Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Fassbinder and My Birthday

Bumped into a great quote from Fassbinder in a Senses of Cinema article -- I've never seen a director so concisely sum up his project: “Every decent director has only one subject, and makes the same film over and over again. My subject is the exploitability of feelings.” It puts its finger exactly on the pulse of his work.

Poking about such articles as a follow up to a viewing of Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven this evening, it occured to me today that I am now the same age as Fassbinder at the time of his death (also the same age as Lucy Jordan in the Marianne Faithfull song...). He had, in his 37 years, directed over 40 feature films. I've directed none, and never will; in about a week's time, though, I'll have outlived him...

Monday, February 27, 2006

Difficult to Explain

One of those trivial amusements I sometimes report.

(...at a convenience store where I was working, I once had a customer microwave a butter tart in a tinfoil package, which caused the microwave to start to smoke, spit sparks, and ultimately to melt -- there was a big hole inside. Then there's the story about the drunk who tried to shoplift a can of tuna by stuffing it down the front of his track pants. I had to clean it, tho' honestly I can't remember if I put it back on the shelf, or just left it with a note for the manager... And then there's the one about the Slurpee syrup container that had green sheets of mold growing in it, which I was instructed to scoop off the surface during the night shift, since it kept regenerating; the station was changing hands and the old owners didn't want to pay to get the machines professionally cleaned, and would continue to sell Slurpees during the day. If a convenience store clerk ever says, "trust me, you really don't want to drink that," but refuses to explain -- don't ask questions, and, for God's sake, trust him).

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Monsanto Vs. Farmers and the Ecology

A worthwhile article on terminator genes that produce sterile seeds in GM crops... and a list of organizations petitioning to ban terminator technology here. Anyone scared about GM food is directed to seek out the film The Future of Food, which is available on DVD, tho' if it's being widely stocked in Vancouver I know not...

Friday, February 24, 2006

Interesting Local Filmmaker

A fellow named Russell Hunt has come to my attention. Check out Island Universes, in particular -- it's very friendly to altered states of consciousness, note.

Peter Watkins' EDVARD MUNCH issued on DVD

Peter Watkins, British born media critic and filmmaker whose Punishment Park was by far the most interesting DVD release of last year -- though he's best known for The War Game -- has a new film available, a biopic on Edvard Munch, which has been much praised. Heads up.

Charles Mudede on Horse Fucking

Like it says -- Mudede is reacting to the Kenneth Pinyan case of last year. Somehow I find the link he's provided to a picture of Sam the Eagle very, very funny, as do I find the whole article, really, tho' explaining why would be difficult. I hope Police Beat opens here soon -- I want to see it again; the Pinyan case would fit right in to the picture of American life that film crafts.

Cassavetes in the Provinces: on Love Streams Upcoming Vancouver Screening


1. Of or relating to a province.
2. Of or characteristic of people from the provinces; not fashionable or sophisticated.
3. Limited in perspective; narrow and self-centered.

“Who are you doing the piece for?” Tom Charity asks me.

I hesitate. “Well, so far I’ve contacted the Georgia Straight, the West Ender, and a couple of the free papers around town, but no one’s gotten back to me. Certainly it’ll end up online on my blog, and if I can get it into print elsewise… We’ll have to see.” I sigh, afraid that something so provisional won’t excite him. “Do you still feel… is it worth your while doing?”

He laughs. He knows what it’s like; also a writer – the former film editor of Time Out magazine, and the author of John Cassavetes: Lifeworks – Charity has a lot more experience in these matters than I do. It turns out he’s also pitched a similar piece to a local paper that sometimes publishes him. Thus far no one really cares.

I had no idea until recently that the British-born author was based in Vancouver. It happens that I was carrying his book with me as part of a Cassavetes project that I was working on when I happened upon the new Vancouver International Film Center program, and discovered that Charity would be introducing a screening of my favourite Cassavetes’ film, Love Streams, on March 7th (which by coincidence happens to be my birthday). I would write a piece and promote the event, I decided – assuming then that Charity was still based in the UK and would be flying out. Imagine my surprise when I discovered he was here all along…!

Charity first came to BC in 1999, as a juror for the Vancouver International Film Festival, and found the city very appealing. “I was looking for a change of pace. My wife came over the following year and she felt the same way, so we decided to change our life… Which was perhaps not a shrewd career move, but it’s a beautiful city and we’re glad to be here.”

I asked Charity if he felt somewhat stifled by the cultural life in Vancouver. I have several friends who do; though I was born in Vancouver, I grew up in the suburbs, and spent three years on the outskirts of Tokyo before moving back here, living in Kits for a year and then finally settling in downtown. I find myself often drawn to outsiders in their perspectives of the city, and agree with many of my friends from elsewhere that Vancouverites tend to be clannish and mistrustful, and that there can be dry spells where not much of any note happens.

Charity sighs in agreement. “It’s more provincial than we’d realized… But we’re very pleased with the Vancity Centre. The arrival of the Vancity Theatre has focused the Cinematheque’s programming in a good way. I think it’s nothing to be ashamed of, the rep scene here.” The problem is that a lot of the films that screen at these theatres fly beneath the notice of the local newspapers, as both he and I are discovering recently.

I ask him about the policy of certain papers to focus on local movie news, to the expense of commenting on events like the Cassavetes screening. “I think it’s a Philistine position – and you can quote me on that. I know that Pieta Woolley” – the movie editor of the Georgia Straight – “was interviewing Mark Peranson earlier this week, and her angle was, why aren’t you showing more BC films? It’s very, very sad.”

I have my own history with Pieta Woolley, which I don’t mention. I’d had an interview with her a few weeks’ previous, during which she’d asked me to pitch several ideas about the local movie industry that I could write about for her paper. When she finally arrived at the Starbucks, where I’d been waiting for half an hour, she seemed enthusiastic about the stuff I’d come up with: a profile of Leonard Schein, the film entrepreneur who started the VIFF and now runs Festival Cinemas, including the Fifth Avenue and the Ridge; an article, cutely called (I thought,) “Vancouver Plays Itself,” about films where Vancouver, instead of standing in for some large American city, actually represents Vancouver – which I thought would, at the very least, give me a chance to write about Bruce Sweeney’s delightfully local Dirty and Last Wedding, two of the best films this province has produced (I have yet to see his Live Bait). Following the thread, I then suggested a profile of film industry folks caught up in “Servicing the Beast,” working for the obnoxiously big Hollywood productions that tend to take over blocks of our city at a time, often incurring the resentment of local residents and rubbing Vancouverites’ noses with the fact that we’re more important as a stand-in for other North American cities than we are significant in our own right. They all seemed good ideas, and fit her requirement that I write things that are “local film-industry related.” She hasn’t gotten back to me about any of them. Maybe I just didn’t seem enthusiastic enough?

The problem is, I’m not. I’m glad that there are interesting filmmakers in BC, and it’s great that the Straight wants to promote them, but my concern as a cinephile ultimately is to write about films that are worth seeing, wherever they’re from – particularly if they’re going to be playing in Vancouver. We’re one of the first cities in the world to play the new print of Love Streams, which was struck in November for a Gena Rowlands retrospective in Brooklyn. It’s a film which actually has merit in film history -- unlike the relatively worthless Hollywood movies the Straight spends pages reviewing. To ignore it simply because it’s not BC-made seems like a disservice to one’s readership.

Alan Franey, the director of the Vancity Theatre, agrees that a too-local focus is problematic. “We wouldn’t be doing this if we were showing just BC or Canadian film – that’s not the way to serve the industry. The best way to cultivate an industry and to serve BC filmmakers is to be showing the best cinema internationally.”

This is not to say that the Vancity is hostile to Canadian content; in the three months since they’ve opened, Moving Pictures has screened The Grey Fox and Michel Brault’s very interesting Les Ordres, about the FLQ crisis there, and will be running Quebec filmmaker Mort Ransen’s Margaret’s Museum on March 9th. The Vancouver-shot Masters of Horror series screened in January, featuring local actors like Thea Gill and Terry David Mulligan in roles; and Amnon Buchbinder’s Whole New Thing – the runner up for the “Most Popular Canadian Film at the 2005 VIFF” – will be premiering there later this month. A special rental on April 2nd will see Velcrow Ripper’s Scared Sacred playing in a matinee.

I asked Franey if the small turnouts for Vancity events thus far are dispiriting to him.

“I would think that Vancouver is sophisticated enough to sustain what we’re doing, but… well, we’re not New York. The question is what sort of audience is there locally who’s sophisticated enough to know the good of what we’re offering… That almost sounds elitist, but you have your cosmopolitan centers where cutting edge art can be supported, and then you have your smaller cities where that doesn’t happen… I think I have a more resilient spirit in this regard than some of the other people who are working here, who are just so disappointed. I’ve been in exhibition for pretty much all my life – my wife and I owned and operated the Vancouver East Cinema for years, and I was the manager of the Ridge – so on the one side I’m quite used to disappointment, and as far as cinema attendance goes, it just gets worse and worse and worse. But on the other end of things I know it takes awhile, and I know the fundamentals are in place at our theatre… I mean, we’ve got state of the art seats and projection equipment, the building’s fabulous, and we’ve had excellent word of mouth from people who do attend, so I’m confident that it’s going to build and build…”

Jim Sinclair, the director of the Pacific Cinematheque, Vancouver’s other downtown arthouse cinema, agrees with this view. “I think there is an audience for these kinds of movies in Vancouver. It’s not a question of not being sophisticated enough. The Cinematheque has just had its best three years ever,” he reports happily. “We had a record year in 2003, our second best year in 2004, and then again our second best year in 2005 – it surpassed 2004, but didn’t quite make it to the high mark of 2003.” With time, word of mouth, and a sign so that people can see it when they drive by – something Franey admits the theatre is lacking – attendance at Vancity events should grow.

I asked Sinclair if there is any feeling of competition between the Vancity and his theatre. He dismisses the thought. “Anything that contributes to film culture in Vancouver and in BC is going to be good for the Cinematheque. It seems to me that both organisations have a vested interest in seeing the other do well.” Asked about the question of seats, he laughs and says he is “painfully aware” that those at the Vancity are much, much more comfortable than those at the Cinematheque; but he wishes the Vancity nothing but success.

Certainly with events like the upcoming Cassavetes screening, I hope that Franey and Sinclair are right that it’s just a matter of time. I’ve yet to be disappointed by an event at the Vancity, having seen several excellent films there as part of the film festival – most notably the Seattle-made Police Beat, co-written by Zimbabwe-born, Seattle-based Stranger writer Charles Mudede – reviewed here – and several things since, including Joe Dante’s Homecoming, and the eye-opening documentary Workingman’s Death (with a great John Zorn score). Most recently, of course, I attended their screening of Sokurov’s The Sun, about the final days of the Japanese Emperor’s existence as a divine being (reviewed below) and the Les Ordres event. I have tickets for the African film Yeelen, later in the week, and am drooling to see Love Streams again on the big screen. It hasn’t played locally since a Cinematheque retrospective on Cassavetes’ work, shortly after the director’s death in 1989.

As for our being provincial... I admit that the term rankles just a little. I have enough identification with the scene here that I'd like to see venues that do matter to me flourish, and it depresses me, when I see the lineups of obnoxious idiots on Granville Street every weekend or the crowds of young people packing the Paramount, to see truly exciting cultural events attended by a handful at best. The issue doesn't seem to me to be one of BC-made film vs. the rest of the world, but life-sustaining art vs. mindless entertainment. There's far too little of the former in the world for me to go about inquiring where it comes from, when it knocks at the door...

Tom Charity will be in attendance for the March 7th screening of Love Streams, and will introduce the film and provide a Q&A at the end. (The film will also be playing on the 6th, 8th, and 12th). For more of my interview with him, see the March edition of Discorder – I finally found a local paper that would run the piece, and they’ve been most supportive, so perhaps hope is not quite lost…!

I really would have liked to have gotten a piece in the Straight… Guess that won't be happenin' anytime soon...

Post Script:

Blogger Filmbrain points out an interesting little detail of the Criterion Cassavetes Box Set: If you take the slipcase off and look inside of the first pressing of the set, down at the bottom, you’ll find the tiny words “Jimmy Crack Corn.” Whatever this is a reference to – aside from the song, obviously – is a mystery to me, but according to Filmbrain, its inclusion greatly angered the Criterion folks, and the phrase has been removed from later editions, something confirmed on the Criterion Forum, where theories of the meaning of the phrase range from a meaningless personal in-joke between designers and a not so meaningless snipe at Cassavetes’ alcoholism (which, as is explained there, what the song, "Blue Tail Fly," is about -- a slave being happy that his master is dead from drinking. I never knew that). Note, finally, that I have been unable to substantiate the rumour that first pressings of the “Jimmy Crack Corn” edition are fetching a premium on eBay… as of yet.


The Discorder article is online here, along with the opportunity to comment! Cool!

Thursday, February 23, 2006

New Cinematheque Program is Out

Music fans might be excited to note that there'll be documentaries on Townes van Zandt, Shane MacGowan, and Daniel Johnston screening over the next couple of months at the Pacific Cinematheque, whose spring programme is out now. Now if only they'd bring the Minutemen film, We Jam Econo, to town...!

The samurai movies they plan to show will make the wait endurable...

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Walter Murch Introduces THE CONVERSATION at Vancity Theatre

Film editor and sound designer Walter Murch spoke at the Vancouver International Film Centre, also known as the Vancity Theatre, last night, giving one of several sold out talks to a crowd largely consisting of young filmmakers from SFU’s Praxis Centre for Screenwriters. After his introduction, we watched Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation – my favourite of the films he’s worked on, though he is perhaps better known for participation in films like THX 1138, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, and Cold Mountain, and for his work on the posthumous “director’s cut” of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil – many of which he discusses with Michael Ondaatje in the book The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film.(Murch has also written In The Blink of an Eye , which discusses his work in greater depth). The evening was a most engaging consideration of the crafts of both editing and sound design, and I think everyone left feeling quiet respect and fondness for Mr. Murch. For those who couldn't be there, here's a rough recounting of events.

Murch has a fine speaking voice – a deep, rich baritone; and he has the gift of being able to describe subjects ordinarily regarded as somewhat arcane in a fascinating, accessible way, in part due to his facility with metaphors. Anyone unfamiliar with him is invited to explore this article on sound mixing (“Dense Clarity, Clear Density”) here, linked off Filmsound.org’s archive of Murch articles. Since last night’s event, like all of Murch’s Vancouver engagements, sold out shortly after tickets went on sale, I had to sit for two hours on the cold concrete outside the box office in hope of a cancellation; I was first in a long line, and, along with a young actor and Vancouver Film School TA named Dean and an unidentified SFU film student who bitched about the cold an awful lot (but had interesting things to say about the reception of Jarhead), one of three people who were let in at the last minute. (I have seldom had such enjoyable conversations while waiting in a line up with strangers; cinephiles all, we discussed our disappointments with Terence Malick’s The New World, the upcoming screening of a new print of Cassavetes’ Love Streams, and recent exciting Criterion titles, from The Bad Sleep Well to Bad Timing; Dean had the enthusiasm of a true believer, and, coming from Alberta, lacked the Vancouver reticence about talking with strangers; I suspect those who didn’t interact with us directly greatly enjoyed eavesdropping on our conversation).

Murch introduced The Conversation by relating that people often comment that “they don’t make films like that anymore,” telling us that he usually replied by saying, “‘They didn’t make films like that then, either…’ Francis had been nursing the project since the 1960’s, and it was only after the success of the first Godfather film – the film was made between The Godfather I and II – that Paramount grudgingly agreed to produce it.” Murch detailed the production problems of the film; the original DOP, Haskell Wexler, quit and was replaced by Bill Butler; the film went overbudget; and, because Coppola was committed to beginning preproduction on the Godfather II at a fixed date, also went over schedule; there were 15 pages of screenplay – 10 days of material – that they didn’t get a chance to shoot. Francis told him, “Well, Walter, I don’t know – there’s all this unshot material. I think the best thing to do is to cut it all together and see how big the holes are.” Murch shrugged. “There I was with all this footage, and I thought, ‘Well, okay.’”

It was to be Murch’s first feature film; he was to edit it on a KEM Flatbed, a piece of editing technology that was relatively new to American cinema and quite unlike the industry standard Moviola. If I got the anecdote correct, Coppola had brought the Flatbed over from Europe, and The Conversation was the first American film to actually employ it. On top of all this, Murch was trying to edit a film that wasn’t, in fact, complete. (The audience laughed warmly at Murch’s dry delivery; he conveyed his sense of haplessness quite well, though he later explained that in fact being a beginner was probably an asset for him, since he had no previous feature work to compare the experience to). At the start of the shoot, “Watergate was a tiny blip on the horizon – nobody expected it would lead to Nixon’s resignation.” “Sadly,” he concluded, “the film is still very relevant today.”

On seeing it again for the first time in years, The Conversation reminded me, to my surprise, of David Mamet’s Homicide. As in Homicide, a character with a bad conscience becomes morally involved in a situation he doesn’t fully understand, making assumptions about what is happening that are more informed by his own guilt than by a clear perception of events. (The following telling of the film will contain mild spoilers). Gene Hackman, as Harry Caul, gives one of his best performances, as a careful, privacy-obsessed Catholic wiretapper (violating the unofficial film rule that all Catholic voyeurs must be played by Harvey Keitel) whose previous work led to a murder, for which he is trying to escape a feeling of responsibility; he was modelled – as Murch also explains in The Conversations – on Steppenwolf’s Harry Haller, and the film conceived of as “a cross between Herman Hesse and Hitchcock,” though the character study supersedes the mystery. As with Brian DePalma’s Blow Out (Murch would later explain), the film was intended as an “audio version” of Antonioni’s Blow Up, a vastly influential film (actually my least favourite of Antonioni’s) in which a photographer believes he has captured a murder; as with both of those films, everything hinges on the character’s ultimate failure to make a difference in the world he perceives – which can be read as a figuring of the ultimate failure of the audience to intercede in the events it observes on screen, a theme that sometimes crops up in self-reflexive cinema.

Watching the film last night, I was compelled for the first time to wonder about the film’s politics. Caul, at the beginning of the film, believes that he is “just doing his job;” he vociferously denies any responsibility for the moral effects of his work, though his lingering guilt suggests that in his heart he knows better. In hindsight, at the end of the film, it could be argued that he in fact would have been wisest to maintain his distance from the events. Is the film subtly trying to argue against “getting involved,” telling people that they had best not meddle in corporate politics, not to “get in over their heads” in matters they know little about? It seems like a possible reading -- the apathy that stems from hopelessness could be seen as validated by the events of the movie -- but this perhaps doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the film’s final images. When last we see Caul, his cherished privacy permanently lost due to his involvement in the job, there is the sense that he actually has been liberated; he appears to have finally given up his attempts to maintain control of his circumstances, which, given how obsessive and paranoid he has been previously, might just be good for him. The paradoxical liberation he undergoes complicates attempts to read the film as reactionary, as does the ultimately depressing effect the film has on its audience; if a weight has been lifted from Harry’s shoulders, it has been placed squarely on ours, since we leave the theatre feeling both vaguely compromised (having ourselves misunderstood what was going on, alongside Caul) and even more mistrustful of corporate politics than we were on going in.

The most satisfying image in the film for me is that of a hotel toilet, clogged with rags after a murder has taken place, overflowing with blood. Toilets should always overflow with blood: it’s actually an image of great (if unsubtle) poetry, in which shit, guilt, shame, and death all merge together as one. Nothing suggests a universe gone wrong like a bloody toilet.

After the film, Murch returned to the front of the auditorium for a Q&A. I had a question that I have nursed for years about the film, never suspecting that I would actually be able to ask the man, and was the first to put up my hand. (Here the spoilers become terminal, and you are advised to stop reading and see the film before proceeding). The success of the film hinges on one line. Caul has recorded a young couple, played by Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams, discussing their presumed infidelity; they say, at one point, of the man who is paying Caul to record them, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” The line is given a flat reading, one that you hear fifteen or more times throughout the film, as Caul replays the tape, again and again; he believes he is about to become complicit in a murder, and delays in giving the tape to the director of the corporation who has paid him to make it. Since the film keeps us very close to Caul’s perspective, when the murder finally takes place (with Caul eavesdropping from the hotel room next door), we believe that it is the husband killing the wife. The film has a surprise for us: it is, in fact, the director of the corporation who has been murdered, killed by Forrest and Williams as part of a corporate takeover, the actual machinations of which are somewhat obscure. We hear the tape played one final time, and now, given our new understanding of things, hear it differently. Instead of hearing, “He’d KILL us if he got the chance,” the normal reading of such a line, which suggests it is the couple who have something to be afraid of, we hear, “HE’D kill US if he got the chance” – contrastive stress being cleverly used to imply, “So WE should kill HIM first.”

Clever, right? The first time you see the film, you honestly believe, for a few seconds, anyhow, that you’ve heard the line differently, given your recent experiences; you’ve been taught a lesson in how unreliable perception is. In fact, all you’ve learned is how unreliable film editors are. Perception has nothing to do with it: Murch has played a trick on us, a very clever one, but which, for me, caused me briefly to reject the film. The second recording of the line is different from the first, places stress on different words. This was my question to Murch: what was the history of the cheat? Was it conceived of at the screenplay stage, or added in later?
(My scribbled notes are as complete as scribbled notes can be, but I should note that occasionally I am resorting to paraphrase in my attempt to transcribe Murch’s answer, below):

“The intention was for there to be no alteration at all, for the film to be an anti-Rashomon; the key to the film would be that the meaning would change because you knew different things as the story progressed. We found, once we’d finished, though, that audiences had a hard time figuring out what had happened… It was one of the premises of the film that we didn’t want to specify everything. What were the exact relationships between these characters? We presume that Cindy Williams is Robert Duvall’s wife, but she could be his daughter. Is Harrison Ford the mastermind? We don’t know, because Francis didn’t know; he felt that if we knew, the pressure to get rid of the character study and focus on the murder mystery would be overwhelming, so we put…” Murch hesitated. “What do you call those things you put in the ground, in VietNam, that you… Uh…”

After no one else said anything, I offered, “punji sticks.”

Murch nodded. “We put these punji sticks in the story to prevent this from happening.” (This is the one metaphor drawn by Murch in the evening that left me completely puzzled). “You only know what he knows, so we couldn’t do a Perry Mason at the end explain everything that’s gone on. We tried all sorts of things to get the idea across; we added material to the screenplay, and near the end of the process we’d screen it for 10 to 15 people at a time, nothing like these big preview screenings nowadays, and tried to find different ways to do it, but in the end no one really understood what had happened.”

“Well. I was mixing the film – Francis was in New York shooting The Godfather II – and I remembered a reading where Frederic had put emphasis on a different word.” Murch explained that during the Union Square scenes in San Francisco – the opening crowd shots, where the recording of the couple takes place – it was next to impossible to get a decent audio track of everything; after six days of shooting, Murch couldn’t assemble a complete version of their conversation. He took Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest aside and, walking alone with them with a Nagra tape recorder, recorded a “wild track” in which the two said their lines. “In the end, we had a fifty/fifty mix of the actual location recording and the wild track. The giveaway, that you’re hearing the wild track and not the location shoot, is that occasionally you’ll hear killdeer in the background… On take two, Frederic spontaneously came up with an alternate reading, and at the time, I said, no, that’s the wrong inflection, and we did it again. Well, there I was, mixing it alone, and I thought, why don’t I put in that reading? Maybe it will tip people that these are the perpetrators. It was risky; it violated the principles of the film, but I took it to New York and I prepared Francis for it, saying ‘I’ve done this thing with the inflection,’ and he liked it… That’s why it happens to be the way it is. In a way, it’s a case of the exception proving the rule; it’s almost because it violates the principle that we could get away with it.”

Other questions during the Q&A took us to areas covered in the Ondaatje Conversations; what scenes were not in the screenplay? The dream sequence, for one; it was never intended to be a dream sequence, but the “connective tissue” that would have allowed it to be incorporated into the narrative wasn’t there, so the only way to include it was as a dream. The murder scenes, too, weren’t actually part of the script, but were filmed by Francis with no clear how idea how they would fit, and merged into the film as an “editorial improvisation that emerged out of the peculiarities of the film.” Much was also cut from the film, including a complicated subplot in which Caul turns out to be the owner of the building he lives in, which he is not repairing, since he hopes to profit from an urban renewal project in the neighbourhood; when the other tenants get upset about the lack of repairs, they elect Caul, not knowing he actually owns the building, to represent them, in a scene which featured Abe Vigoda. (Somehow mention of Abe Vigoda was sufficient to get a titter from the audience; those of you who are curious may wish to note that there is a Firefox extension that will automatically inform you of Vigoda’s alive or dead status – he is, as of this writing, still alive; there is also a spoof of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” with modified lyrics to refer to Vigoda, available for download - we assume this is all meant fondly). In the end, only one scene required that new material be shot: Meredith’s theft of the tapes.

“When he collects his money, in the original, he’s actually bringing the tapes. Meredith stealing them was actually a plot invention after the fact, done with editorial jiu-jitsu; initially, in the screenplay she was an agent of Moran, and she was there to steal the rolled up plans that you see Harry with. When you see Caul saying, ‘bitch,’ as it was shot, that’s what he’s discovered she’s stolen. We decided to bring the business with Meredith closer to the heart of the matter, but it required one extra shot, of Harry discovering the tape cases empty… In Los Angeles, we made a set of the tape recorder and the background. We were on a soundstage where Roman Polanski was shooting Chinatown, also a Paramount picture, and Polanski was a friend of Francis’. We asked to borrow his camera, and he said okay; we got Gene Hackman’s brother, who was a stuntman, to stand in, and that’s his shoulder you see. If you panned to the side, you’d see Jack Nicholson, with the cut nose, and Roman waiting impatiently to get their camera back.”

Murch continued with the Q&A for a good half an hour after this, giving elaborate, well-spoken, and most illuminating answers, to questions which were uniformly well-considered. Asked about it, he told us there is nothing about the film that he now would change in hindsight, regardless of what new technology makes possible, and he disagrees with the decisions to meddle with Star Wars, THX 1138, and, indeed, Apocalypse Now, though he was involved in Apocalypse Now Redux (no one mentioned Touch of Evil in this context, but assumedly he would approve of that bit of meddling, since it conformed to Welles’ original vision of the film). “If you’re going to revisit these films, you should at least include the originals on the DVD.” He told us that the music existed previously to the post-production of the film, and that the actors, at various points, could hear it prior to shooting their scenes; “knowing the wind of the music could help them set their sails at a certain angle.” (I helpfully butted in to say that Ennio Morricone’s score for Once Upon a Time in the West also pre-existed the movie, and that the film was shot into it; Murch nodded at the non-question and politely reported it via his microphone to the rest of the auditorium.) One of the later questions involved the differences between a flatbed and a Moviola or digital editing, and Murch talked – something he also discusses in his books – about how, with an analog system, you are forced to review material, rather than just cutting directly to the scene you want; this can be a very useful process – “you keep stirring up the compost, aerating the film – things don’t get buried. Linear systems force you to go through the stuff, and you frequently discover jewels. Creativity is frequently liberated by the limitations you face.” Though he acknowledges that digital technology’s advantages outweigh the disadvantages that stem from the lack of rescanning, he feels he needs to compensate for the loss, so he now uses still photographs from scenes he is editing, mounting them on a board in front of him as he works. Discussing this led us into philosophical territory – Murch digressed into thoughts on evolution and how “culture evolves through software” – but I’m afraid his ideas became too complex for me to be able to take adequate notes.

A final discussion involved the creation of distorted digital sounds – Murch’s invention at the time. Digital technology was a “hot topic” in the early 1970’s, and Murch presumed that if Harry could actually edit out the waveforms of the band playing in Union Square and so forth, it would have to be done digitally. Murch had never heard a digital recording at that point, let alone a digital distortion, but he realized that to do justice to Harry’s technology – the device on the rolled up blueprints that Moran is hot to get a look at – and make the scenes believable, the distortions would have to be digital. He used an ARP synthesizer, and filtered voices through it to produce the distortions that you hear in the film. (Apparently THX 1138’s later digital distortions were done by broadcasting recordings of voices over radio and setting the channel slightly off).

After a round of applause, Murch waited at the front to sign books, and I was first in line for that, too. I’d already bought a signed copy of The Conversations at the “merch” – get it? – table out front, but I had important business to attend to. My friend Dan Kibke, a local musician and audio technophile who has done much to stimulate my interest in Murch, had been unable to get in – he arrived too late, was about the twentieth person in the lineup, and was not rude enough to successfully butt ahead of the SFU student who’d bitched at such length about the cold. He passed on his copy of In the Blink of an Eye for me to get signed. I had the perfect inscription suggestion ready for Murch. Dan is a great fan of THX 1138, and one of the canned voices you hear in that dystopian vision repeatedly asks the unhappily sedated consumers and workers, “What’s wrong?” Dan is fond of riffing on this line in conversation, so I briefly explained this to Mr. Murch and asked him if he could sign the book, “To Dan – ‘what’s wrong?’ – Walter Murch.”

I liked Murch a lot for his smirk as he proceeded to do this.

Monday, February 20, 2006

More on Torture in Iraq

The Australian news report, including images from Abu Ghraib that I have not yet seen, has been posted online (it takes awhile for the stream to start, and the images are quite disturbing).

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Sokurov's THE SUN at the Vancity Theatre

Everyone should go to the Vancity Theatre, also known as the Vancouver International Film Centre, at least once a week. In fact, there is no reason to go to any cinemas downtown other than the Vancity Theatre or the Pacific Cinematheque -- if I thought someone would give me money for it, I'd make a pledge. I mean, what have I seen elsewhere in 2006 that has truly been worth my time? (Okay, so I saw King Kong four times. What's your point?).

Alexander Sokurov, the Russian filmmaker responsible for Russian Ark -- which I did not like -- and for several films that a good Russian friend of mine, whose tastes I respect, assures me are fascinating (but which I have not seen yet, myself) has a new film playing at the Vancity: The Sun, which is described in English on Sokurov's website here. (Rotten Tomatoes reviews here). It portrays the Japanese Showa Emperor as if he were some sort of oddly delicate species of marine animal, which is fitting, since marine biology was a hobby of his; the film is worth seeing alone for a jaw-dropping nightmare sequence in which he imagines the bombing of Tokyo as performed by ghostly winged fishlike creatures flying through the clouds and smoke. It's an odd portrait of an odd sort of power, intended to show the "positive" side of the Emperor's decision to surrender; it underplays his complicity in the war and suggests that, sheltered and eccentric, his life controlled by others, he was more relieved than saddened to renounce his divinity -- the act the film builds itself around, though it in fact occurs off-camera. The Sun is slow but gripping; the intensity of its focus made it difficult for me to look away, though the excitements the film has to offer are all perceptual, and I have my doubts about how morally defensible it is, ultimately, particularly given the steady swing to the right going on in Japan... I'd very much like to know of any Japanese reactions to the film, should any readers know of them. Recall that I lived in Japan for three years, and that I got to know a Japanese far-right winger who still asserts that the current Emperor is divine; the issue is not a dead one, over there, with both the flag and the national anthem remaining very controversial among Japanese leftists, suggesting state Shintoism and Emperor worship, inextricably linked with miltiarism in the minds of many. (This controversy is why neither the anthem nor the flag were made official until 1999. Certain teachers at my high school - usually unionists - would refuse to stand when the anthem played, as a symbol of protest). Liam Lacey of the Globe and Mail has called the film morally indefensible; if anyone here is an online subscriber and can send me the text of the article, I'd be most interested in reading it (but not enough so as to give the Globe my credit card info)... Due in part to Issei (for some reason rendered as Issey) Ogata's superb performance, we end up fond of the eccentric Emperor by the end of the film, and sympathetic to his position, which I suppose would be more acceptable (though less likely!) if the film made more clear the suffering that Japanese aggression inflicted on the whole of Asia; the greatest suffering the film shows is that of the Japanese under American bombs, and the second-greatest suffering suggested is that of the Japanese at seeing their Emperor reduced to mere humanity. Pearl Harbour is brought up briefly, but the rape of Nanjing, Unit 731, comfort women, the treatment of prisoners of war, and the cannibalism to which starving Japanese soldiers were reduced are not mentioned (an overview of other war crimes here; for current Japanese commentary, focused on the controversial Yasukuni war memorial, see here). Oh, doesn't the Emperor look like Charlie Chaplin! Isn't he cute!

...and yet the film is interesting, the performances good, and there may be some reason to view the Emperor as removed from the crimes of Japan... so I don't really know; I wasn't truly troubled by the film until after I'd slept on it; I left the theatre with a mild unease, but felt rewarded at the time... Anyhow, as enthusiastic as I am for the venue, I can't entirely recommend The Sun to non-cinephiles out there; it's an intense, well-crafted, and thought-provoking film experience, and perhaps would reward people interested in history, power, or given to a deep interest in Japan, but it's not going to be to everyone's tastes (even my Russian friend nodded off for a few minutes, as she sometimes does). The film runs til Tuesday. I'd recommend going based on the delightful aspects of the venue alone, if any of you haven't been there yet; there are wonderful things happening throughout the next couple of months, too -- well, I could do without the Chinese martial arts films, but let's hope they get the attendance up. (They keep teasing us with this Harry Smith thing... hope it finally makes it here).

I was at the Walter Murch screening of The Conversation, by the way -- one o' the three lucky bastards who got let in at the last minute, since at least THAT event sold out (as opposed to the generally piss-poor attendance I've seen at Vancity events). I'm hoping that I can get the piece I wrote on it published elsewhere, so I'm holding off on posting it here for the time being. If they don't run it, we'll see what I can do -- figured it couldn't hurt to spread my writing around a bit. Besides, nothing I wrote is as interesting as reading Murch himself.

(Matthew Englander, by the way, has also written about The Sun on his blog, and has included links to yet more blogging on the film. Nice that people out there read each other's blogs -- I too seldom explore the blogsphere, but often it's more interesting than what makes it into the papers...)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Sleep Apnea kills Wrestler

Michael Durham, AKA Johnny Grunge -- don't ask me -- died at age 39 this week from complications from sleep apnea, which I also have. (That's me in the CPAP mask, used to treat the condition; when I sleep, air is blown up my nose -- sounds fun, eh? -- to keep my airways open; the chinstrap keeps my mouth shut, so the air doesn't escape). The condition is related to being overweight, so I guess I better not skip today's trip to the gym after all...

UN to US: Shut Down Gitmo

I agree.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Dinosaurs, Doggies, and the Persistence of Advertising

Notice anything?:

After stumbling upon a screening in Stanley Park of the 1933 version of King Kong last summer, as part of the Monsters in the Meadow series, I got to thinking about the horror comics of my youth -- I read Warren publications pretty much ceaselessly. I actually picked up a couple recently, for old time's sake -- mostly stuff focusing on Richard Corben's art, since I'm a fan, including a copy of Eerie #97, which collects Corben and Bruce Jones' time travel stories (I was really fond of dinosaurs when I was a kid). Actually, the original Corben cover, when the first story ran, in Eerie #77, was better. Bear in mind that I was about 11 years old at the peak of my enthusiasm for this stuff -- the naked women were interesting, but not yet a point of obsession:

Anyhow, I just today realized that the cover for #97, by Val Mayerik, is a play on the famous old Coppertone ads of yore (which actually predate me -- interesting that an ad should be so famous that, even though I never saw it at any point in my life, I should have awareness of it now).

While I'm sharing favourites with you, I also always loved this piece by Berni Wrightson, from Creepy #113:

There's a couple of galleries of old Warren covers online here and here. They make delightful desktop themes... I'm surprised the stories in them don't get plundered more often for Hollywood movies; I always thought "Night of the Jackass" would make a very interesting film, in particular, though I haven't read it since I was a teenager...

Paradise Now poses a problem for the Academy

You can read my reactions to the sympathetic portrayal of Palestinian suicide bombers, Paradise Now, by clicking here. The film has resurfaced as an Oscar contender, but a problem has arisen: given that Palestine doesn't actually exist, what country should it be said to come from?

It will be odd if the film wins an Oscar; it’s surprising that it’s been nominated. What could it possibly mean? Are Americans displacing their guilt at completely fucking over Iraq by sympathizing with Palestinians? Is the fear of terrorism a factor, or, given recent history, are more people simply becoming conscious of the problems in the region, and trying to extend sympathy to the underdogs? The film is admirable in ways, and worthy of consideration, though as I said when I first saw it, I think it is not an entirely honest treatment of the subject.

Speaking of not being entirely honest Roger Ebert wrote a review of it here, and offered a wish for the film that seemed to me, on consideration, truly bizarre, saying, "What I am waiting for is a movie about a suicide bomber who is an atheist, who expects oblivion after his death and pulls the trigger after having reasoned that the deaths of his victims will advance a cause so important that he, and they, must die. When religion enters into the picture, it clouds the meaning of the act: How selfless is your sacrifice if you believe you will be instantly rewarded for eternity?" I emailed his Answer Man column to point out how strange this is; how can religion possibly be factored out from a treatment of suicide bombing, when it is, in fact, so central? He is, in effect, wishing the movie were less honest than it already is. He didn't print my letter, alas.

Afterword: anyone interested in Paradise Now would probably be fascinated by this interview with Ali Suliman, who plays Khaled in the film.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Circuit-Bent Toy Symphony at Vancouver New Music

I don't think I can be there for this evening's performance, but anyone who wants to see various sound-producing toys -- Speak and Spells, Casio keyboard toys, and skinned insectile Furbies -- miswired, mutated, and circuit-bent and being used to weave together a bizarre, intoxicating symphony of sound should check out the Oscillations website for information on Personum -- and then head down to the Scotiabank Dance Center, on Davie just off Granville (if, by chance, you're reading this Sunday morning, as I write this, you may have time to make the workshop being given at 2...!). I've spent myself for now writing about Blixa's show, below, so I can't do it justice, but composer Giorgio Magnanensi, also of Vancouver New Music, has put together quite the experience, along with Chris Rolfe (in charge of multichannel spatialization -- basically "glitch mixing" the sounds and playing them back to a room containing open mikes over a surround sound system) and others. The installation portion of this continues until Tuesday; head down between 1 and 7 and you can play with the toys yourself! I highly urge anyone who wants a delightful, thought-provoking, and very weird experience to go check this music out. Concert begins tonight at 8, and it's free!!!

Oh: thanks to Blake Smith for the phrase "glitch mixing."

Blixa Bargeld, Jarboe, F-Space: How to Destroy the Universe 5 at Richards on Richards

I've been occupied by other projects and not posting much on the blog lately. I skipped writing about How to Destroy the Universe 5 at Richards on Richards the other week. Blixa Bargeld's Rede/Speech performance was delightful and very, very funny. After noting that the venue was suited more for Celtic fiddling than what he was doing (and soliciting a gin and tonic from the bar), he gave an engaging and intimate solo voice performance that charmed and amused everyone -- verbs that one would not necessarily have associated with a Blixa Bargeld show, given his at times haughty and imperious self-presentation. (He seems to be developing quite the sense of humour as he mellows and gets more successful; check out his readings from the Hornbach home hardware catalogue here, if you haven't already). Rede/Speech, the piece he did for us, involved layering vocal textures and effects -- even a few beatbox-style thingies -- and performing over them with the help of Einsturzende Neubauten soundman Boris Wilsdorf -- whom he routinely addressed as Mephisto, drily hectoring him over the mike for any "obvious fuck-ups" as the night progressed. He created a model of the solar system for us, beginning with some vocal textures he had the audience provide, droning vocalizations (a "gamma ray background") that he directed us to make "as Buddhist as you can," since, Blixa joked, his universe was a Buddhist one... Boris then set these swirling around the room as Blixa continued building his model, making the sun, planets, and so forth out of sound and words, with Boris setting them spinning too. Periodically he interrupted things with very entertaining monologues, casting light on details of his performance, for instance about the naming of asteroids (scientists began by ascribing asteroids names from Greek and Roman mythology, but after these ran out, had to progress to other things; there are, as yet, no politically incorrect asteroid names -- no Mussolini, no Hitler -- but there are asteroids named after Frank Zappa -- Zappafrank, actually -- and John, Paul, George, and Ringo... Click the Zappafrank link to read an interesting little article about all this). A few screeching comets, added as a final touch to his solar system, once it was created, took us so high into the upper register of the sounds Blixa can produce -- and no one can screech like him -- that they produced swirling artifacts in my ears, ghostly auditory phenomena that I could hear very clearly but which were more a matter of the tissues in my ears being terrified and confused and quivering audibly in response than they were sounds actually occuring "out there." (My ears appear to be undamaged, but it was a little scary). The limitations of the Richards on Richards sound system were made very apparent from the outset -- Rede/Speech would have sounded better at a gallery or, ideally, at a performance space with surround sound, like the Scotiabank Dance Centre -- but, as Blixa observed, there was nothing much to be done about that, and the sounds he made were interesting enough in any context.

Blixa also gave a solo voice interpretation of what it was like driving on the autobahn listening to the radio, again with much amusing explication of the piece en route; not a passionate driver, he found the classical music on his rent-a-car radio pleasant but "not appropriate for driving," though he noted that "the landscape makes some sense listening to Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings..." He finally decided on a pop station, Sunshine Radio, that played what was apparently canned electronica, computer generated, with little human input; to show us what this was like Blixa laid down beats and then improvised effects over it which recognizably referred to techno, pantomiming driving along to the sound, smirking at his own performance, ever cool. This piece was followed by an onstage conceptual wrestling match between shame and a concept that Blixa asked the audience to provide. Shame had previously beaten doubt, in a recent performance, and was now to be pitted against... someone suggested astonishment; Blixa entertained the idea. Someone else suggested indifference, and Blixa's eyes lit up (a battle between shame and indifference! How pleasing!). Someone else suggested angst (Blixa: "I don't like angst; it reminds me too much of another language that I speak"). Finally someone suggested resignation, but it was too grim (forgetting shame for a minute, Blixa quipped "do you really want to see a fight between resignation and indifference? I hope they both die"). Finally the contenders were shame and indifference, and Blixa (and Boris on mixing) pitted both words against each other in a sound sculpture the architecture of which I simply can't do justice to, though if you buy the DVD of Rede/Speech you might get some clue of what it was like -- see the Neubauten site linked above, for that. Overall, Blixa's performance was much, much funnier than I expected it to be, and Blixa seemed pleased to get the audience laughing, showing us a very warm and playful side that I did not much notice when last he was here with Neubauten.

This does not mean that the warmth carried over offstage. A friend of mine observed Blixa's exit, and mentioned that he was "being a prima donna" and a bit of a prick, shrugging off fans in his aloof manner as they tried to tell him how much they enjoyed the experience, which soured a few people on the night. He was observed to then leave the venue, a young woman in tow, and march directly to a cab, which he tried to get in; the cabbie was waiting for someone else, and rebuffed him -- who is Blixa Bargeld to a Vancouver cabbie? -- and my friend was most delighted to see Blixa get his comeuppance, being reduced to standing on the sidewalk, ego deflated, trying to hail a taxi.

More can be read about Rede/Speech here...

Blixa's reasons for going on first were somewhat obscure to me when the night began, though Ethan Port at Mobilization.com, the company/website that put together the festival, told me over email that it had to do with the late start of the night (Richards on Richards did one of their famous 2-f0r-1 evenings where they had an early concert, cleared everyone out, and had a late show; it was the first time in the history of their doing this that I was on the "late show" side of the things, their "curfew" previously meaning that acts I was dying to see, like Mission of Burma or Rocket from the Tombs, were cleared offstage early so that disco nite techno shit could take over). There may have been another reason, though, because at some point the great God clusterfuck began to hold sway over the evening, as a ruffled Port tried to hold everything together; the bands had been held up at customs, and the 2-for-1 nature of the night made soundchecks impossible, so it took a generous helping of time to set up some of the acts that followed Blixa. If he'd gone on last, he would have been performing to a somewhat frustrated and very, very tired crowd of people at 2:30 in the morning, which is around when things started to finally wind down.

What to say about the rest of the night? Blixa was followed by the Living Jarboe. I owe her one: I interviewed her for the Nerve Magazine, but they didn't run her requested sidebar, that I noticed, on her friend's Unfinished Journey -- an artist who has done work with Jarboe is attempting to complete Shackleton's on-foot journey to the South Pole, and is selling art to help finance the event. Check out the site and send them lots of money, because I feel a bit guilty about what follows; because though I enjoyed interviewing Jarboe via phone before the show, and respect her as a singer and performer and pretty nice-seemin' person, I have to admit that I didn't find her set particularly exciting; she seems to still be in the shadow of Swans; based on what I heard the other night, she hasn't carved out any musical territory that's distinctly her own yet (though one surprisingly bluesy number came close), and I was inclined to think back to how Roger Daltrey's solo albums never were anything to equal those of the Who; singers are not always songwriters. She still has a great voice and stage presence, and her piece about Courtney Love that she closed the set with had some interesting lyrics, so it wasn't terrible, but it didn't thrill me, either.

Unfortunately the most noteworthy fact about the following act, F-Space -- the thing people will remember -- is that took way too long to set up, particularly given that few people here really know who they are; many people left long before they actually began playing. Described on the Mobilization site as being "the Led Zeppelin of noise" (someone's gotta be), they had some unique Neubauten-esque homemade instruments that were interesting to look at, including something that looked like a cross between a bazooka and a dijeridu (but, when the performance got underway, turned out more to be a cross between a percussion instrument and a stringed instrument); I stayed, because I wanted to hear what these things were like in performance, and I was quite pleased when things finally got cooking (as I was by the ferocious, tribalistic drumming and Ethan's glowing hot guitar skronk that he sliced the other sounds with). Though I was getting pretty tired, at that point, it was engaging enough, though I will leave aside mention of the final piece of the night, a bizarre improvised bit between the uuhh rather quirky-seemin' lead singer of the Sixteens (a band on the bill who didn't get to take the stage otherwise) and Ethan. Mostly the way the evening worked served to illustrate that there is great wisdom in having opening acts open shows, and main acts close them; the experience was akin to watching a film like Memento or Irreversible, where you're waiting to see how the story begins, so you can come to terms with the meaning and worth of the experience...

What else can I offer you? There are gay penguins in a Berlin zoo whose refusal to mate with newly introduced females will do no help to getting the particular species off the endangered species list. Why does it deserve a separate entry?

Monday, February 06, 2006

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Getting All Excited Over a Decomposing Whale

Cryptid alert! Cool photos online of a sea serpent that sure start to look like a whale after you do your homework (click on the links in the comment section -- especially the penis!).