Saturday, June 28, 2014

Some notes on film for the summer...

I was kind of bummed that no one screened Sorcerer in Vancouver before the Blu-Ray came out, but now I'm amused and somewhat gratified to see that it's playing at both the Vancity Theatre and the Cinematheque this summer! That can't have been intentional, but it certainly increases opportunities to see it on the big screen. I'm not really ready to see it again, now that I've seen it on Blu-Ray, but I can't miss the opportunity, and neither should anyone else. Fans of that film's terrific Tangerine Dream soundtrack will also probably also be excited to know that Jeremy Schmidt's terrific score for Beyond the Black Rainbow is coming out on Death Waltz! My old interview with Schmidt is here.
Some other fun programming at the Cinematheque: Jodorowsky's newest film, The Dance of Reality, will be programmed as part of their mini-Jod-fest; I am looking forward to having another chance to see Jodorowsky's Dune, which I missed during its previous run. Further, their August film noir programme has been announced, featuring a nice mix of must-see, inexhaustible favourites (the return of Double Indemnity, Gun Crazy and The Lady From Shanghai) and relative obscurities, the most exciting of which for me are So Dark The Night (by Gun Crazy director Joseph H. Lewis) and Cry of the City (featuring Richard Conte, whom I always enjoy). I know almost nothing about either film, however! (Though I did catch Gun Crazy's John Dall in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope tonight; he's one of the two murderers, a detail I had forgotten!).
The Vancity Theatre meanwhile will be bringing back a couple of films I enjoyed during last year's VIFF, the somewhat misanthropic local comedy Lawrence and Holloman and the Teorema variant Borgman; plus the well-regarded Stand Clear of Closing Doors, about an autistic child's ordeal by subway. I wrote about all of them during the VIFF, either here or on the Huffington Post, but I'll leave you to seek out my reviews... I have nothing much to say about the Venezuelan film festival coming up, having seen none of the films in it, nor can I link to the series, for some reason. But the VIFF main page has all the films listed, including films on soccer, films by Woody Allen, and a new film by Bernardo Bertolucci, whom I still have not forgiven for The Sheltering Sky.   
Not much else I have to write about... Very keen about this year's Adstock and a chance to see the Rebel Spell, presently my favourite punk band anywhere, again. Todd is contending with a back injury incurred while rock climbing, so here's hoping he's feeling well. Also am really excited to catch Ron Reyes' band Piggy, and Chris Arnett's garage rock heroes The Furies (and, indeed, The Poppy Family Experience) at the Khatsahlano festival this year. But I also have a pending root canal and other things that I don't feel like blogging about to think on, and probably won't be writing here quite so much for the next while, as I strive to get my life in a workable order. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

My favourite Eli Wallach role (besides Tuco)

When people live (and continue working!) well into their 90's, their deaths don't seem so sad; they made it as far as any human being could be expected to, and the inclination is more to celebrate their lives than mourn. So I'm going to tell you my favourite Eli Wallach moment in a film other than The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.
It occurs in a rather cheesy Zen-Buddhist-inspired kung fu movie called Circle of Iron, AKA The Silent Flute. That was the title of the original story, co-written by Bruce Lee, James Coburn, and Stirling Silliphant, and completed for filming in 1978, after Bruce Lee's death, by Silliphant and Stanley Mann. The film boasts not only an appearance by Eli Wallach, but small parts for Christopher Lee and Roddy McDowall, and something like four roles for David Carradine, including the part of a kung-fu-fighting ape. It's sort of a variant on the education of an idiot theme: a young, impetuous fighter, Cord (hammily played by Jeff Cooper, a TV actor who hailed from Hamilton, Ontario) goes on a quest for enlightenment, and encounters various trials along the way, as well as various teachers, many of whom are played by Carradine. Carradine - whose main role is that of a blind shakuhachi player - delivers some highly corny bon mots during the movie - the screenplay is sprinkled liberally with Zen koans and such, which produce something more akin to stupefaction than satori. There's a ripoff of Heraclitus' line about not being able to step into the same river twice (phrased differently, but it's the same idea). There's the observation, used to describe Cord's reluctant apprenticeship with his blind teacher, that you can tie two birds together, but though they have four wings, they cannot fly. The funniest sequence, however, dispenses with Carradine altogether, and occurs when Cord encounters Wallach in the desert, half-submerged in a giant vat.
Cord approaches with open curiosity, and Wallach - whose character is billed, as I recall, as "man dissolving himself in oil," asks if "that terrible thing between my legs" is almost gone. Turns out he's on a quest for enlightenment, too, but finds himself constantly distracted by his sexual urges; he hasn't the gumption to castrate himself, so he's spending his days in a vat of oil, hoping the lower half of his body will painlessly dissolve, and along with it, his sex drive. He urges Cord to join him, for his own good; Cord laughs, and - rejecting such extreme asceticism - declines.
It's a silly moment in a silly movie, and it's obvious Wallach isn't taking it too seriously (how in the hell could you?). But it's still kind of charming, and as many good movies as I've seen Wallach in - peruse his filmography here - for me, it's the second most memorable appearance by him, after, of course, Tuco. As often happens with Ernest Borgnine, you're struck by the fact that even in 1978, Wallach looked old; pretty amazing that he would continue to live and work for another three decades (his final film, the Wall Street sequel, was completed in 2010). My respects to Eli Wallach and condolences to his family and friends. Viva Tuco!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness: Ben Rivers Interview

I'm interested in the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Labs - who made the remarkable feature Leviathan a couple of years ago - so I'm definitely curious about Manakamana, opening this week at the Cinematheque; but I have not seen it yet. Friends with an interest in experimental documentary assure me it's great, and Charles Mudede writes about it here. I have, however, sought out A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness, also opening, and interviewed Ben Rivers, one of the two filmmakers behind it, for The Georgia Straight. What follows are some outtakes from that conversation!
Allan MacInnis: I’m not sure if it was you or Ben Russell, but one of you said in an interview with Cinema-Scope that in a way, an audience that is unfamiliar with your individual works is an ideal one. First off, I am that ideal audience; I haven’t seen any of  your other films as yet. But also I wanted to ask if you could explain that comment?

Ben Rivers: I think what we were getting at was just this idea that - I guess there’s a lot of people who haven’t seen our work, but then there’s a bunch that have, and the ones who have, they often watch it and try to pick apart who did what, who made which decision, who decided to shoot that bit of moss and who decided to shoot the band. They’re trying in a way to break apart the collaboration into constituent parts, and for us, the collaboration the was a way of trying to meld two minds, so it wasn’t so clear. The idea of a collaboration is to try and push each other to do something different. So that’s why - I guess we meant, if somebody came to the film with completely fresh eyes and wasn’t aware of what we’d done before,  then they wouldn’t be [tempted to do that].

AM: I’ve read a little bit about your work - that you usually work with 16mm film and hand-develop it yourself. Are you still using your usually methodology for this?

BR: Um… I mean, I always shoot on 16, and I’ve made 25 films and I always use 16. I like it. But the black and white films I hand-process, and I still do that - I’ve got a bunch of film in my kitchen ready to process - but the colour films I get done at the lab. Spell was obviously done at the lab - the black and white films have physical remnants of the hand processing, so…

AM: That makes sense. Anyhow, it’s a beautiful looking film. But you were still shooting on 16?

BR: Yeah. Both of us - we believe in film as a medium. As a material, there’s something about it which is a bit more alchemical. I guess we’re both sort of invested in this idea of a kind of magic that happens with the camera. You point it at the world, and the world responds with light, and this is caught chemically on a physical piece of material, and eventually you shine light through that material and you get the image back. That’s a very different thing from digital, which is recording things in a very different kind of way. I don’t know - there’s something in the grain, the movement of each frame, is kind of important, I think. I think for me, one of the reasons that I use film is, I also like the way it kind of forces you to look differently at the world. You have to really think about what you’re filming. You’re kind of forced into it, partly because of the economics - you’re forced to make some heavy decisions about the necessity of what you’re filming, unlike digital where you can just film for hours and hours. It’s a different mindset.
AM: How scripted is what we’re seeing, how much of this was planned before you began shooting?

BR: It’s a kind of mix. It’s pretty planned - thinking about the different representations of time in each section, and how we were going to deal with that formally with the camera, the decisions for the camerawork and the editing. But then within that there was still a lot of unknown factors. [For example,] we set up a scene where we follow a woman to her house to lie down with her husband and baby, but we don’t know what their interaction was going to be. We leave that open, so that there’s surprises.

AM: I wanted to ask about exactly that shot, actually. I thought that was a very exciting shot. There’s such tenderness between the father and the sleeping baby. Was that set up?

BR: We knew that he was in there with the baby, but we actually didn’t know that it was going to be that beautiful! (Laughs). Yeah. It’s really great - and I can’t remember whether it was me or Ben who shot that shot. That’s one of the nice things, we often took it in turns to shoot stuff. But with those walking shots, when he went into the house… I think he was shooting it, so I didn’t actually see that until we got the film back from the lab, which was a month later. That’s the other thing with film, you have to wait, so you get these really great surprises when you see the footage. But it’s a good example of setting something up and not being really directorial about it, setting up every tiny thing. There’s no script, we never wrote any kind of script. There was kind of a fairly long treatment, but that’s as far as we went in terms of writing down things.
AM: Have you, or the other Ben, tried living communally?

BR: No, but I guess that part of the film came out of us talking about that and thinking about it as a possibility, and we’ve talked about it since, as well - thinking that maybe it’s something we’d like to try. It’s an ongoing conversation, but one of the things we were kind of clear about, was that all the people in the segment, they’re all people who have either lived or still live in some kind of communal living arrangement, and have had pretty positive experiences. We felt like it would be much easier to make a negative film about living communally, I think - because you hear a lot of stories. We both know friends who had grown up in communes and never want to do it again. But this film, even though there’s darkness in it, we didn’t want it to be that straightforward, that either it’s really really great, or it’s really terrible. We kind of wanted to talk about real possibilities that were positive.

AM: I wanted to ask about the dome that they’re building. I associate that kind of structure with Buckminster Fuller, and that’s exactly all I know about these things.

BR: Well, yeah - it’s a Buckminster Fuller dome. It’s a piece of architecture that was taken up by a lot of communities because it was very quick and easy to build. And cheap, and you can make it with all kinds of different materials. In that way, it’s a symbol of that time in the 60’s and 70’s when there was a big kind of commune movement, which we’re kind of aware didn’t really work out. It kind of failed. And so we were interested in showing these people who decided to live communally, building this structure that shows they’re clearly aware of the history of the commune movement. They know what it means, they know what this piece of architecture symbolizes - so they’re aware of the failures of the past generations, but they still think it’s worthwhile trying again.
AM: How did you get in contact with Robert A. A. Lowe?

BR: We chose him pretty early, because he’s actually an old friend of the other Ben’s. They both lived in Chicago and Ben was heavily involved in the music scene there, which is what Rob comes from. We were looking at possible people to be in the film and Ben showed me a Youtube clip of Rob performing and I really loved it. I could see why he thought Rob would be a good person, because he gets into a kind of trance when he’s performing onstage. He’s very embodied.

AM: Was he performing as Lichens before the film was shot? Because there are those images of actual lichens in there.

BR: Yeah, no, he’s been performing as Lichens for ages. So even though we wanted shots of Lichens, it’s also a little nod to his fans.

AM: He seems like he feels the wonder of what they’re doing at the commune. But he leaves. It’s tempting to read that as sort of figuring the failure of the communal movement, or at least the impossibility of him finding a place there. I mean, he doesn’t just stay at the commune. So that seems like a critical commentary - am I reading too much into that?

BR: No, I think that is definitely one possible reading. We don’t want to be… that’s kind of how I see it. One of the things that Ben and I talked about all the way along is that these three things could happen in any order, they’re not necessarily happening in the order that you see them. But the problem is, when you have a piece of cinema, you have to choose the order. And so you can’t get away from narrative consequence. [But he does return to a sort of communal model at the end:] Being in that kind of situation of a live show is kind of a mix of the commune of the first part and the solitude of the second part. Because when you’re in a show, you’re surrounded by society, but you’re having a very individual experience.
AM: For me - I’m a punk, I’m a music fan, I’ve been embroiled in the music scene in Vancouver for quite awhile and what I always feel is that there’s something remarkable and utopian and positive going on while you’re in the gig, and then afterwards you’re outside in an alienated urban environment in the same old shit you were in before you went into the gig. There’s that in the film, right?

BR: Yeah. I think that is in the film. You’ve kind of hit the nail on the head, in a way, because the film is in a sense about Utopia, but realizing that Utopia is not a permanent thing. It’s something kind of transitory that you pass through.

AM: There’s a Hakim Bey reference in there - a Temporary Autonomous Zone reference.

BR: Exactly. I really like the idea.

AM: I’d wanted to ask about geography. The film gives the impression, maybe by accident, that these three areas are geographically congruent. Are they?

BR: It’s all Scandinavia. A lot of our talking came out of thinking about that particular kind of place, the North. Originally it was all going to be shot in Norway, because we were thinking about this kind of sublime landscape, as well, and how that effects the humans surrounded by this crazy enormous scary beauty. But for various reasons we ended up shooting in Norway, Finland, and Estonia. The commune is in Estonia.
AM: The burning building brought to mind burning churches. I know Norwegians don’t like that association, but that was intentional…? (Note: see more of Rivers' answer to this question online only at the Straight website; I believe the print edition, out Wednesday, will not have this section).

BR: Sure, there is obviously a relationship to the church burnings. The black metal movement in Norway - that’s why we had to film the black metal segment in Norway, because that’s the birthplace of that particular subgenre...

AM: In terms of relationship to landscapes, some of the stuff in the solitude sequence, I’m wondering if there’s any particular film practice or other films that inspired some of the images of nature? Coming from the Pacific Northwest, looking at some of the images, I was surprised to find myself thinking of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, say in the close ups of ants crawling. But I don’t know your influences…

BR: I’ve seen Old Joy and really like it, and I watch a lot of cinema, but… in many ways, we talked about paintings quite a bit before going to Finland. And we looked around and found stuff that seemed right, instinctively. It’s hard to pin down. We weren’t really talking about other films when we were filming it.
AM: What paintings?

BR: We talked a bit about the Hudson school of painting, and the romantics, like Friedrich - Friedrich definitely came up a few times. But that was less about the close ups, it was more to do with Rob in the landscape and thinking about his figure in the landscape, trying to place him in such a way that his character sort of recedes and he becomes part of the landscape, if that makes sense.

AM: Is his only line of dialogue in the film, the only word he speaks, “pancakes?” Am I right about that?

BR: I think you are right about that. (Laughs).

AM: Trivially, I just want to tell you something. I don’t play music myself, but as part of my participation in the music scene in Vancouver, I sometimes participate in pancake noise events, where people get together and eat pancakes and listen to harsh noise, often in underground venues. I’ve flipped pancakes at three of them now.

BR: So you really related to that!

AM: Yeah! Pancakes! (Laughter). Two other quick things. That mirror that he looks in after he walks away from the performance, where was that? Was it actually backstage at a venue?

BR: Yeah, it was backstage at a venue. We filmed it at a normal Oslo venue that has metal shows, and every other kind of show as well, and that’s just the normal dressing room at the back.

AM: One last tiny thing. The triangle that you cut to, between or before each segment. What is that triangle? Can you explain?

BR: The triangle itself is, when you have film processed, and then tele-cined, they put a punch hole at the beginning and the end of the role, so that gets logged. That basically logs the material so you know what frame you’re on in the rest of footage. Usually it’s a hole - usually it’s a circle. But the lab that we used had a triangular puncher, so that’s why it’s a triangle. But that was like a gift to us, because there are other triangles in the movie, and we were always talking about the triangle - the equal three sides, because that’s what we thought the film was. All three parts are meant to be of equal importance, there’s no hierarchy among them. That’s why there’s a triangle, and if you watch carefully, there’s other triangles in the film.

AM: The one I’m talking about that flickers briefly, is it scratched into the film?

BR: I don’t know if they scratch it. You know when you have a hole punch to put a piece of paper in a binder, they use something a little bit like that.

AM: Is that the actual lab mark we’re seeing, then?

BR: Yeah, that’s their doing.

AM: Hm! It’s not perfect, it looks kind of hand-done.

BR: Yeah, it’s imperfect. It’s got kind of hairs on it and stuff!  
A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness opens today (Wednesday June 25th) at the Cinematheque.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Rebel Spell to play Adstock X - free outdoor concert in Maple Ridge!

Okay, suburban and Vancouver punks, here's the deal: Adstock is a really fun time, it's free, the bands (punk, ska, metal, and so forth) are always at least good, it's easy and cheap to get to Maple Ridge, the peace park is one of the most pleasant places in town (and has a decent PA), AND - this year, the Rebel Spell is headlining! You need more of an excuse to come to town?

For non-drivers, the fastest route from along the Hastings corridor: catch the 160 bus to Maple Ridge and then the 701 at Coquitlam Station; get off at Haney Place Mall and ask someone where the peace park is. From along the Skytrain, on weekends, get to Lougheed Mall, catch the 97 B-line to Coquitlam Station, then once again, grab the 701. Either route takes about an hour and a half, but it's a weekend, so it's only one fare in and one fare out (don't dally).

(By the by, I've done many interviews with the Rebel Spell - check here and here, say. Enough people have now dropped off the map or changed their game or retired or so forth that I can now say the Rebel Spell is my favourite punk band anywhere!).
(Todd Serious by Jennifer Dodds)

Nick Cave contest!

Well, jeez, I can triple my chances of winning Nick Cave tickets by linking their event page. Why wouldn't I? I loved Cave's show last year at the Vogue, would love to see him again but with an impending root canal, unless I win tickets, I won't be going... neat to see that "The Lyre of Orpheus" is on a recent setlist, too. That's a great song!

Of Facebook...

I came relatively late to Facebook, but the more I use it, the less I find myself caring about this blog, or about my faltering attempts to keep up contact with people on email, or about finding productive ways of using my time online; everything else seems to fall away and Facebook is the last man standing. As shallow as it often is, I'm falling into a bit of a habit, spending a couple of hours most  mornings reading my friends updates and watching often quite meaningless videos - bears stealing garbage cans, funny bleating goats, porcupines that get very expressive when eating, compilations of Nicolas Cage "losing his shit." It's a powerful distraction from anything one might want to avoid (like figuring out what to do with ones life, or the day at hand; how dull to find myself at such a juncture yet again, or, uh, still...). Mind you, it is interesting, knowing what various people, including some highly esteemed peers, are thinking, feeling, taking an interest in. It's also good for catching bits of news I might otherwise miss; more than one story I wrote for the Straight in the last year started with something I spotted on Facebook. All the same, it feels kind of destructive, neurotic, a bad habit to cultivate, something very easily abused. Is this a normal part of the Facebook experience? Or do I just need to get a life

Friday, June 20, 2014

They Wait, Dorothy Mills: two great little ghost stories encountered on DVD

So my upcoming root canal has me in a "what can I sell" kind of mood, which has me looking at my possessions and trying to decide which of them I really need. This applies even to things that have no particular financial value anymore, like DVDs: I spent a couple of hours digging through the dozens of DVDs I've picked up out of Rogers Video PV bins and thrift stores, some of which have been sitting around on my shelves for years, unwatched, unappreciated, near-forgotten. Mostly these are low budget horror flicks that I bought specifically because they were cheap and because it looked like they might amuse me someday. Is Urban Legends any good? Is the third Pumpkinhead movie even half as good as the first one (Doug Bradley is in it!). Could the American adaptation of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse possibly be worth seeing, all evidence to the contrary? Will I find any redeeming value in Brian Paulin's At Dawn They Sleep? I have yet to answer these questions, but after an evening watching the first ten minutes of various films that I elected to sell as soon as possible, and sitting through one bad but entertaining urban-rural thriller (Creature, which I cannot recommend but which is nowhere as bad as people say), I did find two real winners, two films that anyone with a love of genre cinema should seek out: the Vancouver-set Chinese ghost story They Wait, and the Irish multiple personality disorder quasi-ghost story Dorothy Mills
The first thing that struck me about They Wait is that, as I was complaining about a few posts back, it's one of those movies where the marketing and the description on the back of the DVD take pains to erase or de-emphasize precisely those cultural specificities that make the film most interesting. The box art (also the art used on the poster I saw when the film played the VIFF) features an image of a girl with a sewn-up mouth, but nothing about it suggests the face of the person in question is that of a non-Caucasian. The back of the DVD does show in the images that there are at least a couple of Asian characters in the film, but the copy is typically un-revealing:
It is Ghost Month, when the realm of the living intersects with the realm of the dead, and the world is thrown into madness. Sarah (JAIME KING), Jason (TERRY CHEN) and young son Sam (REGAN OEY), return from Shanghai from North America for a family funeral. But something strange is going on. Sam starts seeing ghosts and then falls gravely ill. Traditional western medicine offers no hope; he is being held in a death grip by a living corpse. Sarah must find out what the spirits want if she is to save her child, and she must do it before dawn, because once the sun rises at the end of Ghost Month, Sam will be lost forever.
This is a reasonably accurate description of the plot, as far as it goes, and it doesn't disguise that at least one actor in the film is of Chinese descent (who knows what ethnicity "Oey" is but "Chen" is pretty clear cut). Still,  notice that it effaces the following details: the family returns from Shanghai to Vancouver's Chinatown, where almost all of the film's action takes place; the ghosts, the mythology around them, even the concept of (hungry) ghost month, are entirely Chinese; all but two of the characters are Chinese, half-Chinese, or Chinese-Canadian; and the spirits want atonement for wrongs that are specifically related to the actual, historical Chinese experience in Vancouver - involving, if you don't mind a few mild spoilers, the shipping of bones, the harvesting and smuggling of bear parts, and the conditions of sweatshop labour in Chinatown in the past. No doubt members of the Chinese community would find They Wait more than a little silly (though not so silly as Big Trouble in Little China, say); I don't mean to say its a shining example of historically-informed cinema. But it is still significant that the attempt is made to incorporate the Chinese experience into a western film, to even acknowledge it, since Vancouver-set cinema almost always stays out of Chinatown, like it is too politically complex to even acknowledge, too fraught with possibilities of getting things wrong, being accused of cultural appropriation, Orientalism, what-have-you. Which are real dangers, but the end result is that even really earnest films like Nathaniel Geary's On The Corner, which is set in the downtown eastside, with most of its action taking place a block from Chinatown, barely acknowledge the Chinese community; in fact, I can't think of a Vancouver-set film designed for mainstream audiences that spends any amount of time in Chinatown at all. Sure, They Wait owes a debt to similar attempts to re-package Asian ghost stories for western audiences, like the Sarah Michelle Gellar version of Ju-On, say - and of course the main character had to be white! But the film deserves some credit for trying to set a ghost story in Chinatown, and it's not a bad ghost story at all...
Dorothy Mills - known in Europe only as Dorothy, apparently - is even more interesting, and also a bit of a ghost story, but - like Session 9, say - it is debatable just how necessary to the story the element of the supernatural is; it can't be done away with altogether, but the film's ghosts seem to be contextualized in a wider story involving the buried sins of a community and how they impact one particularly sensitive girl. The film involves a psychiatrist come from Dublin to a small, island-bound Irish community, to investigate a case in which a baby has been harmed by the babysitter, the titular character. Investigation reveals - as you will suspect within the first few minutes of the film - that Dorothy is suffering from multiple personality disorder, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. I'm almost as skeptical about that particular condition as I am about the existence of ghosts, but I was able to be thoroughly engaged by this film, which combines striking images of the Irish rural landscape with a rather chilling portrait of a xenophobic, guilt-ridden, secretive small town, where the mainland psychiatrist is regarded with great mistrust, and where the protection of the community trumps all other considerations. It's a spoiler to make the comparison but there's a little bit of The Wicker Man at work here, too, though the framework is stridently Christian and no overt pagan sacrifices take place. (The ancient Celtic practice of dumping bodies in bogs might be germain, but I really don't want to say too much on that count). 

Not sure how one goes about finding films like this in the post-video-store world, but however you seek out movies, They Wait and Dorothy Mills are both better-than-average, rather original films that I liked a great deal... you might too! 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin reunion hits Vancouver this Monday!

Does everyone realize that Dave and Phil Alvin of the Blasters have reunited to perform Big Bill Broonzy songs with the Guilty Ones, and that they will be playing in Vancouver this Monday as part of the jazzfest? I haven't noticed much excitement about this, maybe I'm missing something - I am a little out of the loop, after all. Sadly, I can't come remotely close to affording a ticket, what with a root canal scheduled for mid-July; I'm poring over my records trying to decide which I can afford to part with, as part of my fundraising efforts. I've missed every show of the Blasters I had a chance to see, and never have I had a chance to see Phil and Dave onstage together, that I know of. But this is great stuff - LA '80s rockabilly at its finest; I hope people will go in my place and have a great time!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Lanalou's Friday: Danny Shmanny rides again! Plus Huskee Dude, Sex Beat, and more

I kinda always feel like I'm in the right place when I notice Zippy Pinhead in the crowd, you know?

At Lanalou's on Friday, I missed Ed Hurrell's new band, Ragged Souls, but I got to chat with his non-sober self for a bit. Some day I will actually hear him play live - that I know of, I have not, yet. I also got to meet former No Fun cassette cover-artist Argh!!, whom I know off Facebook under a different alias; he seemed a super-nice guy. I always liked Argh!!'s drawings, so meeting him was really cool (I apologize for the teenagenish of my adjectives here but I had an enjoyable, sociable, hey-these-are-my-people kinda night and have nothing very insightful to say about it... it was cool, awesome, rad, choice, killer; it rocked, it was fun, a good time was had by all).

Tim Chan (of 64 Funnycars and China Syndrome) was playing guitar for Sex Beat, the night's Gun Club tribute band, who were the first band I saw (no photos of it that I took were really worth much, I'm afraid). Though it was Chan's first time playing with them - and may be the last, since Darryl Stapleton of Full Leather Jacket, their Jeffrey Lee Pierce, is moving to San Francisco for awhile - Tim really cooked, and their jammy, crunchy version of "Run Through the Jungle" was pretty special. Enjoyed bullshitting with him a bit, too - he seems like a great guy, and I really like that China Syndrome album; fans of Big-Star-esque power pop should check it out.
Hüskee Düdes - or a solo version of said project, made up of the man (not the band) Gnash Rambler, a man of many aliases - was very, um, cool, too. To be truthful, I had never realized quite how great his voice is until seeing him sing over acoustic guitar. Gnash showed his devotion to the Hüsker Dü catalogue by playing a very large sampling of songs from those Dü albums many of us prefer to ignore (everything after New Day Rising, in my case - I'm not even wild about that album!). I actually enjoyed hearing him do songs like "Flexible Flyer" and "Dead Set on Destruction," though the high point was probably a rather intense version of "I Will Never Forgive You" that had all the emotional violence and guitar craft of the Zen Arcade original but in a solo acoustic setting, which was so incongruous and jarring that it almost started to seem satirical. I don't think it was, but it would have been fine with me - it was great either way (speaking of No Fun, it kinda reminded me of seeing David M. doing solo acoustic renditions of the Residents "Santa Dog" during his No Fun at Christmas shows). I'd go see Hüskee Düde(s) again over either Bob Mould or Grant Hart, I think, and not just because Hüskee Düde shows are a lot kinder on the pockebook. I'm much more enamoured of sincere rock fandom than sincerely big weird rockstar egos, which is what seeing Grant Hart a few years ago brought to mind... and I'm no fan of later Bob Mould, so...
Then came a short delay. Darryl Stapleton, back on stage for Bones in the Hallway, joked, while calling Danny "Shmanny" Nowak to take the stage, that Danny "hasn't done this since 1982" - actually more like 1991, unless you count that Stranglers songs he sang at his 50th birthday bash - "so he's probably curled in a foetal position in the bathroom vomiting" (or words to that effect). Gnash, who had taken up the bass for this set, joked that they were going to be doing Teenage Head, "no wait, Teenage Rebels, or... no, right: Forgotten Head." Eventually Danny got up there and - after a somewhat stiff (but very appropriate) rendering of "Hello Hello," slid right back into the groove of being a stellar punk frontman; he even still fit into his old clothes, it seemed. One can only hope that a full Spores reunion is just around the corner. None of my photos were really that great... I got all the songs on video but they're hell to upload. Maybe I will do something with them at a later date? Meantime:
I didn't really stick around for Wett Stilettos, the closing act, but I did snap one or two okay photos of them on the way out the door. Cute costume on the singer, but I was done for the night; I still had to make it back to Burnaby, where I was crashing... If I lived in Vancouver, I would go to Lanalou's for nights like this every chance I got. Great fun. (Cool, awesome, gee wow, choice). Thanks to all for putting it on!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Under The Skin: a review

What do I make of Under The Skin? Hm.

To be clear at the outset, I have respect for any film that has so much respect for the intelligence of its viewers, that trusts them with so much, that stretches the limits of conventional cinematic practice to accomplish something new, particularly in these rather uninspiring cinematic times. It's a brave and confident film; I'm glad I saw it, and found it interesting enough on first viewing. But on a personal level - as well as a political one - I'm not sure I liked it, and don't know that I want or need to see it again.
That's not just because the film is mildly frustrating to watch. True, its gimmick seems to be to keep you so in the dark about what the true nature of proceedings is that you are compelled to keep watching. It keeps getting weirder and weirder, and you hold on for dear life waiting for it all to make sense. I'm not sure it ever does; it definitely has an ending, but that ending doesn't explain three-quarters of what has been going on. That isn't really a complaint so much as it is an observation, however, because there seems to be a method at work: the film's puzzling aspects on a mere plot level ("what's with the scene where _________?") kind of force you, if you're going to make sense of it, to tackle it on a thematic level. You can't make sense of what happens without thinking about what it all means. I'm not sure, however, that I like it all that much on that level, either.
Without spoiling anything, on the level of story, Under The Skin appears to be about aliens who come to earth - Glasgow, in specific - on some sort of harvesting mission. This is shown in scenes that are visually stunning but which raise more questions than they answer. There are male aliens and a female alien, or at least they take these forms to get the job done; the female alien is played by Scarlett Johansson, and her job is sort of to be the "bait" for horny men. What the exact relationship of the aliens is is unclear - who is the boss? who is the employee? to whom do they all ultimately answer? ...but it is clear that their dynamic changes at a certain point. Why, exactly, is also uncertain, but it seems to revolve around a remarkable scene with a disfigured man, played by an actor named Adam Pearson, whom you can read about here.
The film is not, of course, really about aliens; no movies about aliens are, ever. Aliens - like monsters, ghosts, zombies, what-have-you, are stand ins, proxies, ciphers for aspects of the human experience, the equivalent of deities or mythic monsters or so forth; all stories told by humans get at human truths - since we can't really enter a non-human perspective without humanizing it, finding ourselves in it, expressing ourselves through it.

Spoilers follow. I discourage reading further if you have not seen Under The Skin; much of what is worthwhile about it lies in having to work things out for yourself.

So here: the film as I read it is about innocence and experience, and the cost of both. It's about compassion and its lack. When it begins, it is about a narcissist, a predatory female who uses up men and, in a sort of naive state, never thinks about them, just discards them and goes looking for the next one. But one day she is so moved by an encounter with one man that it forces her to reconsider what she has been doing; prompted by his disfigurements, she looks long into the mirror, awakens to her tenuous humanity and rejects her former role. This could be seen as figuring the experiences of anyone who undergoes a profound change in their lives - I mean, we are all "alien" under the skin, after all, trying to learn how to work our flesh-suits, trying to find our way in the world in which we find ourselves; sometimes we discover we have been doing things in fundamentally wrong ways, and set off uncertainly in new directions.
Our protagonist's act of reconsidering has both profound personal and political ramifications. Once she discovers the quality of compassion, she finds herself in wonder of her experience, loses herself in it. And she thus becomes vulnerable; because her relationship with her "co-workers" on the bikes, who could with a bit of stretching be seen as representing patriarchy or capitalism or what-have-you - changes. They aren't happy with her, it seems. Without the security of her old role to resort to, she finds the tables get turned.
Real spoilers, now: the man whom she encounters in the woods, who ultimately attempts to rape her and kill her... is her encountering him some sort of "justice?" The former predator, in rejecting her role, becomes prey to a different sort of predator? That's where I start to have doubts about the content of this film. If this whole alien conceit were not used, I ask myself: if the film were straight-up about a cold sexy narcissistic bitch who uses men left and right, who suddenly has a change of heart, and then gets is raped and murdered - which provides us what we need for closure, since there is presumably some sort of "justice" (or at least irony in it), would we not see this film as a misogynist text? The woman is BURNED ALIVE at the end of the movie, when the rapist discovers that she is not human, for chrissakes. What are the politics of that, exactly? (Or of the woman-as-alien; it's like some female-bashing Burroughs rant).

To the extent that the film seems to be asking us to identify with the female throughout, and to ask questions about sex and seduction "the way things are now," and consider that they might be different, I suppose there is also an argument to be made for saying that the film is some sort of a feminist text; I will let someone else make that argument, however. When movies appear that use a great deal of formal complexity and force their audience to struggle to make sense of just what the story is, nevermind what it means, I tend to wonder if they're HIDING something, if their complexity might just serve to slip something reactionary, politically unspeakable, or at least deeply suspect past their audience. Gaspar Noe's Irreversible is one great example of that; Under The Skin may be another, interesting and unique as it may be.

The odd beautiful and touching image aside, I don't think I care much for (or about) this film.

Edit to add: I think I really like the perspective of this (female) film reviewer... It's not that her perspective is the only one possible, but man did it need to be said...

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Attention Spores fans!

No, the Spores will NOT be playing Lanalou's Rock'n'Roll Eatery this Friday, but Danny Shmanny, their lead singer, will be fronting a tribute to Toronto's great Forgotten Rebels. And he's promised to do "Fuck Me Dead!"

Monday, June 09, 2014

Jonathan Richman update

Re: my Jonathan Richman review, I am informed on Facebook by a reliable source (someone enamoured of certain big cats and Kenny Rogers) that Jonathan Richman still does not have a cellphone. Plus, though there is an irony to it, I am delighted to see someone filmed Jonathan lecturing an audience member about watching the show through a little screen (this is the encore of "When We Refuse to Suffer," one of Jonathan's slightly preachy but still engaging recent songs). I'm grateful to whoever braved the humiliation of being called out to make this recording - it's a helluva lot better view of the performance than I got, back in the back of the Biltmore!

Saturday, June 07, 2014

A somewhat stressful day

So some of you might recall that I had an encounter with jaw pain back in January. Wearing a night guard - a bit used to prevent teeth grinding - took some of the pressure off my jaw, and the pain eventually dwindled, but the source of it always seemed to be a molar on my lower jaw with a big gold crown on it, and that tooth never really got better, even as the jaw pain subsided. It had seemed to be the starting point of the discomfort back then, but because the dentist could find nothing wrong with it - by tapping on it, etc. - he concluded that what had likely happened was I had traumatized my tooth and that it just needed time to heal, through rest and such. It seemed a likely theory: I had spent a week before the onset of the pain snacking freely from a big plastic tub of mixed nuts, and it is quite possible that I bit down on a couple of hard ones the wrong way. Trouble is, even though he could find nothing wrong with the tooth, it hasn't felt since that time like it sat right in my mouth; six months later, and it still feels tender, and when I try to close my jaw, seems too high, too big, not right. Chewing is uncomfortable and occasionally if I bite down wrong I get a sharp pain, right in that one tooth.

Last night I noticed that there was also tenderness and swelling around the adjacent gums. Uh-oh. I had been snacking on nothing hard, nothing crunchy; it had to be connected to the tooth. I took an Advil, and resolved to phone the dentist in the morning if the pain persisted. It did, so I did, and he managed to see me more or less right away. His X-rays revealed this time that the tooth, indeed, is being pushed upwards by an infection, and needs a root canal, which will run about $1000 that I do not have. I'm on a course of antibiotics, but the root canal's not scheduled until mid-July; hopefully I can raise most of the money I need by that time, though it won't help that Mom elected to take all of her free cash and go to the casino with it tonight. Here's hoping she has some left when she gets home - she may well not. I mean, it's her money, but we have outstanding bills to pay, nevermind the dentist, and she's going to need groceries during the rest of the month. And she's got no way of getting cash, so that's going to fall on me. She doesn't really understand about money any more since her stroke, but she knows for sure that she wants to go to the casino tonight...
Plus here's this: I've been trying to experiment with a new shelving unit I bought on the cheap the other day. Assembling the Expedit's given to me by a friend is too complex for this apartment - they're waiting for a larger space that my girl and I hope to eventually share together - but I found a small shelving unit that I *thought* would work for my LPs for a mere $20 at a second-hand store run by a Korean couple, just down the street. They lent me a dolly to get the shelves home, and I've spent the last two hours re-arranging my records so that I have my jazz, blues, funk, reggae, country, Celtic and old-timey on it. Just as it was starting to look okay, while I was trying to make home for a couple of stragglers (a few slabs of vinyl by the hip hop band New Kingdom, which make up the whole of my hip hop vinyl). the middle shelf collapsed. As I tried to fix it, the top shelf collapsed too. I re-stacked the records on my floor and tried again, and had another collapse or two in the process. The little plugs that hold the shelves in place are the problem, it seems; though the particle board is bowing in the centre, it is so far bearing up the weight okay, but the little plugs keep popping out from their housings, twisting and then tilting and falling. Plus the back doesn't seem to want to stay on - it's just a thin sheet held in place by skinny nails driven into the particle board, but it seems to play some sort of structural role back there; the back coming undone seems to allow the sides to pooch out a bit which is what leads to the shelf-plugs twisting out of place and/or popping out. I may have to reinforce those nails a bit... So far I've got the shelves back in place and the records on them, and it seems to be holding out okay, but as I type this, I keep waiting to hear a thud of collapse and spilled records from the other room. Given my day, it will probably wait until I'm asleep to do that, or at least deeply engaged in some writing... I'm regretting having bought the shelves, but it was so much work re-organizing my records to fill them up that I really don't want to have to undo it all again.

And that's where I sit. I'm exhausted, sweaty, sneezing from the dust that I've stirred up, and I might also have some sort of urinary tract infection, because it burns a little when I pee, and I want to pee all too often, even when there's no pee in me. Plus I'm really hungry and can't chew much. Time for a nice liquid dinner, I guess - a smoothie with yoghurt to replenish my gut flora seems in order... but first I'm going to go check my shelves and see how they're holding up. I'm scared to take records off to listen to them!

Update: from bad to worse... I decided to spin one of my favourite New Model Army albums, No Rest for the Wicked, to reward myself for my hard work, only to discover that when I flipped it over, there's a warp that makes the first song on side two - the title track and the first song of theirs I ever heard - skip all over the place. Aaargh! Either I never spun that side before or else, God help me, the album got exposed to enough sunlight from my window to warp it. I hope not!

Good news, though: Mom made it back from the casino with more money than she left with! And the shelves haven't collapsed yet. I even took a record off to listen to it. Bold moves, here. 

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Jonathan Richman at the Biltmore

Sweet, fun night with Jonathan Richman and Tommy Larkins at the Biltmore last night. The few odd loud talkers in the audience aside - could someone maybe get onstage to explain to audiences at the start of shows that this is rude and obnoxious? People seem not to know how to behave, and I can only personally confront so many of them before I get the shit kicked out of me - the crowd was way more respectful of Jonathan than the overly-aggressive one I caught at Richards a few years ago, who almost whooped him into silence at a couple of points. No, last night was a packed house full of sincere, appreciative fans, and Jonathan really opened up and had fun, dancing - including to a version of "I Was Dancing In a Lesbian Bar" - and, in his transports, going off mike every second song or so to sing to the people standing up front, leaving those who could only just see him from further back to lip read (but only for a few seconds at a time).
 Richman frequently let Tommy play and accompanied him with handheld percussion - tambourines and such - and when singing, feely improvised and changed his lyrics, giving some of his songs a fresh, naked, made-up-on-the-spot feel. This was probably most entertainingly accomplished during his encore of "When We Refuse to Suffer," which saw him come up with things like "when we refuse to suffer/ when we don't feel/ we might get porno/ but we don't get Michelangelo... we might get stove top pizza, but we don't get the Mona Lisa." That one seemed to make even him blush, and he apologized to the crowd, who of course loved it and laughed and shouted back that it was okay, at which point he made a face and shook his head and insisted on his embarrassment (then continued to improvise lyrics for a bit). He had apologized, previously, that the air conditioning was turned off, because it interfered with the sound of his guitar, and he also worked that into his lyrics for that song (something about preferring having to "sweat" to "air conditioned death," it sounded like - though the studio version also has references to air conditioning; we gather he's no fan of that particular modern convenience). Then there was a funny "tribute" to Keith Richards, a version of "Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild," and a bunch of other new songs, not all of which do I know. No "He Gave Us the Wine to Taste It," no "You Can Have a Cellphone That's OK (but Not Me)" - one wonders if he's finally caved in on that point - but plenty of songs in Spanish, including a nod to "La Bamba;" and, as a final brief singalong, the Italian classic (and Alex Chilton favourite) "Volare;" plus there was at least one long aside (and maybe a song) in French, and an entertaining tune about the need for the body to contort and move and dance, the title of which I do not yet know. Well worth a little sweat! I couldn't help but take a couple of pictures and shoot one brief video, though I didn't get to record the part where he chided someone playfully from the stage about watching the show through their cellphone: "we're right here! Don't watch us on a screen - if you want to watch TV, you should just stay home!" (Or something like that).
Fans should be appraised that there is a new vinyl compilation out there, No Me Quejo De Mi Estrella, that combines several of his best songs from the last few CDs; I snagged one at Audiopile, and presumably there are a few others around in town. It's hard to find his CDs, or anyone's, these days (and his merchless way of touring doesn't help), so I'm really glad to have these songs on record... And really glad to have seen him again, doing some of them live. What a sweet night! People who have never caught him should make a point of doing so at their next opportunity, since, like he said, he's "almost fifty" now (for those who missed the joke, he's actually 63). Thanks, Jonathan!