Tag: television

Waldemar Januszczak: Telling Stories Of Art “In Ways That Connect With People’s Lives”

Waldemar Januszczak, art, Michelangelo, Sky Arts, writer, broadcaster, host, documentary, culture, The Times, Polish

The Michelangelo Code: Secrets of the Sistine Chapel was broadcast on Sky Arts in April 2021.

Among the many unexpected delights of lockdown life has been the opportunity to connect with people from the worlds of media and culture, and sometimes, the two combined in one. Waldemar Januszczak is art critic for The Sunday Times as well as a documentary maker with numerous television specials to his name. Those programs, which have been produced for over two decades, reveal immense curiosity for the ever-evolving, all-encompassing universe of culture, and each is presented with humour, gusto, and incredible if equally approachable intelligence. Waldy, as he’s known online and through his entertaining podcast with art historian Bendor Grosvenor, first came to my notice in 2015; though I’d read his work for years, it was Waldy’s four-part series on the so-called Dark Ages that caught my attention. Broadcast on a local channel across four Monday evenings at the height of summer, the series (from 2012) came at a particularly challenging time that year, having lost my mother in July and endured severe illness and multiple surgeries on my own before and after that. The nagging questions, in both personal and professional spheres, of who I was without the central figure of my music-loving mum loomed extraordinarily large; I would stare at the works of Louise Bourgeois and Frida Kahlo in books and online for hours, trying to glean some sense of order (beauty seemed too far-off and impossible to hope for), some sense of understanding, to a world rendered hazy, tilted, skewed, strangely airless. I would go to my own easel and try to draw or paint; I would sit at the computer, and no words would come. Who was I, outside of being this person’s daughter? Who was I, outside of this prison of a body I felt trapped in? Who was I, with these hands, which held my mother’s as she passed away, which held pencils and brushes, which typed out so very many words-words-words that seemed to affect no one and nothing at all?

Waldy’s work – his friendly presentational style, his enthusiasm, his clear thirst for knowledge – helped provide some clues. The full  of the series (The Dark Ages: An Age Of Light) was precisely the feeling imparted through the experience of watching the series at that point in time. It was as if a great spotlight was being shone on not only early Christianity and the Middle Ages, or indeed its related iterations, forms, and expressions, but along the way I, myself, was experiencing history and related notions of darkness, light, and all manner of shade and shadow between. By showing a new way to look at the past, the series, and Waldy’s work more broadly, provided an inspiring way of perceiving present and possible futures. The approach the writer/filmmaker takes to his work (one which, as I said at the start, blends smarts, humour, knowledge, and approachability) makes him a natural storyteller. Starting out at the University of Manchester as a student in art history, Waldy went on to become art critic, and subsequently arts editor of The Guardian. He worked in a variety of capacities across the BBC, and has, according to his own (quite humorous) biography, “since popped up pretty much everywhere where a radio dial can reach.” In 1989 he became commission editor for arts at Channel 4 (a time, which, he explains, was immensely fruitful in terms of providing future inspiration to his own broadcasting pursuits), and in 1993 also was put in charge of music at the channel, and subsequently began annual broadcasts from Glyndebourne – not to mention a little festival called Glastonbury.

That same year saw him become art critic for The Sunday Times, where he has been ever since. Twice voted Critic Of The Year, he co-curated a show at the British Museum in 2008 where modern and ancient sculptures were shown side by side, inspired by his own series on sculpture from four years earlier. Making films since 1997 with his own company, ZCZ Films, Waldy’s artistic explorations have been wide-ranging and ambitious: countries (Japan, Kazakhstan, America), concepts (politics, night), artists (Picasso, Gauguin, Michelangelo), religio-historical depictions (Mary Magdalene), and eras (the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo). Along with writing about contemporary art issues, including pieces on art collectives, the creative and spiritual meeting in abstraction (specifically the work of Hilma af Klint;  both March 2021), the Turner Prize, the symbolic power of a show focused on textiles (both May 2021), and how COVID has changed the art world (January 2021), Waldy has also written touchingly personal pieces – about the father he never knew, and about his battles with weight. Those writings are sincere and visceral, but they bear no trace of the sort of overwrought sentimentalities which so often characterize such works in the digital era; rather, they are the rich and (more than occasionally) spicy ingredients which constitute a person who is unafraid to be his own culture-loving, knowledgeable, opinionated, funny, vulnerable, unpretentious, immensely real self.

Such qualities may go a ways in explaining his presence on this website, for while Waldy does not work in opera, he embodies the very qualities so vital to the classical world, especially at this point in history. I referenced his work last year in an essay, and I’ve come to feel in the time since that his is a presence and a talent wholly needed, as various cultural worlds move away from lockdown status and toward some kind of normalcy. For while brilliance  does indeed hold a place in the classical world, authenticity, compassion – humanity – matters more, in this, our brave (and hopefully better) new world. We connected on Twitter (very brave new world indeed), over what I seem to recall was my love of the work of performance artist Ulay. (If you know of and/or like the work of Marina Abramović but have never heard of Ulay… please amend; his work holds extraordinary significance and beautifully poetic power.) Amidst the variety and ambition of Waldy’s pursuits, it seemed important to ask him, first and foremost, what he thinks of himself as: writer or broadcaster? His answer wasn’t particularly surprising, but his warmth and good humour, which carried throughout the course of our near-half-hour exchange, was a welcome and hopeful sign for post pandemic culture, and the people who love it.

You balance writing with broadcasting and documentary-making, but I’m curious what you call yourself.

An art critic, that’s what I’d like written on my grave. But right from the beginning, I’ve managed to do two things at once. When I was younger I was a student in Manchester, and I did this thing for radio, a student’s hour – I got roped into it – and someone at the BBC heard it, so I got working on the BBC doing a radio program when I was still a student, and it was out of pure luck. At the same time I was writing for Time Out; I’d do things for them and someone from The Guardian came across it and asked me to apply to them, so to cut a long story short, I’ve always done broadcasting and always done writing and the two have managed to keep going in parallel all the way through. I’m very lucky, and I made a step into television, but what I really like is looking at art and writing about it, which is what being a critic is – it’s not about being right or wrong with your opinions; you simply want to look at art, and to write about it.

Your integration of education and entertainment feels natural without being reductive.

I’ll put it simply: I’m an art lover. From my earliest memory, anything joyful involved cutting out pictures of famous paintings and pasting them, in my little cubby hole I had under the stairs – I’d paste stuff on the wall. I’ve always taken great pleasure from looking at art. I don’t understand why everyone else in the world isn’t that excited about art – it baffles me. In the UK we have these nature programs and people are happy to watch two frogs having sex or see beautiful butterflies in the air, or whatnot, for literally hours on end – millions will watch that – but put on something about a Raphael painting, which is also a thing of great beauty, or something about a sculpture by Bernini, or some great piece of architecture, and they tune out in the millions. I just don’t get it. It’s been this battle, always for me, to try and bridge that gap, to try and share this idea that art is interesting, exciting, and above all, a human achievement. It is my mission to try and tell stories of art in ways that connect with people’s lives. That’s all I ever tried to do. I don’t set out to be an original thinker necessarily, or to be necessarily different, I just set out with the firm belief that everybody should be able to talk about art in ways that involve or interest them, and that communication about it is what counts.

I like how you pull things away from being purely academic into a very direct and often sensuous relationship with art. I might be daunted by the artists and their related histories but watching your stuff, I don’t feel daunted at all.

That’s a real compliment, thank you. I’m so glad to hear that, because that is what I want to do. Many years ago now I did have a job in formal television, I was the commissioning editor for music and art programming at Channel 4. So for the eight years I was there, I commissioned other people to make art programs, and I watched what they did and how they did it. And I became more and more determined and experienced in the field myself, and determined to not do what they did. The thing I least like in any kind of writing about, or making films about art, is what you’re talking about, this sense of art being something difficult, some kind of homework, that not everybody can get or understand. A lot of the language of documentary filmmaking emphasizes that aspect, with these added tropes: the music that isn’t very cheerful or it is atonal and difficult; there is speaking about stuff in ways that don’t really mean anything – if people don’t know what they really want to say, they usually use twenty words instead of one, because it creates an illusion of knowledge, authority, and experience. So when I gave up being a manager of other people’s work and began making my own documentaries again, I made rules; there were things I knew I wanted to do, and those rules are all to do with this thing you’re talking about. I want people to learn stuff and enjoy it – I’m not there to preach or look down on them if they don’t know something. It’s been the experience of watching other people do this that has driven me to that.

But you combine this knowledge with your strong personality – I wonder how much that draws people in, so it’s not solely “Oh, a doc about the Renaissance” but “Oh, Waldy is presenting a doc on the Renaissance…” 

I think one of the things is, I’m Polish, I’m not English, as you can tell from my name, and we’re a different breed you know? Polish people are not like English people; we have a different way of speaking and expressing ourselves. And in television and the BBC especially, there’s a very specific type of person that works there, fits into that culture, and succeeds, and someone like me comes along, and I’m the other, I’m different in almost every way. One of my sins is I like eating, a lot, so I’m chunky, and in television, especially these days, you don’t see chunky people, they go for the slim, pseudo-intellectual from Cambridge, so I stuck out there, because I am different and I’m not afraid. And, I think I’m confident in my knowledge. That’s one thing I can say of myself: I love art so much I’m constantly researching it, seeing it, loving it, and if you’re confident in your knowledge there’s nothing to be afraid of. So I try to find new ways of delivering material. I’ve always wanted to do that.

What I’ve noticed is that people remember things from the films, and what they remember surprises me often. In one of the things I made years ago, about the Baroque, there’s a scene where I’m looking at a ceiling in Rome, and I decided to do the camera shot lying on my back, because that’s the only way to look at it. If you want to see it properly, you lie on your back. It was a BBC series, and all the BBC people said, “You can’t lie on your back, you have to stand up and look authoritative on television!” So there are these funny things that do tend to bother some people but they’re not done for gimmicky reasons, I do them because I want to convey my excitement and experience in looking at stuff.

But that humanizes the art in the process, and that’s what is so often needed in the culture world. But it’s questionable if that style is supported by the people in charge…

That’s the point, yes – and arts programming does not get enough support anywhere. It’s a hard graft, getting the commissioning to do stuff. You know, I can’t tell you how many programs I’d love to be making right now; we don’t get the numbers to compete with the shows like reality television or the cooking shows, we don’t get the numbers they do because partly, in the past, arts programs have presented themselves as this thing you referenced, and that put a lot of people off. That’s a hard history to shift – a lot of people remember this sense of being talked down to, boringly, and they don’t want to see that. Of course what we want is everybody dying to turn on the television to watch, but it’s a tough ask because of that history; when you say something is “arty” there’s’ an awful lot of people who turn off, immediately. That word alone puts them off, and it’s one of the battles.

But do you think that tide might change now?

I’d like to hope so. I don’t know! I’ve not had a chance to find any evidence yet, but I do think the pandemic is having and will have a profound impact on the future, and I think it will be very hard to unlearn the joy of being at home and to not be imagining things for yourself. The pleasures we’ve had from this situation – as terrible as it’s been – have been things relating to people being in the position of having the time to examine the basics. And they’ve found new outlets for their attention, whether through television or podcasts or whatever. My own podcast, we only did it initially to do something during lockdown, but loads of people have said they’ve enjoyed it, so there is hunger for art, and an opportunity to take advantage of that hunger, but whether broadcasters will help us out with that is another question; they are not interested in changing the way people think about art, they have other fish to fry. But I’m optimistic.

One good thing is that my work has reached a much wider audience and that’s not to do with Covid, but the way television has gone everywhere with the preponderance of satellite channels. It used to be the only people who recognized me in the street were people who watched the BBC, but in the time when things eased between lockdowns last year, I remember going out and there were about sixty South Korean people who came rushing toward me in the street shouting, “Hey Waldemar!” They’d seen me on television there. So the international aspect of all that (interest) was very encouraging. I have a theory that in every country there are a million people who might be interested in art who, years ago, you had no chance of speaking with, but now there’s a chance, so add a million people up in every country – and that’s a lot of people interested in art. That’s encouraging.

And you have an audience on Twitter

I love Twitter – you hear other voices there. And the best thing about it is the reactions! For all we know, no one will ever read what I write formally, but on Twitter, people get back to you, and I love a good argument; I’ll argue with anyone, anywhere, on Twitter or elsewhere for that matter. So I’ve found (social media) fruitful. Some things I’ve done have been so pleasing. During the lockdown I ran this art thing with kids; people did homeschooling when the schools were closed, and, well, what could be more homeschooling-esque than art, really? People were drawing away, and so I’d set them little tasks, and there were these fantastic responses, they were really pleasing, these kids, 8, 7, 6 years old, drawing away and sharing their work. The other day we had David Hockney on the podcast and he said something wonderful: “why would anybody not want to draw? Try telling a 3 year-old kid not to draw!” It’s a thing we all have; everybody has that instinct, and so I had this forum where kids could express that during lockdown.

I loved that series (as did many), especially as someone without kids. That series was actually the point where I lost my patience with people who dismiss social media; for some of us, that’s the only way we can see that kind of thing. It’s our window on a different world.

Well gosh, you’d be horrible not to like this kind of thing, and to just dismiss it because of where you saw it! And it’s worth remembering that so many artists have nourished themselves on memories of childhood as well, and that Twitter is a great vehicle for expressing and sharing that sort of stuff. If you’re someone who comes up with lots of ideas, it can be a great forum for expressing them, and for promoting them. I find it very alive. With all these hours of daytime we had because of the pandemic, a lot of times in the day, you’d be in the office, alone, twiddling thumbs; you’d go on Twitter and find someone to talk to. I’d see these nice people writing in from Scotland and Australia and New Zealand, and that (experience of communication) was liberating and very pleasing.

It’s how we connected too! I want to feel reading your various exchanges makes me a slightly smarter person. 

You’re pretty smart as it is, so don’t worry about that! I’m so pleased we’ve connected, and with others too, I’ve done so much during lockdown. It’s nice to talk. That’s what it’s about.

How has all this connecting online changed your approach to your work, or… has it?

I don’t know how much it’ll change my approach in terms of my bread and butter work with The Times – with that, I do what I always do: see shows and write about them. But I have made a lot of new friends. One thing that Twitter is really good at is supplying you with information: you ask a question, you get a lot of responses. I had a film about Michelangelo on Sky Arts out recently and posted something relating to obscure arguments about biblical translations – the kind of stuff no one is into except me and a few biblical scholars, or so I thought! – and got so many responses from so many people. It was such fantastic information! You have to be really in the world of bible studies to know about these things, but it was so exciting to learn these things. So it can be a fantastic forum for education, for all of us, and more broadly, I think it’s given lots of silver linings to this terrible, terrible time, which we are now hopefully coming out of.

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Change the Channel

Photo by Darryl Block

Attending and writing about opera on a regular basis, it becomes all too easy to take space for granted. The setting becomes almost secondary: the vast space of an auditorium, the plush nape of seats, the hushed, reverential silence during a performance. If you’re used to going to the opera, these are elements you don’t consider too deeply, if at all.

And yet, Against the Grain wants you to think, and feel, and reassess — and to approach opera in a whole new way. The Toronto-based independent company has built an acclaimed reputation on producing opera in unusual spaces; La Boheme took place in a bar, Don Giovanni was staged in an old theatre set up as a wedding reception, and now, Cosi fan tutte takes place in a television studio. Why should this matter? Well, for those of you who may never consider going to the opera, who find its formalities daunting, who feel it has “nothing for them,” AtG aims to make you re-think.

For opera fans like me, entering Studio 42 at the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s so-called “mothership” building in Toronto for A Little Too Cozy (AtG’s updated title for Mozart’s 1790 opera) was a strange if exhilarating experience — there’s a thrill of the new combined with a slight anxiety over gimmickry, and how much the old will be incorporated without being arch. While many directors approach operatic works with an attitude approaching holiness, some new productions are also occasionally done with an art-for-capital-A-art’s-sake approach. There’s still a widely held perception (one not completely incorrect) that curiosity, mischief and whimsy are missing in the opera world; Joel Ivany (who is AtG’s Artistic Director) keeps the proper reverence for the music (as he has in all his past works) but loses the poe-faced seriousness which opera neophytes might perceive comes with the territory, instead injecting a playfulness into the proceedings that is entirely fresh and creative.

Photo by Darryl Block

A Little Too Cozy is presented as a reality TV dating series, with each of the work’s characters as contestants vying to win love, and, it would seem, a measure of fame and validation. Felicity (soprano Shantelle Przybylo), Fernando (tenor Aaron Sheppard), Dora (mezzo soprano Rihab Chaieb) and Elmo (baritone Clarence Frazer) perform with phones in-hand, delivering punchy, swear-word-laden songs dressed in swishy club clobber, with sleazy Donald L. Fonzo (Cairan Ryan) hosting the proceedings and randy Despina handing the show’s talent relations. The latter two characters are, in the Mozart original, somewhat “controllers” of the situation, and the adaptation of them here, with more than a frisson of underlying sexual tension extant, makes perfect, zesty sense. What also makes this transposition work for the opera crowd is Ivany’s keen awareness of the source material being somewhat… silly, shall we say. In using a popular, mainstream medium to both mock and milk it at once, Ivany creates a foundation that is at once satisfying to opera regulars and enlivening to newbies.

After all,  Cosi fan tutte (which translates roughly as “women are like that”) is not exactly what I’d call a work of great narrative genius; some of us (myself included) find the plot (which revolves around couples testing one another’s affections) rather unsatisfying, if not entirely asinine. But, by using a recognizable cultural outlet that has gained particular traction in the last decade-plus,  Ivany betrays a deep awareness of both the power of media and the power of music, and marries them in a way that is entirely beguiling and extremely familiar. A Little Too Cozy is smart and fun and modern — it’s also very much opera. More fully than in past productions, Ivany and the AtG team here heartily embraced old and new, forging a sexy, sassy mix that will (and does) appeal to the social media set.

And so it was, the audience was reminded of related hashtags (#TeamDora, etc) and encouraged to use cell phones during the production. The immersive taping experience was deepened with “commercial” breaks, which allowed Ivany’s adapted libretto the opportunity to cleverly utilize and explore the re-imagined recitatives and arias (translated into English and matched to the proceedings) that provided further characterization and insight. It would be merely clever if it wasn’t also involving, entertaining, and deeply respectful to its source material.

Photo by Darryl Block

Perhaps AtG’s next project should be called, “So, You Think You Hate Opera” — I’d bet by the end of the night a few hearts and minds would be changed. Never mind the plush seats, here’s a beer and Twitter — sit back and enjoy. Opera can, and should be, for everyone.

This is Carcosa.

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In writing about Almost Human recently, I’ve found an avidly involved community of supporters online who happily, passionately exchange strong ideas and opinions; I think back, again, to TV-watching habits of the 80s and 90s (and even 2000s), and I wonder at how and why this shared community might influence the way TV culture is experienced. Of course I think it changes the viewing experience, but I am also a strong believer in putting the computer away, however briefly, and focusing.
It was hard to put everything away lastnight for the season finale of True Detective; a large part of me wanted to observe reactions of others in real time, even as I shared my own. But I found myself so entranced by the show’s attention to detail (a hallmark of its greatness, surely) and wanting to roll around in the swampy soup of ideas it presented, I put the tech aside and just watched, listened, felt. Having chosen to severely limit sharing my reactions online (and not read anyone else’s), I found myself with mixed feelings, questioning its strange if compelling mix of predictable suspense tropes, character development, and meta-dramatical elements. The extended scene of Rust (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty (Woody Harrelson) finding their way through the wilds of the Childress property made for terrifying, compelling television; each character became more and more entangled within the maze, mirroring the viewers’ “entanglement” with the immediate situation, and more widely, within the entire series. The deeper they got, the deeper we got; I became entranced, enchanted, utterly entangled, and didn’t want a way out.

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This is Carcosa,” intoned an eerie, disembodied voice. 
Less a physical place and more a mental dwelling, we – us  TD fans – fell into Carcosa, this wild, surreal enclosure that knows our deepest fears and vulnerabilities, a place that speaks in riddles but voices truth – not the beautiful poetic kind, mind you, but the ugly sort that, like the Fontenot video, we don’t want to watch but can’t turn away from. 

This is what the best storytelling does: it drops you into an atmosphere of intense fear and suspense, slowly, skillfully guiding you through the deepest recesses of your life and imagination, to a place of wordless wonder and messy obsession. It’s a swampy dialectic energy – of light and dark, of isolation and community, of black stars and Yellow Kings, of innocence and experience, of water and land, of strangers and family, of the flat and the shapely – that powered the drama of True Detective and ultimately shaped its characters. Such energy also gave rise to the program’s fandom, for it was an energy we felt, and wanted to talk about, and share, and mull over. In compulsion to theory, we found community in exchange; in suspense for resolution, we found salvation in the process.
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Nothing feels resolved in the True Detective world. To paraphrase Rust, there’s more of them out there. There’s more darkness, more evil, more loss; this isn’t over. Everything is a spiral. The stories continue. The finale’s crazy-bogeyman-of-the-Bayou cliches (the hoarder house; the incest; the slovenly appearance) were clever storytelling tropes meant to further the meta-dramatical aspect of the program: are you not entertained? Do you want more? Once upon a time… if you go into the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise…
We want the spirals; we need them, to cycle through them, to feel their sharp edges and dizzying curves. We need that, just as much as we need (and ultimately want) to go in the woods. We want the darkness. We want Carcosa. That’s unsettling – but so is imagination, and the compunction to create. I’m reminded here of something Nick Cave said in his “Secret Life Of The Love Song” lecture series years ago (emphasis mine):

Those songs that speak of love without having within in their lines an ache or a sigh are not love songs at all, but rather hate songs disguised as love songs, and are not to be trusted. These songs deny us our humanness and our God-given right to be sad and the air-waves are littered with them. The love song must resonate with the susurration of sorrow, the tintinnabulation of grief. The writer who refuses to explore the darker regions of the heart will never be able to write convincingly about the wonder, the magic and the joy of love for just as goodness cannot be trusted unless it has breathed the same air as evil – the enduring metaphor of Christ crucified between two criminals comes to mind here – so within the fabric of the love song, within its melody, its lyric, one must sense an acknowledgement of its capacity for suffering.

Take off your mask,” Childress hissed at Rust as blood dripped from the detective’s gaping wound.

This demand exists in tandem with the program’s final scene of Rust and Marty together, escaping the hospital and contemplating the stars. Rust is rendered vulnerable at last, confessing that during his time in the woods, “I could feel my definitions fading... all I had to do was let go, man… I could still feel her love there… nothing but that love.” 

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Take off your mask: this is what the best art demands of us. Let go of your safety. Let go of your identity. Embrace your need for the story. Embrace your darkness, and gather around the light. We need to share tales. What offers comfort, if not permanent escape, is friendship – the light and warmth of connection with another equally scared, equally vulnerable human being. So long as we can see the stars, we will keep telling stories – to ourselves, for ourselves, with our friends near and far.

Almost (Entirely) Human

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Lately I’ve been re-discovering the joys of television. I don’t mean sitting listlessly, mindlessly, drooling in front of the goggle-box; I mean sitting down to focus on something with good writing, good acting, meaningful themes and contemporary resonance. It also has to be a ripping good yarn.

Almost Human only came to my attention through the mass advertising campaign that welcomed its arrival on the telly in November. Its birth was delayed by some strange TV scheduling voodoo, but it came nonetheless. My initial interest was only lukewarm, to be honest. Sci-fi isn’t really my thing.

I wasn’t able to sit down and actually watch an episode until late December. “Hooked” is probably too mild a description of my consequent reaction, and it’s galling to realize the show still stands in constant danger of cancellation. It’s one of the smartest, most contemporary things to air on mainstream TV in ages. I don’t like crime programs generally, but Almost Human feels like a thing apart, providing its viewers with a very timely take on where we are now, as a society, in our relationship to and with technology, and by extension, each other. Though it takes place in 2048, the world of Almost Human is very much a world we recognize, what with the pull-and-pinch screens used everywhere, the gleaming, smooth machines people seem to carry, the sense of anywhere, anytime-access, for pretty much anything or anyone. The program seamlessly blends various facets of technology we take for granted (interactivity, connectivity, community) and spits them back in new, challenging ways that aren’t ever predictable or cliched, but rather, thought-provoking, occasionally troubling, but always illuminating.

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Along with the completely cool tech-and-computer gadgetry, a big part of Almost Human‘s appeal lies in the chemistry of its leads, Karl Urban (as traumatized cop John Kennix) and Michael Ealy (as John’s partner, an outdated artificial intelligence model named Dorian). The two share a unique blend of humor, trust, angst, and innate knowingness that reaches past the immediate backstories of their respective characters; theirs is a chemistry recalling some of the great pairings of the recent and not-so-recent cultural past: Laurel and Hardy, Redford and Newman, Davis and Sarandon, Downey and Law. Urban himself says the “touchstone“for the John/Dorian relationship is the 1988 film Midnight Run, with Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin: “There were two characters who were thrown into a situation that neither of them wanted to be in, but through the course of that movie, they learned to depend on each other and ultimately form a bond — but they still got under each other’s skin.”

Not merely two beautiful men acting out a high-tech premise, Urban and Ealy share a beguilingly human bond that is compelling and frequently very touching. Come for the robotics, the show seems to whisper, stay for the humanity.

Indeed, the show’s focus on this humanity, that lies quietly beneath the high-gloss exterior, is what elevates Almost Human from the realm of the curious and into that of brilliance. It helps that the “boss” of the operation is played by the great Lili Taylor, who also shares a wonderful chemistry with the pair. There’s an especially enjoyable frisson between her character and Urban’s, an undercurrent of respect and attraction, mixed with an enjoyable frankness and honesty. These two genuinely like each other. It’s good seeing an older woman in a position of power, not portrayed as some desperate cougar or unfeeling hard-ass, but rather, as hard-working, frequently conflicted figure who inspires great loyalty from her (almost entirely male) team, without resorting to tiresome cliches. It’s good to see Taylor’s Maldonado on mainstream TV; I want to see not only more of her, but more like her.

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And, though Urban’s character is the human (his synthetic leg notwithstanding), the viewer’s empathy frequently shifts to his robotic partner. This is just as much the result of good acting as it is strong writing. Ealy’s characterization is a fascinating mix of warmth and reserve, of easy knowing and child-like awe; he is omniscient and yet awkward, close to indestructible and yet utterly vulnerable. Ealy captures these contradictions with ease and a touching gentleness. We see ourselves in Dorian, even as we identify with the John, the traumatized human trying to make sense of it, and his relationship to (and with) it. John and Dorian are two pieces of a more deep and complex whole, one that seeks to define who and what we are, as humans, in the twenty-first century. No small order, but certainly a good one –and a grand ambition — for a modern TV show.

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Blending with the high-tech, sci-fi elements are classical themes and literary allusions. Last Monday’s episode had echoes of “Ozymandias”, “Kubla Khan”, Blade Runner, Stephen King’s The Two Towers, Greek mythology, and of course, Frankenstein. The nature of relationship to one’s creation is, of course, an obvious theme for a program whose entire premise is based on human/synthetic interactions. But newer episodes are probing this theme more deeply, asking questions about what it means to have awareness, to be creative, to grow up –and what it means to relate to another being, and if we can accept the price of an ever-shifting identity in an ever-shifting world, and integrate that experience with those around us who might be enduring the same thing. The latest episode also featured some fascinating allusions to post-modern feminism in the form of Gina Carano’s super-vicious assassin-robot. I keep thinking about the fact “Danica,” near the start of the episode, chose the sexy female body (after being stuck with a featureless male one), that delighted gleam in her eye as she spotted the voluptuous figure under a white canopy and later admired herself in a mirror, “wearing” the figure, as if trying on a new, perfectly-fitting dress. Robots too, it seems, have the capacity to equate sex and power, and the desire to feel the connection between the two within their own corporeal realities. “Danica” wanted to feel sexy inside, in a way that matched her power in the outside world. It was an utterly fascinating scene, one that points (again) to some very smart writing. (Bravo, Graham Roland.)

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People still think of smart television as being, by and large, the bastion of HBO and AMC (and perhaps Netflix too)… but that’s changing. Let’s hope Almost Human turns the tide here, and doesn’t suffer the same fate as Firefly, another beloved FOX show cancelled too soon. If online blogs, boards, and Tumblr are any indication, there is a wild forest of dedication that’s as deep as it is wide for this program. Hey TV executives: some of us want the entrancing mish-mash of literary-come-sci-fi brilliance that mixes old and new, human and synthetic, feeling and moving, sexy and nerdy, entertaining and smart. It’s perfect. Keep going. The other side of the Wall is waiting; let’s dip a toe in — synthetic or not — and see where we go from here.

Please?

ELL. YOU. VEE.


Today is the Super Bowl. Along with the inherent drama of watching grown men crash into each other as they engage in a kind of life-size version of a chess match and the fact that the New York Giants are involved (go Giants!), I’ll be watching because this year’s Halftime Show looks amazing. None other than Madonna herself is set to perform, along with LMFAO, Nicki Minaj and M.I.A.. Oh, and Cirque du Soleil are involved. If that isn’t entertainment with a capital “e,” I don’t know what is.

When the whispers of her appearance began circulating a few months ago, there were the predictable snickers and groans. What’s the Queen of Pop doing hopping around, glamorous and a-glitter, amidst the quarterbacks? But the Super Bowl isn’t strictly about sports, and you can’t get a more entertaining live performer than Madonna. I was schooled in this many years ago when I, full of cynicism and disliking both her image and canon, was dragged to her Girlie Show tour. Not being Catholic, I couldn’t understand her obsession over the religion (probably why Blond Ambition didn’t appeal to me, or much of her early work) but being in the very new, very scary-meets-cool world of university (ie artsy lectures, cute professors, pub nights, and my own car) meant I was interested in notions of female independence, and what that meant to the wider cultural world. Where did I fit in? Madonna’s hilariously arch, if brutally honest album Erotica, and her photography book Sex, did a lot in terms of helping me figure out that place. Sexual being? Thinking being? Feeling being? All of the above. Next.
Through the years, I’ve developed an enormous amount of respect for Madonna. I love that she’s never been cowed by those snickers and groans, even as she fearlessly integrates so many different aspects of her interests and personality with such single-minded ferocity. Even when she showed us her (fantastically fit) naked body in Sex, paraded down a Gaultier runway topless, referenced Hindu imagery in dance numbers (or Judaism in music videos), Madonna never seems to give a fig about the outrage over her choices. It makes me wonder at her resilience, and about how she’s handling the mean-spirited criticism that’s cropped up the last few years around her face -more specifically, the work on her face. The entertainment industry hates, despises, loathes and abhors ageing. All the praise for Betty White conveniently cloaks the ugly if basic fact that she’d never be cast in a sexual role, that if you’re in the business and plan to age au naturel, you must be sweet, docile, and most of all, dumb (or be really, really good at playing dumb, and have a publicist who can work that angle relentlessly). You must be non-threatening and totally lovable. It goes without saying Madonna is none of these things, and has no interest in pursuing or cultivating those qualities.
The comments on Madonna’s face -and her ageing (she is fifty-three) -range from the catty to the downright nasty. Many have a nasty sexual vulgarity to them, and others are sniping and mean, implying there’s something awfully, terribly wrong with a successful woman over fifty climbing into bed with a twenty-something man. I find this kind of immaturity discouraging, but it’s also inevitable, the result of a relentlessly youth-oriented culture where only those under twenty-five are deemed sexually desirable. Annie Lennox pondered this dilemma, but Madonna is less interested in examination than in entertainment, and really, you can’t blame her. Like it or lump it, that entertainment demands an eternal esthetic of youthfulness. Her video for “Hollywood” from the 2003 album American Life underlined this awareness, offering a scary, freakish depiction of the demands of fame, and of a society where youth (especially female youth) is deemed more important than brains, ability, even talent.
She continues to play with our notions around entertainment, fantasy, and ageing in her latest video, “Gimme All Your Luvin’,” a cheeky little dance number with a pulsing electronic beat and the lady’s deceptively wispy vocals. (Don’t kid yourself: there’s steel behind that sound.) As Madonna, in full Bardot-esque makeup, shakes her big blonde mane (hilariously outlandish extensions or glamorous tresses? who cares?) or walks sideways along a wall with a team of faceless muscular football players supporting her, or walks coolly be-shaded with a pram, or has a (clearly thrilled) Nicki Minaj and (too-cool-for-school) M.I.A. bounce around as her cheerleaders, she isn’t trying to compete with the Gagas, the Britneys, the Katys, or any other would-be pop princesses. She doesn’t need to. She’s competing with the long-held ideas -ours -of how a famous person (famous woman, make that) should look, should move, should sound. The demand to “Act/Look your age!” are just plain boring, in the same vein as the accusations of her affecting an “accent” at the Golden Globes. “You’re from Detroit,” sniffed an online poster. Those attitudes don’t faze her. Like any good pop diva, Madonna seems dead embarrassed by her roots, and fully conscious of her vanity. Why should she act like “one of us” (or put on an act of faux-humility, as so, so many in Hollywood are so good at doing) when she clearly doesn’t move in our world anyway? Those offended by her lack of humility find her pretentious; those inspired by her steely-eyed confidence find her fascinating. There is no middle ground.
Still, Madonna wants to remind us: there’s an album, there’s a movie, expect a tour. This is how it’s done. She’s reminding potential viewers at tonight’s Super Bowl (the football fans, her fans, fans of pop culture itself) that she’s still a force. Does she need to? Yes. Amidst American Idol and America’s Got Talent and The Voice and Glee, Madonna is saying in her iron-hand-in-velvet-glove way: I was here first and I still do it better than all of you. Past this hardness lies the plain truth: she loves doing it – loves the performing, the entertaining, the singing-dancing-sashaying-hopping-bopping singy-songy madness that is pop. Don’t you?
Refusing to be defined (or limited) by her age, by her family, by her motherhood, by her charity efforts or even by her poptastic past, Madonna is defiantly, definitively present in the harsh here and nowness of 2012 Pop Music. While we applaud sixty-two year-old Bruce Springsteen’s latest opus with nary a word about his appearance, we snark over the face of a fifty-three year-old woman, ignoring the euphoric rush of joy her beats bring us, the heady fantasy that the artifice of the pop world presents. It isn’t fair in the real world. But the pop world isn’t the real world; like its namesake in the art world, it’s all about glamour, fantasy, superficiality, and a perpetual youth. We experience those things vicariously whenever we listen, causing a little dance across the kitchen or a tap of the fingers on the steering wheel or a wiggle in our office chairs. We become that young smooth being again, carefree, fierce, uninhibited, curious, and open to everything, investigating the limits (and dizzying non-limits) of our own potential and the joyous exhilaration of true independence, ever-mindful of what being a woman means, for good and bad and everything in-between. Maybe, just maybe, amidst the bleeps and bloops of that ditty, we could take a little holiday. It would be so nice.
Photo credits: Top – AP Photo, Matt Slocum; Middle – Herb Ritts; Vanity Fair collection from Madonnalicious; Bottom, still from “Gimme All Your Luvin'” music video (Interscope/Live Nation) with artwork from Sound Off Music blog.

Pleasing Spectacle

Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… returned to Canadian television in mid-March with a gorgeous music-filled episode that featured Sheryl Crowe, Ron Sexsmith, Jesse Winchester and Neko Case. Sexsmith and Costello performed a particularly affecting version of “Every Day I Write The Book“, with a simple arrangement, two acoustic guitars and voices. Another songwriter-focused episode featuring Richard Thompson, Levon Helm, Nick Lowe, and Alain Toussaint; the season closes with a two-part Bruce Springsteen interview and music session.

That’s a big part of what I so love about Spectacle: its stripping-down of fancy-dancy songs to their bare essentials. Rather like a less-hip cousin to Unplugged (but one with an incredibly good wine cellar), the show features a good slather of intelligent, artist-to-artist chat, discussing woodshed-ish chord-change stuff as well as inspiring books, poems, and places. Simply put, the show is a celebration of musicianship, artistry, and sonic inventiveness, with a good dose of humanity, curiosity, and discovery. These are human beings in Costello’s able hands, not mere superstars. His fascination and respect for his guests shows, and it’s inspiring to watch.

Rounding out the big-name guests on April 3rd will be the repeat showing of the Spectacle taster offered back in December, with Bono and The Edge of U2. I first heard about this episode far before its airing, when the program was taped the week the band were in Toronto last September. My curiosity was stoked, if only because the opportunity to see members of a super-mondo-mega-band in a small venue struck me as a unique opportunity to see taken-for-granted artistry up-close.

Stadium theatrics aside, U2 have always struck me as keenly aware artists. It was good to hear bands like Kraftwerk and Neu! get a mention by Bono as important influences; I sometimes don’t think a band of U2’s stature are given proper credit in terms of their passion for the decidedly non-mainstream sounds that have influenced them. Maybe it’s because those kinds of bands -the stadium-filling ones -aren’t thought of as artists, ergo, they never get asked the kind of artist-focused questions Spectacle specializes in. I’ve always heard a lot of different influences in U2’s work, while marveling at the way such off-the-radar sounds can be re-envisioned and rejigged for mass consumption and appreciation. Is that the mark of true artistry? Or just being clever? I’m still working that one out (though I’m sure longtime producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois would have something to say, being incredible artists in their own right. I’m still waiting for Costello to interview them…).

Whatever the case, friends will probably tell you I have an unusual (bizarre, offbeat -take your pick) appreciation of U2’s creative output. Part of that appreciation includes a song called “Please“, taken from U2’s woefully under-appreciated 1997 album, Pop. I was excited when I heard Costello had opened this particular tune; Mr. Pump-It-Up taking on “Please”? Yes please.

Words, together in some mystical sacrament with music, have always provided a heady, hearty kind of sonic seduction for me, and “Please” is the dark, dangerous lover in the night: imposing, insistent, important, passionate, scary, mysterious, operatic. Oh, and smart. Touching on themes common to U2’s music -God, choice, humanity, a capacity for love, forgiveness, violence and intransigence -the song had, at the time of its release, a particular connection with the Irish peace process. Seeing it live (for the epic PopMart) had precisely the same effect on me as seeing Pavarotti at The Met many years before: it was shattering. “Please” is a very underrated piece of art that is every bit as vital, moving, beautiful, sad and searing as it was when I first heard it. (Also, the video for it is genius. Kudos, Mr. Corbijn.)

When I tuned in to Spectacle last December, I was dismayed to find that Costello’s cover had been cut from the broadcast. I can only speculate the reasons why, but suffice to say it was a huge bummer. But the woe was replaced with a chorus of Hallelujah for the internet: I found another acoustic version of “Please” performed by Elvis Costello in 2000. I can only imagine the audience that September afternoon was treated to something similar.

Years may have etched a few more lines into faces and made hitting those high notes a bit more trying, but time has done nothing to that dark dangerous lover of mine: “Please” is every bit as breathtaking, thrilling, and overwhelming as the first time. Spectacle is so much more than mere spectacle, and sometimes -just sometimes -so are super-mondo-mega-bands.

Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… airs in Canada on CTV and in the U.S. on the Sundance channel.
Check local listings for air times.

When Internets Die

(Note: I wrote this lastnight. Enjoy... )

At the time of writing this, I have no internet connection. Rather like withdrawl from a serious drug habit, I’m shaky, nervous, unsettled, angry, … repeat. It’s interesting timing, considering that lately I’ve been considering my life pre and post-internet age, with the same question cropping up at the end of all considerations: what the hell did I do before it came flashing and html-ing into my life? I don’t use it to surf idly -though I think there’s value in that -but like many in the media world, as the basis of my day-to-day communications and work-related tasks. Everything, from pitching a story, to chasing down the key players, to prep to research to fact-checking to writing and final product requires my use of the interwebs. When did reporting and writing get so complicated? When did streamlining become mainlining? How did simplicity get so complex? The loss of the internet has left me with a host of questions related to the nature of my activities and creative choices. I resolved to do something useful with my time -useful in a way other than that as defined by internet surfing, that is -by writing both creative and journalistic stories, talking with friends, and sitting with my addiction -feeling it and not judging. Harder than it sounds. I’m restless by nature and I suppose regular exposure to the internet feeds that.

Still, lack of one connection means a different -perhaps familiar – connection, redefined and rediscovered. It was with a mix of annoyance and resignation that I came to accept the fact that I was -am -cut off. An internet-equipped friend kindly helped me in some necessary prep work but I’d turned on the telly in the hopes of filing the gaping void of non-connectedness; I don’t just use the internet for information, but, like many, for connection with others -close, far, known and unknown. Television just doesn’t fill the same hole. But I’ve come across some really, extraordinarily good programming.

Among the many delectable offerings on AUX’s excellent, arty-leaning video flow was the Michael Franti video for the catchy, peppy ska-meets-funk-pop single “Say Hey”. Filmed in Rio, the video is a bright, powerful shot of pure, unadulterated joy. Franti dances joyously with kids -tweens and toddlers alike -along with grandparents and assorted musicians. Damn. If I had internet, I thought, I would’ve missed this little gem from one of my favourite artists who released, in my estimation, one of the finest albums in recent memory. The depiction of joy in “” gave me a far greater feeling of connection and reminded me of the power of music -to move hearts, mountains, and minds.

Speaking -typing -of moving mountains, the Choral section of the Ode to Joy just finished on Bravo! and I’m recalling the tender memories I have of seeing Sir Simon Rattle conducting the very same ten years ago in Royal Festival Hall in London; it remains one of my dearest memories of London, to this day, though it was hardly the first or last time I saw the piece. The memory of my night at the Hall, however, remains seared in memory, and comes back jut that much clearer without the techno distractions I’ve become such a willing slave to over the past few years. Now I see Beethoven’s Hair has come on -it’s a documentary directed and co-produced by Larry Weinstein, a wonderful Canadian filmmaker I had the opportunity of interviewing for Inside Hana’s Suitcase back in the spring. Larry had told me during our wide-spanning conversation that he loved making the doc about LVB, and tonight of all nights, here it is. Of course, I wouldn’t have known about it unless my internet connection had died. I’m tempted to say I’m grateful.

Could I have heard the Ode (and learned of poor Ludwig’s possible lead poisoning) chained to the elusive, semi-illusory velvet handcuffs of internet connectivity? I caught the ode – this celebration, this tribute to human capacity, capability and credo to greatness, to compassion over cruelty, to space over time, to choice over tyranny -after being forcefully cut off from a terribly isolating habit. Now alas, the addiction isn’t over yet. I’m still itching to check my mail, check Facebook, see what people are doing on Twitter and blast around from site to site, ping-ponging between videos and articles and sounds and sites.

But, much as I love it, I cannot deny that the central role I’ve given the internet in my life has closed me off to plumbing further depths -imaginative, cognitive, sensual, creative -that I know are awaiting rediscovery. I think I need to reconnect -and not just with the bobbing heads and cold letters on my monitor, but with the reason I started this blog: a keen passion for music, art, and all the other cultural things that colour this short existence. It feels like the least I can do -for me, and indeed, for you, the reader.

Screaming Muppets

Muppets. Death metal. What a mash-up. Maybe I’d have a greater appreciation of death metal if it’d been presented this way to me as a kid.

I adored The Muppets as a child, and to this day, it remains a firm favourite in the pantheon of cherished childhood television programs which included The Incredible Hulk, The Dukes of Hazard, Three’s Company, The Bionic Woman, old episodes of The Twilight Zone, and last but definitely not least, Wonder Woman (I lashed more than a few limbs -mine and others’ -attempting to perfect my lassoing skills, and was committed to wearing my star-covered underpants outside my trousers, much to my mother’s chagrin).

Thanks to the good folks at Transbuddha for pointing up this vid, and kudos to the playful spirits behind it.

Vexed

For those who missed Letterman lastnight…

Full rumination on Phoenix’s transition -real or not -at my Myspace blog.

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