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Category: books

Nostalgia Smack-down: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child VS Stranger Things

HP vs STThis hot hazy summer brought us a spoil of riches. We were treated to two superb pop culture phenomenons that tweaked our childhood nostalgia.(warning spoilers) I don’t want to give too much away, but in order to compare these two seemingly unrelated  media artifacts I will have to explore a few details. In both offerings the adults take a back seat and the kids fuel the adventure, but talk about your cursed children! (Oh Barb, we barely new you.)

harry-potter-and-the-cursed-child Both The Cursed Child and Stranger Things play heavily into our collective consciousness. We associate these things with mostly fond memories of our youth. Reading the many reviews of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child I began to see a pattern. People were just as excited to write about the ritual and anticipation of waiting and acquiring a new J.K. Rowling offering than talking about the play itself. With myself I found the expectation to be both very high and low at the same time. I really wanted to be back in that world again, because when you’re there, it is totally immersive. I also went into it with the knowledge that this wasn’t a complete novel  but a snapshot (co-written by J.K.)  in the form of a play and that ultimately the best way to experience the story would be to see it performed live. Like most of the readers who picked up the play, it didn’t take long to reach the end. So how did it fare?

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Revisiting these characters, I was a little worried that my ideal impression of them would be tarnished. How would they be portrayed? They even played with this idea by presenting different versions of each character that exist in alternative realities. I was delighted that in no matter what reality Ron and Hermione had feelings for one another, but Happily Ever After is not a real thing, even Han and Leia broke up over a problem child. J.K. embraces real life, (hog)-warts and all and the Cursed Child explores many of the pitfalls life has to offer.

Daddy issues play heavily into the Cursed Child affecting many characters especially Harry and his role as a parent. He has no compass to navigate these waters, having lost his real father as a child and then his two surrogates (Sirius and Dumbledore) in his teens. We as readers take on the parenting role in a diminished fashion; watching these characters (we see in some way as our own) behave in ways we can’t control. The Cursed Child can elude to a multiple of characters in the play, along with the expectation we place on this story. How can it  not be cursed?  Cursed but not without magic.

1385b630-2c31-0134-0ca6-0a0b9a139ea7Speaking of cursed magical children, Eleven has a tough go of it, along with her own personal Daddy Issues amped up to well…. 11. Stranger Things came out of nowhere. It hit the perfect 80’s sci-fi sweet-spot we didn’t know we were craving. It wore all it’s influences on its sleeve and did it with unwavering homage and unquestionable affection. As a child of the eighties I was in heaven; from the soundtrack to the wardrobe to the details I was transported back to my youth. A time when your bike was your lifeline to the world because there was no such thing as a cellphone. Our heroes have to use walkie-talkies to communicate to one another.

Stranger-Things-TV-show-on-Netflix-season-1-canceled-or-renewed-590x332The reviews are in and Stranger Things has become a bonafide hit. Word of mouth is loud and non stop. As quickly as we read The Cursed Child we binged all 8 episodes. Stranger Things had an advantage over Harry Potter and the Cursed Child being that it had no preconceived expectations or canon to be accountable to. It however firmly placed itself in some pretty big shoes. The parallels between early Steven Spielberg and early Stephen King are unmissable.  To bring a tale of two Stevens and do it well is a rare occurrence.

pQjYuG8lBoth the Cursed Child and Stranger Things use nostalgia as their hook but it’s the characters and the story that distinguish them as great. I was initially worried about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child but was left with a sense of satisfaction and closure. Now the big thing that worries me: can Stranger Things season 2 deliver on our new high expectations?

Leo, Marty and The Devil in the White City

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Resurrected from development limbo; it was just announced that Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio were teaming up again to bring Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City to the big screen. So on this occasion, I thought I’d revisit 3 posts that feature our 3 main players.

A must read for anyone interested in everything Chicago, Architecture, History or Serial Killers. The true life events will fascinate and repulse you in equal measures. My full review here. The Devil in the White City Book Review

THE GREAT GATSBY

Before Leo will sink his teeth into the monster that is HH Holmes, he wore the suit of Fitzgerald’s consummate chameleon playboy. Baz Luhrmann turns up the Jay-Z and inspires prom themes for the next 3 years. My review here.

The Greatness of Gatsby 

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Last but not least,the best way to describe this next post about paintings found in movies is all in its title:

I like this one: One dog goes one way and the other goes the other.”

Harry Potter and the Crimson Cloak

latest“It’s bigger on the inside!” Ron exclaimed as he and Harry crossed the threshold of the most ordinary cabin you ever laid eyes on. Ordinary in the sense that it was 200 miles from nowhere, in the middle of the Arctic tundra and painted a bright Cobalt blue.

Up until a very short while ago Ron and Harry had been hot on the trail of an unknown object of extraordinary magical power. Their job as Aurors had taken on a new role: to track down and investigate objects of exceptional magic. (Normally this kind of task would have been handled by a different department of the Ministry of Magic, but still five years after the vanquish of Voldemort, many dark wizards had rightly decided to return to the path of the straight and narrow and Aurors were being  utilized for other things.) Their job of finding extraordinary magical objects was made that much easier with the help of the enchantoscope. The enchantoscope was an invention of Ron’s father Arthur Weasley who had made some alterations to a regular sneakoscope so it could now detect all types of magic, rather than just the dark ones. The enchantoscope had led them to a curious looking jingle bell in an antique shop in the town of Cokeworth.

Harry and Ron’s over anxiousness and slight competitiveness had them reaching for the bell at the same time. Turns out that it was no ordinary bell, but rather a portkey. The shock of being transported from the cozy warmth of a quaint antique shop to the frigid temperatures of an Arctic wasteland tends to knock the wind out of a person. Harry smiled as he cast a warming spell to help unfreeze the look of surprise on Ron’s face. They certainly weren’t dressed for the elements and needed to get out of the cold as quickly as possible. The enchantosope was going wild in Harry’s pocket urging them towards the blue building in the distance.

The door was unlocked when they tried the latch. It opened up to a long corridor leading to another door. The walls of the hallway were lined with hundreds of hooks over top of low sitting benches. The hooks were all waist high. It appeared to be a coatroom for house elves or maybe worse – goblins.  The room smelled of gingerbread. Ron and Harry exchanged glances and then took out their wands to be on the safe side and shed some light on the far away door.

The second door too was unlocked and opened up to an enormous hall filled with workbenches and machinery. Tools covered every surface. Everything was scaled for tiny hands except for a massive desk and wardrobe off to the left of the hall situated under a massive stain glassed mural of a map of the earth. Light filtered through the coloured panes, casting the map onto the floor. Harry noticed a difference between the window and the image it cast. The cast image not only showed the continents and countries of the muggle world but also the concealed and secret places of the wizarding world. Hogwarts and Diagon Alley were clearly marked as well as countless places all over the globe. There were far more of these than even Ron realized. You could also touch the light and enlarge any aspect of the map you liked. The enchantoscope was going mental.

“Blimey!” Ron exclaimed as his gaze found an enormous shelf at the end of the hall that looked like it contained every toy he had ever wished for as a child. Harry watched him as he bee-lined for a wizarding chess board that appeared to be carved from dragon’s teeth. Harry meanwhile made his way over to the desk. It was littered with parchments written in every language imaginable. The enchantoscope motioned towards the wardrobe. Harry proceeded with caution and gingerly opened the door. Inside he found an enormous crimson cloak trimmed with white fur and jingle bells for buttons. This was the object that had led them here. The cloak gave off a warm intoxicating feeling not unlike when Harry had taken Felix Felicius or when you’ve had too many butterbeers.  Harry was about to call Ron over when he caught the reflection of a figure on the surface of the brass bells. Standing behind him was a wizard with a great flowing white beard.

“Great Dumbledore’s ghost!” Harry thought to himself.

“Hello Harry.” came a familiar voice.

 

HagridtreeThere’s two things that I’m a total sucker for: Harry Potter and Christmas. I came late to the world of J.K. Rowling but was soon smitten. I started with the third film: The Prisoner of Azkaban (in my opinion the best film in the series) and was intrigued to see how the story played out. The first book I read was the next in the series: The Goblet of Fire and after that I was thoroughly hooked. I loved how each book matured in its writing style corresponding with the age of Harry. I caught up right in time for the release of The Half-Blood Prince (in my opinion the best book in the series) and experienced the crazy anticipation for the final chapter of the tale of Harry Potter. That same anticipation I would equate to waiting for Christmas morning as a kid.

In my mind Harry Potter and Christmas are linked. Every book touches on the holiday in some form or fashion. Even the darkest book in the series The Deathly Hallows has Harry and Hermione in Godric’s Hollow on Christmas Eve. There’s a quiet moment of beauty and hope that follows that fact; even though it takes place in a graveyard.

latestChristmas has come early this year for Harry Potter fans in the form of a series of new stories from J.K. Rowling published on the website PottermoreYou have to sign-up to access the new content but it’s free. The site will also sort you into one of the four houses if you like. Apparently I’m Ravenclaw – who knew?

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Related: 6 Degrees of Harry Potter

                6 Degrees of Harry Potter II

                6 Degrees of Harry Potter III

Gone Girl Audio Book: Are You Hearing What I’m Hearing?

gone girl audioSo I just finished reading listening to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and let me say baaad idea. Normally I wouldn’t spell bad with three As but somehow this felt warranted. My biggest bone of contention isn’t with the story itself, (mind you, this isn’t going to be a glowing review by any stretch) but rather the medium in which I consumed it. It started off well enough; the wife and I had a long car ride over the Thanksgiving weekend and nothing kills the hours of driving like listening to a mystery unfold. I find audio books work best for long trips or repetitive chores like painting a room or doing housework, but most times I’d prefer to read. After the trip we were 5 hours into the story and only had a measly 14 hours 11 minutes to go. Ya, if you did the math, that’s 19 hours and 11 minutes of repetitive did he or didn’t he/ he said – she said? (Let the spoilers begin)

At the core of Gone Girl is a clash of perspectives. We get the man/ woman perspective, husband/wife perspective, urbanite/suburbanite perspective, no spin/ media perspective and the real you / perceived you perspective.This is both the greatest strength and weakness of Gone Girl and listening to the audio really brings this to the surface. The narration duties are split in two by Julia Whelan voicing Amy and Kirby Heyborne voicing Nick. This was great at first, but as the hours passed listening; it became more and more grating. The problem being: both Amy and Nick spend half their time imitating the other, so in the end you are listening to a man do a sarcastic nagging woman’s voice and a woman doing a monotone bitter man’s voice. I can see it reading better in the book as it highlights the gaps of knowledge and  presumptions even married couples can have with one another, but as a listening experience it became painful and editorial. I don’t blame the voice actors for this; they both did a tremendous job, but rather the material they were working with. Their inflections and delivery affected the way I perceived the characters a little too much and in the end I felt like I was being led around by the nose. Audio books can live or die by their narrators. It is often said that authors usually make for terrible narrators. In the end, I think I would have preferred my internal narrator, but even so that might have been a stretch.

Gillian Flynn created two extremely unlikable characters in Amy and Nick. Nick has deluded himself into thinking he’s a good guy but falls short in every respect while Amy is just amazing, but not in a good way. Flynn wears these characters like puppets to spill out social commentary and pop cultural references that serve her more as an author than complete the characters overall make-up. In a story with two distinct voices already vying for dominance -three’s a crowd. She does a great job addressing the obvious trial by media observations along with the death of print media, but comes on a little too strong with her backwoods moron from Sheboygan treatment of anyone who doesn’t live in a city or doesn’t wear irony like a pair of over-sized glasses. The cultural rift Nick and Amy experience when moving to the small town highlights their shortcomings, but perhaps a little too much emphasis might have been given to the idea of cool.

Speaking of cool; the ‘cool girl speech’ Amy gives, stands out like a sore thumb. It stands out for two reasons: it’s a lie masquerading as the truth and it is misogyny masquerading as feminism. The story of Amy and Nick is accurate in the respect that when two people are pursuing one another in a serious relationship they tend to be hyper versions of themselves. They go the extra mile to impress and are willing to be challenged by their partner all in the hopes that their efforts may lead to a permanent commitment.  Once the permanent relationship has been secured, efforts may fall off -a little or a lot. When you introduce the ‘cool girl’ into this mix, it panders too heavily to the male fantasy and the balance of power becomes too lop-sided.  Although we know Amy is an extreme personality with psychopathic tendencies we get the idea that Flynn’s trying to make a point with this speech. Is she pointing out how ridiculous this approach is or is she stating a fact as she sees it? Gone Girl deals with the role women play in society and especially marriage. Amy is transplanted to a place not of her choosing but by marital obligation and without the distraction of work or the big city she focuses her energies on new projects. It is the over the top version of the bored housewife. In the end (major spoiler) Amy gets everything she wants and all her deeds go unpunished. Her behaviour and actions are vindicated and Nick has been rendered impotent.

Gone Girl does a good job of stringing you along revealing the right amount of information at the right time to keep you interested. At times, it is a hard hitting exposé on marriage and relationships and at others; its nuggets of wisdom are mired in hyperbole and hypocrisy.  If I were to do it again, I’d definitely read the book rather than listen to the audio or maybe save myself 16 hours and just go see the movie.

 

The Greatness of Gatsby

the-great-gatsby-partyEvery decision that Baz Lurhmann made in turning F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book The Great Gatsby into a motion picture was the right one. Right, but not necessarily good. The problem with making this film is; the source material is a fundamentally flawed piece of writing that has had more greatness foisted upon it than are hidden in its pages. Don’t get me wrong, the first time I read the novel I enjoyed the world of West Egg sure enough, and having just seen the film I still enjoy it but……….. let the spoilers begin.

THE GREAT GATSBYThe world that Fitzgerald created is one of longing rather than one of condemnation. Many words have been devoted to the corruption of the American Dream and the marginalization of the valley of ashes all under the guise of an apathetic blind God … yadda yadda yadda. If that was truly Fitzgerald’s intention, than it kind of makes him a hypocrite. Fitzgerald in real life wasn’t adverse to tipping a few back and seeing where the night would take him. He surrounded himself with eccentric and interesting people who came together in one of the most decadent scenes in human history: Paris in the twenties. He didn’t stay at the party for a brief moment but rather checked out seven years later. Fitzgerald drank the Kool-Aid and then handed it to Baz. It’s the spectacle that the movie uses for its armature to hang everything around and I don’t believe this would have offended Fitzgerald in the least.

GG-06742r-1386x693Say what you will about the American Dream; a theme that works for me is that there is nothing more exhilarating than arriving at a good party already at full steam and nothing more depressing than staying a little too long and watching the steam slowly escape. ‘The sweet life’ always ends with the party goers standing on a beach starring at an enormous dead fish. You can never recapture that initial high and if you try you will always be disappointed. Chasing the dragon is a fruitless endeavor and in Gatsby’s case his dragon is Daisy(Carey Mulligan).

careymulligan_2550464bThe movie shifts gears from the book with its portrayal of Daisy and her relationship with Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). The love story never really translates in the book. Everything Gatsby does is for her but you never can reason why. She’s like that girl in those Twilight books: an extremely two dimensional character that the people around her are willing to move mountains for. Why exactly? Well Hollywood tried to answer that question by amping up the love story  and turning Daisy into a more sympathetic character.  This is all about dollars and cents; no one would go see a movie where you don’t care if the guy gets the girl. Baz knows where his bread is buttered. This leaves you with the feeling that The Great Gatsby is no longer a book or even a movie but rather an industry. It is a pop culture artifact engineered to sell fashion, sell a soundtrack, be a star vehicle, sell a technology (the first thing I thought of when I heard Gatsby was 3D!) and most importantly make money. Take that: corruption of the American Dream, pass the Kool-Aid. It feels like a movie made by a committee. You can hear the pitch meeting in every frame. It’s too bad too, I loved the style of Strictly Ballroom and didn’t even mind the Jay-Z soundtrack but I felt like I was constantly being sold something. Sad thing is, I got the same feeling when I read the book; Fitzgerald was trying to sell the idea that he was a more important writer than he was.

CBSs-The-Great-Gatsby-Book-CoverThe book has some wonderful imagery and symbolism but feels a little inconsistent overall. The movie is more consistent but tends to spell everything out and goes a little overboard on the symbolism, especially that of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. It seems the film can’t go twenty minutes without checking in on how the green light is doing. I predict college kids will eventually turn this into a drinking game. The Great Gatsby is told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator: Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). He goes along with everything that people put in front of him and then at the last minute is indignant at the results.  The film doesn’t even touch upon his relationship with Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) with very little consequence. It is theorized that Nick represented one side of Fitzgerald’s personality while Gatsby represented another.

THE GREAT GATSBY“Who is this Gatsby?” This is supposed to be the big mystery that never really is a mystery in neither the book nor the movie. Having said that,I have to admit Leonardo’s reveal would  be my favourite part of the film. Baz nailed it; it was so over the top it was kind of awesome. Close-up, champagne glass, smug expression,  Rhapsody in Blue playing in the background and epic fireworks all added up to one of the most perfect/hilarious entrances for any character anywhere. Gatsby: ‘the poor son of a b*tch’ (a line conspicuously absent from the film) becomes more of a tragic character in Baz’s hands than Fitzgerald’s, along with the rest of Generation Egg. We are intoxicated by their decadence and apathetic to their plight.

Both the book and the movie are unabashed constructions of their times and this is where in their greatness lies, but just like the  green light off in the distance we never quite get there. ‘Pass the Kool-Aid old sport’.

3.5/5

The Strange and Wondrous Story of the KLF

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Be ready to ride the big dipper of the mixed metaphor. Be ready to dip your hands in the lucky bag of life, gather the storm clouds of fantasy and anoint your own genius.  –The Manual: How to Have a Number One the Easy Way

I’ve been told by numerous people that the newer version of the BBC series: Dr.Who is well worth the watch. I took a few hours out of my holiday schedule and put it to the test. It did not disappoint. When I was a kid, stumbling upon it while  surfing the thirteen channels that were available at the time was a mixed blessing; intriguing but kind of scary. I remembered the Tardis, the Daleks, the silver painted Doc Martens on the Cybermen, the Dr’s striped scarf and most of all the theme song and those trippy credits. Certainly one of the greatest theme songs in television history. While watching Dr. Who I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. 

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Before any Whovians start to comb through their collective databases looking for the lost Mu Mu episode; The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu are also known as the KLF, The Timelords, the JAMS, the K Foundation or Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. Who are they you may be asking yourself? In 1992 they were the biggest selling British act in the world, and then shortly after that they literally let their fame and fortune go up in flames.

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The story of The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu starts in 1987 when the duo decided to form a hip-hop band. Influenced by the Discordian philosophy popularized by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s novel The Illuminatus! Trilogy, armed with a digital sampler and a desire to appropriate the canon of pop music they released : WTF Going On? The record samples The Monkees, Dave Brubeck and ABBA among others. No royalties were paid for the use of any audio clips.  ABBA‘s lawyers eventually had the record destroyed over its use of Dancing Queen in the track The Queen and I. Unfazed by this; they followed the same formula and released Doctorin’ the Tardis in 1988 under the moniker The Timelords. The song combines Gary Glitter’s Rock n’ Roll Part 1 and the Dr. Who theme. The song became a number #1 hit.

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After achieving pop chart supremacy, they decided to write a ‘how to manual‘ so that anyone could beome a pop star. The Austrian band Edelweiss followed the manual to a number one hit with Bring me Edelweiss sampling ABBA’s S.O.S.

 Because it is only by following the clear and concise instructions contained in this book that you can realise your childish fantasies of having a Number One hit single in the official U.K. Top 40 thus guaranteeing you a place forever in the sacred annals of Pop History. Other than achieving a Number One hit single we offer you nothing else. There will be no endless wealth. Fame will flicker and fade and sex will still be a problem. What was once yours for a few days will now enter the public domain.

The book itself was a humorous indictment of the music industry. It even came with a money back guarantee.

klf-chill-outIn 1990 Jimmy Cauty together with Alex Paterson formed the Orb and helped to invent the genre of ambient house music. Around this time The KLF also released the seminal album Chill Out which Mixmag voted the 5th best dance album of all time. Cauty soon left the Orb and continued on with The KLF. After the success of Doctorin’ the Tardis the band took on a more electronic sound. Hip-Hop’s influence was replaced by House Music. What Time is Love?, 3.am Eternal and Justified and Ancient featuring Tammy Wynette all appeared on the album The White Room. The band became critical darlings and helped define popular British music of the early nineties.

In 1992 The KLF won the Brit Award for best Dance Act and then promptly retired from the music business. Their final performance was at the awards ceremony. They finished their song by firing a round of blanks over the heads of the crowd from a machine gun. They originally wanted to spray blood on the audience but the BBC weren’t having any of it. Disenfranchised by the music industry they decided to call it quits, delete their entire catalogue, destroy all their merchandise and liquidate their earnings. Their actual Brit Award was found years later buried in a field just outside Stonehenge.

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In November of 1992 Drummond and his friend Zodiac Mindwarp attempted to drive to the North Pole where they were going to bury a picture of Elvis Presley in hopes that his soul would seep into the core of the earth and cause world peace. They got as far as Lapland before they nearly froze to death. Eventually they gave the picture to the keeper of the northern most lighthouse in the world and returned home. Their adventure ended up as a book entitled Bad Wisdom.

After paying their taxes and any outstanding debts, the KLF were left with 1 million quid. They set up the K Foundation and decided to get into the art making business. Their first  idea was to take the million dollars and nail bundles of 5o thousand dollars to the wall of a gallery. No gallery would accept it due to insurance reasons. After universally being rejected, they decided to burn it. On August 23rd 1995 on the Island of Jura the KLF burned 1 million pounds in a furnace. You can see it in the documentary here. This of course raises so many questions.

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I have a hard time wrapping my head around this act. Is it art? Is it a comment on the vacuousness of pop music? Is it a sheer act of will? Is it anti-materialism? Is it stupid? Is it genius? What would Dr. Who do?

True to their word, they have disappeared from the spotlight. They burned extremely bright for a brief moment and then went out. Think what you will about them, but one thing’s for sure ‘KLF is going to rock you.’

The Family Fang: Book Review

Child A and Child B are the titles that Caleb and Camille Fang bestowed on their children: Annie and Buster. Needless to say, Annie and Buster aren’t too jazzed about these particular monikers or a number of other things that their parents have foisted upon them as they were growing up; all done in the name of art. Having famous performance artists for parents may sound like a dream come true for some, but these Fangs have teeth and sometimes they bite.

What people can get away with all in the name of Art can make you think twice. Artists have free reign to shock, amaze, horrify, titillate, entertain, bore, critique and push the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable.This is exactly what we want our artists to do. They are often the ones out on the front-lines pushing things forward. They make the large sacrifices of body and spirit to keep the gears spinning. We appreciate their hard work in the safety of galleries or the spontaneous happenings in public places but how far can you go in the name of art? Is there any sacrifice too large?

Joseph Beuys‘ Coyote: I like America and America likes Me would be an example of a sacrifice not a lot of us would be willing to make. It takes a certain level of commitment to lock yourself in a gallery with a live coyote to make a statement  about a country you’ve never visited and have it as your only experience of that place. Beuys’ performance is thought provoking, beautiful and a little crazy. The problem with crazy is that there are different types of crazy: good crazy and bad crazy. Artists like Joseph Beuys and Matthew Barney are the right kind of crazy. They have singular visions that are both complex and well executed.

On the other end of the spectrum, some performance pieces can veer into the realm of weird for weird’s sake or fall into the category a friend of mine from art school coined called: ‘poo-poo clever’. Most poo-poo clever pieces adhere to all the nouveau art speak and hit all the marks but never get beyond the ‘that’s interesting’ in a really boring way. Making art is difficult at the best of times but performing it just adds a whole new dimension. Luckily for us, you would never accuse the Fang family of being poo-poo clever. They approach Art with a Coyote level of enthusiasm.

Kevin Wilson paints a picture of a family where there is never a dull moment. The story is told in the present day from the perspective of  Annie and Buster peppered with flashbacks chronicling various performance pieces executed by the family over the years. The Fangs revel in the mayhem they cause and to them all the world’s a stage. After experiencing some unexpected setbacks in their personal lives both Child A and Child B find themselves once again under the roof of their parents’ Tennessee home. Will the kids participate in the grandest performance of their parents’ lives or do some wounds run too deep?

The Family Fang explores unconventional family dynamics  in delightful and unexpected ways. Kevin Wilson deftly combines moments of laugh out loud humour with elements of raw emotion. The author leaves you with more questions than answers which is a testament to the fondness you feel for these characters. In the end, I’m not sure if the Family Fang are the good crazy or bad crazy but that’s all part of the performance.

4.5/5

Room 237: A Film Review Amongst Other Things

The guy sitting beside me in the theater was beside himself. It seemed as though every outlandish theory proposed by the film Room 237 was a physical assault on his person. He  squirmed, sighed deeply and slapped his head at every turn.  He just couldn’t believe that people could read so deeply into a film. Believe it.

When it comes to art, people tend to see what they want to see or adamantly point out what they don’t see. For some; art’s job is to act as a mirror for their political views or a Rorschach test of sexual appetites.  If you let yourself go, you can see sex everywhere: it can be found anywhere from the pattern in the rug to the design of  our buildings to the shape of our produce. Easy associations can be made and our minds are filled with momentary distractions.  The cantaloupe’s job isn’t to titillate our sexual appetites but simply be a part of a nutritious breakfast. What we see in the produce aisle is what we project and in a lot of cases the same can be said of art. People are bringing their own personal agendas to the bookstores, cinemas, theaters and museums and interpreting things to suit their world view in ways the artist never intended.

This fact isn’t necessarily always a bad thing. Art should take on a life of its own when it leaves the artist’s hands. Good art is rarely so black and white that it can only suffer one interpretation and many of the things we do see were intended by the  artist. The problem arises when people see only what they want to see and in extreme cases twist, reach and distort to fit their personal molds. This is very evident in big media at the moment. Partisan politics has created partisan media where the job is to incite rather to inform. Even the Muppets aren’t immune to these false readings. Apparently according to some; the new Muppet Movie is a liberal stab at big business because Kermit and the gang want to save their theater from a rich tyrannical businessman. Is this really what people come away with after watching that film? It boggles the mind.

I guess for some, art could be considered akin to a maze. Something to be navigated and eventually solved. This is one of the underlying themes of Rodney Ascher’s Room 237. The documentary film explores  a handful of people’s interpretations of Stanley Kubrick‘s movie The Shining. Their theories run from the almost plausible to the ‘are you kidding me?’ – Enough to make you squirm in your seat. Scenes are dissected with the skill of a surgeon right down to individual frames or to how many cars are in the parking lot. Everything becomes symbolic.  The fun of Room 237 is to witness someone’s thought process as they try to convince you that Stanley Kubrick’s face appears in the clouds during the opening sequence, or that a poster of a skier is in fact a Minotaur or indeed the whole purpose of the film is a confession by the director: that he was responsible for filming the fake moon landing footage. The other real joy of the film is to watch Kubrick’s work on the big screen. Along with The Shining you see clips from Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut and 2001: A Space Odyssey. These clips looked fantastic and really made the case for viewing them in the way they were intended.

Seeing the clips from Lolita  reminded me of another work by Vladimir Nabakov called Pale Fire. The book is all about intention and interpretation. Pale Fire is half poem/ half annotation. It is essentially, one man’s interpretation of another man’s art. After reading his dead neighbour’s 999 line poem( which appears in full in the first part of the book) the protagonist twists the imagery into his own personal biography. Nabakov presents a rich tapestry of imagery and symbols just ripe for interpretation. I had a friend in University who explored this work for his final thesis. During his research he plotted every instance that the colours white and black were mentioned throughout the book and devised that Nabakov had intentionally laid the framework for a kind of virtual chessboard within its pages. Once you take into account that Nabakov was a chess master in real life and the premise of the book pits two opponents against each other in a strategic contest, this theory becomes more and more believable or is it just a snake swallowing its tail?

“The sun is a thief: she lures the sea
and robs it. The moon is a thief:
he steals his silvery light from the sun.
The sea is a thief: it dissolves the moon.”
― Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

Sometimes we see in art something that will help our cause or prove our point. Other times, people point out what is absent to make their stand. Should another person’s art be the soapbox for people to spread their views? In some cases it can be advantageous to both parties, a valid point is made and attention is drawn to a work of art. An example of this would be the HBO show Girls. It got a lot of flack and press for what was perceived as a lack of diversity. The show does focus on the lives of four very similar single girls trying to navigate through life in New York City. In the show’s defense: it is told from a specific point of view without trying to be exclusive. This raises the point: should all art appeal to all people all the time?   Of course, art and media should definitely reflect diversity, with an equal voice for everyone, but can we not achieve this through a variety of voices rather than all things to all people. Will we lose individual stories if we have to satisfy everyone all the time? Should art have an agenda and if doesn’t, should we slap one on it anyway?

How we interpret art is heavily entangled in what we use it for.  Is it meant to entertain us, make us think or just sit there and look pretty?  Art can be all things to all people but sometimes it’s just a cantaloupe.

Room 237 3.5/5             Pale Fire 5/5

The Devil in the White City: Book Review

We as human beings can get up to some pretty incredible things. Some can be inspiring and awe inducing where others can plum the depths of  depravity and atrocity. We are truly peculiar creatures. Erik Larson’s book The Devil in the White City explores both sides of human nature through the actual events surrounding the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

At the end  of the nineteenth century Chicago was beginning to make waves on the American landscape . In 1885 it was the home of the very first skyscraper ( has enjoyed a rich architectural history ever since). Chicago would later make it’s debut on the world stage when it won the bid to hold the World’s Columbian Exposition celebrating the 400 year anniversary of Columbus discovering America. Paris had wowed the world four years previous with its exposition of 1889 that became the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower. The organizers of the fair new they had a lot to live up to.

Larson does a wonderful job of describing the highs and lows of undertaking a project of this magnitude. The fair was to become a mini city designed by the prominent architects of the day. The shear size, amount and complexity of the buildings that were proposed seemed to be an utterly daunting task, add the fact;  they had only eighteen months to complete it and you would guess that it couldn’t be done.  The White City (named for the uniform colour all the buildings were painted) was built in Jackson Park on the shore of Lake Michigan. The land was water-logged and inhospitable to the designs of the fair.  Daniel Hudson Burnhamn was the chief architect and the man in charge of overseeing the project. (After the fair Burnhamn would go on to build one of New York’s most iconic structures The Flatiron building in 1902). Burnhamm hired his friend Frederick Law Olmsted ( the landscape architect responsible for Central Park in New York) to design the grounds for the fair.

When the fair was completed, it was a marvel to behold. Along with the stunning buildings, it offered a midway full of exotic spectacles from every corner of the world. The organizers knew they needed a showpiece that would be able to compete with mister Eiffel’s tower. A young man from Pittsburgh named Ferris stepped up to the challenge and changed the world with his invention . The fair was a place of ‘firsts’ . It was one of the first places to use outdoor electrical light on a large scale. Shredded Wheat and Juicy Fruit made their debuts here. It was also in Chicago where America was going to get another first, but this time of a more sinister nature.

Enter the Devil into our little tale. Some people consider Dr. H. H. Holmes to be America’s first serial killer. At the same time Burnhamn was building the fair, H.H. Holmes was doing a little constructing of his own. Hearing of  Chicago’s winning bid to host the fair and the large crowds anticipated to attend; Holmes decided to go into the Hotel business. The one thing that differentiated his accommodations from other hotels in the vicinity wasn’t exactly the hospitality of the staff but rather the inclusion of some rather macabre additions. The Holmes Castle (as it was known) was said to include soundproof rooms, secret passage ways and a huge blast furnace in the basement that could reduce anything to ash.

Holmes preyed on vulnerable women who found themselves in the big city for the very first time. Larson describes a man who’s charms had no bounds as well as his darker compulsions. History and legend have been blurred over the years and the deaths attributed to Holmes range anywhere from 12 to 200. In a signed confession after he was finally caught; he proclaimed to have killed people who turned out to be very much alive. It seems that every word he uttered in his life was wrapped in lies.

The Devil in the White City does a good job of exploring both central stories. The chapters alternate between the fair and Holmes. The events that took place at the end of the nineteenth century are both unbelievable and compelling. The book is full of many interesting historical facts highlighting a unique chapter in Chicago’s history. Larson takes some liberties with some of the events describing the life of Holmes but the writing never veers into the realm of sensationalism.

3.5/5

An Object of Beauty: Book Review

Beauty has a way of opening doors, turning heads, commanding a room, reserving a table and creating a blind eye.We are more readily willing to forgive beauty of its misdeeds. Beauty is power. Lacey Yeager is beautiful and she knows it.  People around Lacey are attracted by her beauty and clamor for her attention; but what attracts beauty? More beauty of course. Lacey is drawn to the ultimate world of  beauty , very expensive beauty – Sothebys. An Object of Beauty  tells the story of a girl’s  exploration and rise through the New York  art world (circa 1990- 2010).  The novel deals in commerce, taste, art movements, trends, forgery, sex, attraction, but ultimately is a love story. Contrary to what you may be thinking, the romance in question isn’t focused on Lacey (although she has many suitors). The romance in An Object of Beauty is between its author and his muse -art.

Andy Warhol Flowers 1970

Steve Martin is known for many things: actor, comedian, musician, author and art lover. It is his love and observations about art that make An Object of Beauty a compelling read. Written in 2010, the book explores one of the craziest periods the art market has ever known. Art experienced a growth and a transformation over those two decades which has profoundly affected the way people view it. Martin shows this shift; in the novel Lacey buys a small flowers painting by Andy Warhol not because she finds it beautiful but because she thinks it will make a sound investment.

As the late great Robert Hughes said,

“The new job of art is to sit on the wall and get more expensive.”

Martin addresses this but doesn’t dwell on it. Martin still views art as an object of beauty divorced from the concept of money. Later on in the book, Lacey’s observation about a Matisse illustrates this nicely:

 “The Matisse seemed to respond to the decreasing light by increasing its own wattage. Every object in the room was drained of color, but the Matisse stood firm in the de-escalating illumination, its beauty turning functionality inside out, making itself a more practical and useful presence than anything else in sight.”

This is written from the perspective of someone who obviously appreciates and lives with art. Steve Martin is well known for his art collection. His tastes and even artists from his own collection find their way into An Object of Beauty.  Along with the titans of the art world like Warhol and Matisse he introduces the reader to lesser know names like:

the amazing still-life painter William Michael Harnett

William Michael Harnett Mr. Hulting’s Rack 1888

The sublime abstract painter Milton Avery

Milton Avery Autumn 1944

and one of Italy’s greatest still life painters Giorgio-Morandi.

Giorgio-Morandi  still life  circa 1950s

The story of Lacey Yeager is the loose framework for the author to hang his affection for the art world.  He has keen eye and a quick wit. Although the story is not without its charm and humour, don’t expect a laugh out loud comedy most associated with the author. Martin has written a subtle meditation on the allure of art and the world it inhabits. If you enjoyed 7 days in the Art World or The $12 million Stuffed Shark this book would be a beautiful companion.

4/5