Thursday, June 19, 2008

Sticks and stones

The American Film Institute hogged another 3 hours of network television time last night to countdown a bunch more self-important films in a self-important industry dominated by a self-important country. Last night's obsession was 10 genre-based Top 10 lists of really, really great movies. Rah, rah America, mom, 'n apple pie. Now, once and for all, we know what the top Sci-Fi movie of all time is. How did we ever live without the knowing? No doubt like apes dancing around an obelisk. Oooooo, and who would've doubted Raging Bull as the number 1 contenda for best sports movie evah? My poor Bull Durham-y heart.

Gack, I shouldn't be so cynical about these lists. I love movies: those from America and those from beyond. I don't even mind the pseudo-drama created by countdown lists. I LIVED my teen years debating Q107's top rock albums/singles OF ALL TIME, lists that dominated the radio and my family's conversation each New Year's Day. Me-then-Mad would've wrestled you to the ground if you doubted the supremacy of Dark Side of the Moon for even a second.

No I don't hate movies and lists. What I hate is the friggin' Hollywood engine that drives film supremacy at the expense of other artistic genres. Neither my local paper nor the local TV news offers any arts reporting anymore. It's all syndicated feeds designed to sell movies and the star engine behind them. Movies aren't even reviewed; some slick sounding guy simply describes the plot in a wormy way designed to make you rip your mouth open on the hook. Then the American Film Institute comes along and, essentially, buys a three-hour movie commercial and passes it off as television programming. Grrr.

Late last week, a former teacher and mentor of mine passed away at the age of 81. By the time I landed in his Canadian Literature class in 1987, James Reaney was already as crazy as a loon. He would block the door with a chair precisely at the stroke of 2 so that any late comers would be humiliated upon entering the room. He would, out of the blue, draw maps of South-Western Ontario on the blackboard and then quiz us as to the names of all the counties. "You must know the place you stand in," he would say. He would point out the window and woe betide you if you couldn't identify the species of tree he was pointing at. Once, he gave us an unidentified sight poem to analyze and told us that the result would be worth 10% of our grade. A week later he handed back the assignments. We had all failed. "I should know," he quipped. "I wrote the poem."

It didn't matter how off he sometimes seemed in class. Rumour had it he didn't cope well around the time of year that his 12-year-old son had died. Truth was, he rarely coped well in class. That didn't mean he wasn't inspirational. We all saw the spark of genius in him and he made me, for one, want to prove to him that I had a spark as well. At times, he almost made me believe I did.

None of what I've written matters, really. Professor Reaney's class is nothing but a distant memory. What matters is that he wrote a trilogy of plays in the mid-1970s that are, in my opinion, the greatest literary works to have come out of Canada. Too bold a statement? How about if I say they are the greatest plays ever to have been written and produced in Canada. Do you know them? Sticks and Stones, The St. Nicholas Hotel, Wm Donnelly Prop., and Handcuffs. Combined, they are his retelling of the story of the Black Donnellys of Lucan Ontario. The Donnellys were a scrappy Irish Catholic family that ran a stage coach business in direct competition with a Protestant family in rual, Protestant Ontario. They seemed to get into no end of mischief which is why we may never know why a mob of townsfolk stormed their house in February 1880 and murdered 5 members of the family before burning their house.

In Reaney's hands this Ontario gothic tale is pure poetry and movement. The sets in the plays call for little more than ladders and crates. The language dances. The themes are epic pinned to a small landscape. Reaney breathes unison and crescendo into the word ensemble in a way that I've not seen matched elsewhere. This trilogy is critically acknowledged as some of the best and most influential drama to come out of this country. Have you seen any one of them produced?

Most of you will answer no to this question. Damn you, American Film Institute. You're like a big old Protestant lynch mob descending on what I consider sacred.

22 comments:

painted maypole said...

i hear you on this

and funny, you're the 2nd person to mention the AFI thing today, and the friend I was on the phone with last night had it on TV. I was FINALLY watching the end of the Tony's (it took me 3 nights. I'm busy. And TIRED)

anniegirl1138 said...

Great last paragraph

AFI spends a lot of time kissing ass. It has no meaning.

flutter said...

Hollywood pats itself on the back about every 37 seconds. Don't think all yer hillbilly neighbors to the south dig it though, k? ;p

Mimi said...

I recently heard a tribute to Reaney and his work on As It Happens: very moving and intriguing. Can you believe I've not read the plays? Ack. Mind you, I don't watch movies much either. Totally out of the loop.

kittenpie said...

The plays sound fascinating. I'll be keeping my eyes open for them now.

And all those lists, well, they are only so much hype and opinion, and really, I don't pay attention any more. Who has time for many movies, anyhow? If I've missed some great ones, I won't have time to go back and catch them for a long time to come, anyhow.

womaninawindow said...

Huh, I didn't even notice AFI nor do I know the plays. Huh...I'm perfectly (un)balanced, I suppose.

I'm wondering if Mr. Reaney had some heavy influence on this post in other ways. You wrote it just like it might be graded. In that I mean it is just so damned smart!

Christine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bon said...

i didn't know of Reaney, not at all. i think a trip to the local library is in order so i can better acquainted...partly for the way you describe the plays, partly for the way you describe the man and the classes. makes me nostalgic for those odd days of undergrad that i'd get so much more out of now. i'll send Dave to fetch.

wheelsonthebus said...

I had the same experience taking a class from Romulus Linney in college. No one knows who he is, either (except Laura Linney's father), but he is a genius playwright.

sweetsalty kate said...

This was the most amazing post...

jen said...

self important? i can't fathom where you'd get an idea like that.

i mean, really. America is about as open and unassuming as they come. and our movies? it's really just a little side business. a distraction. you know, for oil and world domination. er, i mean, wait.

Janet said...

What flutter said. And I have mucho experience with Protestant lynch mobs (I am SO right with you on the Dark Side of the Moon, but don't you know I was told on multiple occasions that that album and others like it would make me go straight to hell. I chose to take my chances.)
I'm going to find these plays - I am part of a theatre group, and we are always looking for good stuff.

Janet said...

I'm familiar with the story of the Black Donnelly's but, sadly, not with Professor Reaney's plays.

I really liked this post.

kgirl said...

because i am morbid, the story of the black donnelys is one of my favorites. chris is from sw ontario, and every time we go to his parents, i beg for a sidetrip to lucan. even though the grave marker no longer says 'murdered.'
i said i was morbid, right?

Beck said...

I'll have you know that as a Protestant, we are much, much too busy having potlucks and singing ASTONISHINGLY lame hymns to lynch anyone these days.

I saw one of those while I was in university! I think it was Sticks and Stones, but I'm a bit fuzzy. And I'm so tired of movies - they're all big dumb amusement rides these days and I'm tired of big dumb amusement rides.

nomotherearth said...

Are you telling me that you studied with THE James Reaney??

Jaw dropping.

Um, YEAH, I know who he is and what he wrote! Not much of a surprise, huh. In fact, I think one of my acting teachers was in the Toronto premiere. My friend (Blocks of Stone) grew up around that area and LOVES those plays. Loves. Ask me what her son's name is. Go on. Ask.

Ok, I am SO officially jealous now.

ewe are here said...

The story of the Black Donnellys actually sounds like something I'd to see.

And I'm with you on Bull Durham ... extremely enjoyable movie. ;-)

Bea said...

I thought of you when I read about his death in the paper. The article quoted someone from the department (I forget who now) mentioning Reaney's response to Jane Austen's Emma: "I loved the ducks at the end of that book." Or was it geese? Either way, poultry that nobody else actually notices in that novel.

Julie Pippert said...

I'm afraid I'm a no. Sadly. But I can become a reading yes at least, maybe.

I can't imagine...it sounds thrilling. Why wouldn't it be produced?

I saw that was on but kids were up and so no TV. I have no idea the list but I feel the same way about as you: morbidly intrigued yet disdainful.

I liked Bull Durham.

But maybe I should not say since I think movies like Legally Blonde and Clueless rock. ;)

(I mean to archive dive after your cryptic comment to me.)

Susanne said...

Thank you for the reminder that there is more to art than the same movies everybody watches.

A few days ago while flipping through TV channels my husband and I found Mozart's Idomeneo going on. It seemed a bit unreal that I a) had never seen Idemeneo before, b) could identify the director immediately though the last opera I saw was in the eighties, and c) it was broadcast live from a theater only about 25 km from where we live.

I'm really happy that there is still public television in Germany where one can see things different from mainstream Hollywood movies, and documentaries made to resemble a thriller.

Kyla said...

This is one of those posts where I don't really know much about what you are writing about (the AFI thing or the professor's work)...but I still love the way you write about it all.

Gwen said...

I love the cranky, thinky, sentimental Mad this post reveals.