A veteran photojournalist on the Toronto arts and entertainment scene, Julian Bynoe is a Toronto-based cartoonist, artist and arts blogger. From 1996 to 2014, he was the arts/entertainment editor for the street publication The Outreach Connection, and has had articles featured in Realms Magazine, among others.
Cartoonist icon Art Spiegelman speaks at the packed Bloor Hot Docs Cinema for his engaging slideshow talk What the %@&*! Happened to Comics? January 26 to discuss the concept of the comic arts with imagery from the talk; including his 2007 The Simpsons cameo appearance (inset, upper right), the recent Charlie Hebdo incident connected with and debunking the “forbidden” depiction of The Prophet Muhammad of a Persian illustration reprint circa 1307 of Muhammad with Jesus Christ on a modern Iranian postcard (inset, centre right) and his then-provocative 1992 Valentine’s Day cover of The New Yorker (inset, lower right).
Art Spiegelman: What the %@&*! Happened to Comics? (Koffler Centre for the Arts)
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, 506 Bloor Street West
Monday, January 26; 7 p.m.
Slightly fatigued after spending the last four days in China trying to find freedom of expression there on a tour “and couldn’t find any,” the comics artist/illustrator behind Maus was ready to snark but mainly to explain the concept and purpose of the medium, Art Spiegelman returned to Toronto – since the opening of his retrospective currently at the Art Gallery of Ontario late last year – to a full house at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on his lecture, What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?
“It was the best fucking word I could find,” in explaining the noted “censored” measure in his lecture title where he spent a good and lively 90 minutes with a slideshow and Power Point in his lifelong journey with comics, the advocacy in preserving and understanding it, plus bringing up the topic of artistic freedom versus cultural sensitivity in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo incident last month in Paris (more on that later).
“We think in language, but we take longer to give many truths to fix thought into a speech balloon,” Spiegelman stated in his first foray into comics as many of us had during childhood with the first time he picked up a MAD Magazine (“which I thought it was a acronym for ‘Mom And Dad’,” he added wryly) in the 1950s as being a countercultural anathema to the blandness of post-World War II America, then facing the censorship of the times with the introduction of the Comics Authority Code that dominated said industry for the next 35 years.
His praise went to the 1960s underground comix movement and its pioneers like Robert Crumb, which he himself would later join; helped break the mould of what would come by the mid-1980s where publishers became more daring in subject matter over which was once taboo and set fertile ground to allow his groundbreaking Maus to credibility in literature circles by the 1990s.
Spiegelman described the usage of mice as the persecuted Jews during the Holocaust as “a reversal in what was used in Nazi propaganda, as seen in the film The Eternal Jew, as rodents scattered around the screen as vermin. (The mice) was a way of humanizing the victims as opposed to the psychology of dehumanizing the enemy which would make it more easier to kill them. So I developed the mouse mask and borrowing the blank eyes from Little Orphan Annie to do this.”
Never the one to shy away from controversy, especially during his ten-year period of illustrating the cover of The New Yorker back in the ‘90s, Spiegelman lamented the lack of bite in today’s American political cartoon scene as playing it too safe compared to its beginnings by the founder of the practice Thomas Nast in the 1860s, as he put it: “The political cartoon is either one that will last forever or have the shelf life of yogurt.”
Which brings back the point of its power to form opinion or create a reaction as the Hebdo shootings of January 6-7 proved, which he broke into the second part of the talk as Do %@&*! Cartoonists Lives Matter?, showing various cartoons of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad from the Swedish magazine Jyllands-Posten in 2005 and works published by Charlie Hebdo following afterwards and in discussing its long history of French political satire.
Started off in 1961 as Hara-Kiri (“the National Lampoon of its day”), the publication faced off-and-on censorship for its scathing retort on the national scene, then underwent a name change after the death of Charles du Gaulle to linking to a horrendous discotheque fire in 1970 caused it to be briefly banned (mainly over a old French law banning the public insulting of French politicians) and running until 1981, then returning a decade later, in continuing to rib across social, political and religious lines, to which Spiegelman quipped: “Blasphemy (in France) is a delight. It’s great to have it with your café au lait.”
He also pointed out that the so-called the so-called forbidden depiction of Muhammad in any manner is unfounded in Islam nor is it in the Quran, proving it by showing illuminated portraits of Jesus and him riding a donkey together to modern Iranian postcards (yes, you read that correctly); that is until Saudi Arabian Wahabbism in the 1970s started to radicalize the nation’s disaffected that would later bring rise to groups like al-Qaeda to Islamic State, creating the tragedy that cost 17 Parisian lives.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning legend furthered the argument against censorship in all forms, even from Holocaust deniers. “(The) Tiananmen Square [debacle of 1989] is an example of wiping out the memory of a generation that knows nothing about it,” he soberly gave an example of. Calling Hebdo more like South Park, he defended the right to publish work that may offend in the risk of it creating a ruckus in certain corners. “Political correctness isn’t a crime,” he opined, “but it doesn’t really work.”
In closing up, Spiegelman furthered it with focusing on the intolerance of the gunmen responsible for the attacks and their ilk in allowing freedoms of expression and creativity to flourish. “You have to allow the insults or you’re just cutting out (all) thought.” Being a rabble-rouser himself, in regard to his infamous February 14, 1992 New Yorker cover of a Hasidic Jew kissing a African-American woman in the time of racial tensions of the two groups in New York; he so describes his acts quite cheekily: “You can’t shout fire in a crowded theatre, but I set the explosion as close as I could.”
Art Spiegelman’s CO-MIX: A Retrospective continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas Street West) through March 15. Tickets/information: call 416-879-6648 or ago.net.
Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe:NTU/// and Skwatta (Harbourfront Centre)
Harbourfront Centre Theatre, 231 Queen’s Quay West
Thursday, January 29; 8 p.m.
Acclaimed South African choreographer and dancer Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe brought his two solos NTU/// and Skwatta to Harbourfront Centre’s DanceWorks series, after almost ten years away from Toronto audiences, for his three-date stay on tow concurrent themes of concern, the placement of the individual physically and psychologically in this fast-paced world of ours where one can get lost or overwhelmed by, under a 90 minute programme of even and uneven universes.
Strung-up rigging and filtered lighting set the stage up for NTU/// (from the Zulu word muntu for “nothing”), Mantsoe took his Afro-fusion vision to par mimicking Western ballet, tribal foot stomping and a pinch of t’ai chi, manoeuvring around the rigging to the Persian sounds of Homayoun Shajarian and Dastan Ensemble as a slow creep, building up its dramatic tensions, all done with eloquence.
Here he portrays a individual lost in a void like a possessed being about struggle and self-identity in searching for his place in the world, are grand gestures that embolden in its inevitable triumph in shaking off the restrictions placed upon (or forced) by whatever circumstances brought him there, is seemingly a survivor’s tale.
More like a companion piece to the previous; Skwatta reflects the universal question of the squatter camps of the world and not just in his native land, enduring even after apartheid’s end. Under fiery lighting by Serge Damon and a jumble soundtrack featuring Kronos Quartet, Nina Simone, Danyel Waron and South African percussion group Amampondo, the dancer cut a spooky figure in the edges of wasteland against a burlap backdrop gathered on the bottom to indicate squalor.
Much as it tries, this piece isn’t as expressive or intensive as NTU/// in all of its four acts, not by depiction alone. It just isn’t as cohesive as it could be throughout despite the many coloured shades projected to indicate mood and character, but it does get it points in trying to show the social costs of hidden away poverty.
Regardless of the latter’s noble failure, Mantsoe was most welcomed back for his brave and innovative movements for both productions in summing up the purpose of existence and humanity’s striving to do better for its fellow beings less fortunate than themselves.
Since it’s Oscar time come February 22, I thought I’d share a couple of said themed articles for the following:
2015 Oscar Shorts Nominees: Animation (ShortsHD/AMC Networks International)
Left-right: The tenth Oscar Shorts Nominees: Animation anthology currently showing at TIFF Lightbox for a limited engagement are the brightly-coloured Norwegian/Canadian co-production Me and My Moulton and sumptuously gorgeous The Dam Keeper as this year’s nominated examples, along with the Bill Plympton-shortlisted comical noir whodunit Footprints.
In the days before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized the worthiness of animated feature films, their only token gesture for decades was the Best Animated Short category that brought out the best and possibilities from these cartoon gems. Times have changed and while that category has taken a bit of a backseat in lieu of its bigger and coveted Best Animated Feature introduced in 2001, they still get a spotlight in the regarded ShortsHD annual anthology reel programme Oscar Shorts Nominees: Animation, now celebrating its tenth year showing in 350 cities across North America (and streaming in 54 countries via iTunes); that should add some interesting guesses come Oscar Night.
Me and My Moulton returns previous Oscar-winner Torill Kove (The Danish Poet) in this delightful Norwegian/Canadian co-production reflecting on the middle child in a trio of sisters living in 1965 Norway and her childhood memories, waiting in anticipation of a bicycle arriving via mail order from England by their semi-eccentric modernist architect parents, but don’t let that all put you off over its surface simplicity.
Behind it, other than its bright, clean-cut design, modest humour and light jazz score; hides a young girl’s envy of her neighbours and their more “normal” lifestyles and learning that it’s not what it all seems underneath. This selection is more of a celebration of an innocent time and of appreciating the little things life brings.
Disney short Feast, that was shown alongside its Best Animated Feature-nominated Big Hero 6; looks at a dog named Winston and his human who takes care of him from homeless street pup to adult through the meals they share that could be misconstrued as a tale about gluttony, but evolves as a little love story when it intersects with the man getting involved with a girlfriend by first-time animator Patrick Osborne (a name to watch) and Kristina Reed done in a final-line advection method – a steady/unsteady time flow – over the power of love through the heart as well as the stomach.
Poignant and darkly funny, The Bigger Picture by Britain’s Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees who funded the short through Kickstarter uses stop-motion animation to do a unique examination on sibling rivalry between Nick, the younger dutiful caretaker son looking after his dying mother while being overshadowed by his more successful older brother Richard, with the former feeling underappreciated by both sides. Different in the approach she takes in making this film, it also tells of a story of coming together.
Netherlander team Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins and Job Roggeveen gives us A Single Life, that was also shown at last year’s TIFF and one of my personal favourites, about young Pia, who receives a 45 vinyl single record that magically runs through the various stages and ages of her life, but tries to cheat by skipping the needle in a hilarious fashion while at the same time is a cautionary allegory of rushing through life itself was witty stuff.
And this film would have gotten my full prediction in winning the big one were it not for The Dam Keeper (so now it’s a toss-up with this and A Single Life). The longest entry by 18 minutes has Pig, the resident windmill dam operator who’s the town misfit at school and the public in general over his appearance due to his early morning job in keeping the poisonous clouds from their homestead. Bullied and alone, he finds a kindred spirit with the arrival of a pretty vixen classmate with an artistic talent and a big heart that almost gets derailed over a misunderstanding and endangers the town.
Gorgeously animated with over 8,000 pastel watercolour paintings and done in pantomime (with brief narration bits by Sherlock’s Lars Mikkelsen), The Dam Keeper is the most beautiful and original story about friendship I’ve ever seen in many years. If directors Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi take the Oscar for this one, I’d really love to seem them do a full-length feature version out of it in the same style and give those other big animation houses a serious run for the money.
Bringing in the shortlisted contenders that almost got nominated, Bill Plympton’s noirish whodunit Footprints of a trigger-happy protagonist goes a-hunting for the culprit who shot out his window and following the trail of destruction in Plympton’s grotesque style is suspense-building chuckle and Bus Story from Canada’s Tali follows a young bus driver’s dream in driving the school bus in her rural Québec Eastern Township home that slightly takes a tarnish over its rustic, folksy charm reminiscent of Richard Conde’s dark humour are the best runner-ups; but France’s Sweet Cocoon over a caterpillar’s trials in metamorphosis is limp in its ironic and physical comedy and although ex-Disney animator Glen Keane’s Duet of two childhood sweethearts growing up together though sketchy animation flow is pretty to watch, both have blandish predictable storylines.
The major improvement with this year’s reel is dropping the live-action segments squeezed in between the shorts of the previous winner that didn’t do the contenders justice and felt more like “bragging rights” components (sure, you won, but what’s your follow-up?). Oscars Shorts Nominees: Animation is always a pleasure to watch for the animation buffs and gives a chance for future talent to strut their stuff, even for one glorious night.
Oscar Shorts Nominees: Animation, along with Oscar Shorts Nominees: Live Action; runs exclusively at TIFF Lightbox (350 King Street West) through February 19. Tickets/information: call 416-599-8433 or tiff.net..
Whiplash – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Varèse Sarabande/Sony/Universal)
Producers: Justin Hurwitz and Darren Blumenthal
A refreshing indie drama on the pursuit of perfection, Whiplash earned a lot of film critics and filmgoers’ respect (including mine) – and several Academy Award nominations including Best Picture – about a young jazz drummer striving to be one of the giants of jazz and driven by his abusive, if equally impassioned music teacher to the breaking point. And if you loved the music and jazz in general, its soundtrack will give all of which brought this film together by composers-producers Justin Hurwitz and Darren Blumenthal.
Not just staying with the big band stuff, the album throws almost every facet of the genre around from the avant-garde slices (“Accident”, “Carnegie”), quieter lounge modes (“Fletcher’s Song in Club”) and ballroom (“When I Wake”, “Casey’s Song”, “Upswingin’”) with all the vinyl statics and hisses to make it just right by the composers who know how to capture that feel and aesthetic for the original works sitting on par with the basic standards of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” which capped the film’s fever dream climax, Hank Levy’s title track still retaining its honesty, as much as the only non-orchestrated tune here belonging to Stan Getz’s “Intoit.”
With snippets of dialogue from the film to act as bridges to the track wisely used sparingly, its only grand exception is J.K. Simmons’ validly-pointed out treatise on the current state of jazz vividly heard on “Good Job” and drum sequences at times just blisters (“Snare Liftoff”, “Drum & Drone”) under the producers’ watchful production values. Snap this one up when you can.
©2014-2017 Julian Bynoe/Snow Leopard ArtsEntertainment. All rights reserved.