Archive for September, 2014

Film Review: Adventureland

September 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Adventureland (2009; Directed by Greg Mottola)

For James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), the summer of 1987 commences as a series of rolling disappointments. Having completed a Comparative Literature degree at Oberlin College, his long-nurtured plan is to travel Europe before moving to Columbia in New York City for a graduate degree in journalism. But he’s low on money and so, it seems, are his parents (Jack Gilpin and Wendie Malick) all of a sudden. They can’t fund his trip and maybe not even his further schooling, so he has no choice but to stay at home in Pittsburgh and find a summer job.

That summer job is at a run-down local amusement park, where James minds the midway games (he was hoping for a job on the rides, but it seems he’ll have to work his way up to that). He’s introduced to the various carnival challenges rigged to minimize the number of winners; his boss (Bill Hader) tells him in no uncertain terms that if anyone wins an oversized panda prize on his shift, it will be his last. He’s also introduced to a rogue’s gallery of co-workers that become a circle of friends: his idiot childhood best-friend Frigo (Matt Friend), a self-aware but socially maladroit Russian Lit major (Martin Starr), a semi-legendary Catholic girl tease (Margarita Levieva), the cool-musician lothario and maintenance man Connell (Ryan Reynolds), and moody lawyer’s daughter Emily (Kristen Stewart), whom he becomes particularly interested in.

Such is the basic premise and general plot map of Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, a naturalistic reminiscence-of-youth picture saved from the generic morass by some interesting ensemble performances and a noticeable tinge of melancholy. Disaffected and/or economically under-flush youth smoke pot and drink beer and make out and tiptoe around sex and commitment and the spectral dread of their own futures, as a litany of period rock and pop music fills the soundtrack (did regular American kids in the mid-1980s really listen to that much Lou Reed and David Bowie? I feel like not).

For Mottola (who writes and directs), James’ summer at a clunky amusement park where the illusion of fun is maintained on a shoestring budget and underlied by a variety of schemes and cheats and general labour apathy seems to be a subtle metaphor for the American society and economy of the late Reagan years. The then-President appears briefly on a television, offering double-talking excuses for the Iran Contra scandal, while the money-first nation that his policies have engendered grinds on, failing all but the most privileged (James’ putative travel buddy and assumed NYC roommate has a “revelatory” experience in the capitals of Europe, changes his whole perspective… and enrolls in Harvard Business School). James and pipe-smoking Russian lit major Joel have no marketable job skills to get them a position anywhere but Adventureland, while the privileged but sulky Emily only works there to escape her unsatisfying home life. Connell, for all of his big-man-on-campus appeal at the park, is a perpetual drifter dude, with an unstable mother and a cocktail-waitress wife whom he frequently cheats on. Like the amusement park itself, everyone is a bit broken-down, paint peeling in places, but keeps going anyway: their lives, like America itself, are being inexorably dragged out of a patchwork fantasy version of reality into a harsher but weirdly liberating milieu.

Eisenberg rides his alternately easy-going and nerdy quasi-Asperger’s charm, but is allowed silent, contemplative moments to suggest how disconcerting the idea of rootlessness is to this young man. His James shares wordless glances with his humbled father whose demotion has proscribed his son’s hopes as his fastidious, intruding mother prattles out guilt-trips. His disappointments find common cause with those of Emily, whose mother died and whose father swiftly remarried to a superficial woman who can find little common ground with her stepdaughter. Eisenberg is the protagonist but Stewart is Adventureland‘s warm and sometimes volatile core. Taken in isolation, Em might well have seemed petulant or irresponsible, but Stewart nimbly evades the callow teenager act that she later expanded to pop-mythic proportions in the Twilight movies. There was a living, breathing, emoting actress in there before she was asked to choose between a beefcake werewolf and a sparkly vampire, and this is part and parcel of the lining of the tragic that surrounds Adventureland.

This melancholic element never really undermines the comedic tone, but then this is not a laugh-out-loud farce by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a gentle and thoughtful young-adult comedy-drama that’s sometimes amusing but just a bit more often sad and oddly cathartic. It shares the capital-R Romantic sensibility of its protagonist, who talks about deciding not to sleep with a college girlfriend after a Shakespearean sonnet convinces him that he doesn’t love her and makes a mix-tape of guaranteed bummer tunes for the girl he thinks he might love. A production tidbit sums up the movie’s tone of pathos perfectly: although set in summer, it was shot in Pennsylvania in wintertime. No wonder its memory of younger days feels so distinctly wistful.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

September 23, 2014 Leave a comment

The Manchurian Candidate (1962; Directed by John Frankenheimer)

John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate both embodies and explodes the concept of the “classic” film. The term can be a bit of a poisonous snakebite as a selling feature for a movie. Like most things that are referred to as “classic” (novels, in particular, come immediately to mind), the moniker conjures expectations of an artistically edifying but nonetheless vaguely stultifying experience. It’s a promise of watching a film that we are assured is rewarding but is likewise possessed of out-of-fashion aesthetic, narrative, and discursive elements. Many great, entertaining, transporting films are “classics”, but the term invokes a sort of cinematic oatmeal: nutrition above deliciousness, intrinsic value over robust diversion.

The Manchurian Candidate is plenty robust. It’s also a whipsmart satire, darkly witty, expertly shot and composed, politically provocative, and deeply uneasy about the ambitious project of American democracy. In other words, it’s terribly modern, a movie at least 10 years ahead of its time, anticipating the breakdown of the Studio Era into the fragmented suspicion and paranoia of the 1970s. But it retains the meticulous craftsmanship of Old Hollywood, making it a sort of signpost hybrid as perhaps the prototypical political thriller.

The story, adapted fairly closely from Richard Condon’s novel, enfolds then-contemporary events such as the Cold War, its recent hot flash in Korea, and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s socially destructive vendetta against American citizens with affiliations to the Communist Party into an imaginative, chilling psychological scenario. During the Korean War, a US Army patrol is captured and choppered away by Soviet agents. The unit’s commander, Raymond Shaw (the superb Laurence Harvey), is later given a hero’s welcome home to the States and a Medal of Honor for evidently saving the lives of all but two of his men. The laurels are quickly co-opted for political promotion purposes by his manipulative mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury, an iconic Freudian battleaxe) and his stepfather, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory, hilarious as a dimwitted McCarthy clone). But Shaw is stoic and principled, and chafes against his mother’s control, moving to New York to get into the newspaper business.

Although Shaw seems (suggestively) unbothered by his traumatic war experiences, the other men from his patrol are plagued by recurring, disturbing dreams. Captain Bennett Marco (a sweaty Frank Sinatra) is most haunted by them, rendering him all but useless in post-war assignments to Army Intelligence and public relations roles. In his dream, Marco sits with the rest of his patrol in the greenhouse of a New Jersey hotel, yawning through a lecture on hydrangeas put on by the local women’s auxiliary. But the greenhouse then becomes an examination theatre with Communist Party members observing a deadly demonstration of psychological conditioning, then slips back to the flower talk, until elements of both the conditioned cover story and the troubling memory of reality trespass into each other’s space, intermixing freely and cleverly. It’s the film’s showcase sequence, a bravura display, and it’s arguable that The Manchurian Candidate is never quite as good as it is in this scene.

It soon becomes apparent to Marco that something odd and unsettling happened to him – and more importantly, to Shaw – in Korea and that it may be part of a larger plot. The plot soon swallows not only Marco and Shaw but also Eleanor and Iselin as well as other primary figures in the Presidential campaign and threatens the very soul of American democracy. Frankenheimer and his cinematographer Lionel Lindon contrast the Iselins and their great congressional rival, Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver) with unmissable production design touches. The Iselins’ home is dotted with images and busts of Abraham Lincoln (including a Lincoln lamp whose shade is a stovepipe hat) like a souvenir shop, an overwrought attempt to establish their bonafides as defenders of liberty. When Shaw first meets Jordan (and his fetching daughter, whom the laconic Shaw falls for), their conversation is loomed over by an ostentatious American eagle above the Senator’s hearth. At one point, Jordan is framed in the place of the eagle’s body, so that its wings seem to stretch out from the Senator’s shoulders; a shocking later sequence at the Senator’s New York home likewise features an eagle and crest gazing down imperially on the scene.

Alongside the plot of Shaw’s conditioning and activation as a brainwashed assassin (achieved by the Queen of Diamonds in a game of solitaire, a trigger which proves dramatically unpredictable) in the service of the Soviets, there’s a half-formed, suggestive alternate psychological conditioning that may or may not be occuring as well. Marco, on his way up to New York City to meet with Shaw to discuss his dreams and their shared war history, encounters a future love interest on the train. Eugenie (Janet Leigh) speaks to him in an odd disjointed exchange over a cigarette between cars that, as Roger Ebert speculated, seems to be an exchange of passwords, or perhaps contains a veiled brainwashing activation code for Marco similar to Shaw’s Queen of Diamonds.

In the Communist examination theatre, Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dheigh) insists that Marco is necessary to the mission, though only Shaw is brainwashed into killing. What is Marco’s role? His investigations uncover how the Communists intended to use Shaw to elevate Iselin to the Presidency and his intervention re-writes Shaw’s pathways, re-routing his mission. What if Shaw’s final choice of targets – his brilliant, controlling, double-agent mother and buffoonish, Red Scaremongering Senator stepfather – were the intended targets all along, and Marco’s conditioning was meant to divert Shaw in their direction? Other embedded details might gesture in this direction: when Eugenie picks up Marco from the police station after a karate dust-up with Chunjin (Henry Silva), Shaw’s Korean cook and valet who has an obscure connection to the mystery around the patrol, they drive by a moviehouse whose marquee advertises a showing of Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. Shaw is very much a puppet on strings, but are we to understand that Marco could be as well? This may be an over-reading of a merely awkward conversation between strangers on a train that kicks off an innocuous romantic subplot, and Frankenheimer himself denied that any such implication was intended. Such a plan seems a bit over-elaborate at any rate, but only slightly more so than the the brainwashing conspiracy that we’re meant to accept in the main plot strand.

Allowing its audience to indulge in interpretive theories of this sort, giving them space to read into subtexts and countertexts, marks The Manchurian Candidate as a modern cinematic experience, more akin to a Christopher Nolan movie than even the immediate contemporaneous thriller reference point: the work of Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a highly intelligent and slightly disorienting film with a wry sense of satirical humour and plentiful skepticism about the American ideological project. This, and much more, makes it a very fine piece of work. Even, dare we say, a “classic”.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Damned United

September 20, 2014 Leave a comment

The Damned United (2009; Directed by Tom Hooper)

“I apologize unreservedly for being a twat.” So commences the solemn oath that Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) is made to swear by his longtime football management partner and (only?) friend, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall). On his knees in a driveway in Brighton, the outspoken, self-aggrandizing Clough must be humbled in order to accept the infusion of humility that Taylor provides and that is integral to the success of their partnership. The Damned United might be the best film ever made about British football (not a very crowded field, admittedly), and it encompasses many of the pathologies that permeate the game in its land of origin: class concerns, corporatization, skills and aesthetics vs. toughness and ruthless success, and masculine competitiveness. But at its soul it’s a bromance of frank sincerity: when the sundered Clough and Taylor reconcile on that Brighton driveway, it’s with a near-romantic affection. One half-expects a cathartic liplock with a swelling, emotional manipulative score.

But I am beginning at the end. The Damned United begins in the middle, with flashbacks to preceding events intercut with those in the text’s present, 1974. Clough, a former England international turned abrasive but successful manager, has taken the head job at Leeds United, recently vacated by his self-conceived rival Don Revie (Colm Meaney), who has left to manage the English national team after a crashing World Cup qualification failure. Leeds was the premier outfit in English domestic football under the exacting Revie, snatching league titles and cups with a bruising, pragmatic style featuring lots of fouls, simulation, and even referee intimidation. Clough, with an ample assist from Taylor and his sublime talent-scouting abilities, is a big-mouthed upstart, leading second-tier provincial club Derby County into the top flight and then to the top division title even as he alienates his club’s dollar-sensitive, cigar-chomping chairman, Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent).

The flashbacks to his Derby County success are juxtaposed with his brief but disastrous tenure at Leeds United (without the moderating Taylor, decamped to Brighton & Hove Albion), which ended after a mere 44 days, a handful of losses, and a combined player and boardroom revolt against his authority. Director Tom Hooper and his team craft a compelling portrait of Northern England in the rootless 1970s, all geometrically-arranged row houses, muddy football pitches, wood-panelled offices, and sickly-lit hallways with peeling paint. In one striking sequence, Clough sweats out a league rematch with Leeds from his Derby County office, smoking, drinking, and pacing while the multitudes on the terrace leap up and vocalize as one for every goal, chance, or foul.

The Damned United leans hard on Michael Sheen as Clough, and it’s almost unfair how unerringly good he is. Sheen’s Clough is racked by insecurity and feelings of insignificance that feed into his egomania and silver-tongued arrogance, which he deploys more as a defence mechanism than as expression of his true desires. Sheen uses his self-satisfied jackal smile to suggest profound, disavowed self-doubt. His rapid rise with Derby County is psychologically diagnosed as being motivated by a slight by Revie, who did not shake his hand or even acknowledge him when Leeds visited Derby for a FA Cup tie. Clough is Salieri to Revie’s footballing Mozart (although Clough himself surpassed Revie’s club accomplishments later in the ’70s with Nottingham Forest, who won two straight European Cups to the zero for Revie’s Leeds).

But this Yorkshire Salieri has a closer confidant than a mere visiting priest in Spall’s conscientious Taylor, and The Damned United is unequivocal in its assertion that it’s their collaboration that made Derby County and Nottingham Forest great. Unlike Sheen as Clough and Meaney as Revie, the squat, earthy Spall does not much resemble the silver-maned Taylor at all, but he’s a fine choice to act as a human conscience to the blazing Clough. Sheen and Spall construct one of the great sports-movie bromances almost without our noticing until that deeply-felt conclusion. In doing so, they enshrine the intensely homosocial nature of English football as a brasher, more cutthroat proletarian echo of the aristocratic club-bound patriarchy that runs the United Kingdom in their time (and, without much variation, in our own).

Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports

Film Review: Awakenings

September 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Awakenings (1990; Directed by Penny Marshall)

Any conscientious movie buff has seen their fair share of that specific breed of inspirational films featuring a very definite trope. I refer to the familiar narrative of the detached, jaded, self-involved or otherwise socially maladapted upper-middle-class citizen of Western democratic capitalism taken out of their comfort zone into a more “primitive” foreign milieu. Through exposure to a simpler (read: more deprived or poverty-stricken) way of life and often to the folk wisdom of a noble savage representative of this more basic existence, the spoiled First-Worlder learns to appreciate the basic stuff of life and disregard the quest for commodities and status distinctions mandated by the American capitalist order. Although the fundamental inequities and injustices of the Developing World are never rectified and rarely even addressed and often the shaman figure does not survive the process of the Western subject’s enlightenment, the subject’s social re-education is accomplished and that it what is important.

Penny Marshall’s Awakenings is based on Oliver Sachs’ alternately clinical and empathetic chronicle of the life experiences of mental ward patients suffering from enchephalitis lethargica and his attempts to draw them out of their catatonic state through therapy and pharmaceutical treatment. It adapts Sachs’ memoir as an often sentimentalized fable on the failing courage of the human spirit and the determined liberal-humanist progressivism of the medical establishment (or of a few empathetic saints in the midst of smug careerists in those ranks, at least). But more than that, it renders the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to permanently awaken these catatonic patients as a limited success as an awakening of the internalized man who tried to save them from the paralysis of their own minds. It is the post-colonial narrative described above, but with the mentally ill substituted for dark-skinned foreigners of inspiring dignity.

It’s a tragic sacrifice to soppy Hollywood convention, not least because it wastes two very strong lead performances. The now-late Robin Williams, as Sachs proxy Dr. Malcolm Sayer, plays an awkward, lonely, but ultimately big-hearted man of science learning to edge out of the world of labs and specimens to connect to people. It’s especially eerie watching the solitary Sayer spend sad evenings at home alone playing the piano and studying botanical literature, knowing how Williams left the world. Something deep inside of him was being channeled in roles like this, and he is subtly moving to watch. Robert De Niro’s Oscar-nominated inhabiting of Sayer’s star patient Leonard Lowe got the Oscar nomination love and is wonderfully detailed and observed. Who would have predicted, in 1990, how few of these rich, nuanced, emotive De Niro performances we had left to watch?

Awakenings is blessed with these fine turns from fine actors and much potentially resonant material, especially as concerns patients awakening in the late 1960s from 40-year catatonic states to find a world very much changed. Not all of this is squandered, but enough of it is to engender a sense of disappointment. For a movie about realizing that life is meant to be lived to the fullest, Awakenings does not awaken to its own potential nearly often enough.

Categories: Film, Reviews

“Songs of Innocence”, Fruits of Experience: U2, Apple, and the Atrophy of Neoliberalism

September 14, 2014 1 comment

U2 and Apple always seemed like a corporate partnership that was meant to be. With the exception of the Irish megaband’s collaboration with Apple’s smartphone competitors Blackberry on their ultra-grossing 360 tour from 2009-11, their late-period releases have frequently been marked by promotional crossover with the technology megacorporation that has charged a premium to package and sell post-Sixties counterculture notions of liberty to the mass consumer market. The 2004 Apple commercial featuring “Vertigo”, U2’s last kick at the youth market can (to which they were relevant for 25 years, no small feat at all), was the pinnacle piece of the company’s distinct and iconic iPod ads. Bono and Steve Jobs, like the corporate entities they each headed, were very clearly cocktail-party buddies, united in their shared mission of crafting populist secular experiences as proxies for the church-bound spirituality that modern citizens found increasingly unsatisfying. Both U2 albums/concerts and Apple Stores aim to replicate the sensation of ecstatic worship in consumable portions, to package the sublime, and to make a pretty penny at it, too.

U2’s surprise decision to release their new album Songs of Innocence for free to all iTunes Store users (controversially, whether those users want it or not) a mere week after completing it makes sense not only in terms of the players’ previously-established relationship but also in terms of each player’s current position and the music retail market as it (barely) stands. Apple’s retail buzz has been distinctly muted since its fêted founder’s death three and a half years ago; they’ve carved out a healthy share of the device market but hardly dominate it, and iTunes feels increasingly like a bit of a dinosaur system in a digital music milieu advancing much faster than anyone might have reasonably expected. Apple will always have its devotees and its detractors, but unchallenged in hegemony it most certainly is not.

If Apple has stumbled from its lofty pedestal, then U2 is clinging onto the edge of its own pedestal by their collective fingertips. No Line on the Horizon was the least artistically accomplished release of a decade of unadventurous legacy efforts from the four men who forever embalmed the concept of the Biggest Band in the World. Even worse, it did not sell very well by the band’s (admittedly outlandish) standards. Giving away a new album for free seems to make a lot of sense at this point in U2’s career: they certainly don’t need the money, can play it off as a “gift” to loyal fans (and have), and are about the point in their career at which new music they produce is only barely worth paying for anyway (consumers are increasingly dubious about whether any music is worth paying for, but that’s a separate discussion).

The narrative arc of U2’s career is marked by the headrush rises and swooning faints that likewise characterize their best musical output. It’s a fine drama, when you take it all together. The brash, ambitious New Wave punks out of Dublin with an earnest political edge rising on the backs of anthemic appeals to togetherness in a fragmented, anxious culture. They hit dual peaks evoking quasi-biblical desert vision quests as therapy for modern dislocation (The Joshua Tree) and riding the cresting wave of living history in a post-modern repurposing of David Bowie’s Berlin-period shadows (Achtung Baby). At the peak of their success, they fiddled in sonically-innovative ephemera (Zooropa, still a massively underrated piece of excellence) and grandiose, self-effacing Pop Art kitsch (Pop, never a great album but also tragically underappreciated). When a sizable portion of their massive fanbase proved unreceptive to the band pushing their creative boundaries in this way, they retreated to familiar idioms and have since maintained an easy truce with their varied aesthetic legacy and rendered it for mass consumption in bevilled-down, inoffensive form, to decreasing returns.

Songs of Innocence is, of course, a William Blake reference, and the invocation of ecstatic aesthetic spirituality must surely appeal to Bono’s understanding of faith and its relationship to creativity. That said, the “Songs of Experience” half of Blake’s titular dichotomy would seem to apply more snugly to a band pushing towards four decades together. But U2’s music in general and Bono’s lyrics (The Edge writes them too, but I prefer to blame the singer) in particular have paradoxically accrued a refreshed bloom of innocent naiveté as they have advanced in years. Bono’s aggressive sincerity has always carried with it a certain guilelessness: he did place Martin Luther King’s assassination in the “early morning” of April 4th, 1968 in “Pride (In The Name of Love)” rather than when it actually happened, in the early evening. But what many saw as the irruption of irony in the band’s 1990s work, I read as a knowing world-weariness, something approaching (god forbid!) wisdom.

Songs of Innocence is yet another conscious attempt to banish doubtful knowing wisdom from the U2 project, which has gone “back to basics” so many times that even the basics seem ornate and elaborate at this point in time. Bono was quoted an album or two back self-praising the lyrics he was writing as sounding like t-shirt slogans, as if that was a good thing. This continues to be his aim, and the band behind him aims for the alternation between anthemic rockers and skyreaching hymnal epic ballads that has characterized their post-millenial phase. Producer Danger Mouse grants a certain stripped-down feel, as if what U2 required at this point in their careers is more stripping down. The resulting record, like No Line on the Horizon, has some nice moments, even some borderline-memorable ones, but none that approach the great, the grandiose, those elusive, U2-esque moments where “God walks through the room”, as Bono typically put it.

“Song For Someone” is lovely, vintage stuff if wholly unsurprising: passionately-sung Irish-folk-ish melodies along The Edge’s trademarked clear, rising riffs. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” and “Volcano” U2 it up right behind this mild highlight, but it’s hard to grasp onto much else. Opener and single “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is a bit fun but summons only a fraction of the titularly-invoked rock n’ roll saint’s no-bullshit vitality. Even a teasing reference to “The Troubles” that once granted U2 a distinct political frisson on the free-floating closing cut doesn’t ever dig in. The experienced U2 listener will yearn for more, and will have to go back into the catalogue to get it, unfortunately.

U2’s vaunted longevity has now begun to define them more so than their audacious artistic reinventions. They could use another one of those sharp aesthetic left turns, but Songs of Innocence is not it. This is one more way that U2 is closely aligned with Apple. Both are institutions predicated on versions of enlightened neoliberal capitalist hope that rolled with the punches of social and political changes to remain relevant and profitable for longer than many would have thought possible. But both have settled into lucrative but diminishing cycles of repetitious atrophy. That their partnership is not meeting with a positive reception should be a worrisome sign for both U2 and Apple going forward.

Categories: Culture, Internet, Music, Reviews

Alex Colville: Unambiguous Representations, Ambiguous Anxieties

September 3, 2014 2 comments

I must confess to a lack of familiarity with the paintings of renowned Canadian artist Alex Colville before venturing into the Art Gallery of Ontario’s solid retrospective of his life and work, which runs until the end of the year. Such gaps in the continuity of knowledge are surely the consequence of the essentially autodidactic instruction in art history that I’ve managed to give myself in a piecemeal manner in recent years, but I was glad to add Colville’s eerie paintings to my personal annals.

My memory has already been marked by particular memorable images of his making, certainly. To Prince Edward Island, which customarily hangs in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, is definitely familiar; it’s likely his most famous work, a sort of Canuck Las Meninas, even if it is not really his best. But it typifies the most notable features of Colville’s art: a sense of mundane realism raised to the level of the uncanny and the mythic, witty play with planes, juxtaposition, and perspective, and a core of unsettling mystery. The woman in To Prince Edward Island stares directly at us, the viewer of the painting, but the binoculars hide her eyes: her view of us is magnified even as our view of her (and the lounging man behind her) is obscured (the exhibit notes a shot in Wes Anderson’s nostalgic time-capsule Moonrise Kingdom that seems to be a direct homage to the picture). The arrangement of this quotidian scene makes it vaguely unnerving; Colville is masterly at taking moments of everyday humanity and transforming them subtly into something superhuman, inhuman, non-human.

Born in Toronto in 1920, Colville learned art at Mount Allison University in Nova Scotia, where he later taught and then lived and painted until his death just last year. His formative creative experience, as the AGO’s exhibition presents almost right off the bat, was as a War Artist near the conclusion of World War II. He painted Europe’s war-torn landscapes and the bowed soldiers that made up the armies trying to restore order, but he also, vitally, witnesses the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, producing at least one fine painting inspired directly by what he saw there.

But Colville’s war experience, and his brush with the Holocaust in particular, seems to have infused an uneasy anxiety into his paint-on-canvas enigmas. Seemingly innocuous compositions of his peacetime experience in Nova Scotia college towns would unexpectedly contain seeds of the 20th Century’s dominant horror. Witness Professor of Romance Languages, a portrait of a neighbour of Colville’s who frequently walked alone, set in front of an industrial edifice whose smokestack inadvertently raised painful memories of the professor’s family past in the death camps. The supercharged resonance of Colville’s captured moments turns every detail into a potential symbol. Church and Horse, for example, gains some current affairs applicability when one learns, as the AGO exhibit makes clear, that the horse was based on Black Jack, the riderless steed being lead at the tail end of John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession (the picture is dated to 1964). But the image sounds deep wells of meaning whether or not one considers this particular source.

The AGO show finds Colville’s influence not only in Wes Anderson’s films but also in those of David Fincher, Stanley Kubrick (the notoriously exacting auteur used several Colvilles in the background of The Shining, including the resonantly symbolic Horse and Train to mark the Torrances’ fateful decision to winter at the Overlook Hotel) and the Coen Brothers, whose work Colville greatly admired. A painting like Pacific, with its calm menace and anticipatory stillness, seems to suggest a definite aesthetic affinity with the Coens’ patiently-crafted crime-noir Americana in Blood Simple, Fargo, or No Country For Old Men (the latter association is made explicitly in the AGO retrospective). The coldly superb composition of the picture amplifies the promise of violence just as the Coens’ visual poise and narrative acumen brings the inevitable bursts of hot blood out in sharper relief when they do arrive. The space is bissected by horizontal and vertical lines (cleverly referenced by the ruled table) which serve to frame the restive, casually shirtless and faceless man. But the muted colour palette is key as well, especially as the eye is caught and the mind is disturbed by the stark, intrusive black of the handgun’s barrel.

The AGO’s Alex Colville exhibition comes highly recommended by yours truly, even if it has its unfortunate omissions. Like many contemporarily-mounted big-ticket exhibitions, this examination of Colville’s paintings reads their symbols and extrapolates their sources in his personal life but has less to instruct concerning the technical features of his work. A close physical examination of the original canvases (or as close as the public is allowed to get) reveals that Colville’s vaunted vivid realism is stylistically the result of a painting method resembling a subtler pointillism, with many dot-like dabs of paint forming the entire image. None of the textual accompaniment to the pictures discusses this, nor is Colville’s clear representational approach properly situated in contrast to the increasing abstraction of modern and contemporary art advanced by his peers elsewhere in the art world. In many ways, Colville’s paintings evoke an earlier age in art, one of unambiguous representations with ambiguous significance. The earlier comparison to Velázquez was not a facetious one; Colville has more in common with such an Old Master than with a New Master like Rothko or Pollock. Alex Colville’s addition to the established profile of clear representational painting is the infusion of a very modern anxiety, that ever-present aura of an unstable present, a haunted past, and an uncertain future.

Categories: Art, Culture