On the Fence : Extra!


Sunday, October 07, 2007


New York's hottest video artist screened in Venice and Toronto. How Bjork's boyfriend is gaining acceptance one leg at a time
National Post
Thursday, September 22, 2005
J. Kelly Nestruck
National Post

Over the past five years, art-world superstar Matthew Barney's work has increasingly ventured where few avant-garde video artists dare to tread -- your local movie theatre.

Best known for his seven-hour Cremaster Cycle -- a five-part magnum opus named after the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles -- Barney's films began being shown at art-house cinemas when novelist Norman Mailer made a bizarre appearance as Harry Houdini in 1999's Cremaster 2 (actually the fourth in the series) and attracted a whole new kind of viewer to Barney.

Drawing Restraint 9, Barney's latest two-and-a-half-hour art epic, premiered at the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival this month, marking the bad-boy artist's full-scale acceptance by the film world.

Starring his partner, Bjork, who also composed the soundtrack, Drawing Restraint 9 is likely to be his most viewed film -- though it won't ever show up at a multiplex.

"This feels a little bit new, to be more integrated within the festivals," says the blue-eyed artist, sipping a glass of water on a rooftop of the Park Hyatt in Toronto on the last day of the film festival.

Once called "the most important American artist of his generation" by The New York Times, Barney shies away from the term filmmaker, however. He primarily considers his mystifying movies as a way of displaying his temporal sculptures, which are often made out of petroleum jelly and dissolve.

"I make narrative sculpture," says Barney, looking well-manicured and dapper and completely unlike the horn-headed, amphibious freak he plays in Drawing Restraint 9. "The fact that there is a film audience for these pieces was initially a surprise to me, because that wasn't really the intention with the Cremaster films ... The intention of them at the core is about object making, but, yes, I'm thrilled that they can function as films also for a relatively small audience."

In Barney's perfect world, Drawing Restraint 9 would be shown in art museums alongside sculptures and set pieces from the film. It is difficult, however, to get art patrons to show up on time and watch entire films in uncomfortable screening rooms. "People don't tend to go to museums with the intention of having that kind of passive experience," he notes.

Having his film distributed in cinemas -- as the Cremaster Cycle has been in recent years -- ensures that people watch his films beginning to end as Barney believes they need to be seen, but omits the accompanying art installation and curatorial explanation.

"That interests me, but I think it's probably not the ideal way to see the work," says Barney, who entered Yale as a pre-med student hoping to become a plastic surgeon in the 1980s, but discovered his calling in the art department.

Drawing Restraint 9 largely concerns a Japanese whaling ship's crew's creation of a giant Vaseline sculpture in the shape of a "field emblem," the abstract shape that has been Barney's artistic logo since Yale. It is shaped like a hockey rink with rectangles jutting out where the players' benches would be -- or like a solid, stretched London Underground symbol.

Barney usually describes the field emblem as representing a body taking on a self-imposed resistance as a way of encouraging creativity. Drawing Restraint 1 (only No. 9 is a film) expressed this most succinctly: Attached to an elastic cord that kept pulling him back, Barney strained his way up a ramp to make a drawing on a wall, mark by mark. The med student in Barney compares this self-obstructing process to the way the muscular system works.

"When a muscle is put under resistance, it breaks down the muscle tissue," explains Barney, who was a football and wrestling star in high school and whose athletic physique paid his way through school, modelling for the likes of Ralph Lauren and J. Crew. "The muscle tissue then heals and becomes stronger and larger, so that growth is dependent on resistance."

Watching ship workers create the field sculpture is interesting if you enjoy watching cranes slowly lifting and lowering objects at construction sites. For everybody else, the more intriguing part of Drawing Restraint 9 takes place inside the ship, where Bjork and Barney as "The Occidental Guests" undergo a bizarre mating ritual. After having their eyebrows shaved and swimming in a bathtub with lemons floating in it, the two participate in a skewed Shinto tea ceremony in a tiny compartment hidden behind a water fountain. As the compartment fills with fluid, the two real-life lovers slice pieces of each others' legs off, feed them to each other, and metamorphose into ... well, the artist is right here, so I won't take a wild guess.

"I was trying to explain it to someone last night and said you turn into men shrimp," I confess.

Barney laughs at this. "They're sea monkeys," he jokes, before explaining that he and Bjork, in fact, turn into embryonic whales. It is a relief -- to find out that, though many of his art-world fans are deadly serious, Barney has at least somewhat of a sense of humour about his wacky work. Drawing Restraint 9 is probably the most human of Barney's films, which has to do with his shooting under less tightly controlled circumstances than his previous works.

"We shot the majority of this in Japan in some pretty complicated real-world situations, which felt quite new to me," says Barney, who arranged with the Japanese government to shoot on a state-run factory ship using its actual crew. "That condition makes it feel much different ... After finishing the Cremaster cycle, I really wanted to get lost."

Unlike the grave-looking actors and artists who populated his Cremaster Cycle, the Japanese seamen who appear in Drawing Restraint 9 smile and laugh at what they are doing -- and occasionally shoot the camera annoyed or confused glances as they pump molten Vaseline into a mould or are served Field-emblem-shaped Jell-O covered in shrimp in the mess hall.

Bjork, who vowed she would never act again after 2000's Dancer in the Dark, was not obliged to participate, but jumped in whole hog, gamely allowing her eyebrows to be shaved off and a giant seashell be strapped to her back in the name of art. As it turned out, it was more difficult for Barney to conform to her idea of music composition than her to his out-there concept.

"She has a very, very specific idea of how to approach something musically -- of course, that's what she does," says Barney, who has a three-year-old daughter with the popular musician. "I have certain habits from having worked with the same composer for the 10 years of the Cremaster cycle, so I had to break some of those to work with her."

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posted by J. Kelly 5:01 AM

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The computer behind the curtain: Don't fear the new, theatre artist says
National Post
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
By J. Kelly Nestruck

Edward Albee once explained the difference between the theatre and film like this: "You can take a deaf person to a movie; you can't take a blind person. You can take a blind person to a play; you can't take a deaf person." ("Except for a critic," the playwright added.)

When you're talking about Marie Brassard's multimedia solo theatre, Albee's aphorism rings particularly true. In shows like Jimmy, The Darkness and Peepshow, the Quebecoise actress, director and writer uses processors and computers to twist and turn her voice into a hundred shapes and dozens of different characters. "It's an amazing tool for an actor," says Brassard over the phone from Berlin, where she is taking part in an electronic music festival. "It's amazing how it feels when you suddenly open your mouth and it's not your voice coming out any more but the voice of somebody else.

"It's a bit like being an etre mutant [mutant creature]. Those machines add some capabilities to the physical possibilities of what acting can be. It's very liberating."

Brassard, who collaborated with fellow theatrical innovator Robert Lepage until forming her own Infrarouge Theatre five years ago, doesn't really believe Albee's pronouncement, however. Mime, after all, is a form of theatre inaccessible to the blind. And, she notes, there's the late Derek Jarman's Blue -- a film that played its soundtrack over an unchanging blue screen.

Still, her own experience makes it seem like Albee was on to something. "When I performed [Jimmy] in Quebec City last year, there was a blind musician who came to see the play," says Brassard, who is bringing Jimmy back to Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times Theatre next week. "He very seldom goes to the theatre and said that he was very, very excited because soundwise there was a lot of material."

(You can definitely take a French-speaking person and an English-speaking person to Brassard's plays, by the way; she writes them originally in French but can perform them in either language depending on what city she's in.)

In Jimmy, a work originally created in 2001 that has toured to Dublin, Sydney, Paris, Munich and Brussels, Brassard uses an old Yamaha sound processor from the 1970s to vocalize the title character, an imaginary homosexual hairdresser who was created in the dream of a Second World War general, and several other otherworldly figures. After the general dies in his sleep..., Jimmy is suspended in time for 50 years until a Montreal actress dreams him back into existence.

In her newer shows, Brassard has begun morphing and teasing her voice with state-of-the-art sound processors attached to computers. "Those are processors that are used usually by [music] studios, when people are making records, to create some kind of effect or to correct certain intonations," she explains. Few musicians use them live like Brassard -- though Cher does. "That's why her voice always sounds like it has been processed."

In theatre, sound design is often limited to a background element, for colour or atmosphere. "It's amazing how we forget how important sound is, how evocative it is," says Brassard, who has begun to experiment with the possibilities of light projections with Peepshow, which premiered last spring. "We always think that theatre is a mix of images and text -- sound can be such a thick and important element."

Part of why others haven't followed in Brassard's footsteps is the worry that theatre that becomes too technical will alienate audiences. "I think that's a cliche that we have to destroy now," Brassard says. "It's like people were scared of the telephone 50 years ago ... Everyone has a computer; everyone is familiar with that."

As Brassard's moving shows show, woman and machine can help broaden our understanding of deeply human things like sex and sexuality. "There's always someone behind the computer," Brassard says. "We're not in the android era yet."
posted by J. Kelly 10:39 PM

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Shylock as a symbol, but not as a human

Friday, January 21, 2005
J. Kelly Nestruck
National Post
Arts & Life


The latest film version of The Merchant of Venice begins with a lingering shot of a Torah burning, as the painstaking research that director Michael Radford has done into the treatment of Jews in 16th-century Italy scrolls across the screen. This prologue may not be particularly relevant to the comic drama about to unspool -- certainly Shakespeare didn't write the play as a ripped-from-the-headlines inquiry into Venetian anti-Semitism -- but it does act as an important audience advisory: Put your helmets on, ladies and gentlemen. You're about to get bludgeoned over the head repeatedly.
To be fair to Radford and his talented cast, The Merchant of Venice may be the most difficult to direct in the Shakespearean canon, particularly in our current politically correct times. The play is a convergence of two old folk tales that could, and perhaps should, be films of their own. First, there's the famous story of a Jewish moneylender named Shylock, who, having recently been cheated out of daughter and ducats, demands a pound of Christian flesh from his debtor Antonio when he defaults on a loan. (After adjusting for inflation and exchange, that's about 120 pounds in today's Christian flesh.) Then, contrasting with this dark tale of vengeance and out-of-control money markets, there's also the lighter fairy tale of a jet- setting (gondola-setting, maybe?) heiress named Portia, who is yours for the marrying if you just pick the right treasure chest. Striking the right balance between these two parallel narratives is a little bit like trying to cram a Schindler's List subplot into an episode of The Bachelorette.
In the modern era, Shylock has become the focus of any retelling of The Merchant of Venice, and this film is no exception. With Al Pacino in the role, Shylock is, unsurprisingly, more victim than villain. We are told that Shylock terrorizes his daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) -- which is apparently why she runs off with his cash and a dashing, long-haired gentile -- but in his scenes with her he seems like the kindliest widower father since Atticus Finch. He even seems not so bad as he prepares to slice .454 kilograms off Antonio, who, played by an emaciated Jeremy Irons, clearly doesn't have a gram of flesh to spare.
Like many a director before him, Radford seems oblivious to the fact that making Shylock a stand-in for all oppressed Jewry past and present transforms him from an imperfect person bent on revenge into a mere symbol. No wonder Antonio and his amicos treat him as less than human: he is. Shylock's demotion to marionette isn't helped by the performance given by Pacino, who in attempting some sort of Eastern European shtetl accent accidentally ends up sounding like a speech-slurring Yoda. If us you prick, bleed do we not?
For those who prefer subtlety to puppetry, at least there's Antonio -- the quietest title character in Shakespeare's oeuvre. While professors of queer studies have relentlessly attempted to turn him into a gay Shylock over the past decade, the character remains a complex human first, a man in love with a man second.
The object of Antonio's ambiguous affection is Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), for whom he ill-advisedly borrows 3,000 ducats to bankroll his wooing of Portia. As a playboy who knows how to pull his sugar daddy's strings, Fiennes pulls off the impressive feat of making his character equal parts repugnant and charming, selfish and loyal. As Portia, the object of Bassanio's affections, Lynn Collins does a good job on the sassy romance bits but is a little weak in her famous courtroom scene, kind of like one of those assistant district attorneys who only lasts a single season on Law & Order. (Also, she has hair that miraculously grows back to its full length just a few hours after having chopped it off to go undercover as a man.)
Perhaps the most satisfying performance comes from Mackenzie Crook, best known as Gareth from BBC's The Office, whose scenes as the comic-relief clown Lancelot Gobbo are very comic and provide much-needed relief from the often overly fraught Shylock scenes.
It's perhaps too much to ask for a director to take a chance and make a Merchant of Venice where a victim can also be a villain, to just let Shakespeare be Shakespeare and let audiences figure out what to think on their own.
No such mercy here. Solid as it is, the quality of this Merchant of Venice is strained by its dull obviousness.
posted by J. Kelly 8:54 PM

Friday, June 18, 2004

The waiting game: Waiting for Godot 'didn't, as it were, blow my mind,' says William Hutt of his first encounter with the play a half century ago. Now he's the star

National Post
Tuesday, June 8, 2004
J. Kelly Nestruck

When it comes to controversial plays, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is a bit like global warming. Everyone has a strong opinion about it, but few really know what the heck they're talking about.

Albert Schultz, the artistic director of the Soulpepper Theatre Company and director of a production of the venerable play starring William Hutt and Jordan Pettle opening Friday in Toronto, knows what he's up against. "It is one of those plays that people come to thinking they know what it should be like," notes a wary Schultz, taking a break at the University of Toronto theatre where the modern classical theatre company rehearses.

This year marks half a century since Beckett translated his best-known work into English from the original French. In the 50 years that have followed, Waiting for Godot has been parodied and pilloried, and academics have made careers out of analyzing every minute reference to Judeo-Christian theology and Jungian dream theory in Vladimir and Estragon's two-hour wait for the mysterious Godot.

Schultz is dreading the after-show cocktail parties where he will inevitably be questioned about his interpretation of, say, the carrot Didi and Gogo eat in the first act. Is the carrot a symbol of that which is always just out of reach? Is hunger the "root" of all our angst? Are the two peripatetic protagonists of the play really just giant rabbits?

Everyone thinks they have the key to unlocking the mystery of Godot, a play that is driven by atmosphere rather than plot. "We had a national panel of university theatre programs in this building about two weeks ago," Schultz relates. "It was some cruel exercise of fate, because you'd walk out [of rehearsal] and one of them would quote the play and give a reading of a certain line. Just to test us."

Then there's the public's perception that Waiting for Godot is a depressing play to deal with. In Schultz's view, Godot is a funny and even uplifting play. "Though Beckett perceived himself as a pessimist, there's something I think remarkably compassionate and even affirmative to the piece," the director argues, pointing to Vladimir and Estragon's persistence in the face of existential despair. "Great art can never be an act of pessimism: Art comes from hope. The very act of writing something anticipating an audience is an act of hope."

In the discussion of the supposed bleakness of Beckett's work, it is often forgotten that when Godot premiered in Paris in 1953, it was an immediate popular success, running for 400 performances at the Theatre de Babylone before transferring to another Parisian theatre. In the five years that followed, it was translated into more than a dozen languages and seen by more than a million spectators worldwide. It was avant garde, but hardly inaccessible. In fact, some of Waiting for Godot's biggest successes have been in prison performances put on by inmates, who have always felt a certain kinship with the Beckettian canon. (Schultz actually saw a performance at San Quentin in 1983 and ran into Beckett in the prison cafeteria.)

Schultz describes Waiting for Godot as a watershed moment in the history of theatre. "This play marks a radical shift in what was acceptable dramatic practice really," he says. Its influence was quickly felt on both sides of the Atlantic in plays like Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter (1957) and Edward Albee's The Zoo Story (1959), both of which, like Godot, feature two men in a menacing and deeply humorous environment. (Soulpepper is presenting these two Godot-inspired one-acts in July.)

Contrary to this theatre history orthodoxy, William Hutt, who is playing Vladimir, does not remember Waiting for Godot's premiere as a particularly earth-shattering moment for theatre. "[The first time I read the play], it was fascinating because it was new, new to me," recalls the 84-year-old Shakespearean actor, who began his professional career at the Stratford Festival in 1953, just before Godot premiered in Paris. "But it didn't, as it were, blow my mind."

Nonetheless, Hutt took on the task of directing Stratford's first production of the play in 1968. Even then, he says, it wasn't considered a particularly hot property. "I did not get the impression at the time that there were a whole raft of productions of [it] being done across the English-speaking theatre," Hutt says. "I frankly now can't remember why I particularly wanted to do Waiting for Godot at the time."

Hutt does know why he wanted to do it this year, though. "I spent so much of my life doing the classics," he says, meaning Mr. William Shakespeare. "It's really quite an interesting voyage to do something completely different from what one has been doing."

Soulpepper, he says, has allowed him to branch out and experiment in his late career, performing in Pinter's No Man's Land last year (for which he earned a Dora nomination) and taking on Beckett as an actor now for the first time. "I'm not going to make a career out of doing Beckett," he notes wryly. "At my age, I'm not going to make a career out of anything, except surviving and doing whatever I can."

The big difference with this production, what makes it stand out on the surface anyway, is that Hutt is playing Vladimir opposite an Estragon 50 years younger than himself. Jordan Pettle, 32, who played the Fool to Hutt's Lear at Stratford in 1996, was not born until Beckett had already been recognized as one of the most important writers of the last century.

Though Vladimir and Estragon are usually played by men about the same age, Hutt immediately thought of Pettle as an actor he would like to play opposite when Schultz brought up the idea of doing Godot. "There are a few lines about age, but ultimately with plays like Godot, you know, one can take liberties with the piece itself without destroying it, because it is in its own way such a gossamer piece: thin, light, hovering between Heaven and Earth." The play could take place anywhere in any time and, as Hutt says, "The play isn't firmly grounded. You can ask at he end of the play, 'Did this play ever take place?' "

(Beckett himself was open to casting an older Vladimir with a younger Estragon and, in fact, that was almost the case for the first English-language production. An American theatre director proposed to put the play on with Buster Keaton and Marlon Brando in 1954, but unfortunately a problem with the rights killed that production, something Beckett always regretted.)

Putting on Waiting for Godot now is a different animal than 50 years ago, because modern audiences all know that the titularcharacter never shows up. Hutt says foreknowledge is no more of a barrier than it is when putting on one of Shakespeare's popular plays. "You go into a production of Romeo and Juliet, you know they're going to die at the end," he explains. "We can't change the script to say, 'Oh, he's coming, he's coming,' and have somebody appear with a long white beard at the curtain. There's nothing one can do ... In point of fact, the evening is not about the appearance of Godot; it's about waiting."

As for Hutt, having conquered Pinter and Beckett with Soulpepper, he has one remaining theatrical wish. "I'd like to do a brand new play. But the person who was going to write me a play, Tiff [Timothy] Findlay, died."

So, is he still waiting for someone to write him a role that will forever be associated with him? The legendary actor smiles: "I'm waiting for Godot."
posted by J. Kelly 4:03 PM

Friday, May 28, 2004

The worst title in town: Urinetown may be a bad name for a play, but it's also not one you can ignore

National Post
Wednesday, May 26, 2004
Arts & Life
J. Kelly Nestruck

While Juliet initially believed that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," she soon came to realize that her lover's family name did make a difference -- the difference between "happily ever after" and "O happy dagger." It's the same in theatre: A great title can turn a lacklustre show into a hit and a bad one can bayonet the box-office receipts of even the best-written show. Would, for instance, the ill-fated young Capulet's words have become immortal if Shakespeare had put her in a play called The Two Lovers of Verona instead of Romeo and Juliet?

Urinetown: The Musical, which opens in Toronto at CanStage tomorrow, is perhaps the most unlikely titled Broadway hit of all time. The critics have been unanimous: It has "the worst title to ever grace a musical."

A satire about a drought-afflicted future in which a malevolent corporation has privatized all the toilets in town, Urinetown first packed them in at the New York Fringe Festival, where the mere mention of bodily fluids is enough to generate lineups. It was the musical's subsequent success off-Broadway and then on, that was more surprising.

Wherever Urinetown goes, there are stage whispers that its scatological title will kill it. Toronto has been no exception. For the past few weeks, the scuttlebutt has been that puritanical Canadians have been scared off by the prurient title.

But Marty Bragg, CanStage's artistic producer, is quick to flush the rumours of slow advance sales. "Not at all," he says emphatically. "We're tracking exactly the way [the show] tracked in New York and San Francisco."

Still, it's no secret that Urinetown's title has made some people nervous. "It does affect people's perception of the show," Bragg admits. In Toronto, CanStage decided the best marketing offence was a good defence, so it launched a self-deprecatory advertising campaign with posters that say The Best Show in Town. (With the Worst Title.)

CanStage has dealt with worse titles, however, Bragg notes. There was, for instance, Rat Bag, a play by Martha Ross and John Millard that ran as part of the theatre's 1992 season. "It was a fabulous show, but a bit of an unfortunate title," he says ruefully.

If there is a key to pulling in audiences, Bragg says, it is to give your shows short, recognizable sobriquets. "One of the plays that we're producing next year, Unless, which is based on Carol Shields' book, will have tremendous recognition because so many people know Carol and so many people have read that book," he says, predicting that the one-word adaptation will be a hit.

The exception that proves Bragg's rule is Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love by Brad Fraser, one of Canada's most successful plays ever, despite its gangling title. "It's a real mouthful, so usually people just cut it down to Human Remains," says Jim Millan, who directed the show's first Toronto production. In Japan, they shortened the title to a single syllable: Sex.

Unidentified Human Remains ... is not the only production with a memorable marquee with which Millan, artistic director of Crow's Theatre, has been involved. In 1999, he directed the Canadian premiere of Shopping and Fucking by British bad-boy playwright Mark Ravenhill.

Part of the aptly named in-yer-face theatre movement, Shopping and Fucking has had problems buying advertising in newspapers -- not to mention on television and radio -- wherever it gets put on. "The Canadian production is the one that got away with the least asterisks of any production ever," notes Millan. (Here the ads were for Shopping and F*cking, whereas almost everywhere else in the world, they were for Shopping and F***ing.)

Ravenhill's show even made Canadian broadcast history: When Toronto radio host Andy Barrie discussed the play on air, it was the first time the F-word or any of its derivatives was used on a CBC morning show. "It got to the point where people were doing articles about the number of articles devoted to the topic of the title of the play," Millan recalls.

Jerry Wasserman, a Vancouver theatre critic and professor of drama at UBC, agrees that a headline-grabbing title can literally make a show. "Shopping and Fucking is an incredibly mediocre play, I think, and yet it got a huge amount of attention because of the title," he says. "There are many better contemporary British in-yer-face plays than that one, but none of them has made the circuit in the way that that play did."

Plays have minuscule marketing budgets compared to movies and get less media coverage, so sometimes the title is all prospective audience members have to go on. "It's easy to know what a movie is about before you go and see it," Wasserman notes. "I mean, Troy isn't a particularly exciting title, but it doesn't need to be."

Wasserman's favourite Canadian theatre title is Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, Tomson Highway's play about a group of men living on the fictional Wasaychigan Hill Indian Reserve. "No one has ever come up with a reasonable explanation for the title. I don't know if it actually sells any tickets or any copies of the play, butit certainly imprints itself in your brain, like any good marketing tool."

Popular Canadian plays often have famous names in their title, Wasserman says, noting Maggie and Pierre by Linda Griffiths and Billy Bishop Goes to War by John Grey with Eric Peterson. "Both of those plays came out of ... the intense Canadian nationalism of the '70s, when a lot of Canadian theatre was about rediscovering lost Canadian heroes and celebrities and putting them back on stage."

One of Canadian theatre's greatest titlists is George F. Walker, whose early plays -- Beyond Mozambique, Ramona and the White Slaves and Zastrozzi -- were given exotic titles to match their far-flung locales. His later titles have less zing. Says Wasserman: "His recent plays that are set in a city that looks very much like Toronto pretty much have these banal Torontoesque titles. Love and Anger, Suburban Motel, things like that."

Other favourite Canadian play titles of Wasserman's include The Ecstacy of Rita Joe by George Ryga, Judith Thompson's Lion in the Streets and Ronnie Burkett's play Street of Blood -- the last of which is memorable only once you realize it's a puppet show.

The most important thing is to make sure a title gets noticed, says Wasserman. "Urinetown is not a show that you would ignore; if it were called Downtown, it probably wouldn't make you look twice."

So as much as Urinetown may be the worst title in town, it might also be the best because people are talking about it, even if only in hushed tones.

Millan agrees. "It's the Canadian play titles that are interchangeable with every other Canadian play -- that to me is a much worse fate."
posted by J. Kelly 3:06 PM

Friday, May 21, 2004

The Far Side of the Moon

National Post
May 7, 2004

There's a school of thought that says that some of the best art is created out of social and political turmoil. This may offer up a putative explanation for why Quebec, where the battle between capitalism and socialism still rages the strongest in North America, has produced such a healthy crop of films over the past year.

As with Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions (and, to a lesser extent, films such as Seducing Doctor Lewis and Gaz Bar Blues), Robert Lepage's The Far Side of Moon takes the province's ideological and political turmoil and plays it out in the context of a family. Beautifully adapted from Lepage's stage play of the same name, the film tells the story of two brothers whose sibling rivalry is an extension of the Cold War. Phillippe, the sad and shy older brother, is a professional student whose doctoral thesis on the cultural implications of the space race keeps getting rejected by his advisors. While endlessly working on his degree, he supports himself by telemarketing for the Quebec City newspaper Le Soleil. Andre, the younger one, is a successful on-air announcer for the Weather Channel and the polar opposite of his brother. Self-centred and materialistic, Andre drives his brother to distraction by talking about money all the time.

The two brothers' conflict dates back to their childhood during the '60s. As a young boy, Phillippe idolized the Russian cosmonauts, and, unable to escape the planet with them, he escaped into his imagination. As his gaze penetrated his pregnant mother's swelling belly, he pictured an astronaut performing a space walk around her womb. Much to his dismay, Andre emerged instead, igniting a vicious fight for his Jackie-Kennedyesque mother's love.

As with The Barbarian Invasions, however, The Far Side of the Moon is about reconciliation, not one way of living defeating another. In both films a death is used to bring a fractured family together. In this case, it's the death of Phillippe and Andre's mother. As they reunite to deal with their mother's belongings, they try to figure out how two people (or peoples) can come together after having fought for so long.

Appropriately for a film whose title sounds suspiciously like a certain Pink Floyd album, The Far Side of the Moon is shot like an acid trip, with washing machine doors turning into spaceship portholes and a classroom blackboard moving aside to reveal an apartment. In one scene, as Phillippe walks across the Plains of Abraham, the site of Canada's most famous battle morphs into the surface of the moon. (Rumour has it that if you play the DVD of this movie at the same time as The Wizard of Oz, you'll break your DVD player.)

The Far Side of the Moon had the potential to be one of the most narcissistic movies ever. Not only is the film written, directed and executive produced by Lepage, he also plays the two lead roles of Phillippe and Andre.

Luckily, it didn't turn into a French-Canadian version of The Klumps. Lepage, who incidentally had his film debut acting in Arcand's Jesus de Montreal, isn't looking into the mirror in order to gaze at his reflection, but rather in order to understand himself and, ultimately, what it is to be human.

The Far Side of the Moon does have some distracting shortcomings -- namely the underdeveloped character of Andre, the source of whose anger we never really discover. In addition, some of Andre's and Phillippe's long monologues are in need of trimming. They may have worked on stage, but should have been edited down for the screen.

Aside from a few lagging moments, however, the dreamlike Far Side of the Moon is a stellar (ho-ho) accomplishment that also has one of the most cathartic conclusions I've seen in a long time. When Phillippe finally does relieve some of his inner burden at the end of the film, the airport lounge he is sitting in suddenly loses all gravity. First his keys and sunglasses float out of his bag, and soon he too is weightless, floating across the room as the screen fades to black.

Rating Three 1/2

posted by J. Kelly 8:00 AM

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Critiquing P. Diddy: Fair comment or bad rap?: Former J.Lo beau makes stage debut to mixed reviews
National Post
Wednesday, April 28, 2004
Arts & Life
J. Kelly Nestruck

Though he proved himself capable of running the New York City Marathon last year, P. Diddy couldn't scramble fast enough to evade all the slings and arrows of a roomful of theatre critics on Monday night.

Still, considering he made his Broadway debut in front of a pack of journalists ready for the kill, Sean Combs -- the entrepreneurial rapper better known as Puff Daddy, P. Diddy and the guy who used to date J.Lo -- can take the mixed notices he received for his performance in the revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun as a success.

With a lot of pent-up hostility about the Hollywoodization of the Great White Way and Combs's nerve in taking on a role originated by the great Sidney Poitier, some sharpshooters went straight for the jugular in critiquing his portrayal of Walter Lee Younger, an angry 34-year-old man still living with his widowed mother in 1950s Chicago's black ghetto. "Sean Combs, otherwise known as rap mogul and fashion impresario P. Diddy, is giving a sadly N. Adequate performance," Variety squawked gleefully, dipping into a previously untapped reserve of Diddy-related wordplay.

In a review headlined "A Raisin shrivelled by laughter," the Washington Post reported that hip hop's jack-of-all-trades could not get up the gravitas necessary for the part. His flaccid acting abilities made members of the audience laugh at inappropriate moments, critic Peter Marks wrote: "When he drops to the floor in a heap, sobbing at the realization that he's lost the family's entire savings -- 'That money is made out of my father's flesh!' he cries -- it's about as persuasive as a Teamster dancing Swan Lake."

Not all critics were so quick with the harsh zingers, however. Newsday gave the American classic's revival a positive review, writing, "Combs is better than OK. He has presence playing someone besides his own formidable self. He projects."

But as USA Today's Elysa Gardner remarked, "projecting is not the same thing as acting, and the finely textured work of Combs's accomplished co-stars makes his own lack of experience and depth all too apparent."

Marks made it clear he wasn't just condemning Combs, but the overall trend of bringing untrained stars in to boost Broadway's box-office receipts. "[Broadway] is eternally groping for cool-kid validation, for relief from the impression that it is a haven for hipness solely to Grecian Formula users and people from Altoona," he complained.

The New York Times' Ben Brantley agreed that whether Diddy did or didn't meant a lot to the future of the Great White Way. "Will he prove that you don't need long years of experience and training to knock 'em dead on Broadway?" Brantley asked at the beginning of his review.

Then, after putting off his conclusion for a couple of breathy paragraphs, Brantley answered in the negative. "Though the production features sterling work from Ms. [Audra] McDonald [as Walter Lee's wife] and Ms. [Phylicia] Rashad, who plays Walter Lee's formidable mother, it lacks the fully developed central performance from Mr. Combs that would hold the show together. This Walter Lee never appears to change, in big ways or small. Happy or sad, drunk or sober, angry or placating, his evenly measured words and debating team captain's gestures remain pretty much the same," he wrote, bringing to mind an image of Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

But Brantley did have some kind things to say about the hip hop artist. "Mr. Combs is not the wholesale embarrassment that connoisseurs of schadenfreude were hoping for. The Donald Trump-like confidence that has made him the success he is keeps him from dissolving into a spotlighted puddle."

Not all praise was so damningly faint. In fact, The New York Post gave P. Diddy his best review. "Confidently stepping into the role made famous by Sidney Poitier, Combs was -- believe it or not -- pretty damn good," critic Clive Barnes wrote, as if he couldn't believe that he was actually writing that sentence himself.

"Admittedly, Sidney Poitier he was not -- and Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Samuel L. Jackson need not shake in their boots, at least for now. But Combs exceeded expectations as the petulant, truculent and brooding young hero ..."

While Combs, who has previously acted in films such as Monster's Ball and Made, can take heart in reviews like that one, the producers of A Raisin in the Sun made it clear yesterday the critics were not a big concern for them.

"Our audience is not an audience that needs to be validated by reviews," Eric Schnall, marketing director for the show, told The Associated Press. "A lot of them don't read them."
posted by J. Kelly 4:09 PM

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