A Real Story

November 30, 2012

Been reading quite a bit of biography/memoir lately, and, as with biographical films (Man in the Moon, Capote, Iron Lady, My Week with Marilyn), it often seems to be quite hard to capture the essence of a person’s life and make an engaging story. Most have flashes of brilliance (in the movies, the performances are all excellent), but to find one that’s a gem all the way through is unusual.

I didn’t know a lot about Gordon Pinsent. Hap on Red Green, voiceover work, CBC cameos, and the stunning Away from Her (will be making the husband watch it with me, soon, I think). But what I knew, I liked, and the great Newfie grin on the cover sealed the deal, so I took the book home.

One thing I hadn’t known was how much Pinsent is a writer, and it comes across loud and clear, here. It’s not stream-of-consciousness, but it’s very much a personal voice, and at first it takes some getting used to. But once you’re into it, it’s musical and engaging. There are a lot of small moments, but unlike some memoirs, there’s a feeling of the overarching narrative that puts everything in the right place.

A few passages are asides–I shouldn’t say that, they’re really some of the meat of the story–to his wife, actress Charmion King, who died in 2007 (Josephine Barry in the Sullivan Anne of Green Gables, as well as years and years treading the boards). It’s a real love story, and Pinsent’s insight gets richer and richer as he gets closer to the present day.

Great Canadian actors don’t retire, as Pinsent points out (with Chris Plummer and Donald Sutherland as additional evidence). I’m so glad he keeps saying, “Yes, of course.”

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July 19, 2012

Music: Carole King’s The Legendary Demos is a must-listen for anyone interested in pop music. The album is what it says: the original demo versions, performed by Carole and her backers, for some of Goffin and King’s best pop songs: Pleasant Valley Sunday, Locomotion, Up on the Roof, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman… It also includes demos for her own songs, mostly from Tapestry, which have a great, quick energy compared to the more staid versions on the finished album. I’ve written a couple times about the genius I think it takes to keep writing great pop songs, and these demos show it in its most elemental form.

Fiction: I just finished Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements.  I picked it up because it sounded like an interesting story. A family descends on their summer home to prepare for the wedding of their first daughter, and entanglements and an exploding whale ensue. I was mostly interested because a great deal of the book is from the father’s perspective, and Shipstead’s author bio said she was born the same year I was, which made me wonder how she’d write a middle-aged man. I can’t speak to how accurate that is, but the book’s depiction of family dynamics and the craziness that comes with a wedding was spot on to me.

Non-Fiction: Finishing Barack Obama: The Story, by David Maraniss. On my left-leaning newscommentary pages there was some discussion that Maraniss is a conservative critic of Obama, but I thought the book was quite well-balanced. When there’s a difference between Obama’s memoirs and the historical record, Maraniss points it out, but he’s perfectly content to ascribe those differences to the fictionalization that happens to any memoir.  A long read, and not the easiest, but offers some significant insight into a person with great depth of experience and, I think, understanding. Reading GWB’s memoir made me lose some of the sympathy I’d gained for him in intervening years; reading Maraniss’ book made me more eager to see an Obama second term.

Movie: Well, we watched American Reunion last night, which was exactly what you’d expect from an American Pie movie. Sort of like the 4th Indiana Jones, it’s just cool to see those characters again. But the movie I came to recommend is Barry Stevens’ documentary Prosecutor, about the International Criminal Court’s first Chief Prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo. As someone interested in a global approach to systemic international problems, I appreciated seeing a film that exposes the shortcomings of international criminal prosecutions while still maintaining the value of the system.

Just saw Rachel Maddow on Meet the Press, discussing her new book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. I’m looking forward to reading it, but one facet of the argument seems to be that, along with making the waging of war more palatable to the American public, the dangerous consequence has been removing war from the national experience and conscience.  We’re so scared of talking about what war is that 99% of us no longer bear any of the burden. And there are some burdens that need to be shared, somehow.

Pundits and experts (adults of all stripes who are lacking imagination) do a lot of blaming of narrative. Bands, movies, books, are all blamed for having an impact on the lives and thoughts of children.

Monsieur Lazhar is a film about adults and children experiencing violence. The title character is an Algerian seeking asylum in Montreal; he takes over a class of 11- and 12-year-olds whose teacher commited suicide. Although Bachir Lazhar is reticent about his own trauma (the loss of his wife and children), he is dedicated to providing the children a space to experience theirs.

The film eloquently captures the confusion caused by zero tolerance environments (a boy thinks he drove the teacher to suicide because he complained about her), without pretending to have the answers. A child’s paper that describes the suicide as a violent act towards the class–the teacher hanged herself in her classroom–is then discussed by the school administrator as being violent. Lazhar upholds the student’s right to express her grief and trauma: “It’s life that’s violent, not the text.”

How backwards do we have things when the cultural products that help us deal with violence and death (the student’s paper, Bridge to Terebithia, a national conversation about war) are seen as the problem?

Old movies

January 29, 2012

I’ve talked about having watched Gone with the Wind for the first time. And now I’ve finally watched the John Ford Grapes of Wrath, which I’ve owned for ages and ages.

So good. The acting is terrific, especially Henry Fonda, who is as close to the perfect Tom Joad as any one not in one’s own imagination. At the opening I found John Carradine as Jim Casy a bit phony, but that evened out over the course of the film.

It is a radically different story than the novel, due to the removal of the last scene and the more traditionally optimistic (since I believe the novel’s ending is one of hope) conclusion. That’s fine with me, although disappointing. I realize the novel’s ending is difficult and not necessarily well-suited for film.

But the movie also leaves out some parts that, while less significant individually, could have a great deal of influence over the rest of the story.

I love the turtle at the opening of the novel: crossing the road and getting flipped over, but continuing on (at least till Tom comes by to pick him up for Winfield). It might be heavy-handed as a metaphor for the family, but I think it’s effective.

I don’t understand why so many productions seem to leave out the Wilsons, the couple the family encounters at the beginning of their journey. The Joads have to stop for Grandpa’s death anyway, and the scenes with the Wilsons show how ordinary people could count on each other, a theme to be both contradicted and repeated throughout the story.

Other changes lead, I feel, to the family being treated more as a symbol than as individualized characters, and these changes also detract from the effectiveness of Jim Casy’s overarching messages of humanity’s one spirit and the problematic nature of sin and morality. The film ignores Noah’s difficulties and his leaving, as well as Pa Joad’s guilt at Noah’s condition.  Uncle John’s guilt over the death of his wife and its impact on his feelings for others, especially children, is also not shown, and its lack makes some of the scenes that are included in the film (the hungry children at the camp) less effective.

I did love it, and am happy to have finally seen it. But it makes me wonder what surprises I’m in for when I finally read Gone with the Wind.

Most hated movie

October 26, 2011

There are only a couple movies I’ve literally had to walk out of…heck, in the late 90s and early 2000s we watched a lot of Samuel L. Jackson movies, so you know I have a fairly high tolerance. But when my dad was watching the first Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie, I couldn’t stand it after the first 10 minutes. No, thank you. Or I don’t thank you.

Favourite drama

October 22, 2011

I’ve already talked about my love of the Gary Sinese/John Malkovich Of Mice and Men, so there’s that. Yesterday on the GO train home I was listening to Carmen and thinking that that has to be one of the ultimate stories, and how much more I enjoyed watching an opera than I thought I would. So, there’s an all-time favourite and one I want to watch again soon (the Met version that was shown in Cineplexes a couple years ago is out on DVD for posterity).

I don’t know that I have one of those. Why would I have read a book everyone hated? I think the closest I can probably come is that I vastly prefer The Lost World to Jurassic Park, and I think that might be an uncommon choice (as a movie, The Lost World was crap).

My favourites are the books and movies that are both good, but due to minor changes, tell very different stories. One of these is Fight Club; my favourite is probably The Shipping News.

Confession

April 20, 2011

I’m reading Dame Judi Dench’s and furthermore, an autobiography of her career in theatre and on-screen, “as told to John Miller”.

I love her so much I’m ashamed to say this, but 50 pages in, I’m not enjoying it very much. I’m sure her life has been a great deal more interesting than how it’s coming across here. I completely respect someone who realizes she’s not a writer herself, and so has someone else do it; I also realize that not everyone has to want to discuss her personal life to the same extent as her professional one. But, for example, she tells a (very brief) anecdote about having a strong feeling, almost a premonition, that she needed to talk to her father, and he dies later that day. The strongest emotion demonstrated in the anecdote is that she deeply appreciated her director at the time hiring her mother to do costumes for the company so the two of them could support one another: “…he knew how good she was at that, and it was a great help to both of us at such a sad time.”

In all those trauma memoirs I was reading I wanted the writers to have a little more detachment, a broader perspective on their lives. Dame Judi narrates her own life as though it was a BBC documentary.

Charisma

January 26, 2011

Last week my parents and I saw The King’s Speech. Christopher Hitchens’ reservations about the history aside, it was the very best movie I’ve seen in a long time.

It was mostly, I think, because it was so subtle. The writing, the performances…it didn’t even have a climax, in the way movies or stories usually do. Just the conflicts and joys of people in relation to each other.

There was one moment, in a close-up of Geoffrey Rush, when I thought, none of these actors are typically attractive; none of them have made the choices typical of big-name actors. But there’s just something about some actors that’s unmistakable, you know? If King’s Speech doesn’t sweep the acting Oscars, I’ll be very unhappy. Besides, since Colin Firth didn’t get it for A Single Man, now they have to give it to him for his next movie, whatever it is (c.f. Denzel Washington, Training Day).

And tonight I’m watching Pineapple Express, which is a movie that is pretty unwatchable in a lot of ways, and for some reason, just because Seth Rogen and James Franco are so good (how can someone so pretty and smart be so good at acting so dirty and dumb?), I’m enjoying it.