Blog-post response: Why I loved ‘Goodfellas and Marty’s Marvelous Movie Magic’

This is a mushy response to Melissa, Melanie and Marty’s Marvelous Movie Magic from someone in the oh, five percent of the Western world who had never seen Martin Scorsese’s Mafia epic before two little words popped on the “Arts, Criticism and the City” class schedule: “See: Goodfellas.”

Perhaps another work of art will explain why I have lived 66 years without seeing this movie. When I was growing up in rural Alberta, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was published. The non-fiction book told of two convicts invading an isolated prairie farmhouse at night and killing four people. Living as I did in an isolated farmhouse with no lock on the door, the idea was so horrifying that I have not read it to this day. As an adult, I never got over that aversion to depictions of violence and blood. So, Goodfellas: Suspense, revenge, gruesome deaths, twisted remorseless people. In spite of the accolades, I avoided it.

But this GLS course, for me, was about exposure to unfamiliar territory, so I “watched” Goodfellas, skipping about 30 of its 145 minutes to avoid the worst of the bloody bits.

Even still, I loved it. The speed, the brashness, the exhilaration of swooping non-stop through a world that was deeply familiar and yet utterly foreign. Set in the late 1960s and into the ‘80s, this was the world of my young adulthood– the music, the fashions, the cars, the sexism, and everybody smoking everywhere. For me, placing that familiarity side by side with the vicious violence of the gangster world gave the movie a split-personality feel. I reveled in one side of it; I was appalled by the other.

Melissa, who obviously knows the movie well, helped me understand what got to me about it. Look behind Scorsese’s sleight of hand, she said, and notice the way the camerawork, shot composition and soundtrack help tell the story. The fact that the camera shifts viewpoint just before Ray Liotta opens the thumping trunk shows his unease just as much as his expression does, she noted. “Every shot, every sequence contributes to the overall narrative and taking us on the journey through it.” We’re enticed – certainly I was – by the excitement and energy, even as it was clear horrible things were on the way. Melissa analyzed how Scorsese makes us care about clearly awful people: Was it the way Henry was beaten by his father? The way Paulie sliced garlic? I cared because the people seemed real. I remember the glow on young Henry’s face as he showed his mother his first flashy suit, and his mother’s horror: “You look like a gangster!” she said. A small moment, but it revealed the irreparable split between mother and son. He was utterly committed to a criminal life and she was powerless.

To me, Scorsese has always just been a name, but Melanie Friesen’s first-hand description of working with him turned him into a real person. Now when I think of Scorsese and Goodfellas, I will think of a sickly kid at his window, watching gangsters across the street and absorbing every detail. One of Scorsese’s most powerful films came from real-life observation, his former head of development said in her talk, titled “Art: Do what you know.”

Between Friesen, Melissa, and the movie itself, I now have something new in my life: I will never be able to listen to a hovering helicopter in quite the same way again.

— Carol Volkart

 

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Final Project Statement of Intent: The paradoxical world of theatre in Vancouver

In our first “Arts, Criticism and the City” class, playwright/professor Peter Dickinson got my Spidey-senses tingling when he warned that the arts scene “will disappear in this city if we don’t solve the affordability problem” (ex-reporters never stop thinking in terms of front-page headlines). But a week later, actor/ historian/professor Jerry Wasserman said the arts scene is thriving and “Vancouver theatre today is in the best shape it has ever been in.”  Two professors, two views of a theatre world both know intimately.

In my final essay for this course, “Theatre in Vancouver Today: A Paradox,” I explore this apparent chasm, beginning with a few historical glimpses. James Hoffman and Robert Todd’s articles on the history of Vancouver theatre show how it has always been shaped by external forces – booms, busts and changing tastes in entertainment — but ultimately always seems to spring back.

Much of my essay deals with the Pacific Theatre, which fits into the affordability-crisis theme because it is losing its space in the basement of a church at 12th and Hemlock that is being redeveloped for — what else?—condos. The theatre has an interesting history because it was founded in 1984 by artistic director Ron Reed, who wanted to explore themes of interest to him as a Christian (but he’s adamant he does not do “Christian plays.”) The theatre got no government grants or theatre reviews for its first 10 years – the suspicion, never proven, was that its Christian roots were to blame – but that changed when it got its own theatre in 1994. With grants, reviews and even Jessie awards, it soon became a regular part of the theatre community. Its move next year means a riskier, pricier future, but I argue that it will likely survive due to a number of factors, including the tools it developed during its first difficult decade.

As for the broader question of the life or death of the theatre community, I found a more nuanced situation than Wasserman and Dickinson’s earlier comments seemed to imply. In interviews with them and Pacific Theatre marketing director Andrea Loewen, I learned that all three agree Vancouver’s costliness is making life difficult for those in the notoriously poorly paid theatre world. But Wasserman said it’s always been tough to survive in theatre, and people do so through a combination of talent, resourcefulness, hard work and good luck. Dickinson and Loewen were less upbeat about how that’s working out for many people these days, but all agreed the thriving TV and movie industry is helping at least some workers stay in the city. My essay deals with a number of Dickinson and Loewen’s concerns about the impact of the affordability crisis, including the possible exodus of an entire cohort of mid-career theatre workers. There’s Emelia Symington Fedy, for example, who wrote a passionate article in the May 17 Georgia Straight about her plans to leave Vancouver. She was willing to put up with anything to pursue her dreams when she started out, she wrote, but now that she has kids, those sacrifices are just too much. Dickinson and Loewen agreed that losing people like her – well-trained contributors to the arts community and mentors for newcomers – could have a serious impact on Vancouver’s theatres in the future.

My conclusion is that nobody can predict how today’s economic climate will play out in the theatre world. But I note that the gap between the average rent for a one-bedroom Vancouver apartment ($1,950) and the monthly pay ($2,400) for an actor in a Pacific Theatre play seems like a metaphor for the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor in Vancouver. As has so often happened in Vancouver’s theatre history, the outer world is once again making its presence known on the stages of the city.

— Carol Volkart

References:

Brown, S. (2017, June 16). Average Vancouver rental price for 1-bedroom  apartment is $1,950, according to PadMapper. The Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from http://vancouversun.com

Dickinson, P. (2016, Summer). Vancouverism and its cultural amenities: The view from here. Canadian Cultural Review, 167, 40-47.

Hoffman, J. (2003, Spring). Shedding the colonial past: Rethinking British Columbia theatre. BC Studies, 137, 5-45.

Hoffman, J. (1987-88, Winter). Sydney Risk and the Everyman Theatre. BC Studies 76: 33-57.

Reed, R. (2015, Oct. 6).  Ron Reed: I’m a Christian, but I don’t do Christian theater/Interviewer: J. Byassee. Faith & Leadership online publication for Duke University. Retrieved from https://www.faithandleadership.com

Symington Fedy, E. (2017, May 18-25). A goodbye to Vancouver. The Georgia Straight. p. 21

Todd, D., (2013, May 8). B.C. breaks records when it comes to religion and the lack thereof. The Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from http://vancouversun.com

Todd, R.  (1979, December). The Organization of Professional Theatre in Vancouver, 1886-1914. BC Studies, 44, 3-20.

Wasserman, J. (2017, Feb. 20). Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre ‘heart’ Bill Millerd to step down as artistic managing director. The Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from http://vancouversun.com

Wyman, M. (2004). The defiant imagination: Why culture matters. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.

Breaching the Red wall

When something is so unfamiliar to me that it feels like a brick wall, I start looking for crumbly places in the mortar. And so, with my knowledge of Haida art and Japanese manga measuring about two on a scale of 10 (and only because I knew both existed), my first move when I got Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’s Red: A Haida Manga, was to check whether there was anything in it I recognized.

With its bright colours and graceful flowing lines, it was beautiful to look at, but its asymmetrical panels that didn’t necessarily read left to right made it seem chopped up and hard to follow. Characters changed size, shape and even colour from panel to panel, and some were so odd that I wondered if they were human, animal or alien creatures altogether. Time and place bounced around unpredictably, and the storyline – for someone unfamiliar with Haida tales – left me filling in blanks and guessing.

It was the critters that first helped me through the Red wall. As someone with a weakness for birds, I began enjoying Yahgulanaas’s very-human expressions on their faces, such as the shocked one on page 9, during young Red’s quest. On page 65, the birds flee just as Red’s brother-in-law is becoming aware of the “whale” following them, and on page 94, they dramatically and forebodingly announce the arrival of visitors to deal with Red’s offence. For me, nature was another entry point to the book. A background swirl of bouncing ocean, big skies, and moss-dripping cedar giants was familiar territory, beautifully rendered.

But humour — in the book, in Yahgulanaas’s class presentation, and in Nicola Levell’s The Seriousness of Play excerpt — was the best way into the story of all. Yahgulanaas’s tale of his very strong forebear who held a leaky canoe together while urging her companions to stop lamenting and get paddling was the story of a man who loves to laugh. I realized I was likely not mistaken that the little green character who greets the visitors to the village of Laanaas was meant to be a figure of fun (pages 51-54), sticking his tongue out and throwing rocks, and finally being hauled off to bed by an angry-looking mom. Levell’s excerpt included Yahgulanaas’s The Head Waiter, with its bored-looking customer apparently ready to trip an obsequious waiter; and Packing Old Raven’s Pole, a deconstruction of Bill Reid’s commemorative totem pole that has penis-like objects slyly scattered here, there and everywhere.

Once I tuned into the critters, the nature, and the humour of Red, the brick wall crumbled. Even though I still don’t get all its nuances, it turns into a recognizable tale of fear, revenge and tragedy. As for the art form, while Haida images and Japanese comic book influences are there, I would argue that there is so much else there too that the book should be viewed as one giant, gorgeous mash-up. How else do you categorize a tale that includes a submarine/whale being depth-charged; a flying canoe; and a greeting straight out of a Western comic book (“So, wot do you two fellars want ta drink?” p. 53)?

There’s method in Yahgulanaas’s fun, as the very title of Levell’s work points out. The portrayal of villages with their totem poles, their salmon-drying racks, their unique customs and characters, forces us to recognize that a complete culture exists there. The depiction of nature and wildlife reveals a different way of looking at the environment – not as something to be subjected to human whims, but as a force of its own to be lived with and in. Yahgulanaas, with his long history of environmentalism and political activism, may have left politics to focus on his art, but he’s using every tool in his artist’s palette to continue that work in another way.

— Carol Volkart

Lessons in life from a piano teacher

Erin recalls every detail of the afternoon her husband and son died in a car accident – how early on, she had an inexplicable urge to look out the window; how she delayed calling a friend because she didn’t want to seem foolish; how it was exactly 7:53 p.m. when she got the phone call that stopped her life. Anyone who has been through a tragedy knows how seemingly irrelevant details — the colour of a hospital chair, the position of the hands of a clock — stick in the mind.

It’s the gradual piling on of such details — small, simple realities — that makes playwright Dorothy Dittrich’s play about grief, loss and healing, ring true for me.  By the time The Piano Teacher reaches its climax, with Erin — arms raised in a Christ-like pose – releasing her dead (“let them go, let them go”), I believe in her. In fact, in a deep and visceral way, I feel like I have accompanied her on a journey through most of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s classic five aspects of grief  – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, into a glimpse of acceptance.

Besides that grounding in psychological truths, a number of factors add to the play’s believability for me. Actors Megan Leitch (Erin) and Caitriona Murphy (Elaine) play the kind of characters we might encounter in real life: Elaine the warm, wise nurturer we’d be lucky to have as a mentor or counsellor; Erin the brilliant, nervy achiever we might admire from afar. Costume designer Jenifer Darbellay dresses them in ordinary but meaningful clothes — Elaine in loose, sweeping garments that suit her open, relaxed persona, and Erin in a don’t-care baggy cardigan and unfashionable pants, the camouflage of depression. Sound designer Patrick Pennefather keeps the music spare and meaningful, mostly what you’d hear in a piano teacher’s space, but always with the hint of rich orchestral magnificence in the background. David Roberts’ simple set with its generic sofa, kitchen table and chairs could come from any ordinary home; only the strings that serve as doorways add an element of fantasy.

But it’s the interactions between the two main characters and their simple, clear dialogue that truly sweeps me into their world.  Elaine has a born counsellor’s intuition about how to gain her “student’s” confidence and when and how far to push. (Tea, conversation. and instructions to touch the piano every day are a non-threatening start.) Erin, hunched and closed up with pain, is realistically mistrustful, ready to flee at the hint of a wrong move. As would be expected, the two musicians find immediate common ground in music, tossing off insider jokes about Beethoven (“I always thought he was a bit of a bastard”) and Chopin (“His music reminds me of cold, clammy hands.”)  One of the most convincing aspects of Dittrich’s script is her portrayal of the intricate dance that women perform as they move toward friendship and intimacy. Elaine ventures into pie-baking for Erin (“I wanted you to have something sweet at the piano”) and Erin responds with a bouquet of tulips for her teacher. The ebb and flow between the women as they get to know each other could be drawn from real life – Erin’s healing triggers Elaine’s sadness about her own losses, leading to Erin taking her turn as sympathizer and encourager. It’s what women do for each other.

The script gives us some bonus side-truths – not essential to the story, but adding to its believability.  Erin’s marriage was not as perfect as she’d like to remember it, for example. She allowed her love for 20th-century music to be subsumed into her husband’s preference for classical. And when she wanted a window on the landing, to him, it was “not a priority” – marriage-speak for “this will never happen.”

But the strength of the story is in the dialogue, and simple as it is, its subtle shadings reveal how people really communicate. Erin admits to sparing most sympathizers the true depth of her anguish by telling them she feels disoriented, like she “got off the bus at the wrong stop.” But, trusting Elaine, she tells her how it really is: Like getting off the bus at the wrong stop “after having your head blown up into bits and handed to you in a paper bag.”

It’s a testament to the strength of the depiction of the two women that the introduction of handyman Tom (Kamyar Pazandeh) does not destroy the play’s essential truth. Tom – handsome, sunny, available, a Scrabble player no less– is a fantasy figure who does not belong in an otherwise realistic work. There are no exchanges between him and Erin that give a sense of true connection between them; even their quarrel seems to bounce along the surface. If Tom’s role as a second “helper” who brings Erin back into life is important to the play, perhaps it should be filled by someone who is not so obviously there to be a love interest.

But the point of The Piano Teacher is to explore the grief process, and this it accomplishes brilliantly. Very few people will face the kind of tragedy that shatters Erin, but we will all encounter grief and loss in our lives. Toward the end of the play, Elaine tells Erin that her young students try to avoid playing difficult passages, and asks how she handles the hard parts. Erin replies:  “One note at a time.”

A real-life lesson to take away from this play. It may come in valuable sometime.

— Carol Volkart