Cezanne et Moi (and Zola, too!)

[3-minute read]

Blogs are personal, but as I think about how to begin this quick review – these things always seem to start with Me – I’m fazed by my self-centredness as a writer. Ergo, as a human, I suppose. Look how interesting I am! is what I hear now. Aren’t I clever? (Hurt. Hilarious. Lonely. Sensitive. Tough. Damaged. Special. Not Like Them. Better Than You. Worse Than You Know.) Ugh. But blogs are personal…

The poster. (IMDb helped.) Emile and Paul making their way.

I had done my duty to the fine young pair who showed up for Thursday’s SuperCool Chance to Play Basketball On the Freshly Varnished Hardwood Before School Even Starts! (Little O and Uncle Drew did great.) I had even been a good little writer afterward, though I confess that I cheated the typing gods by shortening the time. (Still, though, my thinking was interesting – take it from me – and I may have found a way out of a large, thorny maze where my book got lost.) Cezanne et Moi seemed tailor-made as a writer’s treat and re-treat, and it was the last screening at my cinema of choice. So yeah, I rewarded myself with a luscious dessert when I hadn’t actually finished my first course, but the guilt faded fast. I’m glad I went.

Irrational confidence alert: through BioPic Magic, I feel that I now understood 19th-century painter Paul Cezanne without much effort, and intimately know his lifelong friend and sometime antagonist, the writer Emile Zola, without having read a single novel of his. (But that’s what Wikipedia is for, right? Um, right?) I am hungry to know these two artists better, though, and was exposed to a nearly two-hour, loving meditation on friendship, love, and on the meaning and practice of the creative life. WIN. I’d gladly watch it again.

When you look up “old frenemies” in the dictionary.

It’s a gorgeous film to look at.

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Forgetting MLK: Back to a Future

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day in the Excited States™ (not my phrasal ™, but Dr. Foth’s). I celebrated by studying concepts of spirituality with two friends. We didn’t mention Martin. Or movies.

(Quite incidentally, we did hear some Langston Hughes, because Langston Hughes. Johnny’s nuts for poetry, his own and recently that of Hughes, and can’t stop himself from reciting and reading aloud. He was never a Freedom Rider, but he’s still riding today. He is an old white guy, older than me! He burns.)

Also: I shopped, napped, put my basketball team through its awkward paces. Six kids have African backgrounds, but no remembrance of Martin. They’re young; no such excuse for me.

I was set for sleep by 9. Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath was warming by my bedside. My laptop was on top of my lap (you do the math), confirming that I was free for repose, though a squadron of open tabs reminded me of great online reading that I could ignore for another day. Twitter called. Helplessly, unfortunately, I answered. It chirped of a movie I’d meant to see.

It wasn’t even Selma.

I threw on discarded sweats and jumped in a borrowed car.

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News, Stuff, Things & Subscriptions

Have you missed me? (I’ve missed me.)

In the ongoing whirl of readjustment to Ottawa living, my bride getting back to work, and me coaching junior varsity basketball as if it was played on Mount Olympus, my writing routine has been thrashed. I haven’t been a very productive pen monkey. (Chuck Wendig grimaces in violent dismay and arse-kicking encouragement.) The good recent news is that a quite fine (thank you) American website, The Classical, ran a much-revised version of a piece on my Rugby Daddery and the Adventures of Son the Fourth in learning a brand new game. @classical specializes in long-form writing about sports, stuff that goes beyond the stats and standings. This made me happy.

I should have reviewed the film Whiplash, a disturbing, slightly over-the-top examination of a crazed mentor — in this case, a musical rather than an athletic one — and his perhaps equally nutty victim/protegé. I ate it up, loved and hated the thing, and have been thinking about the making of excellence and just exactly where that line is ever since. Yes, this was at the mighty ByTowne. Whiplash is a claustrophobic, in-your-face depiction of an extreme teacher-student connection, and J.K. Simmons is infuriatingly great as the megalomaniacal mentor. Okay. I suppose I just did sort of review it, but also have wanted to get to a Better Read Than Never review of John Feinstein’s The Last Amateurs, and an account of a brilliant human rights lecture by Payam Akhavan, and reflections on not living in China anymore, and more on books I’m eating, and I haven’t said a word about Ferguson or Jian Ghomeshi or the wars we try to forget or the Toronto Raptors…

…and don’t get me started about my stillborn books. (Thanks for not getting me started.)

The posting pace is about to quicken, I hope I hope I hope. Here’s what’s been going on recently here at, especially for you newbies.  If you’re a strange lurker here, WELCOME! The bits below will help explain how all this works:

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Larditude, Ice Cream, and Why You Should Subscribe to My Blog

We’ve been back from China for nearly three months now, and I haven’t put on the weight I was afraid I would. YAAAAYY! It’s neither so easy or so enjoyable to play the amount of outdoor hoops in Canada that I did among the mad-for-basketball masses of young men at every Chinese university. Here in Ottawa, it’s either empty courts, or young kids, or a game with serious Players that I can’t hang with anymore. Mostly, it’s the first two.

We still don’t entirely know which end is up. In our familiar Ottawa home, we’re still finding stuff we’d forgotten we owned, still trying to winnow down our possessions at least a little, and find places for the stuff we have. (The Story of Stuff. Daily.) We’ve cracked open most of the boxes. I have So Many Great Books That I Haven’t Read Yet. Sometimes I’m thrilled. Sometimes it’s maddening.

Meanwhile, once again, I’ve found a bit of retro-writing in my files. Last week, it was a letter I wrote to and for Son the Fourth on his first birthday, and it was good to remember the thrill of his arrival amid the wrangle of his rampant teendom. Today, it was a piece I wrote (and never sold) on the (mock) horror and (pointless) resolution arising from tipping my crappy bathroom scales at a shudder-inducing 200 pounds, distributed greasily over my formerly athletic 5’11” frame. I gave it a quick polish, and posted it over yonder in the “On Second Thought” section, just above my sappy, sentimental birthday letter.

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Chicks Dig the Long Haul

Sprung! There was nobody home and no particular deadline. My bride was on the family road, and Sprout the Last had an after-school playdate with his buddy that promised to extend into the evening. (Mom and Friend of the Year nomination: Josée!) Jailbreak! Run to daylight!

Flee to that beam of light in a dark, dark room: Escape to the Bytowne CinemaI didn’t much care what was there, but wasn’t displeased to find out that Shut Up and Sing!, the Dixie Chick-flick, was on. I’m not a big country music fan, but it had been hard not to be fascinated by the boiling stew of disgusted American overreaction when the DC lead singer mouthed off in London. So I was interested to see what this documentary made of the mess, and why these Chicks were in the middle of it.

Do you remember? Tanks and troops were massed on the Iraqi border, tens of millions of people around the world were massed in pre-emptive protest, and the DC happened to be in London where a huge crowd had marched for peace, perhaps that same day. “We’re with y’all,” lead singer Natalie Maines told the audience to roars of approval. “And just so you know, we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas…” And once word got back to the American networks, the if you’re not with us you’re against us neo-con PR steamroller had a gorgeous target. The DC were beautiful, popular, female and sold most of their records in the so-called Red states. And the world of country music is redneck-friendly. (I played the heck out of Garth Brooks’s The Hits for several years, and loved how he had  gradually brought gospel choirs and a social conscience – “When we all can sit / In our own kind of pews / We shall be free…” – to country music. Still, I found it hard, no matter how catchy the tune, to listen to a song like “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association”, which “represents the gun-rack, bare-crack, achin’ back, overtaxed, flag-wavin’ fun-lovin’ crowd…”)

When it came to the “disgusting traitors” who “should be strapped to a bomb and dropped on I-Rack” (people actually said things like that), the country music world spoke with one voice. The Chicks were Satan, and must be destroyed. The film, directed by Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck (Gregory’s girl, I think), follows the DC from the grainy video taken of THE ACT in London in 2003 and throughout their at first slack-jawed, then stubbornly defiant reactions to the uproar. It culminates in the release of a new and very different Dixie Chicks album in 2006. (Cynics might call the entire movie a marketing ploy, just as climate-change deniers devalue Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth as campaign fodder. And hey, the Chicks certainly understand marketing, but they also paid a huge price for their stance.) At the controversy’s height, not a country station in the U.S. played them – they had been for some years the biggest-selling band of any genre – and their record and concert ticket sales went way south. Yes, and there were disc-burnings, public floggings by the likes of Bill O’Reilly, and death-threats both vague and direct. One of the most chilling sequences in the film shows the Chicks before a concert in Dallas, where metal-detectors and 24-hour surveillance were the order of the day. They played their arses off that night. Tough Chicks.

Not surprisingly, they come across well. After all, when you’re in a contest with ignorance and xenophobia and time has shown you to be on the right side, it’s hard not to look good. For example, another strong scene has the Chicks and their spritely manager, Simon Renshaw, meeting with a PR consultant not long after the deceivingly easy early going in Iraq. The audience I was in laughed hard (and bitterly) over lines like these: You’ve got to lay low. The war is going so well, and it’s only going to get better. The President is incredibly popular, and his approval ratings are only going to climb… We were treated to the infamous time-dishonoured footage of the smirking Bush’s aircraft-carrier congratulations on “a job well done” to the Forces of Goodness. The Dixie Chicks were (and, to some extent, remain) a more corporate, commercially oriented act than I generally favour, but I came away impressed. These are talented women: Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, sisters and the basis of the band, are prodigiously talented musicians, and Natalie Maines can flat-out sing. She’s a compelling stage presence, and even in back-stage or hotel conversations, the camera can’t let her go. Neither could I.

She’s so watchable. It’s easy to see how she could become a shit-storm magnet. She is an alpha female: charismatic, funny, bright, tough, principled, and a self-confessed “bigmouth”. (Fluently foul-mouthed, too. I never quite get used to women making as many oral sex references as men might. BJ jokes abound, and all the Chicks join in.) But they are ultimately very appealing. (Shots of the darling seven children and interesting husbands they have among them, not to mention Emily’s childbirth experience, don’t hurt.) The women managed not only to stand together but to emerge, from what I saw and heard, a better and deeper and more interesting band because of their struggles. Heck, they’re even helping to write the songs. Shoot, I may even buy the new album. Shut Up and Sing is a good night at the movies. Not only did it entertain me and interest me musically, but it was a nervy case study of the mass psychology of war and patriotism and the precarious nature of free speech.

And I didn’t pay a dime for babysitting.

Cohen is Our Man

There was a packed house at the ByTowne last night for the new Leonard Cohen documentary. Many grey and greying heads were in the line snaking along Rideau and down Nelson Street – the man is 71 – but our friendly invitation had snared four university types. For me, it was perfect. It was youth by proximity. We were with bright young people, and I was able to make up slightly for a mis-spent adolescence where I wasn’t nearly hip enough to “get” the Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Neil Young that Mr. Hill was playing in English class. (I preferred, as he put it, “group noise”. If you couldn’t do basketball warmup drills to it, I wasn’t too interested.) Youth by retroactivity…

I’m Your Man is not a great documentary, but it does feature a great man. Cohen “had an unfair advantage, in a way,” reports Nick Cave. “He can actually write.” This Aussie-centric tribute to the Man and his Words drove one of my dates (the doer/dancer I’m married to) nuts, though. It was everything she has come to scorn  about musicians. Many of the performers were self-absorbed and fairly inarticulate. (Bono and the Edge from U2, and of course Mr. C. himself, were sparkling exceptions, at least to the charge of verbal clumsiness.) Many seemed marginally talented and were jarring to watch (especially if your taste runs to Judy Garland and The Sound of Music.) And there was certainly a surfeit of clanging camera angles and other visual tricks apparently designed to help us forget that we were watching talking head interviews and some B-list concert performers.

Although he, like several other tribute-bearers, found it (annoyingly!) necessary to have the song lyrics in front of him, Rufus Wainwright takes a star turn here, particularly with his version of “Hallelujah”, which he had by heart.. His sister Martha does less well, threatening to swallow the microphone while she flails, and eating way too many of those beautifully crafted words; Kate (their Mom) and Anna McGarrigle made my young friends squirm with a “weird sisters from Macbeth” sort of vibe. (I like ‘em, though. Maybe it’s nostalgia.) But aside from these visiting Canucks (and fellow Montrealers), the performers in this Australian concert were well under my radar. Several were a little hard to watch, the prince being an androgynous and quite spastic singer called Antony. (When I closed my eyes, though, his unusual voice was quite compelling in a Roy Orbison-esque way. His stage presence was Joe Cocker, only less graceful. Very odd.)

The obscurity and limitations of some of the concert participants were pierced by some lovely performances, especially of “Anthem” by two women (unknown to me) who know and deliver that marvellous song. There were also segments that seemed to come from another film altogether: a sweet little (lip-synched?) performance of “I’m Your Man” by Leonard Cohen with U2 in New York, and quickie hallway testimonials from the Edge and Bono. Huge fans both, they teetered constantly on the cliff of outright worship, particularly Edge with his comments about Leonard “coming down from the mountain carrying the tablets of stone”. They placed his career in a broad and intelligent context, though, and their reverence was nicely cut by Cohen’s own self-deprecation and humour. For only one example, he reads to the interviewer (presumably the director, Lian Lunson) his recent introduction to the Chinese version of his 1960s novel Beautiful Losers, and this address to his readers is a triumph of humility, respect, gentle engagement and rich humour.

If you’re already a fan, I’m Your Man will probably work for you, too. And if you’re open to a little weirdness in your musical life, this might be a fine introduction to the work of Leonard Cohen. It’s worth the two hours, though surveys show that only half the people in my marriage would agree.

[I wrote on another Cohen interview, and songwriting honours for him, here.]