music you could hear Morrison speaking in tongues and conjuring the foreboding voices of Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and John Lee Hooker, as if he were inviting these ghosts to a poker game where they could all happily collect their winnings.

When That Rough God Goes Riding (named after the kick-off track for his sublimely unsettling 1997 CD The Healing Game) isn't trying to make any one point about Van Morrison’s music, rather Marcus takes us inside the meaning of Morrison's singular voice, a voice that can reveal unspoken truths when he sings. Therefore, there’s no summation of Morrison’s career, a career that’s both satisfying and desultory. Marcus delves instead inside the grooves of songs, albums and lost tracks, in order to map out what he calls a quest for “moments of disruption, when effects can seem to have no cause, when the sense of an unrepeatable event is present, when what is taking place in a song seems to go beyond the limits of respectable speech.” Marcus’s own writing in When That Rough God Goes Riding also goes beyond the respectable speech of conventional criticism and reveals the hidden impulses and pleasures that great artists call up in a critic who is drawn to their work.

There is also no musical chronology, or road map, offered in the book. Marcus creates in its place the sensation of leafing through your music collection, grabbing randomly at tracks (good and bad), and communing with them. In that spirit of communing, though, come stories, people, and asides that both shape and have been shaped by Morrison’s voice – including Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, film director Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto (2005), an obscure blues singer named Mattie May Thomas, even long-jump athlete Bob Beamon who broke a world record at the Mexico City Summer Olympics in 1968, the year Astral Weeks was released. Marcus diverts the reader down numerous paths that Morrison’s songs open up for him like a novelist who has just discovered characters emerging in his story, characters he didn’t anticipate popping up and surprising him.

The other quest for Marcus here (which has also been part of the sojourn of Van Morrison) is for what he calls the “yarragh” in the voice. (When the late critic Ralph J. Gleason wrote of Morrison’s 1970 Moondance album, Gleason was reminded of a film he saw of the life of the Irish tenor John McCormack. McCormack told his accompanist that what marked an important voice from the good ones is to have the "yarragh" in it.) In doing so, as Marcus explains, Morrison’s work also becomes a quest for freedom. “What he wants most is freedom, and what he has to say is that getting hold of freedom is perhaps not as hard as living up to it, standing up to it,” he writes. “When…Morrison’s music [comes] together, the result can be a sort of mystical deliverance. The listener is not spared a single fear, but he or she is somehow insulated from all fears – as is the performer.”

Perhaps that’s why I initially resisted Van Morrison’s voice in the early seventies (which is perplexing given that I’m partly Irish). I recall once sitting in a movie theatre in Montreal with a friend from McGill University in 1973 waiting for the feature to begin when CHOM-FM, a local radio station, began playing Morrison’s epic “Listen to the Lion” from his Saint Dominic’s Preview album. At the song’s drawn-out conclusion, where Morrison wrestles with the lyrics like a hunted man coiled with a snake and desperately struggling to break free of its grip, I squirmed miserably in my seat. This was not the sweet doo-wop melody of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh),” but a man seeking mystical deliverance in an atmosphere where terror and joy could commingle uneasily. And it unnerved me deeply. My own fears demanded distance from the pleasure and tumult in this man’s voice.

Within a few years, though, I finally caught up to the “yarragh” in that song and much more. What I came to love indeed was Van Morrison’s voice especially on Astral Weeks and Veedon FleeceWhen That Rough God Goes Riding is about what makes that voice so unfathomably deep. It's also about what makes it so unfathomable to fully comprehend.

-- April 12/10 

Poet and author James Dickey was once asked by TV host Dick Cavett what his novel Deliverance was about. “It’s about why decent men kill,” he answered dryly. That’s certainly the plot of both the 1970 novel and John Boorman’s feature film (1972). But it’s also like saying Macbeth is about why kings get ambitious. The power of Deliverance actually lies somewhere beyond the plot and into something more mysterious and fragile like the body. The story is about four Atlanta businessmen – the macho wilderness man Lewis (Burt Reynolds), the beefy, insecure insurance salesman Bobby (Ned Beatty), the affable musician Drew (Ronny Cox) and the thoughtful Ed (Jon Voight) – who decide to canoe down the (fictional) Cahulawassee River in Georgia in order to “commune” with nature before the river valley gets flooded and displaces the mountain locals. With the exception of Lewis, who is a man’s-man like the deerslayer of James Fenimore Cooper (or De Niro’s Michael in The Deer Hunter), and Ed (who has joined Lewis on a few expeditions); the other men are complete innocents. The locals they encounter are also deeply reserved folks isolated from the world these suburban males inhabit and some – like the young boy who duets with Drew on the famous “Duelling Banjos” – are part of inbred families. Lewis and friends, feeling their own false sense of superiority over the inhabitants, still take on the river as if to tame the body of water. What they discover along the way, however, is that nature can’t be tamed and the body is a vulnerable entity.

When their canoes get separated, Ed and Bobby go ashore to get their bearings. They soon encounter two hunters in the woods with one of them wielding a shotgun. When, out of awkwardness and fear, Bobby admits to being lost and then talks down to them, he gets raped by one of the men. Before the mountain men can turn next to Ed, Lewis emerges and kills the rapist with his crossbow while the other man escapes. At this point, they have to decide whether to bury the body or talk to the authorities about the crime. Lewis reminds them that he doesn’t want to go to trial with that man’s relatives on the jury. So they agree to cover-up the crime. However, the men are affected differently. While Lewis takes refuge in his machismo, Ed is morally conflicted. Drew is shattered and Bobby is so traumatized that he seeks to forget the horror done to him. When they return to the body of water, everything has changed. A body has been raped, a body has been buried, a body is on the loose hunting them down – and the body of water is now taming them. Before long another body would be buried in the water and one of them would see that body again in his nightmares, a haunting that you knew would never go away.

Burt Reynolds and Ronny Cox in Deliverance

You can see the influence of Deliverance in later films like Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981), or especially, torture porn like the Australian terror picture Wolf Creek (2005). But no film has caught the ambiance of invasive horror quite like this movie. (Hill’s picture was essentially Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians recast as a superbly directed action thriller while Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek simply exploited one’s dread at being held captive by a psychopath.) In Deliverance, John Boorman dives into the psychology of the body politic. Before his role as Lewis, Reynolds had been nothing more than an action star – a handsome, smiling stud who played his roles in Navajo Joe (1966) and Shark (1969) with casual indifference. But, in Deliverance, Reynolds delves into Lewis’s machismo, a man whose identity and authority is dictated solely by his virile strength. When he gets seriously injured late in the picture, Lewis becomes as helpless as a child and unable to lead because all of his confidence and sense of self is shattered by his broken bones. If Lewis is defined by his physical strength, Bobby is the reverse. He’s uncomfortable in his flabby skin, so when he tries to act macho the mountain hunters see right through him. Perceived as physical freaks by this city dweller, they immediately act out Bobby’s worst fantasies of a hillbilly. Drew is at home in his body but only in so far as everybody else is at home in theirs (when he tries to shake the hand of the inbred kid he’s just been dueling banjos with he appears baffled when the boy turns away). The movie has a constant awareness of physicality, so much so that you feel acutely aware of your own body when the film is over.

It’s hard to imagine a major Hollywood studio taking on a project like this today (it was a daring decision even back then). Movie rape (usually male on female) has often been the staple of action pictures to jack up excitement, or a blood lust in the audience. Here it was a man being raped and there was no prurient intent in the staging. And to have a bankable star like Reynolds risking alienating his fan base would be highly unlikely in today’s more predictable star packages coming out of Hollywood. But the real wild card was certainly John Boorman, a Brit, tackling an American subject with a Hungarian cinematographer (Vilmos Zsigmond). They both bring an ample curiosity afforded cultural outsiders and Zsigmond's smooth takes are alternately hypnotic in their beauty and filled with a hidden menace.

I saw Deliverance a couple of years after its release while in college and I caught part of it again last week on Mpix. It still casts an uneasy spell and sweeps aside all assumptions and ideas about invulnerability. The movie ends with a hand emerging out of a body of water in the nightmare of a man coming out of the assumed safety of sleep. No wonder the theatre audience then was so hushed when the lights came up.

-- April 18/10

Is Film Criticism Dead? 

I’ve been somewhat fortunate that I came into the profession in 1981 just as the line started to blur between critical and consumer-friendly journalism. Looking back, I think I've had a pretty satisfying career and accomplished things on terms that I found agreeable. That’s partly because there was a time when you could distinguish yourself from puffery by, to quote one sharp radio producer, treating the audience as voyeurs rather than consumers. In those days, if your goal was to be smart, articulate and informative, it could get you hired. It’s almost the opposite now. I’ve lost three jobs as a film critic in the last few years not because I wasn’t doing my job, or forgot how to write, or talk, or had nothing of interest to say. I was relieved of my duties because I held to the same standards I originally brought to my work – and those standards in the business have now radically changed.

I left Boxoffice in Los Angeles after about ten years with the magazine because the editor-in-chief decided to question the integrity of one of its veteran critics on their public website. When the editor refused to remove the slander, I quit in support of the writer. But there wasn’t a whisper of protest from any of the other in-house critics even though any one of them could have just as easily been targeted. After seven years of reviewing films for CBC Radio Syndication, I was let go by an aspiring executive who didn’t think I liked enough movies (i.e. I wasn’t being consumer-friendly). Finally, last fall, I was dropped from the freelance roster of Metro Newspaper without them informing me that I was being let go. They ducked that responsibility by neglecting to invite me to the freelancers' meeting before the Toronto International Film Festival thus leaving me stranded with no one to cover it for. So I ultimately had to give my press pass back to TIFF. It was the first time not covering the Festival since 1981. Once again, there was no cry of foul from anybody. When professional standards and conduct have slipped to this degree, where editors and producers can act with impunity and without consideration, you can’t lay the blame solely on the economics of the time. However, economics are now being used as a pretense to instill fear in writers who don’t want to lose their gigs, or their access to all those movies and celebrities to interview. That may be one reason why we see more consumer reporting rather than film criticism – and why moral courage in the face of unethical practices is on the decline.

Consumer reporting, for one thing, is much safer. If all you’re doing is giving plot summary and informing the audience that they’ll either love it or hate it, nobody is going to get too jazzed – or upset - over what you say. After all, anybody can have an opinion. Criticism though is about ideas as well as opinions. It’s about creating a context for your reactions which turns out to be more dangerous because it then forces the audience to consider what they are consuming and why. Many editors and producers, with their concern for numbers (or advertising dollars), now fear the possibility of losing portions of their audience. In this climate, if you’re a critic, you might begin to doubt your own instincts. Instead of standing behind your insights, you might worry more about what the reaction to your piece might be – and what the fallout from your opinion might bring.

Since I’ve “retired” from professional reviewing and co-founded Critics at Large in order to continue writing commentary free from those pressures and anxieties, I have been teaching and lecturing and listening to people asking me questions about the profession. When they ask me why film criticism has been gradually losing its teeth, I often share my experiences and observations. I tell them that if you are a real critic, you will continue to be one wherever you land because sometimes changing circumstances are out of your control. So all you can do is be true to yourself while resisting any capitulation to the desperate conformity around you. But, as a way of explaining the why-now part of this problem, I also give them a quote from the late American composer Frank Zappa.

Back in 1986, Zappa was interviewed by The Progressive, a Wisconsin monthly magazine associated with Midwestern progressivism, on the subject of mediocrity. Here’s what he had to say:

“Social pressure is placed on people to become a certain type of individual, and then rewards are heaped on people to conform to that stereotype…[You] can then look at what’s being done and say, ‘Jesus, I can do that.’ You celebrate mediocrity, you get mediocrity. People who could have achieved more won’t because they know that all they have to do is be ‘that,’ and they too can sell millions and make millions and have people love them because they are merely mediocre.”

“Few people who do anything excellent are ever heard of. You know why? Because excellence, pure excellence, terrifies…[people] who’ve been bred to appreciate the success of the mediocre. People don’t wish to be reminded that lurking somewhere there are people who can do some shit you can’t do. They can think a way you can’t think; they can run a way you can’t run; they can dance a way you can’t dance...So to keep them happy as a labor force, you say, ‘Let’s take this mediocre chump and we say, ‘He is terrific!’ All the other mediocre chumps say, ‘Yeah, that’s right and that gives me hope, because one day as mediocre and chumpish as I am, I can [be terrific, too].’ It’s smart labor relations. An MBA decision. That is the orientation of most entertainment, politics and religion. So considering how firmly entrenched all that is right now, you think it’s going to turn around? Not without a genetic mutation, it’s not!”


-- April 22/10

Melville's Trickster: Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man

“Melville is not a civilized, European writer,” film critic Pauline Kael once wrote in praising Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film adaptation of Billy Budd. “He is our greatest writer because he is the American primitive struggling to say more than he knows how to say, struggling to say more than he knows.” In 1857, Melville’s particular struggle took the form of his very strange and experimental novel, The Confidence-Man.

The Confidence-Man, published on the eve of the American Civil War, caused quite the uproar. Perhaps Americans saw the novel as inappropriate, or even an affront to the unsettling issues the nation was then confronting. A swift and satirical discourse on a variety of moral and political concerns, The Confidence-Man was an oddly structured comic allegory about a shape-changing grifter who boards a Mississippi riverboat on (of all occasions) April Fool’s Day. The grifter victimizes an assortment of passengers in a series of scams on a trip that takes them from St. Louis to New Orleans. Once he wins his marks’ trust, he cons them with promises of charity and virtue. But even as the con man’s charm tests their resolve on a number of subjects, his ultimate goal is to reveal his fellow passengers’ deeper (and often contrary) desires. Melville introduces characters who change identities so rapidly that the reader is confronted with a portrait of the American frontier as perceived through a series of disguises. The novel operates on so many levels, with Melville playing clever games with both fact and fiction; it’s no surprise some readers become so dizzy that they desperately wanted off the boat.

Although the confidence man played a significant role in European history, he would ultimately take a stronger hold on the American imagination. “There is actually a peculiarly American delight in confidence tricksters,” wrote scholar Stephen Matterson on the novel. “In part such affection has to do with America’s emphasis on and admiration for individual enterprise and ingenuity, which are considered notably ‘Yankee’ qualities.” Since he flourishes best in a country where it is natural to trust people, he goes against the grain of liberal pieties such as Emerson’s claim that if you trust men, they’ll naturally be true to you. The confidence man’s role, as played out in Melville’s book, is much more adversarial, and he relies on our ability to be sharp and informed. He might also be the best argument against censorship in a democracy because one needs access to as much knowledge and information as possible to match him. Yet, conversely, we need him, too. We depend on his taunts to make us smarter, stronger, and to give us a sense of community.

Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry

But the con man’s game is also a humorous one. Absurdity plays a big hand in his success at turning the trick. He’s a leitmotif running through every facet of American culture. You can find him in various guises, ranging from carny barker P.T. Barnum to the infamous Louisiana governor Huey P. Long; he’s the boorish right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh as easily as he inhabits Limbaugh’s counterpart, that shambling snake-oil salesman of the left, Michael Moore. Confidence gets put to the test everywhere in the literature and films that both define and parody American culture. It’s tested by Twain’s Huck Finn, Sinclair Lewis’s Bible-thumping fraud, Elmer Gantry, Humbert Humbert’s nemesis Clare Quilty in Vladimir Nabokov/Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), and front and center in Ralph Ellison’s pertinently titled Invisible Man (1952). Burt Lancaster executes his scams while bearing his Chiclets grin in The Rainmaker (1956), while Peter O’Toole’s daredevil movie director Eli Cross plays with our perception of illusion and reality while he tests the confidence of a paranoid apprentice (Steve Railsback) in Richard Rush’s exuberant The Stunt Man (1980). Kurt Russell dares us to trust his brash automobile salesman, Rudy Russo, in Robert Zemeckis’ outrageously funny Used Cars (1981). The genial huckster is alive in Michael Keaton’s “idea” man, as he tests the wits of his nebbish partner (Henry Winkler), in Ron Howard’s Night Shift (1982). We find the spirit of Melville’s confidence man resurrecting himself, too, as the character of Paul (Will Smith) in Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation (1993). Here he becomes a catalyst for change in the lives of a number of upper-middle-class New Yorkers.

But Melville’s trickster also found a home deep in the heart of American music. He holds court as an audacious spirit in the music and character of Bob Dylan, with his multitude of disguises and masks. He also plays a decisive and divisive role in the insurgent rap music of Eminem (working his own devious magic through his alter ego Slim Shady). In the songs of Randy Newman, the confidence man pops up everywhere (which is why I found him a compelling figure to write about in my book, Randy Newman’s American Dreams). Newman tips his hand to Melville in “Sail Away,” a sweeping and majestic ballad that seductively lures you into a song where the singer portrays a slave trader enticing blacks in Africa to come to America to face years of slavery and bigotry - in the guise of finding paradise. The con man gets the ultimate role of God, too, testing the limits of our faith and trust while toying with our resolve in Newman’s “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind).” Like Dylan, Newman embodies the role of the confidence man, the untrustworthy narrator, and in doing so, appropriates those disguises and masks to keep us guessing at just what his songs really mean. Herman Melville’s career as a novelist may have come to a crashing end with the publication of The Confidence-Man, but that cunning shape shifter continues to have a pulse in every dark corner of the American experience.

-- May 4/10

Loose Change has more than a few screws loose. While trying to construct a massive conspiracy out of the 9/11 attacks (where the horrific event gets turned into another version of The Big Lie), director Dylan Avery can't provide a coherent narrative to sharpen our perception of that "lie," or connect any of the circumstantial evidence so that it adds up to some version of the truth. (Apparently, Avery started the project as a fictional screenplay in 2002 – it's still a work of fiction.)

There have been many exciting and powerful conspiracy films over the years, like Costa-Gavras' 1969 thriller and Brian De Palma's 1981 masterpiece Blow Out. But they are passionate calls for political engagement where there is still an inherent belief in the spirit and principles of democracy. Dylan Avery acts as if there was no democracy to lose because the system has always been corrupted. Loose Change doesn't even have any fire and conviction in its populist cynicism. The picture is so laconic and blurred that there's no urgency in its purpose. None of the so-called conspirators are ever shown as true perpetrators of the crime. Avery instead uses supposition, speculation and dubious "evidence" to provide a picture of evil that never emerges with any clarity. There's a dead weight of despair cast over the picture that's bound to leave viewers feeling helpless and hopeless because, according to Avery, it's all out of our hands anyway. Even as a journalist, Avery lacks the drive shown by more sharp investigative reporters who have uncovered real conspiracies like Watergate or the Iran-Contra scandal.

In the end, you'd have to be pretty impressionable to find Loose Change convincing. Perhaps for those prone to needing catastrophic occurrences explained away by faceless and sinister cabals, Loose Change becomes an incendiary statement. But if it is, it's in a voice so garbled and diffused that 9/11 might just have well been caused by extraterrestrial forces.

-- May 8/10

There have been a number of books on the Manson murders and how they (along with the violence at the 1969 Altamont rock festival) brought the utopian hopes of the Sixties to a bloody conclusion. But there are none more chilling, observant, and chock full of insights than Ed Sanders’ The Family. Originally written in 1971, Sanders had been an active participant in the ‘60s counter-culture through his poetry and involvement in the satirical folk band, The Fugs. His book explains with shocking clarity how a psychopathic petty criminal, who had spent many years in San Quentin, could organize a group of middle-class disciples to commit horrific acts of violence. In The Family, Manson is portrayed as the shadow Maharishi Yogi, living out the darker implications of the communal lifestyle being celebrated in the hippie communities. When he justified his crimes by saying that they were inspired by certain songs on The Beatles’ White Album, it wasn’t just the psychotic ravings of a paranoid. The White Album did have its shadow side. There were elements of the music that reflected both the beginnings of the break-up of The Beatles, a band that had nurtured the utopian hopes of the hippies, as well as the violent upheavals happening around the world when the record came out in the fall of 1968.

Just listen to the album. Although inspired by Chuck Berry’s wonderfully ironic “Back in the USA,” “Back in the USSR” significantly reflected the grimness of Soviet tanks rolling through Czechoslovakia earlier in the year. The splendid doo-wop of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” couldn’t be removed from the assassinations that year of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. (“Happiness is a Warm Gun” would soon even overshadow the murder of the song’s author in the 1980.) “Revolution 1” and “Revolution 9” detailed the turbulence happening internationally. “Savoy Truffle” may have been a trifling George Harrison track about Eric Clapton’s obsession with chocolates, but the song is about tooth decay and the possibility of having one’s teeth yanked out. In “Piggies,” Harrison joked about the bourgeoisie clutching their forks and knives, but Manson would hear that song as an endorsement to gather those same implements and use them on the Hollywood bourgeoisie he despised. (It's also hideously ironic that a knife would be plunged into Harrison years later by a psychotic fan who heard voices saying that the ex-Beatle must die.) Then, of course, there's “Helter Skelter,” which is the loudest piece of rock & roll The Beatles ever produced. This exciting song about pure romantic lust was instead for Manson a calling card for slaughter.

author Ed Sanders

It would be foolish and wrong-headed to suggest that The Beatles’ White Album was responsible for Manson. But as joyful in its musical diversity as the White Album is, many of its songs couldn’t escape their darker sides – and Manson acted, like a deranged version of the obsessed Beatles fan on what he thought they meant. Ed Sanders’ The Family doesn’t provide those particular details on The Beatles. But The Family clearly reflects the conditions that gave rise to those crimes and how a hippie drug culture, that was once perceived as harmlessly benign, could soon become murderous. Only Sanders could have provided the disturbing undercurrent of the story. Here was someone who looked at Manson and saw a darker reflection of himself. Rock critic Robert Christgau, who reviewed The Family for The New York Times back in 1971, immediately saw the link:

“It was a natural step for Sanders to concern himself with Manson, one of the culminations of America's public romance with the hippies. Like Manson, Sanders was into sex, dope, the occult and the downfall of straight society. Both his Fugs monologues and Shards of God were full of references to jelly orgies, titanic mind-warps and arcane rituals. Of course, many of these references were ironic, overstated metaphors that weren't intended literally. But metaphors have content – Sanders really does believe in expanded sexuality, sacramental and recreational psychedelics, and non-rationalistic modes of knowing--and irony is a sophisticated tool. What could Sanders do when a would-be groupie actually brought a jar of jelly to a Fugs concert – send her back for the Skippy? Such misunderstandings are inevitable when avant-gardism is transformed into a mass movement. This is a liability that long-haired criminals like Charlie Manson and who knows how many other punk charismatics can exploit.”

The liability within the metaphor that Manson exploited in Ed Sanders, he also exploited in The Beatles. Last summer, a photo-op was held at Abbey Road Studios in London to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the cover photo of The Beatles’ last studio album, Abbey Road. That date, August 9th, was also the day the Manson Family massacred Sharon Tate and company on Cielo Drive.

-- May 11/10

It’s a good thing that I have friends with sharp tastes in movies. Otherwise I would have been totally oblivious to the news last fall that John Huston’s final film, an adaptation of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” was finally available on DVD. (It was pretty much ignored by DVD reviewers despite getting two nominated Academy Awards upon its release almost 25 years ago.)

Huston was a prolific director of many substantial and influential pictures based on literature including his 1941 debut The Maltese FalconTreasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The African Queen (1951), the underrated Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Prizzi’s Honor (1985). His career had small triumphs like A Walk with Love and Death (1969) and Wise Blood (1979), along with ambitious failures such as Moby Dick (1956), Freud (1962) and Fat City (1972), and basic bummers like the musical Annie (1982). The Dead was a triumph of adversity given that Huston was near the end of his life and directing most of the picture from a wheelchair between toots of air in an oxygen tent. Along with Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), The Dead is a nothing less than a masterful summing up picture.

Joyce’s short story gathered in his remarkable anthology Dubliners (1916) brought together a series of tales that make up a moral history of his home city. The book amounts to an astonishing collection of contemplative prose. Each story, concluding with “The Dead,” reveals what critic Harry Levin called “a progression from childhood to maturity, broadening from private to public scope.” In achieving this, Dubliners has more than a passing acquaintance with mortality. In the opening story, “The Sisters,” a young boy overhears a conversation about the death of a priest that has profound impact on his life whereas the concluding story “The Dead” is about how the chance hearing of a song at the conclusion of the Feast of Epiphany in 1904 invokes the memory of a deceased lover.

John Huston’s The Dead is a significant chamber work, re-imagined through Chekhov, that builds to an epiphany where the past gathers profound weight in the present. The story begins at the Dublin home of two old spinsters and their niece who are hosting their annual dinner party for friends and relatives. As the group wines and dines, sharing music and poetry, their casual conversation begins to uncover assumptions, perceived injustices, and judgments. Social proprieties slowly wither as the evening progresses. Huston directs these scenes as if he were a casual observer quietly peeling away the undercurrents of friction between family and friends. Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) arrives with his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston) and we soon learn that Gabriel, an academic, is uncomfortable with his station in life. He fears that he’s a man who knows everything and yet understands nothing. Gabriel comes to confront that contradiction just as he and Gretta are departing for the evening. When she hears tenor Bartell d’Arcy (Frank Patterson) sing “The Lass of Aughrim,” a traditional Irish ballad which tells the story of a young girl who is made pregnant by a man and then seeks refuge after giving birth, the poignant stillness of Bartell’s voice freezes her on the staircase and transports her beyond the evening to a place beyond time.

When they return to their room, Gabriel feels sexually drawn to his wife but still finds her distant and melancholy. When he questions her reasons for this detached mood, she tells him the story of a young boy, Michael Furey, her first love, who once sang her that song, but died of consumption at 17. Hearing the song that evening leads her to believe that he may have died for her. As Gretta falls asleep, Gabriel begins to feel insignificant in both his marriage and life having never felt anything so deeply rendered before. In the story, after Gretta reveals what the song has invoked in her, Joyce describes Gabriel’s state of mind in a stream of astonishingly suggestive passages. Huston alters it into a soliloquy that rides on a riverbed of recollection filled with self-doubt. Aided by Alex North’s delicate score, which does subtle variations on “The Lass of Aughrim,” Huston undercuts our desire to turn memory into nostalgia by illuminating just how fleeting time, purpose and loss can be. His son, Tony Huston, also did a masterful job of adapting the story making only minimal changes that captured the substance of the text without losing Joyce’s plaintive voice.

Ironically, when The Dead came out on DVD on November 3, 2009, ten minutes of footage was missing from the picture. The distributor, Lionsgate, quickly promised the complete version later that month, but I have yet to check out whether that’s been done. And so far, there’s no way to know since nobody’s talking about this neglected gem. In coming back to life, The Dead is still sadly in purgatory.

-- May 16/10

A friend of mine earlier in the year lamented that the euphoria over Barack Obama’s election victory seemed to have waned since that thrilling November evening. While I could acknowledge some truth in what he said, fully sensing that the party fizz had flattened somewhat, I also detected something much more urgent in his comment. I suspect that beyond the historical implications of Obama’s win, as well as the ripe possibilities and hopes that it raised, there was also a utopian element at work in my friend’s expectations. It was as if his hatred of George Bush had been so intense that the love of Obama was, to some degree, just the other side of that coin.

For many, especially on the left, Bush had made America the scourge of the planet which meant that (after Obama won) the world would soon be spinning on its proper axis again. The belief seemed to be, with Obama in the White House, that the violent insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban suicide bombers in Afghanistan would now put away their toys and play nice. But the world hasn’t changed in that manner and the zealots haven’t gone away. (Neither has the right-wing version currently propping up the Tea Party.) I do think that Obama sensed the unreal expectations being heaped upon him which is why he underplayed the significance of his election. He knew that the world he was about to confront was the same world that the previous President confronted. Their approach to it might be radically different, but (unlike Naomi Klein) he understood that the irrational ideologies threatening democracy were not solely the product of American corporate power. (In saying so, I'm also not forgetting the economic mess the previous administration left for Obama to clean up.)

The point of creating an intelligent and thoughtful political culture goes far beyond the rabble-rousing of partisan ideologues. To press the point, Walt Whitman once asked in Democratic Vistas, "Did you too suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, for a party name?" To answer that question, I turned to Vaclav Havel's 1997 book, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice. Havel's book is basically a chronicle of speeches, beginning with his address to the United States congress in 1990 (a year after the fall of communism) and concluding with a 1996 speech about politics and theatre at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague three years after he became president of what is now the Czech Republic. But the overall theme of this anthology is a political and personal quest of an idealist struggling to come to terms with the vision of what his homeland was, what it might become and where it might go. Elections and regime changes don't always grapple with those issues.

Vaclav Havel

For instance, in one essay, where Havel examines the nature of totalitarianism and what democracy might mean to a country that was deprived of it, he doesn't accept that just because the communists have been toppled that the authoritarian thinking that enveloped Czech culture went with them. In his New Year's address to the Czech nation in 1990, Havel explained, "The previous regime - armed with its arrogant and intolerant ideology - reduced man to a force of production and nature to a tool of production." But he doesn't stop at blaming the communists for what their future might hold. "We cannot blame the previous rulers for everything, not only because it would be untrue but also because it could blunt the duty each of us faces today, that is, the obligation to act independently, freely, reasonably and quickly."

What Havel is saying quite simply is that totalitarianism didn't fall from the clouds, or become a systemic force that oppressed an innocent public. He is saying that we are all responsible for its existence and that political systems grow out of the character structure of a peoples. (It reminded me of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich when he visited the Soviet Union shortly after the Russian Revolution. He tried in vain to explain the Oedipal conflict to the Red Army who refuted the idea and then later went off to die for the Motherland.) What Havel did (and what I think Obama is trying to do) is to restore a sense of what personal responsibility means when creating freedom within a democracy.

The Art of the Impossible
 is an honest appraisal of how politics can shape as well as distort our perceptions of the world. In discussing what he sees as the politician of the future, Havel writes, "A politician must become a person again, someone who trusts not only a scientific representation and analysis of the world, but also the world itself...not only the summary reports he receives each morning, but also his own instincts." Because of what we choose to define as democracy in the West, the issues – be they national unity or the economy – are only part of a shell game used by political leaders to illicit our solitary support at the voting stall. It's rarely about how, as a community of people, we wish to define what our political culture truly means. Instead of cultivating visionaries, we've become too much creatures of expedience. What I think Obama is attempting to do, through his historic health care package and international diplomacy, is to cultivate a vision by using his instincts. That's what Havel does in The Art of the Impossible. He makes expedience irrelevant.

-- May 29/10

During the horrific 9/11 attacks, I was covering the Toronto International Film Festival for Boxoffice  in Los Angeles. Like most catastrophes, I can still remember where I was before and after the terrorists struck. There were also two movies that framed the event, and as it turned out, they were movies that would both be eventually produced and abandoned. The night before, I had gone to Roy Thompson Hall to see Fred Schepisi’s stunning adaptation of Graham Swift’s novel Last Orders; the other, which I viewed on September 12th, was Clare Peploe’s marvelous adaptation of Pierre Marivaux’s 18th-Century play, The Triumph of Love

Watching a movie was probably the last thing I wanted to do that day, but I had a job to do. While fully understanding that I was – on one level – "enjoying" the picture, I was also aware that I felt distant from the screen, unable to let anything penetrate the state of shock that I was in. It was much worse trying to write the collection of reviews that were due at the conclusion of TIFF. Writing essentially seemed like an insignificant act, a negligible gesture in the face overwhelming horror. While I eventually got my enthusiasm for reviewing back, it took a few years to return to The Triumph of Love. When it barely made a dent at the box office and closed quickly, I had to wait for the DVD release to fully acquaint myself with the pleasure of experiencing it, which was more than I could do in 2001. I came to realize upon watching the DVD that the sensual lyricism of the material couldn't be fully appreciated right after a day of mass murder.

The Triumph of Love is a lush and sensually charged comedy that’s infused with some of the buoyantly exuberant operatic spirit of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Peploe, who directed the underrated romantic comedy High Season (1988), transforms (along with co-scenarists Bernardo Bertolucci and Marilyn Goldin) the seductive power of Marivaux’s language into a highly erotic romp about sexual deception. The story centers on Leonide (Mira Sorvino), the Princess of Sparta, who occupies a throne that has been usurped by her father, a throne that really belongs to a young man named Agis (Jay Rodan). One day, when Leonide spots Agis bathing in a lake, she falls deeply in love with him and comes up with a scheme to marry him. In doing so, Leonide would get what she wants and he would get what is due to him because of his birthright. The problem, though, is that Agis is being raised by the enlightened philosopher Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley) and his sister Leonitine (Fiona Shaw) who have not only schooled the boy in Enlightenment principles, they’ve also taught him to hate the princess. With her maid by her side, Leonide disguises herself as a male student and verbally seduces the brother-and-sister pair in order to buy time to win the love of Agis.

Peploe shrewdly balances the comedy and the cruelty in the play without losing any of its romantic spirit, while Mira Sorvino provides a spirited performance that reveals a surprising abundance of carnal mischievousness. Leonide is a rationalist who may feel pangs of love, but she methodically uses reason as a tool to cause pain as well. Ben Kingsley, as the pompishly foolish Hermocrates, serves up a series of enjoyably precise double-takes as he wrestles with drives he would rather repress. He’s matched by Fiona Shaw whose preening is disguised by a show of self-deprecating charm. They both make perfect targets for the Princess’s scam, while the Princess also finds the rug being pulled out from under her schemes. What makes The Triumph of Love such a sublime farce though is the emotionally rich texture Peploe imbues within it. It's a farce that stings as well as sings.

-- June 1/10

I was recently having lunch with Critics at Large colleague John Corcelli and he was telling me about reading this “exhaustive but fascinating” new biography of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. While enthusiastically describing the various ways the book identified Monk as the originator of be-bop jazz, John got me thinking about one of my favourite books about jazz, one that didn’t dispel the myths surrounding those legendary figures, but rather examined the source of their power: Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (1991).

The way Dyer writes about jazz, the sound of the music burns through the lines on the page like some subliminal jukebox. Dyer’s not so much a soloist improvising on a tune; instead, he evokes the feeling of the music and the sound at the core of the individual who plays it. “Jazz was about making your own sound,” he explains, “finding a way to be different from everybody else, never playing the same thing two nights running.”

Geoff Dyer writes, in eight very succinct and visually evocative vignettes, of some great – and very different – jazz artists: Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Ben Webster, Bud Powell, Chet Baker and Art Pepper. And Dyer weaves quite an impressionistic tapestry. But Beautiful illustrates the different kinds of artistic temperaments responsible for this uniquely American music. For in his view, jazz music was the perfect artistic expression for talented and inspired outsiders who often demonstrated very idiosyncratic behavior. And, in America, most of these outsiders who discovered and created jazz were black. But Beautiful is both illuminating and inventive because Dyer – a novelist who wrote The Colour of Memory (1989) and The Search (1993) – has constructed this biographical journey in the style of a novel. Drawing on anecdotes, scenes from documentary films, photographs and conjecture, Dyer concocts his drama out of snapshot impressions.

Dyer begins with a story of Duke Ellington crossing the country with his driver, Harry Carney, trying to write a piece of music that will take in all of the characters who shaped it. Before long, that opening becomes a thread that holds together the stormy history of the music (racism, drug addiction, loneliness and schizophrenia) like beads. In the case of each performer, Dyer crafts their stories not by listing the pertinent details of their lives, but by dramatizing moments that create a picture of each personality. And he does so with such a poetic precision that he enables us to make the connections between their life and their music. Dyer’s prose is sometimes so lyrical that you can be reading the book and be hearing the music playing in your head like some distant soundtrack.

There are some poignant moments, both imagined and real, caught here. Lester Young fading into oblivion in his hotel room while looking back on events such as his army drill sergeant humiliating him (he was forced to take down the picture of his white wife from his locker), his days in the stockade after his court-martial from the army, or recalling a memorable night out in New York with Billie Holiday. Then, out of all this, Dyer captures something in the music that pulls it together. “Lester’s sound was soft and lazy but there was always an edge in it somewhere,” he writes. “Sounding like he was always about to cut loose, knowing he never would: that was where the tension came from.”

Duke Ellington

All through But Beautiful the music and the personalities merge. On the imposing figure Charles Mingus, Dyer writes, “He got so heavy that the bass was something he just slung over his shoulder like a duffel bag, hardly noticing the weight. The bigger he got, the smaller the bass became…Mingus played it like he was wrestling, getting at the neck, and plucking strings like guts…Then he’d touch the strings as softly as a bee landing on the pink petals of an African flower growing some place no one had ever been. When he bowed it he made the bass sound like the humming of a thousand-strong congregation in church.”

On pianist Thelonious Monk, Dyer brings music to your ears by poetically examining the meaning behind his playing. “He played each note as though astonished by the previous one, as though every touch of his fingers on the keyboard was correcting an error and this touch in turn became an error to be corrected and so the tune never quite ended up the way it was meant to…Listening to him was like watching someone fidget, you felt uncomfortable until you started doing it too.” For me, however, Dyer’s best insights come his comments on singer/trumpeter Chet Baker. In describing the melodic coolness of Baker’s late night romantic sound, Dyer gets to the core of its attraction:

“Chet put nothing of himself into his music and that’s what lent his playing its pathos. The music he played felt abandoned by him…Every time he played a note he waved it goodbye. Some times he didn’t even wave…Chet left a song feeling bereft. When he played it the song needed comforting: it wasn’t his playing that was packed with feeling, it was the song itself, feeling hurt. With Chet, the song did all the work; all Chet had to do was bring out the bruised tenderness that is there in all old songs.”

But Beautiful is a book about jazz, but it’s also a book about what criticism is for, what it is at its best. Dyer demonstrates how the work of a critic needn’t (perhaps shouldn’t) be detached and objective because that method can’t accurately reflect the critic’s experience of the artist’s work. When Dyer gets inside the personalities and the music they created, he’s articulating the complex emotions they evoke in him; that, in turn, touch and evoke our own. You don’t have to “get” jazz, or know all the facts and theories, to love But Beautiful. But in reading it, you certainly fall under the sway of the music and understand what falling in love with jazz is all about.

-- June 2/10

The English Patient

"Love means never having to say you're sorry," the dying Ali McGraw told hubby Ryan O'Neal in that popular tear-jerker Love Story (1971). But not only did the movie excuse you from having to apologize, it also saved you from the complexity of love’s transgressions. Love Story said that love could transcend all of life’s tragedies and could cure us all of life’s ills – it might even ennoble us. Lou Rawls once sang that “love can be a hurtin’ thing,” but if you want a hit movie about painful subjects, love best be a healin’ thing. Hence, redemptive dramas like Terms of Endearment (1983) or Ghost (1990) became box office triumphs whereas more ambivalent pictures like James Gray’s Two Lovers (2008) didn’t (in this picture’s case, it was also criminally underrated).

Over the years, love and its redemptive powers has been a winning formula in romantic melodramas. But, in recent decades, this cloying approach has found its way into art house type pictures as well. The English Patient (1996), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, contained an ad slogan that read, “In Love, There Are No Boundaries,” but according to the film (and Michael Ondaatje’s poetic novel), in love, there are no moral consequences, or personal accountability for your actions, either. Set against the political intrigue that led to World War II, the story traces the memory of a downed pilot (Ralph Fiennes) who is remembering the adulterous relationship he had (and lost) with an adventurous woman (Kristen Scott Thomas). He becomes the “English patient” of a disenchanted nurse (Juliette Binoche) who cares for him, as well as the subject of suspicion for a Canadian (Willem Dafoe) who’s been hunting him.

The English Patient is a sweeping and absorbing picture directed by the late Anthony Minghella (Truly Madly DeeplyThe Talented Mr. Ripley) that comes right out of the tradition of such romantic and political melodramas as Casablanca (1942). But where Casablanca is about a love triangle that ends with the Bogart character giving up his adulterous love (Ingrid Bergman) so that she can best aid her anti-Nazi activist husband (Paul Henreid), The English Patient offers us the reverse. Fiennes’ pilot not only goes to any questionable length (including collaborating with the Nazis) to maintain his affair; the audience is asked at the end to feel sorrow for his personal loss, plus, be moved by the healing power of love that restores the nurse’s faith in humanity. In Casablanca, Bogart says that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” but in The English Patient, it’s the world that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Not only does love mean not having to say you’re sorry, love is also more important than any of its political consequences. The English Patient, which discards the nobler and chivalrous sacrifice of Casablanca, became the perfect Yuppie idea of romance, one that embraces narcissism.

Breaking the Waves

Lars Von Trier called his Breaking the Waves (1996) “a simple love story,” but it might be more accurate to call his idea of love simplistic. What he has trumped up is that old sacrificial myth about romantic martyrdom where pure love becomes doomed because its purity cannot be accepted in a repressive, unforgiving world. Bess (Emily Watson) is an innocent Scottish woman who lives in a Calvinist village that is so boorish and repressive that the Church elders don’t even put bells in the belfry. (We get the idea of how anti-life they are because they spend an inordinate amount of time at grave sites consigning recently deceased folks to Hell.) Bess spends most of her days jumping up and down in delirious excitement, or talking to God. She might be schizophrenic; she could be a true believer. Emily Watson, unfortunately, doesn’t give us much of a clue as to what she is. Her acclaimed performance (at the time) reminded me of all the frantic mugging Brad Pitt supplied a year earlier in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995). When Bess meets the worldly oil-rig worker Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), they marry and carry on an obsessive affair that Von Trier sees as preferable to the lives of the stodgy moralists who rule the town. (We are tipped to Jan’s worldliness because he has a pony-tail and likes to smoke reefer.) When Jan becomes badly paralyzed in an accident, however, Bess – at his request – becomes devoted to him by offering herself to the desires of other men in order to stir the memories of their blissful marriage.

The masochistic drivel in Breaking the Waves might have made better sense if Bess’s madness was inseparable from her dutiful devotion to Jan. But then the movie might have been about how repressiveness cripples even those who struggle against it. Ever the pedantic sadist, Von Trier gets pumped turning Bess’s plight into a mythical Christ story with her martyrdom laid out like the Stations of the Cross. My guess is that Von Trier sees madness as a form of spiritual purity: Bess gives up her sanity for everlasting love. I gave up on the movie itself.


Giving one’s soul for love is also the driving force in Scott Hicks’s popular Shine (1996), a film about the Australian prodigy pianist David Helfgott (Geoffrey Rush) who was driven to madness by a brutally dominating father (Armin Mueller-Stahl in a role he could probably perform in a coma) and redeemed by the love of a life-affirming woman (Lynn Redgrave). Suggestive of Compton Bennett’s kitsch-fest The Seventh Veil (1945), where Ann Todd plays a concert pianist who becomes incapacitated when a Svengali character (James Mason) exerts his control over her, Shine looks for someone to blame for Helfgott’s madness – and the picture lays it all at the door of Dad.

As in Breaking the Waves, Shine needs someone (or something) to blame in order to put across the abiding virtue of the protagonist in his quest for love and understanding. (Shine earned some controversy when Helfgott’s sister told reporters that her father never beat David, in fact, he went to great lengths to help him when he became mentally ill. She also questioned the film’s assertion that their father was a Holocaust survivor because their dad left Poland before the Holocaust began.) Shine wants us to feel good about feeling bad. It’s a story about the failed promise of an artist at the brink of greatness (in his case performing Rachmaninoff’s demanding Concerto No.3) who suffers a nervous breakdown and never fulfills his nascent talent. Hicks’s movie would have us believe that his breakdown became a breakthrough because he faces down his evil father and marries a free-spirited woman who sets him back on the concert trail. What the movie doesn’t address is the quality of Helfgott’s playing (technically poor and erratic) in order to concentrate the story on how a once broken man found his love of music and triumphed over adversity.

Two Lovers

James Gray’s Two Lovers provides a more honest appraisal of the travails of love, with both its virtues and its consequences. Based loosely on Dostoevsky’s short story White Nights (1848), Two Lovers is about a paradoxical form of spiritual rejuvenation. Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) is a depressed young man who still lives with his Jewish family. Working in the garment trade, they want him to marry Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of family friends they also hope to merge with in their business. While Leonard is taken by Sandra’s desire for him, he simultaneously encounters Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a troubled neighbour who captivates him. He begins to fall in love with her although she is caught up in a turbulent relationship with a married man.

It’s no secret that Joaquin Phoenix is one of our most exciting actors. (He gave a wizardly performance in Gray’s 2007 We Own the Night where he slowly evolved from a lively cocky kid operating in the world of gangsters into a darkly disconsolate man who goes straight within his family of cops.) In Two Lovers, Phoenix portrays a loner torn by his desire for a love affair borne of pure longing that's coupled with an ambivalent acceptance of a relationship that would offer him emotional stability. Phoenix is equally matched here by Paltrow who hasn't been this softly carnal since Great Expectations (1998). There's also fine supporting work provided by the lovely Vinessa Shaw, whose character holds out both the promise and the snare of blind hope; while Isabella Rossellini, as his concerned mother, provides darkened shades of empathy. Unlike most redemptive films about love, Two Lovers provides the kind of wistful romanticism that lingers much longer. It says that love's regrets are sometimes inseparable from its deep desire.

-- June 3/10

If ever there was film genre term that I wish would disappear it’s the chick flick. As one who always champions movies as a democratic art form, it’s beyond ludicrous to hear people – usually women – dismiss the opinions of men when it comes to (mostly) romantic stories just because they happen to be a member of the wrong gender. I first encountered this dubious term back in 1993 when I told a group of women that I found Nora Ephron’s romantic weeper Sleepless in Seattle rather creepy. In the movie, Meg Ryan pursues (you could say stalks) a wistful widowed man (Tom Hanks) until he finally hooks up with her. I suggested that I didn’t find the premise the least bit romantic because if the roles had been reversed, and it was Hanks shadowing Ryan, the picture would have been a sleazy thriller. Think Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) rather than Sleepless in Seattle. A few of the women though dismissed my observation and stated that I just didn’t get Sleepless in Seattle because I was a guy and didn’t understand a chick flick when I saw one. (My response: What the fuck is a chick flick?)

Following the insanity of that line of gender demarcation, it would stand to reason then that only guys should review action films that blow up shit real good. And maybe only blacks should weigh in on anything starring Denzel Washington and Queen Latifah. Perhaps Jews are the only ones qualified to discuss the oeuvre of Adam Sandler. Anyway, I think you get the idea. I thought of all this when reading the reactions to Toronto Globe and Mail film critic Rick Groen’s pan of the second Sex and the City movie. A number of women (and a few men) cried foul because, since Rick was a man, he obviously didn’t understand what made the movie appealing to females. First of all, the idea of designating such a limiting, condescending term as chick flick to movies like Sex and the City is insulting to both men and women. It suggests that only women like romantic stories, so therefore they should only be allowed to review them. Forget that I know many women who love action fare and despise sentimental movies, just as I know many men (including me) who loved Gillian Armstrong’s stirring adaptation of Little Women (1994). And while we’re at it, why not bring up director Katherine Bigelow, a woman who made a number of (mostly) redundant violent action pictures until, with The Hurt Locker (2009), she finally made a powerful film about the very underpinnings of the genre.

This is why I think this chick flick nonsense gets at something deeper and even more insidious in the culture. At bottom, the use of the term is an attempt to undermine film criticism and treat men and women as mere advertising demographics in which we become perfect fodder for the marketing machinery of film distributors. Using Sex and the City as a perfect example, the women who complained about Rick Groen’s pan didn’t even address any of his criticisms of the movie. Furthermore, the letter writers could only suggest that if a woman had written the review she would have enjoyed the movie since she was female. But that suggests that Sex and the City is beyond critical analysis, meaning that women automatically buy into the movie’s advertising since it was being marketed to them in the first place. In short, what made these letter writers truly angry was that Rick Groen didn’t buy into the brand, but instead encouraged readers to consider what they were consuming and why. That’s what a critic – male and female – does. Or, at least, that’s what they’re supposed to do.

I haven’t seen the new Sex and the City yet, but I saw the first one and I found it to be a rat’s nest of product fetishism and sit-com banality. And this is coming from a guy who loved the TV show (at least for the first few seasons), because it was everything that the movie wasn’t. From week to week, I was fascinated by the show’s ability to take us inside the romantic pursuits of urban single women, at their most candid, discussing the men they dated and why they dumped them. At times, Sex and the City (the TV show) resembled Sandra Shamas’s one-woman show, My Boyfriend’s Back and There’s Going to Be Laundry (1987), which also took you into the comic absurdity of romantic longing from a woman’s perspective. And, like Sex and the City, it wasn’t the least bit self-congratulatory. But the first Sex and the City movie was all self-congratulatory, a callow betrayal of what made the show so distinctly appealing – to both genders.

I think, though, that this narrow-minded assignation of chick flick is nothing more than a defensive posture assumed by those who just want to enjoy the movie without having anyone make them think about it. After all, what makes people susceptible to advertising is their willingness to believe that the product being sold to them is what helps define them. And if women want to buy and endorse the most primitive forms of romantic sentimentality, don’t blame men for pointing that out – unless they’re trying to sell you a male version of that same crock.

-- June 8/10

Getting it Wrong, Getting it Right: Beyond the Sea and Ray

Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea

Whenever Hollywood produces a film biography of a famous figure it’s seldom about the nature of their genius. More often than not, it’s a redemption story. Ron Howard’s Academy Award-winning A Beautiful Mind (2001), for example, contained little of the John Nash one found in Sylvia Nasar’s intelligently absorbing 1998 biography. Where she thoughtfully examined how the schizophrenia of this mathematical genius became permanently intertwined with his gift, the movie is about how John Nash gets redeemed by love. Often an assumption gets made by producers that audiences won’t respond to the unique gifts of the film’s subject so they conceive a concept perceived as accessible to a mass audience – a concept that ensures box office success and potential awards. The irony, of course, is that without the special gifts of a John Nash there wouldn’t be a movie about him in the first place. Back in 2004, there were two radically different movies made about two great American musical figures (Bobby Darin and Ray Charles) that attempted to get at what made these artists fixtures in American popular culture – but only one of those films got there.

Beyond the Sea, the story of  Fifties pop singer Bobby Darin (“Splish Splash,” “Dream Lover”), was clearly a labour of love for director Kevin Spacey (who also played the role), but it’s a labourious picture to sit through. Spacey seems to be trying to outdo just about every Hollywood musical ever made by promiscuously using every genre cliché in the book. He doesn’t try to make sense of Bobby Darin as both a singer and aspiring actor; Spacey resorts instead to boyish hero worship. Kevin Spacey frames the story using a tired conceit featuring Darin making an autobiographical movie and, while he views the picture’s rushes, comes to understand the difference between his pop image and the reality of his life. But Spacey doesn’t clarify what made Darin different from the bland teen idols of his day. There’s no mention of how Darin became part of the second generation of Tin Pan Alley, which would come to include performers like Neil Sedaka, Carole King and Neil Diamond. We never grasp what drove Bobby Darin to become an actor who was attracted to diverse roles in movies like the 1962 Pressure Point (where he played an incarcerated American Nazi). Darin would write a piece about playing against type in this movie for Ebony Magazine where he wrote that “I will get hate letters from both sides for my role, or I will have failed. And if I’m any kind of hero in this picture, then we’ve defeated the whole film.” None of that aspect of his personality comes across in Spacey’s portrait. Darin would also earn an Academy Award nomination the next year for his shell-shocked pilot in Captain Newman M.D. (1963), but Beyond the Sea is simply about the rise and fall – and final redemption – of Kevin Spacey’s idol.

Although the picture is aggressively ambitious, there isn’t an ounce of common sense anywhere in it. When Spacey performs Darin’s songs, the renditions come across as creepier than mimicry – he treats the songs as a personal fetish. Worse, when Darin puts the moves on actress Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), he suggests a lecherous old man rather than a romantic matinee idol. Besides being beyond belief, Beyond the Sea is a major disaster by a major talent.

Jamie Fox as Ray Charles in Ray

If Kevin Spacey’s Beyond the Sea is an example of a Hollywood musical biography gone painfully wrong, Taylor Hackford’s Ray, about the great R&B artist Ray Charles, is about getting it right. Getting it right begins with the casting of Jamie Foxx in the title role. Not only does Foxx capture the wary soul of this American genius, who radically fused gospel, blues and country into a potent musical force, he also displays Charles’s great warmth. Although Foxx sings some of Ray Charles’s early material, he lip-synchs the later hits. But he’s so utterly convincing in the part that, like Jessica Lange’s Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams (1985), he goes far past mimicry.

Ray sits firmly in the grand commercial tradition of Lady Sings the Blues (1972), about Billie Holiday, and What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993), about Tina Turner. But Ray goes further in dramatizing the art of its subject than those previous pictures did. Hackford delves into his early childhood in the South, going blind, riding the chitlin’ circuit with blues artist Lowell Fulson (Chris Thomas King); his landmark years with Atlantic Records recording such gospel flavoured R&B classics as “I Got a Woman” and “Mess Around”; and his late period with ABC-Paramount recording the sublime “Georgia On My Mind” and the snappy “Hit the Road, Jack.” But Hackford doesn't just chronicle the life of Ray Charles with stops along the way for his songs. He illustrates how the songs grew from Charles's experiences as a black American coupled with his need to bring the roots of genre music into a whole new arena.

While the film deals squarely with his womanizing and his heroin habit, unfortunately, the domestic scenes with his wife Beatrice (Kerry Washington) are poorly structured. Hackford gives us no sense as to why she wants to stay married to him. On the other hand, Regina Taylor’s powerful performance as Marjorie “Margie” Hendricks of Ray’s back-up group, The Rayettes, is a beauty. Sharing both his bed and his music, Taylor delves hungrily into Hendricks’ sexual passion for Charles and how it equaled her desire to perform his music.

If Kevin Spacey’s Beyond the Sea leaves you in the dark about the pure talent of Bobby Darin, Taylor Hackford’s Ray can make you see the light about the genius of Ray Charles.

-- June 10/10

Renee Zellweger and Vincent D'Onofrio in The Whole Wide World

The Whole Wide World, based on the 1986 memoir One Who Walked Alone by Novalyne Price Ellis, is a small gem. Set in the early Thirties, the picture tells the story of the turbulent relationship between pulp writer Robert E. Howard (Vincent D’Onofrio), who created Conan the Barbarian, and Novalyne Price (Renee Zellweger), a young Texas schoolteacher who had aspirations to be a writer. Director Dan Ireland provides a probing and touching appraisal of the gulf between the genders and how these two innocents attempt to bridge it. Where Price craves experience and is deeply drawn to Howard’s fervid imagination; Howard, who can only live in the world of his imagination, is initially drawn to Novalyne’s passionate desire to take in the whole wide world.

D’Onofrio’s performance, both boisterous and stirring, shows Howard as a blustering country bumpkin whose sensitivities are masked by his macho posturing. Yet Ireland and D’Onofrio also get at a deeper conflict in Howard, which is his oedipal attachment to his sick mother (Ann Wedgeworth) that prevents him from forming any adult relationship with another woman. Zellweger, in one of her first film roles, provides the kind of verve that never turns precious or self-consciously life-affirming. Novalyne is a proper girl, but one with a bold temperament and a thirst for adventure. Howard’s eccentricities, sketched with anguish and humour, stir not only Novalyne’s desire to write but also her yearnings for passionate romance (which Howard can’t reciprocate).

The movie has what many could call a conventional narrative, but the material (about an unconsummated passionate affair) isn’t conventional at all. The Whole Wide World is about how a man desperately tries to outgrow his attachment to his mother so that he can learn to love a woman. Ireland, and the cast, takes the kind of emotional risks that continually pay off. Although forgotten and abandoned in the years following its release, The Whole Wide World is one of the most genuinely affecting pictures of its time.

-- June 21/10

“The media are all-knowing. They supply a community of knowledge and feelings, and a common morality. Many people, literate and illiterate alike, simply do not read. They receive information from television whether or not they seek that information. It often comes to them in the form of entertainment.”

--Tony Schwartz, Media: The Second God (1983).

Like most people, especially Torontonians, who witnessed the war zone that became our city during the past weekend of the G20 summit, I was appalled by a number of things. One could get into a number of healthy debates over the decision to have the summit in Toronto (given the violent history of these events), the destructive acts of the Black Bloc, or the reaction of the police to those acts. But I was struck more by some other factors that I believe contributed to creating the dark vortex the city fell into while world leaders were discussing the problems of the planet.

It’s been clear for some time now that the process of political engagement has become less of a discussion and more of a battle between intangible notions of what constitutes politics. When the various heads of state were whisked into Toronto and sequestered into a sealed off compound, they were already becoming abstractions to the city they were attending. And the huge security detail, though totally justified in the age of terrorist activity, only made those individuals less transparent, less real, and (for many) nothing more than symbols to rail against. We hosted a summit on world matters where, ironically, one part of the world, the citizens of the city it was held in, couldn’t directly address it. Then we had the demonstrators, representing a variety of causes – some justified, some dubious – speaking out against systems of perceived oppression. But where, in the Sixties, the issues and the leaders were out in the open and often visible, the G20 collective were hidden and they could have just as easily been visiting Mars. The demonstrators sometimes sounded like they were also visiting from Mars.

There’s no secret to the fact that many young men and women feel alienated from the political process to the point where they end up becoming totally incoherent about what they represent. That’s due, in part, to the fact that they no longer feel that their leaders represent their concerns. Many of them don’t even vote because they no longer believe (if they ever did) that the political process is a legitimate one. The cynicism runs so deep that these activists end up becoming as faceless as the leaders they charge with deserting their social concerns. But it’s on TV, or talk radio, with pundits ranging from Stephen Colbert to Rush Limbaugh, who transform that cynicism into a stand-up routine, a glib joke on all of us, a wink to let us know that the emperor has no clothes. Now the news media wants in on the action.

Watching the coverage, Saturday and Sunday, on both the local CP24 and CBC Newsworld, you could sense an appetite for destruction. On Saturday afternoon, you rarely got any insight into the issues of the summit, or even a sense of what the peaceful demonstrators were protesting against and how their issues related to the gathering of world leaders. Instead we saw an almost eager anticipation for something ugly to happen, some drama to engage us, to connect us, since the issues surely weren’t. So we had young bloggers and reporters focusing on the actions of the Black Bloc, young psychopaths who themselves are a dark image of mass conformity with no human distinction, and letting them magnetize the cameras. "The universal psychopath is born when the individual ego is weakened to the point at which it loses separate identity and is forced, for security, to merge with the mass," wrote Robert Lindner in his insightful 1955 essay "The Mutiny of the Young." You could see Lindner's nightmare vision of Mass Man consuming the crowd. The voices of these young reporters then responded as if (like the Black Bloc) they, too, could now part of history in the making, talking as if they were stationed in West Beruit, excitedly imagining themselves as part of something bigger than themselves. Guess what, I was there when that police car burned and that window was smashed. I was part of history.

By Sunday, according to the news, or Naomi Klein, Toronto suddenly resembled just another police state. Innocent people were rounded up with the guilty and herded into a detention centre making the rule of law inconsequential. Again, as a peaceful demonstration was in effect at the detention centre, the cameras zoomed in looking for something violent to break out. Of course, it did. Everyone from the police to the demonstrators today are more aware of the power of the camera – and everybody now has one, even in their phone. We can get information at our fingertips, but (to paraphrase a Frank Zappa song) is it actually knowledge? That’s one of the disturbing aspects lingering from the weekend. In place of a dynamic for democratic debate and discussion is the visceral need to act out the role of victim and victimizer. The police can now look to some as excessive, even brutal, to others not actively aggressive enough; the demonstrators can look like either thugs, or victims of human rights violations. But does any of this take us any closer to grappling with what the issues of this summit were about? Of course not.

During the Sixties, when civil rights violations were taking place in the American south, activists went there to change the legacy of segregation, the violation of voter’s rights, and the bombing of black churches. The role of the media – especially television – was essential to bringing those powerful images of police dogs and hoses battering protesters to the national audience. “I think that television helped accelerate the progress of a movement whose time had come,” NBC reporter Richard Valeriani told author and journalist Juan Williams (Eyes on the Prize). “The wires, newspapers, and magazines would eventually have had a similar impact. But it would not have been nearly so immediate.” Television still has that immediacy, but in a 24-hour universe, the stations no longer operate with the innocent curiosity, or clarity, of the past. News networks now know what drives up ratings because their bosses see the news and politics in general as just another branch of the entertainment industry.

So this weekend, everyone had a role to play. And they played it out with high drama. What was lost, besides the rights of those who were innocent and the property of helpless entrepreneurs was the kind of discourse that recognizes that we are part of a global community. It's a community with the communication technology to make our knowledge of the issues of the world more intimate than at any other time in our history. An international summit with that kind of recognition and intent has yet to emerge anywhere. And given the events of the past weekend, I’m not anticipating one any time soon. But until we do, the politics of engagement, with its inherent power to connect us to our most basic concerns, will be replaced by what we saw in Toronto this week which was nothing less than the politics of opportunism.

-- June 30/10

Jamie Fox and Gerard Butler in Law Abiding Citizen

Looking at Russell Crowe’s grim, purposeful expression on the billboards for Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, the movie seemed to be issuing a threat rather than enticing audiences to see it. Besides, I had already seen that glum look of Crowe’s way back in Ridley Scott’s equally dour Gladiator (2000). (On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed watching Crowe in Scott’s inconsequential, but lovely 2006 comedy, A Good Year, which most people had ignored, or dismissed.) Witnessing the collection of stooges (Adam Sandler, Kevin James, David Spade, Chris Rock and Rob Schneider) on posters for Grown Ups, the film seemed to be arrogantly daring you to defy its potential stupidity. (Stupid can be fun when it’s smart stupid. Dumb stupid, on the other hand, is always a drag.)

Lately, I’ve been working on my new book and catching up with reading, music and some films that were gathering dust at the foot of my television. Movies I’ve caught up with on television have been largely stupefying. Law Abiding Citizen, for instance, is one of the most incoherent thrillers I’ve seen in years. Clyde Shelton (Gerald Butler) witnesses his wife raped and his daughter killed in a home invasion. During the trial, Philadelphia prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) tells him that one of the two criminals will get a light conviction due to botched forensic evidence. Rice ultimately makes a deal with the most brutal of the offenders (the guy who did the raping and killing), so that they can fry his accomplice. Shelton feels betrayed and ultimately gets revenge on the killers, the prosecutor and the whole damn city of Philadelphia. Director F. Gary Gray (2003's The Italian Job) starts out by staging scenes more outlandish than Michael Winner’s ugly vigilante fantasy Death Wish (1974), but he realizes (soon enough) that, with the popularity of torture porn in mainstream horror pictures (SawHostel, etc.), he better turn Shelton into Dexter. As a result, Shelton only mutilates those he finds responsible for heinous crimes. But in order to explain how Shelton is able to continue wreaking havoc, even while in prison, Gray (and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer) concoct a ridiculous subplot about Shelton having connections to black ops in the CIA. (Apparently, his black ops training enabled Shelton to dig tunnels between his solitary cell and a garage he happened to own nearby thus allowing him to prowl the city unnoticed.) While a number of good actors (Jamie Foxx, Colm Meaney, Leslie Bibb) try to save face by gamely following the dots in the story, the charmless Gerard Butler can do nothing to cover the preposterousness of the avenging father.

Speaking of avenging fathers, the remake of the sly and entertaining 1987 thriller The Stepfather, is as about as doltish as Law Abiding Citizen. The original picture, directed by Joseph Ruben (Dreamscape), from a clever screenplay by crime writer Donald Westlake, was a shrewd satire of Reagan-era American family values. It featured a serial killer ( a pre-Lost Terry O’Quinn) who marries into families with a single mother and then attempts to shape the clan into his idea of family virtue based on the old TV shows of the Fifties like Father Knows Best. When they can’t match up to his idea of perfection, he butchers them all, changes his identity, and moves onto the next family. The original film essentially put a human face on the mass murderer after the numerous versions of Friday the 13thHalloween and Nightmare on Elm Street presented young audiences with boogie men out of fairy tales. O’Quinn, who was then a character actor who prior to this played forgettable folks in mostly best-forgotten films, was perfectly cast as a man who blended in so effortlessly; he was the everyman as psycho killer. O’Quinn possessed in perfect proportions the bland shadings of a Ted Bundy. The young audience I first saw The Stepfather with were more deeply frightened by this portrait of evil than the standard murderer in the goalie mask – and for good reason. The guy in the goalie mask is unrecognizable; O’Quinn could be the dad next door, or possibly even your own.

The Stepfather (2009)

The new version, directed by Nelson McCormick, abandons the sharply drawn subtext of the original. Although Dylan Walsh doesn’t wear a mask, or have razors for fingernails, he might as well. The Stepfather (2009) has no psychological resonance at all or any purpose beyond recycling tired horror clichés seen in dozens of other pictures. Whereas the first film had the stepfather marry into a family with a daughter who had issues when her father died, the new film introduces a number of kids including a son who has just returned from military school to discover his mother happily in love with this “perfect” man. But there is no intent behind all this other than to have the family slowly – and I mean slowly – come to recognize that he’s not the guy they think he is. But what kind of guy is he? Dylan Walsh sure doesn’t illuminate the character beyond what the screenplay (with poorly adapted lines from the original) tells him. Terry O’Quinn let you see the spaces between his carefully placed mask which were like holes in his consciousness. Walsh is nothing but holes.

The 1987 version was abandoned upon release and became more of an underground hit that spawned a couple of bummer sequels. But the 2009 The Stepfather is a slap in the face to the original. Joseph Ruben etched a portrait of subterranean madness that uncovered the phony moralism of contemporary suspense movies. (Sexually active teens in most horror films get murdered while the virgin triumphs over the monster.) But the re-make resembles an attempt to take the discomfiting material and make it into something more palatable: a standard genre movie. Luckily, it didn't succeed. The Stepfather redux turned out to be as faceless as its protagonist.

Along with some of these forgettable pictures, there was one riveting movie I did catch up with in recent months – and it never turned up in a theatre. Killshot (2008) is a tip-top crime thriller featuring Mickey Rourke in the role in which he should have been acclaimed. As good as Rourke was in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008), the picture was shaped around our knowledge of the damage Rourke did to his career after the promise he displayed; first in a small role as an arsonist in Body Heat (1981), and then in a major part in Barry Levinson’s autobiographical Diner (1982). After showing some of the flair of Brando, with his soft machismo and sweet charm, Rourke (to paraphrase Brando in On the Waterfront) quickly took a one-way ticket to Palookaville. Leading a life of excess and self-destruction, Rourke’s career basically took a header. The Wrestler was his unapologetic calling card for redemption, a celebrated comeback, and he delivered a touching and bruising performance as a man making amends with what little he had left. But his life flooded into that performance to such a degree that you couldn’t really separate the actor from the man. (Brando had done a similar thing in Last Tango in Paris but he used that role to examine the nature of masculine aggression that he had so dramatically defined early in his career. In The Wrestler, Aronofsky’s redemption story confined Rourke, who could only trace the lines of a promised life now gutted.)

But in John Madden’s Killshot, adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1989 novel, Rourke doesn’t have the autobiographical baggage he had to carry in The Wrestler. Playing Blackbird, a hitman for the Toronto mob, he has spent his career regretting the accidental murder of his brother during a job, a murder he sees as his failing to protect him. Now he's a man who lives only to do his job and he takes on assignments with a quiet resignation. When a real estate agent, Wayne Colson (Thomas Jane) and his wife, Carmen (Diane Lane), witness Blackbird carrying out a crime, they end up pursued by a man whose livelihood is all about leaving no loose ends. In Killshot, Rourke creates an ominous quiet as Blackbird, a sense that life hasn't dealt him a fair deck of cards, but he’ll play what he has with a fatalism that shows no mercy. But it doesn’t leave him dispassionate. He takes on a partner, Richie Nix (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hayseed psychopath who enjoys being a criminal, because he mistakenly believes he's like the brother he lost. And Blackbird wrongly assumes that he can mentor Nix as a way of re-writing the tragic fate of his late sibling. If Rourke provides a quiet space, Gordon-Levitt is a bolt of lightning, jolting the screen with bursts of maniacal enthusiasm. His performance is a beautifully sustained chorus of hysteria. It takes Blackbird a long time to see that Nix isn’t the brother he was hoping for and his manner of dealing with that realization is a corker.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mickey Rourke in Killshot

As fine as Rourke is, he isn’t the whole movie. Diane Lane continues to be one of the most underappreciated actresses who continue to etch finely drawn character parts. (She brought a wistful touch of human regret to the otherwise unbearably creepy 2008 horror thriller Untraceable.) Lane plays a woman whose marriage isn’t all she hoped it would be and Rourke’s hitman, when he eventually holds her hostage, understands her weakness. Thomas Jane, usually an actor with an appetite for blandness, gives his first really substantial bit of acting as a man who clearly loves his wife but might not live long enough to convince her. Killshot also brings to life John Madden, otherwise known for the tepid Shakespeare in Love and the inert Proof, and he never once resorts to maudlin sentiment. (A goodbye scene between Nix and his Elvis-obsessed girlfriend – an exuberant Rosario Dawson – puts a catch in your throat.)

Unfortunately, Killshot had its share of bad luck. Miramax Films had optioned Leonard’s novel back in 1997, but didn’t get around to developing the film until 2004. After a year of casting hassles, John Madden was hired to start shooting in Toronto in the fall of 2005 (as well as Cape Girardeau along the Mississippi River). By Christmas 2006, the film was completed, but test-market screenings with audiences proved fatal as viewers found the story too obtuse. As a result, the picture got delayed as cuts were made pushing the release to March 2006, but delays continued until it was finally dumped onto DVD in May, 2009.

Killshot reveals the flaws of some of those cuts as certain parts of the narrative, especially the move of the couple into witness protection, seem rushed and fails to establish fully the deep-seated problems of their marriage. But the fractured story-telling is mostly compensated for by the underlying theme of the picture and the actors who inhabit their parts. Killshot is a noir where fate and intent come to face-off. And the showdown is a beauty.

July 5 & 6/10

“I’ll show you what horror means.”

-- actor Frederic March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932).

“Let them see the horror!”

-- Jacqueline Kennedy comments in Dallas after refusing to change her blood-soaked dress after President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.

In real life, Frederic March and Jacqueline Kennedy would have nothing in common. But in the imagination of American life, with its intersection of popular culture and politics, a peculiar dynamic gets struck wherein true horror produces the same sting as imagined horror. America may be a place where the Statue of Liberty promises (and often delivers) a lamp that lights the way to freedom, but it also has a soul that D.H. Lawrence once called “hard, isolated, stoic and a killer.” It’s a country built on the twisted perfectionist dreams and fundamentalist pursuits of puritans, so it should come as no surprise that the phenomenon of vampires, ghouls, zombies and serial killers also find their way into the imagination of readers and moviegoers. During the eighties, as Ronald Reagan (a puritan in Hollywood garb) portrayed America as a promised land that was waking up to a new morning, author David J. Skal in The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror (1993, revised in 2001) saw quite another picture – a waking nightmare – where beneath American optimism lay “disenfranchisement, exclusion, downward mobility, a struggle-to-the-death world of winners and losers.” Alongside the insipidly cheerful optimism of this Morning in America was a place where “familiar, civic-minded signposts are all reversed: the family is a sick joke, its house more likely to offer siege instead of shelter.” The Monster Show is an earnest attempt to come to terms with that darker world adding horror as a shrewd form of cultural reflection.

As a chronicle, The Monster Show does go beyond the American experience. It offers a fascinating international overview, with compelling anecdotes, of how the culture of horror evolved in the 20th Century as a sideshow collecting the hidden terrors of a modern world ravaged by war, Depression and (during Reagan’s time) the scourge of AIDS. Skal begins his saga, though, in Europe after WW I and traces the Dadaist and expressionist outbursts viewed in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), where the world is shaped through the eyes of a madman; and in Nosferatu (1922), where F. W. Murnau strips Dracula of his romantic allure and reveals him to be the harbinger of pestilence. Skal continues with a fascinating tour through Le Theatre du Grand Guignol with their planned attacks on rationalism.

But America, according to Skal, began to embrace the horror genre during the thirties when “the bottom fell out of the tubs into which America had poured its hopes and faiths.” Soon with the growing popularity of FrankensteinDracula and The Wolf Man, monster movies “opened up the possibility of psychic lawlessness; a monster for Hollywood, was a gangster of the id and unconscious.” Skal deftly illustrates the various cultural and political forms (and norms) that inspired American horror. For example, the Cold War Fifties brought us monsters from space (during the Bomb and Red Scares where “ideological otherness frequently went extraterrestrial”). He looks at how the horrors of birth control spawned Village of the Damned (1960) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968); and why you couldn’t watch Night of the Living Dead (1968) without thinking of the dismembered dead filling our television sets on the nightly news reports from Vietnam.

Nosferatu (1922)

As a historical guide to horror culture, and the participants who made it possible, The Monster Show is certainly thoughtful and entertaining – but it sadly lacks a sharp critical perspective. (The book also, in its international scope, unwisely sidesteps Dario Argento in favour of Anne Rice, barely touches on Britain’s Hammer Horror films, and makes mere passing reference to Roger Corman.) Worse, Skal occasionally approaches his subject with the zeal of an orthodox Jungian burning incense at the altar of the collective unconscious. He’s practically chained to his archetypes, unable to establish the difference between horror that helps us come to terms with our fears, and the horror that reinforces it. (Unfortunately, the book came out before the seemingly endless slate of torture porn horror pictures – movies that, by getting the audience grooving on its own dread, fulfill the horrific feelies of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.)

What The Monster Show does best is provide stories that illuminate some of the figureheads in the canon of the horror culture. Skal tells captivating tales about director Tod Browning, who brought the morbid surrealism of the carnival world into the movie Freaks (1932). He supplies a riveting portrait of the perverse Bela Lugosi, who in Dracula (1931) sucked blood from his victim’s veins, but would put into his own veins the white powder that would eventually send him permanently to his coffin. The Monster Show could have been a better critical examination because David J. Skal latches onto an appealing subject here: horror as the dark mirror of our social and political traditions. But The Monster Show can only cast an eerie shadow upon those areas. As a study, it seldom goes deep enough to raise the gooseflesh.

I wish I could share the enthusiasm expressed by many who have been eagerly awaiting the return of the hit series Mad Men, whose fourth season premieres tonight on AMC. But I’m not sure what there is to be so enthusiastic about except the show’s tantalizing ambitions, goals that have never travelled far from the shallow end of the pool.

Mad Men is set in the 1960s and examines the lives of the advertising men who work on Madison Avenue in New York City at the firm Sterling Cooper. Created by former Sopranos’ writer Matthew Weiner in 2007, Mad Men does have a clever premise; creative ad men selling us dreams of an American life they themselves can’t possibly live. The main character, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the creative director at the firm, isn’t even who he claims to be. He’s a con artist living out his own fantasy while selling products to others. Placing a con artist at the center of a story of self-made men is definitely appetizing. It draws significantly on the corruption of the American ideal where you can make of yourself anything you wish. In doing so, Mad Men tries to examine the changing mores of American middle-class culture from the post-War comforts of suburbia to the social upheavals of the sixties. But I’m afraid that the show ultimately fails to live up to its promise. Rather than capture an era in turmoil, or characters at crossroads between what they sell and who they are, Mad Men fixates itself on the details of the period, the minutiae of sixties kitsch, to compensate for its lack of dramatic coherence. Rather than go deeply into the characters behind the facade, the show chooses to illuminate the facade. In short, I think Mad Men is itself a slick bit of advertising.

When the show first debuted in July 2007, I was initially excited by the set up – including the program’s fixation on the drinking, cigarette smoking, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism because it was a significant part of the American culture of that time. I was also old enough to remember visiting my mother who was a secretary at an affiliate of the CTV Television Network. The people of Mad Men to a degree occupied portions of my memory about the ambiance of a media environment where ideas and ambition commingled in a haze of smoke, booze and flirtations. I took the rigorous attention to details in Season One to be merely a set-up for the payoffs to follow in subsequent years. But something truly went wrong between the first two seasons.

My guess is it was Mad Men’s instant success with viewers and critics. By seizing on a clever idea, Mad Men was suddenly acclaimed as this great drama to stand alongside Sinclair Lewis in its unbridled comprehension of failed American values. But I suspect that Matthew Weiner, knowing he had a hot property on his hands, did what other promising programs (like Alias and Lost) did. He decided to play to an audience rather than cultivate one. Sometimes when a potentially good show draws a solid following the creators (and the networks) become afraid of losing those viewers. So they don’t take risks by going somewhere the audience might not wish to go, instead they play to their expectations. Mad Men has that skill down to a science.

Weiner is pretty clever. He knows it would be too easy to look back on the early sixties and approach the material nostalgically, which is why Mad Men isn’t really about nostalgia. (I’m afraid audiences think that’s part of what makes Mad Men deep.) But Mad Men only appears smart because of its absence of sentiment, with its cool precision cloaked in ironies we can now appreciate in hindsight. But if you look into the evolving storyline, you’ll find nothing but vignettes sketched with no dramatic resonance, or follow-through. For example, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), one of the two senior partners of Sterling Cooper, has a life-threatening heart attack in Season One which has him fearing for his life and marriage (especially since he was happily mounting a young woman in his office when it happened), but nothing ever comes of it (except a divorce which still told us little about his marriage). Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who rose from Don Draper’s secretary to become a copywriter, becomes pregnant with the child of co-worker Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), who is initially kept ignorant of the pregnancy. While she eventually has the baby and reveals the secret to Campbell, the revelation doesn’t develop into anything more than a deepening of their rivalry in the office. More blatantly, Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), the agency’s creative copywriter and Princeton grad, is an active liberal who dates a black woman and even joins in the Freedom March in the South. But she soon mysteriously disappears from the show, as does any trace of why he dated her and how the experience of fighting desegregation might have affected him, or even changed his views on the office politics he has to endure. Speaking of politics, Sal Romano (Bryan Batt) is their Italian-American art director who is also a closeted homosexual. But Mad Men puts him in another closet by redundantly tracing his inner turmoil, but never fully examining the means by which he must remain invisible. Mad Men’s enthusiasts applaud the Pinteresque silences and pauses as part of the show’s depth, while not recognizing that silence isn’t always subtext.

Mad Men focuses primarily on Don Draper and his wife Betty (January Jones) and their turbulent marriage, but even that grows ultimately forced and monotonous. Don is a rampant womanizer; Betty knows it and endures it until she gets some revenge of her own. But their marriage seems more a plot convenience to illustrate the growing ennui of suburban emptiness rather than a depiction of marital conflict. But that is what irks me most about Mad Men: its absence of drama. The best TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Six Feet Under, were driven by a dramatic purpose, and they had a coherent arc that had payoffs within their structure. Buffy was a perfectly thought through series that used the demon world as a paradoxical reflection of adolescent struggle. Six Feet Under focused on a family who ran a funeral home and, within that premise, took us (with humour and pathos) inside our own unease with mortality and our fragile relationship with life. Mad Men is more a shifting motif, highlighted in the Saul Bass inspired opening credits of the man falling through skyscrapers filled with reflections of period advertising posters and billboards, casting superficial shadings on the characters.

The season premiere tonight opens with the question, “Who is Don Draper?” But that question could be equally applied to most of the characters that walk through the show. It may even apply to the man who created it. Mad Men is all about the selling of images. And, so far, it’s successfully hustling itself.

-- July 25/10

Obama's Subway Dream: Randy Newman's "Sail Away"

Back on June 2nd, Paul McCartney performed at the White House for President Obama, the First Lady, Michelle and their two kids. The occasion was McCartney receiving the third Gershwin Prize For Popular Song from the President. As well as accepting the award, McCartney played a whole selection of songs. With Stevie Wonder, he reprised "Ebony and Ivory." He serenaded the First Lady with the obvious choice of "Michelle," plus had other invited guests cover his material. In top form, Jack White turned "Mother Nature's Son" (morphing it with "That Would Be Something") into something strange out of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Dave Grohl amped up "Band on the Run," Emmylou Harris brought a plaintive mournfulness to "For No One," and Elvis Costello revisited the shimmering "Penny Lane." The Jonas Brothers (no doubt brought in for the kids) surprised all with their dynamic rendition of "Drive My Car." Later, President Obama praised McCartney saying that he had "helped to lay the soundtrack for an entire generation."

But what if, with the success of that evening still ringing in his ears, Obama decided to celebrate an American performer who was equally worthy of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song – say, Randy Newman. The evening might go like this: Newman turns up looking rather surprised to have been asked to perform (for the first time) in the White House. President Obama assures Newman that his kids loved his songs in Toy Story while Newman quietly suggests another more appropriate song. The President graciously tells Randy that it's his concert and in the new democratic spirit of the land he should play what he wants. Newman then takes his place at the piano which is situated under the photos of George Washington and his wife Martha. He begins nervously by introducing the number. "Years ago, I wrote this sea shanty for a short film that was ultimately never made," he began. "It was in the Nixon years so there wasn't very much money for this kind of thing." The audience laughs quietly in recognition of a time that had long passed. "But it's an Irish kind of tune, you know, like 'The Ballad of Pat O'Reilly.'" Everyone looks a little puzzled - especially the kids - since nobody knows the song. "Anyway, it's about a sea voyage that begins in Africa and it kind of goes like this."

Newman begins the opening chords of his song. "In America, you'll get food to eat." Of course, America feeds the starving Africans. This is a good message. People quickly perk up to the promise they hear in the song. But as he continues, Newman adds, "You'll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day. It's great to be an American." The President fidgets and looks at Michelle. "What did he just say about wine and Jesus?" Newman assures the gathered crowd in the following verse that they won't find lions, or tigers, or mamba snakes in America, but they'll get to eat watermelon and buckwheat cake. Then, softly, he implores, "Climb aboard, little wog, sail away with me." Before he can reach the chorus, which is so majestic that it arouses an eagerness to jump aboard in spite of the words being sung, the President suddenly looks around as if trying to find some way to tell Newman that the song is, ah, maybe somewhat inappropriate. But an aide, who is hip to Newman's work (in fact, he had a hand in getting him invited), whispers to Obama that the song is a parody of the slave trade. A parody? How can you joke about that?

Randy Newman

After some polite applause, the President swiftly awards Newman his prize and tells him that he looks forward, as do his kids, to more Disney songs. But Newman asks him what he thought of "Sail Away?" The President demurred by saying, "Well, I'm no music critic." Later at the state dinner honoring the evening, though, Newman again brings up the song. "I wrote 'Sail Away' because the slave trade is our main imperialist crime," he explained. One of the cabinet members turned to Newman to ask, "This song you wrote, sung from a slave trader's perspective about bringing blacks to America, is supposed to be a condemnation of slavery?! What were you thinking?" "What am I supposed to say?" Newman politely asked the cabinet member. "Slavery is bad? It would be too easy and would have no effect." But there was more. As the argument continued, President Obama began to reflect back on what he heard. "Sail Away" perhaps held a bigger paradox than what Newman was aware of while writing it. There was a something horribly unresolvable about a beautiful song dealing with American slavery, for it allowed you to contemplate that without the slave trade, with all its shame and horror, there would have also been no black culture enriching America – no Booker T. Washington, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Charlie Parker, James Baldwin, Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Ralph Ellison, Aretha Franklin, Toni Morrison, Ray Charles, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre – and no election of Barack Obama.

The President realized upon reflection that the hideous joke of "Sail Away," with its intended irony, transcended the poisonous tree of slavery. Maybe the unease stirred by a song like "Sail Away" was actually better than showcasing a simple, more topical polemic about the evils of racism. He turned to Newman and thanked him for offering such a provocative and intelligent evening of songs. But he stopped short of saying that he had "helped to lay the soundtrack for an entire generation."

-- August 1/10

Bummers in the Summer: Salt & Inception

Angelina Jolie in Salt

While the idea of Russian moles being planted in the United States during the Cold War to wreak havoc on command is certainly appetizing and dramatically credible (as recent events have proven), Salt isn’t credible on any level. Working from a ridiculously incoherent script by Kurt Wimmer (Law Abiding Citizen), Noyce (Clear and Present Danger) gamely attempts to navigate through this intelligence adventure as if he’s helming one of the Bourne films – except Salt ends up being about as believable as The Boys From Brazil (1978). And Angelina Jolie, who successfully magnetizes the camera, ends up in a role that ultimately makes little sense.

Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is one of the CIA’s rising stars who has proven her salt (so to speak) to God and country, but a Russian defector, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychiski), fingers her as a KGB agent who has been in deep cover as a potential assassin. Upon that revelation, she quickly escapes while her partner Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejifor) are in hot pursuit. According to Orlov, Salt’s mission is to assassinate the Russian President (Olek Krupa) while he’s attending the funeral of the American Vice-President in New York. As she heads to the Big Apple to fulfill her mission, the movie raises the audience’s suspicions as to whether she’s actually a double-agent (or perhaps even a triple-agent).

Salt has all the ingredients for an entertaining thriller except at the very core of the story where it utterly collapses. For instance, it’s clear from the beginning that we’re supposed to see Evelyn as a pawn in a larger conspiracy to possibly frame her. But by the time certain revelations get uncorked, she’s already killed and maimed so many people that it’s hard to feel any empathy for her at all. It’s also inadvertently comical that after the Russian President is ambushed the U.S. President would – just hours after the attack – allow two Russian NATO officers as welcomed guests into the White House. There are also periodic flashbacks to Evelyn Salt’s budding love affair with Mike (August Diehl), her husband, that never get fleshed out, or even fully comprehended. While watching Salt, I found myself reflecting back on the initially superb TV series Alias, with Jennifer Garner leading a double-life as an agent, and how her choices tragically affected her marriage in a far more convincing manner.

As for the performances, Jolie charges through the film like a supermodel on steroids, but the rest of the cast are laid bare by the idiocies in the plot. It’s been a while since I’ve seen such a collection of bummer moments from such notable talents. Liev Schreiber wears the same catatonic expression he perfected in Jonathan Demme’s needless 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, while Chiwetel Ejifor provides a series of endless double-takes suggesting his growing disbelief at what he’s being asked to play. Poor Andre Braugher, that great actor from Glory (1989) and TV’s Homicide: Life on the Street, as the Secretary of Defense, gets reduced to utter anonymity, muttering one line before he’s cut down in a spray of bullets. There hasn’t been such a useless appearance in a major motion picture by a terrific actor of this magnitude since Ciarán Hinds was reduced to running errands for Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s fraudulent There Will Be Blood (2007). If anything is keeping audiences going to Salt, I guess it has to be the non-stop action which Noyce delivers as if his mind was on holiday.

Christopher Nolan's Inception

The thrills in Salt may be preventing audiences from questioning the howlers in the story, but why is that vacuum on the screen known as Inception even keeping anyone awake? Director Christopher Nolan has been trading in deception ever since he pulled a fast-one with the empty conceit of Memento (2000), but Inception is one very long drone. While drawing on a number of influences, including The Matrix (1999), Mission: Impossible (1996), even Alan Resnais’ opaque Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Nolan has made an enervating heist movie cloaked in a tricky illusion-versus-reality puzzle narrative. Leonardo DiCaprio is Dom Cobb, a lost soul for hire, who makes a living diving into people’s dreams to extract their secrets. His latest client, Saito (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese industrialist, decides to up the ante by hiring Cobb to plant an idea in his victim rather than extract one. Known as an inception, Cobb is asked to enter the subconscious of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the son of Saito’s industrial rival, to convince him to break up his dying father’s empire. Then, as in most heist pictures, Cobb assembles his team: his point man is Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); Eames (Tom Hardy) forges documents as well as disguising own identity while wandering through the target’s dream; Yusuf (Dileep Rao) manufactures sedatives to sustain the dream; and a new member to the team, Ariadne (Ellen Page), who is endorsed by Cobb’s mentor Miles (Michael Caine), is the architect of the dream world the team will occupy. She has to create enough visual detail so that the target’s resistance (in the form of human projections) doesn’t sabotage the mission.

Of course, the picture’s darker drama – and mystery – involves Cobb’s late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who pops up in his own unconscious to sabotage his schemes. The key reason for Cobb taking on Saito’s offer is that he gives this invader of the psyche a means to be reunited with his children who he has been mysteriously separated from. (How he plans to do this, though, is even a bigger mystery.) Inception aims to become an existential heist drama but since it really has no motivating dramatic impulse, the picture becomes an exercise in inertia.

Nolan’s version of inertia, though, always looks busy and complex, but that’s part of the more deceptive aspects of his work. Like his previous films (MementoInsomniaBatman BeginsThe Dark KnightInception is essentially deep on the surface. (I deliberately left The Prestige off the list because the deceptive aspects of that story were actually engaging and clever; in fact, deception was the movie’s point given that the subject was magic.) But Inception has no dramatic core. If it did, Saito’s offer to Cobb wouldn’t be presented as something affirmative when in fact he’s breaking up another man’s company so that he can have the turf all to himself. We would also question why Adriadne neglects to inform the team of Cobb’s femme fatale dream projection when she could totally upend their plans. Nolan also has no sense of visual flow, or the lyricism to help us distinguish the various levels of dream states. (Every level looked the same to me: I felt like I was watching an endless parade of slick car ads.) And if the use of Edith Piaf's songs are included because Marion Cotillard played Piaf in La Vie en Rose (2007), the joke was lost on me.

Joseph Ruben's Dreamscape

When you get down to it, Inception isn’t really about anything and (unless you’re hooked on conceptual puzzles) it also has no psychological coherence. Dom Cobb’s crisis is about as ephemeral as the story itself – it carries no emotional resonance. The movie, in fact, made me nostalgic for Joseph Ruben’s far superior Dreamscape (1984) where Dennis Quaid entered people’s dreams to help them resolve their conflicts. Besides being far more witty and clever, Dreamscape also had some political relevance. In the story, the President of the United States (Eddie Albert) has nightmares about nuclear annihilation so he proposes signing a peace treaty with the Soviets. His Chief-of-Staff Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer), with eerie shadings of Alexander Haig, wants no part of any treaty and hires another dream traveller to enter his boss’s nightmares and assassinate him. Dreamscape was no more than an elegantly tossed off B-movie, but it had dollops of smart humour and the dreams were both funny and scary. (It was no accident that the distinguishing dreams in Dreamscape resembled a variety of different genre movies.)

Unlike DreamscapeInception carries a solemn air that reeks of self-importance. And since Nolan shows no interest in dramatizing his dream world, the actors are left delivering position papers on what we are supposed to be watching. (The Dark Knight came across like a college professor’s rambling lecture on Nihilism in the 21st Century.) My guess is what is engaging audiences – and many critics – at Inception are the formal artful touches Nolan provides to routine commercial storytelling. They believe that he’s adding depth to what is usually a superficial Hollywood adventure drama. But Inception is like an Escher sketch that disappears into itself – and it blows a hollow horn.

-- August 6/10

This is It: Some Final Thoughts on Michael Jackson

I recently caught up with Kenny Ortega's 2009 documentary Michael Jackson's This is It and thankfully it isn't an act of exploitation. Now I wouldn't put Ortega in the same league as Bob Fosse (Cabaret), but This is It certainly proves that great choreographers can sometimes make pretty good film directors. The movie documents Jackson's rehearsals and preparations for the comeback he was about to launch on July 13, 2009. When he died on June 25th, however, the only remnants of what might have been were captured by Ortega's film team shooting Jackson running through musical numbers, auditioning and directing the dancers, the conceptual stage design work, and some interviews with those who took part in the preparation for the show that never was.

What's particularly staggering – and thrilling – about this extremely entertaining picture is that it manages to both fundamentally shape the process of Jackson's art as well as demonstrate it. That is, we get to see Michael Jackson (who looks in peak form) working out the program as well as executing the numbers. This is It also reveals that the concerts were designed as a Michael Jackson musical primer that would cover his entire career dating back to the Jackson Five. Ortega stages the numbers as if he's imagining what they'd look like in their finished form. He thinks like a dancer so the images move fluidly with the music. (The footage was filmed at the Staples Center and Los Angeles Forum arenas in California.)

The footage is spellbinding whether Jackson is prancing like a cat on the prowl through "Wanna Be Startin' Something" in the opening number or transfixing in the stillness of the a capella version of "Human Nature." The song "Smooth Criminal" shows him inserted in footage from Gilda (1946) with Rita Hayworth singing "Put the Blame on Mame" just for him (where, shortly after, Bogart in The Big Sleep jealously hunts him down). Jackson's showmanship is seldom separated from the mythical baggage he created around him. But This is It is a strange piece of work because we watch it with the recognition that Jackson is now gone and the show - with its dynamism and its ostentatious peculiarities – exists now purely in our own head. Kenny Ortega (at least until the unbearably saccharine ending) manages to keep the picture dancing and our final look at Jackson, without argument, shows us why, as critic Charles Taylor said in Dissent, no performer before Jackson "ever appealed across racial, sexual, class, national boundaries to the extent that Michael Jackson did."

This is It sums up Jackson's life and work more profoundly than his memorial did. The Michael Jackson memorial unveiled more of the paradoxes of the man than they were memorializing. There were moments that were stirring (Jennifer Hudson’s powerhouse performance of “Will You Be There”), maudlin (Lionel Ritchie and Mariah Carey oozing banality), thoughtful (Barry Gordy and Smoky Robinson eloquently summing up Jackson’s artistic legacy), bombastic (Rev. Al Sharpton giving new meaning to being in denial), unassuming (John Mayer’s lovely instrumental version of “Human Nature”), too assuming (Usher ushering in the worst in sanctimony while gently touching Jackson’s coffin), doleful (Jermaine Jackson’s plaintive rendering of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”) and appalling (take your pick: the group sing of “We Are the World,” or the shameful exploitation of his young daughter’s grief at the end). I liked that the ceremony was rendered in the black gospel tradition that once again reminded us of Jackson’s roots. While Michael Jackson’s troubling life and predilections will never dissolve his artistic zeal or his place in American pop music, it will also never be inseparable from it. It’s no accident that people are reminded of Elvis when they talk of Jackson. (Of course, he also married Elvis’s daughter Lisa Marie which just adds another cornerstone to American Gothic.)

In 1954, when the Supreme Court outlawed segregation, I believe Elvis acted on that pledge when he recorded Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama” and Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train.” He not only brought the spirit of black American music boldly into the white mainstream but, as he captured its sound and feeling, Elvis also made the music entirely his own. When Jackson broke in the late sixties with the Jackson Five, he was part of the Motown continuum of producing exciting black commercial pop. But when he went solo in the late seventies with the propulsive Off the Wall (1979) and in the eighties with Thriller (1982), Jackson fearlessly confronted white corporate rock (which didn’t exist in Elvis’s day) and took black soul and dance music and integrated it into mainstream rock. His artistic daring challenged MTV, the new video channel, who were ignoring black music, thus demanding that they play his videos. Of course, like Elvis, Jackson would also find fame at the cost of being consumed by it. The American artist often becomes cannibalized because of his distinctiveness. But while his uniqueness attracts us, we also wish to tame him and turn him into an object of worship, thus defeating his rebellion. So Elvis bloated himself (as did Brando) while Jackson re-made himself into a freak. (Unlike many others, though, I don’t believe Jackson was trying to turn white through his numerous plastic surgeries. If anything, he seemed to be transforming himself into a Kabuki version of Diana Ross – which suggests a whole other set of problems.)

Some of the best words on Jackson can be found in Mikal Gilmore’s wonderful book, Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll (Doubleday, 1998), which also includes perceptive essays on The Allman Brothers Band, Frank Sinatra, Prince and Lou Reed. He characterizes Jackson’s contribution to pop succinctly: “Michael Jackson…[is] an astonishing singer whose vocalizing is both a consummation of R&B history as well as a fresh new start…who embodies the whole spectrum of black dance style from Cab Calloway to James Brown and then some…Jackson is a half-mad and extraordinary talent in a nation that both sanctifies him and hates him for his prowess – and either response spells a difficult artistic future.” These are alone prescient observations – but he goes even further. “He lives in – as critic Dave Marsh once pointed out – a trap, and while much of it is of his own doing, no doubt some of it is of our making as well.” He then summarizes Jackson by quoting from poet William Carlos Williams who once said, “The pure products of America go crazy.” Critic Peter Guralnick often used those lines to define Elvis after his death. But the question that continues to be unanswered is who drove those pure products mad: their purity or our corruption of it? This is It only goes so far in coming to grips with that question. But what it does with zeal is give us the pure excitement of Michael Jackson's art.

-- August 8/10

Greasy Love Songs

In the mid-Nineties, when American composer Frank Zappa's full catalogue finally became available on CD, it was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it was fulfilling to finally see his vast body of work – at that time including over fifty albums that spanned his rock, jazz and classical material from 1959 to 1994 – available in a digital format. But it was also deeply disappointing that, in his preparation for these releases, he felt compelled to remix and recut albums (Freak Out! Hot Rats), or poorly remaster them (Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Chunga's Revenge, You Are What You Is, Tinsel Town Rebellion). In the case of We're Only in it For the Money (1967) and Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (1968), he even went so far as to erase the original rhythm section and re-record the backing tracks with contemporary musicians. The justified outcry of fans concerning We're Only in it For the Money had some impact in causing Zappa, before his tragic death from prostate cancer in 1993, to re-release the CD from an original vinyl recording. Since apparently there weren't as many fans of Crusing, his marvellous R&B doo-wop hybrid, that album didn't get the same treatment - until now. Thanks to the Zappa family, who have been springing surprises from Frank's vault of tapes for the last number of years, the original recording of Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (along with alternate takes and mixes) is finally available under the new title Greasy Love Songs.

On Cruising with Ruben & the Jets, Frank Zappa with The Mothers of Invention set out to mirror what Igor Stravinsky did during his neo-classical period when he took the clichés and musical forms of the classical period and recast them. Zappa applied a similar technique, with satirical intent, to the complex vocal harmonies of Fifties doo-wop, the formative music of his adolescent years. It was a bold move. For one thing, very few music listeners in 1968 were even aware of Fifties rock beyond Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Secondly, there was nothing more "uncool" at that point in time than oldies rock. When it did raise its greasy head (as Sha Na Na did at Woodstock in 1969), it was considered nothing more than a circus act for the hippies to laugh at. Even before Woodstock, Zappa anticipated that hostility, correctly perceiving that the music he loved was considered horribly retrograde to the very hip counter-culture. So while the late Sixties audience was looking for psychedelic morsels to feed their head, Zappa provided a dish nobody was waiting to consume.

By the Seventies, because of movies like American Graffiti (1973) and television shows like Happy Days, people pined for the Fifties, mistaking it for a simpler time. When Zappa and The Mothers recorded Cruising with Ruben & the Jets in 1968, they weren't presenting the past as a refuge for those wishing to escape the present. The album features a number of re-arranged Zappa compositions from the early sixties ("Fountain of Love," "Deseri"), plus wildly different arrangements of songs first heard on Freak Out!, his 1966 debut album ("I'm Not Satisfied," Any Way the Wind Blows," "How Could I Be Such a Fool" and "You Didn't Try to Call Me"). Though the melodies on Cruising were consistent with Fifties doo-wop, including the timbre of the vocal style, the chord progressions were radically different. All through the record, blocks of percussive sound echoes like finger snaps while piano triplets roll on redundantly. The singers, Ray Collins (with supporting harmonies by Roy Estrada and Zappa), sound authentic one moment, and the next like a resurrection of Alvin & the Chipmunks. Cruising with Ruben & the Jets is an irreverent tribute to doo-wop, a fascinating study in contrast between the norms of the past and the clichés of the present.

The Mothers of Invention

For instance, the opening track, "Cheap Thrills," alludes to doo-wop norms - even beginning with a typical fifties plea for love that deliberately borrows from Vernon Green & the Medallions' hit "The Letter," but the chord changes (and the speeded up vocals) are totally The Mothers at their most sardonic. Later in the same song, while reminding us of a "story untold," "Cheap Thrills" invokes the famous song from The Nutmegs ("Story Untold"). If you listen carefully to "Love of My Life," the album's second track, you can hear the backing vocals quoting The Penguins' "Earth Angel." The ridiculously sublime "Jelly Roll Gum Drop" (just use your imagination) draws on the dance – the Pachuko Hop – inspired by Chuck Higgins' early Fifties hit. The song overtly illustrates how popular dance forms originated out of the pursuit for sex. Zappa's direct nod to Stravinsky comes in the out-chorus of the consciously insipid "Fountain of Love" where, heard within a Charles Ives sandwich, he provides the opening notes to The Rite of Spring alongside "Sincerely" by The Moonglows. The record concludes with "Stuff Up the Cracks" (where the singer contemplates suicide if his girl leaves him). On this track, Zappa lets loose with one of his most beautifully stated guitar solos, but the solo features a sixties era wah-wah pedal. This concluding touch of virtuosity yanks us right out of the decade in which we've been immersed. It's as if, when the singer sticks his head in that oven, we feel the Fifties dying with him. Greasy Love Songs includes the full stereo mix of the original 1968 vinyl as well as various other treats like the alternate mono mix of "Jelly Roll Gum Drop" (plus the original single), a recording of Jackie & the Starlites' "Valerie" that's earlier than the one featured on Burnt Weeny Sandwich (1970) and a longer version of the infectious "No. No. No."

Cruising With Ruben & the Jets shows how Zappa set out to reinvent the music of the Fifties for the time in which he lived. The rejection of the album and Fifties R&B by the Sixties counter-culture audience illustrates how their form of cultural snobbery would inadvertently plant the seeds for the nostalgia wave in the seventies – when the counter-culture itself truly died. Don't make the same mistake. 

-- August 16/10

Johnny Carson: “Some men prefer smart women.”

Joan Rivers: “Oh, please, Johnny. No man ever put his hand up a woman’s dress looking for a library card.”

In the opening scene of Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work, a compelling and discomfiting new documentary by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (The Trials of Darryl Hunt, The Devil Came on Horseback), we see in close-up the 75-year-old actress and comedian Joan Rivers having make-up applied to her face while flashbacks of her long career drift by. Although that made-up face remains for the entire film, Joan Rivers, the performer, artist and human being, ultimately shows her true portrait behind that mask. She reveals an actor whose work as an entertainer is perched right on the edge of that desperate need for acceptance. Rivers presents herself as the last woman standing in a world that's now wedded to youth and beauty. In doing so, she gives a triumphant, humourously vitriolic performance as a comedy queen who refuses to go quickly – and quietly – into the dark night.

While Stern and Sundberg rightly place Rivers in the tradition of female comics like Moms Mabley and Phyllis Diller, whose routines were all about the revenge of the "ugly" girls angry at a world that worshipped beauty, Rivers took their characterizations even further. Understanding all too well that she was truly an outsider in the world of celebrity, she didn't need to caricature her anger (as Mabley and Diller did). Rivers instead placed herself on the inside as if she had every right to be there – even with her loud, scratchy voice. She became the uncomfortable reminder that ugliness has its appeal, too, that maybe there were more ugly motherfuckers out there than those ingenues sweetening up the culture. Even if all her plastic surgeries, make-up and mad desire to keep the face of Joan Rivers permanent, the drive to stay on top poured through any preconceived ideas of simple vanity. Joan Rivers' anger and determination gives an adorable pungency to the movie and Stern and Sunberg don't back away, or make any apologies. In Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work, Rivers, unlike comic Don Rickles (who Rivers appears with in Vegas), doesn't go soft but instead gives careerism a good name. She recognizes that celebrity culture is fickle, corrupt and transient, so she makes herself the cayenne pepper added to the sauce.

Throughout Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work, Stern and Sundberg follow her through a year of struggling to book gigs and touring – mounting a play in England, selling jewellery, signing books and doing stand-up in rotting basement clubs – as she faces each challenge including an appearance (with her daughter, Melissa) on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice. The picture never poses a churlish view of Joan Rivers because she can do that all on her own (and has often made that the source of her comedy). In that sense, Sarah Silverman would be her most obvious inheritor. While Rivers became a huge star on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show (where she would sometime guest host), when she went to Fox to host her own program, Carson turned on her and never spoke to Rivers again. 

The film also delicately examines her relationship with manager-husband Edgar, who would commit suicide in 1987, and left her broke and feeling unwanted. (Fox had already cancelled her late night show.) Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work is about a fallen performer picking herself up and using naked determination to stay on top of her game. It doesn't matter whether she has to do a roast and endure abuse from other younger comics (it paid well), or firing her long-time manager because he isn't dependable, Joan Rivers accepts that the wind is in your face as often as it's at your back. Either way, she keeps going like a cranky energizer bunny.

Part of the charm of Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work is that it neither revels in show-biz masochism, or attempts to "uncover" the woman behind the artist. Joan Rivers is a persona. But the persona is also Joan Rivers. Whether she is chastising her daughter Melissa for continuing to smoke cigarettes, or defending her when she's taken down on Celebrity Apprentice, Rivers makes no plea for sympathy or harbors scorn. When she makes a caustic joke on stage, an audience member rebukes her insensitivity and she turns on him by telling him that it's comedy and we all laugh at cruel things. But Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work doesn't make us laugh at the naked ambition of Joan Rivers, rather we come to accept her on her own terms. Even though her make-up never comes off and the performer never shuts down, the face of Joan Rivers, unabashed in an endless pursuit of the limelight, slowly bleeds through its pancake softness.

-- August 17/10 

Tommy Lee Jones as Ty Cobb

After directing the street smart basketball comedy White Men Can't Jump (1992), Ron Shelton approached the same studio, Twentieth Century Fox, with the idea of doing a biography of baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb. Given the success of White Men Can't Jump, as well as Bull Durham (1988), his sublime romantic comedy about baseball, the studio figured they couldn't miss. After all, what could be better than a baseball movie about a legend who was one of the greatest players in the history of the game?

What they didn't know – until they read Shelton's script – was that Ty Cobb was also a hateful, ferocious and bigoted alcoholic who had alienated even his teammates. And when they saw that Shelton had Tommy Lee Jones in mind for the part (just before he'd become "bankable" again in 1993 with The Fugitive), the film was put on waivers. Fortunately, Warner Brothers picked up the ball – in a manner of speaking – and took a daring risk on a complex project. Then, shortly after releasing the picture during the Christmas season in 1994, they abruptly dropped the ball. To this day, Ron Shelton's best movie remains virtually unknown. Even though Cobb emerged in theatres parallel to the OJ Simpson murder case, which could have helped promote interest in the picture, the issues that both stories raised about celebrity and hero worship were obviously too uncomfortable to comprehend. The studio, some critics and many film goers didn't like the adulation of their heroes tainted by events that tarnished that adulation.

After all, most American films about baseball, arguably their national sport, have little to do with baseball. Pictures like Pride of the Yankees (1942), or The Natural (1984), use the game as a vehicle to tell inspirational stories left dripping in sentimentality. What many of these pictures have in common is the notion that within baseball lies the power of redemption. In Field of Dreams (1989), Kevin Costner gets to heal the emotional and generational rift between him and his dead father by having his dad's spirit come back to play catch with him. In The Natural, based on the 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud, Robert Redford hits a ninth-inning home run to save his troubled team and his own corrupted soul. (The original novel has quite the opposite conclusion.) Ron Shelton didn't believe that baseball movies should be a ninth-inning version of The Stations of the Cross. "[Cobb] is not Pride of the Yankees," he said in 1994. "Try something closer to Raging Bull."

Ty Cobb

But Cobb is infinitely better than Raging Bull (1980) because Shelton – and Tommy Lee Jones' performance – doesn't pare everything down to one man's brutal drives. Instead, the movie opens up for interpretation how Ty Cobb's brutality also masked areas of compassion, skill and fierce intelligence. Cobb is the story of the once-towering sports figure who dominated baseball as a member of the Detroit Tigers during the first quarter of the 20th Century. The film begins with a newsreel that glories in Ty Cobb's triumphs then the movie starts to take shape as a successful sports writer named Al Stump (Robert Wuhl) is hired by the former great to write his biography. During the time he spends with Cobb, Stump discovers the man behind the legend. But Cobb wants a book about the legend (which Stump, in fear for his life, provides) but he also prepares a book that attempts to get at the truth about his volatile subject.

What is the truth? The truth, as historian Harold Seymour discovered, was that "Ty Cobb was consumed by an unbridled urge to excel, an urge bordering on abnormal. He didn't so much play baseball as wage it, for it him it was a war." Much of that view is presented in Cobb, but Shelton goes one better. As film critic Steve Vineberg once sharply observed, Cobb is structured somewhat like Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (it, too, begins with a newsreel summing up Cobb's accomplishments). But where Kane tries to understand the complexities of a powerful icon by linking his weakness to a young boy's abandoned sled, Cobb illustrates that one simple item, or event, cannot sum up one man's life. Although Stump is determined to find the roots of Cobb's pathology in a tragic episode from his Southern family upbringing, the elements of the story keep changing. While the newsreel, as in Citizen Kane, ices over the more disturbing aspects of the subject's life, the reporter can't use the disturbing material he uncovers to fully comprehend the bitter and complex man he's writing about.

When the studio abandoned Cobb after a series of negative reviews (especially Owen Gleiberman's in Entertainment Weekly), it wasn't just the picture that suffered. Tommy Lee Jones' best film performance was also lost to viewers. If Ty Cobb treated baseball like war, Jones approached the role no differently. While shooting the baseball scenes, he broke his ankle sliding into base. But Jones, with a determination not unlike the character he was playing, continued the shoot despite the injury. That ability to fuse with dangerous and unstable characters had already made Tommy Lee Jones one of the most riveting actors in American movies. Before his Oscar-winning role in The Fugitive, Jones had already created a series of sharply defined portraits of simple men who are driven by forces beyond their control, or comprehension, as in The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), The Executioner's Song (1982) and JFK (1991). In Cobb, the title character is presented as one of the greatest ball players – next to Babe Ruth – that ever lived. He was also a despicable man. No ninth-inning home run, or a game of catch in a cornfield, could ever change that.

-- August 18/10

Welcome to the Machine: Samuel Maoz's Lebanon

The Israeli anti-war film, Lebanon could just have easily have been called Tank. Based on director Samuel Maoz’s experience as a 20-year-old gunner in the Israeli army tank division, Lebanon (which was the first Israeli film to win the Leone d’Oro at the 66th Venice International Film Festival) depicts the 1982 conflict but not from a broadly observant perspective; instead, we experience the war through the eyes of four Israeli soldiers within the tank: the driver in the tank’s hull, the commander in the turret, the loader and the gunner. Lebanon is obviously made by a director trying to do justice to his memory of the conflict (as Ari Folman also did with his Waltz with Bashir), but Lebanon becomes gripping in a more mechanical, relentless way because our perspective ends up as limited as that of the soldiers.

The aim of the war, from an Israeli perspective, was to remove a P.L.O. enclave within Lebanon. But instead the war became remembered for the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christians in the refugee camps of Shatila and Sabra. Since Israeli forces did nothing to halt the murders, the war became a failure of morals (something that is more clearly examined in the 2008 Waltz with Bashir). Maoz’s approach though is to give us a grunt’s eye view of the early days of the conflict where we witness their actions – as they do – through the crosshairs of the viewing scope. Besides illuminating their fears and trauma, we also see glimpses of bodies, dying animals, a hysterical woman crying because her young daughter has been killed, all accompanied by the grinding sound of their vehicle. Lebanon is about men who are assigned roles but can’t function within them. The gunner (Yoav Donat) can’t shoot when he’s ordered to; and the tank commander barks orders mechanically, but ultimately panics under the emotional weight of the stress. As the men crack up, they also show compassion for a Syrian prisoner who desperately needs to piss. The war is essentially reduced to showing how conflict becomes a test of the character of men. (In that sense, Lebanon resembles an art house film directed by Sam Fuller.)

While it might seem apt to say that movies like The Hurt Locker (2008) do exactly the same thing, The Hurt Locker actually does more. It takes us outside the subjective view of the soldier dismantling bombs so that we understand how he became addicted to his job. In Lebanon, Moaz single-mindedly concentrates on the men’s reactions to their assignments. (The only time the movie relents is in a welcoming contemplative moment when one soldier remembers a sexual encounter from his youth on the day his father died.) Maoz’s technique is also hardly anything new having been used before in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), as well as Wolfgang Peterson’s Das Boot (1981), and its narrow perspective is equally claustrophobic here. Lebanon might have been a much more powerful experience (rather than merely gripping) if he’d shown us more of what the soldiers couldn’t see. In Casualties of War (1989), for instance, Brian De Palma zeroed in on the foxholes of Vietnam so that we saw how the soldiers experienced them as anthills. But he then opened up our perspective so that we could see how when being deprived of a larger view, soldiers are at the mercy of forces they can’t foresee.

Many Israeli historians have described the Lebanese war as Israel’s Vietnam and it appears that Moaz has followed the same pattern that some American filmmakers did on the Vietnam experience. That is, rather than confronting the political complexities of the conflict, he narrows it down to tests of courage and fear (the appeal of boy’s adventure stories is often the inspiration for combat pictures). No doubt there will be more movies on the 1982 war in Lebanon (along with Waltz with Bashir, a more highly imaginative rendering of the conflict, there is also Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort, which adapts a novel by former soldier and journalist Ron Leshem about the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000) and Lebanon is hardly a negligible offering. But its dogged attempts to show us how war is hell becomes ultimately numbing and obvious. Lebanon’s aims might be humanistic, but the outcome delivers a bad case of cabin fever.

-- August 20/10

Unfinished Notes From an Abandoned Book: The Weight (2009)

A couple of years ago, I was toying with the idea of writing a book called The Weight. It was about Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (1978), his concert documentary about The Band's farewell Thanksgiving concert on November 25, 1976 at the Winterland in San Francisco. My thought was to send a proposal and a sample chapter to the British Film Institute for their annual chapbook publications on key films. Having just done a CBC Radio documentary on The Band's debut album, Music From Big Pink (1968), I was primed to delve into the air of melancholy that lay beneath the spirit of celebration that Scorsese caught while shooting that extraordinary concert. But I decided to abandon the project when there didn't seem to be any interest from publishers. However, I came across some of the notes I'd written in preparation for The Weight which, upon re-reading them, looked apt for including in Talking Out of Turn. – Kevin Courrier

"...[T]ime is an affliction. I heard it once in a song. Since we use time to measure our life experience, its worth or its waste, it afflicts us in a variety of ways. As young men and women, we use time to look ahead and see possibility before us; from an older perspective, we look back on a life lived happily, or worse, of lost possibility. Time is an affliction because it always reminds us of how we measure our successes and failures. But maybe its worse when we get older. There is more time behind us than ahead of us..."

"In 2008, while re-watching Martin Scorsese's 1978 documentary on The Band's farewell concert on American Thanksgiving in 1976, I can now see a certain sadness in the picture that wasn't apparent in the theatre upon its premiere. At that time, hailed as the greatest rock documentary of all-time, the film created a spirit that was celebratory. Band co-founder Robbie Robertson even called it 'a celebration.' Martin Scorsese, who was agonizing over the production of his musical New York, New York, described the opportunity to make this movie as a 'once in a lifetime' chance. But all involved knew they were engaged in something being described as 'the end of an era.' But that isn't what invokes the sadness, not even now when watching the movie. This talking about 'the end of an era' sounds too pat, too obvious a cliché, as if reaching for a sound bite to sum everything up, to put everything in its place, to give it caché. The sadness didn't come from the number of deaths to follow the concert, either; people who, as Greil Marcus describes in the DVD commentary, 'didn't get out of this world alive.' (Yet the list is pretty substantial: from The Band, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko are now gone, others include Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield.) Instead you feel strangely wistful watching the younger, spry and lanky bassist Rick Danko bopping up and down (as a friend once told me) like Robert de Niro's out-of-control Johnny Boy in Scorsese's Mean Streets (1974). Seeing his happy abandon, even when singing a tale of fear like 'Stage Fright,' today has a way of reminding you of what he would become in later years: bloated by abuse and neglect and ending in heart failure. He'd end up looking like a genial version of the defeated Jake LaMotta in Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980)."

Rick Danko

"Richard Manuel, with his shy devil's grin behind the piano, tells us in 'The Shape I'm In' that 'out of nine lives, I've spent seven.' He looks like he was already working on the ninth. All of those moments in The Last Waltz create an ache as simultaneously as they deliver pleasure. The deeper melancholy in this picture though isn't found in the ways you're moved, it's in what you can't truly anticipate. For instance, in 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' – the song Robbie Robertson wrote about the defeated South after the American Civil War and sung by the group's sole southerner, drummer Levon Helm – there was a long history of this tune moving people to tears. Even those who shared no true sympathy with the Confederacy could not resist the equally true emotional weight of the tale of Virgil Cane, a man who looks at the land he inhabits and sees the failure he's left to inherit. Joan Baez once attempted to erase that power by changing the lyrics to suit her more leftist Northern sensibility, but the song was too strong. It escaped her anyway.

Richard Manuel

To a degree, until The Last Waltz, the song had escaped its singer as well. The pain in 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' was too close a fit for Levon, and he had always sung it with a pathos that was obvious, and with its sentiment all too clear, like hearing Paul Robeson sing 'No More Auction Block.' But, on this evening, Levon didn't just convey the pain, but also the anger that goes with it. The defeated South wasn't a land of sadness, there was a rage, too, a rage that one heard a century later in the Civil Rights battles that ultimately desegregated the South. Sometimes you heard it in the country blues that would ultimately find a home in the urban enclaves of Chicago, where Muddy Waters would proclaim (as he does in The Last Waltz) in "Mannish Boy" that 'I'm a man-child.' But Levon's rage at the loss of identity, the giving into a larger identity of what America was about to become after the Civil War, had finally uncorked the power and true compassion that this song always contained."

"All of these moments in the film, and there are many more, have a way of deepening with time, where time's affliction provides bolder hindsight. But the deeper melancholy, for me, comes with a performance of 'The Weight,' the parable that bonded people to The Band back in 1968. The song is about a search for community, a quest for comfort, a place to find comradeship and to set down roots, to lessen the burden of what the singer is carrying, but with no guarantee of being relieved of it. The key to this song is that there are many singers present in the performance – not just one – just as there is a cast of characters in 'The Weight' who deepen the riddle. The burden of the story it tells is carried by many and refused by all.

Levon Helm

In The Last Waltz, we don't see The Band doing 'The Weight' onstage in front of an audience, but rather, on a sound stage contrived to give the performance a special imaginary setting. Performing with The Band is The Staple Singers, a black gospel group, a family headed by Pop Staples and his daughters, who had been a huge influence on the call-and-response style The Band used in 'The Weight' (as on Big Pink's 'We Can Talk'). In this performance, 'The Weight' acts out the dream of an integrated country. With nothing pious in the performance, a bolder consideration of America is set forth in this stirring rendition, perhaps even an anticipation of the hopes stirred by the candidacy of Barack Obama in 2008. The Band looks into the American character with a hungry desire to bond with its aspirations, and to test the loyalty and obligations of those they meet in the song's journey. But they also know (being mostly Canadians) they are outsiders to the country's legacy of slavery and brutality. In 'The Weight,' they are dreaming of a country that is too often crippled by the guilt, the horrors - and the weight - carried by its own citizens. Yet The Band and The Staple Singers dream out its possibilities and ideals anyway. They bond with The Staples knowing that, even as a rock and roll group, they will soon be breaking up, unable to sustain their own bonds of friendship, bonds that once indelibly tied them together and left them unable to carry the weight of their own possibilities..."

"....[T]he problems Martin Scorsese was experiencing on his period-musical New York, New York (1977) were obvious. He was depicting an era – the post-war period – of his parents and he reflected that time in the deliberate style of Vincente Minnelli, even casting his daughter, Liza, in it. But Scorsese got caught up in his fetish for old movies. His true heart was in the more contemporary be-bop nervousness of De Niro's sax playing Jimmy Doyle, the guy looking ahead, looking past the Big Bands into something new, exciting and experimental. The two parts of the movie never do mesh. De Niro keeps hitting his head against the wall of Hollywood classicism in the same way he would later literally bang his head against a wall as boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. But Scorsese's classicism finds a better home in The Last Waltz where he decorates a dilapidated rock palace in the style of another Italian director, Luciano Visconti. In a sense, the tone of The Band's final concert, their final show with this line-up of musicians, would recall Burt Lancaster's Prince Don Fabrizio Salina in Visconti's The Leopard (1963). Visconti's tragic, yet loving view of the changing of the guard concludes at a wedding where the Prince faces his own mortality while watching the new order being established in his expedient nephew's wedding. Critic Roger Ebert described the wedding ball aptly as 'a last glorious celebration of the dying age; Visconti cast members of noble old Sicilian families as the guests, and in their faces, we see a history that cannot be acted, only embodied. The orchestra plays Verdi. The young people dance on and on, and the older people watch carefully and gauge the futures market in romances and liaisons.' The future of the rock world, the world The Band departed from in 1976, would also turn their idea of community into a good place to hide."

"It's that fear of impending retreat that inhabits The Last Waltz, whose opening credits feature a young couple performing a waltz, their wedding ritual, while the crowd (after a five hour concert) refuses to let The Band go home. 'You're still here?' Robbie Robertson asks the audience at the end of the concert (but near the beginning of the movie), looking surprised to find anybody out there after the group had spent every ounce of all they had to give. It was simple. The audience just couldn't let go of what they already saw starting to pass. So the group gave them Marvin Gaye's 'Don't Do It,' a plea as hard and as soulful as John Lennon had once delivered in 'Don't Let Me Down,' just when The Beatles were about to pass into history. 'Don'tcha break my heart,' Levon cries out before the group answers, with a collective smile, 'My biggest mistake was lovin' you too much.' Then, with a wave, they were gone."

-- August 28/10

Raising Caine: Michael Caine in Harry Brown

The late film critic Pauline Kael once said that Michael Caine, in acting terms, is what Jean Renoir was in directing terms. What she meant, of course, is that their technique is invisible. "The goal of Caine's technique seems to dissolve all vestiges of 'technique,'" she wrote of his role as the aging English professor in Lewis Gilbert's Educating Rita (1983). "He lets nothing get between you and the character he plays." That's been true in many roles over a very long career.

Early on, Caine brought you snugly into the secret world of intelligence officer Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965) and Funeral in Berlin (1966), he calmly revealed the manipulative womanizer in Alfie (1966) and aptly displayed the bravura of his adventurer in The Man Who Would Be King (1975). In his middle period, Michael Caine still varied the parts he played, but the verve he displayed was more subdued. Whether he was the quietly ambiguous psychiatrist in Dressed to Kill (1980), or the creepy sex peddler in Mona Lisa (1986), Caine created a relaxed prescence whereby his charm (as in Educating Rita, or Woody Allen's 1986 film Hannah and Her Sisters) could draw you in. On other occasions, his comfort in revealing the impacted rage of a gutted soul (think of Mona Lisa) would fascinate you even as the character he portrayed repelled you. Although he has definitely made some bad choices over the years (Blame it on Rio, Jaws: The Revenge), the transparency of his style of acting hasn't tarnished him, as it has some other actors. The reason for that just might be that Michael Caine doesn't suffer embarrassment for his choices because for him acting is as much a job as it is an art.

In the 2009 vigilante drama, Harry Brown, which was released on DVD in North America on Tuesday, you wouldn't be wrong in saying there's very little art in Caine's performance as a geriatric avenger. (It's probably the first time in movie history that we have a vigilante with emphysema.) But while the picture is artfully dour, kitchen-sink realism that's spent too much time in the sink, Michael Caine does give Harry Brown what little class it possesses. Brown is an elderly, retired former Royal Marine who did his time fighting the IRA in Northern Ireland. In the present, though, he's fighting off his grief over losing his wife to a long illness. He's also bearing witness to the violence of his crime-infested council estate in South London.

After his wife's funeral, while playing chess with his best friend, Leonard (David Bradley), he learns that Leonard has been bullied by the gangs of young drug dealers in the public underpass. While Leonard hopes to defend himself with an old bayonet, the next day, he is found murdered by investigating detectives, played by Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed-Miles. Some of the suspected gang members are arrested, but the police unfortunately can't make the charges stick because no one will talk and they are forced to let them go. After Leonard's funeral, Harry himself gets accosted near the underpass but his former skills as a marine kick in. He turns the weapon on his assailant and kills him. Upon doing this, Brown begins a mission to clean out the crime at the estate while the police begin to suspect a vigilante in their midst.

Emily Mortimer and Michael Caine in Harry Brown

Director Daniel Barber (whose previous work was the 2007 short film, The Tonto Woman, based on an Elmore Leonard short story and nominated for an Oscar) is too civilized to turn the screws on the audience to stir up a blood lust in the way other revenge dramas like Death Wish (1974), or The Brave One (2007) did. But Barber does little to dramatize the rot that has set in. He simply puts it on the screen with the hope that our revulsion towards it alone will suffice. (In one scene, when Harry goes to purchase a gun, he visits the creepiest grow-op you've ever seen, where human life is so debased that you wonder how these severely doped out proprietors could even find the energy to plant a seed.) Since Barber doesn't show us how the organized criminal element thrives in that neighbourhood (he merely concentrates on the violence the gang perpetuates), or manipulate our desire for vengeance, the film ends up becoming dramatically inert. Its grimness ultimately weighs on you like a fungus. Fortunately, Caine's performance doesn't. He plays Brown not as an avenging angel, or as our hero to clean up the scum, but instead he's a man with few options left to survive. Upon shooting one gang member, you can see that he gets little pleasure out of it; rather, he reminds the dealer that if had he done just one humane deed, Brown might have spared him.

Caine's work in Harry Brown is tuned subtly to the needs of the role because there's no self-righteousness to define him (as it did Charles Bronson in Death Wish). And that's what gives the part some human texture despite what little character Caine is given to play. Late in the picture, Mortimer's detective reminds Brown that he's no longer in Northern Ireland. But Brown says to her, without any air of speechifying, that at least in Northern Ireland he was up against people who had a cause, the havoc in South London is being done by people out for "entertainment."

Harry Brown also has little in common with the violent gangster Caine played in Get Carter (1971), where he was also on a path of vengeance over the death of his brother. In this picture, Michael Caine is playing a man with too many regrets and very little solace. When he sets out on his path to kill, he's neither transformed into a killing machine, or destroyed by his actions. Harry Brown, in the end, is just looking for another day to play a quiet game of chess.

-- September 2/10

Caretaker of a Nation's Memory: The Films of Patricio Guzmán

Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán has been chronicling his country's turbulent history for close to four decades now. Ever since he captured the 1973 coup led by Augusto Pinochet against Marxist President Salvador Allende in his stunning trilogy The Battle of Chile, Guzmán has made himself the caretaker of his land's national memory. At this year's Toronto International Film Festival, his latest film Nostalgia for the Light takes Guzmán to Chile's Atacama Desert to follow a group of dedicated astronomers who look to the cosmos for the origins of life, while nearby, a group of women search for the body parts of loved ones who "disappeared" during the Pinochet regime.

While most of the critical attention at TIFF 2010 is on Werner Herzog's 3-D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (his previous film, Syndromes and a Century, lasted many lifetimes), Guzmán (like Jan Troell) continues to make superlative pictures but with scant attention paid to them. Having lived as an exile from his country for thirty years, I suppose he already understands what it means to be forgotten. For instance, the first (and only time) I saw The Battle of Chile was in a tattered print at a superb political film series in the mid-Eighties programmed by Ellie Skrow at the Royal Ontario Mueseum. To this day, I still retain vivid memories of how Guzmán and his cameramen, by taking their lives into their hands, drew us into the process of how a country gets swallowed up by a military dictatorship. Although Guzmán's Marxist political analysis in The Battle of Chile was dogmatic and dry, the images he put on the screen were powerful glimpses of the torpor of war.

In 1997, Guzmán returned to his homeland to screen The Battle of Chile for young students while simultaneously searching for friends who survived the torture. He depicted all this in the documentary Chile, The Obstinate Memory. In El Caso Pinochet (The Pinochet Case), Guzmán meticulously put together a stinging indictment of the Chilean dictator, who was arrested in 1998 and extradited for trial to England on charges of torture and murder. Although El Caso Pincochet didn't have the accumulative force of his previous films, it is still a vividly personal and painful examination of the fallout from a nation's descent into a totalitarian state.

But I think Guzmán's best film is his 2004 Salvador Allende where he goes back to the beginning of the dream of a democratic socialist society in Chile – and how it became an impossible dream. Guzmán interviews past supporters of Allende and the former American ambassador to Chile to trace the story of how a Marxist leader attempted to realize a utopian vision of communism with a human face. The power in Salvador Allende, though, comes from watching Allende's surviving supporters today still ruminating over how they could have stopped the coup. They have that gleam in their eyes like true believers firm in their belief in a workers' paradise. But the larger question that gives the movie its greatness is how Guzmán has to confront his own ideological paradox as a democratic Marxist. He faces the irrefutable fact that Allende could have only consolidated his power by becoming the kind of totalitarian leader he deplored. The film makes clear that only in forming a police state could Allende have prevented his regime from being overtaken by the military. Guzmán's inability to resolve that riddle doesn't so much weaken his Marxist resolve as it lends his film an indelibly tragic tone. It's a terrific film.

-- September 9/10

Split Down the Middle: A History of Violence (2005) & Act of Violence (1948)

Maria Bello and Viggo Mortensen
Unlike most critics, I wasn't terribly impressed with David Cronenberg's 2005 crime thriller A History of Violence which is based on the graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke. It features Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall, the owner of a diner in fictional Millbrook, Indiana, who gets thrust into the public spotlight after killing two criminals in self-defense. While initially perceived as a peaceful man married to a lawyer (Maria Bello), with a teenage son (Ashton Holmes) and daughter (Heidi Hayes), we soon discover that he's not the man he appears to be. The idea of the conflicted hero is nothing new to movies – especially film noir – but that isn't the problem with the movie. What doesn't work in A History of Violence is the credibility of the story itself.

Soon after becoming a local celebrity for killing the bandits, Tom is visited by a scarred gangster named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who saw him on the news and insists that Tom own up to his true identity as a vicious gangster from Philadelphia named Joey Cusack. Years earlier, Joey had taken out Carl's eye. Tom denies these charges but Fogarty keeps stalking Tom and his family anyway. Under pressure from Fogarty and his new found fame, Tom's marriage and relationship with his son quickly become strained. Soon his boy gives in to his own violent side in a school confrontation and Tom is forced to murder Fogarty and his men with his son's help. Ultimately, Tom is compelled to return to Philadelphia to confront his gangster brother Richie (William Hurt, in a ridiculously baroque performance) who feels resentful that he took the heat from other mob families for his sibling's disappearance into domesticity.

For about the first third, A History of Violence manages to sustain power from our not knowing whether Tom is really this violent gangster he's accused of being. And Cronenberg's direction early on is crisp and unsparing (especially in the brilliant opening scenes which establish the arbitrary brutality of the gunmen). But once it's clear that Tom is Joey the thug, the moral dilemma and its ambiguity disappear from the story. There's nothing dramatically at stake except whether Tom will get away with his hidden identity and whether his family will learn to accept him. (I'm sure this is why there was a lot of critical hubbub praising the movie for being so "symbolic" of America's hidden dark side.) Also, since there is no longer any doubt to Tom's guilt, how would he expect to continue to get away with it? In one particularly ludicrous scene, the sheriff comes to visit and question Tom about these allegations. Tom tells him that he's not Joey. But instead of doing his basic police work by phoning (or perhaps e-mailing) the Philadelphia authorities to see if Tom's telling the truth, the sheriff simply takes him at his word. (I'm guessing that this part of the movie symbolizes America's "dumbness.") The whole problem with A History of Violence is that it tries so hard to be a thesis picture that it ends up making no dramatic sense. You can read tons of meaning into it because the meanings are all spelled out for you.

Ed Harris in A History of Violence

That's not the case with Fred Zinnemann's little seen 1948 drama Act of Violence which is a much better noir on a similar subject. In the story, Frank Enley (Van Heflin) has just returned home a hero from World War II after surviving a German POW camp. (Most of his comrades were murdered.) While being respected and praised for his upstanding character and charity in the California community of Santa Lisa, he is simultaneously being stalked by Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), an old friend, who also lived through the ordeal and was left with a crippled leg. What we learn about Frank, that his family and neighbours don't know, is that he was hardly a hero worthy of celebration. Instead, he had helped his captors in exchange for food and comfort. So with vengeance in mind, Joe Parkson, with his gimpy leg, means to exact justice.

Unlike A History of Violence, Zinnemann's picture doesn't traffic in generalities about the nature of our darker selves. By focusing specifically on Frank's encroaching guilt and Joe's dogged determination, Act of Violence delves much deeper and more believably into notions of cowardice and heroism. The shadiness of Frank's past isn't used to show us who he truly is (like it does with Tom in A History of Violence). Zinnemann, with the help of screenwriter Robert L. Richards from a story by Collier Young, instead shows contrasting impulses that also add suspense to the story. For instance, while Frank's wife Edith (Janet Leigh) has no clue about her husband's transgressions, Joe's partner knows the whole story (but she can't stop him from seeking revenge on Frank). Yet nothing turns out quite as you would expect. The moral quandary of Act of Violence makes it a far more satisfying picture than A History of Violence.

Robert Ryan in Act of Violence

Act of Violence came as something of a surprise to me when I watched it a few years ago on Turner Classic Movies. I had loved a number of Fred Zinnemann's films (From Here to Eternity, The Sundowners and A Nun's Story), but they were scaled as larger classic humanist dramas. I would have never pegged Zinnemann for making a noir, especially such a good one. But maybe critic Roger Westcombe, writing for the Big House Film Society, saw that possibility when he said that Zinnemann's "Act of Violence [is]...[a] surprisingly powerful and affecting film...with a profundity, through its unsettling moral continuum, redolent not of Hollywood simplicities of good/evil but of the art one associates with Zinnemann’s European background. This contains a clue. Fred and his brother escaped their native Austria in 1938 but their parents, waiting for U.S. visas that never came, perished – separately – in concentration camps. The ‘survivor guilt’ this awful closing engendered must resemble the emotional see-saw ride which fiction like the ethical pendulum of Act of Violence can only start to expiate."

That emotional see-saw that Westcombe suggests is exactly what's missing from A History of Violence. Cronenberg's film embellishes the simplicities of good/evil by making the split between Tom/Joey such an obvious one. (He has 'nice' sex with Maria Bello when he's Tom, but 'forceful' sex on an uncomfortable staircase when he's Joey. Wouldn't it have been more interesting if his sexual acts were reversed?) Zinnemann recognizes that the characters in Act of Violence are not so conveniently split down the middle. He sees that their personalities are riddled with complexities. It's as if he realized what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke did when he wrote, "I fear that if I exorcise my demons, my angels will follow."

-- September 10/10

Learning to Fly: Peter Bogdanovich’s Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007)

Until I recently caught up with director Peter Bogdanovich’s highly engaging four-hour documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007), I didn’t realize how much I had taken for granted my love of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. While I have collected and enjoyed Petty’s music for years, I’ve never taken the time to contemplate why his best songs (and there are many) have always brought me such happiness. What Runnin’ Down a Dream helped me realize is how Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, for the last 33 years, have kept some of the idealistic dreams of the Sixties alive. They didn’t, however, do it by showing a nostalgic reverence for the era and its music. Rather they captured the music’s urgency, its uncompromising demand for freedom which lies right at the heart of all rock & roll. Whether it’s in an anthem like “I Won’t Back Down,” plaintive ballads like “Southern Accents,” or a scorching rocker like “You Wreck Me,” Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers created an immediacy that made each song sound both fresh and fully alive with possibility. For those who remember the joy they felt when a great song came through their tiny earphone on their transistor radio, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers brought that instant delight to the music they played.

I think critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine nailed Tom Petty’s appeal and longevity perfectly when he said that “[Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers] didn’t break from tradition the way their punk contemporaries did. Instead, they celebrated it, culling the best parts of The British Invasion, American garage rock, and Dylanesque singer/songwriters to create a distinctly American hybrid that recalled the past without being indebted to it.” Runnin’ Down a Dream illustrates how Petty and his group have kept that faith despite some definite bumps in the road to challenge it. Comparable in scope, and as informative, as Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home on the early years of Bob Dylan, Runnin’ Down a Dream covers the first 30 years in the history of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Even at four hours, there isn’t an ounce of fat anywhere in it. Bogdanovich basically bottles the essence of what truly inspires the love that many fans feel for Petty’s music. It’s also clear that Bogdanovich, who showed such a tin ear for music in earlier features like At Long Last Love (1975) and The Thing Called Love (1993), has recovered his sense of how important musical roots are to a subject, something he illustrated so well in The Last Picture Show (1971).

Tom Petty and director Peter Bogdanovich

The root saga of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers is certainly a compelling one to comprehend. Beginning in Gainsville, Florida, Petty had an interest in rock since he was ten when he met Elvis Presley, who was shooting Follow That Dream (1960) in neighbouring Ocala. But when he saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, he knew he wanted to be in a band. Runnin’ Down a Dream shows how Petty quickly assembled a band known as the Sundowners, which later evolved into Mudcrutch. Although this group would feature future Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, they were fired when Shelter Records preferred Petty as a solo act. Ironically, when hunting for a band to back him up, he discovered that Campbell and Tench had joined up with hometown drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Ron Blair. They would finally make up The Heartbreakers line-up that would go on to record Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (1976), You’re Gonna Get It! (1978), Damn the Torpedoes (1979) and Hard Promises (1981).

The movie follows a number of key moments in their career: Petty’s war against MCA Records to win back his publishing prior to the release of Damn the Torpedoes, plus his battle with the record industry over the high pricing of LPs in early Eighties. While Bogdanovich does extensive interviews with Petty and band members, the film is hardly hagiographic. He examines all the frustrations within the group, including the brief departure of Ron Blair, the tragic drug problems of his replacement Howie Epstein (who would later die due to his addiction to heroin), and the departure of Stan Lynch when Petty went solo in the late 1980s (first in the Traveling Wilburys – with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison – and then later on his own).

Mostly, Peter Bogdanovich examines how the music created familial bonds between the members of the group, so much so that we see their frustrations as part of their deep love for what they do. Of course, Runnin’ Down a Dream features plenty of music and archival footage that illustrates the integrity Petty possesses and to what lengths he’ll go to protect it. (In one instance, he goes to bat for former Byrd Roger McGuinn who is about to do a solo album with songs not worthy of him. We see Petty take on the A & R men in the studio on behalf of McGuinn.)

Runnin’ Down a Dream is made with a lot of affection. Bogdanovich shows us the demands that love can make on a group, as well as on an audience that’s grown to adore the band and their music. He not only heightens the band’s appeal in Runnin' Down a Dream. He honours it.

-- September 15/10

Fizzle and Pop: Easy A

Emma Stone in Easy A

The filmmakers of Easy A have a clever idea working Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter into a comedy about the impact of high school gossip. But they don’t seem to know what to do with it. Clean-cut Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) gets overheard saying that she recently lost her virginity (although she hadn’t) and, within hours, it’s all over school. Her reputation is both sullied and enhanced (depending on who you ask). But her false confession leads several boys (including a gay friend who desperately wants to be recognized as straight) to seek her out and pretend that they lost their virginity with her – they’re so desperate they even pay her. Before long, the benefits of being perceived as the school sex queen pale when she begins to resemble Hester Prynne (even leading to her affixing the scarlet ‘A’ to her clothing).

Easy A has some of the same relaxed charm that 10 Things I Hate About Her did when it used The Taming of the Shrew for the source material. But director Will Gluck doesn’t have enough confidence in the theme of Easy A to take the story to its logical conclusion. As a result, the point of the movie really wobbles – in fact, it ends up as an amiable fizzle. Part of the problem is that he can’t find the right tone. (The opening fifteen minutes desperately cries out for help!) Gluck also can’t fully connect with the high school milieu in a believable way. For instance, since the high school climate is so sexually charged, why is Olive's "confession" the focus of such interest or scorn? Gluck picks easy puritans, too, when he employs the school Christian club as the source of Olive’s misery. Perhaps if Bert V. Royal’s script hadn't resorted to depicting these campus zealots as a cartoon conception, the puritanical threat might have had more bite and Olive's plight would have become more interesting.

Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson

On the up side, though, Gluck finds his footing with her parents (hilariously played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson). They're like a soft-shoe comedy team effortlessly tossing the dialogue back and forth. Since it’s rare that parents are ever interesting, or engaging, in a teen comedy, Gluck should be commended for letting them practically steal the movie. It’s unfortunate though that most of the rest of the cast isn’t up to challenge. Emma Stone (Superbad) can give off both libidinous and chaste vibes as Olive, but she also works too hard to drive her lines home. (Her webcam confessions also become a lame framing device.) Stone works best in the family scenes which get her comic spirit popping as she loosens up. However, Malcolm McDowell as the school principal is so underused that it appears as if he wandered onto the wrong set; and Thomas Haden Church is conceived as self-consciously cool as the lit teacher. He inadvertently comes across as a letch. (Church doesn’t give his comic lines the spin that Tucci and Clarkson do.)

It’s hard to tell when watching Easy A just how much of the picture’s uncertainty comes from studio interference, or Will Gluck’s own self-doubts (his only previous feature as a director was the little-seen high school comedy F.U.). He genuinely has the smarts to rehabilitate the current moribund state of the teen comedy, but it’s hard to fathom whether he has the will to do so. In Easy A, Will Gluck begins with Hawthorne but he ends up with John Hughes.

-- September 17/10

Snoozer - Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Michael Douglas and Shia LaBeouf in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

I doubt if there could be a timelier sequel, given the recent economic meltdown, than Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. But timing is pretty much all it has on its side. Director Oliver Stone returns to the Machiavellian world of high financing that he first examined in Wall Street (1987), but the new picture is enervating and more dramatically conflicted than the original. It’s a snoozer.

Stone had a huge hit with Wall Street, and not just because it neatly reflected the yuppie obsession with junk bonds and insider trading. In his previous films (and screenplays), Stone revealed a split personality. Pictures like Salvador (1986) and Platoon (1986) may have shown Stone to possess a more left-wing perspective on American foreign policy, but the guy who also wrote Midnight Express (1978) and Year of the Dragon (1985) seemed to simultaneously hold some of the same right-wing macho attitudes of John Milius. That split added tension to Salvador (still his best movie) and most of Platoon, but in Wall Street, Oliver Stone smoothed over the cracks in his polemics. He created an American fascist of the financial world in Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), an amoral predator, who wrecks companies to score millions as easily as a child dissembles building blocks. But Stone took it an extra step: He cleverly turned his adversary into an appealing character, a reflection of himself, by having his critiques of capitalism cozily couched in Gekko’s swagger. That’s why Wall Street became such a big success with Michael Douglas earning for him an Oscar.

Rather than being a searing critique of American greed, Wall Street was basically a popular melodrama about the sacrificing of a virgin. When Gekko draws an ambitious (yet innocent) broker, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), into his web, the heart of the story is about whether the chaste Bud will lose his soul to this fiscal Satan. Stone had already found success with that formula in Platoon. Charlie Sheen’s young soldier in Vietnam in that picture got positioned between the temptations of the Devil (played by Tom Berenger) and the saintly pot-smoking Christ figure (played by Willem Dafoe). In Wall Street, Sheen once again had to choose between good and evil: Gekko, or his saintly and ethical working-class father (played by his real dad Martin Sheen). Of course, purity won out. Gekko went to prison and Bud got back his soul (curiously by being more ruthless and unethical than his mentor). Stone’s conflicting temperament has always been hidden by his bombast (which is why his paranoid tirade implicating Lyndon Johnson in the assassination of Kennedy, in the 1991 JFK, was conventionally disguised as a Frank Capra-like muckraking picture). But the bombast seems to have gone out of Stone’s work since World Trade Center (2006), and what is left is dramatic inertia.

Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen in Wall Street

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps begins promisingly. Gekko has been in prison for eight years and is about to be released to a world that has made his methods seem antiquated. (There’s a good gag here. When he’s given back his vintage 1987 mobile phone, it’s also become antiquated.) After Gekko sizes up the new world from outside the prison gates, the picture flash-forwards to the present. We first meet Jacob (Shia LaBeouf), a conscientious broker working for an admired firm. He is also engaged to Gekko’s estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who wants nothing to do with her father and runs an investigative website. But when Jacob’s firm, and its esteemed director (Frank Langella), are brought down by the wickedly expedient Bretton James (Josh Brolin), whose company created enough panic to doom them with the Federal Reserve Board, Jacob is looking for payback. To do so, he turns to Gordon Gekko, who has just written a book about the new Wall Street.

Initially, Douglas gives a relaxed, good-humoured performance that also reveals the regrets he feels for having destroyed his family. (While in prison, his son overdosed on drugs and his wife abandoned him.) But, dramatically speaking, do we really believe that Gordon Gekko is a candidate for redemption? The premise is about as flimsy as Coppola’s The Godfather, Part III, when Michael Corleone sought redemption by laundering money through the Vatican. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps also raises other questions. If Winnie despises her Wall Street father so much, what is she doing with Jacob? If Jacob was tutored by a tough boss, why is he continually so blind to Gekko’s games? Speaking of Jacob’s boss, if he’s so sharp how did Bretton James manage to unseat him with rumours alone? And if Bretton James is so intelligently ruthless how did he not see clean-faced Jacob’s desire for revenge coming when he hired him? Stone gets caught up in the minutiae of stock trading rather than the pertinent details of the story. Yet, as susceptible as Charlie Sheen was in the original Wall Street, Shia LaBeouf is far too lightweight to be going the rounds with Michael Douglas. There’s no contest. (Sheen also has a cameo as Bud Fox in the movie, but it’s a pungent joke. Without uncorking the punch line, Bud Fox has turned into Charlie Sheen.) Carey Mulligan gives her performance some gravity, but unfortunately she’s kept to the outskirts of the picture. As for James Brolin, he could be playing Dracula in Armani drag.

While I’m not a huge fan of the heavy-handedness Stone displayed in many of his popular films, without it, his recent movies seem weightless. For instance, during his presidency, George W. Bush was a lightning rod for rhetoric and rage, but Stone’s W. (2008) barely causes a ripple. You would think the appalling lack of decency and compassion displayed by bankers and brokers during the financial crisis would have inspired some rage in Oliver Stone, but his energies seem spent. In his Wall Street sequel money may not sleep, but the audience sure might.

-- September 24/10

A Comedy of Malice: David Fincher's The Social Network

Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg

David Fincher’s new movie, The Social Network, gives off an exhilarating buzz. With a tip-top script by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Charlie Wilson’s War) that goes snap, crackle and pop, the picture has some of the razor-sharp timing of classic screwball comedy. But you’ll never make the mistake of confusing this movie for a romance. The Social Network – which is the story of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) the billionaire founder of Facebook, the on-line social network that currently boasts over 500 million active users – is a movie about mercenary genius nerds. While the movie doesn’t celebrate their unethical guile, it does pretty far into the scheming brains of social outsiders who find devious ways to get on the inside. Just imagine Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) for the age of social media.

Fincher and Sorkin aren’t out to make any claims about the value of Facebook; they’re more interested in the motivations of those who could have imagined it. Basing the story loosely on author Ben Mezrrich’s The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal (2009), the biggest paradox Fincher and Sorkin present is how Zuckerberg, who had but one friend – his Facebook business partner, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) – and made many enemies (too numerous to count), could possibly set up such a social phenomenon. The irony is so rich and woven into the texture of the story that Fincher and Sorkin wisely let it simmer.

The film begins in 2003 with a beauty of an opening scene. In a crowded Boston club, Zuckerberg, an undergrad at Harvard, is having drinks with his girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara), a Boston University student. While he pushes on her his need for getting into one of Harvard’s elite clubs, she tries to get him to chill. But the more she tries to calm his anxiety, the more he becomes belligerent with her. Within minutes, she breaks up with him in exasperation with the classic line, “Dating you is like dating a StairMaster.” But after she leaves the table in a huff, he whisks back to his room to begin blogging mean things about her (as well as other girls) that turns into an online campus contest of determining who’s hot and who’s not. His indignant desire to create an audience for his bruised ego sowed the seeds for what, in time, would become Facebook.

But The Social Network does more than just trace one man’s dogged determination to be both a monumental jerk and the Master of the Universe. It’s also a sophisticated story of class conflict, loyalty and megalomania. Fincher and Sorkin tell a criss-crossing tale of how Zuckerberg ended up in a legal war with Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), who were twins and Harvard rowing champs. They initially sought out Zuckerberg to help them set up an exclusive matchmaking site for Harvard – until he slyly walked off with their template. The other suit involved Eduardo, who put up the initial funds for Facebook, but ended up being cut out of the spoils when Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), weaseled his way into the company. Fincher gets a number of emotional cross-currents going in the settlement scenes. While he scores high comedy off the Winklevoss’s profound disbelief that anyone – especially Zuckerberg – could leave them in the dust; the lawsuit with Eduardo has a cutting edge that reveals Zuckerberg’s ruthlessness. What’s most astonishing in these moments is seeing that Zuckerberg is largely oblivious to the harm he’s caused to that friendship. (Eduardo, however, did end up winning a sizable amount.)

Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg

I can’t see how the acting could have been any better in The Social Network. Jesse Eisenberg, who was remarkably sullen and hilarious in both The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Adventureland (2009), has taken his game to a whole new level here. If Ben Stiller has built a career on playing the outsider who can’t believe that anyone could possibly not accept him; Eisenberg portrays characters that seemingly don’t care what anyone believes. He already accepts that he’s the smartest guy in the room and if that makes him completely despicable, it’s something he’ll live with. But he’s not cold-hearted; only armoured. His genius as Zuckerberg is that he shows you the contours of that protective steel. Andrew Garfield gives Eduardo delicate shades of decency and naïve vulnerability.

If Eisenberg gives the picture a motor, Garfield gives it a soul. In portraying the pampered Winklevosses, Armie Hammer is part of a technical feat that is even more amazing than the Nicolas Cage twins in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002). Fincher pulls off this wizardly stunt by never drawing attention to it. Hammer varies each brother so that you never guess that you’re watching the same actor. But Sorkin and Fincher achieve something even better with the Winklevosses. It would have been easy to make them the WASP villains up against the Jewish nerd, but that dynamic gets so underplayed that the Winklevosses are more like comic foils than bad guys. Justin Timberlake continues to show amazing dexterity as an actor. His haunted role as the reluctant killer in Alpha Dog (2007) transcended the pulpiness of the story. As Sean Parker, Timberlake revels in sleaze without ever condescending to it. Rooney Mara may only have a couple of scenes but she makes them count. She not only recognizes the kind of jerk she’s been putting up with, but she’s not above ultimately looking for friends on Zukerberg’s creation.

I find it hard to fathom how David Fincher has jumped such leaps and bounds as a director in recent years. His second film, Seven (1995), was an academic exercise in loathsomeness; while Fight Club (1999) was both smugly moronic and madly incoherent. His films were like wrecking machines. But beginning with Zodiac (2007), his epic chiller about a serial killer and the people who became obsessed with him, Fincher’s films began to reveal a cogent sensibility. Zodiac was light years from the prurience of Seven. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), a largely underrated, beautifully composed meditation on the fragility of time with its lingering shadow of mortality, was a thoughtful and stirring examination of a life lived backwards. In all these pictures, Fincher found a way to wed his steely technical proficiency to a delicately layered humanism. But The Social Network is something else again. He's done something here that is completely original and uproarious. He’s made a small masterpiece out of the comedy of malice.

-- October 1/10

Empathy: Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein's Howl

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg

When Allen Ginsberg wrote his epic poem “Howl” in 1955, after being encouraged by the anarchist scribe Kenneth Roxworth to free his voice, it was an attempt to recreate the spontaneous prose that his friend and novelist Jack Kerouac accomplished in On the Road (1951). “I thought I wouldn’t write a poem but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and scribble magic lines from my real mind – sum up my life – something I wouldn’t be able to show anybody, writ for my own soul’s ear and a few other golden ears,” Ginsberg once said about his famous ode.

The new film, Howl, by Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet) and Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk), sets out to get inside those “magic lines” to illuminate how Ginsberg’s poem, with it’s free-form jazz rhythms, worked its hoodoo on an awakening audience of American bohemians seeking cosmic freedom in the mid-fifties. Howl, which stars James Franco as Ginsberg, is a film of bottomless empathy for its subject. The movie examines how Ginsberg’s “Howl” provided a framework for the acceptance of his homosexuality, as well as a vehicle for coming to terms with his mother’s death from mental illness. (The poem itself was written for Carl Solomon whom he met in a mental institution.) Yet “Howl” would also go on to ignite an obscenity trial in 1957 once San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights Books, published the work in 1956 as part of a collection titled Howl and Other Poems. While celebrating the quest for spiritual freedom in Ginsberg’s work, Friedman and Epstein successfully get at the irreverent roots of Ginsberg’s rebellion and why “Howl” became such a passionately impish and angry sonnet.

In creating the look of Howl, the directors essentially borrow the mock documentary style of Bob Fosse’s 1974 film about comic Lenny Bruce. Lenny featured Dustin Hoffman recreating Bruce’s controversial routines while various actors played the key people in his life being interviewed. Fosse also featured a facsimile of Bruce’s own obscenity trial. (In Howl, Franco recreates Ginsberg’s famous debut performance of the poem at the Six Gallery in San Francisco which is intercut with a mock interview about the poem and various actors playing the parts of attorneys and witnesses at his obscenity trial.) But Lenny was a work of deification that ultimately falsified Bruce’s work and his appeal. Howl thankfully doesn’t turn Allen Ginsberg into a candidate for sainthood. On the contrary, Franco brilliantly invokes Ginsberg’s mischievousness as well as his breathless spontaneity and humour. He sees the poet as neither an innocent victim, nor a seer, but a dedicated writer in the process of discovering his true voice. It’s a beautifully modulated performance that allows the spirit of Allen Ginsberg to breathe his own air.

The structure of the film, however, is somewhat uneven. While largely making smart choices, the directors' recreation of the trial sequence is a little too stiff and formal. The actors are also unable to seem “real” because they are playing historical figures in a mock documentary. But it’s still fascinating to be witness to a trial where the attorneys (played very well by Mad Men’s Jon Hamm and David Strathairn) debate "Howl" while invoking the merits of Voltaire’s Candide and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Friedman and Epstein also fail in their effort to recreate the power of the poem by using animation over Franco’s reading. The idea, while ambitious, falls flat because the images are too literal, whereas Ginsberg’s poem is a flight into free association.

While the movie sticks to the specifics of the time and place of “Howl,” you can’t help but hear the poem’s inner voice speaking to the future – such as in the later work of Bob Dylan (especially “Subterranean Homesick Blues” where Ginsberg is featured in the song’s promo film holding the lyrics like cue cards), or perhaps Captain Beefheart (“Orange Claw Hammer”). However, Friedman and Epstein go beyond giving “Howl” the classic treatment, or turning the work (and Ginsberg) into a symbol of the Beat Generation. What they do best is paint a portrait of an American writer whose inner voice contained many irresolvable contradictory impulses.

Critic Greil Marcus once wrote about “America,” a later Ginsberg poem, “When I hear Ginsberg say ‘America go fuck yourself with your atom bomb,’ I see him grinning with pleasure – the pleasure of telling your own country to go fuck itself, to be sure, but also the thrill of Slim Pickens riding his hydrogen bomb at the end of Dr. Strangelove, wahooing himself and everyone else into oblivion.” What Howl so generously brings to life is that great American paradox; where a man’s critical voice is inseparable from the love he has for the culture that created him.

-- October 8/10

Ryan Reynolds in Buried

In Rodrigo Cortés’s modest thriller Buried, Ryan Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a civilian truck driver in Iraq who is hijacked and buried alive. The drama takes place entirely within the confines of his wooden coffin. My instincts told me that while this formal exercise in claustrophobia would likely be effective (after all, who isn’t afraid of being buried alive?), but where could it possibly go dramatically? Nevertheless, I decided to check it out when it opened.

I should have trusted my first instincts.

There’s no question that Buried gets you gasping for air from its opening frames. But, from there, the picture has only two ways to go; either Conroy suffocates before the final credits, or he is miraculously found and lives to breath fresh air again. The existential crisis here is pretty rudimentary. When Conroy awakens into the nightmare of finding himself underground, he quickly realizes that he and the rest of his convoy had been ambushed. The insurgents have equipped him with a cellphone and a Zippo, so he immediately attempts to contact his wife, his employers and the FBI. In each case, he encounters voice mail, bureaucratic indifference and helplessness. Initially, the irony of contrasting his desperate circumstances with the lackadaisical routine of everyone else’s daily life is darkly funny. But the ironies start to grow as thin as the oxygen in the coffin when Conroy hears the kidnappers demand five million dollars in ransom in order to have him released. The rest of the movie is a race against time.

Ryan Reynolds is getting much praise for what is obviously a very difficult performance. Reynolds isn’t a bad actor, but he’s a very conscientious one. In Definitely, Maybe (2008) and The Proposal (2009), his self-effacing sincerity came across as a little bland. But in Adventureland (2009), he had a role with more discordant shadings, and playing hip dude to a group of youngsters at an amusement park, brought forth a deeper, disconsolate loneliness. In Buried, Reynolds might be believable as a decent fellow in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the gimmick of the story leaves him little room to move as an actor. All he can do is respond to the desperate circumstances forced upon him rather than delve into the kind of character he is playing. (He does have a particularly touching moment though when he is preparing his will.)

Many writers and directors of horror thrillers have delved into the fears that lie at the heart of Buried. Edgar Allan Poe, for one, wrote a compelling and unnerving study in narcolepsy in “The Premature Burial.” But, in that story, the fear of suffocation was part of the texture of a larger narrative. In Buried, everything is contained in Conroy’s frantic struggle to survive. However, there is an implied larger meaning in the story. Besides making a heart-stopping thriller, Cortés also sees an opportunity to sneak some opportune metaphors about the Iraq War into that submerged box. But rather than invest this political terrain with some complexity; he works over our fear of being buried alive as a means to refute the U.S. involvement.

That’s why it’s no accident that Paul Conroy isn’t a soldier, but a kidnapped civilian. His kidnappers are also not the true believers of the insurgency, but the victims of war. I’d go even further in saying that the largely indifferent, or inept, responses to Conroy’s pleas for help are also not circumstantial. They’re proof of our complicity in the lives being lost in an unpopular war. (Conroy’s desperate pleas on his phone to an insurance company, where they begin disputing his claim, even tests the bounds of credibility.)

Underlying the prurient dread of Buried is the notion that if the U.S. maybe hadn’t invaded Iraq, there wouldn’t be innocent American bodies anonymously buried in desert graves. Given the enthusiastic response to Buried, Cortés may know how to make audiences pant with suspense while his hero struggles for air. But doesn't he also realize that by exploiting an audience’s worst primitive fears, he's also found a crudely manipulative way to make an anti-war statement?

-- October 15/10

Promise Broken & Promise Kept: The Promise & Trigger

When Bruce Springsteen’s fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, was released in the late spring of 1978, it seemed to make everything else around it seem insignificant. “This isn’t just a great record,” The Who’s Pete Townshend exclaimed upon first listening to it. “It’s a fucking triumph.” Darkness not only arrived after a three-year period of contractual war with his former manager Mike Appel, one that forced the artist into a self-imposed hermitage, it also came on the heels of his worldwide hit album, Born to Run (1975). The consequences of furious expectations and the frustrations of a musician trying to maintain his integrity led to an album that was not only a powerful rock & roll record but also a stunning work of self-revelation.

Rather than simply provide a random collection of songs, Springsteen and his E Street Band crafted a work that took the early aspirations of rock & roll (which they celebrated on Born to Run) and uncovered the possible consequences of acting on those aspirations. As a result, songs like “Racing in the Streets,” which took Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ infectiously hopeful call of “Dancing in the Streets” and The Beach Boys’ pining reassurances of “Don’t Worry, Baby,” and revealed the grim realism beneath the hope. Sometimes a memorable and exciting rock hook, like the guitar intro from The Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul,” would be used to slice the voyeuristic lust of “Candy’s Room” in half. In songs like “Badlands,” “The Promised Land” and “Prove it all Night,” Springsteen stripped pop drama down to the basic task of one man’s desire to speak of only what feels true to him; to bring adolescent dreams into adult realities.

In the documentary, The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, which is currently showing on HBO, director Thom Zimny attempts to unlock the forces behind this great record. With access to rare and unreleased video footage, shot in the studio between 1976 and 1978, which shows the genesis of the creation of Darkness, Zimny sets out to the tell the story of this album’s creation. Unfortunately, Zimny doesn’t really have a story to tell. Instead, he tries to let the clips and band interviews tell it for him. While he does chronicle the events that lead to Darkness on the Edge of Town, the film gets bogged down with insider fascination. Zimny, who also worked on Live in New York City, a half-hour HBO Springsteen documentary and directed Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run (which won him a Grammy), is now Springsteen’s personal archivist. The Promise is more an archivist’s dream of gathering tidbits than a critical appraisal of Springsteen’s work.

While it’s fascinating to watch the interaction between Springsteen and the band working out an endless selection of songs (many of which didn’t make the album, but will soon be part of a new box set released next month), Zimny doesn’t go beyond the studio camaraderie into the realm of the imagination. Great art always transports us, but Zimny never guesses as to why. He documents data and rarely suggests larger issues. For instance, Darkness on the Edge of Town came on the heels of Elvis Presley’s death a year earlier. While Zimny does allow for the influence of punk on the record (punk also being something of a response to Elvis’s demise), he doesn’t show how Springsteen’s battle for the control of his songs from Mike Appel was also a powerful reaction to Elvis Presley’s death. It put fear in his heart that an American original who lost control of his art and talent ended up dead on a toilet. “Mike Appel thought I was Elvis and he was Colonel Parker,” Springsteen told critic Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone after Darkness was released. “But I wasn’t Elvis and he wasn’t the Colonel.”

The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town isn’t so much a hagiographic piece as it is an innocuous one. For an album that had such a strong impact on pop music in 1978 (and which fuelled his later mass audience success in 1984 with Born in the USA), Thom Zimny’s approach is that of the casual observer, happy to be in the room, watching everything – yet seeing nothing.

Tracy Wright and Molly Parker in Trigger

There’s nothing casual about the performance the late actress Tracy Wright gives in her final role in Bruce McDonald’s Trigger. Already understanding that she was struck with terminal cancer before doing the picture, she plays the part of a former legendary hard rocker with a tough resilience that neither armours her character, nor becomes drowned in pathos. Wright seizes the part with a bald determination, not so much to beat the reaper, but to let us know the cost of what he was taking. She takes the movie in her teeth and leaves nothing on the bone. It’s the fiercest performance she’s ever given – and it's her last.

Trigger is essentially a typical two-hander, written by playwright Daniel MacIvor (House), about two former female rock stars, Kat (Molly Parker) and Vic (Tracy Wright), who made up the group Trigger. Where music initially brought them together, their acerbic personalities tore them apart. They meet years later for dinner, having gone separate ways, when Kat is in town to set up a concert. Where Kat is now an A&R type out of LA, Vic is still the bohemian struggling to escape the ravages of drug addiction. Their collision course brings up unresolved issues, yet it also firmly establishes the ties that bind them together.

Daniel MacIvor’s writing has always seemed less like people talking and more like characters enunciating. But McDonald, who in Roadkill (1989), Highway 61 (1991) and Hard Core Logo (1996), showed a perfect feel for musical rhythms, has the actresses glide over the bumps in the dialogue. Molly Parker is the perfect sparring partner for Wright because she is one of the most translucent of talented actresses. No matter how many layers of defenses she wears, Parker lets you see the core of what those layers are hiding. Kat seeks refuge in a business that now disconnects her from the love she once had for the music (which is also connected to the ambivalent love she has for Vic). Vic, on the other hand, is a little like Eric Clapton, one who seeks a boring normalcy for fear that passion will once again re-ignite destructive addiction.

Although the battles in Trigger invoke the sentimental dust-ups in films like Old Acquaintance (1943), The Turning Point (1977) and Rich and Famous (1981), there’s nothing mawkish in the performances here. There’s nothing sloppy about McDonald’s direction either (except in a couple of ill-conceived bits of magic realism). He essentially gets out of the way and lets Parker and Wright have it out. Trigger may be a conventional story about unconventional people, but Tracey Wright’s performance cuts through the artifice. She stares defiantly out from the screen like a ravaged siren, maybe beaten, but definitely not bowed.

-- October 22/10

Mind Out of Time: Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010

For close to fifty years, Bob Dylan has transformed himself into any number of incongruent characters while keeping his fans both baffled and infuriated in the process. Critic Greil Marcus is one of those baffled and infuriated fans. But rather than worship at Dylan's altar, or burn him in effigy, Marcus has instead assembled a fascinating chronicle of reviews, stories, asides and rumours about Dylan that he has written over the last four decades. In Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010 (Public Affairs, 2010), Marcus has created a riveting and imaginative collection of criticism where he not only traces a popular artist's erratic career through a chronology of pieces, his book also becomes an engagement where sometimes the hunter gets captured by the game.

While Marcus shapes the arc of Dylan's work, as one would untangle a long, convoluted mystery, we also witness how Dylan has equally shaped him as a writer. "I was never interested in figuring out what the song's meant," Marcus writes in the introduction. "I was interested in figuring out my response to them, and other people's responses. I wanted to get closer to the music than I could by listening to it - I wanted to get inside of it, behind it, and writing about it, through it, inside of it, behind it was my way of doing that."

Although Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010 bears some resemblance to Marcus's last book When That Rough God Goes Riding, which took us through the equally uneven career of Van Morrison, that book shifted back and forth through time as if Marcus was randomly picking Morrison's albums from the shelf to see if they still added up. By contrast, Bob Dylan is a more linear tale. Yet the very nature of Dylan's art has a way of pulling the rug out from any assumptions concerning what happens next, so Marcus's book becomes (to invert the title of one Dylan album) a mind out of time.

From the moment Dylan arrived in New York in the early Sixties, with the emblem of Brando's leather cap from The Wild One on his head, he had the cunning of a vaudevillian troubadour. He slung an acoustic guitar over his shoulder and sang as if he were the second coming of Woody Guthrie. Like Guthrie, Dylan set out initially to be a man of the people, leading a charge against social injustice. Yet just as audiences and fans were starting to embrace the acoustic "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are a-Changin'" as anthems for storming the barricades, Dylan started a-changin' himself. Abandoning the cap and donning a leather jacket, Dylan altered his repertoire, picked up an electric guitar and plugged in. In response, a loud and unhappy throng expressed their displeasure during the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Simultaneously, Dylan began tearing up the charts with the electrifying six-minute single, "Like a Rolling Stone," boldly announcing to his followers that, yes, maybe rock & roll was folk music, too.

Then, just as people caught on to the urban blues of Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde On Blonde (1966), Dylan once again started having other ideas. While folks tripped out to the heavy rock of Cream and Jimi Hendrix in 1967, Dylan put out a stripped-down and staggering country folk record (John Wesley Harding) that couldn't have appeared more archaic next to something like Cream's Disraeli Gears. A few years later, in 1970, Dylan pulled yet another fast one by releasing an album called Self Portrait. What may have appeared, by its title alone, to reveal the man behind the mask, it did, in fact, do the exact opposite. How could this record be considered a self-portrait when 95 per cent of the songs were written by other people? What were we to make of Bob Dylan singing Rodgers and Hart ("Blue Moon") and performing a duet with himself, playing both Simon and Garfunkel, on "The Boxer"? When he did sing his own material, like the desultory "Wigwam," the man behind the mask became even more obscured. On "Wigwam," Dylan hummed his way indifferently through a bed of Muzak that might have been dreamed up by James Last. (Compounding the joke, Dylan released "Wigwam" as the album's single.) The counterculture became so perplexed by Self Portrait's hodgepodge of musical styles that Dylan earned some of his worst reviews. And that's where Greil Marcus's book truly begins with his famous first words on Self Portrait: "What is this shit?"

Bob Dylan's Self Portrait

That hilarious and familiar quote, which would also find its way into Nick Hornby's 2009 novel, Juliet, Naked, revealed a fan scorned and a critic puzzled. It was also the beginning of a decline that Marcus traces for years – with speed-bumps in the road – that include Dylan's shocking conversion to Christianity in 1979, and his resurrection at the beginning of the Clinton years when he would re-emerge by finding his true voice in the American folk songs he once sang in Greenwich Village. "[I]t would take more than twenty years to play his way out of the trap set for him by his own, once-upon-a-time triumph, that after all that time of wandering in the desert of his own fame – that time, as Dylan once put it, explaining the imperatives of folk music, by which he meant the Bible, by which he meant the mystery of plenty and famine, of 'seven years of this and eight years of that' - that the old pop star, the antique icon, the dormant oracle, might then begin again as if from the beginning, with no limits to what he might say or how he might say it," Marcus explains. But reading Bob Dylan also casts new light on Greil Marcus's views of Dylan's work over the years because he's also in the process, as a critic, of encountering "no limits to what he might say or how he might say it." Sometimes a mysterious deed ends up somewhat understood in a piece written years later. (Marcus makes sense of Dylan's born-again period when he sees Todd Haynes's 2007 I'm Not There.)

Greil Marcus has written about Bob Dylan in other books including The Old, Weird America (1997), his examination of The Basement Tapes made by Dylan and The Band in 1967 while recovering from their fractious world tour the previous year, to Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (2005), which investigated the origins and impact of what is arguably Dylan's greatest song. Bob Dylan excerpts none of those writings (although his perceptive liner notes from the CBS Records 1975 release of The Basement Tapes are included), but the book covers more than its share of Dylan's inconsistent work. On Before the Flood (1974), his largely panned live album from his 1974 tour with The Band, Marcus writes, "Before the Flood offers not ideas but passions, and its ambitions are the same." On Dylan's masterful Blood on the Tracks (1975), he says simply, "Bob Dylan wasn't kidding when he called his new album Blood on the Tracks – the songs are covered with it." But when Dylan transforms into Elvis-in-Vegas on Street Legal (1978), the words turn biting as only a spurned fan's could. "'Is Your Love in Vain?' is particularly cruel: compared to Dylan's posture here, Mick Jagger in 'Under My Thumb' is exploring the upper reaches of humility," Marcus writes. "The man speaks to the woman like a sultan checking out a promising servant girl for VD, and his tone is enough to make her fake the pox if that's what it takes to get away clean." He's succinct and sharp with his thoughts on Dylan's first Christian flavoured Slow Train Coming (1980). "What is new is Dylan's use of religious imagery not to discover and shape a vision of what's at stake in the world but to sell a prepackaged doctrine...Jesus is the answer, and if you don't believe it, you're fucked."

Although there are fallow years that follow, Marcus would discover what he cited as "new land" in his 1992 Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong (1993) where Dylan would find the skeleton key to his startling Time Out of Mind (1997) ("As bleak and blasted as any work a major artist in any field – an artist with something, an audience, a reputation, to lose – has offered in ages"). But he first sees hope in Dylan's performance of his "Masters of War" at the 1991 Grammy Awards during the first Gulf War when he sang the song as if it were hidden inside an enigma. "The song was buried in its performance, as if history were its true audience," adds Marcus. And what's fascinating about Bob Dylan is how "Masters of War" dogs the author throughout the book. What begins as an emblem of the protest songs that Dylan left behind when he largely abandoned topical music, "Masters of War" eventually reveals itself as something more complex. It may begin by turning the world into black or white, but it ends with the singer becoming his own master of war over the arms merchants ("I hope that you die/And your death will come soon/I'll follow your casket in the pale afternoon/And I'll watch while you're lowered/Down to your death bed/And I'll stand over your grave till I'm sure that you're dead.") Like Elvis Costello's "Tramp the Dirt Down" and Bruce Cockburn's "If I Had a Rocket Launcher," "Masters of War" doesn't give comfort to the aggrieved.

Bob Dylan and Jack Nicholson at the 1991 Grammy Awards

Many leftist performers like Joan Baez would do "Masters of War" but omit that verse. The late historian Howard Zinn, in his Artists in Times of War, would also airbrush it out of his study because, as Marcus states, "[t]o have associated his heroes...with such venom might have robbed them of their saintliness." The song forms something of a leit motif that weaves through the book until Marcus concludes with, "You can't come to the song as if it's a joke; you can't come away from it pretending you didn't mean what you've just said. That's what people want: a chance to go that far. Because 'Masters of War' gives people permission to go that far, the song continues to make meaning, to find new bodies to inhabit, new voices to ride."

The key to understanding the varied responses to Dylan's work in Bob Dylan comes early on in the Self Portrait review. In it, Marcus refutes the auteur theory which recognizes that art is about "the personality of the [artist]." As he goes on to say, "[T]he greatest auteurs are those with the most consistent, obvious, and recognizable mannerisms, quirks, and self-indulgence." If a critic uses that dictum, Marcus explains, "Self Portrait is a better album than Highway 61 Revisted because Self Portrait is about the auteur, that is, Dylan, and Highway 61 Revisited takes on the world, which tends to get in the way." In Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010, Greil Marcus strips away the mystique and auteur worship of Dylan and he collates as varied a portrait of one of America's most enigmatic performers as we'll likely ever see.

In his review of Bob Dylan's memoir Chronicles, Volume One (2004), Marcus quotes Dylan describing the days he spent in the New York Public Libraries pouring over the foundations of his country's history. "I crammed my head full of as much of this stuff as I could stand and locked it away in my mind out of sight, left it alone," Dylan writes. "Figured I could send a truck back for it later." Marcus calls Chronicles his truck. Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010, to quote a line from a Dylan song, is Greil Marcus's freight train.

-- October 31/10

Solitary Man: The Crucible of Michael Douglas

Glenn Close and Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction

For most of his movie career, Michael Douglas has built his box office success as the everyman who always gets his way – even when he loses. Whether he's playing a financial sleaze in Wall Street (1987), or the cocky adventurer in Romancing the Stone (1984), Douglas always finds a way to lure the audience to his side. But it's not because he has the suave romantic allure of an Errol Flynn, or that he plays creepy in the appealingly baroque style of James Woods, or performs in the high-wire theatrics of Nicolas Cage. Douglas builds his appeal by turning the everyman into a solitary man. His pictures almost always feature him as the sharp cookie who has everything, a loving family in Fatal Attraction (1987) and Disclosure (1994), or the financial world at his beck and call in Wall Street, but somebody is always out to take it all away. Even though he has put the wheels in motion towards his own destruction, he becomes exonerated as the victim of forces beyond his control. Perhaps that's the key to the appeal of these movies; the mass audience is never asked to wonder what Michael Douglas has done to earn all this grief.

In the terms of Michael Douglas's hit films, it doesn't seem to matter whether he might have set his own trap when he's stalked by the aggrieved lover (Glenn Close) that he indifferently dumps in Fatal Attraction. The question is never raised as to whether he unconsciously invites the sexual harassment suit from the former lover (Demi Moore) he spurns in Disclosure. The kinky sex drive he possesses in the swank noir Basic Instinct (1992) isn't even considered a character flaw that would turn most male characters into driven predators. In the end, Michael Douglas is the lone victim of everyone one else's hang-ups. Even the guileless Charlie Sheen nails him in Wall Street and it doesn't matter that this ruthless inside trader had it coming – maybe he should have even seen it coming – because Michael Douglas is his own lone man who had to do it his way and that's all that matters.

While this characteristic is what clearly defines the means by which he's built a successful career of portraying a vast gallery of male victims, Douglas has occasionally peeked inside the makings of those characters. The trouble is that whenever he does, as in Curtis Hanson's vastly satisfying Wonder Boys (2000), the audience stays home. Douglas plays Grady Tripp, a middle-aged novelist and creative writing professor at an unnamed Pittsburgh university. After making his name with his first novel, he's suffering severe writer's block completing the second. Tripp medicates his depression by continually smoking grass and by sleeping with the university chancellor (Frances McDormand), who is the wife of the chairman of the English department. Grady Tripp is essentially a creative talent in a perpetual state of stasis. Based on Michael Chabon's 1995 novel, Wonder Boys offered Michael Douglas an opportunity to dial down the swagger – and, as a result, he delivers one of his most accessible performances.

Tobey Maguire and Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys

Unlike in Fatal Attraction, his dalliances don't make him the prey, or the injured party here. In Wonder Boys, he has to take stock of both his behaviour and his influence. When a talented writing student (Tobey Maguire) looks to him for guidance, Tripp is forced to evaluate the many times he's pissed away the possibilities of happiness and satisfaction. But Douglas doesn't delve into those disappointing episodes with the dull and dogged determination he's portrayed many times before. Instead he supplies a pensive, self-deprecating air of humour that reveals a man whose cleverness has tripped him up (maybe this is why he's aptly named Tripp) and given him a mask of self-pity to hide in. But in Wonder Boys, the mask melts away. The hard lines in his face (which in Fatal Attraction and Wall Street told the audience that he would stand tall against all comers) doesn't reveal defiance, but rather a man putting himself back together again and becoming whole.

Michael Douglas and Jesse Eisenberg in Solitary Man

His latest film, Solitary Man (2009), which just came out on DVD, is nowhere near as good as Wonder Boys. But it does allow Douglas – more explicitly this time – to tear down the defenses that in the past have made him such an impenetrable star. Co-directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, Solitary Man features Douglas as Ben Kalmen, a once successful car dealer who suddenly discovers that he might be mortally ill. But rather than take stock of the life he has built with his attractive and loyal wife (Susan Sarandon) and forge stronger bonds with his daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer) and his grandson, he deliberately destroys his business and romantic credibility. (He even sleeps with his latest girlfriend's 16-year-old daughter.)

Solitary Man tears down Kalmen's walls a little too methodically, but Douglas does get an opportunity to turn the self-righteous smirk that made him a star into a damaging scar. When he tutors a young inexperienced college kid (the game Jesse Eisenberg) in matters of sex and success, Eisenberg is no Charlie Sheen. The pupil doesn't outsmart the teacher but rather outclasses him. And Douglas has enough sense to realize it. Though he alienates everyone who ever counted on him, Kalmen (as Douglas plays him) doesn't find refuge in self-deception. He knows he's become a shadow of himself and his bravado is merely an empty sales pitch with nothing to back it up. Yet Solitary Man doesn't score points off Kalmen's indiscretions, nor does the picture make us feel morally superior. What we see in all its discomfort is the unraveling of one man's fear of dying, a mounting terror that the image he's invested a lifetime in propping up can't cast more than a pale reflection. In Solitary Man, Michael Douglas creates a character who is a construct of almost everything he's ever played and he unsparingly brings the curtain down on him.

There was a hint of this possibility in Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps but director Oliver Stone backed away from letting Douglas go the distance. Yet there's an obvious irony in Solitary Man (due to the recent revelation of Michael Douglas's illness), but who knows where his career could go from here. Solitary Man was no more successful than Wonder Boys which suggests that Douglas may be trapped. Yet there's a nice touch at the end of Solitary Man where Kalmen sees a tangible choice to be made. He could go on playing the seductive rogue who ultimately turns the tables on those who care for him, or he could get a chance to heal all wounds. He looks both ways then stares blankly at the camera. With a solitary man you never know which way he's going to turn.

-- November 16/10

Fever Dream: Beyond Rangoon (1995)

Patricia Arquette and U Aung Ko in Beyond Rangoon
It’s taken almost 15 years but John Boorman’s sadly underrated and neglected drama Beyond Rangoon (1995) has finally been released on DVD. One of the riskiest pictures Boorman (Deliverance, Excalibur) has ever made, Beyond Rangoon is a potently absorbing piece of work. The story focuses on Laura Bowman (Patricia Arquette), an American nurse whose husband and son are murdered during a home invasion. In order to give herself time to heal, she agrees to accompany her sister (Frances McDormand) on a trip to Burma. Since they are making the trip in 1988, they encounter the rise of the democracy movement led by pacifist Aung San Suu Kyi against the brutality of the military dictatorship under General Ne Win.(Suu Kyi's release from house arrest last week, after spending 15 of the last 21 years imprisoned, adds another layer of poignancy for the contemporary viewer.)

The daring in Boorman’s work here is the way he subtly illuminates how the Burmese uprising stirs Bowman out of the catatonic shock over her family’s murder. She not only rediscovers her calling as a nurse, but becomes politically motivated as well. When she makes herself a target for killing by the government, she simultaneously comes to terms with the intimate details of the deaths she's experienced closer to home. Bowman immediately wakes up to a fragile world where life and death have become delicately intertwined.

John Boorman has always been a humanist director, but sometimes he got caught up in the kind of New Age mysticism (The Emerald Forest) that inadvertently rendered his films as exercises in camp. In Beyond Rangoon, Boorman envisions the Burmese torpor as a fever dream where Bowman (along with the country) awakens into a spiritual affirmation that comes with a heavy price. Although many critics at the time complained that Boorman cast the Burmese revolution through the eyes of a Westerner, Beyond Rangoon does not cheapen their struggle by doing so. If anything, Boorman vividly shows us the full cost of the burgeoning idealism of the Burmese democracy movement. In light of recent events, the picture couldn’t be timelier.

-- November 20/10

Songs My Mother Taught Me: Roky Erickson's True Love Cast Out All Evil

In 1966, the 13th Floor Elevators launched what came to be known as psychedelic rock with their hit single, "You're Gonna Miss Me." It's quite likely that the band's lead singer/songwriter Roky Erickson had no idea that the song's title would end up overshadowing the future that lay ahead of him. I also doubt that given the horrors of what did lay ahead, he (and the legion of fans who followed him) ever considered a day when a record would come out of that experience with the power and emotional force of True Love Cast Out All Evil (released last April). It's one of the strongest and strangely affecting CDs of the year.

For those who miss albums that are conceived as albums (rather than merely a collection of songs), True Love Cast Out All Evil is a beautifully crafted one with a suggestively stirring arc. It's an informal anthropological portrait of an artist trying to re-connect all the broken pieces of memory and truth and finding out how elusive that process can be. Produced by Will Sheff and featuring his band Okkervil River, True Love is a song cycle that attempts to provide a chronicle of a life that has been blasted apart. To his credit, however, Sheff doesn't solemnize the process, nor does he create an inspirational tribute to Erickson's survival. He rather lets Erickson's songs tell the story, an elliptical series of parables about one man testing his faith against an unforgiving world where fate had cast him. Roky Erickson learned his love of music from his mother, a woman who was both religiously devotional and righteously mad. True Love Cast Out All Evil is a haunting evocation of a parent's gift to her son, a present that shares equal portions of inspiration and insanity. (As he says in "Bring Back the Past": "Moody tunes whistle in my ears/And throw me up and down/Dreams and scenes from joy to tears/Could screw me to the ground.")

The 13th Floor Elevators originally hailed from Austin, Texas before finding a home in the counter-culture of San Fransisco in the late sixties. It was there that they reached their peak musically, just as they reached some scary heights as devotees of LSD. (The band would drop acid before every live gig.) Within a couple of years, the drug began taking its toll on Erickson. He began hearing voices, not coming to gigs and eventually, in 1969, getting picked up back home by the Austin police for possession of grass. While facing a ten-year sentence in prison, Erickson was advised by his lawyer to plead guilty by reason of insanity. As a result of his questionable plea, he did time in the Austin State Hospital and the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. While there he was subjected to electric shock therapy and massive doses of Thorazine. He remained in their custody until 1972. (While in Rusk, he wrote many of the songs heard on True Love Cast Out All Evil.)

When released, he attempted a return to music, but now in his unmedicated state, his psychosis became worse. By 1988, Erickson began living in Del Valle, Texas, in government housing where (unattended) he began to deteriorate mentally and physically. When Roky's lost son from a failed relationship entered his life in 2001, Erickson began steps to connect again with the outside world. True Love is about the path taken to get there. Sheff has organized the songs not to tell a linear tale, but to pose random observations that attempt to solve existential riddles. The opening track, "Devotional Number One," a field recording done at Rusk and taped by Erickson's mother, is a short parable about Moses and Jesus that sets the table that the album then decorates. Along the way, Erickson (in an unrecognizably gruff voice) touches on his own spiritual death and rebirth in "Goodbye Sweet Dreams" and "Please Judge," while resurrecting (for the only time on the powerfully sparse "John Lawman"), the recognizable Little Richard shriek Erickson once displayed on "You're Gonna Miss Me." It is a spine-tingling moment.

True Love Cast Out All Evil isn't the first collection of music that also serves as social anthropology. In 1968, Frank Zappa produced An Evening With Wild Man Fischer, a double-album featuring a paranoid schizophrenic street busker from Los Angeles who made up songs for money, which formed an unsettling portrait of a savant artist. The work of the equally disturbed Daniel Johnston holds endless fascination for many pop groups, including Sonic Youth, for similar reasons to Fischer. But Roky Erickson (like Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd) isn't an outsider artist, but instead a casualty of both the drug culture and mental illness. So Erickson's album is his effort to find the self he once possessed rather than exhibit the art of the lost self.

True Love Cast Out All Evil, which features some of the best and insightful liner notes (by Will Sheff) ever to grace a CD, doesn't offer any easy answers, nor does it guarantee any follow-up album. The CD is a series of glimpsed moments, time seized for what those moments might yield. In particular, the final track, "God is Everywhere," another early field recording, which provides no clear path for the unsettled road of Roky Erickson. In the end, he's left singing with a fragile, uncertain hope, "also, also, thoughts lost and never-known treasures coming back to we." True Love Cast Out All Evil is a treasure map to a lost treasure, one that's gathered in like gems blowing in the wind, pieces shattered but still not broken.

-- November 29/10

Not to Be Forgotten: Shattered Glass, Secret Ballot & Beijing Bicycle

Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard in Shattered Glass

After the Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times in 2003, there probably wasn't a more timely film that same year than Shattered Glass. Unfortunately, it barely got the time of day. The story of journalist Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), a writer for the liberal publication The New Republic, who cooked up over 90 percent of the stories he published, happened not long before Blair started his own brand of faux journalism. Directed by Billy Ray (Breach), Shattered Glass is an intelligently laid out story of how a young and eager journalist on the rise charmed his way into the editorial bosom of a prestigious magazine (at about the time that eagerness and charm began taking precedence over brains). Christensen gives a performance both cunning and subtle, playing a quietly obsequious cipher who finally hits a wall. Peter Sarsgaard, as the editor who provides that wall, gives an equally understated performance. As an investigative drama, Shattered Glass doesn't break any new ground, but it sure smashes a lot of illusions.

Secret Ballot, which won a Special Prize for Best Director at the 2001 Venice Film Festival, is an absurdly funny and evocative political allegory. It's also something of a rarity for an Iranian film: a deadpan comedy. Director Babak Payami gives this quirky drama a very formal, subdued tone, but the engaging ironies provide the movie with some definite pop. The story begins with a huge wooden box that's dropped from an airplane. It lands at an army outpost where two soldiers appear to be guarding a deserted beach. The package contains election ballots, and not far behind that is the pollster. The pollster has been sent to gather up every vote in the region for the current election. But what the soldiers haven't been told is that the election representative is a woman. Not used to taking orders from a lady, one officer initially balks at her suggestion that he drive her around. Soon, however, he reluctantly takes her from town to town, where the days' events eventually have an indelible effect on both of them.

Secret Ballot

Most of the humor in the plot comes from Payami contrasting the personalities of the two characters. The pollster is a liberal idealist who believes that, given the opportunity to vote, people will automatically open themselves up to democratic principles. Meanwhile, the soldier has the harsher, more cynical view. He thinks that being free means not allowing yourself to be swindled by anybody. One example occurs when they spot a man running across the desert: She sees him as a potential voter while he thinks the man's a thief that he needs to bring into custody. Payami doesn't take sides or simplify their views. As they travel across the flat landscape, both have their belief systems challenged. Secret Ballot might be a little plodding at times, but Payami still fills his picture with the kind of political ironies that sneak up on you.

In Vittorio De Sica's masterful 1948 picture The Bicycle Thief, a stolen bicycle became an emblem that set a man against his own impoverished surroundings. In the rewarding Beijing Bicycle (2001), the stolen bicycle is instead an emblem of class conflict. Director Wang Xiaoshuai creates a poignant and bittersweet picture of life in modern China. In the newly industrialized world of Beijing, the bike is not merely a mode of transportation, but also a key to one's identity and self-worth.

Beijing Bicycle

At 17, Guei (Cui Lin) decides to leave his provincial village to find a new life in the city. He begins work as a bicycle courier, managing to make a meagre salary until he can pay off the cost of his lustrous mountain bike. Just at the moment when he almost gains possession of his treasure, the bicycle is stolen. Guei, who is fired from his job, combs the city in search of his lost possession. What Guei doesn't know is that Jian (Li Bin), a wealthy city boy, has bought Guei's bike from a local flea market. For Jian, whose father has denied him a bicycle so they can send his sister to school, the vehicle is merely a tool to impress a new girlfriend, Qin (Zhou Xun), and gain status with his friends. Before long, both young men confront each other to finally decide who is to gain possession of the bicycle.

Beijing Bicycle has a blithely comic air that slowly turns tragic. Xiaoshuai lets us take in the rapid pulse of the city alongside Guei, so we gradually come to see that owning the bike is a major step for him to becoming an adult with proprietorship and responsibility. Jian, on the other hand, comes to see that having the bike does little to take away his anxiety at feeling that he barely matters in life. Beijing Bicycle is a startling and fresh examination of how the bike still remains an ambiguous icon in Chinese society.

-- December 6/10

Style and Substance: The King's Speech

The King’s Speech is one of those rare prestige productions; a rich meal without an ounce of stuffing. The picture delves instead beneath the formality of good taste and into the substance of compelling dramatic conflict. Director Tom Hooper (HBO’s John Adams, The Damned United) draws from the psychological underpinnings of classic drama where acting a role becomes part of the process of self-discovery. He applies that process to the study of an unlikely friendship between Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an unfulfilled Australian actor turned speech therapist, hired by Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), Albert’s wife, to cure her husband’s speech impediment. The picture, which sparkles with wit and intelligence, may have a very conventional structure, but the story undoes the refuge of convention. The unorthodox means by which Lionel transforms Albert’s stammer into clear, eloquent diction is heightened by both personal and historical events. The resolution of that personal conflict offers no hiding place from the dark days ahead as Britain enters the Second World War.

One of the illuminating aspects of The King’s Speech is how it uncovers the change in perspective towards world leaders brought on by the rapidly changing technology. They were no longer ornamental figures who could hide behind a pen. Through electronic tools, they were now being required to speak as well. If the ravings of Adolph Hitler – broadcast on radio and by microphone at large rallies – could stir a nation to reckless, destructive warfare, there had to be voices of sanity that could both console and rally a nation to defend itself from aggression. The King’s Speech reveals a humbled man who has to step into a role, a part for which he feels ill-suited, to command the authenticity to lead.

Although the picture treads into the familiar territory of British class issues, The King’s Speech offers a fresh outlook. Unlike most costume dramas, the movie examines class conflict rather than presenting it. It probes into an alliance between the two men that is uneasy from the start because Lionel moves into the psychological bedrock of Albert’s speech problems. Albert is initially insulated from public humiliation because his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) succeeds his father King George V (Michael Gambon). But when Edward abdicates his responsibilities by marrying an American socialite, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), and develops a laissez-faire attitude towards the creeping fascism in Europe, Albert has no choice but to take the throne. Hooper (through a perceptive script by David Seidler) weds that social dynamic to the personal battles between Albert and Lionel.

Years earlier, I wouldn’t have thought that quest for authenticity would be fully believable in the hands of Colin Firth. In Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2000), Firth’s reserve as an actor often snuffed out any spark of life. His holding back usually made him dull and mannered. Although many of my female friends swooned over his Mr. Darcy in the 1995 television production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it was likely because he misinterpreted Darcy’s inarticulateness and reticence as a sign of the character’s quiet smoldering sexuality. (Darcy was conceived by Austen however as a man incapable of revealing his deeper desires.) But Firth has been recently doing more to dip into what lies beneath the reserve of characters he once played solely on the surface – especially as the grief-stricken father in the still commercially unreleased 2008 film Genova. In The King’s Speech, Firth uncorks a buried passion that leaves cracks in the armour of Albert’s staid demeanor. It’s the best screen performance he’s given to date. He also has the perfect foil in Geoffrey Rush whose Lionel is a man in love with the stage, but an actor who can only fulfill that love through the transformation of a solitary man at odds with who he is. Rush gives a lively theatrical performance with lovely gradations of poignancy. (Lionel knows that the cure won’t solve the problems facing the world.)

The King’s Speech likely won’t find much favour among cinephiles who may perceive (wrongly, I believe) the movie’s prestigious approach as “conservative” or “tasteful.” What they miss, due to lack of exposure, or interest, is the film’s stylistic ties to the use of artifice in classical theatre. But Hooper doesn’t draw from that artifice with a desire to condescend to the viewer by using sentimentality as a prop for inspiration. There’s a touching aspect instead to this odd-couple friendship, especially when, with Lionel's help, Albert (as King George VI) delivers the 1939 radio broadcast where he speaks to Britain as it enters into war with Germany. The Royal leader addresses the nation in the intimate manner that he also speaks to his newly found friend, this aspiring actor who found his calling and his art in his friendship with a humble man who would be King. The humility and peace in that companionship helps momentarily to salve their own wounds because The King's Speech also prepares us, too, for the horror that follows.

-- December 10/10

Pulling Punches: The Fighter

Christian Bale, Melissa Leo and Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter

When David O. Russell directed Flirting with Disaster (1996) and Three Kings (1999), he took familiar genre material and then with flair and originality not only made it less familiar, he made it dazzling. In Flirting with Disaster, about an adopted man (Ben Stiller) who sets out to find his birth parents, Russell turned this hilarious sojourn into a whole new version of screwball heaven. (His first picture, Spanking the Monkey, a 1994 comedy about incestuous urges, served merely as a warm-up.) Three Kings began as a satire about the 1991 Iraq War as seen through the eyes of three grunts who live average lives, but are looking for glory. When they seek to steal gold from Saddam’s bunker to enrich their own coffers, they find instead that their lives are dramatically altered when their quest becomes a rescue mission to save the lives of refugees. As a war movie, only Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970) was its equal in the undaunting way it blended tragedy and farce. Russell faltered with the highly ambitious, but tone-deaf, 2004 comedy I ♥ Huckabees which began as a fascinating existential mystery, but then got bogged down in a chaotic, shambling satire about corporatism and environmentalism. (Since the corporate heads, the environmentalists and the philosophers all end up as fools; it was tough to figure out just what Russell was lampooning here.) Even so, Russell was certainly an original who turned corners that you never saw coming. You felt like you were experiencing traditional stories opened up in radically new ways. In The Fighter, however, David O. Russell walks a straighter line. The movie is about the rise of boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) to become Welterweight Champion. But Russell pulls no rabbits out of his hat this time; he pulls his punches instead. It begins as a riveting character study of how Ward, from the working-class neighbourhood of Lowell, Massachusetts, had to overcome a complicated family dynamic to be the boxer he was destined to be, but the picture soon retreats into traditional inspirational territory. Which is another way of saying that The Fighter is sure to be a holiday hit.

What’s maddening about the movie though is how Russell, through a botched screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, loses touch with the dramatic essence of the material. Although Ward is being touted as Lowell’s next great welterweight, his family still can’t forget the promise of his half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), once the boxing pride of the borough when he went the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard. But Dicky has now become a wasted shell who's addicted to crack cocaine while training his step-sibling. Meanwhile, Alice (Melissa Leo), their coarsely aggressive mother, dotes on her damaged son in a manner that is creepily seductive. Before long, it becomes clear that Micky’s largest adversary is not the boxers in the ring, but the family that’s supposed to be backing him. The script even implies that since Dicky is the favourite son, the family continues the fantasy that, through his work with Micky, he’s going to make a comeback. (A film crew is documenting Dicky for an HBO special which he thinks is showing his return to glory when they are actually revealing his lost promise to drugs.) As the television cameras document the truth, Alice continues to support Dicky despite all evidence that he’s a lost cause.

Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams

It would be one thing if Russell examined how Alice’s blind devotion to Dicky both cripples her oldest son and inadvertently damages Micky's career, but Russell never allows Micky to become aware of the dilemma. Instead, Micky meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a local barmaid with a heart of gold, who not only supports her man but also takes on his clan for him. Before long, in order to advance Micky’s rise to glory, the movie has to water down the familial conflict in order to get everybody in Micky’s corner cheering him on to greatness.

The Fighter does little for the actors. Mark Wahlberg, who started to really develop into a fine actor after appearing in Three Kings, provides a steady hand as Micky, but he has no role to develop. Since Micky becomes the object of everyone else making him the hero, Wahlberg is reduced to having to play a passive dramatic character. Even so, he still manages to provide authenticity. Christian Bale, on the other hand, works the room. He acts up a storm in a terribly studied performance. Bale is perhaps one of the most dedicated of the great young actors we have, but his dedication sometimes leads to him swallowing a role to the point where the actor (maybe even the human being) disappears. He stripped down his weight (as he did in The Machinist) to toothpick proportions and then developed a collection of drug-addled tics to perform. His Dicky resembles a coke-headed Sach out of The Bowery Boys. (Bale's only touching moment comes in a scene where he tries to calm Alice with a rendition of the Bee Gees' "I Started a Joke.") If Melissa Leo continues to find new ways to be unappealingly feral, Amy Adams still springs appealingly from her feet (despite the clumping lines coming from her mouth).

Melissa Leo and Christian Bale

It goes without saying that along with the dramatic sabotage of the story, much of the facts have been altered, too. Although Dicky Eklund trained his half-brother both before and after a stint in prison, he hardly became the reformed character the movie makes him out to be. In The Fighter, the crime he commits seems minor next to the 10-15 year sentence he actually got for breaking and entering, kidnapping and masked armed robbery. His crack cocaine addiction didn't miraculously disappear either. He continued a life of violence where he was arrested again in 2006 and 2009 for domestic assault and attempted murder. The Fighter also avoids the best part of Micky Ward's story. In 2002, he first faced Arturo Gatti, an Italian Super Lightweight boxer from Montreal, where Ward won a ninth round knockdown after a delirious fight. (Ring Magazine called it the fight of the year and both boxers needed to seek care in a trauma center after it was over.) They continued their battles over two more fights (which Gatti won) but not before both men again needed hospitalization for the pain they inflicted on each other. After the second fight, Gatti told Franz Lidz of Sports Illustrated, "I used to wonder what would happen if I fought my twin. Now I know."

Those battles could have made for a much more convincing picture than the one served up in The Fighter. But part of the problem has always been that many sports movies are rarely ever about the sport. They usually succeed most as inspirational stories about winning and transcending the odds. The Fighter may not be as baldly manipulative as the Rocky series, but those movies are at least all of a piece in ways that this movie isn't. David O. Russell may have scored a knockout with audiences and some critics, but as a drama, The Fighter never even comes close to finding its true target.

-- December 21/10

Is it Such a Wonderful Life?

James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life

Back in December 1990, on the CBC radio show Prime Time, host and film critic Geoff Pevere and I decided to re-assess the popularity of Frank Capra's Christmas favourite It's a Wonderful Life (1946). We felt that it was ample time to examine why this particular picture had become such a holiday classic. Neither of us actually hated the film; in fact, we thought some of the small town neurosis that David Lynch would expertly dissect years later in Blue Velvet (1986) had its roots in It's a Wonderful Life. But we were baffled that audiences over the years had viewed this movie as an uplifting and heart-tugging affair. To us, there was something much more unsettling lurking in this material, a looming shadow that the picture ultimately sought to avoid. So we decided to head straight for the darkness. Someone should have warned us.

Needless to say, the next day after we had questioned the movie's attempt to wear its big heart on its sleeve, listeners were now clamouring to tear ours out. One phone message even encouraged Geoff and I to commit suicide (and if we lacked the courage, he would gladly come down to help us out). We were both stunned at the ferocity of the audience reaction. Geoff even leaned over during our post-mortem story meeting the next morning to say, "Gee, you'd think we'd just killed Santa Claus and dragged his reindeers around the studio." How could such violent responses come from people whose souls were so edified by Capra's corn? Nobody appeared to want to see what was so unnerving in this picture, what was right in front of their eyes. To us, It's a Wonderful Life wasn't full of holiday cheer, it was actually a film noir in a state of denial.

For the uninitiated, It's a Wonderful Life is the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), a genial and generous soul who has lived his whole life in Bedford Falls. Even though he had always longed to see the world, George became a prisoner of his own compulsion to make sacrifices. As a boy, he saved his brother Harry's life after he fell through the ice (leaving George deaf in one ear). Instead of traveling, he fills in at the Bailey Building and Loan Association hoping that Harry will replace him when he graduates. On his own graduation night, while discussing his plans to go abroad, George puts them on hold when his father has a fatal stroke. Things then go from bad to worse when the grossly insensitive Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), a majority shareholder in the company, coerces the board of directors to quit giving home loans to the town's poor. George gets them to reject Potter's proposal, but only when he promises to take over the Building and Loan.

While George believes that his brother will ultimately take over the business, so he can finally depart from Bedford Falls, his sibling gets married instead. George decides to follow Harry's footsteps by getting hitched himself to Mary (Donna Reed), a girl who has loved George for years. Just when they plan to escape for their own honeymoon, though, the Building and Loan goes into a financial crisis that almost leads to its collapse. Only the money George and Mary put aside for their honeymoon can save it. Guess what they do? George and Mary raise their four kids, and WW II breaks out. Only Harry can go abroad to fight since George can't enlist due to his bad ear. (Harry even gets a Medal of Honor.) But things hit rock bottom on Christmas Eve 1946, when Potter secretly steals a huge Building and Loan deposit from George's uncle, then turns and swears out a warrant for George's arrest for bank fraud. When George arrives home and helplessly furious, he takes out his anger on his family before driving off, getting drunk, and then crashing his car into a tree during a snowstorm. At which point, George decides to commit suicide figuring that his family can collect on his life insurance policy. But he gets rescued by Clarence, a guardian angel looking to earn his wings, who begins to show George what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he hadn't been born. Needless to say, life is perceived as much worse than George could have imagined. (The town is even called Pottersville.) Having been horrified by this alternate reality, George begs God to give him his life back. At which point, the townspeople pull together and come to Bailey's aid. The town is his saviour rather than his nemesis.

Film critic David Thomson, writing in his A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1994), describes the movie as "bringing good cheer without quite letting us forget a vision of dread." With his intuitive grasp of It's a Wonderful Life as being a troubling drama, a portentous movie about a man's neurotic need to forfeit his own desires, he goes on to say that happiness here is "pursued by the hounds of living hell" where the American dream that some saw being celebrated was "so close to [being] a nightmare." Thomson, who loved the movie despite its contradictions, would be inspired by It's a Wonderful Life to write a novel called Suspects (1985), where George and Mary turn up (among a cast of other movie characters) with the angry, vigilante Travis Bickle (of Taxi Driver) being one of their offspring. Travis actually gets to act out the rage denied his own father.

Robert de Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver

What Geoff and I were trying to establish was that George Bailey was not simply a victim of bad luck, or circumstance, but a man who masochistically sabotaged his own dreams to fulfill the dreams of others. But Capra never examines why Bailey is driven to do so. Bailey's anger and despair is fuelled more by his own hand than simply the evil intent of Potter. Which is why Capra's complete turn towards redemption at the end is a actually a betrayal of what the story has been setting up. It just does not play successfully as this redeeming story. (My friend and fellow critic David Churchill always thought it was heading to the same conclusion as Stephen King's The Shining.) So why then do people persist in seeing It's a Wonderful Life as a film inundated with the Christmas spirit?

First of all, when the film was first released it did poorly at the box office. Perhaps all that sentimentality about personal sacrifice didn't go down so well with those who had just been making enormous sacrifices during the Second World War. It wasn't until the Sixties when after It's a Wonderful Life had been all over television did it suddenly achieve its current cult status. Sacrifice fit more snugly into the whole ethos of Kennedy's New Frontier and a newly born counter-culture that was waiting to hate that grubby capitalist Henry Potter. George Baily's selflessness could be explained away as a noble rebellion rather than something self-destructive. The ending could even be seen as a victory of small-town parochial humanism over urban greed and licentiousness.

To this day, I think It's a Wonderful Life is a fascinating, schizoid movie, whatever its status at this time of year. Geoff and I didn't set out to devalue it twenty years ago. As critics, we sought to understand and account for its appeal. Well, we got more than we bargained for when many of the movie's fans offered something a little rougher than holiday cheer and forgiveness. That's fine. People can continue to enjoy the movie every year as their family bonding experience. But don't try and sell me the idea that this is still an inspiring story. It's a Wonderful Life was always a dark American fable, a foreboding tragedy that somehow fantasized itself into the light.

-- December 23/10



Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning in Somewhere

In the opening moments of Sofia Coppola's new film, Somewhere, action star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) either spends his days and nights in L.A.'s famous Chateau Marmont just going through the motions (or driving his Ferrari – literally – in circles). As Coppola documents Marco's redundant daily routines of parties and strippers, the picture appears to be going through the motions as well. With Somewhere seemingly going nowhere, I was tempted to bail. Luckily, I didn't. For when Marco's ex-wife suddenly unloads their 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), on his doorstep, Marco awakens from his stupor and so does the movie. Somewhere turns into an affecting story of a father and daughter in the process of discovering each other and it has a bittersweet fragrance that lingers.

Unlike most directors, Coppola isn't driven by the conventions of narrative and plot. She has a keen interest instead in developing the story through a depiction of moods and unformed emotions. She feels her way through Somewhere as if trying to form a psychic communication with her actors as they stumble upon states of mind they didn't anticipate encountering. In Lost in Translation (2003), where Bill Murray played an actor cast adrift in Japan who then finds his bearings through a young American soul-mate (Scarlett Johansson), Coppola allowed that movie to reach its own equilibrium rather than impose stability on it. She does the same thing here. As Johnny and Cleo go through an itinerary of activities – from her skating class to their quick trip to Milan to attend a glitzy award show – Somewhere focuses on the emotional undercurrents of those moments as they morph into one another. She allows the viewer the opportunity to observe how Johnny and Cleo begin to connect to each other. Dorff, a remarkably self-effacing actor, plays Marco as a man who has no sense of how to be a father. Thankfully, the movie isn't out to redeem that part of him. Somewhere slowly illustrates that, through Marco's innate sense of decency coupled with his unresolved regrets for not being the father he could have been, he is able to discover new tentative ground in which to relate to her.

Elle Fanning

Elle Fanning's performance is singularly touching. Cleo is knowing without being self-consciously precocious. It's clear that both her folks have been more like children than adults in her life, so she parents herself (as well as them). But Somewhere lets us see how she's also learned how to read them, in all their bad habits, while getting whatever attention she can. Cleo's need for connection though is as equally strong as Johnny's which provides the emotional current that rides under the sad pining of this film. Whether playing Guitar Hero together, or sharing gelato in Milan, Cleo and Johnny connect only in those fleeting moments, moments which become abruptly lost. Coppola lets the transience of those states permeate the story so that we become moved in ways beyond words.

Director Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola is unusually gifted. When she tried to do conventional narrative, as in her debut, The Virgin Suicides (1999), or Marie Antoinette (2006), the follow-up to Lost in Translation, her intuitive powers became so blocked by the plot conventions so that the movies themselves evaporate in the memory. Unlike her father, Francis Ford Coppola, who could give operatic power to conventional narrative in The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II, she could only provide artful touches with little dramatic resonance. (Curiously, when her father reached outside convention in pictures like One From the Heart and Rumble Fish, his movies ended up drowning in poetic ersatz.)

While the atmosphere of Somewhere is nowhere near as exotic as Lost in Translation, the examination of dissolute people with no direction home is equally powerful and rewarding. Sofia Coppola's elliptical approach to melancholy, regret and alienation in Somewhere is surprisingly stirring. She's like Michelangelo Antonioni with a soul.

-- January 9/11

The Two Marks: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn & Money For Nothing

Mark Twain

If we needed further proof that the standards of literacy and education in North America have diminished rapidly, the recent decisions to censor both Mark Twain's classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Dire Strait's satirical song "Money For Nothing" now takes us to pretty embarrassing new depths. That these two events should bookend the current heated debate over the contribution of political rhetoric to the tragic Arizona shootings is hardly accidental. We seem to have lost touch with the true meaning of speech, so much so, that we can no longer tell the difference between what's morally offensive and what isn't.

In the case of Mark Twain's 1884 novel, a book written during the post-Civil War era, Twain was addressing the turbulent racial tensions that had escalated due to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation to end black slavery. He created a narrative about a young white American in conflict with his culture, one who sought a new form of freedom while journeying down the Mississippi River. Twain also introduced into the story the black character, Jim, a former slave who Finn befriends and learns from. In doing so, Twain sought to attack the growing problems of segregation, prejudice and the continued lynchings by having this main character refute the accepted norms. As Twain once said after the book was published, "A sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience." To achieve this, Twain had to write in the context of the times, from what he knew and the language that he heard, in order to create an authenticity of both character and place. One of the offensive words, of course, was the use of the word "nigger" which was common coin at that time. (Since Jim was also once a slave, he could hardly sound like a Harvard grad in the book either.) None of Twain's nuances seemed to get through to NewSouth Books, however, who have now published an edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the word "nigger" with "slave" and changes the character Injun' Joe's name to Indian Joe. Besides formalizing American slang in the case of Injun' Joe, which then unwittingly makes Indian Joe seem even more derogatory than Injun' Joe, the use of the word "slave" for "nigger" is hardly the proper term for a character who has just earned his freedom. Oh art, where is thy sting?

Suzanne La Rosa, of NewSouth Books, rationalized their decision to alter the text. "We saw the value in an edition that would help the works find new readers," she explained. "If the publication sparks good debate about how language impacts learning or about the nature of censorship or the way in which racial slurs exercise their baneful influence, then our mission in publishing this new edition of Twain's works will be more emphatically fulfilled." But how do you spark debate about language and censorship when you create an altered text that future generations will take as the authentic one? Where is the debate when you eliminate the very words that sparked the controversy in the first place? The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is already recognized as a moral work, one that pretty much demands that educators prepare their students for the harshness of the world it depicts. Unfortunately, bureaucratic censorship bodies chose to infantilize young students by not allowing informed dialogue to develop. Why? Because they are afraid of hurting people's feelings. But Twain's work is about feelings being hurt, about endured pain and the struggle to address and conquer injustice. How can students and readers confront that reality if these moral arbiters deny them the sometimes painful process of learning about it?

Mark Knopfler

As for the censoring of Dire Straits' "Money For Nothing," by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, because of the use of the word "faggot" in the lyrics, it's now evident that Americans aren't the only ones who have the market cornered on ignorance. The song, which first appeared on the band's 1985 album Brothers in Arms, is a satire of corporate rock told from the point of view of a working-class character who's watching music videos and making derogatory comments about them. According to the song's composer Mark Knopfler, it's also clear that the guy envies the lives of these pampered stars. "The singer in 'Money For Nothing' is a real ignoramus, hard-hat mentality –somebody who sees everything in financial terms," he told Rolling Stone in 1985. "I mean this guy has a grudging respect for rock stars. He sees it in terms of, well, that's not working and yet the guy's rich: that's a good scam. He isn't sneering." To achieve that, Knopfler wrote the song in the vernacular of the character he was portraying. The sentiment is hardly one that Knopfler himself is endorsing. But censors become self-righteous under the belief that they are protecting homosexuals from defamation without using any analytical skills to determine whether the song endorses anti-gay sentiments or not. They see the word and assume that they are silencing a homophobe.

It's chilling that, years after Lenny Bruce broke the language barrier by performing uncompromising satire, censorship bodies still have the pervasive powers that they do. But those powers reveal nothing learned, nothing new. They still have no grasp of the nature of parody, or even the function of irony. We live today in a climate of fear with a strong desire to repress what we don't care to understand. We may have access to all this information, but we have little desire to discern knowledge from it. Is it any wonder that rhetoric now fuels political debate? It's being used to incite buzz rather than thought. "There's a reason for unruliness in art," The Globe and Mail said in their editorial about the controversy. By airbrushing the unruliness from both Twain and Knopfler, they've not only neutered the power of art to say things we don't want to hear, they've deprived us of things that sometimes need to be said.

-- January 16/11

Dreams Are Nothing More Than Wishes: Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?

There couldn't be a more apt title for John Scheinfeld’s engaging documentary on the late singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson than Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? Despite the fact that Nilsson was both a prolific pop songwriter and a gifted tenor, perhaps what made Nilsson less than a household name was that he didn't comfortably fit into the niche of a traditional pop crooner. It also took Scheinfeld almost four years to get a distributor for his movie about him. But it’s definitely worth the wait.

Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? examines with a touching empathy the life of a pop artist whose pining voice cast a larger shadow on a tragic life. While he wrote songs that became hits for The Monkees (“Cuddly Toy”), Three Dog Night (“One”) and Blood, Sweat and Tears (“Without Her”), his only chart successes were other people’s tunes. “Everybody’s Talkin’” (made famous in Midnight Cowboy) was written by Fred Neil, while the Grammy-winning “Without You” was originally a track by the British rock group Badfinger. Nilsson never performed concert tours to promote his albums and his studio work itself became unique in that he did all his own overdubbed harmony vocals. With the help of top-notch players (from Little Feat’s Lowell George to keyboardist Nicky Hopkins), Nilsson became an insulated pop force, someone hidden away in the imagined world of a recording studio. From there, his lovely and quirky ballads and anthems could bring a youthful longing to unrequited wishes.

But, out in the world, he was on a destructive tear through nights of drunken escapades. Those endless nights would ultimately tear apart his greatest gift: his voice. By the time he died of a stroke in his fifties in January 1994, Nilsson barely registered in anyone’s consciousness. He had become a vague remembrance at best. If anything, pop music fans recalled his memorable evening in 1974 when he and John Lennon got tossed out of a nightclub after getting violently drunk and heckling the Smothers Brothers. Nilsson was more notorious as the lush who contributed to Lennon’s Lost Weekend than the talented vocalist who illustrated both a childlike innocence and a street-smart parodist. The Beatles connection loomed large in Nilsson’s early success, however, when they called Nilsson their “favourite American group” upon hearing his second album, Aerial Ballet (1968). Thanks to their valuable praise, Nilsson started to achieve some modicum of commercial recognition.

Scheinfeld tells the story of the rise and fall of this paradoxical figure in a traditional documentary style, but the arc of the story (with its tragic implications) isn’t morose. Quite the contrary, using audio tracks Nilsson recorded before his death to create notes for a possible memoir and interviews with associates and producers (including hilarious comments from Terry Gilliam, where Nilsson’s last songs were included in The Fisher King, producer Richard Perry, singer/songwriter Van Dyke Parks, Mickey Dolenz (of The Monkees), plus Nilsson's widow Una), Scheinfeld allows a sympathetic portrait to emerge of an artist whose failings did not destroy those who continued to love him. But Who is Harry Nilsson? also does full justice to his music. The film illuminates the unpredictable arc of a career of commercial pop that didn’t follow conventional pop rules. As far back as his debut album, Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967), with the opening track “1941,” Nilsson defied convention. In this autobiographical song about a father who leaves his son, the son runs away to join a circus, gets married, has a child and ends up committing the same sins as his father. The sadness in the song is submerged in a carnival melody that carries with it the faint reverberation of a childhood lost. Innocence is not only irreclaimable here, it can never be recovered. The wistful mood cast over “1941” saves it from becoming as treacly and self-conscious as Harry Chapin’s comparable “Cats in the Cradle.”

Who is Harry Nilsson? brings to our awareness a performer with a wide range of talents. He could create an intimately funny and moving chamber work with Randy Newman (Nilsson Sings Newman), write a children’s musical fairy tale that became a popular animated film (The Point), record the first – and arguably best – standards album (A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night from 1973) which used compositions from the American songbook to create a song cycle that told a story of a love affair found, lost, and then recovered. Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ to Him)? is a compassionate and funny portrait of a complex artist and man whose dreams were ultimately fulfilled even if his wishes couldn’t sustain him.

-- January 18/11    

Strange Things Happening Every Day: Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Graham Parker

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

"There's something about the gospel blues that's so deep the world can't stand it," gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe once pronounced. In the Forties, Tharpe was quite the fiery performer who could play a steel-bodied guitar like Chuck Berry and swing her hips like Elvis Presley. She often captured in her recordings the persuasive force of gospel blues to the degree that you could comprehend the power it held and why the world couldn't stand it. But, by 1944, Tharpe was herself wavering between the sins of the secular world and the promise of God's kingdom. So she gave voice to those struggles in her rollicking single, "Strange Things Happening Every Day":

On that great Judgment Day
When they drive them all away
There are strange things happening every day.

The view she offered us was no less apocalyptic than most gospel blues like Charley Patton's "High Water Everywhere," or Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night," only Tharpe sounded ecstatic. She told us that even if you could never fully comprehend God's will, it might still be experienced and accepted through the mystery of miracles and salvation. After all, strange things do happen to mankind every day:

If you want to view the crime
You must learn to quit your lyin'
There are strange things happening every day.

In Tharpe's song, she gleefully submits to the transcendence that faith offers her (where the skeptic might be interested only in the idea of transcendence). Some thirty years after Tharpe declared her salvation, an angry young singer-songwriter from Surrey, England, named Graham Parker questioned that outcome with the same zeal that Tharpe pronounced in hers. It was in a song called "Don't Ask Me Questions." In the mid-Seventies, Parker wrote and performed romantically tough R&B in an era that spawned punk. Partly inspired by Van Morrison's fiery work with Them, Parker married the fury of punk with the black soul music that ran in his veins. "Don't Ask Me Questions" was the concluding track of his phenomenal debut album, Howlin' Wind (1976), and it brought his collection of heart-on-the-sleeve barbed-wire rock & roll songs to a menacing conclusion.

"Don't Ask Me Questions" is about one fervent soul who rails at God's handiwork. The song opens with Parker's band, the Rumour, establishing a dramatic blues rhythm so startling, you're almost relieved when they shift into a bouncing and catchy ska arrangement. But Brinsley Schwarz's stinging guitar lines don't allow the listener any relief though its sound is both awesome and arresting. Parker rants his displeasure at God while the music tells us that Armageddon is not far behind. Schwarz's punctuated notes are so sharp that they sweep the singer along like a broom with teeth. The speaker, meanwhile, is disgusted because his faith in God has brought him into a hideous collusion with evil:

Well, I stand up for liberty
But I can't liberate
Pent up agony I see you take the first place
Well, who does this treachery?
I shout with bleeding hands
Is it you, or is it me?
I never will understand

Hey Lord, don't ask me questions.

The singer's complicity makes it painfully difficult for him to make sense of God's plan, to the extent that he finally sees Judgment Day. But he wishes he could avoid it:

I see the thousands screaming
Rushing for the cliffs
Just like lemmings into the sea
Who waves his mighty hand and breaks the precious rules
The same one must understand who wasted all these fools.

Parker sings like a man trapped under the moral weight of each line. If Tharpe is carried by the power of her revelation, Parker twists the vowels, even spits them out, never finding comfort. By the conclusion, Parker grunts and growls, periodically shouting disbelief, as the rhythm section carries his bleeding carcass off into the next life. Yet "Don't Ask Me Questions" comes at us with the same gospel force of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's tidal wave. Only Parker's song is an expression of total horror in which he raises urgent questions about what constitutes faith, about whether faith matters, and why that terrifying question is often etched in torment and human iniquity.

If Tharpe surrenders with passion to God's plan, Parker's defiance is equally forceful with its own spiritual transcendence. Like Herman Broder in Issac Bashevis Singer's novel, Enemies, A Love Story (1972), Parker needs God to exist in order to defy both him and our desperate need to have faith in a benign deity. "Don't Ask Me Questions" is as deeply felt a spiritual statement as any great gospel number even as it lays waste to the foundation of the music's own history. There are indeed strange things happening every day.

-- January 29/11

Heart & Soul: The Beaches of Agnes & Soul Power

The Beaches of Agnes

It's commonly held that January is a graveyard month for film releases. If Christmas supposedly brings us plenty of treats, the early New Year generally offers us no party favours. One look at the mean-spirited arrogance of The Green Hornet, or the tone-deaf comedy of Ron Howard's The Dilemma, you'd be tempted to give up movie-going for good. But we have also seen a surprising number of terrific movies open in Toronto in the last month. Besides Sofia Coppola's luminous Somewhere,  there is the bittersweet poignancy of Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist, the plaintive urgency of Patricio Guzmán's ongoing quest to come to terms with Chile's traumatic past in Nostalgia for the Light, plus Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve turning Wajdi Mouawad 's schematic play, Scorched, into a fever dream of familial conflict in Incendies. Movies rarely get much better than that diverse group. But just in case you are all caught up, there are some pictures currently out on DVD that you just might have missed.

In the opening moments of her movie, The Beaches of Agnes, director Agnes Varda tells us that she’s “playing the part of a little old lady.” But there is a fair bit of youthful playfulness still in evidence in this imaginative and affectionate memoir. Varda (Cleo From 5 to 7, Vagabond) is perhaps the least celebrated of the great French New Wave directors of the sixties and she is one of the only females in the group. She left dramatic narrative behind a while back, but in recent years, with The Gleaners and I (2000) and Cinevardaphoto (2004), Varda has been turning out fascinating and idiosyncratic film essays. In The Beaches of Agnes, Varda looks back on both her life and career by invoking it through the objects that symbolized the varied loves of her life. That love includes her relationship with director Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), as well as her intellectual friends from Paris’s Left Bank and the American counter-culture who she embraced when she began making movies in California in the Seventies.

What is so beautifully rendered in this picture is how Varda uncovers the pining that lies within our need to uncover indelibly powerful and lingering memories. But her remembrances here, as shaped through this experimental narrative, get stripped of both nostalgia and sentimentality. In The Beaches of Agnes, Varda has no illusions about the past, which she looks upon with whimsy and admiration. She experiments with the documentary form, too, in order to find some resonance, or to make some emotional sense of the earlier years of her life. In one scene, mirrors and models fill the sandy beaches as Varda walks among them as if strolling through her storybook past, grasping its full meaning for herself today.

The Beaches of Agnes often has the elliptical pleasures found in some of James Joyce's prose, where Varda, too, invents a language that's in flux, but best suited to comprehending her story. Perhaps the most touching of these moments is her treasured memories of Jacques Demy who she calls “the most cherished of the dead.” She revisits her memories of being a wartime exile to the coastal village of Sete, where she found fun and excitement and discovered herself as an artist. Since Varda began her career as a photographer before becoming a filmmaker, she draws on both talents to animate the still shots from her collection. She weaves them seamlessly throughout the footage that she gathers while walking through her collection of memories. Although The Beaches of Agnes tells a powerfully personal story, the love and compassion that seeps through its frames totally envelop the viewer in a larger grasp of a fulfilled life.

James Brown in Soul Power

Love also informs the marvelously entertaining concert picture Soul Power, which documents the great 3-day soul and jazz festival in Kinshasa, Zaire, held in conjunction with the Muhammad Ali/George Foreman fight back in 1974. This famous musical event was alluded to in the Academy Award-winning documentary When We Were Kings (1996), which dealt more specifically with the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Soul Power though is essentially all about how the concert was mounted and it features a number of spectacular performances by Hugh Masekela (who came up with the idea), James Brown and the JBs (whose song provides the title), Miriam Makeba, Bill Withers, The Spinners, BB King, and salsa singer Celia Cruz. There’s not a bum note in the picture.

In a sense, Soul Power resembles a black Woodstock (but without the mud and drugs). Woodstock, of course, was predominantly white (save Richie Havens, Sly & the Family Stone, Santana and Jimi Hendrix). Most of the black performers here were emboldened by the Civil Rights struggles in the post-assassination period of the early Seventies. They all bring a spellbinding vibrancy to their performances, an urgency to seize the time. Director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte (who edited When We Were Kings) rightly avoids doing present-day interviews that would provide hindsight. He sets out rather to capture the immediate excitement of that event, where the journey back to Africa was electric for a number of black performers then feeling displaced in their own homeland. (Many were visiting Africa for the first time.) While the show slowly builds to the electrifying climax of Brown’s explosive performance, the eclectic styles of the performers brings out the undercurrents of African culture often heard in American black R&B. We can hear the elements of the American blues in Makeba’s “Click Song,” while Masekela’s percolating jazz rhythms are right at home next to The Spinners. Bill Withers provides an ingenious fusion of country blues and soul balladry.

It took years for Soul Power to come to the screen because the financing company was mired in legal disputes (which didn’t get settled until When We Were Kings won its Oscar). The wait though has been well worth it. If you're looking for a pick-me-up picture to melt the winter doldrums, Soul Power is it.

-- February 5/11

Mirror Man - Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

Kenneth Bowser's absorbing documentary, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, examines the life and tragic death of a political troubadour whose music perfectly mirrored the rise and fall of the 
Sixties counter-culture. He does so by suggesting that Ochs, whose songs included "I Ain't Marching Anymore," "Draft Dodger Rag," "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" and "There But For Fortune," helped define the protest song movement. But the movie also shows how Ochs was undone by his affliction of manic depression that only escalated with the collapse of the left-wing idealism of the Sixties. Bowser's view isn't wrong, exactly, but there's an even larger theme that lies unexplored (even though it's touched on) throughout the movie. In telling the story of a mirror man, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune also suggests that, by being a mirror who reflects, Phil Ochs was more a reflection of his times rather than a man who could help define and shape them. When those times were over, the personality – and the man – disappeared.

The topical song culture of the Sixties, in which Ochs became an integral part, grew out of the Civil Rights and anti-war movement. The music of Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary and Odetta was literally ripped from the headlines of the daily news. Their songs, which spoke of injustice, racism and inequality, also carried the hope of building a new nation, one they felt lived up to the democratic principles that laid within the country's founding documents. Building on the spirit of Kennedy's New Frontier in 1960, the folk music movement, that percolated in the bohemian enclave of New York's Greenwich Village, dedicated itself to the idea that songs could actually change society. By drawing on the socialist realist legacy of the old left that included Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, they believed that the songs themselves took prominence not the singers. To this community of activists, the performer was merely an instrument who brought forth both change and political awareness through their music. In true socialist realist fashion, the artist was defined more by the composition rather than the other way around. While some folk artists, like Joan Baez and Dave Van Ronk, had strong enough personalities to prevent themselves from disappearing into their topical music (and Dylan simply cut himself loose from the ideological strait-jacket of the movement by embracing the Golden Calf of pop music where his individuality could thrive), Phil Ochs found himself a world – and a cause – that gave him a personality (and a purpose) that he might otherwise have lacked. As the movie finally reveals, too, his devotion to the cause obviously hid his personal problems. And when the movement died, so did Phil Ochs.

Watching some of the remarkable footage of Ochs that Bowser collects, which traces Ochs' sojourn to the Village in 1962 after becoming both politically and musically conscious during his time at Ohio State University, there's already an unsettling blankness in the face of this young buoyant idealist. Ochs appears lit up more by the environment than one who himself brightens it. While I've loved much of his music over the years; the deeply poignant "Crucifixion," his elegy for the assassinated John Kennedy; the reflective "Changes"; his cleverly funny "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends," which addressed social indifference; and "Pleasures of the Harbour," which was inspired by John Ford's stirring The Long Voyage Home (1940), there was an opaqueness already present in that lilting voice. While Ochs had, in his early days, a boyish handsomeness suggestive of one of his heroes James Dean (for whom he wrote "Jim Dean of Indiana"), and a disarming self-deprecating smile, he still seemed at a distance, almost unknowable. Despite his strong activism, where he fiercely dedicated himself against his country's foreign and domestic policies, there was a growing sense (long before his disillusionment after the 1968 riots in Chicago at the Democratic Convention) of a man consumed by the social and political history he was involved in. The era was filling a hole in his consciousness rather than illuminating a spirit.

Even his early idolization of Dylan, whom he castigated for abandoning the protest scene, feels more like envy than disappointment. (It lends credence to the view I've always held, too, that Dylan wrote his scathing "Positively 4th Street" for Ochs – especially with lines like "You gotta lot of nerve to say you've got a helping hand to lend/You just want to be on the side that's winning.") Since Dylan's songs, even his protest music, was always filled with the distinct presence of the singer who is performing them, Ochs always had to fall back on the electric current of the movement's determined belief to change the world to inspire himself.

Kenneth Bowser also raises the perceptive notion that Ochs's personality conflict reflected his split between two views of his country. On the one hand, Ochs was shaped by the rugged individualism of John Wayne (who starred in The Long Voyage Home), the strong frontier settler who could single-handedly save the nation, as well as being inspired by the collective power of topical music and left-wing activism. In Bowser's view, supported by interviews with Ochs' brother Michael, folk singer Judy Henske, and Ochs' wife, Alice, Phil Ochs reconciled those differences by playing the part of the American hero where the Vietnam war could be, what Michael Ochs calls, "the last dragon to be slain." With the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, the horrible violence of Chicago, and the advent of Richard Nixon, though, the sense of saving the nation seemed painfully lost. Instead of slaying the dragon, it was Ochs who was left defeated. (In his first album after the Chicago riots, Rehearsals for Retirement, he even features a tombstone on the cover for both Ochs and his country.)

During those desolate years, Bowser shows how Ochs took refuge in the other heroes of his youth like Elvis Presley, even donning the King's gold lame suit for a concert at Carnegie Hall which caused a minor riot from fans crying, "Bring back Phil Ochs." What Ochs was attempting to do, according to the film, was to wed the populism of Elvis, who had integrated black and white culture in his songs, to the political meaning of his pop ascension. In Ochs' view, which wasn't inaccurate, the left had abandoned the working class in America by embracing the freak culture of the Yippies of Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Richard Nixon therefore galvanized that abandoned and terrified class into his Silent Majority which would win the country back from the freaks. "We need to turn Elvis Presley into Che Guevara," Ochs yells at the protesting audience. But, of course, Ochs seems painfully unaware that a rigid ideologue like Che Guevara would have no doubt imprisoned the King of rock & roll for not being a fine example of the New Socialist Man.

Although Phil Ochs tried to later find purpose in the doomed socialist experiment of Salvador Allende's Chile, and inspiration from poet & singer Victor Jara (Chile's own Phil Ochs), Allende would be overthrown in the violent military coup in 1973 led by Augusto Pinochet and supported by the CIA. (Jara would also be brutally murdered by Pinochet's army.) The crushing weight of this defeat and the capitulation of that country's spirit was experienced by Ochs as personal body blows (which would even take a literal form when Ochs was mugged and brutally beaten while visiting Africa).

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune is ultimately unnerving because so much of the haunted defeats of the Sixties radical culture seem to be tattooed on Ochs' face, which loses its hopeful spark and eerily turns as sagging as Richard Nixon's visage. Bowser's film is also too caught up in the romantic ardor of the time. As absorbing and intelligent as the picture is, the documentary doesn't probe deep enough. For instance, I'm not sure if Bowser truly sees that Phil Ochs was in actuality a likable and talented cipher, an artist who created himself in the image of a movement and the events of its era.Which is why, even though he acknowledges Ochs' mental illness which led to his eventual suicide at his sister's house in 1976, Bowser also sees Ochs' death as symbolic of the death of the Sixties. While Bowser's view may bring comfort to those who weep at the mere mention of Berkeley (the same way, as critic Pauline Kael once remarked, a past generation of radicals once wept at the mention of Spain), that perspective unfortunately turns Ochs into a martyr of failed idealism rather than a tragic case of a troubled, talented rebel who lost his cause.

Most movies about idealistic teachers who inspire their charges are usually sappy (To Sir, With Love and Dead Poet’s Society), brutal (Lean On Me), or sometimes self-consciously instructive (Freedom Writers). In short, they remain painfully predictable. Rarely do they delve into the dynamics of the educational process, but instead fall back on the more inspirational side of learning life’s "important lessons." Put another way: People don’t learn in these pictures; they get ennobled. Entre les Murs (The Class) is that rare exception. It examines the complex dynamic that develops between an inspired teacher and a motley group of students.

Directed by Laurent Cantet (Time Out, Heading South), The Class, which won the prestigious 2008 Palme d’Or at Cannes and landed an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film that same year, finds its meaning in the spirit of improvisation. “I try to take a risk in reconstituting the incongruity of life,” Cantet told me when in Toronto promoting the picture. That incongruity is woven into the texture of the story. Loosely adapting a book by French school teacher Francois Begaudeau, Cantet illustrates how this dedicated, idealistic instructor tries to teach a diverse group of students from various social classes and cultures. The results are as diverse as the students themselves. Cantet transforms the material into an entertaining, yet incisive look at how the process of learning can be predicated by certain social and political realities.

In The Class, Begaudeau plays Francois Martin, a composite of himself, while Cantet casts a number of non-actors to play the students. What Cantet provides is a facsimile of documentary realism that still remains dramatically potent. But the book and subsequent script become simply a starting point for his story. Cantet, whose parents were also teachers, met Begaudeau at a radio interview when both men were doing promotional interviews in 2005. When he later read Begaudeau’s book, Cantet immediately admired his zeal.

Working with a group of unprofessional actors playing the students, Cantet grapples with pertinent issues that grow out of classroom discussions – including everything from interpreting The Diary of Anne Frank to arguments about rival football teams. While The Class doesn’t idealize the students, it doesn’t deify Francois either. When he attempts to confront the bad behaviour of two girls who are class representatives, he uses an insulting pejorative that has the opposite impact of what he intends. Another student, Wei, a Chinese teen, is one his best students. But his learning is affected by his self-effacing shyness and the tumult brought on by his mother (an illegal alien) facing deportation. Soulaymane (Franck Keita), from Mali, is a troubled and failing student who faces both expulsion and a father prepared to send him back to Africa. Throughout the film, Cantet reveals a probing intelligence that doesn’t settle for easy answers, or pose obvious resolutions. (Francois and his students don’t all reach a common end.) The Class is truly in a class of its own.

-- February 25/11

Master Shot: Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer

Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor

Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, based on Robert Harris's best-selling political thriller, The Ghost (2010), is a shrewd suspense drama which demonstrates that Polanski still has some clever tricks up his sleeve. And he's having a ball unveiling them. The plot revolves around a British ghost writer (Ewan McGregor), whose name we never know, who has been given the assignment of completing the memoirs of his country's former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Although his agent tells him it's the opportunity of a lifetime, the previous ghost, a former aide to the PM, recently turned up mysteriously dead on the beach. Hence, the current job opening. Making matters worse, on the day the new ghost arrives, Rycart (Robert Pugh), a former British foreign minister, accuses Lang of authorizing the illegal seizure of suspected terrorists and handing them over for torture by the CIA (which, according to Rycart, leaves the former leader open to charges of war crimes). While Lang seeks refuge to avoid the reach of the International Criminal Court (which turns out to be the U.S.), his ghost writer begins to uncover clues in the memoir left by his predecessor that might possibly implicate Lang.

Harris's novel is clearly inspired by the belief in many quarters (although not in mine) that former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair was a possible war criminal by falsely and deliberately leading his country into the war in Iraq. Whether or not you buy the argument, in the movie, Polanski shifts the focus of the story away from the political fracas and onto the writer. As he did in his adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden (1994), Polanski doesn't settle for simple moral and political condemnations. (Given the events of his personal life, he'd be a fool to try.) The Ghost Writer delves more succinctly (with dabs of sneaky humour) into the perspective of the ghost, a cipher who is attempting to become visible.

In most political thrillers, the stories are driven by a sole idealist who seeks to uncover a conspiracy of corruption that will redeem his idealism (or perhaps shatter it). But Polanski undercuts that cliché. McGregor's writer is not motivated by any political ideals. He is simply a writer-for-hire who nobody knows exists (perhaps like many nameless film directors who are relegated to be hacks). The scribe tries to uncover this conspiracy merely as a means to make himself matter. But nothing in this entertainingly original thriller goes as planned. Polanski is so relaxed and assured in his direction that he doesn't once turn the story into a typical suspense story. He even plays off the writer's innocuousness by depriving him of any kind of drive. (Polanski also means this literally. McGregor is often lead to clues by the GPS in his car suggesting that the story is always driving him.) When Polanski deals with the circumstances surrounding Adam Lang, too, he doesn't turn the former leader into an obvious weasel who needs to be snared. Pierce Brosnan's colourful performance makes it clear that, whatever one feels about Lang's decisions, he takes full responsibility for having made those choices.

Director Roman Polanski

The Ghost Writer never puts the squeeze on the audience. For instance, in one particularly subtle and funny scene, McGregor finds that a car may be following him. Conditioned to anticipate a car chase (as are we), he quickly hides on a side street and waits for it. The moments continue to pass quietly as this mysterious vehicle never arrives. Polanski plays shell games with what we have come to expect as well as what we don't see coming. The movie continually works beneath the surface of the plot which is mostly perfunctory. The actors are having a ripe good time as well. Ewan McGregor is perfectly cast as a man whose talents are only for adapting to his circumstances. (He's equally appealing as Jim Carrey's lover in the unfortunately little seen, I Love You, Phillip Morris.) Besides Brosnan's crafty depiction of Lang, Olivia Williams is also quite impressive as his wife Ruth.Williams brings a brittle and bitter fragility to the part that successfully disguises Ruth's cleverness (which ultimately fools the ghost). As Lang's assistant and mistress, Amelia, Kim Cattrall has a piquant eroticism that spices up the dryness in the material. The picture is also peppered with witty cameos by Timothy Hutton, as Lang's American lawyer, Tom Wilkinson, as a suspected CIA agent, and Jim Belushi, as the CEO of the publishing firm doing Lang's memoirs. Eli Wallach also turns up briefly as one of those nosy neighbours characteristic of almost every Polanski thriller from Repulsion (1965) to The Tenant (1976).

The Ghost Writer is the most quirky fun I've had at a Polanski movie since Rosemary's Baby (1968). In his early films, though, Polanski took a perverse delight in dabbling in darkness which often brought an unnecessary layer of creepiness to the material. As he's gotten older (especially since his darkly erotic 1992 comedy Bitter Moon), Polanski has accepted the macabre as part of life's paradoxes. The darkness now adds texture to his stories rather than being its driving force. You also could say that the ending of The Ghost Writer shares its sense of the absurd with John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Like Huston (who played the wealthy villain in Polanski's Chinatown), Roman Polanski is relaxed and assured here in a world view that is shadowed, but no longer squalid. He has finally developed a spry humanism to go with his gargoyle grin.

-- February 28/11

Adjusted: The Adjustment Bureau

Matt Damon and Emily Blunt

The Adjustment Bureau is not your ordinary mess of a movie. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, the plot deals with material pretty familiar from much of science-fiction. It delves into the idea of fate versus free will and whether or not our destiny is our own. But what looked from the trailers to be your typical paranoid thriller turns out to be essentially a romantic story. But the many styles at work in this film ultimately cancels the movie out. The Adjustment Bureau is too busy adjusting itself.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, a young rising star running for the Senate in New York, who keeps finding ways to mess up his career ambitions. On the night he loses the election, he happens upon Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men's room (hiding from security) while he's practicing his concession speech. Within seconds, he believes he's met the love of his life. Unfortunately, their brief tryst is interrupted by aides whisking him to the podium. But one day, he meets Elise again on a bus heading to work and he seeks to hook up with her. The problem however is that he soon encounters a bureau of men dressed in fedoras who work for "the Chairman." These dapper business folks zap people's memories to keep them on their destined path in life. Apparently, Norris and Elise were never supposed to meet again after that first encounter. The rest of the film features David trying to outwit the Bureau while the fedora brigade keeps trying to throw roadblocks in his path.

Writer and director George Nolfi (who co-wrote the last Bourne film) certainly provides a lighter romantic tone than one expects from this kind of material. But he can't develop anything substantial from it because it's built to choke off the very thing that keeps the movie interesting: It continually keeps its two stars apart. As it is, the story barely adds up. You're always left wondering why they just don't let him have the girl. What great destiny awaits them anyway besides big career moves? How is that ever a solid guarantee for a lifetime of bliss? Care to consider Charlie Sheen? Yet Damon and Blunt do manage to provide some lively romantic interplay despite the movie's efforts in tearing them apart. There's a casual spontaneity in their rapport that is truly engaging. In many ways, The Adjustment Bureau is a better version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) which also tried to get at the lingering regrets in romantic loss. But that film, with its labyrinth script, swallowed its conceits and laid bare a horribly sentimental story without giving us any clue as to what that couple ever meant to each other. Damon and Blunt, on the other hand, give this movie a core of romantic possibility. But that's about all it gets to achieve.

Matt Damon and John Slattery

As for the Bureau staff, John Slattery (of Mad Men) brings a suave humour to his part, but he's soon dumped for Terence Stamp who doesn't. Stamp looks so bored that he could be reading from a teleprompter. Anthony Mackie, who plays the one bureau drone who helps Norris and Elise get together, has reasons for doing so which are so obvious that you can't believe why none of his colleagues haven't figured him out.

Yet even with all its faults, The Adjustment Bureau has a look and a feel that isn't totally negligible. Nolfi creates some lovely visual gags where bureau members run through office doors in buildings that magically exit into the Statue of Liberty, or Yankee Stadium. He also brings a relaxed pace to the proceedings where he never forces the action despite the numerous chases. But he can't escape the trap of the story. In a picture about the randomness of the romantic impulse, an impulse that can never be willed or controlled, it seems ridiculous to have a bunch of guys in hats running around trying to control it. (Did anyone on the set also consider why women don't rate being in the bureau?)

The Adjustment Bureau is a peculiar picture that's bound to earn superlatives because of its choice to not be any one thing. In an age when many movies seem to come out of cookie cutters, The Adjustment Bureau seems to be discovering itself right before our eyes – even if it never really discovers itself.

-- March 4/11

Carrey's Triumph: I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)

Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor

Over the years, Jim Carrey has been the most exhausting of prodigious talents. From Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) to The Cable Guy (1996), Carrey could quickly wear a viewer down. With his vast collection of quick-witted jack-in-the-box character masks, he was the Tasmanian Devil of comic actors, spinning madly out of control and wiping out everything in his path. But he wasn't just some dervish comedian chewing the scenery. Carrey became the scenery. Often loudly dominating the action, he left his co-stars (especially poor Matthew Broderick in The Cable Guy) looking like they were desperately trying to escape the picture to avoid being run over.

To me, Jim Carrey always worked best served in small doses (as he was brilliantly on TV's In Living Color); or perhaps, had he been around in the Thirties, he would have been perfectly electrifying in those review skit comedies like The Big Broadcast of 1932. But most of his feature films were either broadly aggressive burlesque comedies, or painful attempts to make him into a normal guy (The Majestic); broaden his appeal (The Truman Show), or sanctimoniously tame him (Liar Liar). Except for his perfect pairing with Jeff Daniels in the hilarious Dumb and Dumber (1994), Jim Carrey has been an overheated comedy machine rather than an actor. But in his latest film, I Love You Phillip Morris, Carrey has finally found a part that integrates with perfect precision his multiple character roles into one coherently whole person. It's Carrey's triumph. Unfortunately, due to its subject matter, distributors have done their damnedest to make sure an audience never discovers it. Don't make their mistake.

I Love You Phillip Morris is an uneven, wobbly romantic comedy-drama based on the story of Steven Jay Russell (Jim Carrey), who was a con artist, impostor and multiple prison escapee during the 1980s and 1990s. He was also gay. During his time in prison, he fell in love with Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a fellow inmate, who eventually became a free man. In order to be with the one he loves, Russell finds numerous ingenious means to escape imprisonment. But while his spoken impulse is romantic, its borne out of any number of multiple personalities that he possesses. The cock-eyed punchline of the picture is that Phillip Morris has no clue who the hell is in love with him.

Based on Steve McVicker's 2003 book, I Love You Phillip Morris: A True Story of Life, Love, and Prison Breaks, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, begin the story with Russell on his death bed recounting the outrageous events that shaped his life. While they can't find a consistent tone in which to delve into those events (sometimes they perfectly subvert romantic comedy norms and at other moments they invoke the brazenly assaultive The Hangover), Carrey anchors the movie though to allow Ewan McGregor the space to clearly illustrate why Russell is so mad about him. A friend of mine who also has mixed feelings about the movie described Carrey's work in it as comparable to Lily Tomlin's one-woman role with multiple parts in Jane Wagner's The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1993). It's an apt comparison. Jim Carrey, like Tomlin's bag lady in Signs, gives Russell's multiple parts, with their distinct characteristics, a soulful continuity. Whether we see him initially as a happily married heterosexual police officer having a passionate relationship with his wife (Leslie Mann), or later, embracing his life as a newly aware gay man with a comic zeal, Carrey doesn't differentiate the changes in lifestyle and sexual orientation. Even as he pulls off the most appalling scams, Carrey shows us how Russell is at the mercy of his deepest appetites which have their primal roots in his being originally abandoned by his biological mother and given up for adoption. He goes through life continually craving something where he'll never find full satisfaction.

Ewan McGregor, with his self-deprecating shyness, is ideal casting as Phillip Morris (as he was earlier this year as the cipher ghost in Roman Polanski's terrific The Ghost Writer). McGregor plays Morris as someone equally touched as well as appalled and confused by becoming such a strongly desired object of Russell's passions. Where McGregor brings a cherubic glow to the movie, Carrey is all thin-skinned drive proving that no walls – real or imagined – will hold this man back.

After being screened at the 2009 Sundance Festival, I Love You Phillip Morris had the worst time getting an American distributor. Was it because Jim Carrey was playing a gay man? Or was it because he was playing a gay man who (being a con artist) wasn't a positive role model? (Apparently, the film also suffered some re-editing before Consolidated Pictures Group acquired the rights.) There has truly been a horrible lack of nerve in making people aware of the movie's existence. Although it currently has limited release, I Love You Phillip Morris seems to be still sneaking into towns. But maybe that's ironically fitting for Jim Carrey. For a guy who has had a career of continually kicking down front doors, maybe it takes his best work to find a way of sneaking around back.

-- March 11/11

Tangled Transgressions: Lantana (2001)

Anthony LaPaglia and Rachael Blake

The Australian psychological thriller Lantana, like Ang Lee's The Ice Storm (1997) and P. T. Anderson's Magnolia (1999), is a movie that examines the emotional torpor and malaise of an ensemble. But this drama by director Ray Lawrence (Bliss) and screenwriter Andrew Bovell (based on his play Speaking in Tongues) doesn't make its individuals such easy targets of scorn and moral judgment (like The Ice Storm). It doesn't provide condescending views of spiritual bankruptcy either (as did Magnolia). Lantana, which is named for a spiky weed that covers Australia, is thought-out in more dramatically compelling and complex ways than Magnolia. It develops the connections between these disparate characters rather than imposing those connections for the sake of its own conceits.

Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) is an unhappily married detective who is having an affair with Jane (Rachael Blake), a recently divorced woman. Leon's wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), is seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), because she suspects that Leon is seeing someone else. Dr. Somers, meanwhile, is still recovering from the shock of the murder of her daughter. She even has her own suspicions that her emotionally remote husband (Geoffrey Rush) is being unfaithful. The only happy couple appears to be the unemployed but genial Nik (Vince Colosimo) and his sturdy wife Paula (Daniela Farinacci). But when a disappearance and possible murder takes place, everyone's life becomes affected and altered.

Lantana is a delicately tangled drama about how false assumptions get built on mistrust. But what helps unravel the labyrinth structure of the story is the fascinating unpredictable shifts of emotion in the actors. Anthony LaPaglia has never before shown the raging emotions, or the deep regret, that's buried under his beefiness. Rachael Blake is sensually captivating as an emotionally-scarred woman who feels debauched and in desperate need of human contact. Kerry Armstrong plunges into the humiliating rage of a wife betrayed by her husband's lack of faith in their marriage. Geoffrey Rush, then fresh from his astonishing work in Quills (2000) and The Tailor of Panama (2001), is both enigmatic and riveting. Only Barbara Hershey's therapist appears to be drawn too enigmatically which leaves her performance seeming relatively opaque.

While Lantana may seem to some a little too cleverly woven together (the chances of these characters all meeting shows a bit of writer's convenience), the film still effectively draws one into the murky waters of human transgression.

-- March 12/11

Noir Lite: Neil Burger's Limitless

Bradley Cooper and Abbie Cornish

There are clever visual bits littered throughout Neil Burger's sunlit noir Limitless, but the experience is noir lite. Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is an unemployed aspiring writer who is mired in inertia. He can't write a word, can't hold onto his girl (Abbie Cornish), and can't even comb his hair. When his former brother-in-law introduces him to an experimental drug NZT (before being murdered for possessing it), Eddie discovers easy access to every square inch of his brain. He recalls everything he's read, learns every language he hears, becomes a piano prodigy, and – don't hold your breath – wins back his girl. He also learns to comb his hair. Soon Eddie becomes a genius in the world of high finance, too, drawing the attention of business mogul Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro). Van Loon sees Eddie as a potential means to making a ton of cash. But NZT also has its downside for Eddie, giving him headaches, lost moments, forgotten homicides, attracting Russian mobsters and facing a dwindling supply of pills to keep him hopping. Luckily, he finds a way to keep his luck running and his ambitions fulfilled.

It's daring to set a film noir drama almost entirely in the daytime and Burger provides a clever subtext of linking the use of drugs to the world of high finance (high, or course, being the operative word). But Limitless still ends up being a rather limited drama. As he proved though in his dreamy and seductive The Illusionist (2006), Burger knows how to think with his eyes. In Limitless, however, it's his brain that fails him. Most good noirs show how good men make bad choices by giving in to desires that destroy their lives. Their lives, in fact, spiral downward in their attempt to succeed. Limitless shows Eddie instead creating a lot of wreckage while becoming upwardly mobile, but he's never left accountable for it. Eddie's insider trading and metaphysical manner of cheating his way to the top is presented as something victorious.

Perhaps because Neil Burger loves the ephemeral flow of images, he also falls too much in love with the drug itself. Unlike Christopher Nolan in Inception, Burger knows how to magically pull us inside altered states of mind. But like Inception, the story arc is ridiculous. Nolan's picture presented his hero's task of aiding a predatory businessman gain full control in a turf war as something affirmative rather than highly questionable. Limitless grooves so much on Eddie's drug addiction that it celebrates his transformation into top Yuppie on the pile.

Despite all the dazzling action surrounding Bradley Cooper, his performance is rather colourless. There's little at stake in Eddie anyway because Cooper simply turns him from being a bland loser into a bland shark. Abbie Cornish is also no more than a hallucination with little opportunity to add much to the movie. (She seems to welcome Eddie back because he dresses better.) As for De Niro, his presence adds some weight but little imagination. Given the urgency of his need to find out what Eddie knows, he seems rather indifferent to Eddie's withdrawal spells.

Limitless is probably getting so many positive reviews because, like The Adjustment Bureau, it gives off the air of doing something new. But it's a hollow pastiche. Light on its toes. Empty in its

-- March 18/11

Back to Life: The Soloist (2009)

Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.

I was just about ready to give up on Jamie Foxx. Everything he'd done since his rightly celebrated turn as Ray Charles was utterly forgettable. It’s not that he'd been necessarily giving bad performances, but that his acting was beginning to resemble the act of doing chores. For example, while playing a composite of Berry Gordy in Dreamgirls (2006), he was so dull that it was hard to believe that the founder of the exuberant Motown Records could have been so dour. Portraying the homeless schizophrenic musician Nathaniel Ayers in The Soloist, however, brought Jamie Foxx back to life.

The Soloist, in a sense, also came back from the dead. Two years ago, the film found itself held up from theatrical release for a considerable period leaving the impression that it was a dud. (The inspirational trailer didn’t win the movie any favours either.) Despite the odds against it, however, The Soloist isn’t half bad. Directed by the talented Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement), the picture is based on Los Angeles Times’ journalist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), who one day comes across Ayers playing a two-string violin for small change. During a brief exchange, Ayers tells Lopez in a verbal spree that he once attended Julliard. Sensing a lifestyle story, Lopez follows up Ayers’ claim and discovers that he had indeed attended the prestigious music school. But he dropped out due to mental illness. While doing the story, though, he befriends Ayers with the hope of restoring him. Of course, Lopez, who was once married to his editor (Catherine Keener), has problems of his own sustaining passion in his life. So the actions he takes to help Ayers (which include getting him off the street, music lessons and a recital) are partly attempts to find a reborn life for himself.

While The Soloist might fall into the camp of being a treadworn inspirational story, in many ways, it’s a different kind – one with a melancholic tinge. Former Salon movie critic Stephanie Zacharek, I think, nailed the movie’s theme when she wrote that “the redemption that director Joe Wright and his actors go for in The Soloist is the thorny kind, the sort that means acknowledging limitations instead of blithely believing you can break through them.” It’s within those limitations that the movie works quite well. Lopez discovers that his friendship can’t cure what ails Ayers, but it does provide enough stability to allow for a state of grace. And The Soloist, at its best, achieves grace.

What makes Foxx’s performance so remarkable is that he doesn’t make the mistake that Dustin Hoffman made in Rain Man (1988), or that Robert de Niro repeated in Awakenings (1990), and that Sean Penn inflicted on us in I Am Sam (2001). Foxx doesn’t turn Ayers' disability into the character; instead, he finds the character within the disability. Ayers’ desire to play music shines through despite his problems finding a comfortable place for himself in the world. While Downey is in good form as Lopez, the part doesn’t really bring out anything new or fresh in his acting. Lopez is merely the catalyst that returns Ayers to music, but his part is mostly tangential. The Soloist also suffers from a number of digressions including a sub-plot about the death of newspapers in an electronic age (something that also went nowhere in 2009's State of Play). There’s no follow-through either in Wright’s examination of Lopez and his ex-wife’s relationship. The delay in the film’s release likely led to hasty last minute cuts which possibly hampered the coherence of some of the plot.

Despite its flaws, though, The Soloist is a pretty even-tempered work by a director who has a real flair for dramatic nuance. Despite the melodramatic turn at the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice (2005), I preferred his version to the over-celebrated one made popular by A&E. Atonement (2007) was an astonishingly sustained work about regret and forgiveness. The Soloist is less risky. Doing an adaptation of Lopez’s book, The Soloist: A Lost Dream, and Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music (Putnam, 2008), is not quite the same as adapting Jane Austen, or Ian McEwen. But Joe Wright still brings a calm intelligence to this work. He clearly finds substance and entertainment mutually compatible.

-- March 23/11

Overkill: Joe Wright's Hanna

Saoirse Ronan as Hanna

Director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) might display an abundance of skill in his new espionage action adventure thriller Hanna, but there is little in the way of sense and sensibility. Working from a script by Seth Lochhead and David Farr, Wright abandons the lyricism of his earlier work for the steely visceral rush of pictures like The Professional, La Femme Nikita and Run Lola Run. But he goes at this pulpy material with such earnest intent that the movie collapses under the weight of its own artful seriousness.

The story, which has the fairy-tale overtones of Little Red Riding Hood and (more explicitly) those of Grimm's, is about the coming of age of a teenage killing machine. The 16-year-old Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) lives alone with her ex-CIA father (Eric Bana) in the remote mountains and forests of Finland. While he trains her to kill wildlife to survive, perform martial arts for self-protection, and to memorize languages for adaptability, we soon learn that this hermetic education is also to prepare her to go out into the world and kill his former CIA handler Marissa (Cate Blanchett). Years earlier, when he tried to flee the Company, Marissa took aim to stop him and killed his wife and Hanna's mother. When Hanna finally sets out to seek vengeance, she ultimately intends to lock horns with her father's nemesis.

From the opening frames where Hanna, with almost expert rigor, kills an elk, the movie puts a grip on you. But Wright's technical proficiency doesn't have the emotional breadth of the Bourne films, or the techno-punk nihilism of Luc Besson. While Hanna does have its moments of humour (when she is discovering household technology in a Moroccan village, or going medieval on a hapless young lad who wants to kiss her), there's really no playfulness in the work. Everything is as matter-of-fact as Hanna's mission. Given the movie's technical wizardry and the Chemical Brothers' relentlessly pounding electronic score, the attempts at fun end up inadvertently turning into camp instead.

Cate Blanchett

For instance, Hanna's friendship with an itinerant contemporary hippie family (led by Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng) roaming through Morocco seems to exist in another galaxy. Besides not recognizing that Hanna has lived a life without much human contact, their pop culture soaked daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden of Tamara Drewe) is oblivious to Hanna's near psychotic remoteness. If Hanna is dressed to kill; Sophie is in training to host eTalk. It also makes no sense for Hanna to immediately take up with this openly gabby clan especially given her innate suspiciousness. Wright also tries to provide the movie with cartoon villains working for Marissa who possess touches of the baroque, but their Euro-trash embellishments are awkwardly silly rather than blissfully sinister.

As for the actors, well, for once, Eric Bana is the least of a movie's problems. While he still has his characteristic blandness, he actually grounds Hanna in the real world, giving his lines lovely touches of parental regret. Cate Blanchett, on the other hand, goes to ham heaven. Blanchett is the movie's equivalent of the Big Bad Wolf, or wicked stepmother (take your pick). But she doesn't blow down any houses, only her credibility. Looking like Lee Grant's Dragon Lady attorney from Albert Brooks' comedy, Defending Your Life, Blanchett can't help turning her scenes into laughable hokum. Saoirse Ronan, who was astonishingly vivid in Wright's Atonement (as well as in Gillian Armstrong's little-seen Death Defying Acts) can't do much playing a cipher in motion. As in The Lovely Bones, she becomes a pawn of the film's overwrought conception rather than a dramatic character. But because she has such a strong camera presence, Ronan still holds the film together even if it's only in the most arbitrary way.

I keep reading reviews saying that Hanna is a thinking-man's action picture. But what is there to think about? Like most action fare, Hanna's depth is purely superficial. The adversarial pairing of the young female assassin, who is the child without a childhood, and the childless woman, who has denied her inner child, is textbook genre psychology rather than good exciting drama. The inventive blending of genre conventions that Joe Wright brought to Pride and Prejudice, Atonement and (the flawed) The Soloist is pared down in Hanna to simple precision. Consider this a fun machine rather than a thriller that is fun.

-- April 8/11

Love and Fame: Country Strong

Just about the easiest thing to do is to create melodrama out of country music. It's built right into the songs. Breaking hearts, lost families and wounded pride are about as common to the genre as the soft crying twang of a steel guitar. In Country Strong, which was just released on DVD earlier this week, writer/director Shana Feste (The Greatest) tells a typical story of the price of love and fame in the world of country music, but she distills the melodrama of its tabloid fascination. Feste instead develops an openly relaxed approach to the material which brings us closer to the essence of the music and how its stars cope with the cynicism of the industry.

The movie begins as country star Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is recovering in a rehab clinic from alcohol abuse which led to her falling off stage during a show in Texas and having a miscarriage. While drying out, she is being cared for by Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a country singer who wants no part of stardom. But he loves both her and her music, which leads to them carrying on an affair. Her husband, James Canter (Tim McGraw), meanwhile wants her out of rehab so that she can pick up her career. So he books her into a three-show tour which includes an opening act featuring both Beau and a young, aspiring singer, Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). The tour not only unravels Kelly's own demons (including the dissolution of her pained marriage), but also the end of her affair with Beau who becomes romantically drawn to Chiles, the talented ingénue who hasn't yet been corrupted by the industry.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Kelly Canter 

While Country Strong borrows bits and pieces of plotting from Intermezzo, All About Eve and Coal Miner's Daughter, Shana Feste treats the plot more as stitching. She allows the actors room to intuitively play into each others' rhythms the way musicians often do while improvising on a song. Besides having a good strong country voice, Gwyneth Paltrow has been showing some toughness in recent performances (especially her remarkably brittle turn in James Gray's unappreciated Two Lovers). Drawing a little on both the fragile careers of Mindy McCready and Brittany Spears, Paltrow clings to her songs as if they were lifeboats. Knowing that she's losing Beau (and has lost the blinding admiration of her manager husband due to the miscarriage), when she sings "Coming Home," it's clear that home is no longer the refuge it once was. Home doesn't even exist anymore. Paltrow is completely convincing playing an artist whose spirit is in synch with her work even if her life isn't.

Garrett Hedlund has the amiably relaxed presence – both as an actor and singer – as Kris Kristofferson. He's a remarkably self-effacing performer playing a country artist always in search of the soul of the music. (He even wishes the American national anthem was Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried.") Country singer and actor Tim McGraw, who played Hedlund's abusive father in the film version of Friday Night Lights (2004), gives a beautifully unadorned performance. James Cantor is a man who is not only losing his wife, but also his image of who he thought she was. McGraw doesn't need to sing in Country Strong because his performance plays like a sombre ballad of regret and loss.

Tim McGraw as James Cantor

Leighton Meester, who has some of the ornate beauty of Ronee Blakley combined with the spry spunk of Winona Ryder, provides some unexpected dimensions to Chiles' ambitions. Unlike the young careerist in All About Eve, Chiles has a complete lack of guile. Her innocence is fueled mostly by a need to escape the life she came from into a career that can transform her. Both Beau and Kelly also come to see her not so much as a rival, or a naive talent to be corrupted, but as a woman who could have both a great commercial career and a stable life. If Beau can't live with the fickle fortunes of the business (and Kelly was being destroyed by it), Chiles can emerge possibly unscathed. Part of the charm of Country Strong is that it doesn't suggest that because you want to be a commercial artist, it automatically means that you've lost your street cred.

When Country Strong was released theatrically last January (usually the kiss of death for most movies), it drew a number of hostile reviews. While the plot does nothing new, the music and performances are both engaging and touching. So I was surprised by the hostility of the response. Perhaps because Shana Feste thoughtfully examines an ambivalence in the country music world between a love of your art and the fame that can taint it, it perhaps confused some writers who spent more time slamming the melodramatic tropes of the plot.

For one thing, the ending, in particular, is a big mistake. Obviously test market screenings demanded something more upbeat than the story demanded. But, fortunately, the original deleted ending (which makes much more dramatic sense to the story) is featured as an extra on the disc. In dramatic terms, Country Strong is mostly carried along by the casual rhythms of its songs just as Jerry Schatzberg's Honeysuckle Rose (1980) was with Willie Nelson's tunes. In fact, in Country Strong, along with Willie Nelson, you can feel the abiding spirit of Loretta Lynn, Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings and Carrie Underwood. At its best, Country Strong not only pays homage to their legacies, it also tries to fulfill them.

-- April 16/11

A Better Scream: The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981)

John Travolta in Blow Out 

Contrary to popular opinion, there have been far too few good political conspiracy thrillers over the years. Most, like The Parallax View (1974), are so content creating faceless and sinister cabals that we become helpless pawns in a predetermined chess match. While there have been some imaginative and daring experiments like John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962), or fast-paced exciting melodramas like Costa-Gavras' Z (1969), none have had the prescience and the personal obsession of Brian De Palma's consummate thriller Blow Out (1981). Released today by Criterion (on both regular and Blu-ray DVD), in a sparkling new digital transfer supervised by the director, Blow Out is the sharpest, most devastating, American conspiracy picture. It's also one that audiences and critics either ignored (or dismissed) when it was first released thirty years ago.

Although Brian De Palma was part of the American film renaissance of the Seventies, which brought us such gifted and original directors as Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver), Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), Hal Ashby (The Landlord, Shampoo), Francis Coppola (The Godfather I & II), Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), he never quite achieved the critical (or audience) acclaim that his peers did. People weren't exactly indifferent to him. Often he would inspire scorn. Even violence. When I took a good friend on opening night to see Blow Out, at its conclusion, when I asked him what he thought, he took a swing at me. Luckily, I was quick to duck.

Director Brian De Palma

Throughout his career, De Palma has had to do some ducking of his own. From his earliest underground political and social satires (Greetings, Hi Mom!) to his expressionistic horror thrillers (Carrie, The Fury) and the sexual reveries (Dressed to Kill), De Palma (unlike his contemporaries) presented himself sardonically as an ironist. Where Martin Scorsese treated violent dramatic subjects with a reverence for the art form, De Palma chose a more irreverent attitude. He treated film history as a form of farce pulling the rug out from under our more hopeful expectations. But unlike Michael Haneke (Caché), who plays intellectual abstract games with the audience (while emotionally distancing the viewer), De Palma brought a sweeping emotional intensity to his work that seductively drew you in. When he sprang sublime jokes in the climax, he cleverly implicated us in our very basic desire to watch, to indulge our forbidden desires.

Like Hitchcock before him, De Palma uses voyeurism as a dramatic strategy, not an end game. But where Hitchcock employed that strategy to provide sophisticated thrills (ones that ultimately made him a popular master of suspense), De Palma went deeper and further into darker considerations of what constitutes suspenseful entertainment and what are its costs. Not a recipe for box office (or critical) success. When he made Blow Out, De Palma had been already developing a suspense style that was both cheeky and riveting. Sometimes the horror would be oddly funny (which would only intensify the suspense). Sometimes the comedy only made the suspense more heart-stopping. In Blow Out, he fused the underground political attitudes of his early work with the horror genre techniques he'd been perfecting in Carrie, The Fury and Dressed to Kill. In doing so, he created an explosively cunning dramatic style that stripped away the irony from his intent and questioned with frank honesty a key romantic impulse; one where the artist believes he can use the technology of his craft to undo a political crime.

Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound-effects man who works on exploitation horror movies. One evening, he ventures out to record fresh sounds for his latest picture. While doing so, he records the sound of a car going off a bridge and careening into a small lake. Diving in, he rescues Sally (Nancy Allen), a woman trapped in the vehicle. But the male driver is already dead. After taking her to the hospital, he discovers that the man was Governor McRyan, a leading candidate for President. Though the Governor's aides convince Jack to keep quiet about the presence of the lady (to protect the Governor's honour with his family), he soon discovers that this was no accident. He hears a sound on his tape that suggests that the tire was shot out by a gunman. Instead of a blow-out, he suspects a political assassination of a popular candidate. Jack soon employs Sally to help him uncover the conspiracy, while Burke (John Lithgow), the hired shooter, sets out to make Jack appear like a crank and kill Sally as part of a series of sex slayings to tie up all the loose ends and preserve the crime.

Blow Out arrived shortly after the election of Ronald Reagan as President. While the texture of the story is filled with tissue samples of the Kennedy assassination, Chappaquiddick, Watergate, the Zapruder film, the tone of the film anticipates more the political inertia of the coming Reagan era. When Jack tries to get investigators involved in using his tapes to uncover the crime, the authorities are more interested in preserving the memory of the fallen Governor than bringing to justice the people who murdered him. The news networks are more concerned with the sensational side of Jack's story rather than the evidence and what it reveals about the current state of the country. Blow Out anticipated a decade where Americans began to sleepwalk through their history along with a President who took refuge in nostalgia.

Nancy Allen in Blow Out

But De Palma isn't just indicting his country's passivity in Blow Out, he's also pointing the finger at himself. It's no accident that the movie takes place in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the United States as well as that of the director. In this movie, De Palma is asking serious questions about what genre techniques are for and what do they ultimately mean. Blow Out opens with a clip from Co-Ed Frenzy, the schlocky sex-horror picture that Jack is working on, where sex and murder are nothing more than the familiar conditioned shocks of a tired genre. De Palma demonstrates how our own Pavlovian response to this cheesy horror flick is no different than that of his unquestioning nation (a nation acquiescing to the pandering news media). He portrays Jack as a victim of his own fantasy. Resembling James Stewart's photographer in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), Jack hides within his craft. In Rear Window, Stewart (who is injured and incapacitated in a wheelchair) distances himself from the intimacy of his relationship with Grace Kelly by taking cover gazing through the lens of his camera and watching his neighbours. When he thinks one of them has murdered his wife, he gets involved by trying to solve it. But it's Grace Kelly who takes the physical risks in uncovering the evidence of the crime. Since Stewart is physically crippled, though, we can still conveniently sympathize with his passivity. But Jack Terry isn't in a wheelchair. When he lets Sally take the risks, as he hides behind his wire and headset, his fate has far darker consequences than James Stewart's in Rear Window.

Despite Jack's flaws, though, John Travolta imbues him with such casual warmth and intensity that he floods the screen with empathy. It's clearly his strongest screen work. Nancy Allen, who was De Palma's wife at the time (and who had acted opposite Travolta in Carrie), brings a softly seductive openness to her easily corruptible call girl. You understand immediately why Jack is taken with her; her escapist enthusiasm is the other side of the coin to Jack's cloistered cynicism. John Lithgow is eerily effective as the clean-up man, the psychopath who spouts rationalizations out of G. Gordon Liddy. He's Jack's shadow side using his craft to cover up the crime. And he's just as detail oriented. When Burke discovers at one point that he has time to kill before meeting his intended victim, he casually decides to kill someone with his free time, adding to his rising body count.

James Stewart in Rear Window

The Kennedy assassination is the perfect crime to appeal to Brian De Palma – both politically and aesthetically. From an artist's view, you have multiple perspectives of a killing, seen by witnesses, an unwitting filmmaker (Abraham Zapruder trying out his new 8mm camera), and a television news media discovering how much their medium has visually dramatic possibilities. We get all this information, all these conflicting views, but we still seem uncertain as to what is really the truth. Blow Out is also about movies. De Palma's idea is inspired by both Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), where a photographer unwittingly photographs a murder; and Francis Coppola's The Conversation (1974), which stars Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert who secretly records a conversation that may precipitate a murder. But Blow-Up, in the classically glacial style of its director, imposes its ennui on the folks of swinging London. They move, as British writer Paul Coates once described, "like the drowned under water." In The Conversation, Gene Hackman's skilfully adroit performance simply reveals a man who's so hermetic that he has no inner life to expose. But Blow Out has a boldly colourful vibrancy where, at the centre of the film, there's a man whose world is shaped only by his art. Vilmos Zsigmond's night shade cinematography, which uses bold pastel colours – reds, whites and blues – has the city rain splatter those colours across windows, creating a nightmarish storybook of the country's legacy. (At one point, Jack's car careens into a window display of Nathan Hale featuring Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.")

The picture's unnerving and uncompromising conclusion no doubt led to my friend needing to take a shot at me. It also doomed the film. But the ending is key to understanding the urgency of the picture. The opening moments of Blow Out allowed us to laugh at the recognizable genre clichés indulged in Co-ed Frenzy. Murder has become a predictable component of screen entertainment. It doesn't exact a price. But part of Jack's goal throughout the movie was to find a better murder scream to authenticate a woman's death in Co-ed Frenzy. He does find that better scream. It comes however at a terrible human cost. Murder soon recovers its true potency, its pure horror, rather than remaining a horror movie trope. Writing in Rolling Stone when Blow Out was released, critic Michael Sragow (who contributes a new essay on the film in the DVD booklet) remarked, "The movie starts out like a game of 'What's wrong with this picture?' and then adds another game: 'What's wrong with this sound?' Then it dares to ask the most puzzling question of all: 'What's wrong with this country?'" So what happened in the years that followed? The country continued to sleep. Blow Out is a passionate wake-up call.

-- April 26/11

Making it Real: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, The Mothers of Bedford, No Entry No Exit, Mama Africa, You've Been Trumped

One of the trickier aspects for viewing documentaries is always retaining your critical perspective. While that's relatively easy to do when watching dramatic films (since they are fiction), it's more difficult when watching a movie that purports to be depicting reality. You try to trust that the director, in using their subjective voice, is open to the possibilities of being surprised by their subject; or perhaps, even have their mind changed during the process of shooting their picture. But what about the audience? Does it wish to have its mind changed? Do critics for that matter? In that sense, the onus on the reviewer to be clearheaded is even greater.You also have to be reasonably well-informed to know whether the filmmaker is honestly seeking the truth behind their chosen subject, or whether there is a whole other purpose at work. The role of the critic then becomes quite substantial because the easiest thing for a documentary director to do is to pander to the established views of his/her audience. Telling people what to think is a lot less complicated than showing people how to think. It also fits more snugly into the marketing end of motion pictures which today has become so much more pervasive in shaping public opinion (and making critics seem irrelevant).

This dilemma came to mind while I was watching Göran Hugo Olsson's The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 which gathered archival footage shot by Swedish Public Television during the years when the Black Power movement in the United States shifted from Martin Luther King Jr.'s program of non-violent resistance to radical revolutionary politics. Olsson assembles a fascinating collection of clips, interviews and news reports featuring some of the key figures in that story including the rise of Stokely Carmichael, the emergence of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, with Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver, the incarceration of Communist activist professor Angela Davis, right up to the drug epidemic rising in the poor black neighbourhoods in the mid-seventies. The footage is edited in order to create a chronology while Olsson provides contemporary voice-overs to comment on the material we're watching. The individuals included are Bobby Seale, Harry Belafonte, Professor Robin D. G. Kelley, Talib Kweli and Sonia Sanchez. But where I thought Olsson might employ these voices in order to provide a deeper, more honest perspective on that period, as seen from hindsight, he chose instead to perpetuate the political mythology of all the key figures. The original Swedish reporters from the Seventies maybe can't be blamed for being outsiders to American culture, where through their naïveté they made certain assumptions about the components of the Civil Rights struggle. But Olsson can certainly be held accountable for not correcting it.

The Black Panther Party Breakfast for Children program

For instance, the general thesis of The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 appears to be that the U.S. government declared war on the Civil Rights movement leading to King's assassination and then falsely persecuted his militant inheritors like Carmichael, Newton, Cleaver and Davis. Ultimately, the authorities, according to Olsson, flooded the black communities with drugs in order to destroy the black leadership and render the populace docile and dependent. While that conforms to the radical left viewpoint on that period (and it isn't entirely inaccurate), Olsson leaves out a number of inconvenient little realities to prop it up. When he informs us that Eldridge Cleaver flees America for exile in Algeria, for instance, Olsson makes it appear that Cleaver is simply escaping the oppressive U.S. government regime. He fails to tell us that Cleaver had jumped bail after being charged in a shootout with police and then fled to Algeria. When he quotes J. Edgar Hoover saying that the Black Panther Party's Breakfast for Children program is the biggest threat to America, he's being patently dishonest. What Hoover said was that The Black Panther Party was the biggest threat because they were engaging in armed conflict. But changing the context of Hoover's remark makes the conspiracy all the more palpable when you enhance his already raging paranoia by making it look like he doesn't want starving kids to eat.

Stokely Carmichael interviewing his mother

Speaking of the Breakfast for Children program, couldn't one of the Swedish journalists have asked the Panthers questions about why, as these hungry children were being fed, they were also being indoctrinated in party ideology? We can certainly see it in the footage they've gathered. As for the later drug epidemic, it's a shame that Olsson didn't do his homework and include the unsettling irony that Huey Newton had become a drug addict in the mid-Seventies who brutalized his own associates and extorted from the black community as well as later dealing dope? (It's also sad that Bobby Seale, in nostalgically looking back, fails to tells us that he had to flee the Bay area in fear of his life after being violently assaulted by Newton.) Olsson includes instead (for cheap laughs) an interview shot in the Seventies with an editor of TV Guide who questions the bias of the Swedish journalists in their coverage. While the editor raises honest questions to be answered, Olsson instead inserts it for ridicule (as if anyone associated with TV Guide would have a worthwhile opinion on politics.)

Despite its doctrinaire approach, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 still has some powerful and memorable moments. There's a lovely scene of Stokely Carmichael interviewing his mother about how white racism contributed to his father's impoverished livelihood. Another moving moment shows us Angela Davis being interviewed in prison where she recounts growing up in the South during the church bombings by the Klan and finding the body parts of her friends in the street. The emotional intensity in those memories not only helps us to understand how Davis's political activism was formed, but how she would then see violence as a viable option for change. But The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 overall avoids the more unsettling questions of how righteous protest for equal rights became tragically infected with criminal psychopathy.

The Mothers of Bedford

You could call The Mothers of Bedford a political documentary as well. But it doesn't have an agenda, or even an axe to grind. It's a thoughtful advocacy film which looks at five women being held in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility who just happen to be mothers. The movie examines the role of the non-profit Children's Centre inside the prison that are helping these women develop (and strengthen) their relationships with their kids. Director Jenifer McShane illustrates how many of these women aren't really career criminals, or even heartless murderers, but people who are doing time for crimes committed under adverse circumstances. One woman was a drug addict who later learns to clean up; while another, a black woman, was victimized by a drunken racist in a bar whom she stabbed to death when he stalked her later that evening. The Mothers of Bedford delicately uncovers the dynamic between mothers and children where the parent's infantile tendencies becomes challenged by the need for adult support by the kids.

No Entry No Exit

No Entry No Exit takes on the difficult subject of rape and vigilantism in a small German village. The directors, Mareille Klein and Julie Kreuzer, openly explore a case that has instant polarizing aspects. Karl D. is a sex offender who has just served 14 years for committing a vicious rape. When he's released, he moves in with his brother, Helmut, to get his life together. But the town is in an uproar that he's staying there and set up daily vigils to protest his presence. The filmmakers begin with the story of that conflict, but soon delve into whether Karl was guilty of the crime, the effect the protests have on his brother's life, and the intent of the protesters themselves. (Some of the women show up looking like rape victims and others bring dolls that are laid out on the street with their legs spread apart.) If The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 already has its mind made up about its subject, No Entry No Exit is always in the process of becoming. The directors don't settle for depicting what seems obvious. Unfortunately, though, despite the honest intent of the filmmakers, the picture suffers from lack of insight. Their eyes may be open, but the film doesn't provide the clarity of what they discover about themselves (and the subject) in making the picture.While depicting the complicated sequence of events that unfold, No Entry No Exit ultimately lacks an evolving point of view. Without it, the story becomes a redundant cataloging of disturbing behaviour.

Miriam Makeba in Mama Africa

You certainly wouldn't accuse director Mika Kaurismäki's Mama Africa, a biography of South African singer Miriam Makeba, of dullness. Ironically, Kaurismäki was originally set to follow Makeba during her 2008 world tour, but she died on stage performing in Italy before they could work out the film's structure. Mama Africa became the result of Kaurismäki going through some riveting archival material as well as interviewing her collaborators and family to create a deeply engaging portrait of an artist in exile whose music created a pining for a sense of home.

Watching the film, though, I was also overwhelmed by factors outside of the picture itself. I met Miriam Makeba by chance in my Rouge Hill, Ontario, neighbourhood around 1963, when I happened upon her daughter, Bongi, playing in my backyard. (Bongi would grow up to write songs for her mother and tragically die giving birth to her fourth child in 1985.) Having vivid impressions of hearing Makeba sing just a few feet in front of me as a young boy, the sound of her voice in the film (strong yet poignant) took me whirling back to that impromptu living room concert. It was also strange watching Bongi, this young girl I so vividly remembered looking so out of place in my suburban (mostly white) community, grow up to be an artist and mother. She was also a muse to Miriam.

Mama Africa traces Makeba's early South African roots, her first marriage to musician Hugh Masekela, the world tour with Harry Belafonte (when I met her), and her exile and subsequent marriage to Stokely Carmichael. Mama Africa points out that Makeba was the first performer to speak before the United Nations in the early sixties about boycotting the South African apartheid regime. As a political performer, which she most certainly was, she described herself this way: "I do not sing politics, I merely sing the truth." Mama Africa is a moving tribute to that legacy.

You've Been Trumped

Recently I was in a discussion where it was brought up that Donald Trump might make a good President of the United States because he has an understanding of business. The dubious theory expressed was that, since countries are businesses, why not have a businessman run one. Besides strongly taking issue with that particular notion of what a country is, the folks I was speaking to might come to reconsider those views if they ever see Anthony Baxter's You've Been Trumped. You've Been Trumped is a rousing and engaging bit of guerrilla film-making without a trace of soap-boxing. The movie examines the controversy concerning Donald Trump's plans to build a huge golf course in rural Scotland (a plan originally rejected by the Scottish government because of legitimate environmental issues surrounding the Aberdeen area's eco-system). But Trump's power and money convinces the local government to turn turtle and before long residents are losing electrical power, their water supply and the destruction of their marshland.

Baxter follows the teaming events with his camera in hand until he gets arrested and briefly jailed. Meanwhile Trump continually hangs himself by describing one protesting local farmer, Michael Forbes, as living "in a slum." He also claims that environmental groups are supporting the project when, in fact, Scottish Natural Heritage, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Scottish Wildlife Trust have all come out against it. You've Been Trumped aptly incorporates contrasting scenes from Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983) which was also about an American industrialist (Burt Lancaster) who wants to buy property in Scotland to set up a refinery. He sends one of his employees (Peter Riegert) to seduce the locals. But Local Hero is about how a company man gets transformed and enraptured by the culture around him. Donald Trump, on the other hand, with his overinflated ego and megalomania, simply imposes himself on the landscape while the locals (and us in the viewing audience) look on appalled.

Baxter had to raise the money for You've Been Trumped since nobody wanted to touch the subject given Trump's rampant habit of suing people. But the picture is a useful reminder of how an artist, who feels so passionately about his subject, need not soften his argument just to win the approval of backers. In his film, Baxter proves himself to be documentary filmmaker as local hero.

-- May 8/11

Screwball Noir: Criterion's DVD Release of Jonathan Demme's Something Wild (1986)

Of all the contemporary American directors, Jonathan Demme embodies most the open spirit of possibility. His best films, from the early Citizen's Band (1977) and Melvin and Howard (1980) to the more recent Rachel Getting Married (2008), are inclusive quests into the binding promises held dear in the founding ideals of his country; a country filled not just with its known inhabitants, but also the unknown, the dispossessed, even the forgotten. Demme's America includes chance meetings between perceived nobodies like Melvin Dummar and legends such as Howard Hughes. For him, eccentrics and straights walk the same roads and breathe the same air. The libidinous pleasures of pop celebrated in the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense (1984), or the wistful embracing of roads traveled and roots claimed in Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006), are for Jonathan Demme all about keeping faith with his most cherished democratic principles. But if staying true to those democratic principles leads Demme to boldly erase the preconceived judgments made on rich and poor, black and white, good and bad, they also inspire him to further erase the boundaries imposed on storytelling by refusing to adhere to strictly defined genre rules. There was no better Jonathan Demme picture to accomplish this task than Something Wild (1986).

In Something Wild, which the Criterion Collection has just re-released in a newly remastered regular and Blu-ray DVD, Demme (working from a boldly original script by E. Max Frye) creates the setting for a screwball comedy and then literally drives it into the forbidding land of film noir. The film opens with Tak Fujimoto's relaxed tracking shot down New York's East River as David Byrne and Celia Cruz set a seductively alluring tone with their lyrically spicy rendition of "Loco de Amor (Crazy for Love)," which cleverly incorporates The Troggs' comically enticing hit "Wild Thing." We finally settle into a local hash joint where Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels), a tax consultant recently turned vice-president, impulsively pockets his check without paying. He's spotted from across the room by Lulu (Melanie Griffith), a young woman decked out in macramé and metal jewelry while sporting a Louise Brooks bob, who pursues him out of the restaurant and confronts him for welshing on the lunch. After he mistakenly assumes her to be an employee, she defines him as a "closet rebel" and offers him a lift. But rather than taking Charlie back to the office, Lulu takes to the road. Once dispensing with his pocket calculator, she offers him some scotch, then later in New Jersey, rips off a liquor store, heads to a motel and sexually seduces him.

While the opening moments of Something Wild traffics in the recognized world of the screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938) and You Can't Take it With You (1938), it's merely the starting point for something entirely new and appealingly different. Once Charlie is relaxed and open and firmly enjoying the booze and sex, Lulu takes him to a small Pennsylvania town where she once lived as a small-town girl named Audrey. Shedding her femme fatale disguise, she reveals herself to Charlie as this strawberry blonde suburban gal. But Charlie also has a secret self hidden behind his corporate yuppie blue suit, only he's less enthusiastic to reveal who he truly is. Ultimately though, he's forced to when they attend Audrey's high school reunion and encounter Audrey's husband Ray (Ray Liotta). (Audrey presumed he was still tucked away in prison doing time.) When Ray enters the picture, with his criminal underclass resentment of what Charlie has stolen from him, Charlie is forced not only to reveal himself, but he's also tested to see how willing he is to claim Audrey as his partner.

Something Wild is something new, a boldy inspired hybrid, a screwball noir. Like the screwball comedy, film noir also takes place on America's long roads and highways, transforming the characters into people they never thought they were (or would ever be). Both genres offer up delectably sexy and alluring women who tempt men down those roads to perdition. In screwball comedies, though, men usually come out the better for the experience, while in noir, they usually pay for their sins with death. Something Wild bravely changes up the game. It doesn't just break rules, it eliminates their need. The picture allows the audience the freedom to breathe, to explore and examine both the highs of charging out into the wide open spaces, as well as confronting its limits. Demme re-invents characters as swiftly and as smoothly as he re-invents genres proving (if ever it needed to be proven) that a country based on an idea continually produces characters who create personas to live in. Something Wild even begins with recognizable personas and then shrewdly dissolves their masks.

Jeff Daniels

Jeff Daniels is ideally cast as Charlie because, as the late critic Jay Scott once pointed out, Daniels can sometimes take us deeper inside the complicated sadness of the shallow men. Charlie tries to take comfort hiding within his middle-class comforts, but as we come to discover, those comforts turn out to be illusive. But his liberation at the hands of Audrey is only validated when he has to confront the menace within Ray. Melanie Griffith manages the astonishing feat of creating a continuity of soul while discarding identities. (She's equally ravishing whether she's the cuddly small town gal, or in the dark disguise of Lulu hungrily mounting Charlie and handcuffing him to the bedposts.) Griffith shows us that Audrey's need to be Lulu is her means of testing the bounds of larcenous behaviour. She does so in order to finally lay claim to normalcy when Charlie isn't scared away by her daring. Ray Liotta, in his first film role, is remarkably skilled at showing us what makes Ray a frightening guy by also revealing how seductive he is. He manages the difficult job of creating an appealing charisma that also functions like a spider's web.

When Something Wild came out in 1986, Hollywood movies were mostly trapped in conventional formulas with few surprises. (At the press screening I attended then, one critic in front of me turned around midway through and enthusiastically asked, "Do you have any idea where this is going?" I answered, "Not a clue. Isn't that great?") As we discover in the interview with Demme on the DVD, he came to do Something Wild after having his work on the 1984 WW II romantic drama, Swing Shift, taken out of his hands and re-cut and re-shot into a bland and pasty artifact. (His work print cut, which has been circulating for years as a bootlegged cassette, reveals a beautifully rendered portrait of the shifting roles of men and women when the guys went off to war and their wives and girlfriends went to work.)

Melanie Griffith

Outside of Albert Brooks' wonderfully prickly comedy Lost in America (1985), nobody at that time had really made a critical film about yuppies as seen from inside the yuppie. Something Wild went pretty far into their world without a whisper of condescension. A product of the Sixties, Demme deliberately connects the shifting values that took us into the Eighties. The narcissism of the yuppie after all is a product of the blasted utopian hopes of the hippie. But Ray, who resembles rockabilly singer Robert Gordon after steroids, is a reminder of the delinquents of the Fifties whose rebellion gave birth to the upheaval of the Sixties. The high school reunion is also for the Class of 1976, the aftermath of Sixties rebellion. But its significance also suggests something else to critic David Thompson. He writes in his insightful DVD essay that "[the reunion reveals] that in the cultural threads woven throughout the film, in its comfortable integration of characters from different backgrounds, we can find something of Demme's own vision of what American independence should mean."

Ray Liotta

That idea of American independence, which Demme also celebrates with his huge cast of characters who populate the outskirts of the movie's plot (film director John Waters turns up as a car salesman; John Sayles as a motorcycle cop; and long-standing Demme associates such as Kenneth Utt and Charles Napier briefly pop into the frame), asserts that, for him, freedom isn't license. It comes with obligations, loyalties and true responsibility. Something Wild takes into account how intrinsically valuable that appealing aspect of American independence is by including a vast cultural mix of characters and music (from Jimmy Cliff, Oingo Boingo to the riveting Sister Carol East doing her own reggae rendition of "Wild Thing.") that make up the fabric of the land.

To lay claim to that authentic voice is tough to sustain though – especially in a Hollywood climate driven by a fear of the original and its celebration of the safety of mediocrity. Demme's movies, in the nineties, such as his successful Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993), were either obvious and impersonal (Lambs) or pious and preachy (Philadelphia). But he found his voice again in Rachel Getting Married when he allowed the material to once again dictate the style and substance of the story. In breaking free of the secure bounds of formula, Demme revels in the serendipitous wonders of discovery. Which is why, after all these years, Something Wild is still a wonder to behold.

-- May 10/11

Train Wreck: J.J. Abrams' Super 8

In Super 8, this summer's highly anticipated SF thriller, writer/director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg create a cluttered junkyard of a movie. While many of the unabashedly positive reviews suggest a work that's both thrilling and full of feeling, Super 8 is actually quite the opposite. Abrams and Spielberg have filled the picture with so many conflicting invocations of previous movies, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Stand By Me, that it has no voice of its own. Super 8 is an inchoate hall of mirrors that casts reflections of popular film tropes rather than a coherently exciting story.

Initially they do seize on a compelling dramatic idea. In the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio, in the late Seventies, a group of young friends gather to make a Super 8 zombie movie. Living in their small industrial town, the only cultural feeding ground for these kids is the playground of pop music, television and horror films. There is a shaggy dog thrill they get from testing their loyalties and smarts (not to mention, their raging hormones) by acting them out in their low-budget monster extravaganza.(I also spent my teenage years in the small industrial city of Oshawa, Ontario, doing super 8 horror films with my friends.).

When they attempt to get 'production values' on the cheap by shooting a love scene one night at an abandoned train station, these budding artists get more than they bargained for when they witness – and film – a train derailment. They also discover that it was no ordinary train wreck. But rather than going on to explore how these eager filmmakers use their amateur craft to uncover a possible military conspiracy, Abrams takes leave for his own cultural feeding ground: Spielbergland. In creating a tribute to his film idol, Abrams ends up however denying himself an identity.

Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams

Yet Super 8 isn't really a worthy homage to Spielberg. In movies like Jaws, Close Encounters and E.T., Steven Spielberg's film craft grew out of emotionally rounded stories that found their roots in the small suburban daydreams of the people who lived there. Spielberg tapped the sometimes wistful pining of people in tiny communities who continually hoped for bigger things. (In the case of Jaws, poor police chief Brody was begging for a bigger boat.) But Super 8 lives in the abstractions of movie lore rather than the recognized world of people. As he showed in his TV series Alias and Lost, J.J. Abrams always comes up with riveting concepts in familiar genres, but they end up having little satisfying follow-through.

Super 8 begins with 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a quietly sensitive boy left grieving after his mother gets crushed to death in an industrial accident. Like the fatherless Elliott in E.T., Joe tries to emotionally compensate for her loss by helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths), an overweight and insecure film auteur, make his horror classic. (Charles is a cross between a teenage Orson Welles and George Romero.) Joe also joins the crew because his secret crush, Alice (Elle Fanning), is one of the film's stars. But while Abrams plays off the scatter shot frustrations of young school friends fighting to be noticed, he has no gift for developing their frustrations. Their banter soon becomes as cacophonous as the chatter of the kids in The Goonies. When Charles tells Joe that he cast Alice because he was attracted to her, it was news to me. Until that point, he struck me as the kind of adolescent boy who still sought refuge in the world of other boys.

Once the kids develop their footage from the train station, however, the movie begins to truly go off the rails. As the military swoops in to take charge, lead by Colonel Nelic (Noah Emmerich) as their grim reaper, issuing curfews while hunting down the kids who shot the footage, Abrams loses all threads of the story. People (and their dogs) start disappearing as the town is being torn apart by an unseen foe, but the media is nowhere to be found. I understand that the national news media by this time was starting to snooze, but they didn't disappear. Since the nuclear calamity of Three Mile Island was happening simultaneously nearby, it's highly unlikely reporters would have ignored a town invasion. In the haphazard way Abrams directs these scenes the town people don't seem to have phones in their homes. Nobody bothers to contact anyone to get to the bottom of the crisis. Joe's father is the town sheriff but he's almost as ineffectual as everyone else. (The town of Amity did a better job up against their oily mayor in Jaws.)

The payoff of Super 8 is supposedly the emotional closure for Joe over his mother's death. But rather than establish a resolution that develops out of calamity (as Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison did for Elliott in E.T.), Abrams simply imposes connections that aren't there. When you discover the mystery of the story, for all that Abrams does with it, you end up wishing it had stayed a mystery. The healing conclusion, where it's suggested that bad things happen and it's no one's fault, is patently empty and false. What in Spielberg became a recognition of how loss can both bring grief and heal; in Abrams, it becomes a sentimental afterthought.

Despite the clutter and noise, though, Joel Courney has a quiet and inquisitive presence that's quite touching, especially in his scenes with Alice. Meanwhile Elle Fanning continues to show the same prodigious qualities that made her such a marvel earlier this year in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere. She's particularly charming in a scene where she starts to play a zombie and slowly closes in on Joe. You're not sure if she's going to kiss him – or bite him. But Super 8 overall lacks the delicate touch that brings scenes like these to life. It's buried instead under the weight of the movies it pays tribute to. By the time the end credits reveal the final version of the Super 8 film the kids produced, it displays more charm and personality than the movie that documented it.

-- June 11/11

The Afflictions of Time: The Criterion Collection's DVD Release of The Music Room & The Makioka Sisters

Chhabi Biswas as Roy in The Music Room

In the opening scenes of Satyajit Ray's flawed, yet intimately haunting, The Music Room (1958), an aging Bengali feudal landlord (zamindar), Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), sits with his back to us in a large chair on the roof of his dilapidated mansion. He puffs away on his hookah, lost in time, while time is clearly running out on his era of wealth and power. Set in the late 1920s, the zamindar's only connection to the comforts and pleasures of his class privilege is the music concerts he presents in his home. The music room, which holds within it the fleeting power of nostalgia, transports Roy from the afflictions of time to the more nobler moments in his past, while his present life decays around him. (It is perhaps a rich irony, not lost here, that it was the feudal classes, so influenced by the West, that actually kept Indian classical music alive.)

The Music Room, which Ray made between the second and third films of his justly acclaimed The Apu Trilogy, may (as critic Pauline Kael once suggested) reflect the same themes of cultural futility as Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. But if that's so, The Music Room is The Cherry Orchard seen through the gothic sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." The Music Room (which the Criterion Collection has just released this summer in both regular and Blu-ray) is about how a once powerful aristocrat stubbornly clings to the past through his opulent staging of musicales. But, in doing so, he destroys his family and his life.

Since Ray is one of the great humanists among major film directors, he doesn't take a churlish view towards this innocently infantile lord. Rather, as he would later do in Devi (1960) and The Home and The World (1984), Ray brings a sophisticated understanding of the psychological dynamics at work in the story. As with any great dramatist, Satyajit Ray skillfully illuminates the folly of the zamindar rather than examining him objectively, or simply condemning him on our behalf. He achieves something empathetic and similar to what Visconti did with the ageing, much more noble Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) in The Leopard (1963).

Director Satyajit Ray

There is almost a darkly comic aspect to watching Roy getting roused from his stasis by the distant sound of music (particularly from his neighbour, the noveau riche moneylender Ganguli, who represents the modern expedient aristocracy poised to replace Roy). In a series of moves to rival Ganguli, Roy tries to upstage his rival with rousing Indian classical performances of song and ballet. But in doing so, he guts his own remaining funds including his wife's jewels.

Adapted from a short story by Bengali writer Tarasankar Banerji, The Music Room is at times rather clumsily staged. Ray wisely changes the circumstances surrounding the death of Roy's wife and son (in the story, they are killed by disease; in the film, Roy unwittingly sends them to their death) which rightly implicates him in the tragedy. But Ray's staging of Roy's discovery of his son's body is glanced over so quickly it has the jarring effect of melodrama. (So does the portentous image of a bug drowning in Roy's drink during one of the concerts.) The rhythms of the storytelling also lack the lyrical sureness of pictures like Pather Panchali (1955) which still resonates in the memory like a reverie. But the musicales are mesmerizing, especially the final kathak dance, a solo narrative ballet which casts an inflammatory spell with the same force as The Dance of the Seven Veils.

Although Chhabi Biswas was a huge stage and film star in India, ironically, he wasn't such a great fan of music. But you'd never know it from his memorably plangent performance here. Biswas helps us see how Roy's desire for music is not just the nostalgia of recovering the pleasures of the past, but it's also a refuge from the ravages of the present. The Music Room examines with a wistful glance the passing of traditions. But it does it while still casting a watchful eye on what human mysteries get brought forth by the modern world replacing those traditions.

The Makioka Sisters

Kon Ichikawa's extraordinary The Makioka Sisters (1983), which Criterion also just released on DVD this summer, explores the conflicts between the traditions of the past and how the modern world encroaching on those traditions. But Ichikawa, whose movies (Kagi, Fires on the Plain, The Burmese Harp) often ride on waves of inchoate emotions moving towards a sense of discovery, addresses those changes with evocative colourful impressions rather than through familiar narrative devices. While the film is based on a Junichiro Tanizaki novel (as was Kagi), The Makioka Sisters departs from some of the plot designs of the book and creates instead an evocation of a way of life that reveals the fleeting impermanence of beauty. It may be one of the few pictures where colour reveals as much about the dramatic moods as does the plot.

The Makioka Sisters has one of the most beautifully composed opening scenes in modern movies. Set in the spring of 1938, the Makioka clan (four sisters and one of their husbands from Osaka) meet in Kyoto to see the cherry blossoms which are now at their peak. The bright pink colours of the blossoms which are softened by the rain create a vividly sensual pastel world right out of fairy tales. From that lush softness of the opening, though, we're immediately thrust into the purpose of the meeting. The youngest sister, Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa), is restless for her promised dowry from her late father so that she can open her own business of making dolls. Unfortunately, tradition dictates that Taeko can't get her money until she gets married. But she can't marry until the third sister, Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga), who is shy and unmarried, finds her own partner. The two oldest sisters, Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi) and Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma), are already married to men, Tatsuo (Juzo Itami – later a filmmaker himself with such movies as Tampopo) a banker and Teinosuke (Keji Ishizaka) who has an erotic fascination for Yukiko. Since they are below the Makioka social standing, they take on the surnames of their wives. The movie traces the resolution of that conflict.

Director Kon Ichikawa

Much of the story revolves around the various suitors attempting to win the hand of Yukiko, but the movie is also about the inability of the sisters to continue bathing in the ornamental beauty reflected in the ceremonious kimonos of their family business. As Ichikawa follows the year ahead, where the war in the Pacific looms with its dramatic changes for Japan, a fissure is created in the family dynamic. Most of it is blessedly comic (especially the sneaky way Teinosuke attempts to seize a look at Yukiko's exposed leg under her kimono). Yukiko may be shy, but she is no wallflower either. She is well aware of the ripples she's causing. Yukiko's also no fool when it comes to her suitors. (In one instance, she meets with a fish merchant in a scene that is almost as funny as Diane Keaton's meeting with a similar prospect in Woody Allen's Love and Death.)

Ichikawa also has no illusions about the rebellious Taeko. While most Western films celebrate and often idealize the rebellion of the young against adults, Taeko's actions are often reckless and have consequences that complicate our responses to her. Ichikawa, who in the past had also confronted us with the dire reality of war (as he did in Fires on the Plain), puts the conflict in the distance to keep our concentration on how the afflictions of time alter the Makioka chemistry. Even the music, the largo from Handel's opera Serse, is scored for modern synthesizers and guitar creating a timeless mood of coronation, a stately quest for marriage set against the unpredictable forces of nature.

While the first half of the picture has a formal design where Ichikawa slips little jokes and ironies into the fabric, the last half builds to an emotionally rich and overwhelming conclusion. As Yukiko finally finds her acceptable suitor, Tatsuo discovers that his wife Tsuruko will allow their move from Osaka to Tokyo so that he can have a promotion at the bank. (His expression of gratitude might be one of the funniest romantic moments I've ever seen.) But the break-up of the family unit leaves Teinosuke devastated because his love for Yukiko goes unfulfilled. The emotional pull of this conclusion is saturated in the tears of unrequited hopes. (The overall effect may have in part also been due unconsciously to the grief Ichikawa felt losing his longtime screenwriting collaborator Natto Wada who died just as The Makioka Sisters was going into production.)

The Makioka Sisters was made in the age when rock videos emerged, changing the course of movies, but Kon Ichikawa creates true visual music. The Makioka Sisters is a beautifully meditative look at the impermanence of life, but Ichikawa is too much of a sensualist to let the movie become languid, or stately. Showing a poet's touch, Ichikawa allows those lost moments of billowing beauty to take permanent residence in our imagination.

-- August 19/11

Lost Gem: The Lost Son (1999)

There's a question that has always nagged me: Why are there so few good directors among great cameramen/women? For instance, when the enormously talented Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) turned to directing movies in the Eighties, he came out with the undistinguished All the Right Moves (1983) and the ridiculous Clan of the Cave Bear (1986). You'd be hard-pressed to find anything in those pictures that comes close to the fever dream he conjured up in Taxi Driver.

But then there is Chris Menges, the British cinematographer behind such strikingly diverse work as Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983), Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields (1984) and Neil Jordan's The Good Thief (2002). When he turned to directing, his work was not only as distinguishable as the movie-makers he'd worked for, sometimes he even surpassed them. The trouble is: Nobody knows this since his films have been largely produced and abandoned. After being rightly celebrated at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival with his directorial debut A World Apart, about a young girl coming to terms with her political activist parents during the apartheid years in South Africa, his subsequent pictures have gone MIA.

But why? CrissCross (1992) was an intelligently understated story of a single mother (Goldie Hawn) in Key West, Florida, in 1969, who turns to stripping to support her son Chris (David Arnott).When he discovers what his mother is forced to do, he goes to work for a drug-smuggling ring to make enough money so she can stop. Second Best (1994) was an even stronger tale of a middle-aged bachelor (William Hurt) in Warwickshire, England, who adopts an abused and disturbed boy (Chris Cleary Miles), an angry child who doesn't wish to have another father. Despite the highly accessible subject matter, neither film was given a chance to find an audience. As for The Lost Son (1999), a gripping film noir about an exiled French detective (Daniel Auteuil) in Britain who uncovers a child pornography ring, it became a lost film, which in turn, became a loss to discerning moviegoers. (The Lost Son opened commercially only in Europe and then was dumped on DVD.)

Director Chris Menges

The Lost Son begins in familiar hard-boiled noir terrain, but Menges' temperament, which plays against genre mechanics, frees the material from its more conventional melodramatic underpinnings. Xavier Lombard (Auteuil) is a former French detective who now plies his trade in Soho getting paid to spy on unfaithful spouses. Early on, we can clearly see that Lombard is simply going through the motions of his life without giving much thought to the emotional ramifications of his work. (One such spouse, having been abruptly caught, tells him, "You're not a very nice person." He looks at her as if he hears it all the time.) One day, Lombard runs into Carlos (Ciaran Hinds), a former cop and an old friend from Paris, who puts him in touch with a wealthy family who need a gumshoe to locate their son, Leon Spitz, who has suddenly disappeared. As he investigates the disappearance, he comes across Leon's girlfriend (Katrin Cartlidge, in a beautifully understated performance) who doesn't know his whereabouts except that he gave her a videotape to hold on to. On the tape, titled Sleeping Beauty, Lombard sees the beginning of the fairy tale unfold until part way through when Sleeping Beauty turns suddenly into the nightmare image of a young boy being raped by an older man. Lombard discovers that Leon's disappearance may have been due to his rescuing boys from a prostitution ring.

All of Chris Menges' past films have been about children and adults working out of the varied familial conflicts that always arise. But The Lost Son isn't really about the missing Leon Spitz; nor is it about families; rather it's about the many disappearing children who get scooped up by predators and sold into brutal prostitution.Given the highly incendiary nature of the subject, Menges gives the horror its due. But he does it by underplaying its visceral impact while taking us into the means by which this lurid, profitable business thrives. By taking this more thoughtful approach, the dread works under the surface keeping us transfixed on Lombard's quest to get to the bottom of the crime.Yet all through The Lost Son, Menges fills the screen with haunting images of young, innocent – and forgotten – children whose faces you don't forget. (In one particularly shocking, yet inspired scene, Lombard beats one boy's captor unconscious and his young quiet victim stands astride the motionless body and urinates on him.)

Daniel Autueil as Detective Lombard

Daniel Autueil is a very fine actor, but I don't think he's ever played a role in which he portrayed such an emotionally gutted man who uses both his anger and his bitterness as a driving force to do one redemptive thing. He's comparable to Jack Nicholson's border guard in Tony Richardson's unjustly neglected The Border (1982), where Nicholson's decent yet sullied patrolman runs up against corrupt officers trafficking in slave trading Mexican immigrants. Autueil's Lombard knows he can't dismantle the corrupt machinery, but he can do one decent thing. (Like Nicholson's detective Jake Gittes, we also discover that Paris is Lombard's Chinatown.)

While the script by Eric Leclere, Margaret Leclere and Mark Mills has a pretty conventional structure (with a conclusion not hard to spot coming), the lean writing allows Menges room to move and the actors spaces to fill. Although she has second billing, Nastassia Kinski's role as Leon's troubled sister unfortunately is a minor one, but effectively complex. Ciaran Hinds also does wonders with his screen time as Carlos, quietly ambiguous, as he stands by Lombard who continually alienates the family that's hired him. Marianne Denicourt turns the trope of the whore-with-the-heart-of-gold into real flesh and blood woman. This tall, dazzling self-assured lady is Lombard's only friend (someone he once saved in Paris) and she goes to great lengths to demonstrate the depths of that friendship. Bruce Greenwood, who plays the kingpin in Mexico behind the operation, adds a new chapter to the collection of creeps he's played in his career. This corporate pimp is slimy alright, but Greenwood plays him with a paternal streak that is unnerving to watch. As he clothes and feeds the young children on his farm, even cheerfully joining them in a game of soccer, the kids have no idea what his plans are for them. With believable skill, Billy Smyth and Hemal Pandya play two of the key children who have been traumatized into silence, until they come to speak in the only way they can.

Perhaps the reason Chris Menges' films occupy a home somewhere in oblivion is that he makes genre pictures that don't push the buttons genre pictures usually get made to push. The stories are an anchor that allow him to delve into complex themes with an economical approach that pays huge dramatic dividends. Because of that, The Lost Son is perhaps one of the most incorruptible and compelling dramas about one of the most sordid of subjects.

-- August 23/11       

Pads and Claws: The Cat Vanishes

In Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973), detective Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) loses his cat when he tries to feed him food he doesn't care for (worse, he tries to fool the pet by pretending it's his favourite). The cat's disappearance becomes a test of loyalty that opens up the theme of the picture. In Argentinian director Carlos Sorin's The Cat Vanishes, when the pet feline Donatello flees, it becomes a test of sanity for both the characters and us. The Cat Vanishes is being compared to Hitchcock's thrillers, but the resemblance is superficial at best. Unlike Hitchcock, Sorin submerges the familiar techniques of suspense while presenting instead a chamber piece that's embroidered with chills. The story is as sly as the missing Donatello.

The Cat Vanishes opens humorously with a lengthy exposition scene that resembles a similar one that concluded Psycho. A number of psychologists are gathered to discuss Luis (Luis Luque), a history professor who has been institutionalized after having a major breakdown. This esteemed scholar had thought a colleague had stolen his life work with the aid of his wife Beatriz (Beatriz Spelzini), so his violent outburst against both of them lands him in the mental hospital. But the doctors also believe that his breakdown was temporary. Given his solid reputation, they arrive at the conclusion that maybe he should be released into the care of Beatriz. At first, Beatriz tries to make Luis comfortable and calm, but when Donatello freaks out at his arrival and soon disappears, Beatriz begins to wonder if all is well with her hubby after all. She even wonders if his appearance and the cat's departure are linked.

Of course, the expanding joke in The Cat Vanishes is that as Beatriz grows more and more paranoid, we wonder if all is actually well with her. Both Luis Luque and Beatriz Spelzini play their scenes with the comfort of two old partners who intuit each other's thoughts. Their effectiveness and Sorin's underplaying of the creepiness lets the suspense sneak up on you. The longer Donatello is absent, the more Beatriz grows suspicious of Luis which allows us in the audience to imagine the gruesome fate that might have befallen the critter.

Luis Luque and Beatriz Spelzini

Sorin doesn't play to the obvious expectations of the audience. The comic moments don't even bring relief. Early on, Luis begins obsessively rearranging the books in his study as if trying to create some stability in his life, but his wife becomes undone by bouts of insomnia brought on by the horrific memory of Luis's earlier violent episode and fearing that it could happen again. (His convalescence becomes her albatross.) A brief meeting between her and Luis's still terrified colleague to commiserate the possibility of Luis's sanity instead portrays the possibility of mice caught in the pads and claws of a crafty kitty.

They're actually caught in the grip of a wily director who smoothly lays out a sharply designed labyrinth where paranoia can find a comfortable home in the sane, as well as the insane. To Sorin's credit, too, he keeps us guessing right up until the end as to who is the captor and who is the prey. The Cat Vanishes is a deviously funny and unnerving little species, much like the missing feline who inspires it.

-- August 30/11

Covered Up: Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Steven Page singing "Hallelujah" at Jack Layton's funeral

While listening to Steven Page sing Leonard Cohen's now iconic "Hallelujah," during the largely moving televised funeral last weekend for NDP leader Jack Layton, I began to recognize just how much this song has lost its meaning and much of its sting. Sung now with a solemn reverence, as Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" often is, "Hallelujah" is about as misunderstood as Randy Newman's "Sail Away." Written in 1984, Cohen conceived the song as one that combined invective with elegiac and religious meditation. "You're not on the stand when you're praying," he told me in an interview months before the song was released. "You can't come with any excuses. You don't have a deep belief in your opinion any longer, or your own construction of how things are. That's why you pray because you haven't got a prayer." You don't hear in these famous cover versions by Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, kd lang, or in Steven Page's recent rendition, any of that sense of doubt, the struggle between the profane and sacred, or even the naked fear of the singer being aware that despite being armed with prayer the world still remains the same.

In its original version, heard on Cohen's Various Positions album, "Hallelujah" contained some of the same ambiguous spiritual longing religious monks once possessed while seeking God in the world and finding instead plagues, the Crusades, and accused witches being burned at the stake. A year earlier, Bob Dylan had written a song just like it called "Blind Willie McTell" (ultimately discarded from his album Infidels) which also took a sojourn into the secular world with the singer's faith his only shield and the voice of a long dead blues singer giving him solace. But Cohen in "Hallelujah" also took the intimacies of those sacred sentiments and brought them into the world of romantic love. He sought absolution in a place where absolution is rarely found:

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Cohen's masterpiece began life as a cover standard when ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale recorded it for a 1991 tribute album called I'm Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, a single CD produced by the French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles. Considering the fawning dullness of most tribute albums, I'm Your Fan contained some pretty lively and inventive performances (including Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds triumphant "Tower of Song," The Pixies' "I Can't Forget," That Petrol Emotion's "Stories of the Street," and Lloyd Cole's "Chelsea Hotel"). Cale had once seen Cohen perform the song and asked him to send along the lyrics. When Cale received a sheath of fifteen pages, he went through them and picked out what he called "the cheeky verses." In his version, heard on solo piano, Cale's beautifully dark-toned voice certainly contained that cheekiness, but it also caught the song's weariness. In the opening verse, Cale speaks with a casual anticipation of rejection in the face of something divine:

I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?

But when Jeff Buckley covered "Hallelujah" on his 1994 debut Grace, the song seemed airbrushed of its ambiguities, its belief that all the Hallelujahs uttered might not alter a thing. Instead of the "broken" Hallelujahs, all you heard were the "holy" ones. Buckley sang in that forlorn tone (a tone once possessed by his late father Tim Buckley), but done now with the self-conscious air of the divine. Buckley turned the song into a quiet prayer giving it a respite it hadn't earned. Of course, that approach also turned it into an alternative music hit. (By contrast, when Cohen first released Various Positions, his label, CBS Records, didn't even issue it in the United States. Passport Records eventually did.)

When Canadian Rufus Wainwright would later write a song called "Memphis Skyline," heard on his 2004 album Want Two, he did it as a tribute to Buckley who he had just met. "Memphis Skyline" would also reference "Hallelujah" and lead Wainwright to record his own live version of it which he recorded at the Fillmore (and heard on the DVD of Want Two). Wainwright's version, built on the same earnest interpretation of Buckley's, soon took over the airwaves. (Buckley had tragically drowned back in 1997.) A parade of stars have since created one version after another, and many strip the song of any of its conflict. But why?

None of this is particularly new in popular song. It has much to do with our relationship to popular music in our need to identify with the singer in the song. We often feel that they are expressing the sentiments that we share, or wish to share. The idea of an untrustworthy narrator in popular song, a familiar device in literature, goes against the grain of what makes a song sell. To touch the depths of both longing and terror that Cohen reaches in "Hallelujah" is not a place most people want to visit. The comfort a song can offer becomes more appealing instead.

As for the choice an artist makes to change the meaning of a song? Well, that's a little trickier. In 1971, when Joan Baez recorded The Band's stirring "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," a powerfully moving story told from the point of view of Virgil Cane, a defeated Southerner at the end of the American Civil War, she changed the words. Baez, a Northern liberal, could hardly place herself comfortably in the character of a white Southerner, so she amended the story. The line featuring Virgil's exultant vision of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, now featured Lee as a ship, "The Robert E. Lee," apparently arriving at some non-existent port. Furthermore, when the defeated Virgil asserts that, like his father before him, he will "work the land," Baez modifies the line to read, "I'm a working man." In doing so, she changes the song into a rallying cry more suited to Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" than a Southerner vainly attempting to till the land that is his defeated heritage. It became a top ten hit.

Greil Marcus once wrote about The Band's original version in his 1975 book Mystery Train. "It is hard for me to comprehend how any Northerner, raised on a very different war than Virgil Kane's, could listen to this song without finding himself changed," he wrote. "You can't get out from under the singer's truth – not the whole truth, simply his truth – and the little autobiography closes the gap between us." That's what's missing in Baez's version: The idea that there are lives lived which aren't our own; that there are stories told which we can't tell. And this is also what's wrong with some versions of "Hallelujah." They turn our listening to it into a hushed reverie, a pious acceptance of transcendence, plus a false sense of safety from life's pains and sorrows. I'd like to think that Leonard Cohen is out there somewhere cringing when he hears them.

-- September 3/11

Unlikely Duo: Allen & Malick

For a variety of reasons, I didn't get to many movies this past summer, yet it would also appear that I wasn't alone. (According to CBC News, box office attendance was at its lowest since 1997.) So I didn't feel like I missed much. But there were a couple of movies over the past few months that did cause some lively discussions and unresolved arguments. Students in my classes and people attending various lectures all wanted to talk about Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. Given the dramatically different sensibilities of both of these directors, the talk reflected much of that divide.

In the case of Midnight in Paris, a romantic comedy fantasy about a screenwriter and novelist (Owen Wilson) visiting Paris with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams), the story is about how a contemporary writer's nostalgia for an earlier artistic culture allows him to wish-fulfill himself back into that time. In this case, it's the Twenties with Gertrude Stein, Man Ray, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. Midnight in Paris is a completely enjoyable and charming picture where the pleasures exist within the conception of the story rather than in what Allen does with the inhabitants in it. The characters mostly reflect the screenwriter's impressions of them rather than becoming fully fleshed out versions of Hemingway and Stein. Still Midnight in Paris has deservedly become a huge global hit, one of the director's most successful films, and it continues to sell out at rep houses showing it in second run. What I enjoyed most about Midnight in Paris though was the way Woody Allen finally confronted his need to hide in the past. It was a significant step coming from a man who stopped being a strong contemporary comic voice a long time ago.

Midnight in Paris

In the early Seventies, in pictures like Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973), where he went into the future, Allen provided a satiric counter-culture alternative to the mainstream acceptance of WASP values. This slight, harmless hero celebrated braininess over brawn; the substance of sex over style, and allowed us to accept our vulnerabilities. We could laugh at our desperate attempts to be people we weren't and feel free to be ourselves. But, by the Eighties, Allen decided he wanted to be someone he wasn't: Ingmar Bergman (Interiors, September, Another Woman), Arthur Miller (Crimes and Misdemeanors) and Fritz Lang (Shadows and Fog). Pretty soon, he lost that contemporary voice while choosing instead to grow nostalgic. Even his choice of music, the jazz of the swing era, carried a pedigree of snobbery that rejected contemporary pop and rock. You got the feeling that the music of Fletcher Henderson was present not because of the pleasure it gives but because it represented the High Culture Allen wished to embrace over pop.

For years, Allen turned out one bummer after another with rare occasional exceptions (Bullets Over Broadway, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Vicky Christina Barcelona) while audiences continued to wait – and hope – for his return to form. Most moviegoers (even critics) usually have their patience exhausted after a short time, but Woody Allen had been given a wide berth. He was like a batter in a long slump who people hoped to see break free of it. Allen had built up an inordinate amount of good will. So when Midnight in Paris turned out to be good, audiences began flocking happily to it. Now I don't think they responded (as I did) to the fact that Owen Wilson's screenwriter (Allen's surrogate) gets to deal with his need to escape the present and to find new meaning in his life. Besides, I don't know if this represents a shift in Allen's thinking, or that it will bring us even more interesting work in the years to come. Time will tell. But I do think audiences were looking for some sign of a different sensibility at the movies.

So many films today (and not just Hollywood ones) have abandoned intelligent and engaging craft-work for either the impersonal studio product gutted of any personality (The Green Hornet), buried in effects (The Adjustment Bureau), or cannibalizing Steven Spielberg (Super 8). Some film-goers (and I include myself here) have grown weary of the packaging, the lack of risk and imagination, and the committee room devised concept scripts. So try and imagine then a film that completely breaks with any standard of conventional storytelling, abandons any means to engage the audience on terms it understands and yet still contains a singular voice with the wonkiest of visions guiding it. If you can, then you've likely encountered Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

As in the case of Midnight in Paris, I heard a lot about this picture before I got to see it. The only difference was people weren't excitedly asking me what I thought, instead they were screaming angry about it. The common complaint was that critics had misled them to believe that The Tree of Life represented the second coming of Orson Welles. They were furious at the movie's pretensions, its length, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, even the dinosaurs that turned up. One movie theatre began posting signs in their ticket booths reminding people that they must walk out in the first half-hour if they wish to get their money back. In thirty years of reviewing, I don't ever recall such a step taken by a movie-house. Even with its acclaim at Cannes winning the Palme d'Or, The Tree of Life was dividing critics as well. Lines were being drawn and names taken.

The Tree of Life

Of course, this made me all the more curious to see what was causing the fuss. So I was surprised that when I finally saw it, I was more fascinated than repelled. While I agree with many about the picture's follies – and there are many – there was something about The Tree of Life that still gripped me. Now Terrence Malick is not a director who's work usually inspires strong angry reactions (especially since his pictures are visually arresting but dramatically attenuated). His first film, Badlands (1973), was a crime story based on the real-life murder spree in 1958 by Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. But Malick's attempt to locate the gutted emotions in the killers, as a means to discover what motivated them, he also extended to the culture that created them. As a result, Badlands became an abstract, almost amorphous rendering of what makes a criminal.

Days of Heaven (1978) fared little better as Malick tried to tell a romantic story set early in the 20th Century about a farmer (Sam Shepard) who is swindled by a couple (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams) working his farm.While trying to contrast nature's scorn (a locust attack) with human betrayal, Malick revealed a key to his work. It was the idea that nature had determined laws that man always chose to violate. So although Days of Heaven had moments of both grandeur and beauty, inspired by Johannes Vermeer and Edward Hopper, it was deprived of dramatic motivation. The Thin Red Line (1998) had a vague narrative (very loosely) based on James Jones' 1962 epic novel about American forces at the Battle of Mount Austen during the Guadalcanal campaign in World War Two. If Jones concentrated on the specific horrors that men act out under the strain of battle, Malick turned the novel into a pastiche of man's continued war against the natural world. It lasted a lifetime and I couldn't locate some of the actors who were apparently in it.

His last film, The New World (2005), offered something of a strange surprise. Ostensibly a historical drama that depicted the founding of Jamestown, Virginia by Captain John Smith (Colin Ferrell) and his romance with Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher), The New World had the same languidly paced beauty of Malick's other work, but there was also a new passionate quest here, the sense of someone looking into the process of discovery itself. The new world of the story wasn't just what the discoverers found in the new America but also what the indigenous cultures would later observe in the so-called civilized world. In The Tree of Life, Malick has made getting to those sources of discovery much more personal this time. He directed it with a searching eye as if trying to get to the source of life itself.

Colin Ferrell and Q'orianka Kilcher in The New World

Sometimes a movie's failure yields more to discuss than an ordinary movie's success. The Tree of Life is certainly not an ordinary failure, but one that has a way of raising the stakes. Critics have been throwing the word ambitious around when they've discussed the film, but I would say that it's more audacious. In The Tree of Life, a memoir about his growing up in Waco, Texas, Malick doesn't give the story a typical dramatic narrative. He tells the story instead through a series of associations, fleeting memories and abstract thoughts. (Imagine Jordan Belson interpreting Carson McCullers.).Unlike in his past movies, though, where Malick's disassociated style becomes awkwardly wedded to traditional dramatic narratives, The Tree of Life disassociates itself altogether from traditional narrative. Is it any surprise then that people were walking out? A viewer can feel lost in a series of elliptically linked daydreams.

If Malick has a striking eye for detail (Jessica Chastain dancing through the air like Mary Martin), his biggest weakness is his inability to provide dramatic structure and motivation for all the pirouettes. Because of that, he gives you no clue as to why Sean Penn's architect is so spiritually adrift in his life and work (apparently Penn has expressed similar confusion). Malick continually loses track of characters and plot details. He seems so doggedly determined to create his bigger picture that he loses complete touch with the smaller details that could help an audience make sense of it. Yet despite sitting there muttering to myself about how nutty the picture was in its mad desire to wed spiritual grace and nature's cruelty, I was still held by Malick's desire to discover the process of the narrative rather than giving it one. What I realized was that despite the film's failure to provide a clearly developed vision, it was still a vision and not a negligible one.

Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life

In part, the critical lines being drawn over The Tree of Life is the continued acting out of the Andrew Sarris/Pauline Kael debate over auteurism. But I also believe that the debate reveals something about the way so few movies being made today inspire any kind of strong reaction. We've grown so used to the ordinary. When Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980), another epic folly, pretty much sank the power of the director in Hollywood, the industry turned towards accepting the bland and the conventional.Yet as bad as Heaven's Gate was, the anger directed towards it was never directed with the same force towards some equally bad studio product. That may be because it's hard to hate something impersonal and committee driven. But in Michael Cimino there was actually someone to despise.

Mad visions are an integral part of the history of movies and we wouldn't have great works without the great follies that sometimes make them possible. The Tree of Life is very much in that tradition. Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life might indeed an unlikely duo, but in their very different ways, they've woken up a sleeping desire in the audience, a desire for movies that matter.

-- September 6/11

E.C. Comics on Nitrous Oxide: Slither (2006)

Elizabeth Banks and Michael Rooker in Slither

Slither is the kind of grossly entertaining B-horror movie that gets you giggling right from the opening scene when a flaming alien-infested comet hurtles rapidly to Earth. (This chattering chunk of rock has the worst possible intentions when it arrives.) The biggest joke on the audience, though, is that when these critters finally get hatched, things get much worse than anyone could possibly imagine. Slither in quick order becomes horror trash without a trace of solemnity.

Set in the quiet rural town of Wheelsy, S.C., Grant (Michael Rooker of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) is a strapping he-man who may be losing the affections of his generally devoted wife, Starla (Elizabeth Banks of The 40-Year-Old Virgin). While ruminating the state of his marriage late one night in the woods, Grant gets rudely invaded by a slithery slug-like creature. Before long, Grant begins mutating into a whole different species of he-man. He first impregnates a woman (who becomes a host for a litter of slimy beasts) and then later devours dogs and cattle. (These aliens come with a generous and purposeful appetite.) As Grant soon begins to resemble Jabba the Hut with a bad case of psoriasis, Nathan Fillion (the sardonic space captain from Joss Whedon's Firefly and Serenity) as the town police chief demonstrates some of the funniest straight-faced double-takes in movies while tackling both this mutant infestation and his hidden lust for Starla.

Writer and director James Gunn, who wrote both Scooby-Doo (2002, 2004) movies and the take-no-prisoners Dawn of the Dead (2004), happily packs this horror parody with a virtual fun-house of familiar movie references. But Gunn doesn't simply demonstrate his knowledge and affection for the 1986 Invaders From Mars, David Cronenberg's Shivers (1975), Alien (1979), the George Romero zombie flicks, or the tawdry Troma horror movies. He heightens the jokes (and the horror) by providing a tongue-in-cheek twist to all the familiar and tacky tropes in the genre (unlike the makers of the Scary Movie franchise who simply turn those tropes into a self-congratulatory fetish). More far out than many of its pulp predecessors, Slither is as much fun as EC Comics on nitrous oxide.

-- September 20/11

Within You, Without You: George Harrison Living in the Material World

The late John Lennon probably characterized his friend and band mate George Harrison best in 1968 when he told a journalist that, while George himself was no mystery, the mystery inside George was immense. "It's watching him uncover it all little by little that's so damn interesting," Lennon remarked. You get some sense of that slow peeling away of paradoxical mystery while watching Martin Scorsese's two-part HBO documentary, George Harrison Living in the Material World, which examines Harrison's life both as one of The Beatles and his search for spiritual solace in the aftermath of Beatlemania. Scorsese has described his film, in fact, as an exploration into Harrison's endless quest for serenity. "We don't know," he said while making the picture. "We're just feeling our way through." That unfortunately is also a pretty accurate assessment of the movie. George Harrison Living in the Material World is filled with fleeting bits of revelation and insight but it seldom finds its focus. At times, the jagged storytelling and impressionistic glimpses seem arbitrary and puzzling rather than revealing. You may be inside the immense mystery that makes up George Harrison, but Scorsese can't seem to tell us why we're there.

Part of the paradox of George Harrison is contained within the very character of the pop group itself. If The Beatles created a utopian culture based on the properties of inclusion and pleasure, Harrison always seemed solitary and detached. He was often called "The Quiet Beatle" but that was never quite the right assignation. He was actually moody without being sullen, thoughtful without becoming withholding, and funny without being grandstanding. His early songs also gave you clues to his relatively sequestered personality. If Lennon and McCartney composed "Please Please Me," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "If I Fell," "Any Time at All," and "Eight Days a Week," which all demanded our participation in those intensely romantic sentiments; Harrison's few songs had titles like "Don't Bother Me," "You Like Me Too Much," "If I Needed Someone" and "Think For Yourself," which set him apart from the ideals of being part of a group.

The Beatles

If Harrison shared in the early mania of the Beatle fervor, he quickly lost the desire to continue sharing in it before anyone else in the group. He was essentially a private man caught up in a very public dream which contained elements of both euphoria and violence. If Lennon and McCartney (and to a lesser extent Ringo) would happily ride it out by continually pushing forward into that wave of hysteria, Harrison stepped back protectively. Even before the violence unleashed in 1966, when John Lennon declared that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus, George Harrison was refusing ticker-tape parades and public parties. In later years, he would even speak caustically of those caught up in the excitement. "They gave their money and they gave their screams, but The Beatles kind of gave their nervous systems, which is a much more different thing to give," he said in The Beatles Anthology documentary.

In part one of George Harrison Living in the Material World, Scorsese doesn't develop any of these fascinating themes. What we get instead is actually confusing. For instance, we start hearing Harrison's philosophical song "All Things Must Pass," which expresses both his spiritual views and his thoughts about the demise of The Beatles, before we have any idea of what exactly is passing (besides WW II images of the German blitz over England). Scorsese then contrasts the group's rise in Hamburg with scenes of Harrison signing his separation papers from the band in 1974. Perhaps Scorsese felt that The Beatles' story is so familiar to audiences that he needed to tell it differently, but his choices are more scattershot rather than bringing a needed clarity. If we didn't already know how the group evolved, we'd be utterly lost with the insertion of material on Stuart Sutcliffe (their reluctant original bass player who desired to be a painter) and Pete Best (their first drummer). Scorsese never latches on to the complications and contradictions inherent in Harrison's evolution as part of The Beatles, which should be the very essence of what his film is supposed to be about. At times, we appear to be randomly leafing through Harrison's personal scrapbook.

Scorsese does however bring us some compelling moments in the interviews. For instance, Astrid Kirchherr (who The Beatles met in Hamburg in the late Fifties where she photographed them while simultaneously falling in love with Stuart Sutcliffe) tells a riveting story of how, after Sutcliffe died in 1962 of a brain hemorrhage, his best friend, John Lennon, wished to visit the room where he painted. While sitting in a chair and feeling emotionally destroyed by his grief for his lost friend, Astrid asked Harrison to stand behind him to give him comfort. She describes accurately how in her photo you can see Harrison's protective support for Lennon who is seen dissolving in tears. The picture speaks to both the powerful bond of friendship within the group and the depth of Harrison's compassion (despite his teenage years). Comments by Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton (Harrison's closest friend and benign adversary) gives us some dimension to the riddles in Harrison's life despite the confusing rush of images (which are made up of unseen material and Harrison interviews conducted for The Beatles Anthology).

George Harrison comforting John Lennon in 1962 (photo by Astrid Kirchherr) 

Despite his hermetic stance, it was George Harrison who developed a spiritualist world view through his embracing of ancient Hindu teachings.While his eyes first opened to mysticism through the use of LSD, he soon abandoned the drug for meditation. His music became enveloped by the beautifully melodic trance of Indian scales heard best in "Love You To" (on Revolver), "Within You, Without You" (on Sgt. Pepper) and "The Inner Light" (the B-side of the "Lady Madonna" single heard on the Past Masters CD). His devouring of the Bhagavad Gita would eventually lead him to India to study with sitar master Ravi Shankar and later to the Transcendental Meditation of the Maharishi Yogi (where The Beatles would join him).

The movie does make clear that Harrison's staunch individuality came from a deeply personal need to connect to spiritual forces larger than himself, but it also led Harrison into a solitary religious piety (which the documentary barely explores). While part two, which looks at Harrison's life after The Beatles, finds a surer footing than part one, it never delves too deeply into Harrison's sharply contrasting characteristics. Wouldn't an obvious question arise as to how such a selfless spiritualist, who rejects the trappings of the material world, nevertheless lives in an opulent estate and becomes a gardener? Scorsese instead bounces from highlight to highlight only briefly touching on Harrison's infidelities and asceticism (which would end his marriage to Patti Boyd and lead to her linking up with Eric Clapton), plus his cocaine problems. George Harrison Living in the Material World doesn't satisfactorily explore the schisms that can erupt in an artist who is as much pulled into the material world as he is trying to transcend it.

Scorsese goes on to examine how Harrison launched the first live aid pop concert in the early seventies in a relief effort for victims of a civil war in Bangladesh, even though he hated the public stage (which became fully acted out in his ill-fated 1974 tour). Not surprisingly, Harrison's sardonic humour would find a warm spot in the anarchic antics of Monty Python, leading him to produce their Life of Brian film (which would cause as much furor as Lennon's remarks about The Beatles and Jesus), and bring him into the world of film production where he would start Hand Made Films. The astonishing output of that company (Time Bandits, Mona Lisa, Withnail & I, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne) could today put many contemporary film distributors to shame. Yet it was the colossal failure of Hand Made's Shanghai Surprise (which starred the tempestuous couple Sean Penn and Madonna), their Heaven's Gate, that ended their run of quality work. Not only does Scorsese ignore Shanghai Surprise, this consummate film buff also avoids The Beatles films in part one. Couldn't he have examined those movies as a means to connect to Harrison's own interest in cinema later? (When Scorsese introduces brief scenes of the 1968 film Wonderwall, which Harrison scored making him the first Beatle to record a solo album, he doesn't even identify the film. Instead he quickly jumps to Antonioni's Blow-Up as if they were one and the same movie.)

While George Harrison's musical output was dim following his epic All Things Must Pass in 1971, he hooked up with Jeff Lynne in the late eighties to make the Cloud Nine album a huge hit. This led to a brief forming of the Traveling Wilburys (including Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Lynne and Roy Orbison). Orbison's sudden death ended the group after their second album. All in all, Scorsese doesn't make much of Harrison's solo output (despite his declaration of love for Harrison's music). There is nothing, for example, about how Jeff Lynne helped Harrison revive his recording career and Scorsese completely ignores Cloud Nine. But Scorsese does provide some fascinating glimpses into Harrison's family life. One of the strongest appearances in the picture belongs to Harrison's wife, Olivia, whose emotionally steady and thoughtful recollections literally anchor the movie.

Traveling Wilburys

I've always found it peculiar (but not entirely surprising) that although everyone remembers John Lennon's murder, most people have forgotten the brutal attempted murder of George Harrison in 1999. Olivia's horrific account of the evening a man broke into their home and tried to stab her husband to death is as powerful, disturbing (and moving) a moment I've seen in any film this year. She tells the story by reliving its horrors while simultaneously flinching at what those memories stir up in her. What that moment reveals, in the context of the entire movie, is how both John Lennon and George Harrison (those two contrasting figures in Astrid's photo in Hamburg) became the true embodiment of the utopian aspirations of The Beatles and their fans. They became different kinds of spiritual lightning rods (the secular Lennon and the religious Harrison) for what critic Mikal Gilmore called "a model of community for youth culture and popular music." But they also became reluctant avatars for the darker shadows of that desire for community. "[T]his longing for community – the dream of self-willed equity and harmony in a world where familiar notions of family and accord were breaking down – would haunt rock's most meaningful moments in the 1960s," Gilmore went on to write.

Olivia and George Harrison

Perhaps had Scorsese found the linkage of Harrison's disparate personality parts through the music, the documentary might have found its unity of soul. (For instance, he never mentions the significance of Harrison's introduction of the sitar into The Beatles' music on the Lennon track "Norwegiaan Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" from Rubber Soul.) But I think the bigger problem with George Harrison Living in the Material World is Scorsese's own form of detachment from it. Unlike his riveting 1978 documentary The Last Waltz, about The Band's final concert at Winterland, Scorsese's become more of an impartial assembler of data here. This was also true of his 2005 No Direction Home Bob Dylan, where he also shaped material that was gathered by others. But, in that movie, he also had the contemporary presence of Bob Dylan. Throughout the film, Dylan is seen measuring himself against the power of the images of that hurricane like ascendancy of his early career. Dylan's commentary often contrasted, sometimes even clashed with those images, yet it also clarified our perceptions of what made him such a huge artist who contained many riddles. ( Surprisingly, little is made of George Harrison and Bob Dylan's friendship and kinship in Living in the Material World.)

Martin Scorsese was making the George Harrison documentary while simultaneously dipping down the blind alleys of Shutter Island. But rather than providing a stronger more coherent theme here, Living in the Material World becomes an enigma onto itself. It's an affectionate and occasionally moving examination of a reluctant star made by a director whose presence appears to be as reluctant as his subject.

-- October 8/11

Agents of Change: HBO's Enlightened & Take Shelter

The Psychiatric Convention at Clark University in 1909

In the early fall of 1909, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were invited to speak at a conference in the United States at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, which was then celebrating its twentieth anniversary. The unspoken hope was that maybe these two fathers of psychoanalysis could address issues of anxiety and delirium which left many in the medical profession baffled and helpless. Many fascinating guests were in attendance for the talks. Besides philosopher and psychologist William James and America's prominent psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, activist and anarchist Emma Goldman, who three years earlier began speaking out for women's rights and birth control, turned up with an entourage to disrupt the proceedings. In the five lectures that Freud would deliver during his stay, he would discuss 'the talking cure' and his work with Anna O. who suffered from a diagnosed hysteria those doctors in Vienna couldn't identify.

But if the gathered throng had hoped for a simple solution to the emotional problems erupting in the modern age, Freud served to disappoint and anger the captive audience. Besides introducing them to his concept of infantile sexuality, where he suggested that traumatic memories stem from "the enduring, repressed wishes of childhood" which are "almost invariably of a sexual nature," he went on to claim that there was no cure from "the original animality of our natures." Author Gary Greenberg (Manufacturing Depression), who recounted this famous event in a fascinating and perceptive article ("The War on Unhappiness") for Harpers magazine in 2010, aptly described how the tumult created by these lectures would effect American psychiatry in the years to come. "Freud had come to the land of unbridled optimism to inform its inhabitants that a fragile equipoise between repression and abandon was the best they could hope for, and perpetual uncertainty their lot," Greenberg wrote. "The dourness of this message is probably what he had in mind when, as his ship pulled into New York Harbor, he turned to Jung and said, 'Don't they know we are bringing them the plague?'"

The reaction to this plague would manifest itself in the psychiatric world for many years as a perpetual pendulum swing between the use of electric shock and lobotomy to pharmaceutics as a means to make people feel happy rather than anxious, cured rather than disturbed, adjusted rather than contrary. In other words, to paraphrase Greenberg, the psychiatric profession ignored Freud's basic message that psychoanalysis isn't about sweeping the dust from our chimneys, but instead about seeing what is hidden in the soot. Movies (Shine, A Beautiful Mind) and television (The Sopranos, In Treatment) have seldom dealt directly with examining the soot choosing instead the road to redemption through chimney sweeping. Psychoanalysts are usually no more than benign guidance counselors who lead people in finding their personal salvation rather than examining the deeper unconscious roots of their misery.

Laura Dern in HBO's Enlightened

In the new HBO series Enlightened, however, the very subject of salvation becomes the whole issue. Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) is a self-destructive 40-year old corporate sales executive who has just returned to her home in California after a stay in a holistic treatment center, as a result of having a meltdown at work that was triggered by a number of self-destructive habits (including sleeping with her married boss). After her transformative experience, she feels that she is now an agent of change who, through meditation and inner healing, has come back to work with the zeal of a prophet. She feels her company can now change the world. Of course, what Amy can't immediately see is that, despite her 'enlightened' state, people don't share her enthusiasm for pop spiritualism. This includes her mother (played with a sure subtlety by real-life actress mom Diane Ladd) who, when Amy tries to start 'meaningful dialogue' with her, looks puzzled and asks her why; her former boss who recoils in terror at Amy's attempts to 'find closure'; her former assistant Krista (Sarah Burns) who has inherited her former boss' job in her absence (she also talks friendship but acts contrary); and her former husband Levi (Luke Wilson) who might snort cocaine and eat junk food, but has an easy non-judgmental manner that perceives a potential zealot in his midst.

Created by Mike White (Chuck and Buck, the 2004 TV show Cracking Up) and Dern, Enlightened takes on New Age philosophies without (so far) taking comic short-cuts in satirizing their banalities. A large part of that might well be due to having Laura Dern in the lead role. Dern is a genius at unleashing a sunny warmth in her tall frame, a brightness that can light a room, but she can also turn herself into the kind of brassy broad that allows her to stridently command the room (as her mother once did in roles like her diner waitress in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore). Playing Katherine Harris, the Florida Secretary of State, in Recount (2008), a film about the battle for Florida in the 2000 Presidential election, Laura Dern turned Harris' obliviousness into a tour de force performance of comic derangement, a delicately lethal dose that she also brings to Enlightened. When Levi suggests to Amy that she isn't saved, but instead is hanging on by a slender thread, we can clearly see that Dern perches Amy's new found optimism over a desperate abyss. (When Amy returns to work, she gets demoted to data processing in the basement with 'circus freaks' that she hopes to convert to her holistic mission. Mike White plays one of her flaky co-workers.) After two episodes, it may be too early to tell if the series will turn as dim and curdled as White's Chuck and Buck; but for now, Enlightened unravels the quiet desperation that lurks beneath the sunny optimism of New Age hope, a hope that chooses to close the door on the threatening darkness of Freud's idea of the plague.

If Amy sees the possibility of her new found faith lighting and saving the world from its animal nature, Michael Shannon's Curtis, a rural Ohio family man, is having apocalyptic visions and dark frightening dreams that he interprets as a secular rapture in Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter. Initially a happily married construction worker who is envied by his friends and co-workers, Curtis' life quickly turns into something less than appealing. After first seeing rippling storm clouds bearing yellow rain, and birds that arrange themselves in odd formations, Curtis can't tell whether these strange manifestations are part of an inherited paranoid schizophrenia from his institutionalized mother (Kathy Baker), or if he's having prophetic visions that he has to warn the world about. Take Shelter has an appetizing dramatic premise about how one man can't tell whether the storms he experiences are his own internal neurosis, or a manifestation of nature's own version of violent cruelty. But Take Shelter promises more than it ultimately delivers.

Michael Shannon in Take Shelter

The first problem with Take Shelter is the casting of Michael Shannon in the lead role. It's pretty clear why Nichols (who worked with Shannon in his 2007 film Shotgun Stories) cast him in the part; Shannon's specialty is in playing tightly wound and emotionally armored characters who become completely unstitched. But as Shannon showed portraying the soldier with the fifty-mile stare in World Trade Center, the Holy Fool of Revolutionary Road, the mad Svengeli figure of Kim Fowley in The Runaways, or as the morally obsessed G-man of Boardwalk Empire, he has no mid-range as an actor. His emotional armor doesn't hide a character, it is his character. We never see what that solid granite face and those spooked eyes are hiding – except for a pending rage which usually comes to a full boil. (For those who long for one of Shannon's mother-of-all-meltdowns, he provides a beauty late in the picture.) Resembling Jack Nicholson in The Shining, but without the cartoon nuances, Michael Shannon looks disturbed and deranged before he even begins to fall apart. Instead of having us fear for a man who is losing his sense of reality, madness ends up inadvertently fulfilling him – as it did for Nicholson in Kubrick's folly.

Even if an actor with better range had played the role, I'm still not sure if the movie would work. Despite Nichols gift for creating a visually compelling roiling canvas of apocalyptic imagery, there's a redundancy in the storytelling that becomes painfully repetitious. While we are constantly reminded of the schizophrenia in Curtis' family, it never really comes to anything dramatically perceptive (even though Kathy Baker provides a quietly spooked cameo). We watch Curtis exiling his dog to the backyard because it attacked him in a dream, or using up his family's funds to extend their storm shelter (even though his wife – played with some gravity by Jessica Chastain – and their deaf daughter need the money for their girl's new hearing implants). People generally stand around and watch him crack up while remaining impassive. The daughter never even recoils from her father's odd behaviour. Curtis later gives their dog to his brother without his wife and daughter – who claim to love the dog – even bothering to notice. Take Shelter quickly gives you the feeling of not really getting anywhere.

Because the film merely catalogs – with some monotony – Curtis' mounting psychosis, you really don't get to examine what's hidden in the Freudian soot of Curtis' chimney. Instead we get an unsatisfying modernist version of an O. Henry ending that worked with more suspenseful intrigue years earlier on a half-hour The Twilight Zone. (In fact, HBO's Six Feet Under did this same material with a deeper sense of urgency and power in the episode "Bomb Shelter" from Season Five. James Cromwell, with calm, yet painful despair, plays a man who becomes obsessed with Armageddon and retires into the family bomb shelter.) Take Shelter could perhaps be perceived as some metaphor for post 9/11 America where people can't discern real fear from paranoia, but it would be a stretch to read that much into it. Besides, with Michael Shannon in the lead role, how would you even know the difference between true portent from imagined terror?

-- October 18/11

The Cruel Tease of Lost Promise: The Beach Boys' The Smile Sessions

Probably no pop album experiment has ever developed the legendary mythical status afforded Smile album. Considering that it's a record that was never finished by the band and shelved in the vaults for years (in fact, it's a work that brought heartache and madness to its creator), Smile built a large appetite over the years for its release. Now it has finally been issued in an epic box-set (The Smile Sessions) complete with 5-CDs of material that includes a facsimile of the original record, plus many CDs of session material that chronicle the album's creation. Included as well is a 2-LP vinyl set of Smile, two 45rpm singles from the work, a book with extensive background material on the making of Smile and its aftermath, and a 24" by 36" poster of Frank Holmes' quaintly evocative cover art (which is duplicated in 3-D on the front of the box itself). A more compact 2-disc set will be out shortly for the more casual and cost conscious fan. Never in the history of pop music though has an incomplete record ever been so lavished in merchandising. It puts the work itself in danger of being buried by the hype. But no amount of hype can hide the troubled atmosphere conjured within its tracks.

Resembling Bob Dylan & The Band's The Basement Tapes, Smile is a drug-induced gaze back on the early frontier spirit of the American past; and just like many daring artifacts that tap into the tapestry of that frontier, it's a grand folly, a failure of ambition with scatterings of masterful songs embroidered into its symphonic canvas. But where The Basement Tapes provided a clearly defined map of America's musical past, it also confidently pointed forward to a future that would give birth to the grassroots pop of Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding (1967) and The Band's Music From Big Pink (1968), two hugely influential records that changed the course of Sixties music. Those informal 1967 recordings in the Big Pink basement in Woodstock also created a camaraderie among the musicians which brought focus to their subterranean experiments. With The Beach Boys' Smile, which began recording in 1966, its progenitor Brian Wilson had no such spirit of fraternity with his mates and the drugs didn't loosen up the dynamics (as it did with The Basement Tapes). Instead it brought paranoia and collapse. As for the album title, Smile couldn't have been more of a misnomer. It became what David Leaf, author of The Beach Boys & the California Myth, aptly called "a cruel tease of lost promise."

The origins of Smile began as early as 1965 when Brian Wilson had been introduced to composer Van Dyke Parks. In one sense, Parks was Hollywood incarnate, a former child actor who once had a small role in Grace Kelly's final picture, The Swan (1956). In his adult years, though, Parks developed into a musical iconoclast who both arranged, produced and composed idiosyncratic pop (Song Cycle). What he was after was a new and bold form of American song, compositions that would contain faint echoes of America's past while opening up new territory for its future. He crafted lyrics of the kind he described to Barney Hoskyns in Waiting for the Sun as "lyrics from the halcyon days of the pop song in America ... the days of Cole Porter and great musical theater." Parks told Hoskyns that he was chiefly interested in "the thoughtfulness of cadence that had proceeded rock & roll." This thoughtfulness of cadence became the exceptional characteristic that Parks brought to Wilson's beach party.

Brian Wilson working with Van Dyke Parks in 1966

Parks had first worked his way into the band when he played some piano and marimba on The Beach Boys' exuberant 1966 hit, "Good Vibrations." While this mini-symphony was climbing the charts, Parks and Wilson began entertaining ideas of collaborating on some songs. Their budding friendship, though, was starting to infuriate the rest of the band – especially Wilson's usual writing partner, Mike Love, who began to sense someone fucking with the very formula that made The Beach Boys the standard-bearers of California hedonism. As a follow-up to the group's staggering Pet Sounds, Parks and Wilson conceived (with the assistance of hashish and speed) a teenage symphony to God (not a promising sign). Ultimately called Smile, they both saw the work as a musical collage designed to be both amusingly enchanting and spiritual. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be neither.

The tunes written for Smile (and included in the box-set) are instead some of the most abstract pieces ever conceived for a pop album. On this project, Wilson set out to abandon his long celebration of Southern California youth culture even though it had been The Beach Boys who depicted this world so well, and so generously. Wilson and Parks concocted an American pastiche that was meant to move The Beach Boys into adulthood. Smile opens with "Our Prayer," a wordless, a cappella benediction with cascading harmonies immediately invoking the band's antecedents like The Four Freshmen. "Our Prayer" leads the group into a cover of a brief snippet of "Gee," the 1953 doo-wop hit by The Crows (the first doo-wop recording ever to sell over a million copies), an affectionate bit of R&B, which represented another part of The Beach Boys' musical underpinnings. An elliptical allegory, "Heroes and Villains," then quickly follows, pointing a way out of the teen wilderness that The Beach Boys had occupied for so long ("I've been in this town so long/That back in the city/I've been lost and gone/And unknown for a long, long time"). "Heroes and Villains" was intended to be a getaway car eagerly gunning out of town, an adult love story playfully adorned with whistles, a honky-tonk piano serenading a cantina, and those famous Beach Boys voices decorating the song like coloured lights on a Christmas tree.

Taken as a whole, Smile is less a collection of songs than a madly inspired soundscape, a wildly ambitious series of components with faint remembrances of America's musical past (including traces of "You Are My Sunshine" and variations on Hawaiian canons). You'll find wistfully contemplative tracks like the heavenly "Cabinessence" and the exquisite "Surf's Up" (which puts the band's career – and the country that spawned them – in perspective), as well as an experimental suite known as "The Elements." "The Elements" was initially conceived to encompass four classical elements: Air ("Wind Chimes"), Fire ("Mrs. O'Leary's Cow"), Earth ("Vega-Tables") and Water ("In Blue Hawaii").

A very stoned Brian Wilson conducting "The Elements"

Back in 1966, Capitol Records eagerly anticipated the finished record (especially after "Good Vibrations," which would be included on Smile, hit Number One) and began promoting it as a January 1967 release. But by the fall, something started to go horribly wrong. For one thing, the Smile sessions were starting to leave the rest of The Beach Boys grumbling rather than grinning. Mike Love, who had been quite content singing, "She'll have fun, fun, fun, 'til her daddy takes the T-Bird away," wasn't pleased at having to wrap his tongue around Parks' lyrics like, "Dove-nested towers - the hour was strike the street, quicksilver moon" ("Surf's Up"). In effect, Parks had become the equivalent of The Beatles' Yoko Ono – a loquacious outsider who, before long, had everyone but Brian searching for the right words to get rid of him. The calamitous collision of personalities ultimately collapsed Brian Wilson's already fragile state of mind.

By the new year, Smile was doomed. To fulfill their contractual obligations, however, a few of the songs formed a shadow project called Smiley Smile. Released later in 1967, the new album was more a work of oddball chamber pop. While featuring some re-recorded versions of Smile songs like "Wind Chimes," "Wonderful" and "Vegetables," as well as "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains," it lacked the thematic unity Wilson and Parks had envisioned for their original project. Other Smile tracks would be scattered like crumbs over the next few Beach Boys' albums.

Time, though, has a way of changing our perspective on failure. Within a year after it was shelved, Smile started to take on a rather curious status in the American pop underground. Although incomplete and unreleased, it became oddly influential. After functioning mostly as a rumour, when some bootlegged tracks confirmed its existence, Smile became a catalyst for records that followed in its wake. It was the ultimate ghost project. In fact, looking back now, it's hard to consider The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), Love's Forever Changes (1967), The Monkees' wild experiments on Head (1968), the Byrds' The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968), Jimi Hendrix's uneven masterpiece Electric Ladyland (1968), Al Kooper's You Never Really Know Who Your Friends Are (1968), Spirit's The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (1970), Shuggie Otis's Inspiration Information (1974), or Fleetwood Mac's Tusk (1979), without thinking of Smile.

Ironically, Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks did complete Smile in 2004, with the help of The Wondermints (a group whose very sound is an homage to The Beach Boys), and recorded the CD Brian Wilson Presents Smile. Although Wilson no longer possessed the soaring falsetto he had in the Sixties, it was a joy to hear the conceptual work freed from its consignment as a transitory object, an amorphous voice that opened countless doors for other artists to walk through. But as satisfying as Brian Wilson Presents Smile was, it lacked what critic Donald Brackett called "the chemical component." There was an aspect of the album's original danger, brought on by the dope, that the new recording sidestepped. (It even ended with the upbeat and reassuring "Good Vibrations" rather than the more poignant "Surf's Up." The new Smile makes exactly the same mistake.)

Brian Wilson performing Smile with The Wondermints in 2004

The Smile Sessions doesn't remedy any of its other problems either because we're still hearing an unfulfilled project (whether that chemical component is there or not). While it's tempting to compare The Smile Sessions to the 1997 The Pet Sounds Sessions, which also did a forensics examination of the creating of that record, it is nowhere near as coherent. On The Pet Sounds Sessions, we hear Brian Wilson marshaling his full creative resources in bringing The Beach Boys to new ground with a completed masterpiece at the end of it. On The Smile Sessions, the exhaustive session material, as riveting as it is, illustrates the exact opposite. We hear Wilson now desperately trying to get the band to sing harmonies that his new music can't fully harness, while asking the others whether the acid has kicked in yet. You can hear the fear of failure in this music along with a brilliant stab at audaciousness that is rudderless at its core. The Smile Sessions provides a fascinating subtext to the collapsing confidence of Brian Wilson (much as the documentary Hearts of Darkness did likewise in revealing to us Francis Ford Coppola's fear of failure while conceiving Apocalypse Now).

Pet Sounds was Wilson's attempt to top The Beatles' Rubber Soul. When The Beatles answered back with Revolver (1966), their own eclectic masterpiece, Wilson tried to reply with Smile. But unlike The Beatles, who (as with Godard in his Sixties films) tore up the ground that others tried to follow, The Beach Boys couldn't shake the brand name that chained them. Like The Beatles, The Beach Boys would also cross paths (although more literally) with killer Charles Manson and battle through (and sometimes without) Brian Wilson. Their uneven career following Smile was forever overshadowed by its naked daring and The Beach Boys never fully recovered from it.

The Smiling Gentlemen from "Hush"

This is what all the heavy packaging and hoopla over Smile cleverly hides. It veils the darker corners within the record. The boxes of laughing lips in the window display of the cover art (accompanied by the assuring smiles of the store owners inside) could just as easily turn into the eerie smiles of The Gentlemen in the episode of "Hush" on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. The mission of The Gentlemen was to tear out the hearts of their victims which Smile would also do to its own creator some 45 years ago. The Smile Sessions is moreover a paradoxical bit of marketing. In grandly celebrating an ambitious work that never really saw the light of day, Capitol Records is trying to perfume the turbulence that once permeated it. But the music in this set is too unsettling and alternately too daring to be hidden by the label's sunny front. Once the five discs of the session tapes are fully listened to, and absorbed, you are simply floored by the madly ambitious reach and scope of this record. It's an absolutely startling listening experience. But you also can't help but finally grasp why all those smiles would soon be turned to frowns.

-- November 1/11

To Die For: 50/50 & The Walking Dead (Season Two)

Seth Rogan and Joesph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50 

The French existentialist philosopher and novelist Albert Camus once wrote that the real injustice of life is our recognition that everyone we know and love one day will die. It's what, he said, makes our life truly absurd. But you'd never know this from most of the movies made on the subject. The idea of death – its very final reality – might be the subject of many stories, yet rarely is its injustice (or absurdity) ever fully acknowledged. When Cary Grant and Irene Dunne lose their adopted child in George Stevens' popular 1941 melodrama Penny Serenade, for example, our sympathies don't concentrate on the dead infant but on the grieving parents instead. We're made to feel for their loss and pain, not the cruel and random taking of a child. It's as if the idea of death – a subject that gnawed hungrily at Camus in books like The Plague – was too terrifying to confront so movies concentrated instead on the moral struggles of the living.

In pictures like Penny Serenade, the drama isn't worked out so that we come to terms with death, but instead with our trying to avoid it. Melodramas in particular always repress the notion of death, recognizing that our greatest fear of death, besides losing loved ones, is in our own terror of having not lived fully enough, of having perhaps pissed away valuable time that we can't get back. So this is why, especially when you add a recognizable disease like cancer to the mix, the stories resolve with the living having finally learned life's important lessons and then becoming better people. When you watch tear-jerkers like Love Story (1970), Brian's Song (1971), and especially, Terms of Endearment (1983), the survivors settle all rifts, resolve painful grievances, and improve their behaviour. These movies maybe even give us the impression that we can live forever, if we'd just improve our character. They make us feel edified, thanks to those who've died on our behalf, so that our own mortality gets comfortably buried with the bodies being grieved over. However in the recent dramatic comedy, 50/50, not only does death get stared directly in its face, but the picture also dares to laugh at it. Like Camus, 50/50 sees the absurdity in the subject. And it does so without cheapening or avoiding death's victories and temporary losses.

A young NPR documentary producer, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), finds out from his doctor after getting tests for ongoing back pain that he has a rare type of spinal cancer. When he's told he needs to begin chemotherapy and has about a 50/50 chance of survival, he feels cheated. As someone who jogs and doesn't smoke, he thinks those activities had provided him a buy from having to deal with the Grim Reaper. But quickly Adam's condition becomes not only his own personal crucible, but also one to his overbearing, but loving mother (Anjelica Huston), his out-of-her-depth artist girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), and his stoner co-worker Kyle (Seth Rogen). His doctor also recommends he see a hospital psychologist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), but she turns out to be an inexperienced student working on her doctorate. Death, to her, is to be warded off with New Age musical trills and positive thoughts and energy channeling. Everywhere Adam turns, death is being ducked except by a couple of patients he shares chemo treatment and marijuana with – the cranky Alan (Philip Baker Hall) and the whimsical Mitch (Matt Fewer).

Anna Kendrick and Joseph Gordon-Levitt

The film, originally titled Live With It, is based loosely on screenwriter Will Reiser's own experiences dealing with cancer and it has a comic frankness about the subject that is refreshing, even remarkably touching. In the picture's single most imaginative scene, Adam shares some marijuana-laced macaroons with Alan and Mitch at his first chemo session with them. Having never done weed before, he's totally ignorant of its effects. As he strolls out of the hospital, to the accompaniment of the Bee Gees ballad "To Love Somebody," Adam walks blissfully through the halls with scenes of grief-struck parents, sick patients wobbling past, even dead babies in incubators, while laughing, not with insensitivity, but with the comic awareness of death's darkness surrounding him with its unavoidable grasp. Director Jonathan Levine keeps everything in perspective, subtly letting you in on the insoluble fact that the 50/50 odds are merely temporary ones. Surprisingly, the film's humour both leavens the darkness and heightens it. 50/50 illuminates the kind of humour that can act as a defense against pain as well as demonstrate the kind that addresses it.

The performers are largely up to the task. Once again, Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows what a remarkably versatile actor he is. Levitt showed some remarkable shadings of melancholy as the brain-damaged bank janitor in the otherwise negligible The Lookout (2007). He was equally brilliant – and boldly shocking – as the hopped-up sociopath eagerly seeking the partnership of Mickey Rourke's hit man in the little seen, but terrifically effective, Elmore Leonard adaptation, Killshot (2008). In 50/50, Gordon-Levitt plays Adam as a guy who calmly has things under control – on the surface – but is seething underneath. He's grown used to accommodating everyone else, including a girlfriend who only has her own interest at heart and a best friend who's both crudely funny and annoying. Gordon-Levitt brings you to a full awareness of the frustrations of a guy who spends his life observing, but never knowing how to act.

Gordon-Levitt walking stoned through the halls of the cancer ward

Unfortunately, he has to play opposite Seth Rogen. Rogen is becoming a predictable one-note wrecking crew in every movie he appears in. (In real life, Rogen is Reiser's best friend and writing partner.) Rogen's talent, as he demonstrated in Knocked Up (2007) and The Green Hornet (2011), is to be the annoying slob who turns out to have a heart of gold. But Rogen's familiar shtick is so self-serving (and catering to the slobs-in-training in the audience) that he's always in danger of jettisoning the picture. But fortunately, Levine keeps him mostly anchored in character. There's not much Levine can do about Bryce Dallas Howard's part as the girlfriend who can't hack what Adam is going through. It's a poorly conceived role. Levine and Reiser don't give her a human scale so that we can see that maybe she takes refuge in her own life to avoid the possible fate of losing Adam. Besides making her too obviously narcissistic, they even have her sleeping around on Adam. (You wince at the scene where Rogen's Kyle gets to tell her off.)

Fortunately, Anjelica Huston gives her part, as the worrying mother, some consideration that completely humanizes her failings. Anna Kendrick's therapist still has those self-conscious ticks that marred her work in Up in the Air (2009), but she's softer here and she has a lovely moment towards the end when Adam phones her in a moment of painful vulnerability. Overall, I wish there were more moments with Philip Baker Hall and Matt Fewer who share some poignant moments talking with Adam and Kyle, while sharing some spliffs, about what they loved about the early days of radio. Their chats have the gravity of what savoring life's rich moments gives you. 50/50 is a nimble balancing act that is both engaging and entertaining. It is also remarkably free of cant and heart-tugging. The film earns its tears by recognizing how fragile life truly is. There's a huge difference between sentimentality, which cheapens emotions, and romanticism (which heightens them). In that regard, 50/50 beats the odds.

The Walking Dead

Sunday night, AMC's apocalyptic horror series The Walking Dead went into a brief hiatus during its second season (where it picks up again in February) with a number of viewers already feeling disappointed with the inertia shown so far. Critics generally acknowledged that its action-packed terror, with its obvious echoes of post-9/11 America, kept the plot racing along (even as it diverted from the much darker corners of the original graphic novel). This year, however, the survivors of this zombie apocalypse outside Atlanta, Georgia, have settled (as they did in the comic) at a rural farm. While there, they've been endlessly searching for a little girl from their group who became lost running from the 'walkers' (the term used here for zombie). They also had to wait out the healing of a young boy accidentally shot by one of the homesteaders, as well as pregnancies, discussing the use of guns, recalling Old Testament judgments, etc. All of this could make for fine drama, but for the fact that this group of actors – and the measured doggerel coming out of their mouths – pretends a depth that just isn't there.

In the first season, The Walking Dead stayed true to its pulp origins where metaphors of larger themes were packed in B-movie bits of action. The characters achieved personality essentially by reacting to the collapse around them. Andrew Lincoln's sheriff made his presence felt when we saw what there was to die for: the wife and kid he fought the walking dead to get to. The clan of survivors also each revealed their personalities as they fought to find some means to survive – especially Jon Bernthal's deputy Shane who had coveted his partner's wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), assuming his buddy had died in the carnage. The larger dramatic issues grew out of the little bits of business rather than through stated bigger themes. But that's all we have this year. The existential dread is being welded onto this slim and trim action story and (like with most action pictures) it can't hold the weight.

Andrew Lincoln and Scott Wilson

While there are still compelling moments scattered throughout the second season, The Walking Dead is developing its own somnambulism much like the lagging corpses stalking them. (Sometimes the corpses seem to be moving faster than the living.) Worse, it is revealing the deficiencies of the actors who carried the first season. The conflicting instincts of Shane, which shockingly revealed itself this season in a bold horrific gesture that didn't come from the book, just can't be fully articulated by Bernthal's mannered performance. (Until the concluding episode, he was in danger into turning into Lenny from Of Mice and Men.) Andrew Lincoln has suddenly become blandly righteous and conscientiousness while Sarah Wayne Callies' Lori endlessly wrings her hands and frets. By trying to deepen the tragedy of the homeless survivors, who are trying to find some sense of what home now means, all the creators have done is drowned the show in angst.

The signs of life have largely come from Scott Wilson's Biblical patriarch who runs the farm. Wilson has always suggested a richly authentically American character – both stoic and sometimes as a killer (the blank, scared face he gave us as Robert Blake's partner in In Cold Blood) – one who seems to contain the many contradictions of the country itself. His measured tones make more sense than the moody insolence everyone else conjures up. The playfully seductive timbre of Lauren Holden's voice as Maggie, while she flirts with Glenn (Steven Yuen), also has an appealing buoyancy even when she pouts. But everyone else is dead earnest.

If the regular episodes have been dragging their feet, until Sunday night's cathartic conclusion, AMC has curiously put 'webisodes' on their Internet site. These contain roughly fifteen minutes of scenes that give us a back-story to some of the characters we've met only briefly – but memorably – during the broadcast. For instance, the zombie crawler near the bicycle with half a body (she could hardly be called a 'walker') from the very first pilot episode is given a 'webisode' where we see how she became that way. Here's a clue: it ain't pretty. But, in a sense, the 'webisode' shows you by contrast what is missing from this season so far. By showing us living people in constant motion, as they find various means to ward off the stalking predators, we see how these circumstances test their ingenuity and valour. We come to see why their life matters to them. (The walking dead, by comparison, are simple. They just want to feed.) But don't get me wrong. It's not that I want to see endless mayhem and blood, but given the limitations of the action/horror genre, the producers can't pretend to be William Faulkner either. The Walking Dead only comes to life when the living can dramatically demonstrate why they chose not to be dead – walking or not.

-- November 29/11

Stealing Voices & Naming Names: Tim Riley's Biography of John Lennon

Just about the only scene I enjoyed in Walter Hill's action comedy 48 Hrs (1982) was when Nick Nolte's bleery-eyed cracker cop reluctantly visits prison to spring the slick hustler Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) to help him capture Hammond's former partners in crime. As Nolte approaches the cell, Murphy is listening to his Walkman, oblivious to Nolte – hell, oblivious to the world – while lost in the falsetto notes of Sting's affected soul strutting in The Police's hit song "Roxanne." Murphy is singing along, note for note, not only matching Sting, but surpassing him. What comes across initially as parody quickly takes hold as the only true version of the song. The notes Murphy hits are exactly the same as Sting's, but you actually believe Murphy's tale of a streetwalker. He may be thinking of someone he loves, or perhaps, a broken girl that he left on the outside before he started doing time. (Sting never convinces you that he even knows a streetwalker. He merely convinces you that he walks on the street.)

While it's hardly an example of divine retribution, of stealing back what Pat Boone once stole from Little Richard, but whenever I now hear The Police singing "Roxanne," I crack up. I can't hear Sting anymore. It's Eddie Murphy's voice that replaces him in my mind. No need to Bring Me the Head of Gordon Sumner, as Howard Hampton put it once in one of his delightfully cranky essays, Sting's no longer worthy of being a trophy. In 48 Hrs, a film that shrewdly exploited racial tensions for cheap laughs, and provided what critic Pauline Kael rightly called "an eighties minstrel show," Eddie Murphy came to own "Roxanne," turning it from a minstrel number into a real soul song. (Nick Nolte, who could care less, rips the headphones from Murphy's head before he can even finish the song.) Yet that's the sheer beauty of getting to test the worth of an artist's voice, to see if you can steal what they've claimed as their own. It's partly what drives cover bands, too, who try to both emulate their idols and – potentially – steal the thunder of the idols they adore. But you can't steal someone's thunder if it's not put there to steal.

author Tim Riley

Which brings me to Tim Riley's new biography of John Lennon. First of all, the title isn't promising (Lennon: The Man, The Myth, The Music – The Definitive Life). It announces the artist as if he's part of an ad for a new improved washer and dryer. But Riley is a critic rather than a chronicler like Philip Norman (who did the last Lennon biography in 2008, a book that was dull and innocuous). He also wrote one of the better books on The Beatles' music, Tell Me Why, back in 1988. Lennon surpasses the hyperbole of its title and turns out to be not only a perceptive look into the paradoxical genius of the artist, but Riley also illuminates the work of those who influenced him. His writing on Buddy Holly, for instance, not only clearly explains why he was an essential part of John Lennon's musical makeup, but he elevates and eloquently clarifies Holly's important role in the history of rock. "Holly's genius sidestepped Presley's sexual confidence," Riley writes. "Male fans like Lennon thrilled to Presley's rebellious flight but found his sexual bravado, his self-confidence with women, out of reach. Where Presley was at ease singing to and about women, Holly romanced with a stuttering resolve that spoke more to male vulnerability and insecurity..." Besides showing us how Holly's work, in "That'll Be the Day" and "Words of Love," would provide the sexual allure to draw Lennon, Riley explains how the core of sensitivity in Holly's work would be a building block for The Beatles' best work – from their shouters to their loving ballads. Riley's brief examination of Buddy Holly made me hope the Texan pioneer might be his next subject for a book.

Besides revealing the manner in which artists can rightfully appropriate the voices of their progenitors in order to find their own voice, Riley also examines how Lennon sometimes improved on them. For instance, in The Isley Brothers' 1962 R&B hit "Twist and Shout," Riley correctly describes it as "a standard-issue rave-up to work the crowd." When The Beatles recorded the song, however, it became this titanic show-stopper, the song they chose to conclude their debut LP Please Please Me that same year. Riley claims, by comparison, that The Beatles made the Isley Brothers' version sound "both quaint and pregnant." As Riley points out, you barely hear any trace of the Isleys in their "Twist and Shout." In The Beatles' hands it becomes one of the rare examples of a white band providing more power and soul to an R&B track first created by a black group. And they did it, like Elvis, without "patronizing their models."

Even if Riley's Lennon covers what by now has become pretty familiar ground, he brings the same acute perspective he illustrated in Tell Me Why, assuring its rightful place in Beatles scholarship. But if he's perceptively open-handed towards the music and the culture, I wish he was equally candid towards other facts in the history of John Lennon. Surely most of us who loved Lennon and his music, who were truly devastated when he was brutally murdered on this day 31 years ago, would love to erase that fact from history. But the sad truth is that John Lennon was shot to death on December 8, 1980 by a deranged fan named Mark David Chapman. Riley however decides that he's doing us all some justice by not mentioning his name in the book. (He's first referred to vaguely as a "person holding [Double Fantasy with] unkempt hair and wire-rimmed glasses." When he shoots Lennon, Chapman becomes simply "a young autograph hound.") As a gesture towards remembering the victim rather than the victimizer, it reeks of a particular liberal piousness, but one with a Stalinist tendency to conveniently airbrush out of history people he doesn't want remembered for the cruel part they would play in it.
Does this mean if Tim Riley wrote a book on JFK's assassination, there would be no need to mention Lee Harvey Oswald? Perhaps James Earl Ray was never born and it was an anonymous bullet that ended the life of Martin Luther King. How about Manson? Shall we just say that Sharon Tate was butchered by deranged hippies? But there were plenty of deranged hippies who didn't commit the horrible acts that Manson's Family did. There are also plenty of 'autograph hounds' who might feel rightly insulted that they are lumped in with Chapman and his barbaric act by Riley. If John Hinckley Jr. didn't shoot Reagan than maybe Jodie Foster doesn't exist either since, in Hinckley's twisted logic, he was doing it for her. The existence of Mark David Chapman is essential to the story of John Lennon because Chapman is the shadow side of what many once perceived as the benign hysteria of Beatlemania. The more hideous irony, though, is that Chapman, a born-again Christian, became more disillusioned with Lennon in his increasingly psychotic state beginning with Lennon's 1966 comment that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. In a sense, you could say that Mark Chapman was the dark avenger for Christ who ultimately, to paraphrase Norman Mailer, cashed the cheque that Lennon wrote in 1966. Removing him by name reduces the weight of this tragedy to an "autograph hound" with a gun merely ending a life.

Whether we like it or not, these killers are part of history and they have names. And their defined acts are part of what makes that history true and also horrible. I mean, how can you properly discuss Chapman and not give him a name?! How does that change anything about what he did? How does that right the wrong, or even remove him from our memory. What about those who in the future will study the history of this period? Are we to select for them who they should remember? If we leave out names, are we not further continuing the dehumanizing manner in which the assassin dehumanizes his victims by seeing them as faceless? Names give identities to people. By giving permission to name some names and eliminate others provides a double-standard by which to interpret history.

By omission, Riley also eliminates from history the most controversial work written about John Lennon which was pop critic Albert Goldman's 1988 The Lives of John Lennon. A large part of that controversy was that Goldman portrayed Lennon not according to the mythical status he'd achieved through his life, and especially in death, but as someone fundamentally schizophrenic and deeply flawed. The book might have been a peculiar mixture of tabloid speculation and critical insight, but there is no way Tim Riley could have arrived at his nuanced view of John Lennon without Goldman's work.

In Lennon, Riley makes assertions, as well as disputes findings, that were originally part of Goldman's research, even answering Goldman's claims without referring to him. Consider for example, Goldman disputing the common perception of Paul McCartney's taking charge of The Beatles during the time of Sgt. Pepper as part of a power grab. "Paul never made the slightest effort to get rid of Lennon," Goldman writes. "In fact, he kept pursuing John until the last year of John's life, hoping to revive their old partnership." Goldman then goes on to examine Lennon's means of protesting McCartney's ascension. "Instead of having it out with Paul, as old partners should do, John sulked and played possum. Lennon wouldn't lead, but neither would he follow; hence, he had no choice but to tune out." Here's Riley on the same issue: "[A]lthough Lennon won the Lennon-McCartney argument on Sgt. Pepper's sequence...the balance of power within the band had already shifted. Lennon dropped his Beatle reins without a fight. In the ongoing war over the band's identity, Lennon folded his material into McCartney's concept with ease..." In many areas of his book, Riley makes thoughtful observations that were only possible because Goldman had already pulled down the curtain on the Lennon mythology.

Because The Lives of John Lennon was marred by a hipster's mean-spirited and slanderous tone, Goldman's best instincts as a critic were overlooked. (U2's Bono would even write his own form of character assassination in the group's song "God, Part II": "Don't believe in Goldman/His type is like a curse/Instant karma's going to get him/If I don't get him first." Didn't Bono see the irony in being a pop star issuing a death threat to a critic who wrote about an assassinated pop star?) But Goldman's observations on The Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show features the kind of critical elegance that made better scholarship on the group possible. "Accoutered in dark, tubular Edwardian suits that exaggerated the stiff, buttoned-up carriage of these young Englishmen, The Beatles resembled four long-haired classical musicians, like the Pro Musica Antiqua, playing electric lutes and rebecs and taking deep formal bows after each rendition," Goldman observes. "John Lennon, unsmiling and stiffbacked, looked positively dignified, his aquiline nose and full face giving him the appearance of a Renaissance nobleman."

critic and biographer Albert Goldman

For most of his career, Albert Goldman (especially in his sparkling collection of essays, Freakshow: Misadventures in the Counter-Culture 1959-1971) could seize an artist's worth in a quick phrase, or a pithy sentence. On Tiny Tim: "Tiny Tim is a lost lithograph by Toulouse-Lautrec." On comic Rodney Dangerfield: "[T]he zooming camera sets you face to face with his moist, protuberant, bloodshot eyes, his impatiently pursed, irritably drawn mouth, his lugubriously heavy, self-pitying voice and suddenly – you're staring deep into the soul of the Silent Majority." On Aretha Franklin's cover of The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction": "It took Aretha Franklin to make the song a jubilee: a finger-popping, hip-swinging Mardi Gras strut that is the greatest proclamation of sexual fulfillment since Molly Bloom's soliloquy." These great lines have some of that pulsing American jazz swing that takes the starch out of the stiff academic theoretical criticism that squeezes the emotional life out of a work.

It's unfortunate though that Albert Goldman turned to writing biographies. His Lenny Bruce bio (Ladies and Gentlemen – Lenny Bruce!!) was a great antidote to the saintly portrait presented in Bob Fosse's Lenny by illustrating how Bruce brought the backstage sleaze of the stand-up comedy world into his satirical material, but his Elvis Presley bio (Elvis in 1981) was a spiritually ugly piece of work that (among other things) attempted to deny Elvis his rightful place in American popular culture. Perhaps it was the vicious hatred for his subject in Elvis that had people laying in wait to ambush him on The Lives of John Lennon (which contained further elements of poisonous condescension but more critical appraisal). Yet without Goldman's seriously flawed, but observant work, we'd be getting more hagiographic accounts of John Lennon instead of perceptively critical ones.

When Eddie Murphy stole "Roxanne" from Sting at least Sting was still part of the equation. In Tim Riley's very fine account of John Lennon's life and work, Goldman and his book suddenly doesn't exist, and in name, neither does Lennon's assassin. Not only do these selective omissions deny us the full dramatic continuity of history, the way troubled elements set actions in motion that irrevocably change the way we live and the way we perceive reality, it also plays dirty pool with the continued moral quandary of stealing voices and naming names.

-- December 8/11

The Rump of the Sixties: The Doors – A Lifetime of Listening to Five Wild Years by Greil Marcus

Looking over the pieces I've written in the last year, I've spent a good deal of time dealing with the troubling legacy of the Sixties. Even my next book, which I'm now writing and preparing for publication (Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism) begins with the early promise of that decade and follows the subsequent ones as if tracing the endless ripple of a pebble tossed in the sea. My preoccupation is not based on my age either (although I grew up in the Sixties), or holding on to some sense of nostalgia for better times. I'm also not locked into the glory days of my youth (they weren't very glorious to begin with) and clinging to some talisman against the bitter cold. Although there are some people I know who decided to stop listening to music, reading books, and seeing movies that didn't conform to the values they treasured when they were young, I'm not grappling with the Sixties, either as an idea or a time and place, as a means to avoid the realities of the current decade. Quite the contrary.

As far as popular culture goes, for me, it still lives and breathes in the present. For instance, I'd love to write more about contemporary music; why I'm mesmerized by Matthew Friedberger's sinewy guitar that snakes its way through The Fiery Furnaces' "Two Fat Feet" from their debut 2003 album Gallowsbird's Bark; how Seattle's Fire Theft seems to effortlessly embody in their single "Chain," an emotional hailstorm, the void left by Nirvana; or, the impish joy I hear in Rachel Nagy's libidinous "very nice" that kicks off The Detroit Cobras' "Ya Ya Ya (Looking For My Baby)," a full-tilt boogie that would make John Lee Hooker smile; on how I'm moved in the most peculiar way by The Handsome Family's "Weightless Again," a song that both laments and justifies suicide in a manner as wistfully satirical about the subject as Steely Dan's "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)"; or why Okkervil River, on I Am Very Far, and the Decemberists, on The King is Dead, continue to rehabilitate our notions of what constitutes musical Americana.

author and critic Greil Marcus

As much as I continue to enjoy new music, it's still too immediate, too much of its time, for me to reflect back on it with any real authority. It has yet to trace its own path into the future where it might find a meaning for itself beyond what it represents now. What I enjoy in writing about Sixties culture is the task of putting to the test the relics that have stood the test of time, as well as the things that haven't; that is, figuring out what new meaning continues to breathe life into work that could have (and maybe should have) expired a long time ago. In a sense, that's the underlining theme of The Doors – A Lifetime of Listening to Five Wild Years (Public Affairs, 2011), where critic Greil Marcus ponders the dark magic of the L.A. group The Doors, a rock band dead for over forty years now, but hardly gone from cultural relevance. In examining what they mean today, indeed how they've endured both on the radio and as part of the embroidery of the lost Sixties, Marcus not only reveals the obvious (that they weren't really a group of their time), but that they somehow (despite this) characterized their time, and took on the leaner, meaner, violent side of that decade's demise. (As Marcus reminds us, they weren't one of the 'love' bands.) And their best music, like that pebble in the sea I mentioned earlier, continues to ripple along as if they never went away.

The Doors isn't a biography of the band, of which we've already had more than a few books, but rather a trip through the grooves of some of their records (a trip that Marcus's book on Van Morrison, When That Rough God Goes Riding, also took). What he finds is a band that defies nostalgia since their music doesn't bring the comfort afforded nostalgia. When vocalist Jim Morrison, organist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore launched The Doors with their 1967 single "Light My Fire," not their best song, the remaining few years before they broke up, after concert riots, internal upheaval, alcoholism and court cases over Morrison's alleged indecent exposure at a Miami show, they began to chart an unsettling and unmistakable shadow side of the late Sixties.

The Doors

"There are times in The Doors' music, often when they’re playing live, [that there's a] sense of someone breaking through walls, because the wall is there," Marcus recently told Atlantic magazine. "Not so much to get to the other side but to prove that there is another side." In The Doors, Marcus traces the contours of that other side. For me, his proof in its existence is captured best in a quote from British novelist Jenny Diki (The Sixties, 2009). If Diki suggests (I think correctly) that most Sixties' idealists "didn't see it coming, the new world of rabid individualism and the sanctity of profit," The Doors in songs like "L.A. Woman," "Twentieth Century Fox," "The Crystal Ship," "Roadhouse Blues" and "People are Strange," definitely did. You don't hear it so much in the content of the lyrics, but in their sound, the attitude of refusing no quarter. It wasn't an expressed pessimism exactly, but instead a sense that within those lofty ideals of those determined to change the world, The Doors anticipated something that would soon become what Dikki called "the disappointed remnant, the rump of the Sixties." I could see that remnant recently in the hopeful, but lost faces, of those young idealists of the Occupy Movement as they were moved from the parks they occupied.

Perhaps this is why we need to catch up to The Doors, even if sometimes their songs loom up too obviously. For instance, their Oedipal epic "The End" would find too comfy a home thirteen years after it was recorded in Francis Coppola's opening and closing of Apocalypse Now (1979), where the Vietnam War became a psychedelic hangover, a muddle of Sixties despair. But maybe the group loomed up better in a brief moment in Brian De Palma's Casualties of War (1989), where a group of American soldiers have kidnapped a young Vietnamese girl with the intent of raping her. One of the soldiers leans close to her, while they walk through the jungle to eventually arrive at her horrible fate, serenading her intimately with "Hello, I Love You," perhaps The Doors' most insipid song (next to "Touch Me" which might have worked with equally chilling effect in the film). The Doors, in their best and worst music, were a reminder of a truer calling of the events of the late Sixties, hovering even further over the election of Barack Obama (and the broken idealism among his supporters in the aftermath). In The Doors, Marcus takes in those five mean years – 1966-1971 – and examines with a sharp alacrity why this music refuses to be relegated to oldies radio status.

Oddly enough, though, the book came about because Greil Marcus was hearing The Doors on the radio while driving from Berkeley to San Fransisco. In between listening to current hits like Lady Gaga's infectious "Bad Romance" and Train's "Hey, Soul Sister," Marcus kept hearing The Doors popping up with regularity. But it wasn't just "Light My Fire" (in its short or long versions). "At any given moment in 2010 you could hear 'Light My Fire,' 'People are Strange,' 'Moonlight Drive,' 'Touch Me,' 'Love Her Madly,' ...What were all these songs doing there? And why did most of them sound so good?" In the book, he sets out to answer those questions. To the first question, he discovers that listeners were calling up either to request the song, or thank the DJ for playing it. As for the second question, Marcus offers up the idea that the songs had grown into the shape they now take in 2011, as if they were made for an audience that hadn't yet arrived. ("Is everybody in?" Jim Morrison once asked while opening a concert. Apparently not until now.)

In a number of relatively short chapters, Marcus seizes on a song, a performance (often a bootlegged recording) and opens up a territory that the tune begins to map. In the case of "L.A. Woman," Marcus hears the song as an unacknowledged soundtrack to Thomas Pynchon's 2009 melancholically funny detective novel Inherent Vice. Pynchon's book, which is set in the L.A. of 1970, has the aura of the Charles Manson murder trial hanging over it. The book's pot-smoking private eye, Doc Sportello, is caught up in an absurd web of intrigue as comical and unsettling as Elliott Gould's Philip Marlowe's was in Robert Altman's 1973 The Long Goodbye (set not much later in the Seventies). Marcus describes the book as "a love letter to a time and place about to vanish: about the fear that 'the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness... how a certain hand might reach terribly out of darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good.'"

In that vanishing time, Marcus hears The Doors' epic poem to the city of lost angels, "without makeup, cool clothes, photo shoots, or any other trappings of Hollywood glamour." Jim Morrison's voice in "L.A. Woman" is stripped, too, "full of cracks and burrs, and an inspiring, crazy exuberance." In Pynchon's book, Marcus tells us that "Manson's shadow is everywhere." But he's also present in the Jim Morrison of the song. Instead of the svelte, dark prince who dominated the cover of The Doors' debut LP, Morrison now looks "like a bum, a huge and tangled beard, a gut hanging over his belt, his clothes stained." Could it be that he's a reflection of Manson in his fat Elvis period? "[A]fter four decades you could turn on your car radio and find all eight minutes of [Morrison] still talking, jabbering, this bum on Sunset Strip going on about a woman and the city and the night as if someone other than himself is actually listening," Marcus writes. The point is that someone is continuing to listen, even all these years later.

Jim Morrison at the time of "L.A. Woman"

Athough Marcus finds more substance and value in Oliver Stone's overwrought The Doors (1991) and Allan Moyle's 1990 Pump Up the Volume (a failed Nineties redux of Rebel Without a Cause) than I can, he's firmly convincing when describing The Doors' work as music that shimmers with dread at a time when political assassinations, international student upheaval and an unpopular war raged on. "The Doors were a presence," Marcus writes. "They were a band people felt they had to see – not to learn, to find out, to hear the message, get the truth, but to be in the presence of a group of people who appeared to accept the present moment at face value." For instance, he accounts for how "The Unknown Soldier," a 1968 single included on their album Waiting for the Sun, was an obvious piece of agit-prop. But Marcus also goes on to accurately claim that the song contained more of its time than it seemed by its content alone. "Neither Martin Luther King Jr., or Robert F. Kennedy had been shot when 'The Unknown Soldier' was released as a single in March, but people were already asking, incessantly, under their breath, maybe when either man appeared on the nightly news, which could be almost every night, if it would happen, and when it would happen," he says.

I remember buying the single as it slowly climbed the charts just before King was murdered and a couple of months before Kennedy was also shot and killed. At first, the song did seem silly with its dramatic marching and the laying of graves for unknown soldiers. But, by that summer of 1968, I could barely hear the song without weeping. When Morrison yells, "Breakfast where the news is read/ Television children fed/ Unborn living/ Living dead/ Bullets strike the helmet's head," I wasn't hearing Morrison singing about an abstract war anymore, or even more literally the Vietnam War, I was hearing the gunshots that took out two prophetic figures that might have changed the outcome of the decade, and perhaps the years that followed. On the album version of "The Unknown Soldier," when the song ends with the pealing of church bells and Morrison crying that "the war is over, it's all over," I heard instead the bells of the churches where King would lie in state in April and Kennedy would lie in state in New York that June. It wasn't the war that was over, no, it felt like the future was over. And I could barely come to ever play the song again.

Robert Kennedy assassinated in L.A. in 1968 

If the current generation is tired of hearing about the Sixties, you can hardly blame them. Often when it is celebrated in the media, as Marcus suggests, it is done with the condescending tone of Too Bad You Weren't There. (Curiously, nobody made me feel that way about the Forties and Fifties when I was growing up. But entitled Baby Boomers are a completely different breed from the post-War generation,) Marcus however confronts that condescension by enlarging the meaning of the decade and perhaps why The Doors remain one of its ugly reminders. He does it by implicating what we've seen happen to the culture since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were elected during the Eighties. "Both did better than simply run against the Sixties: they kept the time and the idea alive by co-opting its rhetoric, by so brilliantly taking its watchwords, or its slogans as their own," Marcus writes. "'Adventure,' 'risk,' 'a new world' – these were emblems no conservative movements had claimed since the 1930s, when the movements that did trumpet such words named themselves fascist." If the Tea Party today can be considered the right-wing version of the Sixties' Yippies, the Sixties haven't really gone away, nor are they very likely to anytime soon. The Doors – A Lifetime of Listening to Five Wild Years is not only a evocative chronicle of a band that perhaps saw it all coming, it is also a sobering account of just how their music partly took us here.

-- December 13/11

Beauty & the Beast: Pauline Butcher's Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa

Until recent years, most of the books about the late American composer Frank Zappa, including my own (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa), have been attempts to provide a proper context for his work. Simply put, for many, the name Frank Zappa only conjures up images of a deranged freak who warns us not to eat the yellow snow. What gets lost in that somewhat uniformed view is a much deeper and complex understanding of how Zappa brought to popular music a ferocious desire to break down the boundaries between high and low culture. He created in his work, until his death from prostate cancer in 1993, a unique and sophisticated form of musical comedy.

By infusing the canon of 20th Century music with his scabrous and outrageous wit (influenced by comedian Lenny Bruce and the irreverent clowning of Spike Jones), Zappa presented musical history through the kaleidoscopic lens of social satire turning that history into a wildly theatrical display of Dadaist farce. He poked fun at middle-class conformity (Freak Out!), the Sixties counterculture (We're Only in it For the Money), Seventies disco (Sheik Yerbouti), the corporate rock industry (Tinsel Town Rebellion), and the fundamentalist narcolepsy of the Reagan era (You Are What You Is). Beginning with his band The Mothers of Invention in the Sixties, Zappa built a formidable career in rock & roll by combining a wide range of styles, including serious contemporary music (inspired by Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern and Charles Ives), jazz (Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus), rhythm & blues (Guitar Slim, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson), doo-wop (The Channels), and social and political parody. His career essentially had its roots in the artistic rebellion against the excesses of Romanticism in the late 19th Century beginning with the absurdism of Erik Satie, and then continuing with the birth of serialism that ushered in the modern era of the 20th Century.

Besides creating a potent mixture that upset listeners who wanted to cling to the more romantic view of art as something that should be morally and spiritually edifying, Frank Zappa composed a more unsettling dangerous brew. It raised larger questions about what constitutes music, why we consume it, and how we could experience – through satire – a diverse mixture of chamber music, jazz, and hard rock, sometimes co-existing in the same piece of work. In doing so, it afforded listeners the opportunity to liberate their tastes to include all forms of music without being prejudged by its pedigree. He didn't treat listeners, or fans, simply as consumers – he treated them as voyeurs, too. Zappa understood that some of the record-buying public consumed music to reinforce their lifestyle. Therefore they became susceptible to whatever was in vogue. His music, tied to no popular trends, forced the audience to confront ideas and thoughts they might not be comfortable accepting blindly. For example, the folklore concerning the band's sexual escapades and proclivities on the road (common to almost every form of popular and classical touring ensemble) became the subject material for songs. As Lenny Bruce brought the backstage milieu into his onstage routines, Zappa also didn't create any romantic illusions in his rock songs. On the contrary, his music exposed the band members for exactly who they were by embroidering their absurdities with a sardonic fervor and a satyr's grin.

Today we have been getting more books that attempt to reveal more the person behind the composer, even the man behind the mythology that Zappa himself created around his project/object. Nigey Lennon's Being Frank: My Time With Frank Zappa (2003) was a fascinating and insightful personal look into the backstage world of Zappa. Describing a relationship, both sexual and artistic, that she had with the composer in the early Seventies, she brings to light the perplexities of Zappa's own life, perplexities that informed his music, and how he could portray himself as both a family man with a wife and children, yet also a free spirit driven by a large and passionate appetite for satisfying his lust for art and women. But if the book had any true weakness, it was that Lennon seems to exist only in her book. No other Zappa history – including recollections by band members – acknowledges her existence. While she is a convincing writer with perceptive observations (and photos to back her up), she ends up resembling a Zelig-like figure who quietly slips into the picture and out of it.

Pauline Butcher with Frank Zappa (photo by Ed Caraeff)

Pauline Butcher, on the other hand, is not only an accountable part of the Zappa clan from 1967 to 1972, she has written a candid and vividly entertaining story of an unlikely meeting between a cultured and fashionable secretary out of Swinging London and a composer who set out to make himself and his band look anything but fashionable. In Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa (Plexus, 2011), a tale that reads like a reverse of Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, Pauline Butcher recounts how she became Zappa's secretary in London and eventually moved to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles to live with his family and entourage through the turbulent years of The Mothers of Invention. What she traces is the life of a middle-class woman with no hints of bohemianism who doesn't just get in touch with the bohemian within herself, but in doing so, she manages to not lose her sense of self in the process. All through her book, based in part on diaries she kept during that time, Pauline Butcher is strikingly independent despite her conventionality, at first turning down Zappa's sexual overtures, and later on, some of the men she meets during her stay at Zappa's log cabin (which was a hovel of both artistic and melodramatic ferment).

Despite turning down Zappa's initial come on (concluding with the inelegant, "Do you think if we fucked, you could still work for me as my secretary?"), Butcher doesn't flinch from the magnetism of his personality. "I was unimpressed by the whole rock’n’roll scene and acted very superior towards them," she writes. "I was smitten with Frank, though. He made you feel as though you were the most important person in his life. I think he really did have that effect on everyone, but women particularly. He encouraged me to write, telling me all the time that I had a unique perspective on what was going on at his log cabin in Hollywood." And write she does. It's blissfully refreshing to read a first person account of life with a famous composer that isn't self-serving. Butcher is not only brutally honest about Zappa and his many contradictions, she's also equally revealing about various confusions she has about who she is and what she wants to become. Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa makes clear that her defiant claim for selfhood is exactly what he admired about her despite his constant tweaking of her more cultured habits and views. (It's implicit in the book that he perhaps recognizes in her his own demands for a life lived on terms only he finds agreeable.)

Pauline Butcher in 2011

While the book also deals with the music (comically when she tries to transcribe the lyrics to the Absolutely Free album where she misses all the colloquial American slang and balks at the sexual satire), it is also about the musicians. Her friendship with saxophonist and keyboardist Ian Underwood (dubbed the 'straight' member of the band by Zappa) is sketched lovingly as two kindred spirits, who both get drawn into Zappa's orbit by the allure of his idiosyncratic personality and the boldly artistic climate he provides. By contrast, her close bonding with Pamela Zarubica (PamZ, as she calls her – the 'Suzy Creamcheese' of the early records) is fascinating because both women bond differently with Zappa, in ways that are platonic but without losing the passion often found in love affairs. Butcher also paints an equally vivid portrait of Gail Zappa, the true love of Frank's life, who still has to endure the endless groupies and sexual promiscuity. But she also finds in Butcher the most unique form of confidante since Gail also fears that Butcher may be a rival for her husband.

The picture that emerges of Frank Zappa in Pauline Butcher's memoir is beautifully, paradoxically detailed without losing the spirit of affection she has for him:

"Living in the house with Frank, I'd learned many new things. He could delight in ribald tales of travels with the band, but complain with the coldest cynicism about their performance. He welcomed people into the house, and then groused when they hung around. He could be a sympathetic listener, or a mocking tease who ripped at your beliefs and enjoyed the flap. He collected people and then behaved like they were not around. He voiced libertarianism but ruled his band with an iron rod. He fêted the disenfranchised and outcasts, yet coveted a capitalist's lifestyle for himself. He scorned the American people for their ignorance while criticizing the establishment for treating them like children. He stood in judgment on almost everyone in the outside world – and yet I knew no other man more unassuming, humble or compassionate."

Her ability to see through all the contradictions in the Zappa homestead while still being accepting – including a duo like the Plaster-Casters who roamed America creating statuettes of rock stars' dicks; and The GTO's, rock's first musical groupie band, whose first and only record, Permanent Damage, was produced by Zappa – enabled Butcher to not only depict the perils of free-spirited communes, but also to become more of a free-spirit herself. Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa is an affectionate book about a woman who finds her footing in the world by encountering a man and an artist who rarely felt at home in it.

-- December 20/11


Throwing Down the Gauntlet – The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field

In the late Fifties, Ornette Coleman, a Texas-born saxophone player who would eventually sojourn to L.A., took a leap into space with a quartet that completely abandoned form when they played jazz. With drummer Billy Higgins, Walter Norris on piano and Don Cherry playing trumpet, The Ornette Coleman Quartet first shook up the jazz world with the aptly titled Something Else!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman (1958). But, by the next LP, when Coleman released The Shape of Jazz to Come, adding Charlie Haden on bass, his blues-based harmonically free improvisations dramatically opened up a whole new direction for the music.

When Coleman then appeared at the Five Spot nightclub in New York in the early winter, he inspired a small riot among jazz artists and critics. This 1959 skirmish would in many ways resemble the much larger one Igor Stravinsky had instigated in 1913 with his radical ballet score Le Sacre du Printemps. Why the commotion? By abandoning harmony on The Shape of Jazz to Come, Coleman sought rhythm the way abstract expressionist painters went after sensation. At the Five Spot, therefore, his melodies were experienced by the audience as if they were swirling in a musical maze, driven by an acceleration of tempo, which challenged these stunned listeners to follow along as he gleefully rejected jazz's adherence to strict time. "It was like I was E.T. or something, just dropped in from the moon," Coleman later recalled.

How Ornette Coleman achieved this extraterrestrial status at the Five Spot is part of the thought-provoking and highly readable The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field (Mercury Press/Teksteditions, 2011). Musician, jazz critic and author David Lee builds a cogently argued study that not only reveals how pivotal Coleman's appearance was in the post-bop jazz world following the death of Charlie Parker, but also how his rejection by some surprising jazz artists (Miles Davis) and his acceptance by others in the classical world (Leonard Bernstein) began a lively debate that tackled the long argued hierarchic perception of high and low culture. Essentially Lee, who formerly worked with Coda magazine, asserts that Coleman's performance at the club touched a raw nerve that sparked a quest to define where jazz sat in the world of artistic value. "The declarations of critics that jazz was indeed a 'high art' carried no weight in the milieu where the musicians actually earned their livelihoods," Lee writes. "The music was still played in venues where it needed to turn a profit, in ticket sales or both. The sophisticated vocal and instrumental techniques, original concepts and emotional expressiveness so praised by critics had to be conveyed in a form that would not distract an audience that had paid to drink, dance and socialize."

But Lee goes even further in his analysis of the music beyond its milieu and into the high and low conflicts within the jazz community itself. Rather than merely position Coleman as the hip radical up against the status quo, Lee draws on the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who wrote about artistic "fields," in order to illuminate the complexities of the battleground. Bourdieu described fields as "an independent social universe with its own laws of functioning." Within that universe "members clash and compete for dominance, define themselves (and may even depend for their livelihoods) on the amount of cultural capital they possess, and are defined by other members according to the amount of cultural capital...they have accumulated." In this quest for status, jazz sought to position itself as America's classical music as a means to earn legitimacy as an art form. But with acquired status always comes strict rules and a social positioning that can't be questioned. Coleman's stint at the Five Spot essentially accomplished what critic Steve Huey once described as "a watershed event in the genesis of avant-garde jazz, profoundly steering its future course and throwing down a gauntlet that some still haven't come to grips with."

The Battle of the Five Spot comes to grip with it all. David Lee does this first by addressing the problem of identity and the representation of jazz as a black American art. In a culture where European traditions still "carried the greatest cultural currency," Lee claims the problem was compounded in America "by the speed with which white musicians appropriated new approaches and new techniques as quickly as black musicians could introduce them." Beginning with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in the 1920s, Paul Whiteman in the Thirties, and Benny Goodman in the Forties, "white artists won popular success by presenting styles, compositions and arrangements that originated with black artists who were themselves chronically marginalized by the music industry." Within the bitterness of that conflict, the greatest black jazz artists immediately sought ranking and position in the music's history. Which is why, upon hearing Coleman's bold attempt to seek of his own voice, the black jazz elite such as Miles Davis would call Coleman "all screwed up inside." Roy Eldridge would say that Coleman was "putting everybody on." Red Garland, speaking as if his pockets had been picked, claimed that "nothing's happening...Coleman is faking it." Drummer Max Roach, one of the great progenitors of be-bop, was so angry he followed Coleman into the kitchen of the Five Spot and punched him in the mouth. (Still not satisfied, Roach later "harangued him from the street outside his apartment.")

Although The Battle of the Five Spot began as a master's thesis David Lee wrote at McMaster University, the slim volume runs a clear thread through the music's history without the garble of academic abstractions. Not only does he clearly account for the necessity of Ornette Coleman's stand for what he claimed as a free music, Lee also illustrates how Coleman was "the last avant-gardist to make it into the jazz canon before the Marsalis/Crouch neo-cons bricked up the entrance." Lee asserts quite convincingly that Ornette Coleman's work was a "segue between jazz's traditional song forms and much wider horizons of sound – a transition that by no means did everyone want to make." Unlike those who felt that Coleman's music was "angry and divisive," Lee proves that "in reality it was, and is, generous and inclusive." For next decade after Coleman's debut at the Five Spot, jazz would continue to find its innovators. The music would also eventually find its respectability and status. In finding it, though, The Battle of the Five Spot shows us how the art might have lost a larger war when it rejected Ornette Coleman. By finally becoming acceptable, jazz eventually lost its ability to cause any riots.

-- January 14/12

Childhood’s End: The Criterion Collection’s The Complete Jean Vigo

Shame on those who, during their puberty, murdered the person they might have become.

- Jean Vigo, Towards a Social Cinema.

In Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), a movie about the collapse of the conventional romantic paradigm, there’s a particularly haunting moment midway through when Jeanne (Maria Schneider) and her fiancé Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who is making a film about their courtship and marriage, meet at a waterside dock so that he can propose to her on camera. As they debate back and forth about whether they will, or whether they won’t, he puts a life buoy over her head and pins her arms. He traps her in what looks like a huge wedding ring. But she quickly dispenses with it and chucks it into the water below. As it sinks to the bottom of the sea, we can read the name L’Atalante on the buoy. Aside from making a direct reference to the final (and only) feature film in the terribly brief career of French director Jean Vigo, Bertolucci is also paying tribute to the sad passing of the romantic stirrings of our youth, of a childhood’s end; while keeping faith with a carnal appetite that made Jean Vigo a patron saint for the New Wave that Bertolucci was once part of in the early Sixties.

The Criterion Collection, in their own significant way of honoring the work of Jean Vigo, has recently released a sumptuous DVD package of his complete work.The discs as well include a number of invaluable supplementary materials, all proving that Vigo was indeed one of the most instinctually radical of film directors until his tragic death from tuberculosis at the age of 29 in 1934. In just under three hour of film footage (three shorts and one feature), Jean Vigo becomes before our eyes this luminously idealistic figure, a Byronic pop artist, who set out to preserve the innocent rebellion of childhood. The anarchistic and zealous pining for transcendence from authoritarian rule and dogma brought forth in Vigo a vivacious need to celebrate pure freedom; expressed not only in the content of his movies, but also in his flamboyant expressiveness, an expressiveness that echoed the spontaneity of true invention. While his work shares some of the revolutionary fervor found in the early Russian cinema, it does so without the latter’s schematic design. To experience Vigo is to feel instead like a balloon caught up in a quick breeze and pulled into states of elation that make sensual desire palpable.

Vigo’s impetuous and tragic life was equaled by no one except maybe actor James Dean in the Fifties. While both became iconic figures of youthful revolt and romantic allure, Vigo is James Dean without the crippling neurosis, the brooding contortions. If Dean was, in truth, a rebel with a cause – a need to be loved and accepted – Vigo was the rebel without one. He became what French film director Jacques Rivette called “an incessant improvisation of the universe, a perpetual and calm and self-assured creation of the world.” In The Complete Jean Vigo, we watch a young artist discover the playful child in himself until the sojourn ends with L’Atalante, where he seeks ways to preserve that playful child in an adult world with adult emotions and adult circumstances.

Jean Vigo

His journey begins with the short À propos de Nice (1930), a documentary that’s both an impish poetic montage and a political and social commentary. Vigo examines the milieu of Nice while various people find escapist ways to entertain themselves. As the middle-class goes through their daily routines, the underclass struggles to survive. Vigo once described the film as “a way of life…put on trial…the last gasps of a society so lost in its escapism that it sickens you and makes you sympathetic to a revolutionary solution.” While it may well have sickened Vigo, the movie doesn’t wear the hair-shirt of the rhetoric that he wrote about it. À propos de Nice is actually more playfully mocking than a call to arms about Nice's social iniquities during the late Twenties. By employing quick cuts, slow motion and lap dissolves, Vigo contrasts class conflict in the film without imposing ideology onto the material. Vigo’s “revolutionary solution,” as he would demonstrate in his later films, was more innocent than violent, expressed with an anger that never gutted his idealism but enhanced it. À propos de Nice was financed by a dowry from his father-in-law and the project brought him into collaboration with cinematographer Boris Kaufman who would work with Vigo until the end. (Kaufman would also continue his aesthetic for the commonplace by later shooting Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men.)

Jean Vigo’s second film, Taris, roi de l'eau (1931), wasn't made with the freedom he enjoyed on À propos de Nice, but was a commissioned work for Gaumont Studios about the champion French swimmer Jean Taris. Although Vigo disowned most of the picture (some of which was shot by others including Jean Renoir), it still has some beautifully startling sequences. While the first part is largely a demonstration of Taris’s techniques, Vigo in the second half liberates Taris from formal instruction so that we catch him swimming freely, as if he were a fish fresh off the hook. In the end, putting Taris in a bowler hat and long coat, the cheeky Vigo has the French hero appearing to walk on water (many years before Hal Ashby would invoke the image – more literally and unimaginatively – with Chauncey Gardner in Being There).

The movie that brought a memorable notoriety to Vigo’s career, of course, was Zéro de conduite (1933), a short lyrical comedy/drama that depicts the repressive and rigid educational system in France at a boarding school. It ends with an insurrection by the young students. The picture not only drew extensively on Vigo’s own experiences at a boarding school, but perhaps also on more troubling family history. His father, Miguel Almereyda (whose namesake filmmaker Michael Almereyda, the talented director of Nadja and Hamlet, writes a perceptive essay on Jean Vigo in the Criterion booklet) was an anarchist who led a mutiny among French soldiers during the Great War and was later imprisoned. While there, he died under mysterious circumstances, as his son got bounced from one institution to another, always under an assumed name. Zéro de conduite can be seen as a vivid tribute to the values of his father (even perhaps paying homage to the motto of Jean’s paternal grandfather who told him, “I protect the weakest”). But rather than face prison for this jubilant expression of anarchist spirit, Vigo saw his film banned. (Zéro wasn’t publicly screened until after the Liberation in February 1946.)

The pillow fight in Zero

The pleasure the movie takes in celebrating the young charges tweaking the status quo is as innocently liberating as watching The Beatles do the same thing years later in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night. Which makes it hard to imagine anyone getting incensed enough to censor its release except that the movie mocks everything sacred about French society. Zéro demonstrates such an infectious love of inventiveness – from Vigo’s tribute to Chaplin (where actor Jean Dasté, who would next play the groom in L’Atalante, as their daydreaming schoolmaster entertains them with his Little Tramp impersonations) – to the dreamy pillow fight that invokes the snowball fight that opens Abel Gance’s 1927 epic Napoleon.

Zéro de conduite clearly influenced François Truffaut’s 1959 debut The 400 Blows, which was also a memoir that served as a manifesto against school authorities (even quoting some of Zéro's scenes), as well as Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 incendiary  If…. But Anderson’s film only superficially resembles Vigo's. In If…, the teachers are not the comic buffoons, the straw dogs of Vigo’s playful scorn, but much more violently realistic. The insurrection in Zéro is also filled with the vibrancy of a united student spirit where they seek to escape the structured world they are trapped in. (When the students protest their unappetizing lunch with taunting chants, they realize the cook is the mother of one of their own, so they stop chanting and comfort him.) Anderson’s If… churlishly turns many of the students into carbon copies of the very people they’re rebelling against. In the end, If…is like Orwell’s Animal Farm stripped of its satire.

If Zéro de conduite carried the soul of what would later inspire the French New Wave of the early Sixties, it was Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) that gave the movement its form and purpose. Considered by many to be one of the greatest cinematic works, L’Atalante began ironically with Vigo inheriting a project that he feared would put constraints on his freedom. What developed instead was an emotionally expansive work where Vigo took a conventional story by Jean Guinée and created a startlingly original tone poem to the fragility of romantic bonding. (When critic James Agee saw the film, he wrote, “It’s as if he had invented the wheel.”)

The basic story is about Jean (Jean Dasté), the captain of the canal barge L’Atalante, who has come ashore to a French provincial town to marry Juliette (Dita Parlo), even though they have barely met. From the opening shots, L’Atalante uses a discontinuous editing style depicting the varied reactions in the town that Godard would later borrow for Breathless. After the couple spends their honeymoon on the water doing barge deliveries, tensions arise because instead of seeing the world, Juliette is only getting glimpses of shorelines. There is also the presence of the cat loving Pere Jules (Michel Simon), a salty tattooed sailor, a man of the world, whom Juliette is both repelled by and attracted to. After Jean goes into a jealous rage over them talking in the quarters, they finally arrive in Paris where the couple embark to a music hall for relief. When a street merchant flirts with Juliette, however, he entices her away from a life on the sea to the bright lights of Paris. Frustrated, Jean soon abandons her. 

The rest of the movie is about the anguish they experience at being apart and then their eventual reconciliation. But L’Atalante is more about moods than plot. Maurice Jaubert’s exquisitely inventive score not only embroiders the ups and downs of the couple’s married life (especially in an achingly erotic scene where the estranged couple dream of each other from their different beds), it becomes a key part of the story that brings them back together. (For those with a savvy ear for film music, you might recall that Truffaut lifted the same Jaubert music from the erotic dream sequence for his The Story of Adele H, another film about obsessive desire.)

In L’Atalante, Vigo freely uses and invents techniques best suited to his particular vision. There are practically no words to describe the sheer incongruous beauty of Juliette, in her bright white wedding dress, walking across the long barge under the night sky. The view of the anarchic cats scattering across the barge seem now like a foretelling of that great cat lover Chris Marker (Sans Soleil), the French film essayist who would inherit the libertarian leftist spirit of Vigo rather than his particular style.

Jean Daste and Dita Parlo in L'Atalante

By calling L’Atalante an ‘adult’ film, it does not diminish the young man’s spirit that informed it. In essence, the picture is a full examination of how one desperately tries to keep the ideals of love, with its zeal for adventure and mystery alive in a world that can take it all away. For Vigo, tragically, it was all taken away during his lifetime. First, the distributors cut the running time down to an hour to make it appeal to a popular audience. (They also changed the title to the ridiculous The Passing Barge, the title of a pop song that they also added to the picture.) Vigo would die shortly after this calamitous release. Over the years, though, the picture recovered. It was first restored in 1990 to 89 minutes thanks to a pristine copy being found in the archives of the Italian State broadcasting company. The new Criterion version is a new restoration with the crispest print I've seen yet.

Writing about Vigo in his book The Films in My Life, Truffaut spoke as an abiding spirit. “Like all artists, filmmakers search for realism in the sense that they search for their own reality, and they are generally tormented by the chasm between their aspirations and what they have actually produced, between life as they feel it and what they have managed to reproduce of it.” For Jean Vigo, time didn’t allow time for any chasm to exist, but he did turn torment into pleasure, real into the surreal, and in one short breath of life, brought us a vision of unbridled cinematic freedom.

-- January 17/12

Deadheads: Carol Brightman's Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure (1999)

Back in 1995 when Jerry Garcia, the co-founder and resident guru of the Grateful Dead, died of a heart attack, Elvis Costello, one of the early progenitors of punk, made a curious comment. "I think it's harder for people who don't subscribe to the cultural phenomenon of the Dead to appreciate some of the quality of the songs," Costello told Rolling Stone. "If somebody else were to take 'Stella Blue,' say, and record it like Mel Torme would record it, you would hear what a beautiful song it was." To some, Costello should be someone who represents a full rejection of the hippie ethos that the Dead were part of, but his remark has an interesting way of cutting through the patina of our musical prejudices. Stripped of their cultural and mythical baggage, the Grateful Dead's songs might actually stand up as some beautifully composed pieces.

I never bought into the phenomenon of the Dead, or the trappings of the Dead worshipers (known affectionately, or derisively, as 'Deadheads') who followed the band from town to town. But I certainly loved some of their music, many of those songs (like "Ripple" or "Ship of Fools") asked us to share in their quest for community, which they sought with a true sense of commitment while adding a healthy respect for tradition. I also sometimes heard risk in their music, a dare to go further than their fans might allow. (That risk though had its pitfalls. Performing live the band could either take you soaring into endless waves of cascading melodies or simply bore you blind.) Few have ever made clear why the Grateful Dead had (and, I suppose, continues to have) a lasting appeal, but Carol Brightman's Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure, written in 1999, does. Her book provides a fascinating examination of the times of the Grateful Dead, and answers pertinent questions as to how and why the Dead outlived the doomed counter-culture of the Sixties.

Brightman, the author of Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World and Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, is a former Sixties activist who provides not only a detailed history of the band, but also of the period that spawned them. And she fills the book with little ironies. The first being that the Dead, along with the counterculture itself, grew out of the LSD experiments of Ken Kesey in the Bay area during the early Sixties – despite, as Brightman notes, the fact that LSD was initially a product of CIA experiments used to determine the drug's effectiveness in mind-controlling experiments. According to Brightman, the CIA was also involved in drug distribution to rock shows which they hoped would render the youth revolution docile.

author Carol Brightman

If the counterculture was riddled with contradictions such as this, incongruities that would later destroy it, she suggests the Dead's "introversion in matters both musical and political contributed in no small way to their holding power." It was even LSD that made possible the Grateful Dead's early sound, an odd mix of blues, jug band and psychedelia. In short time, as Brightman suggests, the band drew a collection of stoned cadres under their spell. Yet the group's idealistic spirit differed somewhat from what The Beatles had represented to youth culture. If The Beatles sang that any time at all, I'll be there, the Dead declared that when life looked like easy street, there was danger at your door. So Brightman sums up their appeal to the counterculture in Sweet Chaos as clearly being about a band that "tapped a free-floating yearning in its vast audiences to shake off their anonymity." She goes on to say that their audience wanted "to be loved for themselves alone, for their differences, the differentness each one felt all the more keenly for being surrounded by people who looked just like them."

Because the group chose chaos as a form to embrace, the tumult of the Vietnam years, the civil rights struggles, and the repressive burdens of the Nixon Seventies didn't silence them or their fans. Part of what makes Sweet Chaos so delicately affecting is how Brightman seeks meaning in the Dead's community as a way to make sense of the dissolution of her generation's own political passions. What she gets from the Dead's chief lyricist Robert Hunter is that the Dead survived its long years because they honoured "American culture, and what we find good in it." The radicals, Hunter told her, were basically Marxists who "had a script, and anything that furthered that script was allowable, including unethical and immoral actions."

The Grateful Dead

Of course, the Dead would itself fall victim to drug abuse at the moment of their greatest commercial success in the Eighties with the hit song "Touch of Grey." Death would also stalk the group as if it were laying claim to their name. Besides Garcia, co-founder Ron "Pigpen" McKernan died early on of cirrhosis of the liver in 1973, while every keyboard player save Bruce Horsnby, their last one, went to spirit. Despite this, the Grateful Dead had a longer shelf life than many might have thought possible, or even hoped for. And if, as Carol Brightman points out, the Sixties radicals retreated into private life, the Deadheads and their heroes continued to dream of a new cosmic order.

Sweet Chaos is perfumed in both affection and regret as it examines the unfulfilled dreams of a generation, the regret coming from confronting the price you pay for trying to keep those hopes alive. While the book may be examining the past, it also keeps faith with the present. Considering the quixotic quest of those people who recently occupied parks and streets to bring attention to a world where expedience ruled over being an accountable citizen, Sweet Chaos still reaches out into an uncertain future.

-- January 24/12

A Rough Diamond: The DVD Release of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons

Tim Holt, Dolores Costello and Joseph Cotton

For years now, Orson Welles’ flawed, mangled masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), the follow-up to his legendary debut, Citizen Kane (1941), has languished in the public domain. Often looking like an old photograph that’s been left in the sun, it would show up periodically on television in a faded print, sometimes scratched and occasionally hard to hear, resembling a rough diamond dug out of the sand. The fact that the film, based on Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel, is about the fall of an American aristocratic family in the early 1900s just as modern industrialization consigned their fortune and social position to history’s dustbin was no convenient irony. Orson Welles’ own claim to fortune, his struggle to climb to the pinnacle of becoming America’s great dramatic film stylist in the early years of sound, would find its own dustbin in the years to follow. Years of promising projects damaged by lack of funds (Chimes at Midnight, Othello), or great work marred by studio interference (Touch of Evil), would become the norm rather than the exception.

Since Welles’ career had been marked by small victories between broken hearts, the fact that Warner Brothers has finally acquired the rights to release The Magnificent Ambersons on DVD is good news indeed. It can now finally be seen in a digitally mastered print with much improved sound quality. But the bad news, and bad news always stalked the director like an unearned curse, is that there is no supporting material included; that means no commentary from a critic or historian, no documentaries, or even a booklet to tell the story of how the man who made Citizen Kane lost final cut of a movie that had more substance than his stunning entrée.

Booth Tarkington’s novel, set in a fictitious city based on his hometown of Indianapolis, had already been filmed earlier in 1925 in a version now largely forgotten. Welles saw its value early on and adapted the book for radio while at CBS with his Mercury Theatre of the Air in 1939. As the 1942 movie opens, with Bernard Herrmann’s lovely, nostalgic theme and variations waltz hovering faintly in the background, Welles (in a voiceover inspired by years of doing radio plays) speaks to us in Tarkington’s words. He takes us through a series of vignettes that introduce us to the town, its people, and the Ambersons, the upper-class pillars. The youngest Amberson, George, however is despised by the town for his arrogance brought on from being spoiled, or reflecting the un-American notion of entitlement. They wait for the day when he will get his “comeuppance.”

After the introduction, we jump years later, as the widowed Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton), a wealthy automobile manufacturer, has returned with his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) to attend a reception for George (Tim Holt), who is now being honored during his break from college. But Eugene has no interest in celebrating the life of George, instead he eagerly looks forward to seeing his mother Isabel (Dolores Costello), for whom he still carries a torch from his youth. (Eugene lost his opportunity to win Isabel's hand when he unwittingly embarrassed her while trying to serenade her.) While George despises Eugene for both his cars and Eugene's love for his mother, George is romantically drawn to Lucy.

Orson Welles directing The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons is about how the changing times transform people and their social standing, but it is also about how time waits for no one. Despite Eugene’s love for Isabel, circumstances prevents each of them from consummating their unrequited love. George may ultimately get his “comeuppance” but it comes at a time when the people who desired it most are not there to witness it; and his fall does not bring easy satisfactions. The story may be from Tarkington, but the underlying tone of the movie seems to come from Welles. With cinematographer Stanley Cortez using deep focused shots to bring the background into the foreground, we become party to the most private dramatic moments of the characters on the screen. If it can be said that the film delves into the elusiveness of fulfilling one's desires, The Magnificent Ambersons also draws us into the evocative echo chamber of the family drama where those neurotic tensions can’t be resolved.

While it wouldn't be entirely accurate to say that Ambersons is a better work than Kane, it has a depth of feeling and detail that is far more substantial. After all, Citizen Kane is also about the rise and fall from aristocracy, but Kane is done in brilliantly conceived broad strokes turning the tabloid sensationalism of the Hearst papers against their creator. The political and psychological underpinnings of the picture however (though wildly entertaining) is conceived in the style of muckraking comic strips rather than with any dramatic depth. (In a great work, as opposed to a great entertainment, Kane’s tragic life would be comprehended using more than just the easy symbolism of a lost sled from his boyhood to explain it.) The Magnificent Ambersons has an affecting aspect, however, that’s missing in Kane because Welles uses the techniques he learned in radio (and those he discovered in making Citizen Kane) and applies them with a shocking intimacy into areas that lie behind the masks of social norms.

What’s missing in Ambersons, however, what keeps it from achieving the impact of Kane, is the absence of Welles in the picture. It isn’t enough that he narrates the story. As fine as Joseph Cotton is at suggesting a man left satisfied by his creations, but melancholic over losing the woman he loves most, is that he lacks the dimension that Welles could have given the part. Cotton is too genteel. While the movie features the lovely delicacy of Dolores Costello, and Richard Bennett’s fine work as the grandfather, it’s Agnes Moorhead as the spinster Aunt Fanny who ends up giving Ambersons the force it needs. Moorhead had only a brief scene as Kane’s mother in Citizen Kane, but here, she gives a masterful performance as a woman who is both destroyed and fulfilled by her raging self-pity.

Anges Moorehead as Aunt Agnes

Of course, the cutting of the picture also hurt it. More than an hour was sheared by RKO Studios with a different, more upbeat ending added without Welles’ permission. Even though his production notes still exist, the excised scenes themselves were either destroyed or lost. Despite its damaged form, though, The Magnificent Ambersons has perhaps been more influential than Citizen Kane. (Who could possibly even try to top the audacity of Kane?) For instance, you can feel the stylistic sensibility of Ambersons in Martin Scorsese’s failed attempt to bring Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1993) to the screen (especially in its opening scenes). You can sense the spirit of Ambersons, with its reverberating themes of the fragility of time, perhaps more successfully in David Fincher’s underappreciated, if not misunderstood, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008).

It’s curious that the DVD release of The Magnificent Ambersons has arrived with so little fanfare. But I don’t think it’s a simple matter of the picture being forgotten, or rejected due to its fractured state. It may instead be a sad reminder of things we care not to think about. That is, the picture is about people who look and try to act like they have everything, but they can’t get the things they truly want. In Ambersons, Welles gives us regrets but he denies them the kind of nostalgia that sometimes cheapens loss. “There aren’t any old times,” Eugene says when someone turns sentimental at George's celebration party. “When times are gone, they’re dead. There aren’t any times but new times.” Well, there couldn’t be a better time for the release of The Magnificent Ambersons.

-- February 5/12

The Author's Voice: Chimes of Freedom – The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International

The French film critic André Bazin once offered that the reason we get so few great movies from great books is that film directors are intimidated by the author's voice. He speculated that the film adapter, who obviously loves the work of fiction, feels in danger of falling short of the book's greatness. Therefore, Bazin thought, it was much easier for filmmakers to make great movies out of ordinary books, bad books, or even pulp fiction. It's an interesting theory. He's right, for example, that there are few great films made out of classic writers such as Dostoyevsky (remember William Shatner in Richard Brooks' woe begotten The Brothers Karamazov?), Virginia Woolf (let's just give a huge pass to Michael Cunningham's nod to Woolf in The Hours), or Tolstoy (War and Peace with Rod Steiger, anyone?). But Jim Thompson (The Grifters), Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye) have provided some pretty terrific pictures. Coppola's The Godfather may be the best example of a great film coming out of a mostly lousy book. The only exception to Bazin's rule perhaps is Charles Dickens, celebrating his 200th birthday this year somewhere in the great beyond, who has had more good movies made from his books than any other great writer. But that's likely due to Dickens writing in a popular dramatic style; that is, constructing his stories in a manner that anticipated the model for film narrative which D.W. Griffith would build upon in his first silent pictures. (Outside of Dickens, Henry James and James Joyce might be two other exceptions.)

In considering André Bazin's general observation, I wondered if the same held true for singer/songwriters and the endless number of tribute albums we see these days. The foundation of the American songbook, the infamous Tin Pan Alley, was built solely by songwriters who composed simply so that others could interpret their songs. But this all changed in the Sixties when The Beatles (who wrote and sang their own material) turned Tin Pan Alley into a premature graveyard for the tunesmith. Just consider that you can probably count on the fingers of both hands the number of memorable Beatle cover songs. Which is to say that these four lads from Liverpool were so successful in putting their own distinct voices on their tracks that no one else could claim those songs as their own. Bob Dylan, on the other hand, is in a whole other league. Besides being one of the best modern songwriters, as well as the most prolific, and one who has put a very distinct voice on his own material, he also wrote his songs for others to sing. And sing them they did. From Joan Baez, to the 1910 Fruitgum Company, to William Shatner, to The Byrds, they've all tackled Dylan – good and bad. But in performing his songs, each artist has had to deal with Bob Dylan's canny and incomparable voice, to claim it, reject it, or risk failure in trying to do both.

André Bazin

The new omnibus 4-CD set Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan, a vast selection of Dylan songs that features 73 cover tracks by over 80 artists, has its fair share of both successes and failures. But its sheer range of both material (from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan to Time Out of Mind) and genre artists makes it a fascinating listen. Chimes of Freedom, which includes indie rockers (Silversun Pickups), young pop hit makers (Miley Cyrus, Adele, Kesha), reggae favourites (Ziggy Marley), punk bands (Bad Religion, Rise Against), rappers (K'naan) and veterans (Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Pete Townshend and Steve Earle), also celebrates 50 years of Amnesty International which, given their sometimes paradoxical political agendas, makes them an interesting bedfellow for Dylan who walked away from leading charges to the barricades. Be that as it may, no other songwriter could provide a more nuanced selection of social and political material than Bob Dylan. After all, he basically took the topical folk song, which traditionally served the social cause by denying the singer a subjective role in singing it, and turned that tradition inside out. For Dylan, the topical song was purely subjective, where he performed it from his own perspective and not with a socialist realist objectivity. But he also wrote love songs, surreal adventures, blues and gospel, which opens up the territory for such a variety of performers that populate Chimes Of Freedom.

To get the bad stuff out of the way first, Diana Krall's reading of "Simple Twist of Fate," perhaps one of Dylan's most delicately affecting songs about the fragility of romantic longing, is so narcoleptic in its breathy delivery that she could be sleepily reading the lyrics from a bed stretched across the studio floor. Rise Against, on the other hand, tries to bring an overbearing strength to their version of "Ballad of Hollis Brown" by merely cranking up their amps and Tim McIlrath's voice. While "Ballad" begins strongly, the Chicago band ultimately crush the pathos in the song by overdramatizing it. (My Chemical Romance make the same mistake doing "Desolation Row" where all they do is destroy the tune so that you can't hear the wittiness of the lyrics.) Queen of the Stone Age better shows how to effectively turn up the volume in their ripping version of "Outlaw Blues." Carly Simon is far too precious doing "Just Like a Woman" which she sings with a narcissistic coyness as if letting us in on some forgotten secret that the song was always about her. Angelique Kidjo becomes so dead earnest in her take on "Lay Lady Lay" that this slight pot boiler is DOA.

There are a number of other performers that make the common mistake of paying tribute by being too reverential which, in turn, denies them their own voice. For instance, Lenny Kravitz does such a note perfect version of "Rainy Day Woman #12 &35 (Everybody Must Get Stoned)" that he sounds like he's terrified to make a mistake (which is the wrong tact for a song that Dylan made sound like a protest song sung by bawdy drunks). You'd think Taj Mahal would allow himself the sly humour on "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" that he once brought to his own work like "Cakewalk Into Town," but he sounds so rushed on this epic track as if he can't wait to get to the end. With his gravel voice, he grinds down on every lyric merely proud that he got all the words right. Brett Dennen sings the lovely country track "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" in a silly hayseed voice that sounds like he's spent too much time watching The Beverly Hillbillies. The Dave Matthews Band do a Nobody's Home rendition of "All Along the Watchtower" perhaps hearing Jimi Hendrix in their head and then quickly giving up the ghost.

Diana Krall, Bob Dylan and Miley Cyrus 

But the rest of the collection contains some pretty nice treasures. The set opens with Johnny Cash & Bob Dylan from an unreleased recording in 1969 doing a duet on "One Too Many Mornings" that producer Rick Rubin uses for a gorgeous mash-up with The Avett Brothers. (Almost all the songs on Chimes of Freedom have never been released before.) Patti Smith brings a stirring immediacy to the moral parable of "Drifter's Escape," while Pete Townshend offers a touching rendition of "Corrina, Corrina." Soul singer Bettye Lavette makes "Most of the Time" all her own as if Dylan conceived it with her in mind. Ziggy Marley's "Blowin' in the Wind" has a way of invoking his father's "Redemption Song" (Bob Marley's own "Blowin' in the Wind") in his thoughtful rendition of the Dylan classic. Bryan Ferry, no stranger to Dylan covers, gives a somber reading to "Bob Dylan's Dream." Mark Knopfler turns "Restless Farewell" into a beautifully hushed prayer. I'm not sure what to make of Mariachi El Bronx's highly dramatic reading of "Love Sick," in Dylan's hands a dark dirge of romantic obsession. In this cover, "Love Sick" becomes a mariachi adventure that conjures a doomed Sam Peckinpah escapade into Mexico. Raphael Saadiq does a saucy and sexy cover of "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat." One of the surprises of Chimes of Freedom is how some artists even redeem lesser Dylan tracks. The Belle Brigade turn the turgid "No Time to Think" into a memorable waltz about fleeting obligations. Dierks Bentley's "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" becomes a much more sobering lament on regret than Dylan's original on Street Legal. There are also some nice surprises like Miley Cyrus's aching "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," and Evan Rachel Wood turning the lovely ballad "I'd Have You Anytime," which Dylan wrote with George Harrison for his All Things Must Pass album, into a cute cocktail number.

But if there's one wild card on Chimes of Freedom it's Sinéad O'Connor's revival of Dylan's "Property of Jesus" from his 1981 Shot of Love album. Written during the period when he was a born-again Christian, "Property of Jesus" was once performed by Dylan with the same self-righteous piety as some of his previous religious work like "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking." But O'Connor, likely remembering the night she was booed off the stage at Madison Square Gardens during a Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary tribute concert, brings the Biblical fury of great gospel that burns the smugness right out of the track. In October 1992, O'Connor had appeared on Saturday Night Live as their musical guest. She sang an a cappella version of Bob Marley's defiant "War" which she performed with the intent of criticizing the Catholic Church's complicity in child abuse. (She changed the lyric "racism" to "child abuse" in the song.) Afterwards, she presented a picture of Pope John Paul II in front of the camera and then proceeded to tear the photo into pieces which she then flung at the camera while shouting, "Fight the real enemy." In a largely Catholic city, the incident caused a major furor. Curiously, few people took up the issue she was actually raising by her gesture.

Sinéad O'Connor on Saturday Night Live

Two weeks later, O'Connor was scheduled to perform Dylan's "I Believe in You" at the Dylan tribute concert. She was greeted by the audience with a hailstorm of jeering for her actions on Saturday Night Live which got so loud that she stood silent, refusing to start and staring down the angry crowd. Then signaling for her piano player not to begin, she met that force once again with her rendition of "War" and then stormed off the stage to the supporting arms of Kris Kristofferson. Her version of "Property of Jesus" imparts the residue of anger and pain that she carried from that night, in the same way that Bob Dylan's 1974 live version of "Like a Rolling Stone" contained the anger and pain from the booing he endured on his 1966 tour when he played electric music and outraged the folk purists who wanted him to stay acoustic. When O'Connor sings, "He's the property of Jesus/Resent him to the bone/You got something better/You've got a heart of stone," she strips it of Dylan's self-pity and instead delivers it with a defiant roar of self-preservation. "Property of Jesus" is one powerhouse track, an article of faith that equals the force of religious fervor often heard in Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Chimes of Freedom, which rightly concludes with Bob Dylan's own version of his song, may be a mixed bag of treats, but the album itself is an overwhelming and diverse palette of talent and ambition. Despite the dead spots and honest failures, there is more than enough really good music to consider and I've been playing it a lot lately. It grows on you. But I can only wonder how André Bazin might have interpreted its success.

-- February 18/12

The Monroe Mystique: Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn

As Meryl Streep went up to collect her golden statue at last Sunday’s Academy Awards, I was one of those she referred to from the stage going, “Oh no, not her again.” The Iron Lady is the insufferably noble Mrs. Miniver returned to us with Greer Garson’s patriotic stoicism repackaged as a modern feminist polemic. Who would have ever guessed that Margaret Thatcher’s life and policies would be seriously perceived as a brave revolt against the male establishment? But that’s how this picture skirts any controversial dramatic take on Thatcher. Just like Patton, four decades ago, The Iron Lady is shrewdly designed with box office consideration to give us a Thatcher that both liberals and conservatives can find acceptable without ever fully delving into the depths of what made her such a divisive figure. As for Streep’s celebrated role as Thatcher, it is so skillfully mannered (with every defiant nuance carefully in place) that her performance becomes as self-righteous as the story. If the rousing sentimentality of Greer Garson’s stiff-upper lip can help countries win wars, I guess Meryl Streep’s grand dame theatrics can win awards.

But Margaret Thatcher at least provides a definitive personality for an actress to play. Imagine the challenge for Michelle Williams who was far more deserving of an award for playing the elusive Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn. Since Monroe’s sexuality, in screen siren terms, was both passive and polymorphous, no one has ever been able to quite capture her appeal on the screen until now. In her review of Norman Mailer’s 1973 book Marilyn, Pauline Kael accurately described the Monroe mystique this way:

“She would bat her Bambi eyelashes, lick her messy suggestive open mouth, wiggle that pert and tempting bottom, and use her hushed voice to caress us with dizzying innuendos. Her extravagantly ripe body bulging and spilling out of her clothes, she threw herself at us with the off-color innocence of a baby whore. She wasn’t the girl men dreamed of or wanted to know but the girl they wanted to go to bed with.”

The screen icons of the past such as Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich had clearly defined sexual personae, where Marilyn Monroe was merely the personification of our erotic fantasies. My Week with Marilyn doesn’t really develop any of these aspects, but Michelle Williams does do so in her extraordinary portrayal of the blond legend. If Meryl Streep compartmentalizes all the recognizable ticks and gestures of Margaret Thatcher, Williams’ Marilyn Monroe goes below the familiar into the unknown, into the realm of discovery, daring to imagine the Monroe we never got to experience on the screen.

My Week with Marilyn depicts the making of the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl, which starred Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier. The picture focuses on the week when Monroe and husband/playwright Arthur Miller are in England for the shoot and their relationship begins to fall apart. As Monroe’s depression and anxieties also jeopardize the film, she develops a relationship with Olivier’s assistant Colin Clark (whose two books on the subject form the basis of the Adrian Hodges screenplay), who worships Monroe. The story itself has that banal familiarity where a young innocent gets wised up and has his illusions shattered by the source of his idolization. But director Simon Curtis thankfully keeps the film relatively engaging by keeping the tempo quick and often comic.

Eddie Redmayne (Pillars of the Earth), who plays Clark, shows him as both innocent and crafty. Like the innocent young male Jeffrey in Blue Velvet, he’s a naïf who is tickled by his erotic fantasies. Kenneth Branagh also provides a sporting impression of Olivier even if the script doesn’t seem to have a clue how to shape the role. Since Monroe was a student of the Actors Studio and Method acting, there’s a running gag about the clash of the classical school of Olivier versus the American model. But the Method wasn't really an issue with Monroe, or even part of her screen appeal. She always seemed the least likely Method actor because she was a projection of the fantasies of others rather than someone with a personality (like Brando) who created fantasies and expectations.

But Michelle Williams gives us a vivid glimpse behind the Monroe mask to reveal the confusions, the desperate isolation and turmoil. Unlike Streep, who continually telegraphs us as to what our thoughts of Thatcher should be, Williams effortlessly draws us into Monroe’s despair without signaling what we may find when we arrive there. If Marilyn Monroe was the least likely Method actor, Michelle Williams gives a fascinating and powerful Method interpretation of Monroe the actress and the woman. In My Week with Marilyn, Williams shows Monroe’s insecurities about her talents without resorting to the coyness that became Monroe’s trademark; rather she goes to the source of her coyness and what it repressed.

With the exception of Debra Winger in the film noir Everybody Wins (written by Arthur Miller), nobody has ever got the Monroe mystique quite as effectively, or as hauntingly, as Michelle Williams does in My Week with Marilyn. She delicately toys with our preconceived notions of Marilyn, what writer Laura Warner described as “the stresses of excessive fame and fortune [and how they] can amplify the star’s frailties,”and she gives us an empathetic understanding of the destructive forces of those frailties. In My Week with Marilyn, Michelle Williams finally gives the screen’s most endurable sex kitten some claws.

-- March 1/12

For the Sheer Pleasure of the Text: The Criterion Collection's DVD Release of Vanya on 42nd Street

One way of describing Louis Malle's extraordinary Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), which Criterion has just released on regular and Blu-ray DVD in a sparkling newly remastered print, is to say that it depicts theater director Andre Gregory's workshop of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. But it is neither a documentary nor is it filmed theater. It's not even in the traditional sense of the word a movie. Vanya on 42nd Street is more like an inspired laboratory where a number of actors plus their director delve into the play by peeling away all of its acclaim, its reputation and various interpretations, plus its legendary hold on modern theater, in order to get to the very root of its tragic realism, to reveal what it is that makes this seminal work last. As if he were setting out to rediscover an old forgotten language, Andre Gregory takes his cast through Vanya for the sheer pleasure of the text; to find out just what this text reveals to the actors about the characters they inhabit. "What Chekhov is about fundamentally is the nature of the quality of [the] passing [of] your life, of what it feels like to be here as we travel across the ocean of life," is how Gregory explains the making of Vanya in the DVD's documentary Like Life. If so, he started with the right play where its tone and substance, the very essence of contemplation, illuminates its plot.

The story of its creation is unheard of and fascinating. For over three years beginning in 1989, Gregory, along with Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, Brooke Smith, Phoebe Brand and George Gaynes, met voluntarily in a series of performance workshops in the abandoned Victory Theater on 42nd Street in New York City. Since there was never any intention of mounting a production of the play, they felt no need to perform in costume. Instead they wore their street clothes and used modern props while subtly slipping into character, into a time and place that seems far from the stage itself. Given that the actors were also free from the demands of developing a commercial work, they could immerse themselves completely and fearlessly into David Mamet's marvelous American adaptation of Vanya to enter a place of the imagination. And this is where Louis Malle's film comes in.

By the end of the rehearsal process, Gregory invited friends to come and see the workshop in progress where it could change any day depending on the mood of the actors, the reading of a line, or a gesture that added new meaning to the scene. In 1993, when they finally took up residence in the dilapidated New Amsterdam theater (where the Ziegfeld Follies once thrilled crowds much earlier in the century), Gregory asked Malle if he'd like to film this evolving experiment. Malle agreed by attempting to capture the alchemy achieved when a dramatic work, carrying with it the illusion of time, place and character, can create a new kind of realism. Vanya on 42nd Street takes us to a place beyond genre where viewers (like the performers) can fall under the spell of the material and forget that they are watching modern actors pretending they're living on a Russian estate. The genius of Malle's work here is simply how he shifts us in and out of the period of the play. We become continually aware of the process of how great theater transports us beyond time into the realm of pure experience. Malle and Gregory give us more than a filmed record of Chekhov's great work, Vanya on 42nd Street is instead perfumed in the essence of Chekhov. His play now invokes the ghosts of times and hopes passed. In a collapsing theater, with its glory days long behind it, the spirit of Chekhov becomes recognized as a vital and fundamental link in the continuum of modern American acting and drama.

Vanya on 42nd Street is set on a rural estate when an elderly Professor (George Gaynes) and his beautiful younger second wife, Yelena (Julianne Moore), visit Uncle Vanya (Wallace Shawn), the brother of the Professor’s late first wife. Vanya has been thanklessly managing the estate while the Professor enjoys his life in the city. Also visiting is Astrov (Larry Pine), the local doctor, an ecologist who is also an alcoholic. He is the object of the affections of Sonya (Brooke Smith), the Professor’s daughter by his first wife, who has toiled with Vanya to keep the estate going. Crisis erupts when the Professor announces his intention to sell the estate with the goal of investing the proceeds to achieve a higher income for himself and Yelena. While that is essentially the plot, what lurks underneath it are the unrequited desires of those involved. Yelena arouses the affections of Dr. Astrov who has all but ignored Sonya’s pining for him. Vanya meanwhile comes to confront his own ennui of having spent his life – that is, ruining his life – for the sake of the Professor whose personal success he despises. Vanya is basically about how human weakness undoes our fundamental longings.

But Malle begins the film before the production begins, as the actors, director and guests arrive for the performance. Although this gives us the illusion of a documentary, as critic Steve Vineberg points out in his fine essay included in the DVD booklet, the guests are played by actors portraying who we believe to be real people. Vineberg also points out that, if we watch the film again, we can see each of the actors already providing hints of the characters they play while we watch them arriving through the city streets to the theater. All of this might suggest a funhouse conceit except that this strategy sets us up for the magical transformation of the actors into their roles. Wallace Shawn may have expressed initial reluctance at playing Uncle Vanya, but he’s ideally cast in the part. His Vanya is trapped by the smallness of his life, his sense of duty that choked off his possibilities in life. Shawn shows us the teeming rage that can be bottled up in such a diminutive figure. Julianne Moore is a ravishing Yelena who seems both aware and self-conscious of the impact she has on the men around her (and the admiring Sonya). Brooke Smith meanwhile painfully uncovers Sonya’s shy demeanor, a self-deprecation that borders on masochism. Larry Pine’s Dr. Astrov is an idealist who is no longer sure he can invest faith in those ideals anymore and medicates his wounds with vodka. The supporting characters of the nanny (Phobe Brand), Vanya’s mother (Lynn Cohen) and the affable Waffles (Jerry Mayer) are also beautifully sketched parts. The casting of Phoebe Brand, in fact, ties the movie to Chekhov’s progeny, the Group Theatre of the Thirties, where his disciple Stanislavski inspired the American Method in what Vineberg calls “the Stanislavskian ideal, accomplished when actors draw on their own experience to furnish the emotional core of their characters.”

director Louis Malle

The obvious influence on Vanya on 42nd Street might be Malle’s earlier film, My Dinner with Andre (1981), which Louis Malle created out of a scripted dinner conversation about theatre and philosophy between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. But Malle had also been shifting in and out of film genres for most of his career. Emerging in the Sixties during the French New Wave, Louis Malle often blended documentary realism into gripping dramas such as Lacombe Lucien (1974) about a boy with no moral compass who becomes a Nazi collaborator. He made documentaries as well such as the astonishing series Phantom India (1969) and shifted into American filmmaking while working beautifully with playwright John Guare on the quirky Atlantic City (1981). Malle could be wildly experimental (Zazie dans le Metro) or a jazzy sensualist (Murmur of the Heart) which is perhaps why he’s rarely been a critic’s darling. Malle never had a recognizable technique that linked him from film to film. He allowed technique to be dictated by the material rather than the other way around. This intuitive style of working may well be why he was such an ideal director to work on Vanya.

As it turned out, Vanya on 42nd Street was also sadly Louis Malle’s last movie. He was to die of cancer soon after it was released. But like John Huston’s memorable finale of James Joyce’s The Dead (1987), you can feel Malle providing a summing up of life here, taking stock of its costs and what you leave behind. Out of Chekhov, Louis Malle creates in Vanya a spirit of place, one inhabited by characters whose unrequited hopes continue to reverberate, haunting the material, just waiting for another chance to let the play get inside their souls.

-- March 9/12

Our Waking Dreams: Movies in the Digital World (Hugo, The Artist, & The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

Martin Scorsese the director of Hugo

While watching the Academy Awards this year, I was struck by an ongoing motif that seemed to run throughout the evening. Often it was impacted in the periodic jokes of host Billy Crystal, but I could also detect it in the asides by various presenters. There was a constant reference to the early origins of cinema being made just when technology has dramatically transformed the art form – and continues to do so at warp speed. Not only could a viewer detect some concern over whether the technology would come to diminish the quality of the dramatic material, the nominated movies seemed to embody the very argument that was at the heart of the show.

When I was growing up the only way you could watch movies was when they opened in theatres. Movies on television were limited then and they were often burdened by commercials. The limited window of opportunity that theatres offered you to see the picture was partly what built your enthusiasm and anticipation in going to the movies. If the picture was really good, you feared that once it abandoned the movie house you might never get to experience it again. (Part of what got me interested in collecting movie soundtracks was so I could listen to the dramatic score and evoke my favourite scenes from the film.) It was also true that when you saw something really bad, you got worried it might disappear from your city before you had a chance to try it again to test your first reaction to it.

What made movies so appealing, and somewhat daunting, was that they were like our waking dreams. They existed only in the moments when we shared them in the dark with an audience and on a big screen. And then, just like our dreams, they were suddenly gone, as we awakened still trying to capture their fleeting power. Speaking as a critic, the sheer joy of reviewing films often came from the rush of keeping up with the images as they relentlessly sneaked behind our defenses. The pleasure, too, came surprisingly from the inability to control what a movie could do to you. Before the digital age, you couldn’t stop it, slow it down, rewind it, or put it on pause. It was instead just like the experience of falling in love. You didn’t control the rush of emotions that a movie could call up in you. You had to surrender to it and hope for the best. That’s the very quality that’s been changed by the technological revolution.

At first, during the Eighties, when the video cassette hit the market, it seemed like a blessing. Now you could own the movies you loved, just as you could books, or records, and play them whenever you liked. You could even program your own film festival, invite your friends and introduce them to movies they never had the chance to see before. But something was also lost in that experience. Since we now had control over the viewing experience, the idea of a waking dream had been changed into a more conscious and controlling experience. Movies were no longer fleeting and in constant motion but had become static text, where isolated moments could be dissected, studied and analyzed, like a carcass in a science lab. What had given us freedom had now also altered how we came to use it.

As the years went on, and movies turned more towards genre and niche, video tapes briefly became laser discs and then DVDs with their vastly superior image quality. Before long, Blu-ray would arrive with home theatre units to replicate the theatrical experience. With the birth of the Internet and file sharing, it was inevitable that movie downloads – both legal and illegal – would further give us control over what we watched, or maybe more to the point, what we cared to watch. Except for the very curious and open among us, people tended to gravitate towards a known experience that offered comfort rather than shock or surprise. The chance to stumble upon a picture that surprised you and hit you out of the blue was becoming rarer.

Perhaps some of the directors featured at the Oscars this past year felt concerned about that change taking place. Among the nominated group, there were quite a few movies that took the technology currently at our fingertips and applied it to the past, as if to reawaken with a new alchemy the secret power that movies possess. You could certainly feel that desire to imaginatively recast the past in Martin Scorsese’s remarkable Hugo. From the opening scene when Scorsese pays homage to L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895), the Lumière Brothers’ fifty-second silent short of a train pulling into a French coastal town, he plays lovingly on the memory of movies past while giving them new meaning in the present. (Significantly the Lumière Brothers in their picture were deliberately trying to create a 3D experience before the technology could make that possible. Scorsese’s Hugo, of course, is in 3D.). All through Hugo, Scorsese weaves movie references into his delicately stirring dreamscape where the magic of cinema is continually invoked in the everyday life of the people in the story.

But it’s not just film that Scorsese draws upon here. The Victorian values of the story, adapted from Brian Selznick’s 2007 book, also pay homage to Dickens (specifically David Copperfield). While Hugo Cabret provides the image of the orphaned urchins of Dickens, the Dickensian tone itself has a link to the movies. The connection exists in how the great author’s narrative styles of cross-cutting significantly influenced film pioneer D.W. Griffith. In Orphans of the Storm (1921), Griffith openly acknowledged that debt to Dickens. “I borrowed the idea from Charles Dickens,” he said. “Novelists think nothing of leaving one set of characters in the midst of affairs and going back to deal with earlier events in which another set of characters is involved. I found that the picture could carry, not merely two, but three or four simultaneous threads of action – all without confusing the spectator.” Scorsese does something quite similar in Hugo except that he creates simultaneous threads of action out of a storehouse of film scenes. One moment, Hugo and his friend Isabelle are watching Harold Lloyd hanging from the huge clock in Safety Last (1923), then later Hugo has to act out that very scene from the picture when trying to escape the authorities.

Overall Hugo plays to Scorsese’s major strengths as a director especially when he gets to use expressionism to heighten the realism of the commonplace. Part of the problem with his recent pictures, like Shutter Island, was that his movie references seemed arbitrary and impersonal. It was as if you were merely getting a guided tour through a museum of Scorsese’s favourite movie moments from Shock Corridor and Bedlam. Hugo did better to remind me of the best parts of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) when Jesus commanded miracle after miracle, almost as a dare to his adversaries (including even the skeptics among us in the audience). Movies are miracles to Scorsese; and in Hugo, he takes the wonders of technology and infuses it into the picture with an ephemeral passion that reminds us that even in the days of Georges Méliès – who Hugo actually centers on – it was technology that enabled magicians like Méliès to become great film artists.

Some of that same ephemeral passion can also be felt in Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, which won the Best Picture Oscar this year, although it’s a slighter picture than the beautifully textured Hugo. Rather than evoke the movie past as Hugo did, The Artist literally recreates the movie past. In particular, Hazanavicius focuses on the silent period just as sound was about render the silent era – and some of its actors and stars – to the dustbin. But rather than just providing a cute stunt, a circus trick, Hazanavicius tries in The Artist to make us aware of the ways we have learned to take sound for granted and what we lost (as well as gained) when the silent age passed. The Artist both incorporates the popular melodramas of the period and the stylized acting that emphasized body language. The dramatic score by Ludovic Bource, which incorporates Dvorak, Duke Ellington, and popular period songs like “Pennies from Heaven,” also accurately replicates how silent pictures were scored. Hazanavicius’s one jarring moment in that regard, though, comes during the climax when he includes Bernard Herrmann’s complete “Scene D’Amour” from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo which already has such powerfully built in memorable associations that it throws the audience out of the playful realm of The Artist. (Actress Kim Novak, who starred in Vertigo, complained loudly that she felt “raped” by Hazanavicius’s decision, but I think that she is overstating the case.) But, like Hugo, The Artist sets out to remind us of the continuity of movie history. It wishes to incorporate film technology not as an end in itself, but as a means to illustrate how movies have continued to evolve.

The Artist 

In David Fincher’s startling adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which just came out on DVD), he accomplishes that transition from the analogue world into the digital one literally within the body of the story itself. Unlike many of my friends, I wasn’t a fan of the popular Stieg Larsson trilogy of which Fincher’s film is taken from the first book. For me, the stories were disguised pulp masquerading as social and political commentary. (I prefer my pulp straight up.) However, it wasn't that I felt Larsson was being deliberately disingenuous in his work, but rather he was imposing his own anger and despair over the state of Sweden, his homeland, unto the narrative. He used popular visceral techniques to attract our moral outrage, to stir up our blood lust, so we could be justified in feeling it. Since the violence was also exercised in the service of fighting a cabal of faceless Nazi psychopaths and Frankenstein monsters, we could feel morally justified, too, in excusing it. We could even cheer on a cheerless punk-attired avenging angel, Lisbeth, whose acts of revenge could be safely interpreted as feminist gestures. All of this created a churlish tone in the books that, for me, made them unpleasant reading and overshadowed the stories they told.

The Swedish films made from the books also did little to improve them. The three pictures were dour and impersonal leaving only the unpleasant violence to give them life. So when I heard that David Fincher was doing an American remake I was hardly chomping at the bit to see it. But Fincher had already emerged in recent years into a terrific director for whom technology had become if not the source of his movies (as in The Social Network), certainly something that began underlying the stories he was telling (Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). What Fincher does with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not only rescue the material, he brings clarity to the very mystery in the story. It now has a dramatic coherence that Larsson’s mordant brooding had buried.

Fincher’s version is actually a lot closer to the plot of the book than the Swedish version. The picture stars Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist, a left-wing journalist and co-owner of Millennium magazine, who has just lost a libel case brought against him by a crooked businessman. In exchange for incriminating evidence on the businessman, Blomkvist agrees to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of the niece of Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). In order to do a background check on Blomkvist, Vanger seeks the help of researcher and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Blomkvist comes to discover that Lisbeth, while victimized and disturbed, could actually help him solve the crime. (The first time Mara’s Lisbeth gives anyone direct eye contact is when Blomkvist asks for her help bringing a killer of women to justice.)

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth in the analog world

In the book, the pairing of Blomkvist and Lisbeth felt more like literary contrivance than it does in Fincher’s film. Fincher alters their relationship, gives it more of a fundamental meaning, and by doing so, develops a deeper reading of the text. First he contrasts both characters by paralleling the different worlds that shaped them. For Blomkvist, he comes from the analog world of newspapers, magazines and libraries, the world that’s now quickly slipping away. Lisbeth, on the other hand, is a product of the digital world. But just because she uses computer technology to peep into the lives of others, a gift that offers her the kind of control over people she can’t exercise in her own life, it doesn’t mean she’s any freer than Blomkvist. Lisbeth uses computer technology as body armour, a defense against the real world and intimacy with people – the very things that Blomkvist can bask in. (In Fincher's film, unlike in the book, it’s her inability to read people’s motivations that leads her to misjudge the danger of the guardian who brutally rapes her.)

What Blomkvist discovers while trying to solve the mystery he’s investigating is that he needs what digital technology can afford him in assembling the clues. So he appeals to Lisbeth to help him. (Rooney Mara is truly remarkable as Lisbeth. Unlike the opaque Noomi Rapace, who played her in the Swedish version, Mara has spooked eyes and a guarded body language that slowly becomes transformed as she draws closer to Blomkvist.) At which point, the characters begin to cross over into each other’s world. While Blomkvist immerses himself uneasily in the mechanics of digital technology, Lisbeth is in libraries doing searches for evidence that bring her closer to connecting with people in more meaningful ways (including getting intimately involved with Blomkvist). Their romantic pairing in Fincher’s film makes more sense because through their closeness he learns to expand his perception of the digital world around him while she no longer hides behind her computer screen.

Although The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo still remains popular melodrama, in Fincher’s hands, the darker mystery of the story now has more personality and resonance. As in Hugo and The Artist, there is also a consciousness present; the morphing of movie art and storytelling, of how both are being dramatically changed by the technology around us. Of course, it would be too easy to say that technology is turning us all into Lisanders who become cut off from human contact with our iPads and Kobos. After all, technology is also making it possible for us to do things in the arts that were impossible even a decade ago. (I teach film courses now using illustrative clips from movies that would have been impossible to assemble years earlier without the appropriate technology.)

But there is still a cautionary tone in all of the movies I mentioned above, mixed with an exuberant guile that makes each of them vibrant and timeless in their own different way. Rather than take refuge in the nostalgia of the movie past, these pictures have found a new home for that past in the present. And it’s a home still in the process of being decorated.

-- March 29/12

Love and Revenge: The Blu-ray DVD Edition of Dangerous Liaisons

Glenn Close and John Malkovich

Choderlos de Laclos's 1782 novel, Les Liaiasons Dangereuses, is a diabolically unique book, a sly narrative about devious sexual games and merciless erotic warfare, told in the form of highly confidential letters between two French aristocrats – the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont – former lovers turned wicked schemers who set out to wreck the love lives of others just for the sport of it. The letters read like a series of confessionals where the artifice of their style carries the sharp pungency of juicy gossip, cadenced whispers delicately perfumed in malice. Les Liaiasons Dangereuses peeks under the accepted customs of the aristocracy only to uncover the latent sexual aggression, an arousal of decadence, that ceremonial behaviour masks. Naturally, the novel ended up condemned, banned and burned over the years as if the French aristocracy set out to destroy traces of themselves tucked away in those exchanges.

Director Stephen Frears's Dangerous Liaisons, the 1988 film adaptation of Christopher Hampton's Tony Award-winning stage play based on the de Laclos's novel, was never in danger of being condemned, banned, or burned. But it sure does full justice to the book's wickedness. Perhaps, since Frears (having already directed My Beautiful Launderette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) is a true modernist, he goes beyond providing a cleverly detached voyeurism and reaches instead for the emotional and erotic power buried in the material. Most period costume dramas linger on the decor so we can swoon over all the pageantry, or they take the moral high road of Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract which dispenses with the impacted eroticism in sexual gamesmanship in exchange for cerebral muscle-flexing (to paraphrase the critic Terrence Rafferty, Greenaway is the beach bully as aesthete who kicks art in our faces). Frears, however, shows far more daring, setting up the combatants and their rules of engagement so that we can watch their masks melt away. We ultimately come to feel the full consequences of their carnal games. The artifice gives way to real flesh and blood, blood that even literally spills by the end, as Frears cuts the chords that hold the characters aloft.

The story opens with the Marquise (Glenn Close) seeking revenge on a recent lover by having his young new fiancee, Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), the daughter of Merteuil's cousin Madame de Volanges (Swoosie Kurtz), seduced and scandalized. Merteuil turns to Valmont (John Malkovich) to do the dirty deed, but he doesn't feel its worthy of his reputation. Besides, he has his heart set on trying to seduce the virtuous Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), who just happens to be spending time at his aunt's manor house while her husband is abroad. Once Valmont discovers that de Volanges had been secretly writing to de Tourvel to warn her against his wicked designs, Valmont decides to follow Merteuil's scheme. He carries it out by taking advantage of Cécile's secret love for her music teacher, the Chevalier Raphael Danceny (Keanu Reeves), a penniless suitor who Cécile's mother doesn't find worthy of her daughter. But Valmont's main target still remains Madame de Tourvel, who, despite suspecting his disingenuousness, ultimately gives in to his relentless advances. Meanwhile Valmont, the lifelong womanizer, surprises himself by unexpectedly falling in love with de Tourvel, setting in motion an act of betrayal that lays waste to all parties.

Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich

The casting here is both daring and ingenious. Glenn Close uses her matronly authority to neatly disguise the deeper insecurities of the Marquise and the rage of a woman who speaks with a false authority. She justifies her behaviour out of implied feminist principles, as if she's acting purely as a woman trapped in a man's world. But the Marquise takes refuge in a woman's second class station so she can rationalize her basest instincts. Many critics were puzzled by the casting of John Malkovich (no surprise, really, since he's hardly an actor who stands the danger of being typecast as a romantic rogue). But his lisping weirdness is not only what's needed, it makes Valmont's ultimate act both believable and inevitable. Malkovich portrays Valmont with a comic understanding that his womanizing disguises a fragile ego, a man so vain about what others think of him that the Marquise can later expose his weakness and set loose his own self-destructive impulses. I don't see either how Michelle Pfeiffer's performance as Madame de Tourval could be better. Pfeiffer's rhapsodic beauty peaks through the tight bodice that has a stranglehold on the Madame's passions. On first glance, she appears earnest, if not pious, but her modesty actually puts a lid on the instinctual drives that Valmont uncorks (and later blows to pieces). The whole cast is sublime, from the ripe Uma Thurman to the shell-shocked Swoozie Kurtz, and Frears keeps the plot spinning without overshadowing his performers.

This new transfer on Blu-ray DVD vividly enriches Phillipe Rousselot's already sumptuous camerawork. The deep focus is so clear you can see the traces of pancake makeup decorating the pores of the actors' skins. By the end, when their makeup melts away, the emerging red in their faces carries the emotional jolt of a painting starting to bleed. The commentary track featuring Christopher Hampton and Stephen Frears is also one of the most entertaining and informative ones I've yet heard on a DVD. Their contrasting voices, Hampton with his precise diction and Frears with his sleepy drawl, provide a humorous running dialogue that both informs us of the process of making the picture and their more recent reactions to watching their work unfold on the screen many years later.

It's rare that a period costume picture implicates the audience in the manner that Dangerous Liaisons does. Without sacrificing our enjoyment of the ornamental beauty of the lavish settings, Frears gives us fully formed characters that draw us into their devious wiles only to have us watch in horror as they destruct. Dangerous Liaisons is a lavish high comedy, but it ultimately delivers the full kick of a tragic drama.

-- April 22/12

Weasels Ripped My Flesh: Josef Skvorecky's Headed for the Blues (1997)

Josef Skvorecky's Headed for the Blues is actually divided into two books. Beginning with the memoir of the title, and written by the author while looking back at his homeland from his new one in Canada; it is followed by "The Tenor Saxophonist's Story," which consists of 10 short stories written between 1954 and 1956 while Skvorecky was still in Prague. The purpose here, no doubt, is to provide contrasting attitudes about the past – the place and people he left behind – through stories that capture all the reasons why he did depart.

Headed for the Blues examines why those reasons are never cut and dry. What Skvorecky demonstrates, with a cool irony and a sardonic grin, is that just because you leave the traumas of home behind, it doesn't mean that they still can't haunt you. During the opening few pages, Skvorecky confronts us with names, places and distant memories. Yet the story's not told in the chronological sequencing of a conventional remembrance. His thoughts pour out as if they'd been first blended in a Cuisinart. The narrative shifts back and forth through time, too, with sentences that run on as if the author wasn't sure he'd find enough breath to get the words out.

The urgency to speak – to find clarity or certainty – is deliberate, and the book's style, with its jazzy bounce and swing, carries the plot. While it takes a little time to get your bearings (because the rush of words leave you feeling the sensation of stemming a steady flood), the urgency has a point because this memoir from a Czech exile is an attempt to validate a life during a time of Stalinist repression. It's about how memories – and time itself – can lose its linear shape and meaning in a totalitarian society; a society where it becomes next to impossible to consolidate those memories when the government's role is to deny you the experience of them. Headed for the Blues also pulls the rug out from under all our efforts to find our roots because the story is infused with a homesickness borne out of unresolved efforts to define a home. To paraphrase blues singer Percy Mayfield, it's about being a stranger in your own hometown.

The book opens in 1969, with Skvorecky, a university professor in Toronto, looking back to the grim shadow of 1948 when the communist putsch deployed a Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia. The memoir touches many moments (both tender and tragic) and issues (both political and personal), but the two threads that run through this reminiscence is Skvorecky's correspondence with his good friend Prema, who becomes an exile after broadcasting from a stolen transmitter; and later, Pavlas, a different kind of exile with "a mushy voice" and an obsequious agenda who meets him in Toronto. Prema travels the world from Algiers to Sicily, showing up in Australia, yet eventually coming home just to get booted out. For Skvorecky, Prema represents all the comforts of having a homeland, coupled with justifications for leaving it. Pavlas embodies the treachery that robs your homeland of its comforts, constantly reminding you that you never leave it behind.

Josef Skvorecky

The dark humour in Headed for the Blues (it suggests Kafka with a chuckle) uncovers the world of fizls, agents of the secret police ("rhymes with weasels"), and the "exhausted executioners," claimed by the government to be tired because of the volume of killing. Skvorecky demonstrates time and again that behind the boldly defined face of the communist revolutionary is actually the faceless bureaucrat who finds fulfillment in wiping out lives and identities. No wonder Skvorecky is compelled to write: "Anyone capable of the extravagance of words must tell everything he knows ... Truth will be forgotten, because perhaps it is the young, the happy ones ... who are entering an age when only the diligent fizls grow weary, the executioner is idle."

The short vignettes that make up "The Tenor Saxophonist's Story" function like parables about politics and morality. They also feature a familiar figure from Skvorecky's earlier work, his alter-ego Danny Smiricky, who appeared in Skvorecky's first novel, The Cowards (1958), The Swell Season (1975), as well as in The Engineer of Human Souls (1977) and The Republic of Whores (1969), the sax player who describes himself as "a champion of caution." In many ways, though, I like to think of him more like Ivan (Robin Williams), the innocent hero of Paul Mazursky's lovely and bittersweet Moscow on the Hudson (1984), another story about defection and homesickness. (Ivan also played the sax.) Danny is an observer who tries to behave decently in a system where betrayal and expedience have become the norm. In the story "Panta Rei," we watch through Danny's eyes the worst aspects of careerism, where one character changes political colours with the ease one uses to change shoes. In "Truths," political naivete is cleverly linked to the sexual version of the same innocence. And in "Little Mata Hari of Prague," the true nature of what is considered a classless society is horrifically revealed.

Headed for the Blues is a precise examination of the Stalinist horrors of the Czech past and a stirring remembrance of what Skvorecky left behind (and a good guess at what lay ahead). But considered today, the book truly gains in perspective. No doubt, like many of us, Skvorecky didn't anticipate the rapid fall of communism and the Velvet Revolution of Vaclav Haval. (He passed away last year.) When I interviewed Skvorecky back in 1988, a year before that revolution, and asked him whether he trusted Gorbachev and glasnost, he said, "These liberal-left journalists are simply too trusting. They have no historical memory. Many people know that Gorbachev is in power, but they forgot that he made his career in the KGB. I'm not saying that this determines his future, but I would be more cautious. Exiles like myself know totalitarianism, and Canadians fortunately do not."

Skvorecky was, of course, wrong about Gorbachev's future, but his comments about the value and necessity of having a historical memory is precise. The cautionary tone of Headed for the Blues hints in its comic despair that things will never change. But because Josef Skvorecky, in his lifetime, cultivated that historical memory, a memory that struggles to uncover the complexity of truth, he made change more inevitable than he may at first realized.

-- May 22/12

Rummaging Through the Dustbin: Greil Marcus's The Dustbin of History (1996)

For all the value we assign to history, both as a field of study in school and for understanding the ways of the world, it's also dead meat. Our best friend's marriage ends and we say it's history. Sports commentators, eager to create an air of finality, always remark: "With that goal in overtime, the playoff series becomes history." One goal and everything that came before it is now superfluous. The winning team moves on; the losing team is history. History might even be worse than dead meat because (to paraphrase Johnny Rotten) it's got nooooo future. It's history.

In high school, we often treated the subject as a function of correcting mistakes. The teacher told us that if we studied what took place back then, then maybe we could prevent it from happening again. Know it and you can control it. History was something you could beat by simply having all the right facts.With certain truths on your side, you could stop time itself in order to properly dissect it. But why should history's dustbin become such a convenient dumping ground for facts left behind like last week's garbage? This is the central question in Greil Marcus's uneven, yet fascinating book The Dustbin of History (Harvard University Press, 1996), which sets out to provide a road map to find some answers.

With a title taken from Leon Trotsky's famous dismissal of the Mensheviks during the Russian Revolution in 1917 ("Go where you belong from now on – into the dustbin of history"), what the reader (and Marcus) discovers is that the dustbin isn't some solid steel container sucking up data, but more an intersection where popular culture and art can meet political change. As a cultural critic, Marcus has often positioned himself at that crossroad. His first book, Mystery Train (1975), put forth a plausible rationale for American pop artists – Elvis Presley, The Band, Randy Newman, Robert Johnson, Harmonica Frank and Sly Stone – leaving as defining a mark on their culture as Abraham Lincoln did in his Gettysburg Address, or Thomas Jefferson in the founding of the country's ideals. With his second foray into art and politics, Lipstick Traces (1989), Marcus created a credibly drawn, hidden history of the 20th century, linking the Dadaists, who shocked middle-class complacency during the ravages of the First World War, to the emergence of the punk culture of the late Seventies, who were doing some complacency shaking of their own in Thatcher's England.

In The Dustbin of History, Marcus sets out in passionate pursuit of what he calls "work that doesn't decay in the making;" events that "can sustain a sense of history – of time and its affairs passing, accumulating...clearing like a storm breaking." By doing so, he refuses to draw a linear line through history; instead he takes essays and reviews he's written over the past 20 years and denies them their chronological shape. History is disavowed its designation of a past, present and a future. Everything discussed in The Dustbin of History seems to be happening all at once. As a result, an eclectic range of subject matter over a large body of time seem in a perpetual state of dialogue with each other. That subject matter includes Thomas Gifford's frightening anti-fascist thriller, The Wind Chill Factor (1975); Bob Dylan's elliptically cryptic masterpiece "Blind Willie McTell"; Camille Paglia's sweeping and intoxicating cultural tome Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990); a magically evocative box set of recordings about – and by – the Beat Generation; a fascinating archetypal view of John Wayne's movie career; and concluding with a touching essay on Deborah Chessler, a white Jewish woman from Baltimore, who wrote "It's Too Soon to Know" for Sonny Til and the Orioles, perhaps the greatest black R&B song in the canon with one of the most poetic lyrics about romantic ambivalence ("Am I the fire/Or just another flame").

But what could all these radically diverse artefacts have to do with history, or even have in common with each other? Marcus suggests that the manner in which we view history – as something consigned to the past – freezes out the people who make it. The only way history can find its living voice, he argues, is in the cultural artefacts that speak to each other through the continuum of time whereby they can transcend finality. This bold strategy of random selection also allows us the fascinating task of comparing Marcus's observations at the times he wrote the pieces to what we now perceive of those events in the present. His narrative plan, in other words, opens up the opportunity to juxtapose his criss-crossing insights.

In the case of the Nazi-hunting thrillers he explores, links are drawn to concerns about "American pop culture's colonization of the subconscious power of post-war West German youth," raised by the German film director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) in his book, Emotion Pictures (of which Marcus includes a review). History even turns into a fractured, spinning glass ball travelling through time in Marcus's discussion of John Frankenheimer's film version of Richard Condon's Cold War novel, The Manchurian Candidate (a film Marcus would return to in more depth years later in his BFI book on the picture), wherein an American soldier is brainwashed into becoming a political assassin. In a hall of mirrors moment, Marcus writes with wit and urgency about a film that clearly defied the dustbin. This unsettling, controversial work gets released in 1962, while set in the aftermath of the Korean War in 1954, gets suppressed shortly after President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, to finally find a new audience during the sleepy Reagan era in 1988, an era with the expressed aim of making us believe that the Sixties never happened.

Robert Altman's Nashville (1975)

The tactics employed by Marcus in the book, though, occasionally backfire, as in his 1975 essay on Robert Altman's Nashville and E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime. When Marcus expresses puzzlement that Altman could include in his film the "unmotivated and all but incomprehensible" assassination of a pop star, he apparently didn't see that Altman was cleverly and perceptively showing us how politics and celebrity culture were beginning to merge in America in the mid-Seventies. This uneasy nuptial would culminate five years later not only in the election of former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan as President in 1980, but also the assassination of John Lennon, a pop star with political caché. (Marcus's similar dismissal of Altman's inclusion of populist candidate Hall PhillipWalker also misses the sheer prescience of a picture that would anticipate the coming of Ross Perot on the political landscape in the years to follow.)

Yet maybe the funniest and most ironic link to come out of that particular essay might be in the fact that a few years after Marcus wrote the piece, Robert Altman almost came to direct the film version of Ragtime. It seems that Altman – and Doctorow with his keen eye for the panoramic way pop shapes our perceptions of history – provides more proof of Marcus's intuitive claims than even he himself recognizes. Yet, in spite of its periodic flaws in judgment, The Dustbin of History never suffers from a failure of the imagination. Marcus, to paraphrase a point he makes about author Peter Handke, never imposes symbolism on history; he instead tries to comprehend the symbolism history inevitably imposes on us.

In Greil Marcus's hands, thankfully, history never comes to represent dead meat. If anything, in reading this highly entertaining book, you can finally consider the dustbin open for business.

-- June 26/12

God's Songs: Don Hannah's The Wise and Foolish Virgins (1998)

When first reading playwright Don Hannah's terrific debut novel, The Wise and Foolish Virgins (Random House, 1998), I was immediately reminded of a scene from Michael Tolkin's provocative film, The Rapture (1991), where a born again Christian tells a convert who is having her doubts about her faith that all she has to do is let God forgive her. But the convert then answers back, "Yes, but who forgives God?" In his movie, Tolkin's point is that if we look for signs of God's perfection in the world, and in ourselves, and we find instead something less noble and unholy, how do we reconcile ourselves with God? In The Wise and Foolish Virgins, a group of individuals try to seek out the sacred but are continually forced to confront the profane.

The story takes place in Membartouche, a fictional small town in New Brunswick which seems quaint, but in reality it is teeming with frustrated individuals who feel at the short end of life's very fickle stick. Sandy Whyte, a repressed homosexual, is a pillar of the local church who has suffered humiliation and tries to take refuge in Bach and the religious hymns of his childhood. But his obsession with beauty takes an ugly turn when he kidnaps and holds hostage a young boy whom he worships. Gloria is Sandy's cleaning lady, a woman once ridiculed for having laid eyes on the Virgin Mary as a child, who has a family reunion dinner in honour of her gay brother Raymond, a man dying of AIDS, which stirs up her family's concealed hostilities. Annette is a pregnant teenager who desires an abortion, but when she accidently informs Margaret, a fundamentalist Christian at a right-to-life hotline, Margaret makes it her mission to convince Annette to keep her child. But we quickly come to realize that Margaret's efforts aren't based so much on her religious beliefs, or any altruistic motives, they come instead from a desire in her to transcend her own memories of the horrible sexual abuse she suffered as a young girl.

Don Hannah, who comes from Shediac, New Brunswick, in the Canadian Maritimes, with delicate skill and a contemplative subtlety intertwines their stories while giving us a vivid picture of how the overt social life of a close-knit community can also conceal hidden motives and darker appetites. His strengths as a playwright (The Wedding Script, The Cave Painter) are evident in the way he sets the inner dimensions of these characters swirling between the lines of the story. And even if you can sometimes predict what might come next, you are never sure of which aspect of the character will emerge. Hannah also provides apt juxtapositions, ones that provide startling insights, like having Raymond's dementia run parallel to Sandy's prisoner's dehydrated delusions; or in contrasting Sandy and his captive's distinctly different visions of their fathers. Hannah continually shows that he isn't afraid of tackling the farthest reaches of desperate longing, with all the incipient yearnings stirred in the process of craving more. And, to his credit, Hannah doesn't spare his characters – or the reader – either by providing life-lesson homilies that could dampen the power of the dramatic content.

author Don Hannah 

The novel has its flaws. Occasionally Hannah spends too much time setting up each character so that we'll immediately recognize the nature of their torment. (His intuitive perceptions are so acute that he may not see that we've already perceived what he is explicitly telling us.) But the boldness in the work comes through when he illustrates with a poetic intricacy the manner in which sacred values can come into sharp conflict with our notions of sin. Religious songs and prayers get scattered throughout the book in the same way pop songs were sprinkled throughout Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven – representing aspirations that the characters know they can't live up to. With an ample daring, Hannah also puts the human body, with its primary functions, right at the centre of the story. Whether it's the humiliation of Gloria's weight, Raymond's emaciation, or (as Norman O. Brown once perceptively brought to light in his remarkable Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History) how our inner anxieties get expressed through our relationship to excrement and urination, Hannah suggests that we must confront the body before we can comprehend the spirit.

There's a growing sense all through the book of people seeking salvation but having to go through the baptism of Hell to reach it. Margaret can only deal with her father's memory, for instance, once she cleanses herself of it in a stream. Gloria comes to terms with the Virgin Mary only after she accepts that her brother is dying. (There's a lovely, affecting passage in the novel when she tells him the story as she cradles him Christ-like in her arms.) Annette's boyfriend Chaleur goes through his own horror before he can finally reach between the worlds to the dead father he always longed for. All through the story people are doing desperate things to maintain an idea that they can always be forgiven and saved.

The Wise and Foolish Virgins poses fundamental questions about forgiveness, where we try and find resolution once we vanquish the ghosts who haunt us. Hannah writes with a probing courage about people who have misshapen and tortured lives, and he writes about them with this spiky humour that's combined with a compassionate understanding of their failings. You could say the novel is about coming out of an arrested state of innocence, where we come to finally embrace a fragile and ambiguous relationship to a world that feels seemingly alien. Armed with Hannah's restless intelligence and keen insight, The Wise and Foolish Virgins reaches its own state of grace.

-- July 20/12

Pioneering: The Criterion Collection's Release of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps & Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush

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