Jocko Benoit's Writing and Pop Culture Spot

Perspectives on the arts and popular culture from Jocko (Jacques) Benoit. Scattered thoughts on poetry, books, film, television, and other cultural intersections.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Between the Fringe and A Hard Place

More Fringe recommendations in no particular order…

Cloning Mary Shelley: This is the kind of play the word ‘interesting’ was built for. It’s a one-woman show that opens up connections between cloning, Frankenstein and his monster, Mary Shelley, the narrator’s past and present and stem cell research. It’s a fascinating bit of thematic juggling and weaving that works quite well. But the play doesn’t tell me what I should think about it all – a kind of open-endedness I applaud and call cowardly at the same time.

Get Off the Cross, Mary: Sacrilicious to the max when a gay puppet decides to stage The Flaming Passion of the Christ with himself in the lead. It’s a kind of Meet the Feebles for the stage with three Muppet rejects and their ‘handlers’ arguing their way through a jinxed film production. I was revolted and greatly amused. Not for rosary bearers or prudes.

The Centering: A commanding one-man performance featuring a political prisoner who retreats into his imagination to his past and his own inner clown. Touching, hard-hitting and funny all rolled into one, with some deliberately jarring and unsettling moments.

Genericles: It’s tempting to call this the best high school play ever (even though the actors are older than that). It has that feeling, including a cast of guys that I’m sure I went to high school with… Modern ideas about work are thrown into the setting of ancient Greece and run through the wringers of the gods. My favorite line has to do with Pegasus being put down when he breaks a leg. Plenty of cheap laughs along with some very clever bits. My only beef is that the play reaffirms the importance of hard work. [shudder]

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Fringed Again

Another Fringe recommendation:

The Excursionists: If you’ve ever wondered what Monty Python would do with a Jules Verne story, wonder no more. This play gives us two intrepid underwater explorers determined to find a new England now that the old England has sunk. Cannibals, sea monsters, messages in bottles – this is steam punk meets steam ponce and it doesn’t hurt that one of the duo resembles Malcolm McDowell in his Time After Time H.G. Wells role. Inventive and goofy, this play has got to be seen to be disbelieved.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Random Recommendations From the Edmonton Fringe

A few recommendations (somewhat in order) for fellow Fringe-goers in Edmonton this week.

Despite my personal inclination to believe that romantic love is nothing but an ad campaign promulgated by evolution, my favorite two plays thus far at the fringe have been romantic comedies.

The Raven and the Writing Desk: David Belke’s latest comedy has all the elements you’d expect from one of his plays – love in jeopardy, fast-paced humour, poignant realizations, and a top-notch cast with split-nanosecond timing. I laughed so much even my eyebrows hurt by the end. I guess my only complaint is I always leave a Belke comedy feeling a little sad, both that it’s over and that, despite all the real and honest touches that make his couples seem truly in love, love just doesn’t seem as well meaning or as hopeful in real life.

52 Pick-Up: watch a couple’s relationship go through all the familiar stages – except in random order. 52 scenes corresponding to playing cards – each performance plays out in as determined by a deck of cards scattered at the beginning. And it’s not just a gimmick. The play is so cleverly constructed that past and future connect in surprising and touching ways with scenes from late in the relationship actually ‘foreshadowing’ earlier scenes – depending on which cards the actors pick up and in which order. I haven’t seen this play performed before, but the cast in this case is unbeatable, as far as I can tell. This is exactly the kind of originality and authenticity that a romantic comedy needs.

If you’re looking for something a little different, the next two plays are for you.

Identity: The story plays out as a comic book or graphic novel outlining the origins of the superhero Dragonfly and her liaison with an ex-superhero sidekick. With roots in pop culture, serious theatre, and dance, this play is for theatergoers in the mood for something different. Heavily philosophical, the story looks at the division in humans between head and heart.

The Wonders of the World: Recite: Three people in an outlying coastal area are unaware that a large meteor is about to strike the earth. Sounds like an occasion for madcap humour, right? Not quite. The story and characters are utterly unique. The American troupe behind this play is young, but the performances are polished and charming. And the writing (from two of the performers) is original, offbeat and disarming. I’m used to near-nekkid staging at the Fringe and so this play seemed cluttered by props, but the cast uses this excess with ease and skill. There is some very minimal audience participation, but don’t be afraid. The ending of the play will leave you with a small sense of wonder.

And for those of you with a taste for something more Hollywood…

Stealing Venus: I’ve always said what the Fringe needs is more heist plays. Someone must have been listening. This brilliant one-man multi-character performance gives us the entire multinational heist crew. Our main character, though, is not so wrapped up in his work that he doesn’t take time to think about love. In fact, if I have a complaint about this play it’s that I’d like more heist. The set up for the heist is great, but the heist itself isn’t all that interesting – probably because the point of the play is elsewhere.

Living Shadows
: If you want to see what a Hollywood legend truly is, then this play about Mary Pickford is for you. The story mixes the historical with the psychological and gives us a well-rounded portrait of an important actress and filmmaker who helped build the foundations of the movie industry – a reminder that woman have both had it tough in the industry and made major contributions long before our times. Both the performer and the story transcend their “I am woman” generic roots and give us a multidimensional portrait of the artist as a slave to her public.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

I Would Like To Begin By Closing

One of the things I did during my vacation was watch the series Firefly. Of creator Joss Whedon’s three series (including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel) it is probably – for me – the weakest. But that doesn’t mean I don’t find it interesting and even compelling. This sci-fi series is all tarted up as a western and it even has echoes of a civil war that the captain of the good ship Serenity is trying to find closure for – although he is far more likely in any given episode to challenge the powers that be as if for him the war hasn’t really ended.

For a series that hinged on the subject of closure, its abrupt cancellation (just when the characters were starting to fill out and the story was becoming more complex) was at least a little ironic. Sure, Whedon gave his fans some closure with the film Serenity, but to some extent the ultimate fates of many of the characters will hang in limbo – a reminder that even in Hollywood the expected happy ending might be neither. Meanwhile, the DVD release of the series has sold briskly and the ongoing web campaign to reinstate the series hasn’t died out yet.

This is because a cancelled series is a problem for fans who seek things like catharsis and closure in their entertainment. How much do they want closure? Think back to the 80’s comedy mystery series, Remington Steele. I just picked up seasons 4 and 5 on DVD and I had a sense of completion – the whole set… mine at last. But the six-episode season five is a reminder of the difficulty of closure in a TV series.

When Brosnan opted to leave the series to become the new James Bond, he was forced to come back for another season and lose his chance at the role of a lifetime (temporarily, as it turned out) because the studio held him to his contract, mainly because of a fan-based write-in campaign that got the show back on the air. But only for six episodes. Just enough time for Brosnan to lose his opportunity and not enough time for fans to enjoy a full season. Nobody was happy. But the writers did at least try to resolve the romantic relationship between the two main characters and also resolve the mystery of ‘Remington Steele’s’ true identity. Fans weren’t entirely happy, but I thought the series ended on a truly touching note while leaving Steele with many unanswered questions. Perfect for a man of mystery.

Another DVD set out this week yet again illustrates the slippery nature of closure. The new Apocalypse Now package includes both the original theatrical version of the film as well as Coppola’s director’s cut (fifty minutes longer), otherwise known as the Redux version. Director’s cuts are about opening up the vault and saying, “Now here is the film the studio wouldn’t let me show you.” It’s a concept that appeals to anyone who sees film as more art than entertainment. But Coppola, in trying to settle things with a definitive version, has only made things worse for me.

The first version has a mythic feel to it. Sure, it’s in Vietnam, but it could be about any war. And it is a world cut off from the feminine. There is something lopsided about the whole story and that is what makes it nightmarish and deeply psychological. The Redux adds Playmates and a love interest, as well as a lengthy sequence at a French plantation where the war is made more historical and political and specific. These are two different films. My perfect version would leave out the Playmates and the plantation, but preserve the lover character who briefly brings Willard back from the dead-to-life. The love scene gives Willard motivation for that later moment when he decides to not take Kurtz’ place at the end of the film. It’s a motivation the original film lacked. But this scene can’t exist without the plantation scene and so there can be no perfect version of this film for me. It’s appropriate that this film the studio was afraid would never get made by that director gone mad in the jungle can, in a sense, never achieve artistic closure – at least for me.

These few examples of how closure can be imposed and yet thwarted illustrate how even Hollywood can’t nail things shut in a way that pleases everyone. Stories resist perfect endings because the child always wants to hear more before going to sleep, or the audience want to hear the same old story with slight variations. The end of a story is a kind of death and our stories, like their creators, resist endings and, if they have to, go into a chrysalis state similar to what happened to Star Trek until the audience is ready for them again in a new form.

Maybe even little firefly-sized stories get a second chance…

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Braveheart Burn

I recently picked up a copy of the Mel Gibson film Conspiracy Theory. Oddly enough, his character doesn’t mention any Jewish conspiracies at all. It’s a shame he couldn’t be more like the borderline lunatic he played in the movie. But why did I buy any film of his at all? Aren’t we all supposed to now be anti-Mel? If I buy his films am I not supporting his anti-Semitic attitudes? (Oh, and in a neat sleight of mind, we mostly ignore his D.U.I., possibly because so many people have been in the same position - never mind that being a bigot and a drunk driver are two hobbies that equally reflect disregard for human life.)

I bought the film because I like it. I’m selfish that way. But I’ll admit I’m less excited about Mel these days. And his indiscretions have forced me to examine my movie star preferences, and I’ve had to face a fact I don’t advertise too much – many of my favorite male movie stars are fairly conservative politically. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Bruce Willis, Kevin Costner – Republicans all. But the films! The Terminator, Blade Runner, The Man Who Would Be King, Pulp Fiction, Bull Durham – I’d be much poorer in spirit without these films, among many others. But does my fondness for these actors mean that I’m actually much more conservative than I see myself as? (Certainly their action films are about the one man who stands against the many – hell, I live that conflict at least five times before breakfast, so of course I identify with it, even though as a left-leaning person I’m supposed to be all about the collective.)

I can still draw on favorite actors who are noticeably liberal (Robert Redford, George Clooney, Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Nick Nolte… oops, there’s that D.U.I. demon again). So I must be okay, right?

It’s not new territory for those in the arts. For example, many poets had to wrestle with Ezra Pound’s mind-boggling decision to do radio broadcasts in support of Mussolini during World War II. Add to this his unsettling tendency to slander Jews and your impression of The Cantos is bound to be affected. I find it hard to read Pound as a result. (Okay, I find The Cantos hard to understand period, much less read.) On the other hand, my impression of e.e. cummings’ poetry is the same as it was before I found out about his anti-Semitism.

Meanwhile, on the music front, I fully support The Dixie Chicks in their politics, but I’ll probably never buy one of their albums because they’re still just too country for me. Political affinity alone can’t make me like someone’s art. And then there’s Frank Sinatra – a man whose thuggish soul just grunts out in his songs. Why don’t more people hear it like I do? I can never appreciate his singing because the life of the man walks all over the songs as if they were cigarette butts or ex-wives. (Ooops! I just thought of that Frank Sinatra hat scene in Mel’s What Women Want. Things are really not looking good for our boy.)

In his book What Good Are the Arts? (just recently in paperback), John Carey talks about how defenders of the arts want to believe that lives are improved by a person’s proximity to art. Carey goes on to show that not only are noted appreciators of art (Hitler) not changed for the better, but artists themselves – those people up to their necks in the stuff – are not consistently better people than those who stay away from the arts. This point should be obvious to anyone who has ever known an artist. Or who has even stood near an artist.

And the artists whose work we like despite their huge personal flaws are no different than the friends we like despite their continuing refusal to be more like us.

Those of us who work in the arts harbour dreams of making it big, but we don’t realize what that might mean to our ‘legacy.’ Decades from now, readers of my poetry will shudder at the thought of all the dead animal flesh I consumed (just in one evening) and at the number of critics I buried in my backyard because they just couldn’t leave my private life out of their reviews. All I can say is that, at the time, these things seemed more acceptable. Blame it on current socio-cultural paradigms, is what I would tell them. I am/was a man of my times. And God help a future where writers can’t arbitrarily kill their critics. I wouldn’t want to live there. Just as I’m sure many people dread a future where drinking and driving was no longer culturally acceptable. “That bastard Mel,” we intone, even though we’ve had bigoted thoughts and driven drunk at least five times before breakfast. All of us have a sudden ego crash waiting for us out there, never mind if you’re signaling left or right.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Me and Cohen

Just thought I'd mention that I'll be one of the performers at this year's Leonard Cohen Night. Details are below:

5th Annual Leonard Cohen Night (in Edmonton, September 23, 2006)

Leonard Cohen Night returns to Edmonton, Saturday, September 23rd with an evening of poetry and song. This event, presented by the Cohenights Arts Society in conjunction with the first Edmonton Poetry Festival, will celebrate the 72nd birthday of Canada’s favorite poet by featuring local singers Colleen Brown, John Gorham, Jared Sewan and Ann Vriend as well as wordsmiths Jacques Jocko Benoît and Myrna Garanis. The 5th Annual Leonard Cohen Night is the culmination of a two-week celebration that includes Spice Box, an exhibition of women's portraits inspired by Cohen's poetry, at Edmonton City Hall, September 7 - 20. This exhibition will feature works by Tessa Nunn, Glenys Switzer and Raymond Thériault curated by Danielle LaBrie. Join friends, fans and others who dig music and poetry - and ‘Leonard’ - for these unique festivities. Leonard Cohen Night will be held at La Cité, 8627 - 91 St., Edmonton. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22 and are available at TIX on the Square (780.420.1757 or toll free 877.888.1757,

For more information contact Artistic Coordinator Ronald Tremblay at 780.461.9028 - or Cohenights Arts Society President Dr. Kim Solez at 780.710.1644 -