Thursday, May 15, 2008

"A man may see how this world goes with no eyes..."

Ack! A quote from King Lear! I'm a fan of synchronicity and this post was inspired by some coincidental events: The Cannes Film fest, Canadian cinema, Jackson Browne covers, Shakespearean ditties... all vaguely tied together by the theme of blindness.

Last night the 2008 Cannes film festival kicked off with the Canadian/Brazilian/Japanese co-production of Blindness, based on the novel by Nobel prize-winning José Saramago (really, if you've won the Nobel prize how can you not preface every introduction with that?). Directed by Fernando Meirelles who also did the excellent City of God and The Constant Gardener, filming was split mostly between São Paulo and Toronto. I haven't read the book so plotwise all I know is that an entire town becomes afflicted with sudden unexplainable blindness. Julianne Moore stars as the Doctor's Wife, the only person in town who can still see, and Mark Ruffalo is the Doctor. All the characters are identified by characteristics or job titles rather than names.

Ben Folds - Doctor My Eyes [originally by Jackson Browne]
The Jackson 5 - Doctor My Eyes [originally by Jackson Browne]

The screenplay for Blindness was adapted by Don McKellar who personally flew with producer Niv Fichman to the Canary Islands to woo Saramago, who had turned down many previous attempts (including McKellar's) to obtain the film rights. McKellar is some sort of Canadian supertalent, being ubiquitously involved in nearly every Canadian arthouse production in the past 20 years as either actor/writer/director or all three at once. You may not know him by name though you might recognize some of his work as writer of the films Roadkill, Highway 61, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Dance Me Outside, and The Red Violin among others. He was hilarious as the sadsack "Sadly, I'm Bradley" in Gary Burns' Waydowntown, the writer/star of the offbeat Canadian late 90's sitcom Twitch City, not to mention the director/writer/star of the very underrated Last Night, an end of the world dramedy that acts as sort of the Canadian opposite of Armageddon. In fact, McKellar won the Prix de la Jeunesse award for Last Night at the 1998 Cannes film fest. Maybe you've even heard his voice through four seasons as the eponymous hero of the animated series Odd Job Jack.

Last night I finished watching the third and final season of the great television show Slings & Arrows. Seriously, this is one of best shows in the past 5 years. Smart, wickedly funny, and a fantastic ensemble cast, the show tells the story of the fictional New Burbage Festival (a thinly disguised Stratford festival) and the behind the scenes shenanigans surrounding the production of several Shakespeare plays. When I first stumbled upon the first season at the library I really had no idea what I was getting into. I was intrigued by the cast & crew that included Paul Gross, Don McKellar (surprise!), series co-creator and writer Mark McKinney (Kids in the Hall/SNL), and pre-stardom Rachel McAdams. Colm Feore and Sarah Polley would show up in the next seasons. As is ritual after watching a show or movie, I pored through IMDb to see what other shows these people are in. That's when I was surprised to find out that three members of the Slings & Arrows cast are actually in Blindness! Don McKellar, of course, who played the pretentious nitwit director Darren Nichols; Martha Burns, who played the leading actress Ellen Fanshaw; and series co-creator/writer Susan Coyne who charmingly played the theatre's administrative assistant Anna Conroy. Not exactly a Slings & Arrows reunion, but some bonus incentive for me to see Blindness when it's eventually in wide release. Part of what makes the show great is the stellar cast that make up the rest of the theatre's denizens, a list so long I'd just be repeating IMDb.

I'd rather not spoil what happens, so you'd do well to pick up the complete series for immediate viewing. Yes, like several TV shows in the UK or Japan, Slings & Arrows was conceived as a complete series with a distinct beginning, middle, and end instead of running indefinitely for years until the writers run out of ideas, or in some cases in spite of writers running out of ideas. As much as I'm a huge fan of Lost, the show took a huge step forward when the creators negotiated a definitive end date, which enabled them to actually plot out the rest of the series with greater certainty.

Each six-episode season of Slings & Arrows follows the production of a different Shakespeare play: Hamlet, MacBeth, and King Lear. Accordingly, each season has a humourous theme song based on that season's play, performed over the credits in the theatre's pub by British acting veterans Frank & Cyril portrayed respectively by Michael Polley (Sarah Polley's dad) and Graham Harley, who sort of remind me of Statler & Waldorf from The Muppets as they drolly comment on the action from the sidelines. Though they sound like they're singing old theatre standards, all the songs are written by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, who were also responsible for the music of The Drowsy Chaperone, the Tony-award winning Broadway musical co-created by Bob Martin (also co-creator and writer of Slings & Arrows) and guess who? Don McKellar.

Graham Harley & Michael Polley - Cheer Up Hamlet
Graham Harley & Michael Polley - Mackers
Graham Harley & Michael Polley - A Walk in the Rain

Graham Harley & Michael Polley - Call the Understudy
Graham Harley & Michael Polley - I Played the Part
Over the end credits, every show ends with Call the Understudy except for the series finale which closes on a bittersweet note with I Played the Part.

Can't get enough Slings & Arrows? Check out this Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project site for behind-the-scenes footage and interview clips, most of which ended up on the DVDs as special features.


Kev said...

Thanks for the headsup Blindness.

About a year ago my brother, who works at Blockbuster, rented the first season of Sling and Arrows on a whim. The whole family enjoyed it very much. Too bad his store only got season one and not 2 & 3. So my parents, who I can't remember the last time they bought a movie for themselves (Silverado on VHS I believe, because it was cheaper than a blank tape), ordered the complete series.

Billy Sargent said...

My kingdom for Cheer up Hamlet! on my ipod!

Fongolia said...

The answer is To Be!
Cheer Up Hamlet