Aug 16, 2015

Casta Diva

Tomorrow will mark three weeks since my mother passed away.

It feels odd to write that sentence, and odd to sit and look at it. Those are words I never thought I'd write at this stage of my life, in a blog no less, for everyone to see. There's something so awfully personal about losing her, and I've encountered so many emotions and memories the last while — things I want to keep private, things I want to keep in a sacred space, things said and done and understood that need to exist only in the intimate space that existed between her and me. That may change in time, but for now, there are some doors that are remaining firmly shut.

Still, it's hard for me to quantify the effect my mother has had (and continues to have) on my life. So much of what I love — music, theatre, opera, art — stems from her exposing me, at a very early age, to culture. It's become the stuff of folklore to those who knew us well to hear I was in piano lessons at four, an opera gown at five, attending symphonies at six. Much as she complained about and worried over the inconsistencies of my chosen livelihood, she also knew I wasn't really qualified to do anything else, that writing about (and for) the arts was, and remains, as natural to as breathing, as urgent as scratching a bite, as inevitable as sighing.

And I've been sighing a lot lately — over the times we shared, of course, but also over all the things she isn't here to experience. Bellini's great bel canto work Norma was on CBC's Saturday Afternoon At The Opera program today, and I shed a few tears, and heaved a few sighs, thinking back both to my swooning exclamations to her after seeing Sandra Radvanovsky sing the role live in New York in 2013, and feeling horribly sad at the fact she wasn't here to listen to the broadcast and rejoice in it as I was. Her absence feels like a horrible robbery to me, still — a robbery not solely to me, but to everyone whose life she touched (and there were many), and to the many worlds she moved between: cultural, financial, social, familial. Much as we are robbed by her absence, we were graced by her presence, and no one benefited more from that grace than I did. If I had a sense of gratitude before her passing, that sense has deepened, widened, broadened, become almost all-encompassing, to the point that a piece of music, an aria, even the most brief and beautifully-played phrase, will still me, awe me, set me to tears and sighs and silence. Productivity lately, as you might guess, has been something of a miracle — and yet I carry on being busy, because I know it's precisely what she would want.

Still, there are many moments throughout the day that call for pause. The tickets for this season's Canadian Opera Company productions sit in their envelope on the refrigerator in the kitchen, where I do most of my work; I stare at them and wonder what will happen the next few months. I couldn't (wouldn't) have ever dreamed I'd be without her a few months ago. Now, I find myself looking up from my work and over at the fridge — and I'm hungry, but not for what's on the other side of the door. It's going to be painful to enter the doors of the Four Seasons Centre without her, even with all the kind expressions of support I've received from fellow opera-going friends. How do you negotiate a world you've only ever known with someone else? "Make it your own" is a tidy little saying, but it feels far too trite, and somehow, too limiting.

So much of my cultural life is bound up in sharing what I love with others, in bringing them into the arts world to experience and exchange ideas, insights, inspirations. That's a big reason I'm an arts journalist: I like to share what I love and think is relevant, important, moving, enraging, beautiful. I think my mother saw and appreciated that toward the end of her life. As I said in my eulogy at her funeral service, I am who and what I am because of her; my world has been shaped accordingly.

Now I face a world shaped by her absence. I will, of course, see and hear her everywhere — on the radio, between the notes, within the sighs, in the opera house — but it isn't the same. Seeing the spaces where she should sit, hearing the arias she'd swoon over, hugging the people she adored, eating the (rare) dishes she enjoyed — these things underline and highlight an absence that is still, for all intensive purposes, a shock. Art doesn't help to answer any of the questions I'm left with, or resolve the sea of emotions I'm navigating, but it does remind me of the legacy that lives within me, and within those who've checked out a production, a show, a book, a movie, a restaurant, because of our loud, shared cultural passion. This was her gift; it remains her lifetime contribution, one that defies even death, one that I hope will counteract the yawning absence, and become a part of a divine presence that never leaves.

Jun 17, 2015

Getting Jazzed

photo via
Ella Fitzgerald's voice is my first memory of experiencing jazz; high, lilting, melodious, she sounded like an angel to my young ears. When she went into the scat section of "How High The Moon?" my heart stopped — it was such a new and different thing from the classical sounds I'd been exposed to (and played) as a child. It was so... loose, so free, so beautiful. It was pure poetry.

The free-floating, loose, arms-waving, hips-shaking, head-back-laughing-or-crying nature of jazz music is one that continues to inspire and fascinate. So when the TD Toronto Jazz Festival rolls around every year, it's always cause for celebration in my world. The festival (which kicks off this Thursday, June 18th) has welcomed a range of sounds and styles over the years, with a big uptick in contemporary names rounding out the programming and adding a mass appeal to an art form many (wrongly) consider snooty. Happy memories of seeing Mavis Staples, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Bettye LaVette (whom I also interviewed), and Chaka Khan in recent years complement (nay, shimmy) with those considered more formal jazz artists, ones that hew to the path set out by the likes of Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie.

Recently I had the chance to chat with the fest's Artistic Director Josh Grossman,  and we tossed around that "what is real jazz?" question, as well as the role digital culture has played in opening the ears of musicians and audiences alike.

People have said of the festival's programming choices that  much of it isn't real jazz — "George Clinton isn’t jazz, Morris Day isn't jazz!" What do you say to that?

Ha, that’s my favorite conversation ever! (laughs) Well, there’s the philosophical and the reality. The reality is, obviously, we’re a nonprofit, charitable organization, but we still need to be in the black every year financially and we have to make decisions that make sure the right amount of tickets get sold, so we stay in the black. I wish it was the case now that every single jazz artist out there right now could sell every single ticket, but unfortunately in our experience that’s not the case. It’s not exclusively that jazz artists don’t sell, a good percentage do, but we need to find a way to boost things, so sometimes we’ll look for an act that will do better at the box office to support the others.

Photo courtesy Toronto Jazz Festival
That said, the artistic approach is, jazz as a music has evolved immensely over the past century. Musicians these days are listening, and have much easier access, to an enormous variety of music. All of those styles of music, whether that’s hip-hop or rap or rock or whatever the case may be, are influencing jazz players. A group like Tower of Power, I would say, if you ask any jazz musician, “Has this band played any role in your development?”, I'd wager a very large percentage would say yes. We like to have the strictly jazz musician, the ones who’ve influenced the development of jazz, and the musicians who’ve been influenced by jazz music. We’ve not had Prince on our stage or Stevie Wonder —these are artists who’ve performed in the United States and overseas. But someone like Prince has been so heavily influenced by jazz music, you can hear it in his composition... so I think there’s a place for a diverse variety of musicians in our stages.

Photo courtesy Toronto Jazz Festival
How much of that growing influence has been because of digital culture?

Even before mp3s or CDs, when everything was on vinyl, (musicians) would be in the music store all the time, to find whatever they could get their hands on. It's so much easier now: people can sit at their computer and listen to an enormous variety of music. On the audience side of things, it's helping and hindering. It’s certainly helping introduce people to more music and we hope that once they get a taste of something online, they’ll want to come see us live. The hindering part is that more people are pretty content just listening to it online! Getting people out of their houses and into our space is a challenge.

That, combined with the fact there is so much music now means people are choosing to spend their dollars listening to another live artist that’s not at the jazz festival, so there are challenges that come along with that as well. [...] The challenge is always getting people to cross the threshold. Once they’re in the venue, they have a great time, but people, maybe they’re trying to decide where to spend their money and they don’t know if they like jazz, so we need to make it as easy as possible for them to access things.

It’s inspiring the festival is featuring both Morris Day and a tribute to Oscar Peterson.

Each of these shows does serve a goal and a bit of a different purpose. The opening show... we wanted a big party. In past years, it’s worked out really well. With funding we're able to put on these parties, that is what this show is. The Peterson show is going to be a beautiful if very different experience, but still beautiful, with great musicians.

And we're teaming up with the Regent Park School of Music, and with Manifesto as well (an annual hip-hop festival), featuring an afternoon of artists that will resonate with their audience. We’re trying to reach out to all kinds of different audiences.

What does that mean for the future of jazz in Toronto?

I think it’s a really exciting time for music in the city. The challenge in the city is always to find appropriate venues that can be sustained on a long-term basis. There are a lot of great spaces to play jazz, though they don’t look like they used to. That is a challenge for certain musicians. We’ve lost the kinds of venues where musicians could go play for three or four nights in a row. Those venues aren’t around anymore. The Jazz Bistro and the Rex Hotel, those are the big ones right now, but there are 40 other clubs presenting jazz over the course of the festival, a good percentage of them are committed to presenting jazz round-round.

Photo courtesy Toronto Jazz Festival
The TD Toronto Jazz Festival runs June 18th to 29th.

Jun 6, 2015

L'Amour, La Mort

Photo by Darryl Block
Contradiction equals balance.

That was the phrase I kept returning to at the end of Death & Desire, the latest production from Toronto's Against The Grain Theatre. The group, known for their innovative approach to opera and stagings, were lauded last winter when they staged an unconventional version of Mozart's Don Giovanni, called #UncleJohn, first at the Banff Centre, then in Toronto, at the Great Hall. Turning the opera's libretto upside-down, the audience became part and parcel of the action, implicated in the main character's nefarious deeds but nevertheless seduced by his charm.

With Death & Desire, they had no libretto to work from, but rather, two vastly different song cycles, Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin, and Messaien's Harawi, each of which alternate throughout the work. The former, sung from the point of view of a lovelorn man, and the second, from a woman, sharply contrast in both style and content. Yet Director Joel Ivany and Music Director Topher Mokrzewski find the threads of connection that lay bare the bold, bald, frequently painful beauty within. Set within the intimate space of the Neubacher Shor Contemporary gallery, in the west end of Toronto, a world where clashes and conflict equal grace and harmony is laid out, asking us to consider contrast as a means for deeper exploration of both theatrical possibilities as well as emotional ones. It's as if Ivany and Mokrzewski want to jar us on-purpose, swinging from Schubert's sing-song melodies to Messaien's jagged tunes, in order to keep hammering home the balance that is, inevitably, happening before our very eyes and ears.

Photo by Darryl Block
As realized by baritone Stephen Hegedus and Krisztina Szabo, Death & Desire takes on range of hues that far exceeds those outlined by the intentions of its original composers. Schubert's melodies are given a range of deeply felt experiences that move beyond mere Werther-like sulkiness by the work's end, while Messaien's work becomes less a surreal collection of abstractions than a dogged look at the underbelly of that experience, a shadow-self to the Schubert that is needed in order to provide the sour flavor that turns to a smooth, tasty libation by the piece's end. When Szabo rips away bunches of calla lilies, we're horrified by the destruction, even as we note the bizarrely beautiful pattern the white petals create on the shiny black floor. When she sings, at one point in the text, in Quencha, we note the rhythmic nature of the words that slap up against the melodious smoothness of the Schubert he's just sung. Hegedus and Szabo are less "man" and "woman," respectively, than they are representative of different worldviews, contrasting ideas being played out (or rather, sung out) live within an intimate cozy, sometimes suffocating, sometimes deep, dark space. Death & Desire is less about romance than it is about trying to communicate past the ego notions we're expected to identify with; thus does the "desire" bit keep falling away to reveal death, and, simultaneously, a deep kind of love that transcends the physical. "L'Amour, la mort" indeed.

Photo by Darryl Block
Frustrating at times to listen to, Harawi works in this setting precisely because of the intimacy afforded it —via the venue, the careful direction, the loving performance by Szabo, and the stellar chemistry between she and Hegedus, who, himself, brings a heartbreakingly beautiful energy. He might be an idea, but he's one you want to embrace, one you can't help but recognize and feel for, and his strong, gorgeous baritone is perfectly modulated to encompass a range of emotions. Szabo's steely soprano beautifully captures the chaos of the work, as well as its stillness — no small feat. Each performer has such a different feel and sound for the work, but one never overpowers or over-compensates; rather, it's a lovely give-and-take energy that is highly supported by Mokrzewski's fantastic piano playing, and utterly complemented by Jason Hand's keen use of lighting. At one point, Hegedus is bathed in a sickly tomato-red light, at other, tender moments, he and Szabo walk around the perimeter of the performance area with a rich indigo-backdrop and gentle, warm lighting; less a case of obvious indication, the lighting, like Michael Gianfrancesco's elegantly spartan set, serves to highlight the varying viewpoints, ideas, and experiences at play between the characters, to sharpen, and then soften differences — ones that eventually melt away by the end of the work. At no point does Ivany dictate to his audience how we should feel (there's a nice feeling he trusts us enough to avoid the spoonfeeding), a quality in short supply within the opera/theatre worlds, to be sure. I'll be curious to see how he much of that he carries over to his directorial debut of Bizet's Carmen for the Canadian Opera Company next season.

Photo by Darryl Block
In the meantime, Death & Desire is a work for our times — and all times — asking us to consider how much we can stand our views being challenged, and how much peace we can make with that reality. Can we move gracefully to a place of love and acceptance? Maybe. It'll take a bit of work, though -- and more than a few broken petals along the way. That's a good thing. There's beauty in destruction, and balance in contradiction, too. Finding it is painful, but so very rewarding.

May 31, 2015

Beautiful Nothingness

Photo via
Translating complex philosophical ideas onto the stage can be a challenge, particularly when that stage doesn't involve words, but The National Ballet of Canada's Being and Nothingness, based on the work by Jean-Paul Sartre, offers a riveting expression of the ideas around the nature of existence, done with a definite visual poetry that makes for compelling watching. The work is being staged at Toronto's Four Seasons for the Performing Arts as part of the company's spring program (which also includes work by Alexei Ratmansky) and runs through June 6th.

Principal dancer Guillaume Cote turns choreographer for Being and Nothingness, which took shape after fellow dancer Greta Hodgkinson approached Cote about creating a solo. Cote was reading the work of Sartre at the time. As he prepared the solo, Cote says in the program notes that he was surprised by "how many aspects of Sartre's theory began to come up. There was this idea of creating an image of ourselves, an ideal of what we should be, and no longer living in the moment but rather somewhere between what we'e done in our past and what we're striving for in our future."

This "somewhere between," where the dancers look caught between past and future, is the space where Being and Nothingness derives much of its power. Soloist Hodgkinson performs with just the light of a sole bulb dangling on a long string, her body twisting and contorting, a Giacometti come to life. It's as if she is in a frantic fight against inertia and vanishing, fending off the darkness but fearful of what the light might reveal. Her arms and legs turn toward, and then away, from light, toward and back from the corners of Michael Levine's satisfyingly grim set. Cote's choreography nicely integrates the fluid, spatial elements of Tharp and Balanchine, while deftly maintaining a poetic urgency that perfectly matches the gorgeous panic of the Philip Glass Metamorphosis and Etude pieces that score the work, ones expertly performed by Edward Connell.

Kathryn Hosier and Félix Paquet (Photo by Karolina Kuras)
If, like me, you can't quite place Being and Nothingness from your reading past (I did a paper on it in university roughly two decades ago), it's worth remembering that the French philosopher starts from the point of humans being precisely zero essence; we are not "essentially" good or "essentially" bad, we simply are. In other words, life's what you make it. Sartre writes that because humans lack any pre-determined essence, they make themselves purely by acting in the world. This "world" is presented onstage through a series of vignettes, many of which feature couples in various circumstances. This reflects the dualism Sartre explores (and ultimately rejects) in his work; to put it simply, what you see is really what you get.

Thus Cote has staged a work with few light spots, though the ones there shine through brilliantly, and are complemented by intense dancing and a forceful theatricality that dips and dives around the abstract and occasionally surreal. Dancers Kathryn Hosier and Felix Paquet share a lovely, playfully romantic pas-de-deux in "The Bedroom," while Svetlana Lunkina and Brent Parolin bring a strained connection to vivid life, with the help of a carpet (frequently dragged around with someone on it), in "The Living Room." The bridges between past and present, of sitting in a purgatory of the present, couldn't have been made more searingly obvious, and the choreography and imagery presented in this vignette was particularly affecting for its visual inventiveness and seamless blend of movement and design. Further along, an ensemble of male dancers, clothed in natty grey suits designed by Krista Dowson, perform upstage (they're downstage for "The Street") and remind one of Sartre's argument that "we, as human beings, can become aware of ourselves only when confronted with the gaze of another. Not until we are aware of being watched do we become aware of our own presence."

Greta Hodgkinson and Ben Rudisin (Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic)
This idea of presence makes the solo work all the more trenchant;  Hodgkinson's intense performance that opens the show,  as well as Dylan Tedaldi's tormented solo performance in "The Sink," add challenging if beautiful layers to what is, at its essence (and yes it has one), a brilliantly inventive piece of dance theatre.  Fully immersing his head in a sink full of water and then throwing his head back, lion-like, Tedaldi gives a controlled and sure physical expression of Sartre's idea that "the gaze of the other robs us of our inherent freedom" — even if that gaze is coming from a mirror, it would seem. Freedom here looks like a joy and a torment, at once, and choreographer Cote seems to understand this perfectly.

The idea of freedom as a leviathan-like force, haunting, harrowing, beautiful and terrifying, is examined with quiet intensity in the final vignette, "The Call", where Hodgkinson and dancer Ben Rudisin wrestle with a phone call (and an ever-lengthening phone cord); it's as if they are wrestling with their own need for connection, and a repulsion at being defined solely by it, grappling for freedom and pushing against it simultaneously. Such push-pull tension fuels the piece on to a surprising, if nicely contemplative ending, elucidating the philosophical notion that "freedom is humanity’s curse as well as its blessing, and what we make of that freedom is our own."

It is an awful, awesome, awe-inspiring note Cote has chosen to end on, and it will, like Being and Nothingness itself, leave you quietly contemplating the lights, the shadows, the movements, and the stillness; you may even want to pull out that old volume of Sartre again.

May 30, 2015

Digging In The Dirt

Illustration by Kerrie Leishman via
Continuing with my tradition of being terribly late to cool parties, I recently finished reading The Luminaries (Little, Brown and Company), Eleanor Catton's Man Booker-winning novel released in 2013. I had delved into the mammoth work late last fall, and had gone through phases of intense and dedicated reading (mainly over the Christmas break), followed by weeks of leaving it aside in favor of focusing on my own work and on the million responsibilities that built up over late winter and early spring.

The Luminaries requires an intense amount of mental energy and focus; author Eleanor Catton paints a gorgeously rich and detailed world of prospectors and swindlers, dreamers and dawdlers, with each character aligned with either an astrological sign or heavenly body. Every story (and character) is carefully, deftly, beautifully interwoven, with the book eventually becoming a pattern of spiderwebs hung against a canopy of stars on a cold spring night. You want to stare and attempt clarity, even as something inside tugs that, to paraphrase Duchamp, the desire to understand it all fills you with a certain horror. It's a Victorian-style novel, yes, and it's also a ripping good crime novel, but, like any good crime piece, is also a profound meditation on the nature of greed, identity, and existence.

For book-lovers, finishing a book is akin to the ending of a special relationship, one you know is destined to come to a close, but will nevertheless leave a gaping hole in your life. It's a hole you know will be filled by many other things (and authors!) but the prospect of that hole existing is sometimes made all the worse by the anticipation involved in its digging. You carry around the ideas and people and world the author has laid out, even as you remember the experiences you had through the process of reading the book. With The Luminaries, my memory is as full with frequently-painful experiences as the book is with unsavory characters and situations. Over the course of the 800-page-plus work, I endured a series of bladder infections, a violent flu, and the start of what became a two-month health odyssey that necessitated multiple surgeries and visits to the emergency room. I also experienced the start of a serious decline in a family member's health that necessitated huge lifestyle changes for both of us. I can't begin to remember how many waiting rooms and hospital beds Catton's tome was taken to, how many times it functioned, alternately, as a soother, a lullaby, a thriller, a prayer, a pillow, a pilgrimage, or, most always, an escape.

Cover print via
As I consumed more chapters (which become progressively shorter, reflecting the movement of the heavens, apparently), I started to read more and more slowly, hoping (in vain) to draw out the last bits of goodness, like sucking at a bone for the most minute dregs of marrow left in the spiny crevices. At a certain point, as the last words of Catton's work were read late one night (and it should be noted, the book ends on a light, casual note, like an expert nurse giving a needle you didn't know you needed), I felt a sense of something lifting — not heavy or demanding, but a certain conclusion, as if a very unsettled chapter of life was drawing to a close. It's funny how we can become addicted to bad things happening, as if adrenaline keeps us awake and needing another fix of the terrible, over and over, so accustomed are we to the dramatically awful. It's so strangely hard to let those phases go sometimes, to sit back, accept what has passed, and gently remind one's self that it's time to break up.

Dear Luminaries, I love you, but this had to end. I'll always remember Moody, Anna, Lydia, Carver, Mannering, Clinch, Frost, Lowenthal, Gascoigne, Devlin, Ah Sook, Nilssen, Prichard, Quee Long, Balfour, Te Rau Tauwhare, Emery Staines, and poor old Francis Wells. They've become permanent residents in the rattling, haunted attic of my life these past months. I may be just coming out of the gutter at last; I'm definitely seeing the stars, wondering at the heavenly bodies, and remembering the glint of spider webs, the silence of moon glow, the rough-smooth texture of gold, the heavy fog of smoke, and the smell of heavy wool after a New Zealand rainstorm. These things live with me, just as much as my surgical scars do. But the story is over now.

Maybe it's time to see what the attic looks like from the garden. Maybe it's time for sunrise. It's time to dry off and see what I've mined.

May 27, 2015

She's Come Undone

Photo by Dahlia Katz
There's something strange, if marvellous, about seeing a character you think you know in a new light. Sure, your expectations are upset (who goes to the theater without a shred of them, really?) and the image you may've held in your mind's eye might become woozy, if not outright shattered -- but isn't that a good thing? What's presented before you in a live setting isn't meant to conform to your specific worldview; it's meant to challenge it, and offer new, sometimes surprising ways of looking at people and situations. This new presentation enlightens even as it may enrage, making both the micro and macro details of every day living both more understandable and inscrutable, asking us to open hearts and minds in an attempt to bridge our individual selves with a larger 'self' that connects all humans.

All of this comes to mind with M'dea Undone,a world premiere from Toronto-based Tapestry New Opera (with Scottish Opera), and currently on now through Friday. Essentially a re-telling of the Greek myth of Medea, the story (with libretto by Marjorie Chan and music by John Harris) has been stripped of its mystical elements and placed firmly in the present, with the titular Medea (Lauren Segal) now a kind of war bride (if not an officially-married one) to Jason (Peter Barrett), a decorated military figure and close advisor to the President (James McLean). Medea is a survivor of war atrocities, and is presented as having a Middle Eastern background, giving her and the work a contemporary feel that is greatly enhanced by the company's choice of location, an old warehouse, open to the elements, at Toronto's Evergreen Brickworks. As the sounds of traffic and birds co-mingle, the voices of the ensemble rise up, offering a sound that is both against and absolutely a part of nature. This isn't theater as cold, rarified, high-art-museum stuff, but rather, a kind of a home, one that is welcoming, inclusive, and, it's worth noting, interactive. (The audience and performers freely mingled in the yawning stage space following the evening's final bows, something I wish would happen more at live cultural events. This kind of friendly, unpretentious, intimate interaction needs so much to be a larger part of the performing arts.)

Photo by Monika MacMillan
English director Tim Albery expertly makes use a set that spans the warehouse space and is composed of various staircases, bridges, and simple set pieces, allowing for a world that is at once exposed and vulnerable as it is cloistered and confined. These elements gain in importance as M'dea Undone unfolds through its tight 70-minute running time. The work is a gripping ride of tragedy, torment, and it must be said, terrifically great singing and acting. Jacqueline Woodley, as the President's daughter Dahlia (Glauce in the Greek myth) expertly twists her pretty soprano tone into a sneering, squealing expression of haughty entitlement, while McLean, as her father, veers between rumbling bonhomie and self-congratulations before moving to aching anguish. Peter Barrett, as Jason, offers a truly heartbreaking performance, his elastic tenor providing just the right amounts of tenderness, anger, outrage, and desperation, never indulging in one too long or veering into melodrama. Segal offers a towering portrayal of a woman wounded by love and war; her rich, luscious mezzo-soprano tone perfectly captures both the sensual allure of the character, with a wonderfully incisive reading of Harris' jagged score that underlines and continually re-emphasizes the character's inherent humanity.

It's this quality that makes one re-think the character of Medea herself. I've always liked and been drawn to the mystical elements of the character -- a kind of Greek-mythological Stevie-Nicks-type, casting spells and spouting incantations -- but it's the woman beneath the sparkling veils (literal or figurative) that makes M'dea Undone so special. There have been many great Medeas to have graced the stage (Diana Rigg, Helen McCrory, Seana McKenna) and all of them offer a special take on the damaged woman of Euripides' great tragedy. Tapestry's work continues this tradition, but forces audiences to see past the sorceress elements; while they are certainly central to her character, M'dea Undone asks us to consider what power the character might have if she was stripped down entirely, robbed of her spirituality, robbed of her country, robbed of her culture, and ultimately, the man she loves. What would she do? As the New York Times' Vincent Canby noted in 1994, "(t)o play her mostly as victim is to humble one of world literature's most titanic creations." No kidding.

Photo by Dahlia Katz
It's good Tapestry doesn't fall into this trap -- Medea here is certainly ill-treated but she's hardly a victim. And though the way she chooses to exercise her power is horrific, there is something horribly, disconcertingly human about it. We recognize her in a chilling way, and we know the way things will inevitably end. But, knowing the ending in no way diminishes the overall power of her choice, or of the work itself. Instead, what we are left with is an unsettling portrait of damaged people in damaging circumstances, grappling with issues of love and betrayal. As with many Tapestry productions, M'dea Undone gracefully push the boundaries of the live opera experience into new, fresh territory. It may not always be a comfortable ride, but it's one well worth taking.

May 16, 2015

Eternity's Sunrise

(photo via)
The opportunity to sit with a piece of art, undistracted, has become a luxury, especially for those of us with stressful lives. Amidst the hospitalization of a parent, my own health woes, and a skunk-sprayed pet, having the time (mental, emotional, spiritual) and space to just sit with something artistic (and not fall asleep) has been a rare and much-longed for thing, a wish that vanishes with too much wind and implodes with too much noise. Time, place, and condition, of house, of hearth, of heart, have to be just so. It felt like a blessing to have a recent evening where all the phone calls had been made, all the dishes had been washed, and the skunk stench has dissipated enough to allow for clear thinking and open listening.

photo via
I was a huge admirer of U2's work in the 1990s; a sense of adventure, in the sonic, lyrical, and especially visual senses, pervaded every creative choice they made at that time, and I suppose it reflected a more open and adventurous approach in my own life. I also loved the bald, raw honesty of Bono's words, the way they swirled and stomped about with a ferocious kind of poetry, and the deep, dark places he and bandmates Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr. and The Edge boldly stepped into, with nary a look back. The combination of innate playfulness, balls-out experimentation, and unapologetic intelligence was intoxicating, and even now, listening to Achtung Baby or Zooropa or Pop (or even some moments on the Passengers project with Brian Eno) sends chills down my spine. It's hard to describe the incredible nature of cultural discovery that U2 (and their inspirations) provided the soundtrack for in my younger days; I delved into the work of Genet, Duchamp, Basquiat, Antonioni, and innumerable others, with Joy Division, Patti Smith, David Bowie, and The Ramones on in the background. New worlds opened up to me — new ideas inside me were enthusiastically birthed and raised — and, at the time, it felt like so much of it had sprung from randomly seeing a guy writhing around in a pink shirt, and thinking, "hey, that's a good song... I can dance to that..."

Alas, people change, circumstances change, the only constant thing in life is change, and so, my interest in 2000s U2 output plummeted. I can't explain it, except to say that I didn't feel the same kind of connection or fire-lighting inspiration. That changed, however, with the release of No Line on the Horizon; a sense of adventure was palpable in many of the songs from the 2009 album, and I loved the fact that, despite the quick hit / MP3 / downloadable / disposable nature of music in the 21st century, the work still felt like a complete thought, as an album, rather than a series of singles. There were flashes of rawness, realness, and plain old... mischief. It had stuff to dance to as well. And the cover art, by Hiroshi Sugimoto, was (is) poetic and beautiful. There was something daring about the entire venture, and it engendered a kind of new/old respect that pushed my artsy buttons.

I didn't see the mammoth 360 tour, however; it was out of reach financially, and I just didn't have the back strength to stand for any length of time. Something in me snorts at the possibility of having any kind of profound creative experience in the super-corporatized tour world of the 21st century as well (this could be cynical old age creeping in), but one moment (glimpsed via YouTube) that did impress was when you couldn't see the band at all, during the performance of "Zooropa." Done behind a huge metal sheath with the glorious sound blasting out, it was as it the band were begging its worshipful audience, "Please, forget the screens, forget the effects; just use your own imaginations, pretend you don't know us, and just listen." Absence created presence. It was, for me, truly a profound statement, one made all the more powerful for being made in such an immense space by an immensely influential group, and it's one that still resonates.

That dance, between absence and presence, powers Songs of Innocence, released last year. I put off listening to it because I wanted the space, the time, the energy to simply be with it, uninterrupted. Just sitting and spending time with an album is, ridiculously, a kind of a luxury now, so great are the demands on our attention. But, turning off social media, TV, radio, and phone, and simply letting the music wash over me, the way I did in the 80s and 90s when I'd get a new album, felt like the most cleansing kind of ritual. Amidst the tidal wave of frustrations, setbacks, and challenges of late, it was the right time to step into the world the album offered, eyes, hands, and heart wide open.

Its title, referencing the work of William Blake, is a bit misleading; this is a very adult album that looks back to find strength and wisdom in the wide-eyed, pillow-lipped, deep-breath state of youth, and uses that energy to find meaning in the present. Many of the songs have a certain wistful quality lyrically, while there are also some searingly honest moments that feel confessional through not only words but sound; "Sleep Like A Baby Tonight" defies its peaceful title by having a creepy, Throbbing-Gristle-esque electro undertow that provides just the right note of discomforting menace that paints a nightmare portrait of abuse, while "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now" has a pulsating pseudo-dance beat that fits its anti-hero ethos and nicely salutes the sounds on Sandinista by The Clash, a fitting tribute to its Joe Strummer dedication. There's also the continuance of charming geography here. In the 1980s, there was "Red Hill Mining Town" and "Heartland"; in the '90s, "Zoo Station", "Miss Sarajevo", and "Miami"; in the 2000s, "New York", "City of Blinding Lights", and "Fez/Being Born." Now there's "California (There Is No End To Love)" and "Cedarwood Road." It's interesting to consider the contrasts between the latter two, one so rooted in the present, the other so firmly ensconced in the past; this push-pull of contrasts gives the album much of its power, with love and aggression, loss and abundance, acceptance and anger, and of course, presence and absence, providing a kind of dialectic undertow that reveals and conceals at once in a maddening, if eminently listenable dance of modernity.

Right in line with this dance are the album's words. Bono has always had a special knack of making the epic, intimate, and of making the personal, universal in his lyrics. Here he's co-credited with The Edge in lyrics writing duties, but one can still discern the heart, the art, and the electric shock of a life lived so full so as to be bursting with profane (and profound) contradictions. I felt a special, and deeply personal twinge in hearing his plaintive tenor deliver the line, "I've got your life inside of me" in "Iris (Hold Me Close)", a song about his too-soon-departed mother. It's one thing to hear a favorite artist belt out something personal; it's quite another to hear them shout out the pain you happen to have felt over the course of a week filled with hospital visits, phone calls, and meetings. The absence of a mother figure, while always powering work creatively, holds a special sheen here, because it's that absence that works as a kind of guiding presence that allows forward momentum along creative avenues -- ones fraught with dangers, darkness, and dreariness, true enough, but also filled with "cherry blossoms," with seashores, with light. Those things can't exist without the other. Innocence can't exist without experience, and vice-versa. Inspiration can't exist without ennui. Absence can't exist without presence.

And so, this is an album about balance, regeneration, and contemplation, and one that, perhaps, couldn't have been enjoyed and experienced at a better moment, amidst the phone calls, the hospital visits, the surgeries, the skunk smell, and the dirty dishes. Am I a fan? No, I've never, ever felt comfortable in that camp. Am I grateful? Yes. Thank you for putting that in my iTunes, U2. My world's a little richer,  and a little brighter. Innocence is both more wide-eyed and astute, and experience has never tasted more bitter or sweet, at once. Contradiction truly is balance, and that's probably how it should be. Now I'm ready to dance.

May 1, 2015

The Real Cosmopolitan

Photo via CBC Music
It was with a heavy heart that I heard about the passing of CBC Radio host Jurgen Gothe last month.

I'd been thinking a lot about him lately, what with starting my own radio show this past January, and a recent stock-taking of old cookbooks, where I found DiscCookery amongst my culinary collection. Gothe had penned the work on the 20th anniversary of his popular afternoon radio program, DiscDrive, in 2005.

The program, aired on CBC Radio 2, was a regular part of my young life; it was always on in the house or the car after school, and even when I started going to university, I found myself turning it on during my long commutes, between blaring the Pearl Jam CD and the Tom Waits cassette tape. The program's avuncular host had a broadcasting style both elegant and casual at once, like a warm designer cardigan found in a Kensington Market stall; it was something very fine and special, though it was equally familiar, casual, and approachable.

After years of listening, it only feels right to call Jurgen by his first name, despite never working with him, and only meeting him briefly. Part of what I loved (and still love) about Jurgen is how much he defied the stereotypical "Canadian" cliche. He wasn't a maple-syrup-and-hockey-with-Tim-Horton's-tell-me-aboat-it-eh kind of guy (even though he named the Canucks as his favorite sports team). He was smart, well-spoken, curious, deeply interested in viniculture, cuisine, and the world of arts and culture as embodied in his weekday program — but that didn't make him distant; it made him cool.

The quote on the back of DiscCookery (from the Globe and Mail) called DiscDrive "(t)he most intelligent radio in the country."The program was a charming compendium of facts, stories, passions, and pursuits; he'd play Mozart and Bach alongside Grappelli and Ellington. I was introduced to Billie Holiday's magical, horn-like voice on DiscDrive, along with the sad sighs of Marin Marais' viola da gamba pieces; I ventured into jazz clubs in New York because of the curiosity Jurgen fostered. I gained a whole new appreciation in my Toronto Symphony Symphony concerts, recalling a funny anecdote Jurgen shared about Mozart as I listened to "Eine Kleine Nachtsmusik", or a food-wine pairing as one of Beethoven's rich, meaty overtures washed over me.

Radio can change the way a person experiences the world; some programs will only confirm a worldview, while others help to expand, widen, and celebrate it. DiscDrive did all that, and more, helping me say, out loud, "yes, I love these things" while simultaneously making me question the whole idea of "Canadiana" and its relationship with a rapidly changing culture.

Jurgen himself defied the "hoser" cliche by embracing a cosmopolitan curiosity that he then transmitted over the airwaves; his wasn't an attitude of superiority or snobbery. Quite the opposite. It was his warmth and joy and genuinely curious approach — all the things I try to emulate in my own broadcasting life. I miss Jurgen, and I miss Disc Drive — but the things they stood for and provided continue to inspire. My favorite sweater is so warm, and I am forever grateful.

Photo via CBC Music

Feb 1, 2015

A Meaty Feast

Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company production of Die Walküre, 2015. 
Until lastnight, I’d only been rendered speechless precisely once at an opera’s end — the Metropolitan Opera’s 2013 production of Parsifal. But a second moment has been added to the list, thanks to the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Die Walkure, which opened last night at the Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts in Toronto.

As the audience madly applauded and shouts of “Bravo!” rang through the hall, I kept my hands on my cheeks, silent, unwilling to move or talk, scared that if I did, some kind of spell would be broken that might render forth a waterfall of tears. It's impossible to verbalize the divine, and that's precisely what this production is. 

Wagner's music requires the kind of patience and attention that comes with maturity, and, in my case, living through harsh, painful, and difficult things. My love of German opera seems to have blossomed once I got past a certain age, lived through some horrors, and began to realize that not all things that are hummable are necessarily good things, and not all things non-hummable are bad. Sometimes you just want cake, and that’s fine, but sometimes you want steak — and the Canadian Opera Company serves up a rare and bloody kobe with their Walkure. I relished every single bite. 

It’s not like I’ve not seen other Wagner works, by the way; past Canadian Opera Company productions of Die fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) and Tristan ind Isolde were beautiful, remarkable, haunting — but I could talk at the end of them, clearly and easily express what I liked pretty much at the curtain's close. I wasn’t terrified of running my eye makeup. But there’s something about Wagner's Ring Cycle (and post-Ring) operas that is a thing apart — challenging, difficult even, but wholly beautiful, and… holy-gorgeous.

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Die Walküre, 2015.
Part of what has helped me slip into my Wagner-love has been smart productions; opera cliches are, to me, great killers of enthusiasm. There may be those who shout and scream about “traditional” productions, but what does that even mean anymore? Wagner’s works are very much about ideas and emotions, and where and how (and why) the two meets — and those are things that stand outside of any specific Norse-like, Viking references. Please keep your boring cliches. Give me something to sink my fangs into. Give me steak.

Atom Egoyan’s meaty production is deeply respectful to the Walkure score while offering the right mix of challenge and beauty to the audience. You marvel, for instance, at the beauty of the eight Valkyries calling “Hojotoho!” but you’ll pause as you see them passing white body bags, one to the other, a curious collection of nameless, faceless heroes set to adorn the halls of Valhalla. There are many moments like this in the production, where the spectacular nature of the music is tempered by the tension (and frequent tragedy) of real drama. You’re being handed a steak knife; Egoyan expects you to do your own carving — and carve you’ll want to. Die Walkure contains a myriad of delicious visual morsels just waiting to be devoured. 

Die Walkure is the originator of what is possibly the most famous and widely-known figure in opera; just in case you’re wondering where the metal-bra-and-horned-hat-lady comes from… that’s Brunnhilde. Her theme is the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” (reset for popular culture by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now), a tune I kept mentally re-playing long after I’d left the Four Seasons Centre. The horned-lady visualization is, thankfully, not in Egoyan’s production, but has been replaced by a tight, low-cut black corset, wide flowing skirt, and long, flowing tresses. Brunnhilde (a magnificent Christine Goerke, making her role debut) is sexy, powerful, opinionated, a point very much underlined in this production, particularly in the moments between her and her father, Wotan (a deeply felt Johan Reuter), here wearing an eyepatch and layers of black. Here we see the powerful figure as less of a cliched Norse god than a Mad-Max-style pirate who’s emasculated by his wife, Fricka (a Queen Victoria-styled Janina Baechle), wracked by the guilt of abdicated parental responsibility, and haunted by questions around individual freedom. 

With a set made up of tumbled-down lighting rigs, a split tree trunk, a paneled white background, white sheets, and mounds of earth, designer Michael Levine’s post-apocalyptic designs offered a psychologically penetrating look at the world of gods and humans, a place where motivates, relationships, and desires are messy, tangled, and complicated. The shadows on the upstage walls reflected the knotted, interwoven feelings, thoughts, and inner lives of the characters, reminiscent of a beautiful Sol LeWitt style visual. There is no order amidst the chaos, Egoyan seems to imply here, the only order is what we choose to impose: we are the gods, right here, right now. We choose the wrong partners, we defy authority figures who love us, we make stupid, bad decisions, we live to regret them, and we... go on. 

Johan Reuter as Wotan and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company production of Die Walküre, 2015. 
We also experience passion, lust, obsession, and above it all, if we choose to let it in, a deep, abiding love — one rendered clearly and movingly in the opera’s final scene, with Brunnhilde lying encircled by torches of fire as her sister Valkyries turn and look back at her, sadly, and her own father who has doomed her, Wotan barely being able to acknowledge the very thing he has caused, literally and figuratively. The Ring Cycle is, once you look past the Norse mythological reference points, very much a story about family, and the dynamics and difficulties that live within any family unit.  Wotan tries to please everyone, and ends up pleasing no one — least of all himself. He does, however, decide to protect his daughter, and it's this careful shielding that underlines the authentic love that Die Walkure revolves around. The physical expression of that love is at once devastating and marvelous.

Canadian Opera Company Music Director Johannes Debus balances the piece’s fiery, intense drama of the score with slow moments that ooze poetry and deep feeling, leading the orchestra in a very precise reading of the score that propels the action forward while illuminating its tender intimacy. Egoyan’s smart direction (especially his keen blocking) gorgeously complement this score, showing the filmmaker’s deep understanding of both Wagner’s score and the value of relationships within the work. Further emphasizing this connectivity are the numerous stellar performances that seamlessly combine acting and singing into one compelling, frequently heartbreaking package. 

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Die Walküre, 2015.
This is what Wagner asks of you: to consider your choices, ideas, and perceptions, and see if they’re authentic to who and what you really are. One could argue all great art does this, but nowhere have I found that challenge more perfectly integrated of late, with an overall feeling of love and beauty, than in the current production of Die Walkure in Toronto. I loved the steak, COC, but I'm dying for more. I may come back for seconds.

Dec 18, 2014

Frank: Not Just A Quirky Head

Lately I’ve been noting how people will choose certain words in order to categorize and even dismiss things they don’t like or understand. “Quirky” is, I think, one of those words. Used as an adjective to ostensibly describe something (usually a movie) that’s odd, unusual, off the beaten path, and just plain strange, it’s also frequently used dismissively -- as in, “that’s so quirky, ick.” 

I began noticing this when, in preparing to interview Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi for a feature this past fall, I came across the word being used, over and over, with reference to his (amazing) body of work. Eagle vs Shark: quirky. Boy: quirky. What We Do In The Shadows: well… no, that’s funny, because it’s like Shaun of the Dead, but vampires! Hahaha! (The unspoken rule being, if it contains generally familiar tropes, it can’t possibly be quirky.) Like a passive-aggressive friend, use of the word “quirky” reveals more than it might initially imply.

The word came up again when I read about Frank, the Lenny Abrahamson film based on journalist Jon Ronson’s interactions with Frank Sidebottom, the onstage alter-ego of English comedian/musician Chris Sievey. A movie about an eccentric group of musicians lead by a man who constantly wears a gigantic papier-mache head is certainly a unique premise, so “quirky” might be acceptable. But Frank is so much more; the movie, which made its debut this past January at the Sundance Film Festival, is a moving examination of the nature of creativity and human relating. It’s also harrowing in its depictions of band dynamics, rising success, and mental illness. The movie isn’t just weird for the sake of it; every time you see its title character bellowing his strange, surreal poetry or interacting with confused German tourists or making out with his on-again-off-again girlfriend Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), there’s a small bit of truth Abrahamson is sharing with you, a tiny puzzle-piece that asks to be placed in the jigsaw of your mind. Everyone’s minds are slightly different, so everyone's going to see this movie — and its characters — in slightly different ways. Perhaps that’s the point.

The film introduces us first to Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an English would-be musician working a dull office job. The opening scenes, of Jon looking at various passers-by and composing songs in his head based on what he sees in real time, are brilliant in their simplicity, rendering our hero’s struggle deeply familiar to anyone who works in and around the creative industry. Jon rushes home, inspired by the “boxes” of his suburban surroundings, only to get stuck in the muck of creation, whereby he shares his frustrations with his paltry Twitter following. Shortly thereafter, he’s offered a position in a band headed by the mysterious Frank (Michael Fassbender). The music the band specializes in is hardly mainstream; it’s a mix of The Birthday Party, The Civil Wars, and Einsturzende Neubaten, its leader and his booming, low voice a curious if compelling integration of Captain Beefheart, Scott Walker, and Jim Morrison. 

At once authoritative and elusive, Frank is a fountain of inspiration for Jon. The band, called The Soronprfbs and featuring Frank, Clara (who does theremin and strange keyboard effects), French guitarist Baraque (Francois Civil) and his girlfriend, drummer Nana (Carla Azar), trek to the Irish countryside with their manager Don (Scoot McNairy) to record an album, which Jon documents in a series of blog posts, tweets, and Youtube uploads. The inclusion of social media lends Frank a timeliness as well as a sense of urgency; its use isn’t forced or tacky, but rather, a natural extension of the band’s world, and especially of Jon’s ambitions and personality, and how it comes to clash with other sensibilities, namely Clara’s. The updates (narrated blogs and tweets, including hashtags) are consistently believable, and an important part of the film’s themes of ambition and varying definitions of success. When the band gets the chance to play at SXSW, one senses the widening chasm between Jon and his bandmates; the English keyboardist and songwriter is far more devoted (and determined) than the latter to getting an audience and to being, in the film’s words, “likeable.” 

This desire to “being in a band people like,” as Frank puts it at one point, reminded me of something a well-known music figure said a while ago, that people don’t form bands so that they can play in their garage; they form them in order to play for audiences who will appreciate their work. It’s a sentiment I couldn’t help but turn over in my head as the film unfolded; Frank forced to consider the notion that perhaps there are some people who come together simply because they enjoy the energy the other brings and revel in the vitality of those joined energies, expressed through a joyous cacophony that, like a labyrinth, only they (as a combined unit) know their way in and out of; such bands play for themselves, and no one else. Is that wrong? Is it strange? Is it… quirky?

Abrahamson doesn’t seem so concerned with quirk as he does with humanity. That focus anchors the film’s tone and deepens the relationships between its characters. Frank is a fascinating portrait of not only artists and bands but its own audience. I found myself rooting for Jon, and was charmed by his interactions with Frank; I identified with his drive to be celebrated and successful. The wisdom of the screenplay (by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan) is that it doesn’t judge Jon when he fucks up (which he does, more than once), but allows for moments of grace and quiet, which are expressed so powerfully in the scenes toward the film’s end. You won’t be in tears by the final credits (Frank doesn't wallow in melodramatic mawkishness, preferring strong adult drama, something in woefully short supply lately) but you will be forced to contemplate the hows and whys of success, art, and the overall validity of the phrase “mad genius.”

“Genius” is nonetheless a good word to describe the performances in Frank. Gleeson is highly moving, and frequently uses his wiry frame to express Jon’s insecurities, frustrations, and fears; Gyllenhaal is compellingly icy as the highly protective Clara, while Fassbender is truly mesmerizing, conjuring an unforced poetry that modulates between manic and mysterious. The movie’s supporting cast is strong as well, with Azar vibing a young, resolute Maureen Tucker, with her big eyes and quiet confidence, and Scoot McNair as the scatty if troubled Don. The music, by Stephen Rennicks, deserves acclaim; too it’s a wonderful amalgam of influences, with playful lyrics full of surreal imagery, underscored by pulsating bass lines, shrieking guitars, and bleepy-bloop effects, reflecting the band’s personalities, their immediate environments, their relationships, and moods. I’d wager that if Ronson and Straughan’s screenplay is the bones of the work, the music is its heartbeat, with Abrahamson’s masterful direction the skin that draws everything together. 

So call it “quirky” if you want, but don’t let that stop you from seeing it or think Frank is just a “weird” movie about a guy in a papier-mache head. The film’s elements, while unusual, combine to form a highly watchable piece of cinema. It’s beautiful, it’s moving, it’s important. The music is amazing. The performances are beautiful. Embrace your quirks, or leave them at the door, but see it.

Nov 4, 2014

Work It

After reading several accounts of the Ghomeshi scandal engulfing Canadian media lately, I decided early on I didn't want to comment. I didn't (and don't) want to exploit the tragedy of female abuse for personal gain — for page views, for clicks, for hype. Like my delayed public reaction to the passing of Robin Williams, it feels so, so wrong to digitally benefit from such an immense tragedy.

So this post isn't about sexual abuse or harassment. It's about company culture, but more specifically, it's about the opening that has been created in criticizing Canada's public broadcaster, and the ensuing questions I've been considering lately in my position as a freelancer. Plenty of people are braying about the end of the broadcaster. Others are questioning its internal culture, and wondering how abuse could've so easily flourished in such an environment. I didn't experience anything but respect in my time there in the mid-2000s, both from my fellow employees as well as from outsiders. I have friends who've worked there, and some who continue to.

While it's painful to watch former colleagues deal with the Ghomeshi fall-out and all its implications, the situation has afforded the unsavory if important opportunity to look at some of my uglier character qualities: envy, anger, rejection, sadness, a constant feeling of not being good enough. A part of me is glad I didn't get that backfill job at Q —and yes, I did interview for one this past spring, just to be clear — but a part of me also wonders: what if?

There's a certain amount of envy on the part of freelancers toward those who've had longtime CBC careers. Freelance life entails a hell of a lot of hustle, and much of that hustle, at least for me, hasn't strictly been in the journalism-world, but in the I-need-the-money one. As a human being, it's logical, but as a writer, it's galling. You want to be doing what you love most (fiction, non-fiction, research, interviewing, cobbling sentences together, revising those sentences over and over)... but you just can't. You're dealing with wads of competition, and a number of outlets (too many) who refuse to pay for your time and talents. Much as I like the freedom my work provides, some days I do wish I had the validation and steady paycheck of full-time Big Name Outlet employment. One young man I used to see in my CIUT days (who had his own cool music show back then) is now a full-time Q producer. I'm happy for his success, but a narcissistic part of me feels stupid and useless and far less of a real journalist by comparison. How come I can't get a full-time arts-journalism job? Should I even bother reporting anymore? Should I continue on my hamster wheel? Can I keep up the crazy hustle? Does anyone appreciate a shred of what I do, much less understand the immense amount of work that goes into every single bit of it?

The questions close in and become claustrophobic when you realize how often the proverbial velvet rope snaps shut. Life is very different when you work for a Name (CTV, CBC, Rogers in Canada): you're not kept waiting for close to an hour for a rushed ten-minute interview (this has happened to me, more than once), someone else who works for a Name is never slotted in front of you without your knowledge or permission (this has happened to me, more than once); requests for further information (quotes, clarity, photos) aren't delayed or outright ignored (mine have been, regularly). You're not at the very back of the acknowledgment line when you work for a Name. Respect and professional treatment come (whether you're competent or not) with having the power of a Name Outlet behind you. So, even if your host is (allegedly) awful, even if your workplace is abusive, even if you are being harassed and you're feeling miserable, you'll still be treated like gold — by people who help to make the stories happen, by those who facilitate its telling, by those who help its dissemination, by the public, whom you are ultimately accountable to. You look amazing. You are amazing. The unquestioning applause and constant praise keep the status quo firmly in place.

That kind of hierarchy is crazy-making, and it isn't conducive to a healthy working life, freelance or not. Something I took away from my time at NYU last fall was the sense that people, not outlets, are their own brand; people follow people, no matter where they wind up or who they write for or contribute to. That's a double-edged sword, of course, its cutting sharpness driven home through the Ghomeshi/Q crisis; the man was inseparable from the show. Their identities were intertwined, and damn near inseparable. You heard chimes of The Clash, you saw red and black, you heard Jian. It's unsurprising a makeover is now in the works — how could it not be? — but that doesn't change the fact that independent journalists need to be their own brand in order to make a living. A show is indeed more than its host, and a journalist is more than the single outlet he or she contributes a story to. All things being hopefully (pretty please) equal in terms of talent, ability, and perhaps most of all, curiosity, there really shouldn't be any reason to discriminate, much less disrespect, whatever that journalist, that One-Person Brand, brings to the table. Everyone deserves a safe, good working life with fair treatment. Everyone. And freelance-life hustle is stressful enough without the hierarchical bullshit to complicate your sense of professional self-worth.

So please: Name Outlet or not, respect... as a journalist, a woman, a human being. It's high time to level the playing field. If not now... when?

(All photos are mine.)

Sep 8, 2014

A Galloping Genesis

(photo via)
Many beautiful things have screened over the years at the Toronto International Film Festival, and many of the works I've enjoyed most didn't involve famous people or the related screaming-fan hype. Good storytelling still matters a lot in my world. This year, I made a conscious effort to attend the kind of fascinating movies that made me love TIFF in the first place.

I'd heard very good things about The Dark Horse from its premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festival back in July. The subject matter intrigued because it hit on my interest (if not talent) in chess. I grew up with a chess-mad friend and knew the names of many greats, including Kiwi champ Genesis Potini, the so-called "dark horse" of the New Zealand chess world. Now I don't played chess myself, but I appreciate the elegance of the game and the depth of passion that comes with it, to say nothing of its many committed players. The Dark Horse, based on a 2005 documentary about Potini, chronicles his efforts in founding the Gisborne-based Eastern Knights chess club as he simultaneously attempts to deal with his mental illness and help his nephew escape a nightmarish home life.

Rather than The Dark Horse being a trite, cutesy melodrama about mental illness, it offers a refreshing, unflinching look at a complex man, his realities, and the community he inspired. The film opens with Genesis (played with magical intensity by Cliff Curtis) walking through a downpour, amidst busy traffic, a colorful quilt draped over his shoulders, speaking a mix of Maori and English, manically repeating words and phrases. In real life, Potini worked hard to make peace with his illness while working to give disadvantaged youth a sense of hope, despite incredible odds at both macro and micro levels. These mix of challenges are reflected in simple, effective ways throughout the film (the anxious pill-taking, the terrifying nosebleed, his sleeping rough in a rainstorm) though perhaps nowhere more strongly than in the scenes between Genesis ("Gen") and his troubled brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi, in a heartbreaking performance). His house is a party headquarters for thuggish fellow gang members, not a proper environment in which to raise his sensitive teenaged son, Mana (played with searing vulnerability by James Rolleston). When Ariki angrily shouts at Gen that "The world doesn't want him!" (about Mana), we suspect he could be speaking about any number of the kids we've seen Gen work with. There's an ugly if necessary subtext here, one that gives important pause.

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However, far from giving in to despair, we see how the kids are able to flower, with diligence, discipline, patience, and kindness. Gen cultivates a deep sense of pride in their culture while fostering a true sense of self-worth and innate purpose. The scenes of the kids picking various chess pieces that represent who they are, and relating that to Maori mythology, is positively lyrical, but done in the most simple and elegant of ways. There is no soaring orchestral score, there are no cutesy quirks from any of the kids. Playing chess is not mere strategy on the board but necessary methodology in life; are you a Queen, a King, a pawn, a rook? The Dark Horse asks us to consider these questions not only of ourselves, but about those whom we might not think twice about, those whom we might write off, point fingers at, ostracize, ignore. Is there possibility? Can we guide them to "the center" as Gen is always urging his students to do on the board? Is there a better way to checkmate? The game's mix of methodical and precise, of individual and community, is nicely realized onscreen, with scenes that alternate between Gen's gentle engagements with the community, his difficult dealings with family, and his passionate, frequently tormented solo endeavors.

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Director James Napier Robertson has done a masterful job in painting a mesmerizing portrait of a talented, troubled man who wanted to make a difference in the lives of those around him. He wisely lingers on faces and uses many long shots, silently observing the world of gangs, violence, and abuse without judgment or patronage. The audience is watching pure being unfold, whether it's Genesis contemplating his next move (in life and/or on the board), a good friend expressing silent worry, a father letting go of the son he knows he can't take care of, a teenager too scared to go home. Curtis is particularly moving in expressing the challenges Genesis faces in attempting to ride the waves of his mental state while processing the desperation around him. This is an Oscar-worthy performance, one that mixes pathos, anger, fear, pain, and a deep, extraordinary beauty. There's something very soulful about the way Curtis uses his eyes, capturing with riveting stillness a touching vulnerability and intense knowingness, all at once.

Knowing the events and people in the movie are real imbues The Dark Horse with an automatic sense of humanity, but Robertson smartly avoids any kind of Hollywood-hokey tone. His smart, sensitive script, creative cinematography (with liberal use of documentary-style hand-held filming), and clearly trusting relationship with his actors touches at the heart of something beautiful but rare in film these days: grace. It's a feeling I couldn't help but experience as I looked out at the movie's cast and crew Saturday afternoon. As was expressed, making a film is an act of faith, just as seeing one is; the glory and the genius of The Dark Horse is how much that faith is so beautifully expressed, and so authentically rewarded. We come away blessed, strategizing next moves, entirely in the presence of the divine. To quote the film's tagline, bravery is contagious — but indeed, it turns out, so is grace. Burn down the school!

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