Saturday, December 29, 2007

A close shave: Sweeney Todd

Drops of blood intermingle with soot-coloured rain falling over a cozily computerized Victorian London in the opening moments of the latest product from director Tim Burton’s well-oiled brand of overly art directed middlebrow Goth. 

Soon the camera will fly through narrow streets of cartoon grime, an homage to Dickensian squalour minus any details that convey genuine disease or discomfort. Little critters will crawl in and out of cute-looking meat pies made by a fetching, boobilicious widow with beguiling wide eyes and carefully arranged rat’s nest hair. All of this is photographed in a manner characterized by odd contradictions, the images at once garish and drab, fussed over and neglected-looking. I guess this is what happens when Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is plucked from the shadowy magic of the theatre and juiced with a multi-million dollar movie budget: though shifted into an ostensibly more realistic, less artificial format, this morbid tale has become strangely bloodless.

Which isn’t to say that the movie isn’t ever any fun. Sondheim’s acclaimed musical concerns the a vengeful barber who assumes a habit of slitting the stubbled throats of Londoners while his pie baking companion feeds the ground-up remains to an unwittingly cannibalistic public. With such a grisly premise to usher through the adaptation process, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the story has lost much of its truly chilling resonance on its way to the big screen. Robbed of their darker attributes, a number of key scenes feel flat and overlong even though the story’s been compressed and many songs eliminated or trimmed down. Yet there are however a number of smaller pleasures to be found here that will likely delight holiday audiences.

The emphasis on creaking gears, springs, trap doors and other machinery in the barber’s busy little slaughterhouse makes for an enjoyably sly commentary on the tandem progress of efficiency and dehumanization in the post-industrial world. Once they get into the swing of things, Sweeney (Johnny Depp, once again with scissors in hand, sporting Burton’s obligatory pallor and a flamboyant grey streak to rival Susan Sontag) and Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter, fashioned as a corseted Souixsie Souix) enjoy the fluidity of a well-maintained assembly line, with fresh victims sliding directly from the barber’s chair and down a hole into the dank basement where they are swiftly churned into hamburger and baked in the ever-roaring furnace. The whimsical flopping of corpses upon contact with the earthen floor is among the movie’s most striking visual gags.

Despite the general lack of strong voices to deliver Sondheim’s wildly intricate melodies –Depp in particular has trouble getting across Sweeney’s fiendish glee with his sour face and limited singing abilities, though his Bowie-esque quaver is kind of endearing– several members of the talented cast give amusing performances. As always, Bonham Carter, Burton’s all-too-devoted spouse, provides many of the highlights. She comes closest to balancing the necessary abstract or theatrical quality of the source material with the more intimate emotional nuances one can conjure for the movie cameras, and it helps that Lovett’s longing for Sweeney gives her some strong subtext to play with. Sacha Baron Cohen, playing a deliciously foppish counterfeit Italian and rival for Sweeney’s business, mustachioed and marvelously pretentious, also provides some nice moments, going for broke in his brief comic cameo and his blue satin pants.

Anyway, I can keep combing through my memories of Sweeney Todd for more nice things to say about it, but the bottom line is that the whole thing is just surprisingly forgettable, even as you’re watching it. There seems to be no desire to implicate the viewer in the building violence, no drive to forge a deeper investment in the deliciously grotesque underpinnings in Sondheim’s tale, only a superficial interest in its nifty vestiges. Burton, who if you ask me has yet to better Ed Wood, has apparently been dreaming of this project for the last 20 years or so. That’s an awfully long time to go without ever asking yourself what the thing is really all about.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

So long as Juno and I know...

Getting unexpectedly pregnant after having sex for the first time with a buddy at the age of 16 is generally sort of a drag, but for the titular hipster heroine of Juno, played with spunky verve by Haligonian wunderkind Ellen Page, it’s not quite the bad deal you might expect. Perhaps its because something about her world just seems a little more fun and cozy than the one the rest of us live in.

No one seems to mind when Juno re-creates a rumpus room on somebody’s front lawn. Her local druggist speaks in alliteration-heavy aphorisms. Her ex-army dad and doggie-crazed step-mom (the appealing pairing of JK Simmons and Alison Janney) don’t even get pissed off when Juno tells them she’s got a bun in the oven. There’s a girl from school protesting against abortion outside the clinic Juno visits, but even she just seems kinda huggable, even informative. Plus, cute little indie rock songs seems to be playing everywhere Juno goes. The film almost makes you want to run out and get pregnant.

Juno was directed by Montreal-born Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking), who has a nice feeling for pace and humour, a catchy way of framing the Vancouver-as-generic-US-city locations, and, it would seem, an easy way with actors. The film has a winsome attitude that’s only slightly soured by Reitman’s excess of eagerness to tear pages from Wes Anderson or even Jared Hess’s baroque scrapbooks, flooding each scene with kitschy costumes and paraphernalia and offbeat pop culture references. There’s even a Kinks song. The approach works well enough for the material, but Reitman’s not going to win any awards for originality.

More curiously, Juno was written by one Diablo Cody. If that name sounds like it belongs to an ex-stripper, you’d be on the right track. If it sounds like it belongs to a pretty clever ex-stripper, you’d be batting a 1000. If anything, Juno values cleverness above all else, giving the verbally able Page a steady stream of one-liners only rarely punctuated by something not deep-fried in irony. With this, her first produced screenplay, Cody seems to trust her cheek more than her heart, but there is ultimately a significant amount of subtext here that helps raise the film up above your average teen movie flotsam.

After deciding, in a commendably non-didactic scene, that abortion just isn’t for her, Juno lands upon an ad in the local Pennysaver posted by Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), a youngish, upper middle-class couple looking for a kid. Juno and her dad pay a visit to the couple’s expansive suburban home and quickly surmises that while her unborn child will probably have to battle against suffocating décor, love and safety are almost ensured. It’s equally clear however that trouble is brewing in this beige carpeted paradise: Mark is stifling an undying love for horror flicks and punk rock, winning points with Juno but displeasing the studiously adult (i.e.: emasculating) Vanessa.

With this crucial element of Mark and Vanessa, Juno begins to reveal the real smarts that underline its sass. The film conveys a decidedly inclusive inclination toward families of all types and in all states. Juno isn’t sure yet quite how she feels about the soft-spoken father of her baby-in-the-making (Superbad’s Michael Cera –yet another Canuck!), but she’s beginning to ask serious questions about the elusive nature of love and the deeper value of trust and support. As the plot thickens, she, and we, can see that love, trust and support can be lost and found in expected places, and one of the real pleasures of Cody’s story lies in the way it doesn’t let any single major character remain a mere type when called upon to make important decisions.

How well anything in the film comes across ultimately comes down to Page’s performance, and, like the film as a whole, it’s a piece of work that, at its best, is characterized by its distinctive way of catching you off guard. Though still only 20 and elfin, Page has been slated as the next big thing for a little while now. The web-dating sicko thriller Hard Candy was meant to be her breakthrough, but she’s far better served by Juno. She has a terrifically breezy way with the dialogue and never forces emotion, even when the script seems to demand it of her. The performance of the year? Not quite. The first major stop on a road to a brilliant career? Very likely.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Poetry has to make its way between: Robert Bringhurst's Everywhere Being is Dancing

“I like thick socks and heavy shirts because I live in a cold country, but all my theories are threadbare.” So states poet, linguist, essayist and typographer Robert Bringhurst in his foreword to
Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (Gaspereau Press, $31.95), clarifying from the outset that a theory must above all be useful, like a compass in the wilderness, a way to navigate your path through some thorny terrain. Bringhurst distinguishes between theory and meaning: meaning was already there; theory simply allows us to consider it, or renovate our comfortable ways of considering it.

Everywhere Being is a companion piece to Bringhurst’s The Tree of Meaning. Everything is the previous book was meant to be spoken. Everything in this new book was meant to be read. The unifying theme is interconnectivity, and Bringhurst approaches the theme by examining the work of such varied figures as Aristotle, Don McKay and Joan Miró. It’s a titanic, unruly theme, and I’m trying to avoid telling you to just read the damn book. At the risk of making excuses for my own critical deficiencies, I feel it necessary to note that it’s a strength of Bringhurst’s essays that they don’t easily lend themselves to neat summation. As with poetry, as with music, a certain basic meaning can be located only in the linkage of one idea to the next.

In the titular essay, Bringhurst tries to explain how poetry is a form of knowing. So far, so obvious –but the beauty lies precisely in the way Bringhurst illuminates what we already know so that we know it better. Bringhurst’s talent with etymological dissection is on par with that of Fred Wah, and he examines root words in Chinese, early Greek and Navajo to call attention to the differences between poetry as knowing, as a reflection of “what-is,” and poetry as artifice, or “what-is-made.”

Particularly interesting is Bringhurst’s realization, new to me at least, that industrialization and the development of verse styles –not to mention, somewhat more abstractly, the development of nostalgia for nature– have emerged in tandem historically. The Navajo for example, while having had different terms for separate genres of poetry, never had a term for verse before colonization. Poetry and verse are not, in Bringhurst’s estimation, at all one and the same.

“At worst,” Bringhurst writes, verse “is merely a grate through which language is pushed.” He suggests that verse, ideally, which is to say, verse as genuine, “knowing:” poetry, has less to do with the limits of any given language, and should rather be most closely tied to human physiology, specifically to breathing. When compressed into a taut conclusion these ideas might sound almost banal, but Bringhurst’s method of approaching these ideas is sophisticated and compelling.

I’ve already used up well over half of my allotted column addressing only the first of 20 or so essays in this book, but it’s the first for a reason. It holds a sort of key for regarding the rest of these consistently stimulating, insightful and humble pieces, for understanding just what Bringhurst is getting at when he calls Glenn Gould “the most colossally improbable of all Canadian poets” or why Bringhurst urges us to read a work of Haida oral literature, in an essay about storytelling and translation that itself is written with an unmistakable flair for storytelling and translation.

In ‘Licking the Lips with a Forked Tongue’ Bringhurst describes how a simple desire to spark a poem from a comment made by someone else, as well as a growing interest in polyphonic music, led him to create texts in which different voices can speak at once through the layering of colour-coded lines. He found that musicians were more able to perform the poem than trained actors (something I discovered myself some years ago when I wrote a play that climaxes with three simultaneous monologues), that harmonization is a concept as jarring to orators as it is natural to musicians. Along the way to explaining this Bringhurst also articulates for me why I’ve always been drawn more to chamber music than symphonic: “In a group of four or five, there is room for both complexity and simplicity to breathe.”

I close with my response to this particular essay on polyphony because it struck me as being particularly, well, poetic, in the way it zeroed in on the conflict between language and meaning, between artifice and a purity so pure as to nearly evaporate when regarded by the likes of mere humans. Since he puts it best, I’ll let Bringhurst have the last word:

“I’m quite convinced that poetry is part of the larger world and not a specifically human possession or creation. When poetry gets utterly absorbed in human affairs or narrowly enmeshed in human language, it is apt to lose its vigor. Yet, as humans, we are trapped in some degree in human language and have to make of it what we can. To the enterprise of thinking, talk is every bit as dangerous as song. Poetry has to make its way between.”

(This column originally appeared in Vue Weekly, 20/12/2007)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Drinking, fighting and redemption round the toxic sump: Drunken Angel on DVD

I can think of few filmmakers whose very name holds the same promise of a great time like Akira Kurosawa’s. I can sit down to watch virtually any of Kurosawa’s films, whatever niggling individual flaws each might possess, and feel confident that I’m about to be treated to all the fundamental things that make movie-watching rewarding, to be entertained in the highest yet broadest sense of that troublesome term.

Yet with every Kurosawa film, no matter how ingeniously crafted, there’s always at least one moment that seems to have wriggled away from the dictates of sheer craft, something that breathes, that betrays ostensible perfection, that has funk. These more spontaneous moments make the films better, setting the obvious gems of technical precision and good taste in striking relief, pushing them up from the ranks of the very good to the singularly great. In
Rashomon (1950), there’s the inordinate amount of time spent hiking through the woods with the woodcutter, as though the sheer pleasure of those woods deserves its own little movie. In Yojimbo (61) there’s that image of the dramatic mountain offset by Toshiro Mifune’s ronin protagonist ambling into frame not to strike a heroic pose but to yawn and scratch the back of his head –and that’s the opening of the movie!

Newly released on DVD by Criterion, Drunken Angel (48) was the first film Kurosawa felt he could truly call his own. It also happened to be his first collaboration with Mifune, the actor that will forever be associated with Kurosawa’s cinema. Though Drunken Angel is keenly focused on the uneasy friendship between a tippling doctor and a dying gangster, the sort of narrative detours mentioned above are already finding their home in the eager-to-impress young director’s palate. The film trades in brawling, in crime, in seedy ghettos, mafia-rule, drinking and prostitution, and pays off with every one of these elements. But many of the things that makes this more than just a taut, well-made populist film are its playful insertions of incidental moments most other directors would likely cut out, such as when the doctor makes repeated attempts to do nothing more than prop open a door, or when the restless gangster ostentatiously wiggles his ass to a rousing song (with lyrics by Kurosawa!) performed in a dance hall.

Central to Drunken Angel is a sprawling sump into which locals toss their refuse, a toxic bog crawling with disease and clearly representing the morass of post-war Tokyo, a city in search of some new sense of self but mired in chaos and cynicism. The titular doctor –played with caustic appeal the other actor most associated with Kurosawa, Takashi Shimura– lives and works around this sump, battling all the filth rising from it. Though his drinking and bitter mood convey his unhappiness with the state of things, his deep-seated optimism can be located in his desire to cure even the most resistant patients, such as the arrogant young yakuza, played by Mifune, who the doctor discovers has tuberculosis. Their relationship is fraught with conflict –and the guys literally fist fight all the time– yet perhaps because of these conflicts, their attempts to understand each other is that much more profound, and fun.

Though Kurosawa had yet to distinguish all the elements of his formal style, the film features numerous inspired set-pieces, such as that dance hall scene and a tremendous climatic fight involving white paint, a device that imbues the action with layers of meaning even as it thrills us, finally resolving in a traveling shot that moves elegantly from Mifune’s collapsed figure and back out into the neighbourhood swamp. These scenes are further enriched when you later listen to Donald Richie’s enormously interesting audio commentary, which benefits not only from Richie’s position as the West’s foremost representative of Japanese cinema but from the fact that he was actually on set during the film’s making.

The book accompanying Drunken Angel, handsomely illustrated with inky impressions of the film’s imagery by somebody called Jock, features a short essay by cultural historian Ian Buruma that helps flesh out the dramatic polarities of post-war Japanese life, placing special emphasis on the idea of the nation’s inability to find an individual or institution upon which to place blame for its defeat, shame and humiliation, and, especially intriguingly, on the lineage between soldiers and yakuza.

Buruma’s essay is followed by two superb excerpts from Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography, in which he describes the varied elements that fed into the development of the film and more generally on the phenomena of Mifune. But anyone even slightly interested in Kurosawa should do themselves a huge favour and just go out and get the whole book, which, with its breezy, humble, anecdotal tone, is among the best memoirs on life in the film industry ever written.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Queasy, Cruel, Comic: Margot at the Wedding

Margot at the Wedding is a movie that, above all else, turns on the delicious discomforts of recognition. Recognition of self in family, family in self, and, just as importantly, the lack of any recognition altogether. Discomfort is of course rarely all that delicious in real life, but when sculpted into taut, tense, witty scenarios by writer/director Noah Baumbach, and embodied by the superlative casts he and Douglas Aibel assemble, it can frequently reach queasy, effervescent heights of comic wonder.

The movie begins with successful novelist Margot (Nicole Kidman) wiggling through a corridor on a train leaving her comfort zone of New York City for some island near Long Island. That our titular heroine starts her story in a state of disequilibrium is made complete by the rather ingenious way in which she’s introduced to us: mistaking him for her own teenage son Claude (Zane Pais), she sits beside a complete stranger. Her failure to recognize the hapless, approval-seeking Claude speaks volumes about Margot’s difficulties with and resistance to motherhood, as it does about the sort of humour that Margot at the Wedding runs on. As with Baumbach’s break-out hit The Squid & the Whale, laughs escape from our recognizing the dynamics of dysfunctional families, if not, crucially for the sake of comic surprise, the particularities of the family in question, confirming Tolstoy’s famous line about how all unhappy families are different.

A defining factor in Baumbach’s dissection of family is his emphatic interest in giving his adults very adult stories and his kids stories focused around their eager ambition to penetrate the banal mysteries of adult life. Adults and kids intermingle without having to compromise the overall tone of the movie, which hums along, fuelled by need, injury and the distribution of emotional collateral. With child in tow, though conspicuously sans husband, Margot ostensibly arrives on the quiet island to attend and support the marriage of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to tubby, nervy ex-rocker Malcolm (Jack Black), who she met only recently. Once enveloped by the affluent, small community Margot and Claude are confronted with scenes of sexual and fraternal manipulation and expectation, and in these scenes their disparate age groups become irrelevant. Insecurity becomes an equal opportunity threat to all involved.

Squaring off against sea, shrubs, childhood mementos and a lonely, bare tree, under overcast east coast light rendered with muted beauty by ace cinematographer Harris Savides, Margot and Pauline’s interaction forms a consistent centre to this movie that handles story in the loosest terms it can get away with. Things don’t progress a whole lot in Margot at the Wedding, but the static nature of the drama is engagingly offset by how terrifically funny it all is –and its funny because we keep discovering more and more about how these wildly antagonistic sisters operate. And its hard to imagine this relationship playing as well as it does without one of the most inspired strokes of casting in recent memory.

Kidman and Leigh as sisters still strikes me as an utterly bizarre, unlikely choice, the former actor distinguished by her elegance, taste and understatement, the latter by her ballsy, go-for-broke, sometimes deeply mannered performances. My first thought was: this movie’s not big enough for the two of them. My second was: that’s goddamned brilliant! They’re both so good, so mutually attuned to Baumbach’s style while coming to it from very different sensibilities, that they dangle side by side from this family tree with inspired incongruity: Margot the privately grotesque star of the family, Pauline the more sympathetic, if hopelessly lost black sheep. And when you throw the added wild card of Black into the mix, playing a character that no one, his fiancée included, seems entirely comfortable with, you’ve pretty much sealed the deal as far as comic tension is concerned.

The cruelty that constitutes the stock in trade of Margot never really gets shaken off. Thankfully. But that Margot is such a compulsive bitch most of the time makes her role in the family all the more compelling to work through. Its not just this movie that needs Margot to function, her family needs her too, as a way to reflect back their own weaknesses and conflicted feelings with success as defined by the outside world. And, as jarring as the final gesture made in Margot at the Wedding is, it displays a remarkable flicker of optimism in this mostly nasty, mostly pleasingly shapeless world Baumbach’s created. Out of nowhere, the movie seems to be telling us that we never know when our deeper moral impulses might just leap out, yank us by the lapels, and force us to live up to something better than our conditions promise.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Race, Class and American lyricism: Killer of Sheep and My Brother's Wedding on DVD

When Charles Burnett’s extraordinary feature debut Killer of Sheep (1977) received its first-ever proper theatrical release last spring, I, like so many others, felt instantly as though I’d found my new favourite movie. Burnett’s idiosyncratic method of capturing incident, play and struggle in the Watts district of Los Angeles, his marvelous eye for off-kilter composition, his empathy for diverse characters, his irreverent drawing out of the comedic aspects of even the most dire scenarios, his light touch with social commentary and wonderfully fluid use of songs by the likes of Paul Robeson and Dinah Washington –one of the main reasons the film was never released was its plague of music clearance issues– his necessary utilization of ultra-low budget production values as an aesthetic and even moral choice: all of these things made Killer of Sheep feel like a revelation, a movie as artful and arresting in its depiction of the marginalized classes as Los Olvidados (50).

Yet accompanying all the praise given to Killer of Sheep was this constant, melancholic undercurrent, a lament for a great, raw talent largely wasted all these years. Numerous senior critics implied that in the 30 years since the film’s completion Burnett had never matched the vitality of his debut, or, To Sleep With Anger (90) excepted, even came close. After having gone through all of Burnett’s work featured on Milestone’s new Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection, I beg to differ. The two-disc set contains four shorts by Burnett –half of which are brilliant, while the other half merely warm, smart, inventive and funny– and Burnett’s feature My Brother’s Wedding (83), which, particularly in its new director’s cut, is an absolutely worthy follow-up to the preceding masterwork.

There are doubtlessly ardent fans who might resent the simple fact that My Brother’s Wedding is a more emphatically narrative film than Killer of Sheep. But just because it has a clear story is no reason to see My Brother’s Wedding as any sort of compromise toward commercialism, nor does that story prevent Burnett from inviting his characteristic digressions into comic mishaps, amusing ephemra, or pure character development.

The film follows 30-year-old Angelino Pierce Mundy, played with unmannered sincerity by Everett Silas, who, sadly, seems to have never made another film. While doing little aside from working listlessly in his mother’s dry cleaners or helping to care for some elderly relatives, Pierce is simultaneously confronted with two inevitabilities that illustrate the socio-economic polarities that define his attitude. On the one hand, his elder brother, a successful doctor, is marrying a lawyer from a middle-class black family, much to the delight of Pierce’s working class parents and the seething hostility of Pierce. One the other, Pierce’s old pal Soldier returns home from a stint in prison, looking for good times and trouble. Both of these scenarios reach a crisis point that demand Pierce’s attention and force him to make allegiances, though in the end his inability to satisfy either party is what brings the story to its enigmatic conclusion, an image that solidifies Pierce as the unwitting representative of a community’s conflicted soul, a community at once desirous of positive change and doomed by its tendency to prey upon itself.

Burnett imbues the film with a lively, mischievous spirit, with scenes of Pierce and Soldier play-fighting in a stranger’s yard, singing doo-wop in a stairwell or using the dry cleaners as an impromptu love nest, scenes of customers who can’t claim their clothes because they can’t remember their aliases. He conveys the complexities of classism with much wit, such as in the scene in which Pierce’s nouveau riche in-laws-to-be show off their Mexican servant, taking pride in their acquisition of the accoutrements of the class that once oppressed them. And he delivers moments of wondrous lyricism, such as the one in which Pierce’s Bible reading dissolves dreamily into an ill-fated drive along a tree-lined avenue. A rough cut of My Brother’s Wedding was screened at festivals in Toronto and New York but prompted only lukewarm reviews and, in what was becoming a despairing tradition, failed to receive distribution. The rough cut ran at 118 minutes. Burnett’s new director’s cut clocks in at 81 minutes. You can’t say the man doesn’t appreciate concision.

Burnett’s first short ‘Several Friends’ (1969) is very much a stand-alone work as well as a sort of gearing up for Killer of Sheep, riffing engagingly on running themes of animal slaughter, fleeing pleasures, and broken machinery that never seems to get fixed. A child watches her father collapse in an alley. A parking lot fight is overseen by people both in cars and –in a typically goofy visual non-sequiter– on horseback. Hens are slaughtered and then plucked using some medieval machine. Two guys work on a car while a friend visits to show off his white girlfriend, a pivotal strategy in his attempts at upward mobility. The whole possesses an easy, compelling rhythm.

‘The Horse’ (1973) features eloquently composed rural landscapes in its tale of several men waiting in the mid-day heat for someone to come and facilitate the killing of a horse. One white guy sits on a shady porch, working on the crease in his pants as another lays flat and flicks a knife into the ceiling so that it dangles like some tiny sword of Damocles over his head. All the while a black boy sits mourning in the sun-beaten dust with the condemned horse. It’s a strange, curious, sad and beautiful little film.

The final highlight of this package I want to mention here is Burnett’s commentary track for Killer of Sheep. I was able to interview Burnett for Vue last July and was happy to find that same warm, humble and unassumingly insightful character speaking of his filmmaking experiences here. Most memorable for me among his comments was his feeling that people he knew back in the 70s were always telling him he needed to speak for the black community. Burnett found this idea absurd. Instead, he tried to simply show people in his community in enough situations that felt were truthful to his and their experience, and in doing so, let the black community speak for themselves.

Charles Burnett on Killer of Sheep

One of the most simultaneously acclaimed and unseen works in American movies, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is finally making its proper theatrical debut 30 years after its completion. Its scarcity was partially due to licensing difficulties resulting from the film’s expressive use of music from the likes of Paul Robeson, Rachmaninoff and Dinah Washington, whose rendition of ‘This Bitter Earth’ supplies the emotional clincher for two of the film’s most memorable, stark and heartbreaking scenes.

Not that Burnett needed any assistance with regards to the film’s lyricism. Set within the crumbling buildings, dusty rail yards and rundown homes of Watts, Los Angeles, Burnett’s images of children roof jumping, wearing masks or playing with rocks, families assembling on front stoops, and its protagonist, Stan, accumulating work hours in an abattoir are imbued with an aching visual poetry –not to mention a terrifically funky sense of humour. These two elements frequently conspire to provide the film with its most pointed moments, such as the scene where Stan explains why he doesn’t consider himself poor. “I give things to the Salvation Army sometimes,” he says.

Stan’s occupation also forms a poetic, if dire, link with his private disorders: Stan’s an insomniac, thus he not only kills sheep but counts them, too. His wife craves his affection desperately, but he’s a million miles away. When not working, Stan throws himself into less emotionally demanding projects, such as acquiring a motor for a friend’s jalopy, a mission doomed to comic failure. The closest thing to conventional heroism on display here is simply Stan and his wife’s ability to endure an existence that promises precious few opportunities at advancement with their humanity in tact.

Social context aside, the singular, striking images of
Killer of Sheep seem informed by the photography of Ralph Eugene Meatyard. And these images have gone on to deeply influence other films, most notably David Gordon Green’s George Washington. Burnett himself seems perpetually surprised by his film’s impact however, claiming that he never intended it to be seen outside of activist or social science screenings. His family moved to Watts when Burnett was just entering kindergarten, and he felt that Killer of Sheep was basically just a reflection on where he was from. He spoke to with me from his current home in a different section of Los Angeles.

JB: I heard you first studied electronics.

Charles Burnett: Yeah, I was thinking about becoming an engineer. But I started looking at other people who were going into it, listening to their comments and jokes, what they expected out of life. It just didn’t seem interesting to me. Their jokes weren’t funny. They were looking forward to job security, buying a Winnebago, all that junk. That didn’t sound too inviting.

JB: Was being a filmmaker too far out a notion for you then?

CB: It was more a matter of my not being aware of it. When I was a kid I always wanted to do something with a camera, but had no clear ideas. Then I went into electronics, got disenchanted with that. Then I started going to movies a lot, and wondering how you make these things. And I discovered UCLA’s program, which was dirt-cheap at the time.

JB: How was your experience at UCLA?

CB: It was a chance for discovery. I remember taking this documentary class with Basil Wright that was very instrumental in my deciding which way to go.

JB: In the sense that you saw the documentary elements within fiction films?

CB: It was more that when people would talk about fiction films, you never heard them talk about the importance of treating the subject in a human way. Being honest and respectful, that kinda stuff. It made me look at films differently.

JB: Did you always intend to make a film about race, class and community?

CB: Well, I was certainly aware of race, being from Mississippi. And L.A. was worse somehow, divided and Apartheid-like in many ways. In my neighbourhood two or three of us couldn’t walk down the street together without being harassed, being sent to jail for the least thing. They wouldn’t give you a chance. Lots of kids thought it was funny going to jail, a rite of passage. So I think that my social conscience just came from growing up in that environment.

JB: It’s interesting to consider
Killer of Sheep in the context of its period, particularly how it contrasts the blaxploitation films popular then.

CB: Many of us were getting into film to create our own narratives, to counter what Hollywood offered. So when these blaxploitation films came, initially they were exciting simply because a black person was the centre of attention. The negative side became apparent later on. But my thing was trying to reflect a situation where the audience would be able to ask themselves how they might help these people. And I didn’t want to romanticize things with regard to the working class.

JB: Did the story come to you in an ordered way?

CB: It did actually. But I wanted it based in the day to day. There’s no single thread that moves it, just the things that happen as you continue trying to eke out a life.

JB: Music is unusually vital in
Killer of Sheep. Did you have a precise idea how the music would interact with your images?

CB: Yeah. A lot of it is blues, music I grew up with. I associate it with that environment. And with blues you have to grow up to really understand it. I had the good fortune to speak with August Wilson many years before he died, and he was saying how these same songs somehow generated images for his plays. That’s how it worked for me.

JB: Looking back after 30 years, how has
Killer of Sheep changed for you?

CB: Seeing it now just makes me think how the neighbourhood’s changed. It was a much better life back then, before crack hit. People could still own their homes. There was a sense of community. Parents these days don’t want their kids going out for fear they might get shot. Back then kids could go anywhere. People used to say that if you wanted to better yourself just get a high school diploma. Now they’ll just tell you to get up and get away from here.

JB: Are the things that were important to you when you made
Killer of Sheep still important to you now?

CB: I think the core is still there, the whole idea of why I got into film in the first place. The problem’s just that you can’t do the film you want to. With money comes however many compromises, and you need to constantly put things in terms that money people understand.

JB: Any chance this new wave of acclaim for
Killer of Sheep might help you do what you want?

CB: Nah. People want films to make money. Folks’ll just look at me as an art film person. And art can be a dirty word in this business.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Betrayal, rot, fake moustaches: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

In recent years, we’ve become accustomed to celebrating our finest octogenarian filmmakers for their diversity (Alain Resnais), their grace and good humour (Robert Altman), or their steady commitment to a singular path (Ingmar Bergman, Chris Marker). But when we turn out gaze to the latest work from Hollywood veteran Sidney Lumet, 83 as of last June, what’s finally most impressive, maybe astounding, is its sheer visceral, even ruthless vitality.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead marks a full half-century of filmmaking for Lumet, who debuted with 12 Angry Men before going onto helm a dizzying smorgasbord of features that includes The Pawnbroker (1964), Dog Day Afternoon (75), Network (76), Prince of the City (81), Running on Empty (88) and Q&A (90). That’s a sort of quickie greatest hits list, but there’s been plenty of stinkers too, the latest chain of them having started with A Stranger Among Us (92).

Taken at a glance, the catalogue seems to indicate longevity and restlessness above all, but a closer look reveals an ongoing interest in –and unusually deft hand with– themes of doomed ambition, perverse betrayal, and the underlying rot in modern American life. Concerning the plight of Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke), two very different but mutually desperate brothers who collaborate on a robbery that goes horribly, grotesquely wrong, Before the Devil forges a new peak in Lumet’s oeuvre not only because it exudes the rigor of an artist half Lumet’s age, but because it is so very satisfying as a nasty, nasty, nasty little movie.

Working from Kelly Masterson’s script, which is narratively frazzled –there are more than a couple of plot holes, the consistent sleaziness feels rather overly schematic, and the finale arguably bites off more than it can chew– yet never less than riveting, Lumet has crafted a film that’s fascinatingly fractured on every level.
Before the Devil features a family plagued by primal intentions only slightly better than the bad timing that undoes it. Formally, morally, thematically, the film’s fissures proliferate: the story darts elliptically through the chronological plot by use of disruptive flash cuts, while the compositions often isolate a body part in some evocative way, as with the hand of Gina (Marisa Tomei, excellent) in the opening post-coital scenes. The final result is a film that keeps us watching by continually jarring us.

Andy watches the bodies of he and his wife as they make love in a mirror, his expression quizzical, as though he can’t quite believe they belong to them. The body of a small-time hold-up artist flies through a plate-glass door while a laughably disguised Hank, his fake moustache a poor stab at manly authority, looks on in despair from the front seat of the getaway car. Lumet and his superb cast imbue scene after scene with alienating, often raw physicality, and Lumet suitably screw with the whole process by returning to certain key moments and filming them from a reverse angle, causing us to stop and think we’ve seen this one before… or have we?

I mentioned the frazzled nature of Masterson’s script: its fairly effective at diverting us from its inconsistencies, though at times it only manages this by prompting the characters into near hysterics. Thankfully, a hysterical Hoffman is far from the worst thing you could come across in a movie. His Andy is a ticking bomb that gets incrementally louder as things unravel. Hoffman builds the tension through a balance of Mephistophelian disaffection and hot-breathed indignation. He’s picky about when he boils over. Hawke, meanwhile, makes a satisfying counterpart, the designated baby of the family, he’s miserably naïve, always convincingly one fateful step behind his brother in his attempts to fend off disaster. Granted, these guys don’t look much like brothers, but they get the sick spirit of it all just right.

And maybe they get a helping hand from Albert Finney, who plays the initially unassuming role of their father Charles, who’s never privy to their conniving but makes it his business to understand it and act swiftly, all the while somehow embodying traits of both Hawk and Hoffman in his compellingly heavy, overheated performance. A little closer in age to Lumet himself, Finney is ultimately revealed as the grimy core of
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a patriarch that moves from supreme grief to blistering wrath. And like Lumet, Finney might go a little over the top in his efforts to get this nihilistic little tale from one end to the other, but the point is he gets us there, on waves of cinematic adrenaline.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Views of Strange Lands from Windshields: Jarmusch on DVD

In Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 film Stranger Than Paradise we light upon the confluence of many streams of poetic cinema, of numerous currents of the NYC underground of the period (already on its last legs), and of drifting strangers discarding the signifiers of their varied homelands both geographical and psychological. I retain a deep love for this “indie” landmark in part because while it’s so very about something, it evokes its themes, ideas and emotions with such a light touch, such singular, rigorous formal grace, and such emphasis on languid humour and the pure pleasures of unfiltered –and uncut– human behaviour.

Stranger Than Paradise is concerned with self-determination. Right off the bat, Willie (John Lurie) is heard demanding his Hungarian aunt speak to him in English and not call him Bela, his given name. We see Willie’s visiting Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) tour “The New World” of New York while playing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins on her tape recorder, in effect projecting her prized artifact of America back into America streets. We see Eddie (Richard Edson) struggle with his role as the supremely pushy Willie’s sidekick. Without having to actively do a whole lot, these characters, buoyed by the ease, playfulness and individuality of the actors, become tremendously well fleshed out. Like J. Hoberman wrote in his original Village Voice review, “half the fun in Jarmusch’s leisurely paced film is just watching those palookas breathe.”

But it was Jarmusch’s self-determination that was also announcing itself. His cinematic influences can be seen in every unbroken scene –Ozu, Dryer, Warhol and Antonioni, not to mention
The Honeymooners, are all evident precursors– yet his style as developed here exudes a very particular vision of the world. Jarmusch’s individuality is something explored in depth in Criterion’s new Stranger Than Paradise two-disc set, which contains smart essays, the German documentary Kino ’84: Jim Jarmusch, and, most excitingly, Jarmusch’s relatively little-seen 1980 feature debut Permanent Vacation.

Permanent Vacation opens with NYC crowds undulating in slow motion juxtaposed with nearly abandoned streets and, eventually, a series of varied empty living spaces. “I’ve known all kinds of people,” protagonist Allie (Chris Parker) tells us, “and to me those people are like a series of rooms.” The newness dies, a creeping dread emerges, and then its time to split. Allie, with his floppy pompadour and endearingly pretentious air of cultivated outsiderness, spends much of the film wandering between people, rooms and empty lots, pontificating on his inability to settle. The filmic space is a frontier bridging the real world and one malleable to the characters’ fantasies, and in this sense it’s really a coming-of-age film. This goes for Jarmusch as much as Allie: the young writer/director is already honing his minimalist, episodic sensibilities, and his special interest in the interchangability of the foreign and familiar.

Along with
Stranger Than Paradise, Criterion has also released Jarmusch’s 1991 film Night on Earth, the ambitious portmanteau Jarmusch initially wanted to title L.A. New York Paris Rome Helsinki, a tell-it-like-it-is rundown of the film’s travelogue. Each episode is set in one of the above cities, each more or less confined to a taxi cab. Though he professes to not be of an analytical mindset, Jarmusch in fact describes the idea of the film perfectly in a short Belgian TV interview included here: he states that he was interested in the freedom of the fleeting intimacy with a complete stranger one finds while taking a cab, as well as the ostensible insignificance of a taxi ride, the point of which is usually to get from one place to another. An artist isn’t always the most accurate representative of his work, but I don’t think I could come up with a better summation of what Night on Earth is about than what Jarmusch himself describes.

The events depicted in
Night on Earth are unassuming even by Jarmusch standards –a talent agent offers a cabbie a job; a passenger takes control of the steering wheel when its clear the newly immigrated cabbie can’t drive automatic– yet at less than a half-hour each they provide rich portraits and conviviality. Re-teaming after Down By Law (1986), Jarmusch gets another career-best performance from Robert Benigni, who rambles on about fucking pumpkins and livestock of all things; he gets a marvelous camaraderie going between a double recorder-sporting ex-clown Armin Mueller-Stahl and an impossibly enthusiastic Giancarlo Esposito; he summons up a genuinely quirky and deeply sad story from the late, great Finnish actor Matti Pellonpåå in the film’s final, melancholy dawn; and he wrangles a highly memorable, Mingus-inspired score from Tom Waits. Any one moment here can seem slight, yet Night on Earth amounts to fare more than the sum of its deeply charming parts.

Repeating the terrific supplement found on their
Down By Law release, the highlight of Criterion’s disc is easily the audio-only Jarmusch Q&A, where he responds to questions emailed in from fans the world over. His comments are fun, insightful, anecdotal, alive with attitude and full of homage for his esteemed colleagues. By the time you get through Night on Earth and all its supplementary material you’ll likely feel as though you’ve passed a long night yourself, but one that leaves you satisfied, alert to simple beauty and a little bit in love with people and the world.  

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Fernando Fernán Gómez, 1921-2007

Fernando Fernán Gómez, a tremendous presence in Spanish stage and screen, has died in Madrid at 86. Among his numerous accomplishments, he played the enigmatic father in Spirit of the Beehive, one my two or three favourite films. 

Transitions, transfiguration, splendour: Days of Heaven

When writing about the films of Terrence Malick, it’s difficult not to get caught up in reverie, not only because his films possess such a cherished place in the culture—one continually made the subject of heated critical debate—but because reverie itself holds such an axial position in Malick’s films. They are films that, despite their grandeur, evocation of period and high production values, generally shy away from the narrative pay-offs typical of big movies, instead immersing the viewer in an extremely rare experience of sensual immediacy.

Days of Heaven (1978), his second Oscar-winning feature as writer/director, at once cemented his unusual approach to filmmaking and, for a time at least, became his unexpected swan song. (He wouldn’t make a third film until 1998’s The Thin Red Line). Following a trio of migrant farm labourers—the on-the-lam Bill (Richard Gere), his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), who poses as his sister, and his real sister Linda (the extraordinary Linda Manz)—the story settles on an enormous spread of wheat fields overseen by a sickly, shy young farmer (Sam Shepard). The trio works the harvest and finally stays the winter when the farmer confesses his affection for Abby. All this constitutes story, yet what Days of Heaven really deals in is moments, passages, transitions, transfiguration, splendour and the vulnerability of human beings when set against boundless country.

The title’s Biblical allusion is reinforced in numerous compelling ways: Linda’s remarkable, endearingly awkward, heavily accented voice-over, in which she speaks about the Biblical apocalypse while images of smiling travellers under blue skies unfurl; the eventual scenes of fires spreading out of control; the plague of locusts that consume the farmer’s property and are sometimes revealed in close-up with the same attention and awe that Malick bestows upon the characters and objects. Edited to accentuate the film’s poetic sensibility, images shift continually between small details outlining the characters’ emotional stakes and the world with which they’re forced to negotiate.

Though set during the second decade of the 20th century,
Days of Heaven carries with it something of the ghost of the 19th, particularly in its undercurrents of philosophy gleaned from Emerson and Thoreau, and in its evocation of man’s uneasy status in a still-new age of machinery, enterprise and expansion. A love triangle gives the film its narrative centre, but another triangle is just as prominent in its thematic core, one drawn between man, nature and industry. The heavenly days are fleeting indeed, their vestiges cradled in the embrace of Malick’s sumptuous camerawork, as fleeting as the harvest season’s magic hour that sweeps across the prairies in so many of the film’s most achingly beautiful scenes.

It’s not only because of it’s key creative talents—Malick, cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, composer Ennio Morricone and the lead actors—that
Days of Heaven is such a special film. Shot in the seemingly endless, roadless, Hutterite lands of Southern Alberta with a luxurious shooting schedule, an exceedingly loose observance of union restrictions and granted considerable freedom under the auspices of Paramount, it’s a film that could probably only have been made in that particular window of history, before the demise of director-driven projects, the exploitation of the land and the micromanaged system of filmmaking took hold.

The singularity of the elements feeding into
Days of Heaven is something made clear time and again on Criterion’s new DVD, which in my book is probably the single-best single-disc package of the year. The ever-reclusive Malick is unsurprisingly not a collaborator in the film’s extras, but this in no way detracts from their appeal and information. In fact, there are times when great directors make the weakest commentators, as they’re unable to articulate their feelings about work that’s emerged from such a slippery, instinctive part of the creative consciousness. This might go some way to explaining why the audio commentary on Days is so good. Performed by the film’s editor, casting director, production designer and costume designer, the commentary is so rich with anecdote and laid-back analysis precisely because these comparatively peripheral collaborators were simultaneously heavily involved in multiple aspects of the film and able to stand back and see it from a distance. And they reveal countless fascinating tidbits of production history, like how John Travolta and Tommy Lee Jones were originally considered for the roles of Bill and the farmer, how Manz was found living in a laundromat in Manhattan, how Hutterite kids built the row houses for $5 an hour or how the clouds of locusts were created by dropping seeds from the sky and shooting them in reverse.

Of equal interest is a long, thoughtful interview with camera operator (and later cinematographer) John Bailey and a shorter, less articulate, but still fun interview with Wexler. There are also great interviews with Gere and Shepard that deal with their complex interpretations of Malick’s vision and his elusive and sometimes frustrating method of working with actors, not to mention with their own off-camera crushes on Adams. Last but not least there’s a wonderful extract from Almendros’s autobiography that talks in largely layman’s terms about the daring experiments with natural light that endowed the film with its haunting imagery, and an excellent essay by Adrian Martin.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

In the Flesh: The Mummies of Guanajuato

We came from Mexico City, arriving at the bus terminal at the edge of town late in the afternoon. Dusk is already slipping over Guanajuato as a taxi takes us into the city through its numerous cavernous tunnels, an intrinsic element in the city’s labyrinth. You slip into one for just a few moments and when you emerge its difficult to discern where you’ve gone. It’s the same with many of the cobbled streets, so narrow I can reach out my arms and touch the opposing buildings: they turns sharp corners, careen, come to a sudden halt, lead us in directions our internal maps can’t seem to follow. Maybe that’s why both an old man and a small boy compete to guide us to our hotel (which –surprise– is also a labyrinth of corridors and dead ends). From the rooftop patio we fleetingly see the city extend into the ragged edges of the ravine into which it was built, buildings crowding into crannies at all angles in the fading light.

Labyrinths have always been seen as possessing a certain magic –and a certain threat. The particular magic that brings most people to Guanajuato is said by some to result from the dry air, by others from something in the soil. Whatever the case, something about the specific atmospheric conditions of Guanajuato keeps the dead remarkably well preserved.

Laura and I came to Guanajuato for several things –there’s this terrific club that has good tequila, Cuban salsa and ladies’ footwear dangling over the bar– but really, like all the other tourists, we came for the mummies, which reside in a museum high up in the city, itself, again, a labyrinthine edifice, resting over the cemetery from which the first mummies were unearthed in 1965. It’s not the most well organized museum you’ll find in Mexico, but what it houses proves to offer far more than morbid novelty.

Before entering the museum proper there’s a temporary exhibit of photographs dating from the period in which it was customary to make portraits of the dead before interment, mostly images of parents or siblings with dead infants, standing before a stranger’s camera in their finest clothing during a moment of unspeakable grief. These are some of the most painful photographs I’ve ever seen, all the more so for their formality. The series seems an ideal entry into the museum, functioning as an antidote to the sense of abstraction you struggle against while gazing upon the 100-plus corpses laying in the adjacent rooms.

Many of the mummies are said to have perished in a cholera outbreak here in 1833, though, due to rigorous taxes placed on keeping bodies in the limited local cemetery space, bodies are continually being dug up and appropriated by the museum, though only a fraction are ever on display. If one desired to become a mummy, your best bet would probably be to die in Guanajuato and simply wait a while. Sooner or later, you’d have a good chance of winding up in here.

The mummies of Guanajuato –amongst them the smallest mummy in the world!– are one of the most uncanny manifestations of Mexico’s obsession with death, a strange conspiracy between the elements, the folklore and the tourism industry. The museum doesn’t present these mummies with a great deal of reverence. Most are unidentified. It is difficult –yet perhaps vital– to look and remember that under other circumstances you may once have passed them in the street, spoken with them, shook their hands, made love to them. Of course, this sort of thinking leads to an uneasy ontological quagmire. Maybe its better not to see these objects as people, maybe this is too undignified a way to remember a once-living person. The museum, for better of for worse, renders them more as objects than individuals, as works of art, crafted solely by nature.

Amongst them is a woman, much of her flesh intact, whose knee-high leather boots and stockings remain, while the rest of her clothing has disintegrated. Her breasts have shriveled into dusty butternut squashes, her legs are spread, her tongue protrudes from between her clinched teeth and a museum guide claims that the black mark around her neck indicates she’s been strangled.

In any other context, this arrangement could be regarded as ghoulishly, perhaps misogynistically, erotic. Her taut, leathery skin and oddly positioned limbs, like so many other specimens here, evoke Egon Schiele’s work. Still others, mummies whose limbs have been severed at certain joints seem to recall Paul Gaugin’s paintings of anatomically incomplete Polynesian women. …Is it just me? Do the track lights, velvet pillows and glass cases themselves provoke comparisons to great works of art? Or is death finally imitating art as clearly as art imitates life?

There is a woman whose arms are closed around her face, as though weeping in terror. The guide claims she was buried alive, and, given the mummy’s vintage, it seems perfectly possible. Yet there’s a nagging sense that the museum will happily interpret any aspect of the mummies’ involuntary contortions as something horrific. The mummies, after all, already appear frozen in a silent scream when they rise from the earth, the way the flesh pulls back from their cheeks, the way so many mouths desiccate into a plaintive O, the way the dark stains on the skin from exploded organs speak of the unfathomable discomforts of decay. There are pregnant mummies, baby mummies with pacifiers still in their mouths, rich and poor mummies wearing all manner of regal clothing. And all of them are gathered here, seemingly, to report collectively on the pain of death.

Leaving the museum, I feel at once as though I’ve seen something extraordinary and still seen nothing at all. I know what I’ve seen has, for lack of a better word, a sacred element, yet it’s though it were all an elaborate hoax as well, a sort of side show. In Mexico, death is all part of the grand show, the tapestry of history made colourful, fun, exotic and undercut with terror. Laura and I sink back into the labyrinth and try to shake off the motes of old death lingering in our clothes. We know a good bar down there, if we can find the way.

(This piece originally appeared in Vue Weekly, 20/6/2007)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Slaves to the Rhythm: Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia

Though I’ve spent my life largely involved with other forms, I’ve always subscribed to the Romantic notion that all art should aspire to the conditions of music. Music seems to possess a unique power, penetrating our interior world of dreams, memories and desires with inexplicable immediacy, yet simultaneously able to provoke flights of solidarity between individuals who might otherwise never feel united. If I have a single overriding bias when assessing the books or films I write about, it’s most certainly my attraction to anything that has some shape, rhythm or tone that works like music. 

Much as I love music however, I find myself becoming increasingly curmudgeonly in my attitude toward our easy access to and/or abundance of music in every aspect of daily public life. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera has a character lament one’s inability to sit down for a meal in a restaurant without being bombarded with music. Luis Buñuel, in his contemporaneous memoir My Last Sigh, lamented how difficult it was for him to find a bar where music was not always being played. He liked to devise his films in bars, and found that incessant background music interfered with his ability to daydream freely. 20 years and several leaps in technology later and the protests made in these books now seems quaint: the thoughtless battery of music has virtually conquered modern life. Like anything of beauty, when the presence of music becomes total it becomes taken for granted: it plays and plays, but no one hears it.

I’m getting too gloomy. The point of this column is in fact to call attention to a new book that I think functions as a welcome antidote to this musical malaise, one that celebrates the enduring bond between our species and the infinite varieties of music that haunt us. Oliver Sacks is among the world’s most successful popular science writers for a good reason. He conveys the study of neurological science through narratives that seize upon struggles with the business of living that anyone can relate to. In a voice that’s always as compassionate as it is curious, he reveals our vulnerability to the dictates of biochemistry, yet as he does so, the science to which he surrenders so much enthusiasm suddenly begins to expand life’s possibilities rather than shrink them.

Musicophilia (Knopf, $34.95) is Sacks’ latest, and in some ways –though I’m not even sure if Sacks himself is aware of it– it feels like a summation of his previous books. It frequently draws upon case studies from those books to help flesh out his concentrated exploration of our strange contract with music, a force that alone seems to break though countless barriers raised by defects of our brains. Sacks explains how the brains of talented musicians are physically distinctive from those of non-musicians, yet he spends more time marveling at the musical abilities of people whose brains might seem to promise no special talents whatsoever.

Sacks tells of 42-year-old man with no previous special interest in music who after being struck by lightning became obsessed to the point of throwing everything away for a career as a concert pianist. He tells of a man fully gripped by Alzheimer’s who remembers the baritone part of every song he ever sang in his 40 years with an a cappella group. He tells of a man with the worst case of amnesia on record, a man who doesn’t recognize the wife who’s cared for him daily since his debilitating brain infection 20 years ago, yet who can sit down at a piano and play a Bach Prelude with grace. He may not remember who Bach is, but once the notation is placed before him, he “remembers” how to play and for that time and only that time does he truly have a present.

But Sacks also relays fascinating anecdotes about those for whom music has been a sort of curse: victims of musical hallucinations, overwhelming musical sensitivity, or, perhaps most disturbing of all, a complete lack of affect toward music. (He counts William and Henry James, Vladimir Nabokov, and Freud among those famed artists and intellectuals seemingly uninterested or even hostile toward music.) As already evidenced in Awakenings, Sacks’ famous book on his experiences with encephalitis sufferers, music has often been a tremendous therapeutic tool for treating numerous severe neurological disorders, yet it can also be the bane of some, such as the 19th century music critic Nikonov, who eventually became so painfully afflicted by musical antipathy that any music, however soft, would send him into convulsions. (Nikonov authored a pamphlet entitled Fear of Music, a title eventually appropriated by Talking Heads for one of their very best records.)

Sacks strings together his tales and observations by theme, leading to no sweeping thesis aside from the sum of his book’s parts, which seem to me to work just fine, since it’s the very mystery of music that makes these readings so compelling. The final scene described in Musicophilia features several individuals, each of them confined largely to the island constructed from their own severe dementia, suddenly brought together by music which they had no idea was coming, nor will they recall after it disappears. And it’s such moments that remind us eloquently of music’s special ephemeral quality, one so seductive and so heartbreaking.

The Poet Hangs On: Margaret Atwood's The Door

It is very difficult to disassociate Margaret Atwood from Canada, at least for Canadians. Her distinctive voice—low, wry, at times a parody of liturgical, never burdened with excess inflection, though sometimes burdened by an excess of irony—functions as a sort of collective conscience, a running commentary on our nebulous sensibility. For those Canadians who still consider the role of writers in our cultural life important, those for whom literary conceits possess meaning beyond the invented worlds for which they were devised, Atwood has ascended to assume the role of our national Oracle.

Atwood turns 68 this month. It has been more than a decade since her last collection of poetry appeared, a decade in which she seems to have fully cemented her stature as a novelist of the highest order. When you read her new poetry collection
The Door (McClelland & Stewart, $22.99), you’re inevitably led to question the significance of poetry in an era so seemingly disinterested in it, in the life of a writer who these days has become so famous for doing other kinds of writing, a prolific yet scrupulous writer who has arguably reached an age when writers start getting more particular about how they plan to spend the rest of their career.

Poetry, alternately rendered as something both fragile and immense, is the overt subject of several poems in
The Door. In “The Poets Hang On,” Atwood considers the obsolescence of poets, virtual panhandlers who “have that irritating look / of those who know more than we do,” yet have “forgotten how to tell us / how sublime we are.” In the opening lines of “Possible Activities” she regards literary habit with the tone of one annoyed by another who “could sit on your chair and pick over language / as if it were a bowl of peas.” In “Poetry Reading” she endures a poetic performance long enough to finally surrender to it, allowing herself to be moved while recognizing that “there’s a cold craft to it, as with beadwork / or gutting a mackerel.”

These pieces, to say the least, don’t take their relevance for granted. The poems about poetry set the others in relief, engaging a process through which the reader can see this diverse collection as cohesive, a clear, unhurried train of thought, of artistic and even moral logic rivers its way through. We see the “point” of this activity, and don’t need to ask ourselves why the talented Ms Atwood isn’t doing “more important things.” Poetry in
The Door, not unlike the prose work in Atwood’s recent volume The Tent, is facilitating a dialogue between Atwood’s most personal reflections and her reflections on her country and the world and the tumult in which they collaborate. Yes, the tone overall slips from the wistfulness of memories fading, to the playful otherness of animals and children, to mortality, apocalypse and, slightly more optimistically, the mystery of our collective future.

The strikingly morbid poem “War Photo” makes a nice appendix to Susan Sontag’s final book
Regarding the Pain of Others, finding beauty and solace and finally saying a kind of prayer for a nameless dead victim of some atrocity. I especially liked the unambiguously themed “Weather.” Like “Dutiful,” “Weather” tries to figure out how guilty one should feel about issues clearly greater than any individual action. Climate change is conveyed with awe and alienation, with unease toward our culpability in the climate’s new layer of threat to human life. Weather is “blind and deaf and stupendous,” Atwood writes, “and has no mind of its own ... 

       Or does it? What if it does? 
       Suppose you were to pray to it, 
      what would you say?”

I don’t know if it’s because I always hear Atwood’s actual voice when I read her poetry, but hers strikes me always as a voice of authority. (Even when that voice comes across as too arch, which it rarely does here.) In “The Poet Has Come Back ...” Atwood implies that the poet’s authority can be maintained so long as the poet remains outsider and outlaw. In “Another Visit to the Oracle” this authority is summoned up in humorous and tremendous language that surveys the most frightful blind corners of modern life and carves out some role for the writer in it, ending with a summation that’s memorably piercing and unafraid to take up the torch of the great seer.

      “I’ll tell your story – 
      your story that was once so graceful 
      but now it is dark. 
      That’s what I do: 
      I tell dark stories 
      before and after they come true.”