Sunday, September 30, 2007
Saturday, September 29, 2007
“This was before Tilt was released, but as I remember it, Radiohead had entered a studio Walker had vacated, and there were hair-raising stories about what he'd been up to in there. When I expressed my excitement over Walker's 60s material and did the whole salesman bit, Jonny Greenwood became interested. I was fairly drunk and it was a really long time ago, but I recall Greenwood muttering something about checking it out. A few years later, that Radiohead movie came out, and his music was in it... Incidentally, later that night, Greenwood kind of turned on me when I confessed that my friend had destroyed his and Thom Yorke's secret acoustic performance at the Railway Club a year or so prior. It's a long and crazy story, and Radiohead vowed they'd never return to Vancouver (they did, of course).”
Stephen Kijak (pronounced “kayak”), the director of the VIFF Scott Walker documentary, received a different story from Radiohead, but this doesn’t necessarily rule out Adrian’s version of things. "Colin at one point - I was asking him at what point they got turned onto him, and he said someone had taped the Boychild compilation for him. So it would have been around the early 90's. He said it was 'the album Marc Almond did,' because Marc Almond had done the liner notes. So I'm guessing someone just passed them a tape, and it just rocked their world. They had never heard the Nite Flites stuff before, so it was fun to play that for them, but, um Scott 3 and 4 loom large for them - "Duchess" is a big favourite, and "On Your Own Again," I know Ed says its his favourite record to have on tour. But yeah... the source of it. It" -- ie, Adrian's version - "could be true - they were doing OK Computer at Rack when Scott was doing sessions for Tilt."
Walker has had a bizarre and remarkable career. He’s recorded everything from Top of the Pops prettyboy romantic love songs, to Jacques Brel flavoured, brooding 70’s crooning, to late 70’s soulfunk/new wave fusion, to 80’s avant-pop. His current Hyperborean pinnacle of dauntingly dark and difficult music cannot be easily classified; The Drift, the album that I bought on Adrian’s recommendation, is such an alienated album, its points of reference so far removed from anything I understand or have yet encountered, that I find it chilling; it gets even chillier as you realize the amount of craft and deliberation that went into it – he’s no lone nut spewing, he’s got ORGANIZATION, he commands RESOURCES, which is far more disturbing. (Matt at Scratch, when I confessed that I found it unsettling, reacted in a sort of “of course” way, quipping: “it’s the end of music.” Yep). Kijak considers him “one of the most unique characters in music,” in that he’s “come all that way, and to not just be a rehabilitated 60’s popstar, but someone who has, in a way, denounced the past in order to move forward.”
An excellent overview of Walker’s career, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, plays Sunday at 6:30 at the Granville cinemas, with the director in attendance, I'm told (it will also screen on the 2nd and 11th). It features the testimonials of David Bowie, Brian Eno, and many others who have been influenced or affected by the music of Scott Walker, or played with him; avant garde monocerous horn player Evan Parker even turns up, having been called in by Scott to record on his 1984 album, Climate of Hunter. More exciting, the film has considerable footage of the reclusive Walker performing in studio and talking, in a most relaxed and open fashion, about his music. What follows is an interview I did with Stephen Kijak, a few days before he was to depart for Vancouver...
Allan: What was your history with the music of Scott Walker? When did you first start listening to him?
Stephen: 1991. It was a CD issue of Boychild, which is a compilation that Fontana Records put out. It was the first time Scott Walker stuff had been on CD. Universal released – through Fontana – 1, 2, 3, and 4 on CD in the UK, and did this compilation called Boychild. That was the first thing that I got my hands on. Someone had actually played me the track, “The Old Man’s Back Again,” parenthetically subtitled “Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime,” which is pretty much the coolest title ever to come out of the late 60s. It just hooked me. It’s really a simple case of an obsession, starting at that period, and I just went back... He really became one of the great musical discoveries of my life; I heard in it everything that I was into. As the years ticked on, I just collected more and more, so by the time Tilt came out, I was fully committed to the cause of Scott Walker. Allan: Was Tilt at all unsettling?
Stephen: No – it was thrilling. I loved it. I like really dark, difficult music. I was a bit of a Goth – I liked Einsturzende Neubauten, I liked industrial music, I was into punk, so the noisier elements of it – what people say was dark and impenetrable – just to me was thrilling, that a man who had once done Tony Bennett covers was giving us this pitch black music. It was more like still life painting... I think in the film someone compares him to Francis Bacon, and it’s totally true. It was startling, but thrilling as well.
Allan: Do you have a favourite?
Stephen: I can’t pick, you know? I did the movie. I embrace it all – I had to. Each phase of it holds fascination for me; it’s like – “which side of this diamond do you like the best?” He reflects and refracts all these different things. By default, since I’ve been so immersed in every other period, I’m dipping into the weird 70’s country stuff, just for freshness – that’s the stuff I’m not as familiar with.
Allan: That’s from the vinyl only, unreleased period? (Walker has several albums that he blocks from coming out on CD, I learned from the film. They may, however, have had limited release in Japan, if you can figure out how to order from Amazon Japan. I've done it for some mini-LP style Sun Ra stuff... For example, here's a CD of Til the Band Comes In, selling used on the site for about $200 Cdn. Stretch and We Had It All are quite a bit cheaper, one one CD).
Stephen: Yeah – the album Stretch, for example, has some really great shit on it! He covers Bill Withers, you know, doing “Use Me.” It’s great stuff!
Allan (bursts out laughing): He does “Use Me?!” (Great song - you can hear the original here).
Stephen: He does “Use Me!” Oh my God, it’s so good.
Allan: Did you get to talk to him about why he doesn't want those albums to come back out?
Stephen: We really didn’t get around to it, to be perfectly honest. I mean – he’s not a fan of those records. He does speak about it a bit – it was the imbibing; he was very drunk, he had lost his way. He was trying to find his way back to songwriting and people just wouldn’t let him do it. What do you do, you gotta pay the bills!
Allan: How did you get in touch with him?
Stephen: I’ve been asked this question a lot, and to be honest, how I found his manager’s fax number still remains a mystery to me. I can’t remember how I did it, but somehow I did – I don’t know if it was online, finding a number and changing the digits and getting their phone number. You know what I mean? Just weird detective work eventually got me in touch with the people who manage him. And I just started sending them ideas and introducing myself and seeing if he’d be open to letting me do this film.
Allan: Was he less eccentric than you expected?
Stephen: Completely. Well – I mean, I had done enough research, and I had spent a lot of time with his management, so you start to get a picture of the man through other people, but yeah – you still never really know what you’re going to be confronted with. But there was just something in his manner – he was extremely polite and courteous, just a really nice guy. It kind of dispels all the myths of, kinda, “the Phantom of the Opera of Modern Rock” that a lot of people have in their heads. But that’s not to say that there isn’t still some very weird schism between the really nice man and the really dense and abstract music that’s pouring out of his brain. Which is a zone that I wanted to kind of leave as enigmatic as possible. You can’t explain it away, really, and I didn’t want to. It’s part of his mystique and what makes him an interesting artist.
Allan: Did you see any hints of eccentricity or darkness in the interviews, maybe that didn’t make it into the film?
Stephen: Not really – I mean, the darkness is there. I mean, the man tells you he’s been carrying around this image his whole life of the beaten dead bodies of Mussolini and his mistress.
Allan: Right! I had forgotten about that...
Stephen: That tells you something. That’s something that reverberates through his life, you know? It’s there. I feel like some people want it to be more explicit than it is, but I just think, “Watch the film a bit closer, it’s all in there.” When the man says “My life and my work are the same thing,” that’s the answer, I think.
Allan: Yeah. The only thing I couldn’t make sense of in the film – when Brian Eno is talking about the Walker Brothers' Nite Flights, there seems to be a consensus that that’s a singularly difficult or avant garde album. I can’t really hear that – it seems like pretty standard 70’s pop to me.
Stephen: Well, the song “Nite Flights,” it’s almost like a template for all of New Wave to come, in a way. It feels very much in line with what Bowie and Eno themselves were doing, with Heroes and Low. But I think he’s thinking in particular of the track “The Electrician,” off that album. That just pushes it into another direction, and there’s just a hint that Scott is working on a level that’s a little removed from where pop music would eventually go.
Allan: Was it intimidating or weird contacting Eno or Bowie?
Stephen: It was my idea to get Bowie to executive produce, just because I knew he was such an enthusiastic fan. Yeah – you get a little skittish before Bowie's about to walk into the room. But really, everyone kind of came together around a genuine love of Scott Walker's music, so that kind of set a tone for it all. Eno was great. It was probably one of my favourite interviews to do, just 'cause the man is so fucking smart.
Allan: He's an extremely articulate guy.
Stephen: He's so articulate, and - it was just one of those rare interviews where you could just use everything he said. It could have been the Brian Eno show, he was just so captivating.
Allan: Just something you might find interesting - I saw Eno perform live in Tokyo, in, I think 2001, in a very rare concert appearance, and of all the people I saw perform when I was in Japan - Sonic Youth, David Byrne, Lou Reed, Joe Strummer - he was the only one who had taken the time to work out a speech in Japanese. You could tell he didn't actually know how to speak it, but he had it all written out, introducing his "atarashii ongaku" to the audience - his new music, and his pronunciation was pretty good! It really impressed me, and them, that he did that.
Allan: A final thing. There's a remarkable shot of Scott singing in studio that you used, and you cut away from it to an animation. I was kind of screaming in frustration, because I wanted to see more of it. Did Scott place restrictions on how much footage of him you could use?
Stephen: No, he actually stopped. That's all there is! He sang like, another line, and then he stopped recording. The famous "one take vocals" for this albums - they're really rigorous songs to sing, which probably part of the reason they'll never be done live. He once told me to just get across the songs themselves was just such a feat it would kill him. So... yeah, we used almost every frame of him we had at the mike.
Allan: Are there going to be any really interesting extras on the DVD, when it comes out?
Stephen: Well, the DVD's come out in the UK, and they've done kind of a dumb thing and taken the 25 minutes of Scott Walker interview and put it on a limited edition disc that you can only get through HMV, whereas on the regular disc it's just extra interviews with everybody else. But in North America, we're going to try to cut it a bit differently and we're going to go back in and I'm going to put some extra studio stuff on, because a lot of the fans have been saying that the one thing they really want. The diehards - they want to see him just kind of puttering around the studio. Which our distributors thought, "Oh, that's boring - let's just put more Bowie interview," or something. I'm like - "Ohh, all right. They're paying for it, so we can only argue so much.
Stephen: But it's probably going to end up being a case where different DVDs in different territories have different goodies on them. But the British DVD is great, it looks good. We've got the whole lost Neil Hannon interview, which, due to time and editorial constraints, we couldn't use in the film. It'll be a nice package, but we're psyched that it's gonna be coming around on screens and things. It's going to come out in America in January. I think we're still working on a Canadian deal. But uh... if people are tenacious, they can get their hands on it.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
1. Black, White + Grey: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe
An interview with James Crump
James Crump's Black, White + Grey: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe, begins with a quote from Walter Benjamin, taken from “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century:" "The collector is the true resident of the interior. He makes his concern the transfiguration of things... The collector dreams his way not only into a distant or bygone world but also into a better one." It's a brilliantly chosen epigraph: the idea that the collector is creating a sort of personal utopia, a better world, more suited to his tastes and needs, is extremely important to Crump's film, which deals with a very significant, though now neglected, collector and tastemaker, who, it seems, used art in very much this way. Sam Wagstaff - patron, older lover, and upper-echelon passport to a young and ambitious Robert Mapplethorpe - did much to get photography taken seriously as a fine art form and as an investment; he did even more to help Mapplethorpe. Unfortunately, he has nearly been forgotten, today - something which Crump sets out to rectify. Based on the interest in his film, I'd say he succeeds.
I interviewed James Crump for Xtra West - it's in the issue that just came out today. I thought I'd offer a few interesting outtakes here. Crump talked about discovering various images that had never been seen before, when doing research at the Getty (where Wagstaff's photography collection ended up).
"Sam had a Leica camera, and had always shot snapshots. Since he was a kid, he was interested in photography; he was part of a camera club at Hotchkiss, for instance. And he took those autoportraits with that Leica, and so when – there’s over ten thousand of those snapshots. A lot of them have not been seen or reviewed – they’re still in the drugstore developing envelopes in which they were sort of reposited at the Getty. And so when I was doing my research – I was fascinated by it. They were definitely private images." Some of these - autoerotic self-portraits - have never been seen before, and appear in the film. "It’s a daunting collection of snapshots, and he wasn’t a very good photographer, actually, but the autoportraits I thought were suggestive and really interesting, and showed a side of him that he wasn’t always sharing. I thought they were really interesting documents."
Wagstaff, as my Xtra West article details, came from an upper crust, conservative background, part of which meant - as the film details - he had to remain closeted and attend deb balls and such. Mapplethorpe's former roommate and close friend Patti Smith talks in the film about how it was the one area of Sam's life where she sensed deep pain. The younger, more daring Mapplethorpe - engaged in more open rebellion towards the values of his working class Catholic upbringing - served as Wagstaff's guide to the darker realms of S&M and gay sex clubs, and was a liberating force for Wagstaff, 26 years his senior (the bulk of my Xtra West article deals with this). Though the film doesn't show anything too shocking or in-your-face, it's not because such images don't exist (the famous image of Mapplethorpe with a bullwhip stuck in his ass can be viewed here, by the way. Stick THAT on your desktop!) As the director explained,
"There were sex photographs taken of Sam by Robert. I never saw these, but I tried to find a collection that I was told about by a dealer who is no longer alive in New York City named Richard York; he once wrote me and told me that there were sex photographs of Sam by Robert, and I think also they did some autoportraits together of themselves. But I never saw those. But I did see – Sam photographed young guys, for instance, in some sexual situations, and those were part of that snapshot collection in Los Angeles. They’re probably of legal age, by how they look, probably 18-19-20 years old..." Crump "wasn’t able to use those," alas, and still get his documentary shown to a wide audience.
The film sensitively, if briefly, also deals with the issue of AIDS. Both Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe died of it, the older man in 1987, the younger in 1989. Mapplethorpe - I'm told one of the first artists to document the devestation wrought by the virus – took photographs of Sam during his illness, Crump tells me. “There’s a contact sheet in the film, very near the end of his life. It’s six pictures on a page – those represent that period.” A 1978 portrait of Sam by Mapplethorpe served as the cover of Sam’s memorial card.
“I think Sam was very discreet about it. Everyone I talked to said he didn’t talk about it. It was kept very quiet. I think people were surprised by how swift it went through the gay community, and how it decimated so many people so fast,” Crump says. He can only speculate on Wagstaff’s feelings, based on what people who knew him said. “I think he was probably just resentful at not having more time to do what he wanted to do. As Patti Smith says in the film, he was annoyed by it, by not being able to keep on with what his passions were.” \
According to Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe's biographer, the younger man was somewhat resentful that Wagstaff spent much of his last year amassing a collection of American silver for a planned show, since he saw it taking away from his inheritance. In fact, Mapplethorpe would also inherit the silver, along with the bulk of Wagstaff's money - which he used to set up the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, shortly before he died. Not everyone who knew both Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff speaks highly of the photographer in the film, though Patti Smith - who is probably the warmest of the people interviewed - emphasizes that Robert really loved Sam.
Crump informs me that though he appreciates the impulse to collect, he isn't really a collector himself. "I’ve got a few photographs and I love them, and I’ve come across them through being close to the photography market and photography community for a number of years, but I wouldn’t call myself a collector." Crump had edited two books for Arena Editions on the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. "One was called Pictures, which was the sex photographs – that was 1998. The second book was in ’99 or 2000; it’s called Autoportrait. It’s the early self-portrait Polaroids by Robert Mapplethorpe."
Some of the film's detractors have felt that the film fails to delve deeply enough into Wagstaff's sexual life, as did I, in fact; perhaps I'm just more interested in S&M and inner conflict than I am in the history of photography. Still, the film shouldn't be criticized too harshly; it does what it does well enough that it's a bit perverse to fault it for not doing something else entirely. Crump's film is a tad chilly, but very informative - I liked it more on second viewing, actually. It will have its first Vancouver screening at 4:30 PM Friday, at the Pacific Cinematheque.
2. One Way Street on a Turntable
I think I liked this film more than any other film that I've seen and completely failed to understand.
I was challenged in my viewing of it on various counts. I am acutally unsure of the relationship between this film and the work of Walter Benjamin (which, I confess, I don't know that deeply; nor do I know the previous work of experimental documentarian Anson Mak, nor have I been to Hong Kong - the place central to the film, though I hesitate to call it either its "subject" or "setting"). The title, and perhaps some of the spoken text in the film, refers to a famous non-critical piece of Benjamin's, offering advice to writers and critics. I can't really say how exactly this relates to the film's subject, though; the film is a meditation on "movement" "rootlessness," and being "fixed" in a city that is ever changing, and probably thereby a meditation on identity. To complicate matters further, I have imperfectly previewed the film - the version I've seen was quite glitchy, with large chunks missing and imperfect subtitles; the spoken text read throughout the film (by a non-native speaker) was often difficult to understand, and the English quotes that appeared onscreen attributed to Benjamin didn't seem to match up with those in the piece I just linked. Add to all this the complex nature of the project, and there is much that I still haven't processed - though I did see at least 40 minutes of the film, and... well... it sure was interesting.
Let's put it this way: for anyone interested in experiments with the film form - regardless of whether you're conversant with the Frankfurt school or Hong Kong's history or such -- this is a really striking and lovely experience. The turntable reference in the title alludes to sampling technology; much of this film is made up of audio and video samples, often manipulated, juxtaposed with split-screens, and layered atop one another. At the peak of its complexity, there were four screens playing different images, all of Hong Kong. Some were archival -- some black and white, some colour --and played in apposition to grainy, altered super 8 footage of a woman who I presume was the director wandering around the city. Three distinct soundtracks played against the four screens: one channel was English, one in - oh, hell, I'm not sure if it was Mandarin or Cantonese; can I just say "Chinese" and not sound like a vulgarian? - and one audio track of schoolchildren singing. At one point, the English and Chinese narration switched channels -- all this jam-packed into about three minutes of film. Not all of the film is quite that busy, and there are many quiet and meditative passages, as well, but the overall effect is not unlike watching Burroughs/Balch cut up experiments (download "The Cut Ups," in particular, if you're not sure what I mean); it's a lot to process, but the very challenges of processing the unusual grammar of the film are stimulating and engaging. You'll be happy to surrender to its rhythms for the sheer aesthetic pleasure they provide, even if you completely give up hope of accessing the film's theses. And if you happen to be a cultural studies critic from Hong Kong - I envy you your being able to draw that much more deeply from this film than I. Find me in the audience and explain it to me: it plays October 1st at the Granville 7 and October 4th at the Cinematheque.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
As it happens, I met and got to know a Japanese history teacher of "massacre denial" stripe, as I have elsewhere recounted; he said in no uncertain terms that he thought Iris Chang, then living, was a propagandist trying to disgrace Japan and get reparations for the Chinese, and he repeated one of the dumber bits of propaganda that the Japanese right have spread, that there were far fewer people living in Nanjing than it was claimed were killed (Hello? It was the CAPITAL OF CHINA, for chrissake. China is not known for its scarcity of people). There's another grotesque story I heard a couple of times from Japanese, about how one of the prison guards executed after the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal for having fed wood to POWs, as a sort of cruel prank, had in fact been feeding his prisoners gobo, a fibrous root that many Japanese eat, sharing it with them out of compassion. He was punished for his compassion - how unjust! It takes a fair level of deliberately maintained ignorance - even in Japan - to let anecdotes like that wash away any hint of wrongdoing.
There are, however, many people in Japan who know better. There's Japanese author Katsuichi Honda, for one - interviewed by David Suzuki and Keibo Oiwa for The Japan We Never Knew, and author of a Japanese history of the atrocities at Nanjing; for his role in bringing what Japan did into the public eye, he has received plentiful death threats (it's rather a shame that the VIFF film doesn't talk about him, but it's really focused on the events of the day). A different Japanese teacher, working at the same high school, initiated a conversation with me about Japanese military aggression and the beheading of prisoners at a Saitama Peace Museum show we went to, saying that he believed that said history teacher - the denier - was entitled to his view, wrong as it was, but that he shouldn't be allowed to teach it to children. (I believe I continued the conversation by talking about Jim Keegstra). Others take a more jaundiced view - "it was a war; these sorts of things happen in war," a view which episodes like Abu Ghraib or My Lai lends some credence to, while in no way excusing those Japanese who deny such things ever took place. Yet others, born long after the war finished, feel these were horrible crimes, but are tired of being held accountable for them, and think it perverse and politically suspect that the Chinese bring these events up again and again (for instance, when Japanese Prime Ministers take trips to worship at Yasukuni Jinja. No reason to be pissed off at that, right?). Most of the Japanese I met who had strong feelings against Japanese Imperial aggression were older, and felt great unease at the steady rehabilitation of the Hino Maru and "Kimi Ga Yo," seeing Japan swinging steadily back to the right, arm in arm with America (so much so that, despite a Peace Constitution that forbids them such things, Japan now has an unofficial army, which is participating in Iraq in what many people feel started as a war of aggression -- by, ironically, the very country that earlier forbid Japan to rearm).
My father has some fairly strong feelings about the Japanese, relating back to two men in their 20's, "Whitey and Edward Kennedy, his brother" who lived a few miles down the street, in the town of Inverness, Nova Scotia, where my father grew up. "As five, six, and seven year old kids, we played kick the can, lacrosse, football, whatever," my father - who would prefer to remain anonymous - recounts. "Edward was quiet and reserved, but Whitey was super friendly. It was during the war, and he had joined up - I believe almost ten percent of Canada had joined up, long before the States. We're talking about 1939, 1940. I would have been six. He'd come out and play with us, and he'd give us candies. He was a little bit on the chubby side, with whitish-blonde hair - that's why we called him Whitey. He'd come out and catch the ball and - he was just a nice guy. I don't know if he was in the North Novies - the North Nova Scotia regiment - but he wore a kilt."
This is a story I've heard often. My father, now 73, has carried these memories for a long time. "MacKenzie King believed Churchill or somebody, that there was no chance of war between Japan and Hong Kong, so he sent them over there. They'd just be garrison troops." In 1941, though - long after they'd conquered China, the Japanese came into Hong Kong, and Whitey and Edward were taken prisoner, an experience which destroyed them. "Maybe three years after the war, they came home. Edward, I don't remember ever seeing him again. He became more reclusive. And Whitey was nothing but a drunk. I never saw him draw a sober breath - he was just shattered by it. And he'd cry and cry and cry. You could ask him anything and he'd cry, and he never played games with us again. Years later, I found out the things they did - at St. Stephens College and things like that. Seventy percent of my life, I've hated and hated and hated the Japanese, because of what they did to Whitey Kennedy."
Ironically, it was my father's strong feelings about Japan - which we'd discuss over The Bridge on the River Kwai or Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence - that got me interested in the country in the first place, and led to my going there. I was able to tone down my father's hatred a little with more positive stories of my time in Japan - and bizarrely, when said massacre-denying history teacher came to visit us with his son, we all ended up at a table at Shabusen in Vancouver - my father, mother, the teacher, his son, and myself - eating Japanese food and drinking beer. "The teacher didn't lessen my, at this point, dislike for the Japanese," my father explains, "but his son did. I enjoyed being with a young person who wasn't in any way responsible; he knew nothing about it, and he's not subject to denial, like some other Japanese are... If you remember, I bought them two bottles - I bought the teacher a bottle, and his son, and he said, 'Well, he's only 16' - but his son's bottle, when he opened it, was maple syrup. Later on, we were in their hotel room, and his son liked my jacket, and I was so happy to even know the guy and feel better about some Japanese person that I gave him my jacket - the only blazer I had, with a BC crest on it. I gave it to him! Hopefully he still wears it."
There are still survivors of the Nanjing Massacre, both Chinese and Japanese, and their testimony makes my father's story pale (I include it here simply because it's a personal connection to what would otherwise seem distant history to me). Various survivors are interviewed for the film. Chang Zhi Qiang, for instance, gives a heartrending account of seeing his mother and kid brother bayonetted, but not immediately killed, by a Japanese soldier - after which, to sooth the baby, his bleeding mother held the infant to her wounded breast and let him suckle. Chang is crying as he tells the story - he was nine years old at the time, and it's marked him for life. It's probably the single most difficult part of the film to sit through, though much of what we hear recounted is upsetting indeed: rapes, mass executions, people set on fire... It's strong material, though presented with the utmost taste and restraint. Most of it is read by actors - most notably, Jurgen Prochnow, reading the letters and diaries of John Rabe, "the Good German of Nanking" -- a Nazi who, with other foreigners, set up a refugee zone and protected thousands of Chinese from certain death; and Mariel Hemingway, reading from the works of Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who protected women. One can only hope that the film finds a Japanese audience, since there are many Japanese who would profit indeed from seeing it; it's quite chilling that one of the Japanese soldiers shown talking in archival footage about what they did appears to be chuckling to think of it.
My father, watching the film with me, growled: "the bastard."
Note: the official site for the film is here.
Monday, September 24, 2007
Vancouver queer culture advocate, novelist, poet, and filmmaker Michael V. Smith has a new short film in this year’s VIFF, “Wolf Lake,” playing as part of the program Storm Surge on October 7th and 8th at the Pacific Cinematheque. The film is based on a work by BC poet Elizabeth Bachinsky – recently shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for her second volume of poetry, Home of Sudden Service, in which “Wolf Lake” appears. I spoke to both Elizabeth and Michael about the film; the two are pictured above on the Staten Island ferry in New York, where the film played as part of the Scanners Video Festival (an offshoot of the NYFF) earlier this year.
The poem itself has an interesting history; it began as a response to another poem of the same name, by fellow BC-er Matt Rader, who read it at the now-defunct Sugar Refinery one night with Liz in attendance. “I wanted to write a response,” she explains. “In Matt Rader’s poem, two boys drive out to the woods, and they’re going to go hunting or fishing or swimming or something like that. And they come across this guy pulling a woman out of the trunk of his car and carrying her off into the woods. The poem ends with the image of Pete – one of the boys – reaching back for his gun,” as if he’s going to intercede. I asked Liz if she was offended by the piece, and she rather carefully avoided an affirmative answer, explaining: “Guys are always writing about women – I thought, maybe let’s hear from the woman.”
The narrator of Elizabeth’s poem is dead: “It’s a posthumous voice,” she says; “We know who the character is when we’re going into it." Her assailant is an ex-boyfriend, whom she had thought she was still friends with. "I guess I’m like all girls – you’ve got that paranoid thought in the back of your mind that the ones you trust the most are the most likely to kill you. Guys can be really weird.”
After being stabbed, her dying narrator – dazed and betrayed, but not completely surprised at the turn of events – describes a bumpy ride in the trunk of a car, and then being carried off into the woods to be dumped. “You know, you hear about the Body/ all the time: They found the Body.../ The Body was found... and then you are one.” It’s unsettling in the extreme, and one of the young poet’s most compelling works.
Liz reads the poem as a voiceover soundtrack to Michael’s images.
(photo by Dave Aharonian)
Matt and Liz “have a very different understanding” of Matt’s original poem, Michael V. Smith tells me. The filmmaker – a longtime friend of both poets – knew Matt’s piece before Liz had written hers. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that his poem is anti-female, but it’s part of a culture that is, and it certainly doesn’t help the pro-female,” Michael explains by phone, then stops himself. “Well, maybe it does, by showing women as victims of assault. But I think Liz wanted more help than just the spectacle... I really appreciated Liz’s feminist revision of that fiction. Because I understand wanting to hear your stories and wanting to give voice to even literary experiences where you feel silenced. Feminism and queer politics are very similar, and they have a similar agenda, and I am a very feminist guy. So I admired her for that, and I think she made a brilliant poem from the raw material – from Matt’s original source, or, from her perspective, from Matt’s oversight.”
Out of “morbid curiosity,” Michael wrote his own “Wolf Lake,” from the point of view of the assailant, but it has yet to be published. The idea for making the film came later, due to a proposal from Project 8 at Video In to make an 8mm film, and it was decided that the film, too, would be from the point of view of the killer. “Everything was very easy after that. We decided to get (writer and activist) Amber Dawn to play the woman, because we thought she’d look small enough to go over somebody’s shoulder.” Amber Dawn had previously appeared with Smith in his work of experimental pornography, Girl on Girl.
Some of the images of Amber Dawn were shot at Liz’s former home in Maple Ridge, where she was serving as artist in residence. Located in a fairly rural area, it would have been an ideal place for someone to spy on Elizabeth. “It’s just trees, all those trees everywhere,” she tells me. “There’s so many places for people to hide, if somebody wanted to sit and watch you through one of those great big fishbowl windows... Every once in awhile, I’d get a prank phone call, and they were creepy ones. They were like, ‘What are you doing home during the day?” That kind of thing. That one freaked me out!” The closing shot, of Amber Dawn coming towards the camera - which has been viewing her from the concealment of trees - was filmed in Elizabeth’s then-backyard; her character sees the cameraman only as an old friend, not as a potential threat, and smiles broadly. “It’s so creepy, too, because she’s like, wearing my sweater! It’s like, ewww – she’s at my house, on my rocks, wearing my sweater and my Lululemon pants!" Bachinsky laughs. "When it ends, it’s so abrupt. I think it’s brilliant – it’s just beautiful."
Though Matt’s poem is located at Wolf Lake in Comox Valley, Michael and Liz shot the majority of images for the film at Pitt Lake, where Liz lived for awhile with friends when she was 18. “God, that place was crazy,” Liz remembers. "I don’t know how to write about it – wild dogs being born under the house – the dog had her babies beside this leaking sceptic tank, because it was warm. It was nasty. And the place is just so spooky – there’s a real energy to it and it’s not all good.... It was also extremely beautiful, but it’s almost a crushing beauty, you know? The mountains just close right in on you. You just think about how deep that lake is, and you know – when you’re in it, you’re gone. No one will ever find you. That is the most horrifying thought – to find yourself at the bottom of Pitt Lake.”
Oddly, in New York, “Wolf Lake” played as part of a series of predominantly non-narrative shorts focused on landscape. “Our film got in because it was very grounded in Pitt Lake – there were mountains and scenery,” Michael says. The basis for the selection "was purely aesthetic – it had only to do with landscape, and nothing more than that. They didn’t pick it for any narrative interest. It’s really interesting to me. I come from a place where it’s all about the story, it’s all about the human connection and how we connect to the story. I care how you connect to the image only as much as that image works to further your understanding of the story – which is our understanding of humanity. I’m very interested in narrative because I see our lives as broader narrative, and I’m not interested in aesthetics that are devoid of content.”
At Pitt Lake, Smith – who is very familiar with the killer’s eye POV trope of horror cinema, and conversant with Laura Mulvey’s writing on the male gaze and narrative cinema – shot what would become the “very creepy stalker footage,” of “Wolf Lake;” but when the film begins, you don’t realize that that’s what you’re watching. Amber Dawn is at a distance, among others, and we see people enjoying themselves at the Pitt Lake dock; it looks like an entirely innocent home movie, with no obvious connection to the story we’re hearing, save that it’s set at a lake. The viewer remains unaware that it’s stalker footage until the very end of the film – where Amber Dawn approaches, taking us to the beginning of the events in the poem and positioning the viewer as her eventual killer.
“I really like that device of welcoming people in,” Michael tells me. “In some ways my novel, Cumberland, did the same thing. There were some things you knew, and some things you didn’t know. And the things that you knew made you make assumptions, and eventually those assumptions get turned on their head, and you realize that you have been very complicit in some really immoral thinking. In the novel, you think that Ernest is a pedophile, because he has these disturbing dreams, and he has this weird relationship with a kid, and then you realize that his kid has died – and you think he’s done something horrible to his kid. And he hasn’t; he’s just haunted by the loss of his own child. By the end of the book, you realize that you assumed he was a pedophile because you have these stereotypes of what homosexuals are like. I like that kind of device, where you make the audience complicit in the hideousness of our culture, and you make them realize how susceptible we are, and how easily they can fall into the trap of perpetuating that problem.”
The same sort of device operates in "Wolf Lake." “You are just enjoying the filmic experience of spying on this girl, of watching this girl – and you hear this story, and its compelling, and there’s a whole voyeuristic appeal to it. At the end of the film, hopefully you realize that you’ve been in the perspective of the stalker. It’s to make you aware of exactly that thing that Liz is doing, by writing a revisionist poem about a woman being attacked, and telling it from the woman’s perspective, of taking control and power and making people realize that these are very serious issues. I hope that when you realize the stalker footage is stalker footage, by the end of the film, you feel a little disgusted with your own voyeuristic pleasure – that the pleasure of the filmic experience is all predicated upon somebody’s violent action against somebody else.”
Bachinsky was delighted by the trip, her first to New York (“I’m a girl who needs a reason to go to a place,” she explains). “We just had a great time. We walked around town, we ate some food, and we saw so much art – we went to, like, five galleries. The Met was awesome! I loved it!” It's not her first trip with Michael, though their previous tours together have stemmed from their work as writers; she's been across Canada with Smith, with whom she also shares a dayjob. She’s very happy with the project: “Michael did a beautiful job of bringing the location, the images, the narrative all together. I love Michael so much.” Expect both to be in the audience for at least one of the screenings of Storm Surge.
"Wolf Lake" is a chance to see an important collaboration by two exciting and fresh Canadian voices.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
There’s a book by Edward de Bono called How to be More Interesting. It has a kind of embarrassingly self-helpish title, like it’s the sort of thing you might find on the bookshelf of someone who is very, very boring, but in fact, it’s filled with useful exercises, designed to get readers thinking about what it means for something to be “interesting,” and how to apply what they learn to thinking creatively. One simple brainstorming exercise at the beginning asks readers to simply list everything they can think of that is interesting about a frog. From frog mutations and the status of frogs as indicator species, to the use of poison arrow frogs to gather toxin; from frogs’ amphibious nature to their metamorphosis from tadpoles; from amplexus to those long, sticky tongues – there is actually a lot a creative thinker can come up with, each observation opening out onto further questions, tangents and implications: from a frog, you can arrive at the whole universe, if you try.
Early on, in Dust, one gets the feeling that German documentarian Hartmut Bitomsky sat down at some point to a similar exercise, deciding on everything he possibly could say about dust, and what further conclusions could be drawn from these observations. It is unlikely any other film will ever rival Dust for authority or breadth, when it comes to this singularly tiny subject. We get mineral dust from mining; dust from paint pigment; coal dust; dust in the atmosphere; dust on film; dust in the home; dust in a museum; how a plant “defends” itself from photosynthesis-inhibiting dust; the effects of dust on the breather; and the necessity of dust to clouds and rain (since water vapour needs something to adhere to). At moments, there is a feeling of absurd profundity to the observations – one hand claps often; and the anally German – but oft-philosophical – narration has a delightfully quirky quality to it, that may put you in mind of that footage of Blixa Bargeld reading from the Hornbach hardware catalogue; it's much funnier than you'd expect. A theme seems to emerge dealing with our relationship to our environment and what we can and cannot control, which in turn opens out onto questions of mortality, humility, the limits of the human: from dust to dust, with a lot of other dust along the way. One eccentric woman actually has a whole bizarre taxonomical system worked out for the clumped fluff she’s gathered in her home; in another segment, a housewife treats us to a tour of her manic cleaning ritual, which borders on the obsessive-compulsive. Some of the more scientific descriptions of how dust is filtered or tested for toxicity require an alert mind to follow, but the compositions are often beautiful, if fleeting, and there’s ample food for thought. Recommended stuff – but see it caffeinated, so you can keep up. You’ll be amazed at how much there is to be thought about dust.
By the way, there's a really cool, image-rich German presskit online here.
I’ve followed with interest the work of Michael Glawogger for a couple of years now; I missed Megacities, but found his documentary Workingman’s Death fascinating (I bizarrely can find none of my own writing about it online, though I'm sure I put some on this very blog. Hm). Slumming, in last year’s fest (written about here) made a worthy, if somewhat less overwhelming, fictional counterpart. Glawogger is staking out territory around the relationship between western privilege, foreign “exoticism,” and the effects of globalisation; Workingman’s Death – with a stunning John Zorn score – shows us the darkest side of employment in the developing world, but with an awed eye towards the adaptability of human beings, who in each episode – Pakistani shipbreakers, Nigerian open-air slaughterhouse workers - seem to have come to some sort of terms with their state, horrifying though it may seem from a first world perspective. They’re unsettling films, but beautiful, and deeper and richer than any mere polemic – although polemicists will find much to support their arguments in watching them.
Polemicists, or anyone concerned with the developing world, global warming, or access to water, will find much food for thought and much ammunition in About Water, too (that's a link to the official site) but it lacks the visual impact – I’ll warn you – of Workingman’s Death; the “eye” of the film is much more that of an everyday documentary, with talking-head villagers in Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, and Nairobi describing their relationship to a commodity that most Vancouverites take for granted. The first two parts of the film deal with very different effects of climate change, causing an excess of water in the first case and a shortage in the second; the third (and most Glawoggerly sequence, visually) involves the privatization of water in a Kenyan slum, where, if you want water, you pretty much have to buy from a licensed water vendor – who sits guarding his pipe and praying for scarcity, which means an increase in profits. The Austrian title of the film is actually About Water, Men, and Yellow Canisters – referring to the big plastic containers that people haul from the pipe to their homes or places of business, to give them the water they need for the day. As with Workingman’s Death, you’re mostly allowed to draw your own conclusions; the people interviewed have no apparent awareness that climate change exists, and certainly no outrage – they just deal with the situation with a sort of grim-but-positive peasant resignation, “this is how we have to get through the day.” There are even moments of unexpected humour, as when Bangladeshi feelings about floods are illustrated by a karaoke pop video on the theme (!). It’s not the most exciting documentary I’ve encountered, and could use an injection of passion, but if you bring your own to the theatre, you’ll find much to reward you.
Man on Land
I suspect this film is going to be one of my favourites, come the end of the fest. It’s also topical without being polemical, but there’s a stunningly powerful opening sequence – involving a polar bear – that does in a couple of minutes far more to convey the unnatural, pressing threat of global warming, and to make us recoil in horror at our incompetence as so-called custodians of the planet, than the whole of About Water. Richly cinematic, intense, and quiet, it will abundantly reward the sort of cinephiles and other athletes of perception that found James Benning’s 13 Lakes compelling viewing a couple of years ago. (It’s also as quiet as Into Great Silence, but, I thought, much more successful). I want to say as little about the film as possible, so as not to detract from the experience, but this is a must-see, especially if you have an environmentalist or scopophilic bent. People who bring popcorn or anything else that crunches into the theatre for screenings of this movie should be barred from the festival permanently. The director, Ariane Michel, has a Myspace page, and there's an interview with her here.
Speaking of James Benning, by the way, he has a new film in the festival. I’ve had no opportunity to preview it, and has of yet have not heard back from him – we’d exchanged a couple of emails after 13 Lakes floored me – but I will definitely be looking at casting a glance, which deals with an earthwork by an artist he much admires, Robert Smithson. People who liked the film about Andy Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides, should probably check this one out, too.
Oh, and you're all paying attention to the fact that there's a new Bela Tarr film out, right? Because you should be.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
The most horror-movie shot of Joe imaginable. Photo by Cindy Metherel
I don't get paid for 99% of what I write. The only meaningful perk I get, for all the writing I do, is my VIFF media pass. which I must earn with meaningful coverage of film events. I am currently busy planning a two week orgy of film. I've even taken time off work to maximize film viewing (which actually means that I'm paying indirectly for the pass, but fuggit).
Yeah, yeah, I know - I sometimes get on the guestlist to shows, and I sometimes get cool CDs as swag. It's not that big a break, believe me. Get me on the guestlist to see Ornette Coleman, THAT's what I want to be guestlisted for. Punk gigs and CDs I can AFFORD.
So, like, from my point of view, since your performance schedule really should revolve around me, it's in very bad taste to schedule gigs that I want to see in the same fuckin' week as the VIFF. I will have to MISS MOVIES to see you play. And of course, the chance to see you both play within two days of each other is not-to-be-missed. Subhumans, you guys in particular I'm choked at, because if memory serves, this is the second fuckin' time you've done this to me. Us under-appreciated media whores need to feel like we're cared about TOO, y'know. Stroke our egos. Tickle our expansive bellies. Don't crack jokes about the bald spot.
P.S. Those of you who, like me, can't watch films ALL DAY, can come see two historical Vancouver punk bands play Thursday and Saturday:
DOA plays September 27th at the Plaza; the Jolts open. I'm told DOA have a new drummer, James Hayden from the Von Zippers.
The Subhumans play September 29th at Pub 340 (at 340 Cambie) with Motorama and Betty Kracker. (Can I humbly request you include "Moving Forward" in your set this time? That's a great goddamn song!).
Monday, September 17, 2007
No? That STILL isn't funny? Maybe it loses something in translation, or explication, or somewhere. Here's a final favourite from the video clip Sumiyo showed me: a Guns and Roses song with Axl shrieking, "I leave it all behind." This is accompanied with images of a somber room, where mourning might take place, and a tablet with writing on it; the subtitle flashes, "Aniki no ihai" - again, a bit of a stretch, but not as much as you might think, if you hear it; it's a plausible cross-cultural mondegreen. "Aniki no ihai" means, "My brother's Buddhist funeral memorial tablet." (It isn't that funny yet, but wait). The camera tracks up, and we are treated to a framed photograph of a mean-looking Japanese man in a tacky suit and sunglasses. (It helps at this point to know - Takeshi Kitano fans can vouch for this - that "aniki" doesn't just mean brother in the familial sense, but also is a term of affection that gangsters use.) Just as the camera arrives at the photo, Axl - I swear to God - screams, "Yakuza!" Which the subtitles spell out. I have NO IDEA WHAT HE COULD HAVE BEEN SAYING; Sumiyo wanted to know, but EVEN TO ME, in this context, it really sounds like he's saying, "Yakuza," which riffs off the "aniki no ihai" in a bizarre way, shifting its meaning to, "My gangster bro's Buddhist funeral memorial tablet!"
You know who I have to compile this shit for, don't you? TOM FUCKING HOLLISTON!!! (He apparently was commenting to a crowd during one of Nomeansno's recent European dates that "Nick Drake," if you say it aloud, sounds like a stolen garden implement).
Thanks to Sumiyo, I'm a-getting it!
Thanks for the opportunity to earn karma points, Vic - I imagine I'll still go to whichever circle of hell is devoted to sensualists and aesthetes, but I'll mention your name when I'm down there, for whatever good it'll do me.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Good thing I saw that gig poster.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
One of my favourite films, for years, has been Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (I even worked a reference to it into my Meat Puppets review in this month's Nerve). It's a great trip film, has some amazing images, and, for me at least, it's fascinating to see the older Italian director - who had looked so skeptically at the UK pop scene in Blow Up - seeming to grow genuinely, sincerely sentimental about American youth culture of the 1960's. Some find its antiAmericanism a trifle cliched and hard to take - it's probably a good thing that Antonioni omitted an image of a plane pulling a "fuck you, America" banner from his final cut - if indeed such a thing ever existed - but I'm too overwhelmed by the film's beauty to mind.
By the way, Daria Halprin, pictured above, currently is some sort of yoga instructor in California - click the link to see a current picture. I emailed her awhile back with an interview request, but she never got in touch. She's one of the few people left who one could talk to about the film; Anotonioni, of course, is dead, as of this summer. Mark Frechette, the young man pictured with her, died in prison a few years after the film was made, after experimenting with bank robbery as an expression of his fervor for revolution; he'd been a member of Mel Lyman's cult prior to the making of the film, and abandoned acting afterwards (both the previous links lead to really interesting articles, posted by the same people - highly recommended). John Fahey, who was supposed to score the famous "desert lovemaking" centerpiece, died in 2002, and, it's said, got booted from the project when he got into a fistfight with the director over his views on America. He was replaced with Jerry Garcia - now also dead, of course. I don't think I'd care much about talking with Pink Floyd about this film, though I do love their musical contributions. Daria, where are you?
Showtimes for Zabriskie Point are here (nevermind the uncharacteristic spelling error in the title). It's not on DVD (yet), so I'd highly recommend making it to the Vancity on Friday or Monday to see it.
LATE ADDITION: I've edited the post to add reference to the complete article in Look.