Monday, April 30, 2012

In the Hills of Old Vermont

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Often when Susan Green does a profile on an artist, it opens more doors to finding larger cultural contexts in their work than most other profiles done in the mainstream media. (Just check out her discussions with the late Bob Marley and Spalding Gray.) In this look back on the career of folk singer Jesse Winchester, she finds an artist whose work in the past shed light on events in the present.


Jesse Winchester, You're On My Mind


Jimmy Buffett’s schtick, which conjures up images of enjoying tequila and triple sec cocktails in the sun, never appealed to me. But the 63-year-old musician suddenly is a notch or two higher in my estimation and not just because his environmental activism -- save the manatees! -- has sharpened in reaction to the BP oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. Here’s the primary reason: When the hipster dude who turns out hits like “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise” organized a free July 11 concert in his native Alabama, the show included Jesse Winchester.

This singer-songwriter with a soulful tenor voice is the antithesis of a “parrothead,” the term Buffett aficionados use to symbolize the “island escapism” sensibility of their hero. Winchester, also a Southerner, has a rather somber demeanor, even when performing as cheerful an anthem as “Laisse les Bon Temps Rouler.” With a courtly, almost old-fashioned manner, despite the perennial hippie beard, he rocketed to fame in the late 1970s as an artist living in exile who was finally able to visit his homeland again after President Jimmy Carter pardoned America’s draft resisters.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Jonathan Demme's America

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

In the late Seventies and into the Eighties, film director Jonathan Demme gave us one of the most expansive portraits of American life, a sensibility that critic Pauline Kael called (in describing Demme's Melvin and Howard) "a cross between Jean Renoir and Preston Sturges." What Kevin Courrier found in Demme's Something Wild was a whole new genre - the screwball noir.



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 travelled 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).

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Horse Sense

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

There are some subjects that many feel don't fall under the definition of art, or even culture, like horse racing (for example). And yet, David Churchill and Mark Clamen, in declaring their love for the sport, wrote separately and eloquently about a movie (Secretariat) and a recently cancelled cable show (Luck) that brought to it a definitive cultural perspective.
 


The Glory of Horse Racing: Secretariat (2010) and an afternoon at Woodbine Race Track

For me, there may be nothing more beautiful on this Earth than the sight of a thoroughbred race horse, with jockey aboard, charging down the homestretch pushing and pushing to beat the other thoroughbreds in a turf race. Even as a young boy, I paid attention to the great Triple Crown in the US (Kentucky Derby/ Preakness/ Belmont Stakes) and Canada's own version (The Queen's Plate/ The Prince of Wales Stakes/The Breeder's Cup). The fine-toned, rippling muscles of these gorgeous animals, whether just standing in a paddock or galloping down the track have always caught my eye. I'm fortunate to remember watching Secretariat live on TV, one of the greatest horses ever, when he managed to win the Triple Crown in 1973

It was quite exciting when he won because it had not been done since Citation in 1948. And it has only been done twice since, Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978). Over the years, I've cheered on a variety of horses, some which managed to get the first two, but always failed at the longer and harder-to-achieve, Belmont Stakes. My favourite in recent years was Smarty Jones, a great horse considered “smallish” by thoroughbred standards, but who still managed to easily win the first two legs before being pipped at the wire by Birdstone at Belmont. I didn't even necessarily know I was doing this, but I've also discovered that I've always gone out of my way to watch horse racing films. Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion  (1979), Simon Wincer's Phar Lap (1983), Gary Ross's Seabiscuit (2003), Joe Johnston's Hidalgo (2003) and, of course, Randall Wallace's Secretariat (2010) which has just recently come to DVD. Some of these were great, such as Ballard's lyrical masterpiece; some are rousing entertainments (Hidalgo); some of them are sentimental crap (Seabiscuit – really unfortunate since it is based on an absolutely brilliant book written by Laura Hillenbrand); and some are old-fashioned, in the most gloriously positive sense (Secretariat). (A nod must be extended to my Critics at Large colleague Steve Vineberg for this description that he shared with Kevin Courrier; I couldn't agree more).

A scene from Black Stallion
Ironically, it is really only in the last six months that I finally realized how much I love horse racing and horse racing films. Sometimes you find yourself unconsciously attracted to something more than you really know. These feelings were always there (I remember reading Hillenbrand's book and as she was describing the racing in such perfect prose I was subconsciously rocking forward and back ever so slightly as if I was in the saddle), yet my love affair with it has only recently fully blossomed in my mind (and it's always been a spectator sport – I've only been on the back of a horse once, though now I want to try it again). I'm pretty sure I know why. I love speed. Whether it's motor racing, as I discussed in my blog from last year about my racing cousin, Nelson Monteiro; flying a glider which I've done twice; or when I drive fast myself in both my car or on my bicycle (on my bike, I love long, bump-free hills, but only when going down!), I've always liked the thrill of the fast, and race horses are beautifully fast.

John Malkovich & Diane Lane
Before I discuss my recent trip to finally see horse racing live, I should briefly talk about Wallace's film because it was what inspired me to finally go to the track. Diane Lane plays Penny Chenery, a woman who inherits her father's losing horse farm which happens to include an under-performing horse named Secretariat. Seeing Secretariat's potential, she approaches an extremely eccentric trainer, Lucien Laurin (played by John Malkovich, something he does well – Malkovich playing an eccentric? Who'd a thunk it?), to train the horse and try to see if it can make some money for the cash-strapped operation. The rest, as they say, is history. Wallace gets a really wonderful hard-as-nails performance out of Lane, an under-appreciated actress who shines in whatever she's cast in. You accept that she believes, unlike Jeff Bridges’ terrible turn in Seabiscuit. There's the usual crisis in the form of the older brother (Dylan Walsh) who wants to sell the farm and Secretariat for quick money; another owner, with a talented horse, is a weasel and a loud mouth, etc. Yet Wallace balances the balls in the air and keeps the suspense fairly high considering we all know exactly how this film ends. Yes, it’s old-fashioned and it works so well because it is.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Doing it All

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

While Laura Warner doesn't usually review movies for Critics at Large, I Don't Know How She Does it, which examines the hectic life of a career single mom, seemed right up her turnpike. As illustrated by her reflections on the picture, she deftly pointed out the real from the reel.  


Fanfare for the Career Mom: Afterthoughts on I Don’t Know How She Does It

Regardless of the fromage-splattered red flags that appeared in the trailers, I couldn’t help but check out Sarah Jessica Parker’s (SJP) new film I Don’t Know How She Does It (2011). Alas, I have a soft spot for anything that involves a scattered, exasperated, working mother. This decision did not go unpunished. Upon telling friends and colleagues about my plans, they gave me that look. You know the look. It’s the one people give you when you say you’re going to a funeral. (I guess it hadn’t received the kindest of reviews.) Of course this caused some mild anxiety leading up to the feature presentation. Yet, perhaps because my expectations were so low, or maybe due to that soft spot I mentioned, I actually enjoyed myself. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

High School Confidential

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

There's nothing quite like being years out of high school and then revisiting the experience through television. We spend most of our time, while watching, measuring our own experiences up against what we see. Shlomo Schwartzberg delved into that phenomenon when he looked back over the years he spent watching the Canadian drama Degrassi which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this week.  



Real Teens, Real Issues: TV's Degrassi

It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure, I suppose, but I’ve just recently re-acquainted myself with Degrassi, the long-running TV series about teens in a Toronto community high school. (I am decades out of high school myself so I feel a bit sheepish admitting I like the series, an unnecessary reaction since Degrassi, ultimately, is all about fine television.) I watched it quite regularly in the '80s but somehow forgot about it after its ten-year hiatus and didn’t check back in with when it returned as Degrassi: The Next Generation, something I now regret. I was flipping the dial on a Friday a few months back when I came across a late Season 10 episode on MuchMusic and was instantly hooked all over again, eventually catching up with the entire season due to MuchMusic’s repeats. Season 11 begins on Monday July 18 on MuchMusic – Canada ’s version of the American music channel MTV – and the U.S. channel TeenNick. Judging by the exciting goings-on last season, it promises to be another gripping and fascinating installment in the ongoing saga of the kids of Degrassi.

It’s hard to believe but the show, in one form or another, has been around since 1979, beginning with its first incarnation as The Kids of Degrassi Street (1979-86) on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the country's public TV network. (Linda Schuyler and Kit Hood were its creators, but only the former is still involved with the show.) That was followed by Degrassi Junior High (1987-89), Degrassi High (1989-91), both on CBC and, finally, Degrassi: The Next Generation, which premiered in 2001, moving to CTV, Canada's leading private television network, which also owns MuchMusic. It changed its name to just plain Degrassi last season. (This being Canada, the first few episodes of The Kids of Degrassi Street were one offs, and the early seasons were abbreviated ones, as in the British television mode, ranging anywhere from 4-11 episodes. Growing exponentially, last season Degrassi hit a high of 45 episodes, 22 two part episodes, each a half hour in length, and one half hour documentary whereby some of the cast went to India to help build, appropriately enough, a schoolhouse. Overall there are close to 20 actual season’s worth of shows revolving around Degrassi.) As in real life, every few years, the Degrassi kids graduate high school and are replaced by a new crop of high schoolers. In fact, this year’s season will be split in two, with 29 episodes, running for seven weeks wrapping up the 2010/2011 school year, and another 16 shows, starting in the fall, chronicling the next school year, which means a batch of current Degrassi Grade 12ers will graduate. As such shows about teens go, it’s always been a uniquely intelligent and honest series about young people. It is perhaps the most impressive example of this particular genre.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rock & Roll Chekhov

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Where A Hard Day's Night became a cultural touchstone that defined The Beatles mythology and their popularity, a little seen film called Having a Wild Weekend, starring The Dave Clark Five, examined the value of pop mythology. As a result, the picture came up with some discomfiting questions that Kevin Courrier examined in this piece about a movie that deftly combined Sixties pop and Chekhov. 

Catch Us If You Can: An Appraisal of Having a Wild Weekend (1965)

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 beat thatTime 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 sound 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.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What About Dragons?

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

When in comes to books about fantasy and high adventure, it's hard not to consider a possible movie adaptation to follow. (Sometimes readers imagine the movie as they're reading.) Not Catharine Charlesworth. She takes a look at Naomi Novik's epic adventure featuring dragons and only gives a passing glimpse at Tinseltown.


An Alternative Air Force: His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

The Napoleonic wars form the backdrop of many classic works of historical fiction. Epic battles, perilous sea voyages and political machinations lend themselves easily to countless adventures, several of which have translated to screen adaptations in recent years – think Master and Commander, or Horatio Hornblower. The era seems to provide no shortage of inspiration to the budding writer. One seems hard-pressed to find anything that would make an already fascinating period of history more exciting.

Well, what about dragons?

At first, this idea conjures up unsettling memories of unfortunately gimmicky dragon movies (I’m looking at you, Reign of Fire). The notion of playing this premise straight would seem even more outlandish, but Naomi Novik's His Majesty’s Dragon does just that – and does it well. Trying to weave the iconic fantasy beasts into such well-trodden literary ground seems a gutsy choice for a first novel, but Novik has managed: first published in 2005, it is the first book in the Temeraire series, which has now reached six novels and will last for at least seven. While perhaps not the most challenging read, the novel still manages to pose enough questions and provide enough seafaring fun to please both fans of the fantastic and historical fiction buffs with a quirky imagination.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Feeling Antiquated

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Last week, the Rogers cable stores in Canada announced that they won't be renting DVDs any longer. They are currently selling off their stock for all those interested. The death of the DVD store is certainly a concern for those who rent, or buy, and the implications for those who love movies are only beginning to become clear. David Churchill first contemplated the consequences last fall when Blockbuster went under.

Death Knell: The End of the DVD Store


The end is nigh. The days of the DVD store are numbered and there is little any of us can do about it. The announcement this spring that the collapse of Blockbuster US was going to force the actually profitable Blockbuster Canada into bankruptcy with it signalled the end of an era. (Blockbuster Canada was a separate company, but associated enough that the debt holders in the US could force the Canadian version to sell off its wares and close.) Rogers is still up and running, but rumours are rampant that they want to get out of the DVD rental business.

Don't get me wrong, I know there is a somewhat healthy independent industry still thriving, but when you live in a middlebrow city like Markham (just north of Toronto), your options are pretty limited. In fact, Markham's last independent shop, the terrific DVD Mansion, moved to Woodbridge (20 kilometres to the west of Markham) 18 months ago. That leaves, for the entire city of Markham, one little, bitty Rogers store (and nobody knows how much longer that will stay open). Regardless of what you thought of Blockbuster, the stores were big and they had a lot of films. Okay, 90% of them were of the Hollywood big budget variety from the last 4 to 5 years, but there was still that 10%. My local Blockbuster had a pretty healthy foreign language film collection, and it wasn't afraid to bring in a copy of micro-budgeted films like the terrific The Eclipse (which I rented at Blockbuster and wrote about here). They also had a section dedicated to promoting Canadian films, a few dozen pictures from Hollywood's golden era, plus you could get the occasional Criterion edition of classic films. Rogers? Not so much. If you want to see Hollywood pictures (or the occasional B flick) or some TV series from last three to five years, then you were in luck. Anything else, forget it. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Leaving Out the Poetry

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

It's always fun when the work of classic writers can be reinterpreted with flair and imagination, It's quite another story though when the play misses the point, or further abandons the poetic language that defines it. Those were the circumstances that faced Steve Vineberg last summer when the National Theatre did Chekhov (The Cherry Orchard) and Ibsen (Emperor and Galilean).


Chekhov and Ibsen at the National Theatre

I understand the need to find translations of Chekhov and Ibsen that don’t provide obstacle courses for contemporary actors; one of the reasons André Gregory was able to do the phenomenal work he did with the cast of Vanya on 42nd Street was that David Mamet made the language so limpid and close to the natural rhythms of American actors. But the rage for new versions of the plays, often mired in contemporary clichés, is infuriating. In Pam Gems’s rewrite of A Doll’s House, Krogstad warns Christine, “Goes around, comes around,” and I’ve heard a student actor perform a scene in Uncle Vanya in which Astrov uses the expletive “fucking.” That can’t be a reasonable solution. In Andrew Upton’s version of The Cherry Orchard performed by Britain’s National Theatre (and widely seen abroad in HD), Gaev (James Laurenson) calls Lopakhin (Conleth Hill) a “crap artist” and Lyubov Ranevskaya (Zoë Wanamaker), rather than just excoriating the eternal student Trofimov (Mark Bonnar) for having no mistress at his age, grabs at his crotch and wonders out loud if he’s got anything at all down there. But the real offense in Upton’s Cherry Orchard is his lengthy addenda, which seem to have two purposes – to overemphasize the political subtext (the second-act debate between Trofimov and Lopakhin is about one and a half times longer than the one Chekhov wrote) and to make sure the audience doesn’t miss the point. That must be why Yasha (Gerald Kyd), Lyubov's manservant, takes three times as many lines as Chekhov wrote for him to persuade her to take him along when she returns to Paris. (Yasha, born a peasant but determined to rise in the world, is more or less a comic variation on the self-educated valet Jean in Strindberg's Miss Julie.)  Does Upton really think he can improve on Chekhov?


Presumably this is The Cherry Orchard that the director, Howard Davies, wanted to mount at the National, perhaps because of the extended political chatter; Davies is a Marxist. But the production itself isn’t unfair to Chekhov’s play. Davies makes no attempt to undermine its sympathetic attitude toward the brother-and-sister aristocrats, Ranevskaya and Gaev, who through a combination of illusion and habit and a impracticality can’t prevent their family estate from being sold from under them. In only a couple of places you can see Davies doesn’t want to give in to the text. Chekhov lays the second act in the orchard, but though Bunny Christie has designed an impressive set, when the Ranevsky house cuts away to reveal the vegetation, all we get is thick, straw-like underbrush, and we have to conclude that Davies just doesn’t have it in him to show us the beauty of what the aristocrats are losing. Toward the end of the act, a homeless drunk begs some change from Lyubov’s adopted daughter Varya (Claudie Blakley), and though Lopakhin, the peasant-turned-landowner who ends up buying the cherry orchard, shoos the man away, Ranevskaya finds something in her purse for him. Chekhov is pointing up more than Lyubov’s spendthriftiness, which we’ve heard about since the first act: the contrast between her response to the beggar and Lopakhin’s reminds us that whatever criticisms we may make of the aristocrats, they were raised to feel a responsibility to be generous to the poor, and when their class dies away so does that attitude. Davies blurs that idea by having Wanamaker’s Ranevskaya thrust her coins in to the beggar’s hands to get rid of him because he’s frightening Varya.

Zoё Wanamaker (photo by Catherine Ashmore)
Christie’s set fills the immense Olivier Theatre, which isn’t the ideal space for this play; it would have been a cozier fit in the National’s middle-sized house, the Lyttleton. But the National clearly knew they’d likely have a hit with a distinguished actress in the role of Ranevskaya, and considering that The Cherry Orchard has been alternating with a nearly four-hour spectacle with a cast of fifty, Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean, which hasn’t a chance of making money, you can’t blame them for milking it. But there’s just one scene where the size of the stage enhances the production: at the end, when the Ranevskys stand for the last time in their darkened childhood house, now emptied of furniture, they’re dwarfed by it  symbolically by history marching past them.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

One Man's Transformation

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

From the moment Mark Clamen came on board Critics at Large he's introduced readers to cutting edge shows that were languishing in the shadows, but he's also brought a keen observations to popular shows about cutting edge subjects. One of his earliest pieces to do that was his consideration of Breaking Bad.


Breaking Bad: AMC’s Amorality Tale

As most of the TV-watching universe is waiting patiently for Mad Men to launch its fourth season next Sunday, the third season of AMC’s ‘other show’ has come and gone.

Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who, after an unexpected diagnosis with terminal lung cancer, turns to cooking crystal meth. The show was created by Vince Gilligan (The X-FilesThe Lone Gunmen), and, along with Mad Men, it is one of only two original series ever broadcast on AMC. (A third show, the promising conspiracy series,Rubicon, will premiere this August.) After production on its first season was cut short due to the 2007-2008 Writer’s Guild of America strike, Breaking Bad returned a year later with a sophomore season that took an interesting and likeable TV show and elevated it to one of the best shows on television. Everyone I know who’s watched it has become hooked. But that’s the catch: you’ve got to watch it. And there are many reasons why you probably haven’t.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Burroughs Beat

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

One valuable asset needed in order to be a good film critic is the ability to find continuity. Sometimes it means linking the motifs in a director's work, or in an actor's career. But sometimes it involves finding historical and cultural legacies as Susan Green does in her compelling review of these two films.


The Beat Goes On: William S. Burroughs: A Man Within & My Queen Karo

 http://www.criticsatlarge.ca/2010/11/beat-goes-on-william-s-burroughs-man.html


William S. Burroughs
Unquestionably, the Beat Generation of the 1950s blazed a trail for hippies to follow a decade or two later. So we’ve essentially got the idiosyncratic subject of William S. Burroughs: A Man Within to thank for the dangerously unbridled youngsters of My Queen Karo, a Dutch feature set in Amsterdam during the early 1970s. In both films, the zeitgeist involves questioning authority, resisting conformity, criticizing the establishment and expressing a sometimes forced ajoie de vivre.   

Burroughs comes across as a contrarian whose dour demeanor does not indicate much joy in a life plagued by heroin addiction. More happily, he is heralded as the godfather of the post-World War II movement that witnessed legendary figures such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso busily expanding the boundaries of American culture. But first-time director Yony Leyser layers on one too many talking heads: Patti Smith, John Waters, Iggy Pop, Laurie Anderson, Jello Biafra, Diane DiPrima, Gus Van Sant and a number of biographers, among others. Some, but not all, offer valuable insights into an enigmatic person few really seem to have known very well. Also on hand is David Cronenberg, whose 1991 big-screen version of Burrrough’s Naked Lunchstars Peter Weller, who serves as narrator of the 90-minute documentary.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

You Heard it On American Bandstand

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Considering the death of Dick Clark yesterday, the editors of Critics at Large realized that we had no writings about him, or how his long-running TV show American Bandstand contributed to our awareness of American pop music. Like the best music, Dick Clark never seemed to age. So it seems impossible somehow to consider that he's gone. We've decided then as some kind of tribute to run Kevin Courrier's post about a song that certainly did find its audience on American Bandstand.
   

The World's Most Obscene Pop Song: The Story of Louie Louie

Thoreau believed that an American popular tune could be quoted meaningfully in a symphony in the same way that an American colloquialism could work in a sentence. But it's unlikely that Thoreau would have considered "Louie Louie" a worthy example of this. While "Louie Louie" began as a lovely calypso tune written and recorded by Richard Berry, one of Los Angeles' most influential R&B performers, his composition would soon become the ultimate sex-joke song -- and it dogged his career. Although it was considered obscene because of its barely intelligible lyrics (and recorded by just about everyone: The Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Barry White -- even Iggy Pop), the lewd interpretation is due to The Kingsmen, a Top 40 cover band from Portland, Oregon.

One night in 1963, during a concert date, Kingsmen lead singer Jack Ely witnessed a group of people dancing in orgiastic ecstasy around the jukebox before the band hit the stage. The song playing was something called "Louie Louie" by The Wailers (no relation to Bob Marley's group). The Kingsmen decided that they wanted some of that same action, and so they set out to learn the song. Ely made a mistake, however, by giving the band the wrong arrangement of the Wailers' interpretation. The arrangement was crude with a relentlessly thumping beat pounded out on the guitar and organ. Nevertheless, the song had the desired effect at The Kingsmen's concerts. The band cut a single of "Louie Louie" in May 1963, with the hope of having their first hit song. With its famous opening notes of DUH-DUH-DUH -- DA-DA -- DUH-DUH-DUH -- DA-DA, and Ely slurring every insinuating word he could dream up, the only recognizable lyrics were the song's title.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Loss and Remembrance

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

With their album The Suburbs, Canada's Arcade Fire further cemented their international acclaim with a fiercely intelligent sound that took up the subjects of loss and remembrance, putting things in perspective. John Corcelli caught much of that spirit in his cogent review of that record.

You Can't Go Home Anymore: Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

Before the music press hype-machine begins to wind up, I had the chance to listen to the new Arcade Fire record slated for release on August 3, 2010. Usually anything that receives too much hype, particularly in the arts, annoys me to no end. But The Suburbs turns out to be a compelling concept album by Arcade Fire and it’s the band’s most personal statement yet about the aging process and personal loss. The band had already expressed some of the same themes onFuneral, their 2004 debut, namely the loss of ancestry and identity. On their follow-up, Neon Bible (2007), the group sang about the loss of spiritual idealism to the televangelists and bible thumpers of America. But this new album is about the loss of the neighbourhoods of their youth and the unfulfilled promises of the new century. For Win Butler, that loss includes long drives on the streets in the summer, putting a band together to cut a record in the basement (or garage), and it’s about the anxiety of high school and what to do when one is "bored."

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

On a Wing and a Prayer

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Having a great subject can go a long way to making a documentary interesting. But when it lacks a clear focus, the movie isn't all it could be (sometimes leaving it more disappointing because of the expectations the subject raises). According to Kevin Courrier, Martin Scorsese's George Harrison: Living in the Material World is a perfect example of having a story with a great subject but lacking a coherent theme.   


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, as well, 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 feel as if you're inside the immense mystery that makes up George Harrison, but Scorsese can't seem to tell us why we're there.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Interpreting Mordecai

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Back in 2010, the late Canadian author and essayist Mordecai Richler was treated to both a lengthy and exhaustive biographical study by Charles Foran and a film adaptation by Richard J. Lewis of his last novel, Barney's Version. Since Shlomo Schwartzberg has an affinity for Richler, and shares the same home city of Montreal with the irascible writer, it seemed only fitting that he write up both projects, which he did, back to back.


Subject Over Style - Charles Foran's Mordecai: The Life & Times


Nearly ten years after his death, Canadian writer/provocateur Mordecai Richler is still in the news. Two Montréal city councilors are facing flack from Quebec nationalists for daring to suggest that the city name a street after one of its most famous native sons. The film adaptation of Richler’s last novel, Barney’s Version, is opening wide on Christmas Eve. And writer Charles Foran has penned the ultimate Richler bio, Mordecai: The Life & Times (Knopf Canada, 2010), a problematic but fascinating look into the life of one of the most original, free thinking and courageous writers of our age. 

As a Montreal-born Jew, though one who came along almost thirty years later than Mordecai and grew up in the suburban (but mostly Jewish) City of Cote St. Luc, far from his St.Urbain Street haunts, I have always found Richler to an interesting enigma. And not the least because my own community had such ambivalent feelings towards him. As I wrote in my 2001 obituary for him in the Jerusalem Report magazine, the Jewish community went from being uncomfortable with his often scathing, satirical, warts-and-all portraits of his people to viewing him as something of a hero, even someone to be proud of, because of his forthrightness in confronting Quebec’s separatist and/or intolerant French nationalists. Mordecai was particularly scathing in his disdain for the province’s asinine language laws which decreed that English, one of Canada’s two official languages, be deemed second rate or non-existent on street and business signs. You get a vivid sense of how strongly he felt about those oppressive laws in his superb non-fiction book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem For a Divided Country (1992).