Friday, October 31, 2008
Friday, October 24, 2008
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Monday, October 20, 2008
Sunday, October 19, 2008
You may dress up in purple or pink
As long as you think things that most people think.
You may live in a john, a gutter or sink,
As long as you think things that most people think
You may penetrate into circles you hate
As long as you think things that most people think
You may go and try to set the White House on fire
As long as you think things that most people think
Liberty, may you live in an interesting time.
Have a ball, with the bread and the wine.
As long as you think what most people think.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
As a teenaged punk in the 1980's, all of these things seemed sorta like a good idea to me. These were the days where, as a kid, I lived in constant awareness of the possiblity of nuclear war - mostly played out on a fantasy-level with post-apocalyptic science fiction films, but also a cause of serious concern. I remember watching Dr. Helen Caldicott's If You Love This Planet. I remember questioning a group of politicians at a town-hall type meeting about nuclear disarmament - I think I had a Mohawk of sorts at the time. I read about the Five in Open Road magazine. I bought DOA's "Right to Be Wild" benefit single, reading the "Letter from Gerry" and thinking it was pretty cool. I had Gerry Hannah's first cassette from prison, and liked it at the time - he says a lot of it doesn't hold up now, but "Living With the Lies" and "Life Is Like a Fire" stick in my memory, though I haven't heard the latter song in something like 25 years. I tried to defend the Five's actions to my friends, teachers, and family: to my idealistic, dazed 15-year-old brain, these seemed like people who felt a sense of responsibility to do something about saving the planet from oncoming doom. Most of the people I met didn't seem to care at all, which was confusing and disturbing to me; the world seemed a pretty insane place back then, and anger and activism, striking out at the madness around you, didn't seem like a bad idea. I knew that a couple of people were injured when three members of the Five - Gerry wasn't present - set off 550LBs of dynamite at Litton Industries in Toronto, where parts for Cruise missile guidance systems were being made. In my mind, this amounted to the awareness "some security guard got hurt" I didn't even think to learn his name. "Saving the world from nuclear war" was more important than "some security guard;" besides, the Five issued a communique apologizing - and what was he doing guarding nuclear weapons, anyhow?
That security guard was named Terry Chikowski.
In the course of my doing research, trying to recapture how I felt in those days, I read some stuff and asked a few questions. I read at least a third of Direct Action member Ann Hansen's book, Direct Action: Memoirs of an Urban Guerrilla, before getting kind of grossed out by it. She seemed to have an oddly privileged, self-romanticizing worldview - she saw her group as heroic, and saw breaking the law as kind of romantic and exciting; she appears to get off on it so much that you start to feel like the appeal of the lifestyle had more to do with her actions than any concern for making the world a better place - which makes it pretty hard to see her actions as originating in anything like idealism. The group felt licensed to shoplift to support themselves, too. It seems strange, maybe, to make a big deal out of that, but it bugged the hell out of me, reading the book: how can you claim to be helping people, doing something for the good of the planet and humanity, while ripping folks off? True, in order to be an urban guerrilla, I guess you have to drop off the grid and re-adjust your attitudes towards what's right and wrong, in order to survive... but in a way, perhaps completely irrationally, I have a greater moral objection to people stealing food when they don't really need to than to blowing shit up. Maybe it's because I can CONCEIVE of myself stealing stuff that I don't have to - I can imagine going to a grocery store and filling my pockets, and the thought of doing so raises a red flag. I have a harder time imagining myself obliterating a BC hydro substation, stealing dynamite, or engaging in weapons training in Squamish, preparing to take down a Brinks' truck, visualizing myself in a shootout with the cops... Or driving across Canada in a van full of dynamite to blow up a building connected to the arms race...
If Ann Hansen's book drove me a bit further away from my support of Direct Action, ironically, Warren Kinsella's pissy little ad hominem rant against Gerry Hannah in Fury's Hour - his book about punk - drove me a little bit further back in the opposite direction. I contacted Kinsella - a Liberal speechwriter and an apparently rather litigious guy - to engage him in conversation, and he invited me to publish that Gerry - whom he barely knows - was a "fucking terrorist asshole." I challenged him a bit on some of what he said in his book: how can he presume to write a history of punk and to give a chapter on Gerry Hannah and the Squamish Five while neglecting to mention that their actions met with more than a little sympathy from punks and activists in the 1980's? Even the CBC had run a show that, in the eyes of some, had shown an offensive degree of approval for the Five's actions, interviewing various activists who felt bolstered by the example set by the Five, and suggesting that in some of what they did, their actions had a positive effect. Did Kinsella feel no responsibility to be objective, to represent views other than his own, or at least announce for posterity that his position - though not entirely idiosyncratic, as this old piece by Steve Albini (!) will demonstrate - was a minority view?
Just like he did when challenged by Chris Walter, Warren totally backed off, ending our correspondence; his strategy, when people put serious questions to him, seems to be to withdraw from discussion and just assert his point of view elsewhere... which is, I guess, a fairly useful defense against learning and growing, if one is determined not to do these things, but it's a gift I lack: if someone says something reasonable to me, I feel compelled to think about it. And Kinsella, in our very brief interaction, DID challenge me in a reasonable way: to talk to Chikowski, whom he had interviewed for Fury's Hour. He said something about how I couldn't be "balanced" in my representation of events - like he knows anything about balance! - if I didn't.
It seemed to me a very reasonable challenge. And over the weeks, it grew into a sort of moral imperative, because, contemplating having a conversation with Chikowski, I realized that I felt two related things: fear and guilt. Fear, because I wasn't sure that when I announced myself as a former supporter, of sorts, of the Five, he wouldn't cuss me out; and guilt, because I realized that all the time I spent defending the Five in conversations, I didn't even know his name. I didn't until I read Warren's book. These awarenesses lurked in my mind until the day at a payphone in a bar in Toronto I made my first call to Chikowski, setting up an interview for later in the week. He was more than willing to talk to me, and a surprisingly likeable, funny guy. He didn't cuss me out. I rather took a liking to him.
One thing I should mention before you begin, tho' - there is at least one point where Chikowski appears to be in error. I know that Juliet Belmas has publicly apologized for her involvement in the Litton bombing beyond what Chikowski suggests; I gather they may have even interacted on a CBC radio program, and I've read an article - I think by John Mackie in the Vancouver Sun - where she expresses great remorse for Chikowski's injuries. So he's not entirely right in what he says. Maybe he just forgot, or maybe part of him is still so pissed off at what happened that her words didn't really count for much, I dunno. Whether anyone owes him further apology I won't say: I can only speak for myself in saying that having talked to Chikowski did some degree of good for me - some dark spot in my conscience was cleared up. I haven't spoken to him in awhile - this interview took place a couple of years ago. Since I haven't been able to find a publisher for it - or at least, none that would run it in a format I found acceptible - it seemed as good a time as any to make it public. Sorry I have no images to illustrate it - I did ask around, but people I talked to were either unwilling, unable, or wanted too much money.
Allan: If we could go back to the time of the bombing, did you ever think that something like that could happen, when you signed on as a security guard for Litton?
Terry: I never thought that it would ever go to that extent. I thought that that was just... over the top, so to speak, too melodramatic, too Hollywood. I didn’t think it was possible.
Allan: There had been a bomb threat previously, hadn’t there?
Terry: Oh, there had been a bomb threat! We had four of five different demonstrations that were annual events, whether it be Christmas time, New Years, Hiroshima, Nagasaki anniversaries...
Allan: Did any of them get hostile toward you?
Allan: And there was never violence at these demonstrations?
Terry: Not violence, no. They did at one time occupy a large foyer area at what we called plant 406, that was the president’s building near Dixon Road and Cityview drive. There’s a large glassed foyer area where ten people could sit down. And they got inside the front doors of that building during one of the demonstrations. The police were there immediately, and they were told, y’know, up and out. And they just refused. They were doing a sit in. So a couple of guys held the doors open and we just physically carried them out and took them down the steps and set them down in the parking lot there, and the police took them from there and they arrested them. And off they went in their paddywagon.
Allan: Did you feel like you were taking political sides, or like you were doing a job? I mean, did they try to engage you in political discussion?
Terry: Uh, from time to time, y’know, walking the line there, when they were just off our property, they would try to engage in conversation, but I really didn’t have any time for that type of thing, and nor did I want to express any views, because I simply didn’t have any point of view. It’s more or less what you said. It’s my job. There was a function that I was conducting, and that’s what I did.
Allan: You were how old when the bombing happened?
Terry: I was 33.
Allan: Did you have a family to support?
Terry: Just my wife. Never did have children.
Allan: How did the bombing affect your feelings about the demonstrators or your feelings about the politics of the whole thing?
Terry: I’ve never been what a person would say was a real deep thinker when it comes to political issues. Prior to being at Litton Systems, I was a cop. What I saw that particular evening with respect to the people involved in the dynamite blast: they pulled off a criminal act, and that’s basically the long and short of it. They can talk about their political views until the cows come home and they’re not going to sway me from the fact that what they committed was a terrorist attack. Bottom line. An act like the Squamish Five pulled off, it’s a criminal act that was cowardly in nature.
Allan: Because there was no risk to them?
Terry: Because there was no risk to them. It was all, supposedly in their minds, anyway, a win-win situation. They were gonna make a statement, they were going to devastate Litton Systems through monetary loss by incapacitating their ability to produce what they were producing. And they couldn’t have been more wrong. I mean, hell, they picked the wrong building. They picked an administrative building, and they had supposedly done their homework? ...The way that they did it was at the very best amateur-like. If they wanted to cause some serious issues they could have picked any one of three or four other buildings, and there were eleven in the area.
Allan: Ann Hansen says in her book that when they’d cased the place previously there was no night shift...
Terry: To the best of my recollection, there was always a small shift that worked the night shift. Only a small shift, only a handful...
Allan: Reading her book, you get the impression that nothing went according to plan. They had arrived in Ontario with this dynamite, they had a plan to do this action when no one was there, and when they found out there were people there, they kind of panicked. They couldn’t back out, so they went ahead. Really, given how poorly executed the whole thing was, it’s amazing that the injuries were so small.
Terry: They don’t know how lucky they got it. Because I’ll tell ya – and I’m not sure a lot of people understand this, but where they planted that bomb, on plant 402 at Cityview Drive, that’s a landing path for these large international or domestic jets, coming directly over that building on a regular basis. Had that bomb gone off, coincidentally at the time that a plane was coming overhead, that plane would have dropped like a rock, because it would have been void of oxygen to take care of the flight approach. It was bad enough of a disaster as it was, but it could have been so much worse... I mean, less than 100 yards away is a major artery that separates Toronto from Mississauga, number 27 highway... Now granted, at 11:30 at night, there’s only gonna be a small smattering of cars, but regardless of that fact, there are gonna be vehicles on the roadway. When they’re saying their intention was not to harm anyone, in any way shape or form, it was highly unlikely that that was gonna be the case, being realistic about it. Someone was gonna get hurt.
Allan: Hm. Okay... well, if we could talk about your injuries a bit, I’m not actually clear what the long term effects have been.
Terry: I feel some degree of discomfort, and depending on weather conditions, pain, throughout my back. And it’s altered my lifestyle to a small extent. Not a great extent, but a small extent. A ridiculous thing, but one of the things that I enjoyed doing prior to being hurt: I was a hockey official, and since I got hurt, almost 24 years ago, I’ve had skates on my feet twice. I used to enjoy refereeing hockey from everything from wee kids that I used to volunteer and officiate for, right through to men’s leagues, which I really enjoyed doing, and do competitive hockey for teenagers and such. And of course I got paid a little, too. The monetary aspect really was quite secondary - I just enjoyed doing it. It was a good workout for me, and that sorta thing, and I haven’t been able to do that since I got hurt. Stamina is one of the reasons why I can’t do it, so that’s a long term effect. The physical nature of being a hockey official... in the course of a one hockey game I might bend over a hundred times to pick up a hockey puck, when you face off and that sort of thing. I can’t bend over repeatedly like that. It just causes me too much grief.
Allan: Because of lost muscle tissue?
Terry: Lost muscle, yeah, exactly. And, uh, of course there was a lot of skeletal damage, in the way of broken bones and such, and that always has a long term lasting effect on one’s body.
Allan: And I imagine you have a fair amount of scars?
Terry: Oh yeah.
Allan: I read that your spleen was disintegrated. How does that affect you?
Terry: Medically speaking, as I understand it, the spleen creates antibodies to help the body fight off viruses. So I could be more prone to picking up a flu and holding onto it longer than the average person, because the spleen is not there to create the antibodies to fight off any virus. My doctor is surprised that I stay as healthy as I do, because he said that I might have to have antibody injections from time to time to ward off viral infections, but it never had to happen, to this point in time.
Allan: And it must have been a really painful convalescence after the explosion. Were you laid up for a really long time?
Terry: Physically, I heal really, really well. My body metabolism is very unusual and the doctors that worked on me said it was unbelievable, because I was in intensive care after the bombing for seven days with thirteen tubes running out of me, and after I was taken out of intensive care I was in my regular hospital room for only ten more days. I was in the hospital for a total of seventeen days, and then I came home. That was all I was in the hospital for.
Allan: Did you have a lot of pain, when you came home?
Terry: Oh yes. I was on medication when I came home. I was on valium.
Allan: Could you walk around?
Terry: Oh yes. Slowly, deliberately. I could drive my car!
Terry: Three weeks after I got out of the hospital I drove from Mississauga to Toronto and picked up what turned out to be one of my best friends: my dog! I picked up as a puppy from one of the shelters on River Street and I brought him home, and I had him for seventeen years. He was a big part of my rehabilitation, actually.
Allan: What kind of dog was he?
Terry: He was just a mutt. Just a little border collie/ black lab cross.
Allan: How was he a big part of your rehabilitation?
Terry: Well, when you’re a puppy, you always have to go outside, y’know? You gotta house-train ‘em, and I was at home at time of course, my wife was working, so my big thing was hangin’ with the pup a lot and making sure he’s housebroken. The house that we were in at the time had a backyard, right, so there’s a sliding door off the dining room that leads to the backyard, and him being a puppy, well, he couldn’t negotiate the big step from the inside of the house down to the deck, so I’d have to get down on my hands and knees and actually lift him under his belly and put him down on the ground, and he’d go out and do his pee and do his thing, you know, and he’d come back to the front door whenever he was done, right? And then I’d have to get down on my hands and knees again and lift him back in. And him being a puppy, this would happen 25 times a day, so it was good for me in that sense. And of course, as he grew a little older, I’d take him for walks around the block and that sort of thing and that would motivate me to get out and do some walking.
Allan: It sounds like great physiotherapy...
Terry: Oh yeah, it is. And he was a great part of it. And as silly as it sounds, the dog and I bonded that much more.
Allan: I’m sure.
Terry: I just put him down... Actually, when I said seventeen – he was in his nineteenth year, ‘cos I just put him down five years ago.
Allan: What was his name?
Terry: Bogey. Like Humphrey Bogart...
Allan: Were you well-compensated for your injuries?
Terry: (Snorts). No.
Terry: No. Criminal compensation board, I was given a one-time payment, small amount of money. Then, Worker’s Compensation, a permanent partial disability pension, which was small potatoes once again. That I had to fight, actually, for. From a financial point of view, it would have been the same if I had been a part of the maintenance staff of Litton Systems, and I had taken a fall on a wet floor and broken my arm or something of that nature. That’s pretty much the way my claim was handled. It was just – I was injured on the job.
Allan: If we could talk about the Fifth Estate episode that you and Ann Hansen were both on... you said in the interview that you had no vendetta against the Squamish Five. How does that work...?
Terry: What I meant by vendetta is that I don’t pine and think about them on a daily basis and would I like to get my hands around Ann Hansen’s throat or Hannah’s or anyone else’s. I was angry. For probably a few years, after it happened. And I’d probably give it a thought on a regular basis. I don’t know about daily, but on a regular basis. But as time wore on, uh, I guess they became very unimportant to me. Very unimportant to me.
Allan: You moved on with your life...?
Terry: Exactly. Y’know, why am I giving these people thirty seconds of my precious day, in the way of thought? It’s unnecessary.
Allan: In Ann Hansen’s book, she says that when she heard that when people were hurt at Litton, she thought about killing herself and things like that. She talks about feeling a lot of remorse. Did she or anyone try to apologize to you personally on a one to one level?
Allan: The public communiqué that they issued – that was it?
Terry: That was it. The only other time, and it wasn’t on a personal level, was Ann Hansen’s portion of that Fifth Estate thing. And other than that... As I understand it, Julie Belmas was on – am I thinkin’ of the right program, is it Front Page Challenge? With Pierre Berton as one of the panellists?
Allan: I dunno. I think that might be right.
Terry: I forget what the format of the program is, but I think what it is, they give snippets of information for the panellist to guess what incident surrounds it, and they bring the guest out, that sort of idea? As I understand it, once her identity was brought forth and her claim to fame, Pierre Berton climbed her frame and belittled her in front of the television crowd and the television community who’s watching the program. He apparently said something to the effect of, “And here you are today, trying to sell yourself to the community?” Because at that time, it was indicated that she was now into production of, what was it, documentary-style films surrounding female prison inmates, and he’s saying, “So you’re using our show to try to sell yourself that you’re involved in this sort of thing, to once again give yourself some notoriety, some free publicity?” And he said, “What have you done for the victims of this bombing?” And she apparently – now, I didn’t see the program, but from what I understand, she openly stated that any monies that she would make from any endeavours, she would take a portion of it and set it aside to be given to victims of the Litton bombing. Yeah, well. That’s another good story. Nothing of that nature ever happened.
Allan: Yeah. As far as I’m concerned, the punk community completely failed around that. We spent all our time raising money for the Five’s legal fees, and we didn’t do a single fuckin’ thing for the people who were hurt by the Five...
Terry: Well. Not that I’m looking for something monetary, because I’m not, but yeah, that would have certainly been something – just to acknowledge the fact that, “we’re sorry guys, you were hurt,” and to publicly make that statement... but as far as I’m concerned there was no statement of that or anything that surfaced that I’m aware of, anyway, other than that public communiqué...
Terry: It scared the hell out of them, when they found out that people were hurt, and particularly when they were confronted with the fact that someone might actually die. And I’m not sure if they were so concerned about the possibility that I was gonna die, or what the ramifications would be for them. There may have been some inkling of, “Oh boy, we really didn’t mean to hurt anybody, let alone kill anyone... but boy, if someone dies, we’re in deeper shit than we thought.”
Allan: I was a 15 year old punk rocker in Vancouver when all this happened, and my main reaction was to rally around Gerry Hannah. He was a respected member of the punk community, and he had been arrested, and there were these charges against him...
Terry: And that was a cool thing to have happen to a person, at that age – to be arrested for your political views.
Allan: Well, yeah, sure, he was like an ideological martyr, sure... But, I mean, there might still be some people who think that way... There’s lots of people who are really pissed off at their government, and don’t feel like they can make any sort of headway...
Terry: Well... as I say, I’m quite non-political, and the reason why I’m non-political is that regardless of who you are in political office, you got there for one reason and one reason only: of all the candidates in that given election, you were probably the best liar. And I mean, history has proven itself time and time again – it doesn’t matter if you’re talking the States, Canada, or any other country in the world. In Canada, the poor bugger I feel sorry for in political history is (our first Prime Minister) John A. Macdonald, and the only reason I feel sorry for that guy is that that poor prick didn’t have any predecessor to blame...
Allan: Do you sympathize with people who want to hold politicians to account? Do you sympathize with non-violent radicals and activists who want to say that what these people are doing is wrong and they need to be held accountable?
Terry: I think that if there’s a good idea that is brought forth in a campaign, and people kind of rally around that idea and as a result have that person put into office, and they don’t see anything more than a half-assed attempt – yeah, I think they should be taken to task on that. Yeah. “Why isn’t it happening, guys?” People should be accountable for not doing what they stated they’re trying to achieve...
Allan: So what about things like Canada participating with the United States? Like, I don’t know how you feel about George W. Bush –
Terry: Well, take a look at his approval ratings! [laughs]. I thought his father had the lowest approval ratings ever, but his son done him proud.
Allan: But, I mean, Harper wants to get Canada more in bed with the United States. It’s possible that if the US goes ahead with manufacturing Star Wars-type military technology, and Canada supports that, we could have a very similar situation as with Litton and the Cruise missile arising in Canada... I mean, it’s not just people lying, it’s people pushing through platforms that could destroy the whole planet...
Terry: It seems like almost a pointless endeavour. Maybe I’m small minded in my thinking, but I just don’t know why they want to go to a whole new level, with Star Wars, when they can’t take care of their own backyard... I guess the old cliché is biting off more than you could chew. I don’t think the people on are planet are mentally equipped – we don’t have enough basic smarts, basic common sense to do something like Star Wars. We can’t take care of ourselves on this globe, what’s to make us think that we can leave this globe and make it better...
Allan: So, like, with bands like the Subhumans, they’re saying that these people are liars, what they’re doing is wrong - that these sort of things must be stopped. Do you feel any sort of solidarity with that? Do you feel any sympathy with what they’re singing about?
Terry: I don’t know if I’d take it so far to say as I adopt solidarity with them, but I think I can empathize with their thoughts on that, in as much as, yeah... I’m not a big fan of this Star Wars business at all. That much I will agree with, I think it’s a ridiculous notion, I think it’s a money machine...
Allan: Sorry, that’s uh... actually, Star Wars per se is not one of the things they get into in the album. But I mean, they have a song singing, about politicians, “You’re a liar/ You’re a liar/ You’ve got no morals and you make me sick/ You’re a liar/ It’s all an act, a dirty trick...”
Terry: That’s what all politicians do. All of them.
Allan: Anything else? I mean, this is probably going to be running in a punk zine after an interview with members of the Subhumans. I’m going to be taking Warren Kinsella to task on a couple of things, because some of what he says is simply wrong – he says everyone in the punk community thought Gerry was a terrorist asshole, but the fact is, many people admire him...
Terry: Does Gerry not feel that that act was something other than an act of terrorism?
Allan: Um. Y’know, he’s said to me, when I interviewed him, he likened to vigilantism, he said that the methods were wrong... what he has said is that for him it wasn’t intended to hurt people – and bear in mind that he wasn’t actually involved in the Litton thing –
Terry: No, I understand that.
Allan: But he’s said to him what they were doing was damaging property, that it was political sabotage, but it wasn’t intended to frighten or hurt people, that wasn’t what it intended to do. But as you say, 550 pounds of dynamite is going to frighten and hurt people, so...
Terry: Yeah, there’s no skirtin’ around it.
Allan: Mm. Any feelings about punk rock? Ever listen to it?
Terry: No I don’t, to be honest with you, I really don’t. You think that I would have heard a lot more... I’ve heard a little bit of it at a very amateur level, because I’ve got two nieces that were involved in punk bands.
Allan: Oh really?
Terry: Yeah! My brother’s daughter and three or four other girls briefly had a little punk band going. My older niece, she was involved in a punk band as well. She was a bass player and she was in a mixed band of guys and gals. I remember her group’s name cause (laughs) to me it was just outrageous. It was called Hockey Teeth.
Allan: Hockey Teeth? (Laughs).
Terry: (Laughs) And their logo was just this picture of – no significant figure in hockey, but just the male face of a hockey player, without any teeth, just the fangs type of thing? And that was their logo on their t-shirts...
Allan: Were they doing political stuff or just having fun?
Terry: I think they were just having fun. It’s a non-political thing. Incidentally, I gotta tell you... I don’t know if you’ve heard this before... we were talking about Bush earlier?
Terry: And I think he’s world renowned for being the jerk that he is, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Can I just briefly tell you a brief little story that I heard, that I think is classic of George?
Allan: Go, please!
Terry: Okay. George is sitting in the oval office and Donald Rumsfeld comes barging through the door. Bush looks up and he says, “Rumsfeld, what the hell do you want? I’m a busy man.” Rumsfeld says, “Mr. President, I’ve got some late-breaking news for you, sir, that you might find somewhat disturbing.” He says, “Well, Rumsfeld, let’s have it! Like I said, I’m busy.” And with that, Rumsfeld says, “Earlier today, Mr. President, three Brazilian soldiers were killed in Iraq.” And with that all the colour drains out of George Bush’s face, and his shoulders start to quake as if he’s about to start crying, and he’s shaking his head back and forth, cupping his head in his hands, and after a minute or so he looks up over his fingertips and says, “Rumsfeld?” “Yes Mr. President?” “Just how many is a Brazilian?”
It's not the only shame about the film, tho'. It tries very hard to say serious things about the human condition that presumably are well-stated in the book, which I have not read. A variation on the "infection apocalypse film" that I mention in writing about [REC] below, it has more in common with 28 Days Later than I ever would have expected; some of that is stuff I'd rather not give away, in case you see the film, but suffice it to say that the question of how to stay human in an "infected" world is a common theme. Rather than rage-infected "zombies," however, the film uses a plague of blindness as a way of exploring the failings of humanity, a theme that is well-worthy of a film. There are promising moments and at least two actors - Julianne Moore and a sadly under-used Maury Chaykin - who can usually illuminate even mundane material - but for the most part, the characters stumble about like figures trapped in a parable, never seeming fully human, their dilemmas so constantly mined for illustrative purposes that we're more aware of their value as ideas and symbols than their humanity, or the reality of their emotions... Their actions at times seem so unbelievable, meanwhile, that one is constantly snapped out of one's contract with the film: "yes, I can see where they're going, but people just don't act that way." When Don McKellar's character - he has a role in the film as well as having written it - commits what appears to be suicide-by-soldier, we've had so little opportunity to really enter his mind, it's not even clear what he's doing, and we don't really care, before-during-or-after. Any impulse I might have felt to play along initially left me for good as soon as Danny Glover stepped in midway through as the Moralizing Black Narrator (I guess Morgan Freeman was too expensive). Glover's somber reportage is annoying whenever it crops up, but is worst, alas, at the ending, where it appears that the filmmakers simply ran out of faith in the power of images to convey their point and hauled out Glover to read to us, a failure which should embarrass those responsible greatly.
Really, the only people I can see getting much at all out of this film are future students of the work of Don McKellar, assuming that there will be some. The film owes a lot to his Last Night, sharing at times a bit of the quirky, self-consciously obvious, "accept-my-premise-and-I'll-tell-you-a-story" approach that made that film warm and engaging. Unlike Blindness, though, the characters in Last Night stayed real and interesting and our suspension of disbelief was gladly given. I suspect that McKellar and Mereilles - of the obnoxiously flashy City of God - are simply too different in their approach to cinema for the virtues in McKellar's script, whatever they may have been, to have made it onto the screen intact. Mereilles seems a B-grade Ridley Scott at best, but Don McKellar - whom I hereby absolve of Blindness' failings - is someone who I hope will be talked about in 20, 50, 100 years time... Maybe if McKellar had been allowed to direct his own material, he could have pulled it off?
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Saturday, October 11, 2008
I know of Steve Nikleva as a sometimes cohort of Al Mader, The Minimalist Jug Band, and via Al, I know of Nikleva as an associatiate of the late Ray Condo and of Veda Hill. Here's what I didn't know: that Steve Nikleva - a name I associate with roots music, rockabilly, country, that sorta thing - was the guitarist for a now somewhat forgotten Vancouver experimental pop band of the 1980's, Red Herring, for whom I have great fondness. I have just discovered this fact tonight, after listening to some newly acquired Red Herring. It is a discovery that makes me slap my head in awe - I've written Nikleva's name in print, in writing about Al, and not realized that he was the guitarist on this fucking EP; that I have some of HIS guitar licks even now reverberating in my skull, and have always had them there close at hand over the years, while hearing about him and never making the connection. How could I not have known? How is it not common knowledge?
Fuck, maybe it is. Is it just me? Hm.
Allow me to backtrack: since I was given the gift of a turntable by a good friend not long ago, I have been slowly going around seeking out certain albums. The albums by Vancouver musicians that other people are not actively seeking, that they may not know were there. The ones that people are not paying $80 apiece for (yet). The ones that are not on the wall with Hardcore 81 and Perfect Youth and Incorrect Thoughts. And, most significantly, the ones that are not only not available on CD, but maybe never will be.
See, I don't need to pay $40 for Slow's Against the Glass; I have a download of a perfectly serviceable vinyl rip and can listen to it whenever I need, until such a time as the CD comes out, which I'm sure - no, I don't know anything - it will someday do. I'm not so sentimental about that album, it turns out, that I need to own the vinyl artefact as well. Maybe if someone gave me a cut rate price on it, because I'm so supportive of the local music scene - sure, that'd be fun! Or if I found it at a thrift store (fat chance). But given $40, and the choice between Against the Glass and, say, the Melodic Energy Commission's The Migration of the Snails, I would likely choose the latter, as a far more unusual, far more interesting artefact of our music scene. (Plus there's even more chance someone will give me a discount on that particular title). Likewise, why would I invest heavily in Hawaii when I might be able to pay a lower price for the far less legendary, but far more revealing and curious, debut album by the Shmorgs? I have the Young Canadians CD, too, after all, but fat chance anyone will put out a Shmorgs disc! ...And if I was going to go for a punk album, I'd be more likely to get excited about Schizofungi by The Spores than any of that, anyhow, not just because it too would likely be cheaper (or because a CD release is unlikely; I would say a CD release is more likely than most of y'all realize) but because, in fact, it speaks more deeply to me musically (and the cover is soooo much more fun).
It takes awhile, of course, to put these pieces together. They're not that uncommon - I fully expect to have a Schizofungi in my hot little hands within the year - but record store owners aren't so excited about selling such discs or stocking them or displaying them, and don't offer so much, or pass up the purchase outright, when people come in to try to sell them, because (not being dummies) they realize that these albums will sit around for years before anyone even picks them up and expresses curiosity. A savvy businessperson would do better to keep them in a box out of sight to wait for some fabled day when demand rises, and thus to encourage an illusion of true scarcity. Trying to move them now is just taking up space that could be reserved for albums that will sell much faster, for more money: what's the point?
I know a little bit about such things, because I work in a record store sometimes. Over the years - less frequently, lately, with all the writing I've been doing - I've sat at the desk at Carson's Books, watching people not even stop to look at the Shmorgs LPs there. Watching the albums people pick out and buy from the punk bin (actually a cardboard box) has been an education. We've had DOA come and go, and Against the Glass, and the Subhumans' "Death to the Sickoids" single fetched a pretty penny on eBay, but Red Herring's Taste Tests, moderately priced, has sat there for at least two or three years, and the same single copy of the Animal Slaves' Dog Eat Dog has been hanging around, I think, since I got back from Japan in 2002 and started doing occasional shifts there. People don't really care, buyers or sellers equally. These are bands that were taken for granted or dismissed in the day, that too few people know well enough to appreciate now; they exist far enough away from the din of the marketplace (which is where the majority of music fans gather, even still) that they aren't really noticed, regardless of where they might be great (or at least really interesting). Besides, they don't have much investment value, do they?
These are the albums I want to own. Vancouver LPs I am proud to have in my possession in vinyl at the moment: Tunnel Canary's "new" LP of old material, the limited run still available at firstname.lastname@example.org or on the shelves at Zulu. July Fourth Toilet's newest, with the really long title, the short version of which is Balls Boogie. The Animal Slaves and Red Herring, which I bought off Tim soon after getting the turntable. Al Neil's Boot and Fog is on the shopping list, which I know tends to hang around Neptoon. I would be curious to hear some o' that Tim Ray stuff with Alex Varty and Bill Napier Hemy on it. I don't need to own Nomeansno's Mama on LP - I reconciled myself to not owning that years ago, when I sold my copy to Ty Scammel (he who "discovered" the New Creation) at the Flea Market for $80. I'd rather own One, anyhow - that's an album I want to hear on vinyl! ...or maybe I'll decide to peer into the current scene and pick up records by The Mutators, The Shearing Pinx, the Emergency Room compilation - which may be the Dog Eat Dogs of tomorrow, the albums people are passing over while looking for Black Mountain...
In any event: listening to Red Herring's Taste Tests tonight, and in particular its brilliant, quirky, prog-punk title track, with its litany of asinine consumer choices and choruses of "Coca Cola/ Pepsi Cola" or repeated insistence that "This is the best lipstick," I am stunned by how neat certain aspects of this city's musical history have been. And to discover, dammit, that Steve Nikleva is the guitarist on this - his playing owing more on this disc to, hell, I dunno, Robert Fripp or Pat Metheny or somefuckin'one than to roots rock! - I am filled with wonder and curiosity. I need to know more. Who were these Red Herring people, anyhow? Who is Enrico Renz, the lead singer, and where is he now? How many copies were pressed of this? Who else knows about it? Who else cares?
Or are these too questions of mere consumerism? Is Enrico Renz my "best lipstick" for the moment? Is Steve Nikleva an underarm deodorant, really? Is that what this is? Does it matter really which LPs I want to own? Is it really a worthy topic for my time, or yours?
I mean, objectively probably not, but sometimes it sure seems so...
Maybe I need to take a holiday from all this for awhile...
Friday, October 10, 2008
Wednesday, October 08, 2008
Three great films seen today, probably the last fest fare I'll be able to take in (tho' there's an added screening of Chomsky and Co. on Friday at the Vancity that might be appealing).
Let the Right One In (or, in Swedish, Lát den rätte komma in) was particularly delightful to me in that a group of high school students were brought to the screening by their teachers, because, I'm told, "it deals with themes of bullying." Though this is kind of like screening Psycho for GLBT teens because it deals with gender confusion, the spectacle of high school students giving rapt attention - because these kids, the occasional titter aside, were immersed - to a restrained, tastefully-made Swedish vampire film with a fairly, uhm, transgressive moral centre - was fascinating; though normally I like a quiet screening room, where the reactions of the audience don't distract me from having my own experience of the film, the way these kids engaged with this film made my codger's heart warm with hope for future generations: they were all right by me, as was the film (which was still effective despite the occasional disruption). By contrast, I have no doubt a couple of the teachers had grievous concerns about the way the young protagonists' story is resolved; I can't imagine how this film will play in the United States of Asininity - the sort of people who think Harry Potter is Satanic will have an aneurism when they see it, not that they would go see a subtitled film. It adds a neat new twist to vampire lore, too: what happens to vampires when you DON'T invite them in, but they come in anyhow? More on the novel on which it is based here.
Tom Scholte's film Crime, meanwhile, is so good and so the sort of film I want to support with my writing that I am presently somewhat dumbstruck as to what to say about it. My ideal reader has likely already seen Bruce Sweeney's Dirty, one of the most remarkable films to be made in Vancouver, in terms of what it captures about life here; Scholte, of course, acted in that, as well as Sweeney's previous film (Live Bait) and his subsequent (Last Wedding). (He also acted in Larry Kent's The Hamster Cage, a film I must confess to having missed). Crime so surpasses Last Wedding and Sweeney's most recent work, American Venus - which I found kind of silly, truth be told - that it makes me wonder if maybe Scholte was more involved in the creative process for Dirty than I'd previously realized... And if that ideal reader should have missed Dirty (which is still to my knowledge unavailable on DVD, not widely distributed on VHS, and seldom screened - so I can hardly be that outraged), they should be sold immediately on the fact that this is a locally shot Dogme film, beginning with the Dogme certificate and all. If these two details aren't enough to entice you, what the hell am I supposed to say? That it tells the stories of a conservative hockey player, a confused young, emotionally fragile female student, a stuggling pot-smoking musician with a beer belly (played by Scholte) and his girlfriend-in-recovery (played by Scholte's wife and fellow Sweeney alum Frida Betrani)? That it invites you to laugh at some very dark moments, but is ultimately a very moral and thought-provoking film? That it contains a very interesting and provocative critique of masculine identity and hierarchy and how these function in our society? Fuck it: leave the job of making the film comprehensible and enticing to lowbrows to Katherine Monk or such; anyone who is with me this far surely realizes they need to go see this film. Tomorrow, if you can - it screens at 3pm. The less I say about it - the less you know - the more powerful an experience you will have; I'm cooking up plans to write more on it in the future. Someone else has interviewed Scholte here, if you really need more.
Finally, there's [REC] (official site, in Spanish, here). Call it 28 Days Later - or 28 Weeks Later, more accurately - shot in close quarters with a shakycam, as a group of people are quarantined in a building where a virus is on the loose, transforming the infected into rabid unstoppable murderers. It's the sort of film that strives to ratchet up the tension (and the hysteria) to unbearable levels, and the last half-hour had me jumping constantly. I liked it best before the rollercoaster got rolling, in fact, since relentless shakycam stuff - Blair Witch, Cloverfield, whatever - starts to all sort of blend together in my mind, just as too much music with the knobs turned to eleven starts to ultimately have a numbing effect - but I don't mind the odd jolt of extreme cinematic experience, and this is certainly that. What was it that Ray Hicks said - a little adrenaline cleans the blood?
...Plus there's something very compelling and contemporary about "infection" as the source of terror, or the transformation of the human to the rage-driven, to borrow some of Alex Garland and Danny Boyle's nomenclature. Rather than continuing to liken such films to zombie flicks, I think it's time to invent a new genre for them. Rage-infected films tend to differ on many substantial accounts from zombie films, since the virus in rage films is manmade and more of a threat in and of itself, does not result in death, and leads to fast, strong, and sometimes quite smart zombies, rather than slow stupid weak ones. Cannibalism and morbidity, and the busting of taboos around death - which play a strong role in zombie fare - are displaced by violence and hysteria, and the apocalyptic tendencies of zombie films - especially Romero's - are generally replaced with smaller-scale concerns: the question is not what to salvage of our values in a society that has destroyed itself, but how to survive within a perimeter, or make it outside, where things are (for the moment) still safe; there's a strong element of problem solving under stress that the survivors are confronted with - a video-game like need to get to a certain place, find a key, and find an exit, all of which is very much present in [REC]. Tho' it's not a masterwork, I liked [REC] a lot more than either of Romero's last two films - Diary of the Dead, also a shakycammer, feels kinda tired by comparision. [REC] is being remade by Hollywood as Quarantine, and I liked [REC] enough that I will likely see the remake, too. You probably won't get another chance to see the original, by the way, so if you're free tomorrow (and not going to Crime), you have at least one other chance... Teaser trailer here.
Didn't George C. Scott once act in a film called Rage, about a man infected by a virus that drives him insane with anger? Then there's Cronenberg's Shivers and Rabid... I suspect these films have more to do with [REC] than Night of the Living Dead... I wonder if anyone has optioned the old "Night of the Jackass" serial from Warren's Eerie magazine?
(Cover art by Jim Laurier)
I have other stuff going on, so I think I'm done VIFF coverage for now... Hope you saw some good movies! A great fest, as always... thanks especially to the VIFF folks for getting construction to let up on Granville for a few days! Cinema 1, Construction 0: yay team!
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
Monday, October 06, 2008
Heheheh: how about Philip Ridley's The Reflecting Skin and The Passion of Darkly Noon? You've seen those, right?
...or Monika Treut's silly, delightful, and joyously kinky My Father is Coming (with Annie Sprinkle) paired with the transgressive, dark, and influential Swoon, by Tom Kalin? The Out on Screen queer film fest aside - which, based on my short experience as a reviewer for Xtra West, sometimes screen utter crap (like this year's execrable Bangkok Love Story) just because it has queer content - how many really GOOD queer-themed movies (ones that you don't have to be gay or lesbian to love, btw - which is the case of both of the above) screen in this city?
And while we're talking about sex, Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie and WR: Mysteries of the Organism!
And could we have a bit of Asian extremity, but nothing obvious: maybe Kichiku Dai Enkai and Marebito, or some Tsukamoto Shinya films? I'd LOVE to see Tetsuo on the big screen... Everyone drools over Miike these days, but Tsukamoto's much more exciting and consistent, I think. I'd vote for his Tokyo Fist as another film I'd love to see projected. Although now that I've mentioned Miike, wouldn't it be good fun to see Visitor Q with an audience? Woo!
Or how about Larry Cohen's Q, with Michael Moriarty? Maybe pair it with - shit, what other half-tolerable Larry Cohen films are there? Uhhh... Not It's Alive, to be sure. Not God Told Me To. I guess I'll vote for Bone, because I've never seen it and I like Yaphet Kotto.
Or Cronenberg's Shivers! How long has it been since THAT was projected here? Paired with Rabid, I guess.
Or speaking of Marilyn Chambers, can you go porno and do Behind the Green Door? Because I'm told - and do believe - that it was shot in the same little theatre as Sun Ra's Space is the Place, and that the Marilyn Chambers people and the Sun Ra people didn't have the best relations... The presence of the same room in both movies makes it a surefire double bill, and there are probably people in this town who would clean up whatever goo was left after the Chambers film, if you paid them, or bought them some crack, or something.
Which brings us to drugs! The Trip needs to be screened again in this city - it's an excellent film - and I think would make an excellent pairing with Zabriskie Point. These are both great under the influence of psychedelics. Or, speaking of Pink Floyd soundtracks, how about Barbet Schroeder's More (which I'm only half fond of) with his The Valley (which I greatly admire)?
...And then there's gangsters! John Cassavetes in Giuliano Montaldo's Machine Gun McCain - if you have a PAL/Region 2-friendly DVD projector, I can help out with that - maybe paired with Juzo Itami's swipe at the Yakuza, Minbo no Onna, aka Minbo? (Or do you have a better idea - another good Italian mob movie? Or mebbe you could do Montaldo's Time to Kill, with Nicolas Cage...?)
And finally, let's get Canadian: Clear Cut (or Clearcut) and Rituals, two of the great unreleased-on-DVD, shot-in-Canada, horror-in-the-woods films... Tho' Clear Cut is much smarter and richer than the genre it is modeled on, and a butchered public domain print of Rituals circulates, while a complete print, I gather, briefly made it onto DVD in Germany. I'd pitch in to rent nice prints of these last two, really I would. Or maybe do it for my birthday, March 7th - pleeeease?
Just some ideas for you to mill around... Good on you for having midnight movies in Vancouver!
Since its VIFF screenings are done, and since I'm starting to get smirked at for my posts on masturbation (see below), I will keep my praises for Control Alt Delete (official site here) brief: the primary charm in this movie is that it shows its flabby protagonist, above, not only masturbating ferociously in front of his computer, but, when this proves insufficient, drilling a hole into it, creating a lube-filled bubblewrap vagina to stuff inside, and banging the tower enthusiastically. It is not the only computer he fucks in the course of the film - his fetish gets quite out of control at one point, and follows him to work - but tho' the audience is allowed to contemplate ceasing to identify with him, it never really does; we continue to like him and root for him - computer fuckery and all - throughout, as he wrestles with writing code to avert the predicted Y2K meltdown (the film is set in 1999). It takes a certain courage to portray masturbation, let alone weird masturbation, thus; even today, its an act usually sneered at, for instance in Todd Solondz' Happiness, which makes it much harder to cheer for its flabby, autoerotic geek (played by Phil Seymour Hoffman: the instance when his character is identified by name has always been a cause for wincing, for me). Control Alt Delete's Tyler Labine (the director's brother) also gets courage-points for taking the role. The quirky "morality" behind the movie - its ideas of "the new normalcy," say, or at least its fondness for its character's kinks - is the chief reason I liked it (since, kinks aside, the majority of the film itself is a fairly small Canadian office comedy, a little more fun but also a bit less well-crafted than Gary Burns' Waydowntown, say; some ideas - like having all the characters' last names end in -son - should have been left at the drawing board). Not surprising that Lynne Stopkewich has a hand in this'un. A surefire entry in the second edition of Weird Sex and Snowshoes, if such a thing should ever be produced.
Oh: I think the Labines, based on the Q&A, might actually be from my hometown of Maple Ridge, which also scores them a point - anyone who grows up in Maple Ridge who goes on to do anything of consequence is bucking the odds. Cam Neely, whoever. (People used to steal old textbooks that had his name written in them at the junior high I went to).
Down to the Dirt (official site here, still above) is the film I was really excited about this evening. Based on a first novel by Newfoundland writer/actor Joel Thomas Hynes, who stars, it's a film that would be very easy to make sound dark or depressing. It's main character is a drunken ne'er-do-well Newfoundlander, pissed at his circumstance, full of self-romanticization and poetry, who causes so much trouble for himself and everyone who cares about him that it's a miracle you like him throughout the film; it's also a virtue of the storytelling, which somehow manages to be fond of the fire and spirit behind the misdeeds while viewing them from an "older, wiser" place. The film reminded me quite surprisingly of aspects of my own past, and a girl I once knew (hi, Raven: you never got in touch); the sharing of mushrooms between its male and female lead (the talented and lovely Mylène Savoie, pictured below) is a key element, but the story it reminds me of is too dear to me for a mere blog. Hynes' character and Savoie's pair up, escape rural Newfoundland for St. John's, and finally end up in Halifax, their relationship much decayed. Hynes' rich sense of dialect (he's Newfoundland's answer to Irvine Welsh, Niall Griffiths, or James Kelman, say) survives into the film, and there's a great little performance by Hugh Dillon, too. Can lit enthusiasts, people who grew up in small towns, or anyone who has had rowdy days and doesn't quite disavow them, will value this experience. Elizabeth Bachinsky should go see it, in particular.
I was going to do a Canadian-film triple bill today, and also write about Atom Egoyan's Adoration, except the Empire Granville screenings are organized such that passholders, like everyone else, have to stand outside for long periods for big screenings - even on nights like this, when cold rain is sheeting down, and even though some of us - like, uh, me - had been in the theatre twice already that day. Egoyan's Family Viewing and Speaking Parts were both really important parts of my early adolesence (and while we're talking about masturbation, is there a hotter scene in Canadian film than the bit in Speaking Parts where Gabrielle Rose - attending the fest with the new Carl Bessai film, Mothers&Daughters, but I'm too shy to tell her this in person - engages in video-link sex with Michael McManus? I have long nurtured a slight crush on Gabrielle Rose - no, really... and don't get me started on the train scenes with her and Maury Chaykin in The Adjuster). However, nothing I've seen by Egoyan in the last ten years has impressed me enough for me to want to spend fifteen minutes with neither umbrella nor hat being pissed on by the Gods of autumn in a lineup that stretches around the block, waiting for the privilege to be allowed back inside - especially when the film is pert-near guaranteed a theatrical release. So instead, I've come home to read a few pages of Joel Thomas Hynes' newest, Right Away Monday. See him talk about it on Youtube. And really - go see Down to the Dirt: one last screening is scheduled, Wednesday, 4:30 at the Cinematheque.
Friday, October 03, 2008
Three kings, photographed by Mark Peranson
I do not understand the films of Albert Serra.
Once, in my 20’s, I may have felt the need to compensate for some perceived suburban lack and praise - or at least suspend judgment on - suspected naked emperors as they strolled on by, inwardly thinking, “What the fuck was that?” - taking my very lack of comprehension as proof that the film was “above” me, and thus beyond my criticising. I remember the experience of first seeing Antonioni’s The Passenger at around age 15; tho’ it’s by no means a nude emperor, I certainly didn’t understand it, but I felt compelled to revisit it again and again until I got a sense of what was going on - an attitude towards cinema which I am quite grateful I had, back then. Still: I’m 40 years old now, and for good or bad, I am no longer so open-minded. I figure I know enough about film that if something doesn’t work for me, there’s a reason for it besides my own incapacity. “I know about art, and I know what I like” - like that.
Serra aside, I generally love contemplative, minimal cinema. My favourite film thus far at the 2008 VIFF was James Benning’s RR - nearly two hours of nothing but trains going by, which was as rewarding an aesthetic experience as I’ve had in months. I loved Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy and liked Wendy and Lucy (still playing at the VIFF) - a film in which a woman comes to town, has a car breakdown, and has some problems involving her dog; though it opens onto vast expanses of human emotion and experience, I think it’s fair to describe it as formally quite spare - as is the music-free, Bresson-informed, and very sensitive Ballast, by Lance Hammer, another favourite this year. Describe a film as quiet, reflective - chances are you’ll find me in the audience, because nine times out of ten this means I will leave the theatre feeling rewarded, sometimes even (as was the case with my third viewing of Old Joy) in tears. Local cineaste Frank has pointed Liverpool out to me, and I’m excited to check it out. If I had no previous awareness of Serra’s cinema - and if I hadn’t checked out Birdsong on a screener in preparation for writing this article - I’d probably be quite excited to see it, based on the description in the VIFF program.
Both of the Albert Serra films I’ve seen, thus far, however - admittedly only having viewed them on the small screen - have filled me with impatience and irritation. They are indubitably quiet and spare, but somehow do nothing but agitate me, perhaps because - unlike with Benning or Reichardt or Hammer - I cannot hook on to the director’s project, which involves taking narratives of great historical import (Don Quixote for Honor de Cavalleria/ The Honor of the Knights, 2005; and the Journey of the Magi for El Cant Dels Ocells/ Birdsong, 2008), stripping away 75% of their content, translating them into Catalan, and reducing the characters to bumbling child-men who bicker, fuss, and occasionally observe the world around them with childish wonder. These observations are often somewhat poetic in resonance, as when the Magi in Birdsong consider whether they can walk on the clouds, but often at the same time have a gentle imbecility to them that strips them of any relevance to (my idea of) human experience (I mean, walking on clouds?). Besides such moments, a few pretty compositions, and occasionally striking landscapes, there’s nothing much that *I* feel compelled to feel, think, or contemplate during Birdsong, aside from my complete befuddlement and anxiety at waiting for the film to develop into something. See the men walk across the landscape. See them stumble. See them walk some more. See them pause. See them quibble. See them continue. Repeat with a similar landscape: Arrgh. Because I felt much the same way about The Honour of the Knights, it’s clear that there is a developed and singular aesthetic at work here - that Serra is indeed involved in producing art that is “absolute, inviolate, a discipline, a calling, a quest...” (to quote Robert Koehler, from the VIFF listing); but so far my instinct is to want no part of it.
VIFF programmer Mark Peranson is, unlike me, an admirer of Serra’s cinema, and acted in Birdsong, playing the Hebrew-speaking Joseph (his most memorable scene is a three minute static shot where he sits against a stone wall, idly moving his foot; his sole line in that scene is a complaint about the heat). Peranson made a “sort of making-of” film during the shoot, which took place in what the program describes as “the breathtaking, volcanic Canary Islands.” It seems only fitting, given how central a feature impatience was to my viewing of the film, that the title of his making of should be Waiting for Sancho (official site here; assumedly the title is a reference to a certain Beckett play, and not Waiting for Lefty, Waiting for Guffman, or Fear’s “Waiting for the Meat”). Sancho, by the way, is the nickname given to Lluís Serrat Masanellas, who played Sancho in Honor de Cavalleria; he returns in this film, along with Lluís Carbó, who played Quixote, and a third actor who (if I’ve got this right) is his father, Lluís Serrat Batlle. Mark and I talked about Birdsong and Waiting for Sancho. He seems to “get” Serra’s cinema, and he’s been trying to persuade me to come out and properly experience Serra on the large screen. He’s quite lucid, but, uh... I just don’t know...
Mark Peranson photographed by Román G. Yñan
Allan: To break the ice, I wanted to start by asking you, in Waiting for Sancho, when Albert is trying to make Sancho laugh, and he’s calling out, “blow job! Vicks Vapo Rub! Masturbation...”
Mark: You like masturbation, don’t you?
Allan: I do, I do, but... with Vicks Vapo Rub?
Allan: Do you know anything about this?
Mark: Well, he likes Vicks Vapo Rub, Sancho, actually. At one point there’s a scene where you see him in bed, in the room, lying down there, in the hotel. He’s actually got Vicks Vapo Rub on.
Allan: On his chest?
Mark: On his whole body. I don’t know exactly where, but all over the place.
Allan: But it’s not a sexual thing.
Mark: No, it’s a soothing thing, y’know, after walking all day and climbing the mountain - it’s like Ben Gay for Old People: Vicks Vapo Rub. It opens the pores.
Allan: This is the scene where he’s scratching his meaty thigh.
Mark: Yeah. Scratching, slapping - whatever he’s doing.
Allan: I actually quite liked that moment. He’s got a very unusual body - he’s got a very strange presence.
Mark (laughing): You could say that, yeah. A strange presence.
Allan: But compelling. I could see him becoming a kind of cult hero.
Mark: I think he is kind of a cult hero, in some ways, after the first film, in Barcelona. I think he’s very popular among bears.
Allan: Is he gay?
Mark: Sancho? I don’t think so.
Allan: Ah. But he’s got a bear audience.
Mark: Yeah, you know...
Allan: Oh, I see it.
Mark: His father definitely isn’t, as we know. That’s the other guy in his film, his father.
Allan: How do we know he’s not gay?
Mark: Because he had him - he impregnated someone!
Allan: Ah, I see. Well, lots of gay people in history have had children, but... We’re not doing this for Xtra West. We can roll past that.
Mark: I mean, it’s a pretty gay film, Birdsong. In a way.
Photograph by Mark Peranson; Sancho is in the foreground
Mark: Well, I mean... the circumstance a lot of the time is that you have three men helping each other out. But I mean, they could be three characters of any kind. They didn’t have to be men, but they are men.
Allan: Its true. There isn’t a strong female presence.
Mark: Well, there’s Montse, who’s extremely strong in my film. The producer.
Allan: Right. But in Serra’s films...
Mark: Yeah, he doesn’t like women, I don’t think, very much. I mean, he makes these films basically because of these guys - he wants to make films with these people. He finds them interesting. And you can tell why he finds them interesting, I think. Because they’re pretty intriguing people to watch, even if you have no idea of what they’re saying.
Allan: Yeah. The most enlightening part of your documentary, for me, other than just seeing how the process of making the film went, was where Serra talks about wanting to get rid of the sentimental - or you say naïve - relationship between figures and a landscape, so there’s just people left. I thought that was really interesting. But what’s your understanding of Serra’s project? ...because I don’t really get it.
Mark: Well, in that sense, this is one reason why I say seeing it on film is a necessary part of it, because of the spatial relationships that are going on, and the way the two cameras work. There’s no one field, there’s no axis that he’s working on, in terms of shooting. The cameras get up and they move in the middle of a scene. The spaces are 360 degrees that he’s working with - they’re much more opened up. And that’s also a reason why the film’s in black and white, not in colour, because - the colour, you see, it is quite gorgeous, the landscapes...
Allan: He’s taking that away from us.
Mark: As far as understanding his films, there are lots of people out there who have written eloquently on them. I don’t know if I should be the one to defend the film that I’m in. But you could say, in a way, he’s interested in these people, as he says: the way they move, the way they comport themselves, the way they relate to each other. But he’s not really interested in putting them in settings which are modern. They’re apart from time. It’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza - it’s the great stories of western culture, if you will. And I’m pretty sure he is a religious person, and I think that this film especially is one where the film form becomes a religious form. It’s about devotion. You’ve got to have some sort of devotional element in terms of watching, and experiencing.
Allan: Mm hmm?
Mark: And also, the way he describes this one, too - which is probably better than me describing it - it’s shot in the moment before Christianity exists. It’s a cult that’s in the process of being formed by these three people. These are the only three believers in Christianity. God told them, “Go and find this baby,” but they don’t know what they’re going to find. They’re just going on this blind faith - the faith is literally blind, because they’re walking around kind of aimlessly, hoping they’ll be led toward this place. And the rituals of Christianity haven’t yet been formed at all. They’re kind of like pioneers. And he’s making it as if he’s a pioneer of cinema, in a way, too. The last shot stands out to me - you probably can’t see it on DVD, even; it looks like some cinema from the early 20th century, or barely the turn of the century.
Mark: Something Hungarian or something like that, where these guys are just sort of barely visible - it’s a very strange, long, dark shot, and a long passage, like going backwards in time. But you don’t have to interpret it, you can just sit back and experience it.
Allan: Yeah, I just find... his films make me very restless and impatient... I think Waiting for Sancho is a brilliant title, because there’s a real feeling of waiting for something to happen.
Mark: Sure. Maybe that’s what’s filmmaking is all about, in all extents - waiting a lot on the film set. But in this one, moreso, because it’s completely improvisation-based, and he’s waiting for the right moment to be captured. And he doesn’t know exactly what he’s waiting for, I don’t think. He has a rough idea what he’s waiting for, but he doesn’t know exactly. That’s the brilliance of it, because so much is given to these performers, to do what they’re doing. To be themselves, but also they are acting; they’re not just repeating what he’s saying. That one scene where the woman repeats dialogue is the one time there’s any dialogue written for the film. And he wrote it on the spot! So even her reaction, by reading the dialogue - he’s not sure how she’s going to say it, because he’s never heard it before; she doesn’t know how she’s going to say it, she doesn’t know what the right way to say it is; I don’t think he knows what the right way to say it is, as he’s reading it back to her.
Allan: The scene (in Mark’s film) that really struck me was the “catching up with the fog” moment. (Serra is directing the cast and crew to try to get in front of a moving bank of fog, so that he can film the actors as the fog rolls in, but no one is exactly sure which way the fog is going to go).
Mark: Yeah, we did that for about three hours. Driving around, trying to find fog. It's a bit mad.
Allan: Did you ever feel like you were participating in an immense folly, or were you sure that it would amount to something?
Mark: No, I was sure it would amount to something. I mean, that fog scene is not in the final film. You don't see it. I think, in my film, the only scenes you see that are in the final product are the ones where the clips are there. There's a whole lot they shot that isn't in the final film. I think he shot something like thirty five scenes, and maybe there's eighteen or twenty in the film, or something like that. On the one hand, they shot for about a month, which is a relatively long time to shoot a film like this; but on the other hand, the way the film is structured is in the editing room - he watched the footage and chose which scenes to use of all of them. So even if one didn't work, I was pretty sure [the overall film would work]. What shocked me was, after he shot my first scene, or the first day that I was there, with the Joseph and Mary stuff, he was like, "Oh, now we can shoot more Joseph and Mary stuff, now we can change it, add more scenes." One of the scenes I was in in the film, I wasn't even supposed to be there on that day, the one where we're all by the rock and I give that speech. I was supposed to have left the set, already. That's actually in Tenerife. I was never even supposed to go to Tenerife - I was actually just supposed to stay in Fuerteventura. So you know, it's more just taking advantage of this crazy situation... because I realized, when I was there, and shooting, that 'this is ridiculous, and I have to keep on staying here for as long as I can because this is good stuff!'
Allan: Yeah, yeah. I'm not sure how I feel about his films, but your film is a vital document! It needed to be made.
Mark: And the thing is, if I'd shot on five different days, it would have been a different film entirely in terms of the settings and stuff, but I'm pretty sure it would be similar in terms of the content. Just the locations would be different - the names would be the same. But who knows. Because, I mean, that bathing scene is pretty ridiculous, and the whole fog moment, and climbing the mountain... I just managed to be in the right place for the right time for a lot of that stuff, too. Because I didn't have to be standing there with Albert. I mean, everybody else is already at the top of the hill when Sancho is walking up the mountain, for half an hour... And that's a great scene, I think. It's completely a factor of happenstance, I suppose.
Allan: What's your favourite moment in your film?
Mark: The fog scene is pretty good, where he has that fit. And I also liked the way the scene is framed, it worked out very well - how it turns out he walks away, and she (Montse) sort of sits down, and she's in the bottom right hand corner of the frame.
Mark: But everything is pretty funny, I think. I loved the three minute take of the sound crew taking sound. You look at them and it's like they're on Mars or something - taking the sound at the top of the mountain. I liked the dancing number - I had a couple of dance numbers, I used that one. It all comes together, I think. I tried to vary it up. I had about seven hours of footage. I wish I'd had more, but then again, that made it a bit easier to edit. But still...
Allan: What was your first contact with Serra for the project, and why did he decide on you?
Mark: I don't know why. It had something to do with the look, I suppose. Montse texted me, sometime last summer - it was May or June. Probably after Cannes, so it's, like, June. "Okay, we're going to shoot in the fall in the Canaries. Do you want to be Joseph?" I said, "Yeah, sure!" The one thing that's interesting to me - in Toronto, he was talking about this: the way I sort of helped add things to the actual filmmaking project was that, intially, I wasn't supposed to speak Hebrew in the film. I was supposed to speak English. He didn't know I spoke Hebrew, and he only found out when I got there. And I wasn't prepared to speak Hebrew, so you can imagine I was kind of hesitant to do so, having not really spoken Hebrew in a very long time. But the scenes before the two of us, when she's speaking Catalan and I'm speaking Hebrew - we'd do that stuff for three hours straight, or something, improvising some basic dialogue. I had no idea what she was saying - she knew what I was saying. The kind of performances that that elicited were, I think, more real, to him, in that, if you know what you're saying, but you don't know what the other person's saying, you've got to try to react to them and pay attention, but you're still a bit confused. So the performance becomes different. And he started to integrate that with the way he was working with the other guys, too. So at the very beginning, at the very first scene where they're walking in the distance, maybe it's not the easiest thing to tell, but he gave them a walkie-talkie, I think in Sancho's robe, or something, and he's just shouting out gibberish at them, and they're walking in circles. Stuff like that - to elicit a reaction based on miscommunication or confusion. It's some sort of directorial style he's developed, I hope based on my participation in the film.
Allan: Do you think Vancouver audiences are going to get Birdsong, or enjoy it...?
Mark: Oh, there'll be a few, but I'm sure it's not... It's the same everywhere. In Toronto he introduced Birdsong by saying, "You know, my first film, we played in Cannes to a big theatre of 1000 people, and by the end, there were 200 people. And this one, again, in the same theatre in Cannes - 1000 people, and by the end, 600 people! So I can say, you're lucky you came to see this one and not the other one."
Mark: The film festival in Toronto - usually the reputation of the filmgoers is, they like everything. For a long time they didn't even want to show this movie, because they thought the audience wouldn't go for it. But, you know, some of them did. Most of them did. There were walkouts, but there were people who stayed to the end and asked questions. Some questions were angry, some questions were understanding... People hopefully have done their research and know what they're in for. I'm sure when he gets here he'll say the same sort of thing at the beginning. But it's also funny, too, Albert's film, and that's something, I think.
Allan: There is something funny, to be sure. But it's a very strange mind to be participating in. I still don't know...
Mark: The dialogue is pretty funny, I'd say. There's kind of a Three Stooges element to it, as well.
Allan: Mark, this is more than enough for a fun little blogpiece. Is there anything else we should touch on?
Mark: Well, the one thing I was going to say - the one thing I understood based on observing him for a day and starting to shoot, and what I hope people get out of the film - is how the line between the film and not-the-film is extremely porous and loose. In my film, this is what I tried to show: it is about filmmaking, with the concrete making-of-a-film, but also about how he makes his own world, in a way. That style - the way he directs people, the environment on the set, the way that all these people are from the same small town outside of Spain - it allows him to do something which, I think, translates onto the screen as something unique. But in my film, you see how even the film Birdsong, in a way, becomes a chronicle of its own making. The scene where we're walking on the mountain and him and Sancho are talking back and forth about the clouds, and being above the clouds - the next thing you see is (the Kings) sitting there, talking about being above the clouds. In a sense, the experience of making it is translated into the actual finished project.
Allan: That's interesting, because I'd experienced a similar thing in terms of your film and his film, how similar they are. I see exactly what you mean, but...
Mark: That similarity, too, is very interesting, because I edited my film - the first cut - before I saw his film at all. So that last shot of the sun, I didn't know he'd have a shot like that in the film. And I didn't know it would be so funny, actually. Well, a lot of people think it's funny, and I do, too... [The two films have] the same sort of moments - long moments where nothing happens, and then dialogue moments that are funny, and more long moments... And then different settings, and then they get to Mary and Joseph at the end, and then they say goodbye. [The similarity is] pretty funny, coincidental. But maybe we were on the same wavelength, I don't know...
Far more can be read about Waiting for Sancho (and by implication, Birdsong) by looking at Mark's article on the film(s), here; Birdsong plays October 5th and 7th at the VIFF, and Waiting for Sancho the 6th and 7th - more information here. The screenings on the 7th comprise a double bill, for those of you who are singularly adventurous.