Thursday, May 31, 2012

Iconic

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 places that are iconic not just due to their ronantic location, but also the long of history of people who have become associated with the location. One such place is City Lights Book store in San Francisco which Mari-Beth Slade visited last fall.

Of Politics, Publishing and the People: City Lights Book Store Shines

Even the name is evocative and meaningful: first a Chaplin film, then the title of a literary magazine, finally the name of the iconic San Francisco bookstore and independent press which straddles Chinatown and North Beach. But City Lights is on the cusp of more than just urban divisions; it’s a place that doesn't shy away from protests or avoid the political. And as I walk through the door, I sense that this is not to be a typical book buying experience. Staff members are infinitively knowledgeable about not only what City Lights sells, but also what they publish. And it is their published monographs, not bargain books, which take a place of prominence here. From icons like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to lesser known but equally smart authors like Toronto-based Hal Niedzviecki, this press publishes a range of titles. As the name suggests, City Lights is a beacon of truth in the books they make available.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Love's Labour

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 Peter Jackson's King Kong was certainly no box office failure, it did come under some critical scrutiny for its unwieldy length leaving it somewhat misshapen. Not only did David Churchill take issue with this view in Critics at Large, he found that the soul of the movie lay in the face of the lead actress.   


Naomi Watts' Face: Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005)

The first time I saw Peter Jackson's King Kong, about 4-5 days after it was released, I adored it. Everything worked for me, including the maligned-by-others centre portion that some felt went on far too long. I saw it in Goa, India at a beautiful movie theatre called the Inox -- built the year before for the Indian Film Festival -- that could rival any theatre in North America. Afterwards, I wondered if my reaction may have been affected by the fact I saw it in a very unique place on the planet. So, upon our return to Canada, my wife and I went to see it again at the local theatre in Markham near where we live. It was cold and snowy and the First Markham multiplex ain't anybody's idea of a great venue. It's serviceable, but that's about it. My reaction didn't change. We might not have been in Goa anymore, yet I still loved Jackson's King Kong.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Desert Island of the Mind

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 the 33 1/3 series of music chapbooks once again gearing up for more album titles to cover, we thought we'd re-run an excerpt from Kevin Courrier's book on Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica which ran in Critics at Large as an obit when the Captain went to spirit in 2010. 



Music From the Other Side of the Fence: Remembering Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) 1941-2010

Avant-garde artist and musician Don Van Vliet, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart, died early Friday at the age of 69 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. The news was broken by the Michael Werner Art Gallery, which exhibited his abstract paintings after he left the music business in the early 1980s. With a gravel voice and a musical style that blended jazz, blues and abstract expressionist rock into a surreal blend, Captain Beefheart was hardly popular but he was one of the most original voices in popular music.

I first discovered him in 1969 through my love of the music of Frank Zappa. Zappa would produce Beefheart's atonal masterpiece Trout Mask Replica. Although quite a contentious album, this 1969 two-record set had far ranging influence in both punk and alternative rock. Back in 2007, I was fortunate enough to have written a chapbook on Trout Mask Replica for the Continuum Press 33 1/3 music series. As a way of paying tribute to Beefheart, here are some edited passages from that book - which is still available at better bookstores:


Monday, May 28, 2012

There's No Success Like Failure

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.

Some works become as well known for their failure as much as they do their success. Steve Vineberg took on two such legendary failures last fall in Critics at Large.

Legendary Failures: Candide & Follies

Geoff Packard as Candide with the ensemble

The Leonard Bernstein musical based on Voltaire’s savage 1759 satire Candide has undergone so many alterations since it opened on Broadway in 1956 that it’s practically a work in progress. That’s because the original production, which had a libretto by Lillian Hellman, wasn’t a hit, and no one thought highly enough of it to revive it until Harold Prince, working from a revised book by Hugh Wheeler, staged it in the seventies. Most of the lyrics are by Richard Wilbur but a number of hands have contributed to them over the years, including Hellman, John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim and Bernstein himself. (James Agee, at the end of his life, wrote some lyrics, too, but they were never used.) The latest version, directed by Mary Zimmerman for Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, also lists her as adapter.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Setting the Bar

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 actors who seem to turn everything they play into a viewing experience that can't be missed. Helen Mirren's body of work certainly sets the bar pretty high for great acting as Shlomo Schwartzberg points out in his review of her work in The Last Station.

Helen Mirren's Thrilling Countess: The Last Station

The Last Station is not a great movie by any means but Helen Mirren’s performance as writer Leo Tolstoy’s wife, the mercurial Countess Sofya, is certainly great acting. It’s also a timely reminder that sometimes it’s the acting alone that makes a film worthwhile.

As the film begins, in the early 20th century, Sofya, who has been married to Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) for nearly fifty years, is warring with writer Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who as Tolstoy’s secretary, has become the writer’s premiere acolyte. Devout followers of Tolstoy, Chertkov and many others call themselves Tolstoyans, and influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s writings, espouse vegetarianism, the sacredness of all life and advocate for a world free of war. Sofya doesn't buy into any of the Tolstoyans’ new age beliefs, nor does she even concede that they bear any relation to anything her husband, who is widely known for his novels Anna Karenina and War and Peace, has ever written. More significantly, she is convinced that Chertkov is pressuring Tolstoy to change his will so that his royalties will go the Russian people and not to her and her children. Her fear of losing the family mansion and not having anything to live on, after Tolstoy dies, sends her on a trajectory of rage, hysteria, duplicity and finally a nervous breakdown, even as her worst fears come to fruition.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Adaptations

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.

Adaptations from stage to screen are always a mixed bag, but for Susan Green who is from the state of Vermont, the play Farragut North and its screen equivalent The Ides of March, held particular significance.

From Stage to Screen: Peeking at a Political Underbelly

Howard Dean.
As a “press advance man” for former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s presidential bid, Brooklyn playwright Beau Willimon spent the last three months of 2003 crisscrossing Iowa. So it’s hardly surprising his gripping make-believe account of a modern campaign would be set in that Midwestern state. Farragut North, which opened off-Broadway in late 2008, was about back-room machinations and dirty tricks among political operatives.

Yet Willimon, who had stumped for other Democratic candidates in the past, made it clear in an interview three years ago that his piece was not a Deaniac docudrama. “I drew on all those experiences to create a fictional but authentic world,” he said, while sipping orange juice at a cafe in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. “My intention is to present a universal story about power and ambition.”


Friday, May 25, 2012

Out of Their Time

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.

What makes popular music accessible and, well, popular, is that it speaks to us with an appealing melody about yearnings we possess. But not everybody's modes of self-expression are as accessible as others; talent is a relative word, appealing is sometimes up for grabs and yearnings beside the point. That became the subject of Irwin Chusid's book on "outsider music" reviewed originally in Critics at Large by Kevin Courrier. 

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.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam

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.

Usually having a surfeit of talent can guarantee an artist a succession of great work. But, according to David Churchill, in the case of Terry Gilliam, talent can sometimes come into conflict with judgement.  

Troublingness: Terry Gilliam's Cursed Films - The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Other Works

Terry Gilliam's (or rather "A Film From Heath Ledger & Friends", as it is officially credited) The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is his most coherent work since 12 Monkeys (1995). This comes as a relief after the complete, unwatchable botches Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), The Brothers Grimm (2005) and Tideland (2005). Does that make it a good film? Probably not, but it was far more enjoyable than I was led to believe.

The DVD, released May 11th, comes with a touching introduction from Gilliam as he outlines his thinking behind the film. He wanted to do a joyous and fun film, along the lines of Fellini's Amarcord (1973) and Bergman's 1982 Fanny and Alexander (his words, not mine on this Bergman film), that was a sort of playful compendium of many of the things he'd done before. He then briefly discusses the tragedy of Ledger's untimely death during the production in January 2008. A plan was hatched to finish the film (outlined below) and filming was completed. Tragedy wasn't finished with the film yet. The film's producer, Canadian William Vince (producer of Capote), died of cancer at the age of 45.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Jackal

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 Olivier Assayas's epic study of the international terrorist Carlos the Jackal was released in 2010, we were afforded the opportunity to not only review the film but also to discuss with the director how this film fits into his larger body of work.

From Jackal To Weasel: The Legend of Carlos

Sure, Carlos chronicles the rise and fall of an extremist, but the brilliant Olivier Assayas drama also is very much about the wages of personal decline. Shot as a three-part French television miniseries, the picture profiles a Venezuelan named Ilich Ramirez Sanchez who reinvented himself as the dreaded Carlos. (It was a British newspaper that later added “the Jackal” to his nom de guerre.) Periodic archival footage serves as a reminder that this account is more or less how it all went down; additional truth emerges from magnificent writing, photography, editing and acting.

By the time he appears on screen at age 23, in the early 1970s, the arrogant idealist (portrayed by Edgar Ramirez) has honed the Marxist views inherited from his parents and furthered by studies in world domination at a Moscow university. There’s also been some training in Jordan as a fighter for the anti-Zionist cause. While many of his American contemporaries are demonstrating against the Vietnam War, Carlos chooses a path far more insidious than that of the Weather Underground. “I don’t believe in protests,” he says at one point. “Words get us nowhere … Behind every bullet we fire, there will be an idea.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Best of Youth

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 popular cultural figures who become iconic even though their time with us was remarkably brief (such as James Dean). Maybe like Dean, film director Jean Vigo is also imortalized because he never got to be old but remained eternally young. Since his films were also about the capriciousness of youth, Kevin Courrier examined the connection between the artist's young life and his work which celebrated it.
  

Childhood’s End: Criterion’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.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Androgynous Dressing

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 gender roles continually in flux, it was only a matter of time before the fashion world would reflect this evolution. Laura Warner caught up happily to the "boyfriend" trend in women's clothing and fired off this dispatch from the front lines.   

Suiting Up: The “Boyfriend” Trend in Women’s Wear

Esperanza Spalding
If you have ventured into the ladies section of almost any mainstream boutique lately, you have probably become aware of the “boyfriend” trend in women’s wear. Over the past few years oversized and relaxed fitting jeans, sweaters and watches have invaded the store racks and our closets. More recently, I’ve noticed a few (pleasantly) surprising alterations; our baggy boyfriend items are being phased out by some sleeker and more formal (yet still masculine-inspired) garments. Last holiday season, our unisex options were promoted from relaxed jeans and baggy cardigans to bow ties and tuxedo shirts. Black dresses were substituted for black ties at many holiday parties; magazines also featured glossy spreads of Esperanza Spalding – musician and now Banana Republic model – sporting suspenders and a man’s tie. A feminine style of Oxfords also lined display windows. Apparently we’ve upgraded our boyfriends.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Whither CBC?

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.

After the recent budget cuts, the annual lament about the future of the CBC was further discussed with the same urgency and likely the same results. Last year, Shlomo Schwartzberg went beyond the simple plea that the CBC should survive, into why it should and how.    

Lamenting Canada's Public Broadcaster: Does it Matter?

Is there any point or value in having a public broadcaster? I ask this a few days after Canada’s latest national election, where once again I was riveted to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) as my only source for election coverage on television. The Mother Corp, as it’s known, did not disappoint, offering comprehensive coverage of all 308 ridings, well-chosen interviews and a crack team of analysts and pundits commenting on an historic election. It was an election that saw Canada’s perennial third national party, the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP), score a record 102 seats, thus moving it into second place and becoming the country’s official opposition for the first time since its inception in 1961.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Goodbye to Childhood

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.

We hear far too seldom from Andrew Dupuis these days at Critics at Large. But when we do it's usually with thoughtful pieces that beautifully weave together memoir and critical commentary as in his take on Toy Story 3.


Every Road Leads Home: Toy Story 3

When I was extremely young my parents gave me a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figure for my birthday. My friends and I would get together and create these fantastical situations with all of our toys and face the wrath and ridicule of our siblings in the process. My Ninja Turtle would woo the Barbies and join forces with the Ghostbusters to vanquish evildoers which existed solely in our overly imaginative minds. As time faded, Leonardo lost his plastic katanas and the paint on his body began to scuff and peel. Before long I had simply outgrown him. When the time came I tossed him away in a box with the rest of my plastic memories without remorse. His blue bandana was frayed, his legs and arms were scratched and my name written in permanent marker along his bottom foot had all but worn off.

Friday, May 18, 2012

You Can Never Go Home

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.

A great director's obsessions don't always result in a good movie, but they can sometimes provide plenty to write about when coming to terms with their body of work. In the case of the late Sam Peckinaph, though, it took a woebegotten remake of his controversial Straw Dogs to inspire Kevin Courrier to examine what that film represented in his troubled career.



The Macho Imperative: The Enigma of Straw Dogs

In Sam Peckinpah's beautifully spacious and thematically rich western Ride the High Country (1962), two aging former lawmen Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), both old friends, are hired to guard a gold shipment as it is delivered down from a mountain mining camp to a town below. During the trip, the men reminisce about their many years together as friends and contemplate how the times are changing (and not for the better). While Gil considers stealing the gold as one last stab at glory, he looks to Steve and inquires, "Is that what you want, Steve?" Without a moment to reflect, Steve replies, "All I want is to enter my house justified." That moral conflict with its Biblical sense of justice and retribution would come to define much of Peckinpah's work in the coming years, such as in The Wild Bunch (1969) and Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), where he continually sought that elusive house to feel justified in. By the time he made Straw Dogs in 1971, however, that home became much more literal and the conflict much less complex.


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Through the Looking Glass

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.

Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland has captivated readers for so long that its various manifestations in film, music ("White Rabbit"), and dance, continues to bring enchantment. The National Ballet's production of the work last year even prompted Deirdre Kelly's review to come in the form of a 'letter' to Carroll.

Tumbling for Alice: National Ballet's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Photo by Manuel de los Galanes)
Letter to Lewis Carroll:

Took a tumble down the rabbit hole on Saturday night, courtesy the National Ballet of Canada’s vivid presentation of the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and what a wonderful experience it was. Bumped into the most delightful creatures, a lot of them born of your own imagination – the white rabbit, the nasty queen of hearts, the grinning Cheshire cat, and, of course, Alice, dear sweet Alice, who fell first down the dizzying spiral towards that veritable garden of visual delights punctuating the journey.

Your marvellous book, Alice in Wonderland, was the inspiration behind it all, and who knew such a literary classic would lend itself so delightfully to both a balletic translation and original score? Composer Joby Talbot has created a brilliant, bubbling, boisterous piece of music that readily captures the kaleidoscopic character of own multi-tone prose-style and verse.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Obstacles to the Bard

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.

Although Shakespeare is never in danger of falling out of favour, it doesn't mean that all of his plays work equally. There are some works that continually defy those who try to mount them as Steve Vineberg points out in his review from last year of these two.

Tough Shakespeare: All's Well That Ends Well & Cymbeline
All’s Well That Ends Well provides too many obstacles for a modern audience to be anyone’s favorite Shakespearean comedy, so it doesn’t get revived very often. But though it isn’t a sublime romantic comedy like Twelfth Night or As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Much Ado About Nothing, and though it isn’t dark enough to be as provocative as Measure for Measure, I think it’s a beautiful play, and John Dove’s version at the Globe this summer reminded me why I love it. Like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s essentially a fairy tale. When the King of France (Sam Cox) is rumored to be on his deathbed, Helena (Ellie Piercy) travels to Paris from her home in Roussillon – where she’s the ward to the Countess (Janie Dee) – with the medicine bag she inherited from her father, whose medical skills were so elevated they were indistinguishable from white magic. Helena is one of those feisty Shakespearean comic heroines (like Rosalind and Viola) who, with her heart in her mouth, sets out to change her fortunes. She’s desperately in love with the Countess’s son Bertram (Sam Crane), who has gone to the court of France to serve the king, a close friend of his own late father’s. (Dead parents figure importantly in the plot, especially through their surrogates. The King, seeing Bertram’s father in him, assures him, “My son’s no dearer,” though he mostly acts as a disapproving father to him as the plot unfolds. Both the King and the Countess serve Helena in loco parentis.)When she offers to cure the King, whose doctors have pronounced his case hopeless, she stakes her life on the line, but in return she asks him to match her up with any young man in the kingdom. And since this is a fairy tale, her medicine works, and he presents all the most eligible bachelors in the court for her to survey.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cohen's Masterpiece

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.

Given that Leonard Cohen was being honoured in Toronto last night accepting the Glenn Gould Prize, it seemed appropriate to post Kevin Courrier's examination of how iconic songs, including Leonard Cohen's most famous one, can be misinterpreted and misunderstood.
 

Covered Up: Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Steven Page at Jack Layton's state 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.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Cultural Exchange

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 Shlomo Schwartzberg set out to review Monsieur Lazhar, besides writing about a film he quite enjoyed, he also delved with keen insight into what it is that makes Quebec cinema so distinct both in Canada and internationally.


A Delicate Gem: Monsieur Lazhar

Mohamed Fellag stars in Monsieur Lazhar

Though Quebec is one of Canada’s more multicultural and diverse provinces, largely because of Montreal's population mix, its cinema has usually failed to reflect that reality. That’s partly because Canada’s cultural policies too neatly divide Canadian film funding into French and English increments: French for Quebec and English for the rest of the country. Thus Montreal Anglophones wanting to make movies in Quebec are usually out of luck, and Francophones wanting to shoot movies in Ontario, which has some sizable French-language enclaves, are equally so. And since that’s the case, Quebec’s French filmmakers are much more likely to make films about their own communities with less attention paid to the other cultures they bump up against. That was the source of some controversy when Anglophone filmmaker Jacob Tierney (The Trotsky) complained – in a French language newspaper interview – that Quebec cinema wasn’t reflecting the multicultural realities of the day. (He did, unfortunately, feel the need to distance himself from the late Mordecai Richler who famously and accurately commented that Quebec nationalists who spoke of Quebec for Quebeckers did not envision people named O’Reilly, Ginsberg and Wong among them. While French filmmakers weren’t being racist so much as myopic, the salient point and end result is identical.) The other reason that a cultural omission exists in Quebec cinema is likely because majorities tend not to try to understand or feature the concerns of minorities. That however is beginning to change. Denis Villeneuve’s excellent Incendies dealt with an Arab family trying to make a new life in Quebec. And Philippe Falardeau’s very fine new movie Monsieur Lazhar is filtered through the prism of a refugee interacting with, and trying to make his way through, a dominant French Canadian landscape.

Mohamed Fellag in Monsieur Lazhar
Monsieur Lazhar is Bachir Lazhar (comedian, writer and actor Mohamed Fellag, going by only his last name in the credits), an Algerian who applies for a teaching job when he reads about an elementary school teacher who has committed suicide. He’s not being crass so much as simply wanting to work while he awaits the results of his application for landed immigrant status in Canada. But his sojourn at the school ends up teaching him much about his hoped-for adopted country, even as he makes an impression on his young charges.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Bloodlines


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. 

Most of us come to discover unknown aspects of our family heritage through relatives we've never met. But for Susan Green, it was discovered through a documentary film she reviewed for Critics at Large.  

Family Legacies: Jeremiah Zagar's In a Dream



Is it just my imagination or have families that are not crazy become as rare as the northern hairy-nosed wombat? Environmentalists believe only about 113 of these marsupials still exist in Australia. Dysfunctional homo sapiens, on the other hand, now number in the billions worldwide. The word ‘dysfunction’ is relative, of course. But when it comes to my relatives, there’s madness aplenty running through our intermingled bloodlines.

So, somehow it did not surprise me to learn that a distant cousin I’ve never met -- Jeremiah Zagar -- made a documentary titled In a Dream that chronicles the meltdown of his nuclear family. My maternal grandmother was a half-sister of his maternal grandfather, ancestors who both died before we were born. In the 20th century, the entire clan left Poland (just a few steps ahead of the Nazis, who would obliterate their Jewish shtetl) and landed in America. Later, my immediate kin remained in New York while his settled in Pennsylvania.

And that’s where the cinematic story unfolds, amid the amazing mosaics that Jeremiah’s dad, Isaiah, has fashioned on the outside walls of more than 100 buildings. Tourists from all over the world come to admire 40,000 square feet of these murals, collectively known as as the Philadelphia Magic Gardens, crafted from shards of pottery, tile, mirror and colored glass. Jeremiah’s wrenching portrait of the artist as a tormented man witnesses his parents’ marriage unraveling, his father’s subsequent crisis of creativity and his older brother Ezekiel’s drug addiction. The complexity of the human psyche is, as usual, beyond understanding. When Isaiah reveals he’s having an affair, his wife Julia orders him to move out. The guy then falls apart, before finally realizing she has been the glue holding him together even more firmly than the cement that binds the bits of beautiful detritus in his Magic Garden.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

As the Years Go Passing By

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.

The subject of time has been a consistent theme in literature, theater and the movies. Last summer, two pictures released on DVD were examined by Kevin Courrier as sublime explorations into all things that pass away. 

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

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 Criterion 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.

Chhabi Biswas as Roy
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).