Monday, March 31, 2014


Besides being the great immigrant epics, the first two Godfather films (we'll charitably ignore the unnecessary Part III) are seeped in Catholic sin and guilt, two themes that fascinate writer Nick Coccoma in this piece from Critics at Large.

Cycle of Sin: Christian Themes in The Godfather

There's a scene from the movie Walk the Line, James Mangold's 2005 biopic about Johnny Cash and June Carter, in which the guitarist (played by Joaquin Phoenix) stands with his two band-mates before Sam Phillips in the recording booth of the latter's famous Sun Studios. Cash is a nobody at this point, desperate to make a record, but no sooner does his trio start playing a chintzy gospel tune they heard on the radio than the studio manager halts the performance. Flummoxed, Cash inquires if the problem originates with the song or his singing. “Both,” Phillips declaims. A chastened Cash asks what's wrong with his singing. Phillips answers with a sly smile: “I don't believe you.” At that, the musician takes umbrage with the suggestion that he doesn't have faith, pushing Phillips to level question at him that lands like a ton of bricks:

"If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out in that gutter dying and you had time to sing one song; one song people would remember before you're dirt; one song to let God know what you felt about your time here on earth; one song that would sum you up—you telling me that's the song you'd sing? Or would you sing something different? Something real? Something you felt? 'Cause I'm telling you right now, that's the kind of song people want to hear. That's the kind of song that truly saves people."

Sunday, March 30, 2014


We're pretty much used to detective fiction being served up dark and hard-boiled, but not Jasper Fforde. Reviewer Catharine Charlesworth in Critics at Large portrays Fforde as far more whimsical and absurdist than we usually find in the genre.

A Short Excursion into the Novel: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

When I first read The Eyre Affair (Hodder & Stoughton, 2001) a decade ago, its whimsical world enthralled, yet also perplexed me. Certain that many of its quips and literary references had flown clear over my young head, I felt inspired to go brush up on classic English literature. For The Eyre Affair is a book lover’s book, as Jasper Fforde weaves the familiar with the outlandish to create a novel that pays tribute to the cultural legacy of stories, while crafting a tale that’s remarkably original and unexpectedly smart.

Fforde's first novel, The Eyre Affair shows us mid-80s England through the looking glass, as described by police detective Thursday Next. In Thursday’s world, literature remains the pop culture medium of choice, the Crimean war rages on, and dodos make excellent pets. When an unusual book theft turns out to have links to Thursday’s past, she’s called in to help investigate. What follows is action-adventure that ranges from gripping thriller to Monty Pythonesque lunacy, climaxing with a voyage into Charlotte Brontë’s opus itself.

As I’ve often told a skeptical reader, don’t let the sometimes splashy cover art – or the presence of famous fictional characters – drive you away. Yes, the story includes many sci-fi/fantasy staples, including time-travel and quasi-magical technological gadgetry. However, these form a backdrop to a group of wonderfully original characters, Thursday herself one of the best among them. Her wry, deadpan voice makes the weirdness of her world seem almost blasé, as if it were not a peculiar corruption of our own, but exactly as it should be. Travelling by airship? Modern and practical. Richard III performed as an interactive show, Rocky Horror-style? A typical evening’s entertainment. As a result, when The Eyre Affair asks its readers to believe six impossible things before breakfast, we’re more than happy to suspend our disbelief and take strangeness in stride.

Author Jasper Fforde (Photo: Murdo Macleod)
While such a direct titular reference to another novel might still seem off-putting to some, Fforde avoids straying into the clichés of fanfiction by giving his borrowed characters a surprising sense of self-awareness. They know they’re fictional, that they live in linear narratives, and that they’re brought to life by readers. They exist almost as actors, sometimes quite different from the characters they ‘portray’ when a reader picks up a copy of Jane Eyre or Martin Chuzzlewit. When Thursday stumbles upon evidence of fictional characters in the ‘real’ world, she finds herself in the well-trodden middle ground between ‘fact’ and fiction, uncovering how stories can both reflect and reform those who read and write them.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Not the Better Angels

Given that the character of Abraham Lincoln has been a subject of debate recently in the media, it seemed appropriate to dig back to Shlomo Schwartzberg's review of Steven Spielberg's 2012 historical portrait in Critics at Large. Needless to say, Shlomo encourages us all to skip class.

History as Soporific: Steven Spielberg's Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis stars in Lincoln

Steven Spielberg's new Lincoln movie isn't going to help any teachers convince their students that American history is actually exciting or interesting. In fact, the movie is so stupefyingly dull that it will remind you  if you've been unlucky enough to have lousy history teachers (I had a few good ones, fortunately, which is one reason I like history)  of those tiresome hours whiled away in the classroom just waiting for the bell to ring, and thus end your misery, while the teacher droned on. Luckily, with Lincoln, you have the option of leaving the cinema anytime you want to and without getting into trouble for vacating the premises. I suspect many audience members will feel like doing just that.

Instead of trying to capture the sprawling and tumultuous life of one of America's greatest Presidents, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, utilizing a relatively small part of Doris Kearn Goodwin's book Team of Rivals, concentrate on the last few months of Lincoln's life, in early 1865, when the just re-elected Commander-in-Chief (Daniel Day-Lewis) sets out to ensure that the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, will finally pass, a daunting task as a significant number of Democrats would have to be convinced to jump aboard the anti-slavery bandwagon. The film's focus is on his mission, as he and various minions cajole, threaten, beg and even bribe their opponents to switch sides and do what is morally right.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Jukebox Junkie: The Movie Music of Martin Scorsese

When music first began providing the dramatic underscoring of a movie, it was generally orchestral and followed the style of 19th Century romantic opera. By the Fifties and Sixties, however, pop music became more prominent in providing the inner voice of a new frontier in cinema. One of the most insistent directors using pop music is Martin Scorsese. Kevin Courrier writes about the peaks and valleys of his style of film scoring in Critics at Large.

Scorsese's Jukebox

John McCabe 'listening' to Leonard Cohen in McCabe & Mrs. Miller

When author/critic Paul Coates first saw Robert Altman's seductive and allusive 1971 Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he was immediately struck by the director's compelling use of Leonard Cohen's "The Stranger Song" and "Sisters of Mercy." In his book The Story of the Lost Reflection, Coates wrote that Cohen's music, which wasn't composed for the film, seemed to come "from the inner voice to which the characters alone attend." The film's soundtrack, according to Coates, wasn't providing emotional cues to nudge the audience into whatever mood the picture was trying to impose on the viewer. Altman was instead letting the music speak for the unacknowledged inner lives of the characters on the screen. "[E]ven on the frontier, people walked around with headphones on," Coates observed. The audience at this movie, who in the Seventies did own records and even headphones, came to imagine that the gambler John McCabe was actually living out the experience heard in "The Stranger Song."

Thursday, March 27, 2014

I Spy

With the heightened tenor of the current debate over the role of the NSA and the question of spying on its own citizens, the film We Steal Secrets about the story of Wikileaks couldn't have been more timely. Writer Phil Dyess-Nugent addressed the doc with both eyes wide open in Critics at Large.

Everybody's Talkin': We Steal Secrets

The prolific documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney has done his best work when—as with Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room—he’s had a morally uncomplicated story that moves in a straight line, and the sources, in the form of interview subjects, to supply fresh details about it. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, a torn-from-yesterday’s-headlines movie made newly relevant thanks to the adventures of Edward Snowden, is about how a few courageous truth-tellers and whistleblowers risked their own freedom, and maybe even their lives, to strike a much-needed blow against the security state. Or maybe it’s about how a vain, showboating egomaniac, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and a miserably alienated Army private with gender-confusion issues, Bradley Manning, upended the workings of government and possibly endangered lives, just to make themselves feel important and take a measure of revenge against a world that had never made them feel welcome.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Epic Undertaking

Shakespeare is no stranger to the BBC, but according to Steve Vineberg in Critics at Large, The Hollow Crown is their finest achievement of the Bard.

How to Be a King: The BBC Series The Hollow Crown

The magnificent BBC series The Hollow Crown, which PBS’s Great Performances ran over four weeks, is an epic undertaking: productions of all four of the histories that constitute what scholars call Shakespeare’s Henriad, shepherded by major English directors. The Henriad begins with Richard II, in which King Richard’s cousin Bolingbroke, exiled for half a dozen years, returns with an army when Richard confiscates his lands after Bolingbroke’s father’s death and pillages his estate to fund a war against Ireland. Bolingbroke claims that all he wants is what is rightfully his, his father’s legacy, but his army overruns the kingdom and his cause gathers allies who were formerly Richard’s friends, and Richard knows that the only logical consequence of a successful insurrection against his throne is the loss of the crown to his rival. Bolingbroke becomes King Henry IV, the title character of Shakespeare’s two-part sequel. But Henry IV is about the end of the king’s life and reign, and its protagonist is his heir, Prince Hal. At the end of Part I Hal comes of age on the battlefield; at the end of Part II he leaves behind the wastrel’s life among the London taverns and whorehouses to succeed his father on the throne of England. In the final play of the tetralogy,Henry V, his kingship is tested, once again in battle, as he leads his country against France, emerging in triumph and with the hand of the French princess, Katherine.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Imponderable Questions: The American Civil War

If there's one thing that the divisive political climate in America today reveals is that the Civil War, one and a half century old, has never been settled. For decades now both writers and filmmakers have addressed its irresolvable issues. Nick Coccoma delves into some of the best work to emerge from this tragic conflict in Critics at Large.

The Civil War on Page and Screen

The flurry of commentary last month on the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination just about drowned out all voices noting the sesquicentennial, in the same week, of another seminal presidential moment: Lincoln's delivery of a certain address at the dedication of the national cemetery in Gettysburg. One and a half centuries have passed since that two-minute speech, one and a half centuries since the battle that shares its name. And yet, as we roll into 2014 and begin the fourth of a five-year-long anniversary, Americans still face the imponderable question of the meaning of the Civil War. It demands an answer because the Civil War is the defining event of American identity—how we understand it determines how we understand our national character and purpose. It demands an answer from more than just Americans, too, for the question bears on the broader subjects of the viability of democracy, the ethics of war, and the meaning of human life and effort.

Monday, March 24, 2014

If Only...

There are very few of us not fascinating by the idea of an alternate history to the one we know. If we could change one event, how would the world look? Would it be a better place..or not? Shlomo Schwartzberg ventured into that popular area of speculation when he reviewed Jeff Greenfield's Then Everything Changed for Critics at Large.

For Good or Ill, What Might Have Been: Jeff Greenfield's Then Everything Changed

 "President Robert Kennedy", speaking on August 3, 1969

As a lifelong science fiction buff I must confess that my favourite sub-genre in the field is the alternate-history novel. Likely stemming from my interest in history and its many ramifications (I have a minor degree in it, to go with my major in Political Science) I’ve always been gripped by stories of the Nazis winning the Second World War – being Jewish makes that one more understandable, of course – or of the South triumphing in the US Civil War, among many other tropes. (Clearly I'm not alone, as these two “alternate realities” are the ones that have appeared most often in alt history novels.) That’s because, in my view, history can turn on a dime and one deviation from the norm can trigger any number of side effects or alternate history scenarios, which is absolutely compelling to someone who also likes reading SF as much as I do. (Imagine if Archduke Ferdinand had not been assassinated when he was; or if Adolf Hitler had not attacked the Soviet Union when he did, to name two of the most obvious examples of history changed by one specific action.) And now that the pivotal crucial American presidential election is merely two weeks away, it’s worth examining Jeff Greenfield’s latest book, Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan (G.P. Putnam and Sons, 2011) for a fresh take on the what-if basis of alternate history.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Quick Communication: The Celebrity Photography of Albert Watson

As much as some deride celebrity journalism, the uncanny mystique of stars and our fascination with them isn't easily dismissed. Celebrity photographers, like Albert Watson, have also created iconic images that can nail an epoch and those who shape it. Back in 2012, Deirdre Kelly spoke to Watson for Critics at Large.

A Conversation with Photographer Albert Watson

Jack Nicholson, from Albert Watson's Icons series, 1998 (All photos courtesy of the IZZY Gallery)

New York City-based celebrity photographer Albert Watson is a master of his profession. His images have appeared on more than a hundred Vogue covers and countless other publications from Rolling Stone to Time Magazine, many of them featuring now iconic portraits of rock stars, including David Bowie and Eric Clapton, in addition to Hollywood actors like jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood and other notable high-profile personalities, including Steve Jobs, Mike Tyson, Kate Moss, Sade and Christy Turlington. Exhibited in art galleries and museums around the world, among them the Museum of Modern Art in Milan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, and the National Portrait Gallery in London, Watson recently made his Canadian debut at Toronto’s IZZY Gallery (106 Yorkville Ave; with a retrospective show called ARCHIVE, which closes on December 27. Aged 70 and with a career spanning 40 years, Watson is one of the few internationally acclaimed photographers still working exclusively in film, processing it himself in his dark room. All of his hand-processed images now hanging in Izzy Sulejmani’s gallery are for sale, enabling collectors as well as fans of Watson’s work to own something by one of the 20 most influential photographers of all time, according to Photo District News. “Photography is quick communication,” he told critic Deirdre Kelly during a recent visit to his New York City office lined with some of the images for which Watson is celebrated. “People easily get it.”

Here’s more of their conversation.
Photographer Albert Watson (Photo by Gloria Ro)

dk: These are wonderful digs you’ve got here in TriBeCa, close to the Hudson River and flooded with natural light. I am assuming this is where you work?

aw: We don’t shoot here, no. I no longer have a studio of my own. We had a huge one in the West Village from 1987 to 2008, about 26,000 square feet. But I sold it to a hedge fund guy. Now, we don’t actually have a studio. We don’t need one. About 25 or 30 years ago, light in a space was fairly important. But nowadays you can replicate the light in a studio with technology. The business has changed, which is why we moved here. We’re now much more focused on supplying work for galleries and museums – fine art work and producing prints and making platinum prints. We make all our prints in the office and rent studios when we need them. Everyone told me that I would miss having my own studio. But I’ve spent my whole life working in Los Angeles, Berlin, Paris, Milan and other centres, including Toronto, and I’ve become quite used to photographing in other people’s studios. Where I work doesn’t have to be my own space.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Glass Teat Reborn

As network and cable television has grown better in the last couple of decades, writing about it has become more substantial, too, as Mark Clamen wrote about in Critics at Large when he reviewed Alan Sepinwall's book about that change.

The Revolution Was Televised: Alan Sepinwall Takes On TV’s New Golden Age

It has become almost cliché in some circles to proclaim that television – American television in particular – has never been better. Quality television is no longer, as it was for decades, confined to BBC adaptations of Jane Austen or Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. In the past fifteen years, television has grown into a genuinely popular art form, finally embracing all of its strengths as a medium: the ability to tell long, complicated stories rich in complex characters, compelling writing, and morally and narratively risky storylines. With new technological innovations (DVDs, Netflix, DirecTV) and the rise of the new business models that came with satellite TV and the ever-expanding cable universe, television is no longer a disposable medium. Shows are produced not only to be watched, but to be re-watched. We used to rent the shows we watched, but now we can literally own them. Television series like The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Breaking Bad actually reward our attention, instead of discouraging it. The more you watch these shows, the richer they become. The impact of these shows successes – both artistically and commercially – is being felt across the whole television universe, and that story is far from over. That television has decidedly entered a new Golden Age is apparent to all of us who love the medium – what is less talked about is that TV criticism has grown up just as much in that same period. This new age of television has been paralleled by the rise of new and exciting forms of writing about television – and Alan Sepinwall is among the best of the new breed. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Cameron's Folly

Apparently, a Vancouver restaurateur is suing director James Cameron for alleged copyright violations, claiming the 2009 blockbuster movie Avatar used material from his own original screenplay. These claims are nothing new given Cameron's earlier law suit with author Harlan Ellison over The Terminator and his 'borrowings' on Titanic from the earlier film, A Night to Remember. But David Churchill discovered a more significant grab in Avatar from a forgotten SF novel written decades earlier. He wrote about in Critics at Large back in 2010.

The Borrower: The Egregious Oeuvre of James Cameron

For the sake of the blog, I finally broke down and watched James Cameron's Avatar on DVD. Let me get this out of the way right off the top: It's a better movie than Titanic. That’s not saying much since I think that 1997 disaster flick is one of the worst films to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. In Avatar, Sigourney Weaver seems to be having fun in her tough-broad scientist role, and there's a couple of scenes here and there that at least got a chuckle out of me, but that was between long bouts of boredom while I watched cartoon characters (because this film, except for the sequences at the military base, is a computer-generated cartoon) frolicking around hippie-dippie landscapes. And don't get me started on the teeth-grinding dialogue or the stupid shoot 'em up at the end.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Revisionism: The Beatles U.S. Albums Box Set

The history of The Beatles and Capitol Records has been spotty from the beginning when they first refused to released their albums in America. This past winter, Capitol put out a box set of their U.S. releases, which Kevin Courrier in Critics at Large, called a mixed blessing.

Bittersweet Symphony: The Beatles U.S. Albums Box Set

This past Tuesday, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' invasion of America in February 1964, Capitol Records released The U.S. Albums, a 13-CD Beatles collection that spans from 1964’s Meet The Beatles! to 1970’s Hey Jude. While many fans back in 2009 already shelled out a fair chunk of cash for the official U.K. remastered stereo CDs and the subsequent box set of the mono versions,The U.S. Albums can seem like a redundant cash grab. But these albums actually differed considerably from the band’s U.K. versions, including having different track lists, song mixes, album titles, and even cover art. For those of us who grew up in North America during the Sixties, these were the albums we knew, and the history we were familiar with. The albums presented here are also in both mono and stereo, with the exception of the embarrassingly fawning 2-LP documentary,The Beatles’ Story, and Hey Jude, a collection of mostly unreleased singles, which are in stereo only.

But there are a number of issues that bring a sour taste to this spirit of celebration. To begin with, Capitol had already released two box sets (The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1 & 2) containing their first eight American albums a decade ago. So why didn't they just put out Volume 3 to fill out the rest? For those of us who bought those sets, we now have to repurchase them to get the remaining discs. On top of that, do we really need The Beatles' Story added instead of, say, The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl, which was only made available on LP? Hey Jude is also not a Capitol album, but an Apple product devised by then manager Allen Klein in 1969 after he'd negotiated a new contract for the band and wanted to massage the deal. The only reason it's being included here is because of the inclusion of tracks like "Paperback Writer," "Hey Jude" and "Lady Madonna." So why not then include in the box set Rarities (which is a Capitol release and collects the magical "There's a Place" and "Misery" that were missing on The Early Beatles, as well as "The Inner Light" (the B-side of "Lady Madonna"), and the rare promotional single "Penny Lane" that featured the French horn coda at the end)? But what is worse: Capitol has decided in this new box to largely ignore the original American mixes and use the 2009 ones instead. Even if the 2009 versions sound better, and they do, we are just re-purchasing what we already bought a few years ago. Whatever you think of the altered sound of the North American albums (with their added reverb, duophonic simulated stereo, and remixed songs), you're supposed to be paying tribute to one culture's way of hearing and remembering the past. As always, when it comes to The Beatles' catalogue, Capitol Records finds new and imaginative ways to botch things up. And they've done it right from the beginning just before the group landed in New York to change the world almost half a century ago. 

In 1964, America was within The Beatles' sights. It was the land of dreams. But it wouldn't be the land where they would go to be buried like all the other British acts. What stood in their way was Capitol Records who had been ignoring all their singles. The group lacked a foothold in the very country whose music made their own possible. The Beatles remained adamant, however, insisting that they weren't going to America until they had a #1 song there. Unfortunately, their manager Brian Epstein had already booked the band for The Ed Sullivan Show, North America's most popular TV variety show, in February, to follow with a concert in Washington, and a separate date at Carnegie Hall. Ed Sullivan had witnessed the delirious reaction to the group firsthand, when he was in the U.K. earlier in the year at Heathrow Airport. The Beatles were returning to a rousing homecoming after a show in Sweden. Sullivan was stunned at the furor and assumed it must be for someone from the Royal Family. When one of the kids told him that all the excitement was for this new pop group, Sullivan gambled that they just might grab the spotlight on his own show. He contacted Brian Epstein and booked them for his Sunday night program for three appearances – two live and one taped where the group would get paid $10,000.

The Beatles arrive in America
While all the deals were falling into place, The Beatles were playing a series of shows at the L'Olympia in Paris. But they found that there wasn't a mob of Brigitte Bardots chasing them through the City of Light, or young girls screaming their names. Instead, it was a collection of hysterical young boys. The ability to cross gender lines in their music, covering girl group songs especially, had now broadened their appeal beyond imagination, making it possible for Beatlemania to include everyone. One night, while coming home from their second show, they got the news they'd been hoping to hear, but never expected. As if by pure serendipity, plus some much needed luck, a song they released in England a few months earlier, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," had just gone to #1 in the United States. It was no less ironic that the song's title seemed an enticing invitation. It was as if an appealing stranger was calling out to you from across the water.

Written and recorded in the late fall of 1963, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was the greeting card that made Beatlemania an international phenomenon. "Please Please Me" and "She Loves You" had prepared British audiences for this pure explosion of happiness. But never before had vocal harmonies, so rich in texture, been delivered with such volume, such determination, and such ecstasy. Composed by Lennon and McCartney in the den of Jane Asher's home on Wimpole Street, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was written by two men, who described their method, as closely playing into each other's noses. According to Gordon Waller (of Peter & Gordon), who was present the day Lennon and McCartney wrote it, Lennon was on a pedal organ and McCartney on piano. When McCartney hit a chord on the piano, it immediately grabbed Lennon. The two men kept finding lost chords that became a perfect fit for their song. As they wrote, they kept reaching the peak of pop's greatest appeal: the joy of surrendering to irresistible and fleeting elation. "It was, and remains, a great song, a joyous, reassuring sentiment riding gently atop an exuberantly beautiful melody," Martin Goldsmith wrote in The Beatles Come to America. "The words may be simple, but they express tender longing and the heartfelt magic of human touch in a sentiment both innocent and profoundly worldly." 

Part of the song's greatness did lie in the smooth transitions between the descending phrases that begin the song, when the singer starts to tell his girl what he wants her to know. At which point, according to Goldsmith, "the melody leaps up an entire octave to land joyfully on the word 'hand,' the punch line of the song. The first lines are all breathless anticipation, and when the central idea of the lover's message is delivered, it comes bursting out in a manner that transcends everything that comes before." Their fifth single was hugely anticipated in Britain with advance orders of over 940,000 two days before it was released on November 29. The factory pressing alone was an unprecedented 500,000 copies in pre-release. A week after "I Want to Hold Your Hand" hit the shops, it entered the UK pop charts at #1, where it would stay for six weeks. By the end of the year, it sold 1,250,00, making "I Want to Hold Your Hand" the second-highest top selling single of the year  right behind "She Loves You." 

Journalist Tom Wolfe once proclaimed that The Beatles wanted to hold your hand, while The Rolling Stones would burn down your town. Besides deliberately misreading the song, in order to indulge in self-conscious literary hyperbole, Wolfe misses the point. If you were to superficially compare "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to, say, The Rolling Stones' cover of Muddy Waters' classic "I Just Want to Make Love to You," The Beatles appear to be catering only to teeny-bopper conventions. When The Stones perform Muddy Waters, the sentiment is blatant, so deliberately clear, that there's no room for romantic mystery. "I Just Want to Make Love to You" is as dynamically straightforward a blues song about the satisfactions of sexual intercourse as you're likely to find anywhere. But "I Want to Hold Your Hand" carries much more of an emotional charge because it expresses and explores the anticipation of romantic excitement just before consummation. Their song communicates the exhilarating expectancy of sex, while delving into the beguiling bliss of imagining such carnal pleasures existing. The Beatles make it very clear that holding your hand is only the beginning of the story.

Dave Dexter Jr.
Despite the thunderous reaction to "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in Britain, Dave Dexter Jr., the A&R executive at Captiol Records in the United States, wasn't impressed. An exasperated Brian Epstein, having seen Dexter turn down every early single including "Please Please Me" and "She Loves You," demanded that Capitol Records' president Alan Livingston listen to the record himself, which eventually led to it finally being released. Despite all of Dexter's dismissals, the November 27th issue of Variety stated that the tune had been receiving large advance orders in Britain, forcing Livingston to reconsider the decision of his A&R expert. It's likely that the reason Livingston had trusted Dexter's judgment to this point was that Livingston's own musical background was equally limited. This was a man known specifically for creating Bozo the Clown, and producing children's records by Woody Woodpecker and Bugs Bunny (with one composing credit for Tweety Bird's "I Taut I Taw a Puddy Tat"). But did this ignominious oversight spell the end of Dave Dexter Jr.? Hardly. He was instead promoted to the status of issuing all The Beatles' singles and albums in the U.S. Besides picking and choosing what he deemed to be good singles (regardless of what was released in Britain), he issued albums contrary to The Beatles' U.K. originals. So the first American Beatles album he titled Meet The Beatles!, which contained most of the songs from the Beatles' second album, With The Beatles. He added the single, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," its B-side "This Boy," plus "I Saw Her Standing There" (from their first U.K. album Please Please Me). Furthermore, Dexter gave himself a production credit (as he would on the next six bastardized U.S. releases). His "production" work consisted of adding reverb echo to George Martin's clean mixes and taking the mono mix of original U.K. singles to create a fake stereo sound. He did this by recording two mono versions together, slightly out of sync, then adding echo, and calling it Duophonic.

DJ Carroll James and Marsha Albert
When "I Want to Hold Your Hand" became The Beatles' first #1 song in America, it might not have ever happened if it had not been for the American TV network coverage of the mass hysteria over their show at the Winter Gardens Theatre in Bournemouth in the late fall of 1963. Marsha Albert was a teenager in Washington D.C., who just happened to see the film clip, and became so taken with their music that she phoned her local radio station, WWDC. She asked the DJ if he could play something – anything – by The Beatles. Carroll James, the DJ who took the call, was hardly a rock fan. (His taste that ran towards the current jazz pop of Nat King Cole.) He wasn't even the least bit aware of The Beatles. But he was curious enough to try and hunt down one of their songs. On a station break, he happened upon a copy of the British import of "I Want to Hold Your Hand." On a whim, he invited Albert to the station to introduce it on the air. Marsha excitedly arrived at the station to read an introduction that James had written on the back of a traffic report. Within moments, she helped launch The Beatles into the consciousness of the nation’s capital. After playing the song, James asked listeners to call in with their own responses to "I Want to Hold Your Hand." The switchboard went berserk. There wasn't a free line anywhere as people swarmed to express their enthusiasm. Not only did James play the song within the next hour, he played it every night that week while announcing it as a WDDC exclusive.

When Capitol Records caught wind of the flurry of activity at WDDC, they faced a curious problem. Although company President Alan Livingston was set to issue “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” finally overruling Dave Dexter Jr., Capitol wasn't planning to do so until January. Because of the huge demand inspired by WDDC's daily broadcast of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," they moved the date up to December 17 in the U.S. Nobody was prepared for the explosion of interest. After all, the last American #1 for a British act had been The Tornadoes with "Telstar" in 1962. Before that, you had to reach back to the non-rock of Acker Bilk's "Stranger on the Shore" in 1961, or Vera Lynn's "Auf Wiedersehen" in 1952. By January 10, 1964, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" sold its first million in the United States, just in time for The Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show

The albums created and collected in The U.S. Albums were to chart that intensity as America reeled from the cultural invasion from England in the coming years. But these bastardized records, with banal titles like Something New (really?), Beatles '65 and Beatles VI, demonstrated (despite all their musical excitement) that their record company used greed and negligence to cover up its lack of foresight. They exploited the cultural storm for maximum impact and profit. But issuing this new box set, in such a cavalier manner, by airbrushing some of their past sins, Capitol Records continues that dishonoured tradition of paying tribute to one of their most successful acts by taking full advantage of those who made them so.

- originally published on January 23, 2014 in Critics at Large.

- Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial 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.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Freedom and Fusion and Gliding Melisimas: The Music of Joni Mitchell

If you happen to play an acoustic guitar and sing love songs chances are you will be termed a confessional songwriter rather than a composer. No performer had to shake that label more than Joni Mitchell. To remedy it, writer Amanda Shubert in Critics at Large rightly identifies Mitchell as a method artist.

Method Acting: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period

Joni Mitchell is fond of describing songwriting and performing in theatrical terms. “Ella Fitzgerald was mostly just a singer; Billie Holiday was more than a singer; Frank Sinatra was more than a singer,” she told Michelle Mercer, author of Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period. “There were a lot that were Method actor singers. Etta James, you can’t beat her read on ‘At Last.’” Will You Take Me As I Am, which was released in paperback last year, looks at the series of magnificent albums Joni Mitchell made between 1971 and 1976 – BlueFor the RosesCourt and SparkMiles of AislesThe Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira, all of them masterpieces in the American popular music canon. The “Blue Period,” as Mercer calls it, brought a new subjectivity to pop music, all in the spirit of avant-garde experimentation that blended the musical, the literary and the visual. (The name “Blue Period” conjures up the synesthesia of the nineteenth century French poets, composers and artists like Mallarmé, Debussy and Bonnard.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Things We Do For Love

We all have to deal with the prospects of being alone from time to time – even as we continue to long for companionship. Writer Laura Warner touched on this touchy subject in her review for Critics at Large of Haiku for the Single Girl.

Beth Griffenhagen's Haiku for the Single Girl: For Those Who Can't Always Get What They Want (But Might Get What They Need)

“I’m sorry Laura,” my colleague sympathizes with me after I finish confiding in her about some romantic woes. It is 8pm on my evening without my daughter and I am, as usual, just hanging around the office. If this isn’t bad enough to begin with, she leans forward, lowers her voice, and says, “you’re going to have to Internet date.” So this is what it’s come to? Internet dating will be added to the certainties of death and taxes?

Now don’t get wrong. I love my crazy little life. I am fully complete without a better half. I would also be perfectly content if I stayed away from the dating game for good. But, every now and then – especially around holidays or whenever I see a Norman Rockwell painting – I tend to feel as though something maybe missing.

Luckily I heard of a charming little publication called Haiku for the Single Girl (Penguin Group, 2011) to get me through the holiday season. (Well, at least until the winter solstice.) Haiku is a bittersweet collection of short poetic meditations, written by Beth Griffenhagen in the true haiku fashion of three lines and seventeen syllables. Each philosophy is accompanied by an illustration by Cynthia Vehslage Meyers. This witty and introspective book resembles a Cathy comic strip meets Sex and the City. (Except – spoiler alert – nobody gets married in the end.)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Time is On Our Side

Given that it's St. Patrick's Day, I thought we'd feature Devin McKinney's fine review in Critics at Large of the documentary film, Charlie is My Darling, which focuses on The Rolling Stones turbulent and exciting tour of Ireland in 1965.

Hearing History: Peter Whitehead's Charlie is My Darling

Toward the end of Charlie Is My Darling – Peter Whitehead’s documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1965 Ireland stopover, recently recovered, restored, and released on DVD – bassist Bill Wyman is informed that a young female fan fractured a leg in the mob rush that followed that night’s show. “Oh,” he sighs, appearing as genuinely distressed as it is possible for someone as inexpressive as Bill Wyman to appear. His response calls back the moment in Gimme Shelter (1970), chronicle of the group’s 1969 US tour, when Mick Jagger, after viewing footage of the murder that occurred while the Stones performed at the Altamont festival, murmurs, “Oh. It’s so horrible.” From a fractured leg to a knife in the back: the arc of the ‘60s is there, if you are into arcs. Other moments in the Whitehead film likewise seem ripe for omen-spotting – like the interview with Brian Jones, his speech articulate but his eyes gazing from some decadent darkness to the drugged and drunken ending he met in his swimming pool less than four years later; or the little riot that devastates a Dublin concert stage, as neatly-dressed lads and lasses maul their idols in a grade-school run-through of uglier scenes to come.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


When the late David Churchill encountered BBC's Copper, a period crime drama that premiered in 2012, he wanted its 19th Century grit to be believable. According to this review in Critics at Large, they got it right.

Playing It Real: Showcase and BBC America's Copper

Tom Weston-Jones in Copper

Whenever a television show set in a time period that is not present day comes on the air I'm always curious to see if the characters will be true to the era; or will they be so infected with 21st century sensibilities that, no matter how many period details they get right, the characters just don't ring true. That was in my mind when the first episode of the new series Copper on Showcase (in Canada) and BBC America (in the U.S.) hit the airwaves four weeks ago. So I could not have been more pleased when the pilot episode started with our ostensible hero, Irish-American Detective Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) and his crew, stopping a bank robbery. This is what they did: They waited for the bank robbers to emerge from the bank with their ill-gotten gain (they had received a tip beforehand) and then they followed them. When the robbers entered a secluded alleyway, Corky (as he's called) and his men bushwhacked them. They basically killed the men in cold blood and, before the chief detective can arrive, they pocketed half the money.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Betrayals: The Duplicitous World of John Le Carré

For over fifty years, John Le Carré has been writing popular espionage novels that also delve into darker contemporary political dynamics. Critic Bob Douglas, in discussing his latest book, A Delicate Truth, for Critics at Large takes us through the Le Carré canon to find the motifs that have kept his work vital for the last half century.

Whistle Blowers: John Le Carré’s A Delicate Truth

“What the gods and all reasonable human beings fought in vain wasn’t stupidity at all. It was sheer, wanton, bloody indifference to anybody’s interests but their own.”
– Toby Bell in A Delicate Truth

After publishing two murder mysteries under a pseudonym, John Le Carré wrote his acknowledged masterpiece, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), set during the height of the Cold War only a few months after the Wall was erected, in which he constructed a bleak landscape of the shifting sands of counter-espionage in the secret intelligence world. What was so startling at the time was his challenge to the pasteboard heroes and villains exemplified in the James Bond highly romanticized espionage thrillers by Ian Fleming: that its agents did not stoop to amoral duplicity but promoted democratic values. In The Spy, loyalty was something transient while betrayal became more deeply entrenched. Even though preventing the spread of communism and the acquisition of its secrets were worthy goals, the murky double-dealings of British security increasingly resembled those of their Soviet enemy. Unsparing in its cynicism, the spymaster, Control, explains to the dispirited protagonist Alec Leamas: “We do disagreeable things, but we are defensive….We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night….Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things.” The worst treachery in The Spy comes, not from the enemy, but from the British side. Leamas is sent, he believes, on an under-cover mission to avenge the death of his agents and to eliminate his East German counterpart, who is responsible for those deaths. But in fact Leamas is the unwitting tool of Control, who shows little more regard for human lives than the KGB in executing his machinations to recruit a ruthlessly efficient, anti-Semitic, ex-Nazi killer as a double agent. In the introduction to the fifth anniversary release of The Spy, Le Carré, aka David Cornwell, remembers with revulsion these unsavoury characters: “former Nazis with attractive qualifications weren't just tolerated by the Allies; they were positively mollycoddled for their anti-communist credentials.” In the end, the Circus (le Carré’s nickname for MI6) betrays Leamas and Liz, his lover, an idealistic member of the British Communist Party, who is also brutally and pitilessly used by both sides. Yet given the repressive nature of the Communist system, Le Carré seems to accept the view that collateral damage of the innocent was permitted so that British people can “sleep safely in their beds at night,” a worldview that is repeated more ruefully in the subsequent George Smiley espionage novels.