Sunday, September 20, 2020

In which I see my last rock concert for awhile and step into a fight in the DTES

"Oops, I Did It Again," as Richard Thompson once sang. I went to a concert. I wore my mask the whole time, except when sticking a straw under it to sip my Jolly Rancher concoction - a tasty beverage that tasted indeed like a Jolly Rancher, and a specialty of Lanalou's ($10 for a double, which was very much worth it). And to tell the truth, it all felt safe enough, with a plastic barrier preventing Dennis Mills from singing moistly onto the audience, a strict limit on the number of people allowed in, most staff wearing masks most of the time (and, as I say, at least one patron), and no mingling of the audience - but, you know, watch and see if I die, I guess. 

Will I regret writing that sentence? Maybe! I gather any indoor spaces run the risk of aerosol transmission of the virus, and that the whole fomite/ surfaces thing is sort of a "spring 2020" way of conceptualizing how the novel coronavirus spreads; anyone wanting to update their understanding of how scientists currently believe the virus can be caught should check out this excellent article... It will see me wearing my mask pretty much anytime I am in a closed space with others, I think, based mostly on this striking paragraph:

A clear example of the benefits of masks is a recent outbreak in South Korea, in which one woman at a Starbucks infected 27 other customers — whom officials assume were not wearing masks because they were eating and drinking — but none of the employees, all of whom were masked the entire time.

A friend also mentioned on FB in passing a study that showed that in fact most new cases of COVID-19 correlated to people who had eaten in restaurants since they started reopening (I don't have a link for that but it makes some sense).  

Truth is, as much as I enjoyed the show - as I would enjoy any show that Shelley Preston (of Preston & Fletcher and EddyD & the Sex Bombs) was doin' background vocals for, I think; Vancouver is lucky that she plays in so many bands! - the main reason why, I think, it was important for me to go was so that I wouldn't WANT to go to other concerts for a long while. I was Jonesin', so I took a hit of rock'n'roll, and now I'm good til maybe 2021? Let me find some wood to knock. With apologies to Dennis Mills, much as I enjoyed myself, the best thing I probably got from the gig was being reminded that I am perfectly able to live without rock concerts, and probably should. I will miss the social/ community aspects the most... 

The dodgy world outside Lanalou's helped fortify that resolve, but to understand my actions in the story that transpired, you gotta understand: I wasn't exactly sober. I had brought a government joint in a difficult-to-open, childproof government container, which I was showin' birthday boy/ Judys drummer Taylor Little outside the venue while he smoked a plain ol' cigarette, observing me as I struggled to pry the fuckin' lid off. (There is clearly a mechanism at work that makes it pop open, but though I have successfully triggered it a few times, as I break out my lone joint for special occasions, I have no idea what that mechanism IS, so I can't actually control how to re-open the package, and tend to stand there like an idiot cursing it, which was behaviour I felt I must explain to Mr. Little, who, incidentally, was celebrating a birthday last night; happy birthday, man!). Anyhow, between a couple hits on my joint and the Jolly Rancher cocktail (and a night of live music!), I felt pretty good as I left the venue to make my way to the Skytrain on Main. I even got to pet an adorable dog - an old, shaggy little fella who looked rather like a mop with eyes - who was being walked by a local. But as I arrived at my stop, the DTES asserted itself with a vengeance. Had I not smoked a bit, and had my double-cocktail, I probably would have been vastly less relaxed about the altercation I witnessed and intervened in. (Yes, folks, I stepped into a fight between two DTES residents, so if you're already thinking I'm an idiot for going to a concert in the midst of a pandemic, I'm gonna validate that theory in spades...). 

I've already posted the story on Facebook. This is how it goes: 

So I am feelin' pretty good leaving Lanalou's, waiting for a bus, when a homeless-looking, but also tough-looking, dude drags his sleeping bag, full with his belongings, around the corner, also waiting for a bus, about to light a smoke. Someone else - another local, but fitter and younger than some - flies across the street with fists flailing, bellowing, "YOU TOOK MY LIGHTER! That's MY lighter! Give it back!"

The startled alleged lighter-thief is taken aback, defensive, shouting in French-accented English - "This ees NOT your lighterrr, is MY lighterrr, I buy just now at store around ze cornerr!"

"Bullshit man! You took my lighter! It was on the ground by my bag and you picked it up! It's GREEN!"

My eyes dart at the lighter held in the other man's hand. It is indeed green, lime green, an everyday Bic lighter. The colour proves nothing, of course.

Variants on their initial altercation ensue, with occasional scuffles wherein the lanky, angry guy tries to grab the lighter. Eventually, I realize that I have a lighter with me. It is a bit nicer than a $1.99 Bic, but I have no great attachment to it. Maybe I could solve this problem?

"Dude!" I say at the tough guy. "Here, take MY lighter, it ain't worth the fight!"

I reach out my hand and he briefly glances over and takes my lighter... But continues to yell at the other guy, and I start to realize, holy shit, I just gave away my lighter for NOTHING. The fight continues for several minutes thereafter (the bus is still on the way) and finally I can't help it, and assert myself (idiotically) again into the fray: "Just trade lighters," I say.

They both pause for a second and CLEARLY consider it, going so far as to briefly extend their hands, then realize that any arrangement of passing lighters might involve one of them running off with both of them. Too late, I add, "Or just give them both to me and I will pass them to you," but it is too late:



So it goes. Felt like I was in a Chris Walter novel for a sec. They were still fighting when the bus arrived, both of them with a lighter, and me with none.

There was actually a bit more to it than that, which I left off FB for brevity - the quarrel continued onto the bus, in fact, with the first guy piling his sleeping bag knapsack onto the bus with his "buddy" in pursuit, yelling through the open door variants on "you took my fuckin' lighter! I'm gonna GET you!" for a few minutes (my former lighter - an eight dollar fancy one that I bought when I bought the joint, to smoke before the last concert I'd gone to, was still clutched in his hand, while they fought over a $2 Bic). Once the bus pulled away, I even had a brief chat with the victim/ lighter thief "That guy crazy, you even give him you lighterrr," he acknowledged at one point. I agreed - "clearly he has some anger issues," and broke out that strangely-officious phrase, "I'm sorry that happened to you" (and made sure, when we arrived at the Skytrain station, that we got on different cars). 

On FB, after I posted it, Chris Walter agreed: it was a "very Chris Walter-esque" moment. 

Anyhow, there. I survived a venture into the DTES, and maybe survived having been indoors with strangers, and satiated my FOMO, which really, at this point, should be smaller than, say, my fear of dying on a ventilator in a crowded and lonely hospital ward. I think I'm gonna quit writing about live music for awhile, so as not to encourage any false sense of security out there, and I think (I think) I am gonna stop going to shows altogether, folks at least for the rest of the year. Playing Russian roulette with live music seems unwise. Those of you who wish to support the scene can still do so, maybe, by donating to this GoFundMe for this friend of the Judys, for whom - I neglected to mention in my interview with Dennis, below - the evening was a benefit. She was in a pretty awful car accident and could use the support; I coughed up (not literally; no coughing was involved) fifty bucks, in addition to writing the piece below and payin' to get into the show, so I've done my bit. 

Now I just need to correct the spelling of Pete Fiend (he's only Feend on FB) and put that link into the interview itself, then I can go back to bed!

Thursday, September 17, 2020

A Dennis Mills interview: of AKA, Rhythm Mission, the Jazzmanian Devils, Les Goodman, and THE JUDYS, PLAYING THIS WEEKEND!

Okay, so: as far as wildfire smoke goes, we have nearly-breathable air again (for now). We have children in the school playgrounds, shrieking and laughing almost like there is no pandemic afoot (tho' clearly there is, because I'm still working from home and think no more of wearing a mask to go shopping than I do of wearing socks or underwear). But will the Judys CD release scheduled for Saturday at Lanalou's actually take place...? And then there's the eternal question, "Is it safe?" 

AKA, September 1980 at the Arcadian Hall, by Gord McCaw; not to be reused without permission

I will let people weigh their options, here, but one thing is clear: Dennis Mills deserves better! The new Judys EP is pretty durn great, and Mills has had a very long and interesting career on the Vancouver scene, which stretches nearly back to the dawn of the scene (he identifies as being in the "second wave," but 1980 is still early enough that punk was whatever you decided it would be). His debut in Vancouver (and anywhere) was singing and playing sax for AKA, alongside future notables like guitarist/ critic Alex Varty and keyboardist/ slide guitarist Andy Graffiti (the AKA rhythm section of Warren Hunter and Warren Ash were also in Rhythm Mission, Mill's next band, but I don't know their full discography, otherwise). I've felt kinda guilty about not having interviewed Mills about anything, ever, given his contributions to the Vancouver scene. It seems kind of necessary to start at the beginning...

Red Therapy is kind of a crazy EP, packing in several flavours of No Wave, from the abrasive DNA-style gut-punches to spidery, playful aggro-jazz. Like the U-J3RK5, it doesn't make much sense for Vancouver 1980 - seems more like New York 1978 - but holds up plenty well now. AKA started for Mills when he responded to an add from Alex Varty on a message board at Quintessence Records ("Many bands formed in those days from that message board," he tells me by email).  

AKA, September 1980 at the Arcadian Hall, by Gord McCaw; not to be reused without permission

To say no more, an interview follows, which I'll lay out Q&A style. Apologies to all for obvious questions I have missed. Maybe see you Saturday at Lanalou's...?

AM: What were you doing musically before getting involved with AKA? Can you sketch out the early history for us...?

DM: I had jammed previously with Reed Eurchuk , which is recounted on my blog as The Puffy Coat. Reed soon after formed a band called Exxotone with Randy Pandora ( ex-Generators), and the two Warrens - Warren Hunter and Warren Ash. The Exxotone was originally called The Detectives. When the two Warrens were “let go”, they joined Alex and I as The Rejectives (inside joke). There was also a female singer in the first lineup of AKA, Angela Kaya. I still have a button with her face on it, and last saw her at Michael Wonderful’s celebration of life. Classical pianist Tommy Wong joined after that. Our first show was at Pumps Gallery as part of an Erotic Art show. On the way to the show, we were still deciding what our name would be. That first gig we were called The Not. Later it changed to AKA, (also known as). AKA also means Red in Japan, so that is why our first and only record was called Red Therapy

Before my sojourn into Vancouver and music, I had guested once with some high school friends called Estipod in Richmond, where I went to high school. We did a version of "Blank Generation" with Estipod, and it is rumored that there is a super 8 somewhere. Before all that, I had imagined myself an actor, until I was forced to sit in a lighting booth on a technical rehearsal while Patti Smith first played the Commodore. It was missing that show that made me want to form a band. I decided then and there that acting was not my gig. I needed to live life before I could play someone else's life. I was drawn to the punk aesthetic of DYI, where I could be actor, performer, writer and director all in one. The sugar water of the early punk scene drew my "human fly" ego to it, and it has never let go.

AKA by bev davies, Dec. 1980 at Gary Taylor's Rock Room, not to be reused without permission

What were you listening to? James Chance, DNA, that sorta thing, or…? AKA was a bit “out there” for 1980; were you also pretty much into aggressive avant garde, or…?

Yes, I love the No New York record, but earlier influences were Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Pere Ubu, Television, and Talking Heads. AKA was very active for about 3 years. We opened up for Ultravox and for Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. We also did a short tour with Doug and the Slugs.

I prefer the more playful/ tuneful stuff on
Red Therapy, like “634 Dog.” Did you write the lyrics? 

I wrote all the lyrics. Warren Ash wrote some lyrics for a Rhythm Mission song, which I reconstructed a bit with the cut-up method. Lyrics are my thing, above all else.

I have no idea what "634 Dog" is about... can you enlighten me?

Most of my lyrics and poetry just come to my blessed pointed head. Lots of stream of consciousness, and wordplay.When I was in AKA, I was 20-23, I was also experimenting with the cut-up method (Burroughs, Gysin).

"634 Dog" – the title came partially from the song "634-5789" - the Wilson Pickett song. The "dog" part is referenced in the song.

The basic song structure came from Warren Hunter. His songs on guitar with AKA are very different from the ones that Alex played on - playful and tuneful as you note" "634" "Dog," "Fear," "Ragged Andys,"

Alex on guitar songs were more angular, short, choppy, jazzy: "God," "City Drugs," "Mental Timebombs," Warren’s playing was very different.

What was working with Alex Varty like? I've only had good experiences with him as a fellow writer...

Alex is on the most knowledgeable and creative people in our little city. I always thought of him as my Bob Quine! He didn’t check all the boxes for punk or new wave fashion, but we wrote some cool, strange music, which was far more interesting work that most of the bands that got all the press.

There was a bit of a divide at one point with the CITR power pop fans, hardcore, and the weird stuff we did. But we played with everybody, DOA, Subhumans ( my favorite), The Rabid, etc. When we released our EP, we later were at CITR, and found the play copy with giant letters written all over the cover, ALEX VARTY PLAYS WITH THESE GUYS, DON’T PLAY THIS!!! We had a laugh, but some people didn’t understand that Alex was a critic, who made some kind of a living from writing. He is one the best, and has mellowed over the years.. AKA had a reunion show in 2015. We had not played in well over 30 years, and in some cases, hadn’t really spoken much. It was so much fun, and interesting to play the weird songs you wrote when you were in your early 20’s, when you were now in your late 50’s. 

Were you with AKA when they opened for Captain Beefheart? Any Beefheart stories? 

Captain Beefheart by bev davies, Commodore, January 1981, not to be reused without permission

Yes, AKA broke up about a month before the Beefheart show, and we then played it. Don Van Vliet was a shaman. He had an incredible memory. I was backstage at the Commodore after we opened, and came by the dressing room ( much different that the ones now). He would be making these oblique statements, and looked at me and said something about Lower and Higher Mathematics. He saw this bouncer and signaled to him. “Century Plaza, 1973 or something like that.” Yeah the guy says. Beefheart remembered a bouncer from about 8 years previous. The next night, Melodic Energy Commission got to the open ( he played two nights) and I got hang out with him backstage. He was in a more contemplative mood that night. He was drawing with felt pens, and made a joke about the fumes. His art looked like a cat but as if the cat was made of glass, and the glass had just shattered. His wife Jan was very carefully guarding him, and you got the sense that she shepherded him through all this music life. 

Captain Beefheart by bev davies, Commodore, January 1981, not to be reused without permission

What was the process of leaving AKA and getting into Rhythm Mission? Did you do anything between, or did the bands overlap, or…?

AKA broke up after a gig in DTES at the Lotus where AKA played with The Modernettes. I did mushrooms that night, and gave out Japanese oranges to the crowd. Alex and I had lived in a communal house, but like sometimes happens, it was too intense. I finished the gig and said it was the end. But we did the Beefheart one after. AKA actually kept going for a few more months with Colin Griffiths replacing Alex. Another interesting anecdote from AKA was the Red Therapy record. AKA at that point was Alex, me, the two Warrens and Andy Graffiti on keyboards and slide guitar. We had the choice of paying for the master tape ( about $400) or renting it. We rented it. The only master is the remaining copies of the EP!

We met Scott Harding at an AKA show at the Laundromat ( soon to be Richards on Richards), and previously The David YH Lui Theatre, where I worked as an usher. He was underage, but we got him into the Commodore for Beefheart. Later we jammed with him and Lee Kelsey (who had been in the Payolas), the two Warrens, and Andy joined later for Rhythm Mission too. We were active from fall of 1981 to 1984 when we broke up briefly. We reformed about a year after, but by then, Scott, Lee and I started Jazzmanian Devils (1983).

Did you like hardcore? It seems like the kind of music AKA was making in 1980 wouldn't have happened if the "orthodoxies" of hardcore had set in, and it seems like Rhythm Mission and Jazzmanian Devils are both kinda reactions against hardcore...?

Not generally a fan of hardcore. That said, I loved the Minutemen, Subs, and Death Sentence, although that was much later.

Rhythm Mission had lots of funk influences and world beat too. Jazzmanian Devils were definitely an idea to take it back. Buddy Selfish and others were bringing back rockabilly, so we went back a bit further to the real father of rock n roll, Louis Jordan.

Was the Mo-Da-Mu label/ scene a thing in Vancouver when Rhythm Mission started? (It looks like the first Animal Slaves EP was released a couple of years before 
Wild Mood Swings, but I don’t know!). How much of a shared vision or politic did the Mo-Da-Mu bands have? Did bands co-ordinate their sound in any way, so that recordings had a recognizable brand to them? (Because I can hear similarities between Wild Mood Swings and Dog Eat Dog, say).

I was living in a housing co-op and a member of East End Food Co-op, later worked at Uprising Breads – a workers coop. I figured a music co-op to put on gigs and put out records was a good idea. I gathered together the folks who started it, but it was my concept. We were all friends and rivals, a healthy competition, and a communal sense of co-operation. Lots of strong egos though. 54-40 started out opening for AKA, we worked with them on Mo-Da-Mu, Tin Twist, Animal Slaves, Work Party. I’m probably forgetting someone important. 

Who did the cover art for Wild Mood Swings? It's pretty crazy!

Jan Wade. She is very cool and a close friend.

Did you interact much with Elizabeth Fischer? Any memorable moments? I kind of loved her way of doing things but gather she was also kinda cranky…

I wrote about Elizabeth on my blog Condensed Milt. We worked together for many years. She went out with Ross from Animal Slaves, and he played with me in Rhythm Mission and Jazzmanian Devils. We had many disagreements over the years, as she wasn’t the easiest person. But she was always an incredible artist (visual) and musically. She even sang a few songs with Jazzmanian Devils!

Also interested in hearing Scott Harding stories…! Did you follow his hip hop stuff? Are you still in touch? I actually forget if any bands you were in participated in that Commodore benefit…?

Yes I helped push the rock that was Hardstock up the hill, with help from about 1000 people. We also did Holy Hardstock at Christ Church Cathedral. I had curated both shows, which caused a bit a fuss with Elizabeth, as she wanted to play at the Commodore, while I wanted her to play Holy Hardstock. She yelled at me and basically told me to fuck off. Again. Oh well, I yelled back. I had this vision of her music in the big cathedral. It would have been beautiful. So many stories there.

I am curious about a series of concerts that Rhythm Mission was involved in: Shindig, back in December 1984. I gather that Red Herring won against the objections of some of the audience – I have heard many people say that the real popular favourites were Rhythm Mission. Any memories of the Shindig event? Did you dig Red Herring? Did you feel like you should have won? (I gather Stephen Nikleva would later sit in with the Jazzmanian Devils, so it sounds like there was no bad blood…).

All the CITR kids were upset that Rhythm Mission applied for Shindig because ….get ready…we were too professional! Anyway it was a lot of fun, and we won a lot, but Red Herring got the nod that night. Red Herring was and is a great band. Great musicians and people. Stephen Nikleva just gave AKA a shout out on YouTube.

Did the Jazzmanian Devils never record? I don’t see any collectibles for sale on Discogs… are you a live band only?

Jazzmanian Devils recorded 2 cassettes ( Let’s Drink and Happy Hour) and a CD called That’s the Groovy Thing. There is a live session at the CBC that Jacek was going to put out on vinyl, although I haven’t heard from him for awhile.  

Jazzmanian Devils by Gord McCaw, not to be reused without permission

Never having been to a Les Goodman After Dark event, I was shamefully confused by you being Les Goodman throughout the last Bowie Ball. Is Les Goodman just a stage name you use for certain projects, or is he anything else? Where did the name come from? (I honestly thought Les Goodman and you were two different people!).

Les Goodman was my name in the Jazzmanian Devils. We were all Goodman brothers. Many people in Vancouver were given Goodman names. Manny Goodman gave me the name Les Goodman, because I was the Last Goodman in town ( see movie, songs, etc) Les Goodman is slippery character. A couple years back some film people were trying to get me to revive it for Much Music. We got as far as contracts, but it didn’t seem right. The concept of Les Goodman After Dark was imitation of a talk show, using the talk show format at a form of entertainment, but in a live context only. The Jazzmanian Devils were the House Band, and Manny and Herschel Goodman were my sidekicks. The joke was we were all about TV, but not on TV. We started that in the late 80’s, early 90’s. I have a collection of them on disc. Some were very funny, and others were just alcoholic. We had a famous show where we invited Art Bergmann to come and do "Bound for Vegas" as a lounge song. He was wasted, and we conducted most of the interview under the table. Very funny. In recent years, we revived it at Lanalous. First I did it with Big Top, then with the new After Dark Band, with Taylor, Scott, Bob Petterson, and Gord Rempel and Ron Kenji. We had a tradition of doing Canada day for three years, or maybe it was two. 

Dennis Mills as Les Goodman, MC'ing the 2020 Bowie Ball with Tony Lee, by Bob Hanham; not to be reused without permission

When did the Judys actually start? Is it the same lineup still…?

The first Judys was a fuck band with me, Dano (keyboards and slide guitar in the Judys) , Keith Porteous, Warren Hunter and a drummer no one remembers. We used to practice with AKA at the Female Hands house in Burnaby, so the drummer was either the guy from Female Hands, or Bobby Herron from the b-sides. I don’t recall a single song that we played, and we only played once at the Railway.

The Judys started with Taylor Little telling me he had always wanted to be in a band with me. He was playing with Dano, and Pete worked with him. I came over to a rehearsal in fall 2014. We then invited Scott Fletcher to bring his righteous riffs, and The Judys were born. One night at Pandoras, they put the bands names up on the white board. I came in and Dano had put The Judys up there. So we became The Judys. Again. We played our first show at Lanalous with all covers on Boxing Day 2014. Our plan was to pick songs we loved from our youth, and Judify them. So we picked "Walk on The Water," and "Revolution Blues," "Radar Love," "So Tired." 

Then once we had created our ‘sound”, we started to write in the Judys style. Our first song was either "Judy’s Got a Big Mouth" or "Freedom 85."   I forget which came first.

Dennis Mills fronting the Judys by Bob Hanham. Not to be reused without permission

Unless I’ve missed something, and I probably have, the Judys are the most straight-up rock band you’ve played in – where did the impetus to do something kinda more straightforward come from?

I have always wanted to play in a band like The Judys. Taylor encouraged me to adapt my voice. He claims he taught me how to sing. I will agree he taught me how to sing better. I have always loved Taylor since he played in The Shades with Chris Arnett (of the Furies), Reed Eurchuck, and Mike Raycevik. They were NY sounding, which has always been my favorite. My first experience on-stage was screaming on "Psychotic Reaction" with the Shades at the Buddha. I then fell backwards into the crowd and they caught me.

Where did the name come from? Is there a particular Judy that inspired you?

Original Judys were of course inspired by Judy Kemeny (TinTwist), Judy from Pink Section, and Judy (Ebra) from Tunnel Canary. And of course Judy Garland. Wizard of Oz is my favourite movie.

Did you spend time in New York at any point? “Welcome to New York” seems more inspired by Lou Reed than Richard Hell…

The lyrics to that song started in 2007, on a trip to NY to visit Scott Harding, where I had a heart attack a day later in Atlanta. The heart attack started in NY, then there was the plane ride and then in Atlanta, the hospital.

There is some truth to the song. Especially the part of "Forgot all the Stupid Words."    New York in the song represents that drug state where “you wont be staying here too long”. We liked the idea of 
"another old fashioned drug song”, taking the piss out of old fashioned love song by Three Dog Night. Musically, a very Exile just off Main Street, where we rehearsed for awhile.

I loved both Lou and Richard Hell, so many great memories of both of them.

Did you ever get to meet them, or have any other encounters with your musical heroes?

Warren Hunter and I went to Seattle and saw Richard Hell. This was around the time of his second record. It wasn’t really the Voidoids, and he wasn’t very good.

I saw Lou Reed in 1976. He was doing the Rock 'n Roll Heart tour with the wall of TV sets. During the show, a guy sitting next to us got up to get a drink. His wallet dropped and I noticed, and gave to his girlfriend.

He came back and thanked me with a huge chunk of hash. I thought, wow, this will last a year! He then came back again, and asked if I had eaten it. I said no, I didn’t know you could eat it.

"Yes, just eat it."  

And I did. Midway between driving my buddies back to Richmond in my mother’s car, the hash kicked in. HARD. By the time we went to Tom’s Pizza ( long gone), the pizza was vibrating and I was hallucinating. Somehow, I managed to drive them all home, and went to bed, getting up in morning for my first day at work in teller training for the Royal Bank. 

Ha! On that topic, I can't make out all the lyrics for The Whole World’s on Drugs.” Can you share’m? 

Baby’s got a bucket and she’s putting on some pudge.
She’s got a brand new drug, calls it Tattoo Fudge. 
 You don’t have to go to circus to find yourself a clown
Just put on the tv, see what’s going down. 

The Whole World’s on Drugs. 

You can roll it you can lick you can find it on the ground. 
Some people falling in love some people falling down. 
Some people living on the street, man they’re living on the edge. 
 Some people holding hands when they jump off the ledge. 

The Whole World’s on Drugs

Sugar makes the world go round. 

(Tell it to me Sugar. Sell it to me sugar. )

Dennis Mills fronting the Judys by Bob Hanham. Not to be reused without permission

I’m listening to “Something in the Air” and really enjoying the dark, heavy vibe of it. Who wrote the music? Who wrote the lyrics? How were they married together? Between wildfires and COVID it seems like it could have a whole other timely topical verse…

All songs by The Judys. I write the words. We started that song in 2017 after the first two came out. The Very Best of The Judys, and The Very Rest of The Judys. [Not on the bandcamp, but it includes some of the covers mentioned elsewhere, like "Radar Love."]

So we all write them. Taylor is a very compositional drummer. He is a great arranger. Scott provides the killer riffs, Pete the monster bass, and Dano is the special sauce that really makes it Judified. Shelley [Preston, of Preston and Fletcher, whose Fletcher is the Scott, above] has become a part of the band too in the last couple years. Her work on this new record is so good. Check out the pads she does on "Best Before" and [the Tom Waits cover] "Goin Out West."

Were the lyrics of “Another Goddamn Man” written by a man? 

Yes. Guilty as charged. Did you catch my Jesus Christ Superstar reference? [nope - it's been awhile].

Dennis Mills fronting the Judys by Bob Hanham. Not to be reused without permission

What are the odds that the Judys concert is going to go ahead under the current COVID restrictions? Anything you want to say about it? The last time I saw the Judys at Lanalou’s, there were female backup singers, including Cass King… not sure if Shelley Preston was there…? Anything else I’m missing?

At this time, it is going on. We will take all precautions. Our last gig was December, so a long time away. Who knows when or if the next one will be. We love Cass, but she was very busy with her own thing. Cass and Shelley and Taylor’s daughter Alex were the Big Mouths on the first records. But Shelley is in the band now. She’s grown up to be a real Judy.

I could go for hours. But I’m sure you have lots. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask.


IMPORTANT ADDENDUM: the show - which I did end up going to! - was actually a benefit for a friend of the Judys who was horribly injured in a car accident, who has a GoFundMe afoot. Dennis gifted me some swag as a result of the above, some of which was quite collectable, so I donated (at his suggestion) fifty bucks to the cause, and encourage anyone else who can do so to do the same. 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Burnt Orange Heresy and the nostalgia it inspires...

In the space of three days, I have, by chance, seen two films with Elizabeth Debicki, an Australian actress that you may have also seen in Widows, The Guardians of the Galaxy sequel, or in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby. She was also in a recent adaptation of Macbeth that I quite liked (the one with Michael Fassbender). The first film I saw her in, two days ago, was a big-budget theatrical blockbuster, Tenet, which has been so well-written about in the New Yorker that no further words of mine seem necessary, save that I did enjoy Ludwig Göransson's score for the film, a sort of high-energy Tangerine-Dreamy synth-type thingy that sounded really good being played LOUD at Landmark, who, by the way, apparently have dropped that annoying practice I mentioned of dropping sound when the credits roll. The film itself, alas, was not as impressive; it had had trailers that made me believe I might enjoy a Christopher Nolan film again for a change - haven't really liked anything since Memento - but it was not to be. As Adam Nayman of Cinema Scope, observed of Dunkirk"That Nolan and his collaborators... have worked to create something intricate and unique is undeniable. What’s less certain... is whether their structural intervention signifies much beyond its own complexity. The film is impressive, immense, immersive, yes — but is it anything else?" I would say the answer is either no, or perhaps, if there is indeed something to Tenet that I missed, it is not worth the effort of extracting it. (It also doesn't do much with John David Washington, who has none of the effortlessly radiant charm he brought to Ballers). 

The second Elizabeth Debicki film I saw, which I finished on home video just tonight, was an independent/ arthouse film, The Burnt Orange Heresy, which played in Vancouver for, I believe, less than a week - longer than  Jay Baruchel's Random Acts of Violence, which I still haven't seen, and which seemed to get pulled from distribution halfway through its first week; which is still better, say, than Jeff Barnaby's Blood Quantum, which didn't get a theatrical roll-out here at all. Blame it all on COVID, of course. Erika and I had meant to see The Burnt Orange Heresy theatrically, but the night we actually went to Landmark with intent to see it, we discovered that they had changed the showtime from the previous day, when we'd hatched the plan, and - since this was still in the early phases of the reopening, when most screens were filled with things like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark,  there weren't dozens of showtimes to choose from; we would have had to have waited for a couple hours to catch the next screening, so elected to go home instead. Rather a sad, lame rollout for such a good film; it ended up appearing on DVD (not even blu) at Walmart a few weeks later, so I grabbed it, and must say I enjoyed it so much vastly more than I enjoyed Tenet. Even Debicki was better: there is a moment in The Burnt Orange Heresy where she simply pauses and contemplates the landscape, which hints at a richer and more interesting inner life than you will find in the whole of Tenet. She seems, in The Burnt Orange Heresy, like a real person, with thoughts, feelings, ideas, a history - although the film keeps you guessing as to what that might be, and leaves a great deal unstated. She's not exactly the main character of the film, but she's sort of (along, maybe, with Donald Sutherland, as a reclusive artist) the moral center of the film. It's not the sort of movie where the character who is the moral center is likely to fare well, alas, and almost else in the film is some variety of shark - some, like art critic/ lecturer/ freelancer Claes Bang, in the lead role, being better disguised than others. (Mick Jagger's character, meanwhile, might as well be a lizard person). 

There are a lot of reasons why I was predisposed to like The Burnt Orange Heresy. For one, I'm a fan of Patricia Highsmith's character of Tom Ripley, who, in the later novels about him, is deeply involved in art forgery (and murder and upscale European living), and while the novel this film is based on is not by Highsmith, it might well be; the story is very Highsmithian, and forgery and upscale European high life are definitely themes. As a happy fact, though, I am also a fan of the work of the novelist Charles Willeford, who did write the book that this is based on (now in print again, thanks to the film), though I have no way to reconcile the texts I have encountered by him - which also include the novel Pick Up, a fascinating, bleak, hardboiled crime  novel with a helluva twist ending, and two film adaptations of his work, Miami Blues and Cockfighter - with what I have seen here; they all seem very different. Though the film has some very clever and surprising moments, and a story that actually amounts to something, mostly what I found myself liking here was the nostalgia I feel for this KIND of movie, the sophisticated-and-pretty-thriller-aimed-at-an-educated-but-not-prudish-audience. They used to fill the screens at venues like the Royal Centre or command the space dedicated to one-to-three videos on the new arrivals wall of stores like Blockbuster or Rogers Video: smart, small-scale, but very enjoyable "mainstream arthouse" movies like The Comfort of Strangers or Pascali's Island or White Mischief or even the film Ripley's Game (which came out a bit after the Royal Centre years). None of these are necessarily great films (tho' happy to note that Criterion is putting out The Comfort of Strangers soon), but they were a sort of healthy cinematic staple food, at one point, which didn't leave you feeling like the filmmaker has contempt for you or took you for a sucker or a lowbrow, which is what you kinda get from the works of Christopher Nolan, Michael Bay, or any of the Marvel Comics Universe (or DC, for that matter) films... I guess there IS a way to find film fare like this on Netflix, and who knows, maybe that's where The Burnt Orange Heresy will eventually wind up, but the film left me feeling satisfied in a way I haven't for awhile, watching most Netflix fare.

Anyhow, I liked The Burnt Orange Heresy quite a bit. Really all I had to say...

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

A Tim Chan Interview (apropos of the same Saturday gig I just interviewed EddyD about, below)

    China Syndrome at the 2020 Bowie Ball, photo by Dave Jacklin

I have seen Tim Chan's band, China Syndrome, a dozen times or more, but the last time I saw them - at the 2020 Bowie Ball, which I wrote about, with terrific pictures by Bob Hanham, here - the band was significantly different. They were lacking long-time guitarist Vern Beamish - who, incidentally, is one of a shortlist of guitarists that Pete Campbell, in conspiratorial mode (and talking while his friends were onstage, to boot) has called "the best in Vancouver." Beamish had always presented as the most cerebral member of China Syndrome, and sometimes his introspective onstage demeanor made a striking contrast with the bouncy, ebullient Tim Chan and Mike Chang. 

At a very different end of the introvert/ extrovert gradient, at the Bowie ball, Beamish's replacement - a temporary one, Mark Richardson - rocked out like he was part of a Guns'n Roses cover band or something, almost upstaging Chan and Chang. It was a very different feeling for the band, and a big deal, since Beamish goes back to the beginning, has done plenty of the writing, and often took the lead solos (which, when he and really Chan hooked into each other, as during a particularly potent reading of "One Too Many," in Surrey, there was a real fire generated. That performance didn't end up on Youtube, but this one cooks pretty hard too). It's one of those member changes that, if you follow the band, you're really curious about... what will they sound like as a three piece? If  they find a permanent replacement for Beamish, what energy will that bring to the band? It's an interesting development... 

In the face of COVID, Chan has been granted some time to figure things out. "The Bowie Ball was," Chan reminds me, in fact "the last time China Syndrome played. We had already planned to take a few months off after that and, of course with COVID-19, that's turned into a much longer hiatus. The guitar player filling in for Vern at the Bowie Ball was Mark Richardson. He's an amazing guitar player and has played in several Vancouver bands including the Lumps and Drive By Poets (with Mike Chang of CS) and also has been a mainstay of musical theatre here in town. He currently leads the amazing symphonic metal band Ophelia Falling -- check 'em out here and here. COVID-19 has delayed our decision to add to China Syndrome's lineup at this time. We are carrying on as a three-piece for now, and if we do add another member they do not necessarily have to be a guitarist -- keyboards may be a possibility!"

For his part, Beamish, Chan says, "is laying low and working on completing his music degree program. He is involved with a few choirs in town (he toured South Africa with a local choir in January) and is focusing on his classical guitar chops." He will presumably surface again in Vancouver, but doing his own thing.

So when was the last time Chan did a live solo set? It's somewhat hard for me to imagine what that looks like, though not unprecedented. "I played a solo set at last year's International Pop Overthrow Festival at the Fairview Pub," Chan tells me. "I was a last minute replacement for a band that cancelled that night. So it was pretty impromptu as I did not really practice for it. Here's "My Pal Dan" from that set. My setup will be similar to what you see in the video, just me and electric guitar."

Chan plans a set drawing on both China Syndrome originals and a few covers. Unlike EddyD, interviewed below about the same show, Chan often includes covers in his sets, including a couple of really delightful interpretations of Squeeze; but he's not hinting as to what they'll be, this time - just that most of them are songs "I would not normally play with China Syndrome." 

Pill Squad at the Lou Reed tribute, photo by Sacha Moiseiwitsch

As COVID has ground on, Chan has kept busy, "playing both live with Pill Squad" - who gigged at the Princeton during June and July, and have a new show coming up August 28th, also featuring StrobCam (2/3rds of Coach StrobCam) and Finn Leahy' band Air Radish.   

Chan has also kept active via online video collaborations, which he calls "iso-collaborations," such as  this one with Mike of China Syndrome, reworking China Syndrome's song "Nowhere to Go," off their 2018 album Hide in Plain Sight; or this take on Squeeze's "Pulling Mussels (from the Shell)," with the Vanray's Eric Lowe and Gordon Rempel. (Chan notes that "we were stoked to see Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze commenting on it and liking it on Instagram!"). 64 Funnycars, too, "have also done a few iso-collaborations -- here's one of "Here Comes that Monday Feeling." However, "China Syndrome has decided not to play or practice in person during this time. We'll take things as they come and will definitely reconvene when we all feel comfortable about doing so," probably in three piece form. 

Does Chan have a history with EddyD. or Sinead X. Sanders, also on the bill Saturday?

"I've known Eddy since the 1980s - Eric Lowe introduced me to him back in the day when they played together in the Fabulous Wallys and Chainsaw Running. Of course, we've shared many bills together with our respective bands over the years. And I've been a guest player with Eddy D and the Sexbombs, appearing with them at Bowie Ball 2019. As for Sinead, we've also shared many bills together in the past few years, especially with Pill Squad. We were both part of the Night of Nilsson (tribute to Harry Nilsson) gig last year at LanaLou's and earlier this year, we both participated in the Lou Reed tribute show at the Princeton."

Anything I've missed?  "Nothing much more to add about the gig other than it will be a rare chance to see some performers who usually rock out play a low key, quiet show. Sinead, of course, usually plays solo anyways but she is always fantastic, what a great voice!" 

More information on the gig here. It starts and ends early, so it's a great excuse to go for dinner; note that Lanalou's makes a damn good poutine...

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Lilith For Dudes 2020: One of Two Balls

A few images from last night's "first ball" of Lilith For Dudes, in which David M., Dave Dedrick, and Pete Campbell, in different permutations, played yet another very entertaining, generous, and abundantly COVID-friendly set of covers and originals, a few of which I have shot video of here, here, and here. Note: Pete Campbell was on hand to chastise Dave Dedrick for rupturing the "stage condom" as seen here below:

"Me & Warren Beatty & Mick Jagger Have This Problem"

The next show will be next week, also at the Princeton!

An Eddy Dutchman Interview, apropos of a Saturday gig with Eddy D. & Jazzy, Tim Chan, and Sinead X Sanders

There's going to be some great albums when COVID-19 finally runs its course. While I'm grateful that some bands, like X, the Pretenders, and the Residents are letting their new arrivals drop, for the vast majority of bands, there's not much point releasing anything when you can't tour and can only play to small rooms: so what that means (I hope) is that bands suddenly have the luxury of time to write, to re-record, to re-think weak cuts, to get everything perfect for the day when things are "back to normal." From Red Herring to the Black Halos, I know a few people who are lining up ducks, making plans, with albums in various stages of completion. But truth is, I thought EddyD. & the SexBombs had already just released their new CD, Yikes!, when COVID-19 hit.

Not so, Eddy Dutchman tells me. "The CD is not finished...we are doing the whole thing ourselves, every aspect of it..and we are one busy band of musicians, so its taking a very long time. When it's done you will receive the first copy; right now we are mastering it. Everything else is done... and to be honest Al..i think the days of CD's are done..its about singles and Spotify and videos...and likes on your FB page..."

With that in mind, the Sex Bombs have been putting out some pretty entertaining videos - see "Boom Boom," here, from last year, or "Are You Ready?" And Eddy D & his partner, Jazzy Zircon, who front the band, have a two-person gig lined up for Lanalou's this Saturday, August 22nd, under the new bandname, 2020. First, obvious question is - why is this not a Sex Bomb's gig?

"EddyD & the SexBombs are a big stage band," Eddy writes by way of reply. "That's where they are most at home and at their finest. We like the Biltmore, the Fairview, and of course the Rickshaw." However, "because of COVID, all these venues are closed... We owe it to our fans to be the best we we will only play at venues that work for EddyD & the SexBombs...but in the meantime, Eddy and Jazzy" - the principle songwriters for EddyD & the SexBombs, though Preston & Fletcher, who are in the band, also contribute -  "will perform as '2020' doing new and old EddyD & the SexBombs songs...the full band will wait till the larger venues open up."

COVID regulations are also going to force people to be more creative (and minimal) with their lineups, Eddy observes. "If a venue only holds 50 people max, and there's three bands, that's like 15 to 20 seats taken just in band." This is one of the reasons why Tim Chan of China Syndrome (whom I've written about here and here, and seen easily a dozen times in the last few years) will be doing a rare solo set for the Lanalou's gig, and why Jazzy and Eddy will be re-framing SexBombs songs "as a two piece," Eddy explains. "Personally, I  think full bands are really going to suffer. And remember: right now there's no getting up; the audience is restricted to sitting, and staying seated." There are also time restrictions: "The entertainment starts at 8 and has to be done by it makes it very difficult...but some of us are determined to figure out how to play in a safe and responsible way, but for now, it's 'Eddy and Jazzy are 2020.' Will the rest of the SexBombs be there?  Hell yes - but only to watch..."

How far do you and Jazzy go back? She's your wife, right? Were you musical collaborators before you were in a personal relationship? (Note: I'm going to stop fixing Eddy's eccentric punctuation here, since it is consistent and deliberate. He punctuates like Celine...). "Jazzy is my wife..of 40 plus years now...EddyD & the SexBombs is our first musical collaboration.  Over the many years together, she has always supported me and been my biggest critic. I have been performing for 30 years. I used to street perform..juggler..been all around the planet..and Jazzy would be there..not as a performer ..just as my support...but..Jazzy is an artist..she has always painted" (Eddy tells me elsewhere that she was "part of the punk art scene with Braineater and Lincoln Clarkes and that crew"). "She has done shows...she is also a about 6 years ago..she expressed an interest in being in a band..i called a few friends...and EddyD & the SexBombs were is her first take her tool them into a song structure..i add the music...bang is a very successful formula...she is my,," 

                                                        Jazzy & Eddy, by Bob Hanham

Did the name EddyD & the SexBombs come from Flipper's song "Sex Bomb," or is there another common ancestor between them?

"EddyD & the SexBombs started out as the railway club..first show..about 7 years was just me and a couple of pick up guys.. i wrote a bunch of songs along the Faust know...EddyD sells his soul to Satan for fame and fortune...all the songs told that an went over really well..EddyD did a few more shows and Jazzy made a few cameo appearances...she really liked it and that's when Jazzy and i put EddyD & the SexBombs together... the name Sex Bombs comes for Tom our speed than Flipper..although we used to run a booze can..Stalag 13..and i think Flipper played all connected...but..Tom Jones doing a version of a song called 'Sex Bomb'...excellent version by the way...that's were it came from..."

Do you have songs you will be doing especially for this occasion, or will you be repurposing Sex Bombs material?

"One of the positive side effects of Covid is we now have time to write new '2020' will be doing new some soon to be new EddyD & the SexBombs songs plus all the older EddyD favorites..Jazzy and i are still fully committed to EddyD & the SexBombs..but are just adapting to this COVID environment...we do have one song specially written for these weird's called 'Back Away'..i think from the title you can imagine what the songs about.,,we are committed to new material..i think we're up to 40 songs now...all originals."

Curious about covers and originals. I don't know my vintage R&B and 60's stuff, which I assume you're steeped in, so I always figure when I'm seeing the Sex Bombs that there's a good chance some of the songs are covers. Are there any covers you usually play? Are there any planned for the set with Jazzy?

"we don't do covers..we only do originals...its a much harder road..and a more satisfying road...we see our fans singing along with us...we have other artists doing some of our original songs...that's very gratifying....and...we like to keep our audience on their's a challenge for the audience...for them to decide for themselves if its a song they can be uncomfortable for an audience to hear a song for the first time and feel safe liking it...and personally..if i am going to put time and effort in to learning a song...i want it to be one of mine.,,not to say i don't know any covers..i probably know hundreds...but i forget them quicker than i learn ...mostly british rock...but actually covers.. i like to say when asked about covers......'play one're in a cover band.'..we're an original band...hahahah."

Anything else to say about the gig?  Any special plans...?

"the gig....i know a lot of musicians are staying home..i am taking a different route..i believe we have to figure out a way to keep music alive and to do it in a safe and responsible way...its a new way of doing things...reserved seating...making sure the audience understands this is for our mutual good...ticket sales..reserved seating...early finish..i came from the DIY crowd...i have always been about self promotion...and this is just another challenge...."

Monday, August 17, 2020

The Soska Sisters' Rabid: a belated negative review

I don't much trust critics, so when the overall critical consensus on the Soska Sisters' 2019 remake of Rabid seemed pretty negative, I didn't invest much in it. I also didn't rush out to see it - I had plans to, at one point, but something-or-other came up, and then the film was out of the theatres pretty much for good. When I saw it on the shelf today at Sunrise Records - with a few extra bucks in my pocket, a desire for distraction from the heat, and no better ideas for films to watch tonight - I picked it up, both to finally scratch the itch and because there was some feeling of supporting something local. I mean, I've crossed paths with Jen and Sylvia a few times, have enjoyed observing their brand-building, and if there was a certain clumsiness to moments in American Mary and See No Evil 2, there were also some charming and memorable bits in both films, a sense of genuine playfulness and enthusiasm and subversive intent that made you want to overlook any flaws you might notice. If I had some misgivings that they could do justice to remaking one of Cronenberg's most interesting and ambitious early films, I was still curious to see what they would do with it. 

Plus, you know, you want your local talent to flourish, right? Even if their films aren't actually set in Canada, they're made here, and I like that Jen and Sylvia have done things like host screenings of The Shining at the Rio while wielding an axe, you know? They've done their bit to support the scene here, so you kinda want to support them back. Or so I felt at one point...

So now that I've paid my $25 and bought the blu of Rabid and invested two hours in it, I can now fairly say it: what a disappointing mess the film turns out to be. I was able to engage with it for the first half, which only had a few miscues - though those were notable and irritating: why does Stephen McHattie look like his face is paralyzed throughout his walk-on as Dr. Keloid? Why does he let Rose look in a mirror, then tell her not to look in mirrors, pretty much a minute apart? (If the abrupt self-contradiction is meant to be funny or ironic, the Soskas bungle it; it just plays as incoherent). And why did no one correct his pronunciation of "keloid" to be in keeping with the way the doc's name is pronounced in the first film, and to maintain Cronenberg's deliberate pun on a term for a kind of scar tissue...? 

Also irritating: why, when there was a perfectly fun name for the clinic in the first film - the Keloid Clinic - do they give that name to a minor character, and name the clinic after William Burroughs? It's too obvious a name to drop, really, taking you out of the film's own reality for the sake of what seems a meaningless wink, which problem is compounded further by having a voiceover of Burroughs, apropos of absolutely nothing, reading about psychic vampires, inserted into the film (I guess it's done to give some tenuous sense that Burroughs' work has anything to do with the ideas in Rabid; but it doesn't, that I could see, save for the connection to Cronenberg - or at least one of his other films, with not much bearing on this one). 

And speaking of distracting fangirl winking, the red-gowned operation scene lifted directly from Dead Ringers also seemed unnecessary and irrelevant. Like, why not stick some car crash fetishization, telepods, and sex parasites in there, too? (Or better yet: remake one film at a time...?).

There's also a rather ridiculous before-and-after transition from Rose being completely disfigured to being completely healed, within a few minutes of screen time, which doesn't do much to help suspend disbelief, to invest you in her journey, or create any sort of illusion that we're dealing with something remotely scientifically or medically possible. 

But the hell of it is, that's all from the first half of the film, which is the better of the halves. Annoying as all the above is, there was at least a solid, pathos-generating performance by their lead actor, Laura Vandervoort, to get you through it, and a higher level of cinematic craft and restraint than I've seen the Soskas muster before. There was, too, some interesting potential to re-locating the film within the fashion industry, and even a FRESH IDEA in the film, something not present in the Cronenberg film, of having Rose go from shy, self-doubting vegan wallflower to confident, bloodsucking success as the result of her "transformation." In Cronenberg's film, Rose seems beautiful and confident both before and after her surgery; we don't really get to know her that well prior to the motorcycle accident, but there's really no "before and after," no sense that the operation changes her character in any meaningful way, and it was an interesting thing for the Soskas to do, to give us some time with Rose before things change.  

Sadly, if there's ultimately any coherent through-line about beauty and self-confidence and fashion and the female, if there's any meaningful connection between Rose's transformation and the social disorder that erupts in her wake, if, in fact, there's any theme at all developed, it gets lost in the flailing tentacles, body horror grossouts, and mood of general excess in the film's second half. While there is one great scene at a bar where the Soskas use a sort of freeze-frame effect to highlight the spread of the virus in the film, you never really feel that social order is threatened, or even that the plague that erupts is rabies; while we do see one or two people with froth on their lips, one of the "infected" seems to become some sort of mutant zombie, with a giant misshapen head and a stagger that out-Frankensteins Frankenstein's. Rose's armpit tentacle, too - a small, stiff, phallic prong in the original - when it finally appears, is a couple meters long and given to flailing, reminding me of the killer plant tendrils in some 60's Filipino exploitation film I saw (Brides of Blood, I think). Wriggling tentacles in horror movies generally rate down there in terms of realism with the floppy rubber bats in Hammer horror films; while generally I want to like practical effects, it's been awhile since I've seen special effects as bad as these in a contemporary film. Weirdest, there isn't even a need for the tentacle; while in the original film, it's Rose's feeding tube, all her early attacks in the Soskas' film are done simply by biting her victims, vampire-style, so when the tentacle suddenly DOES make its appearance, it's entirely of a what-the-fuck-is-THAT nature. Maybe it's meant to be campy? ...or maybe it reflects a really juvenile sense that the point of horror movies IS silly grossouts and gore, not subversive and provocative ideas and harrowing emotional experiences...? 

There are plenty of silly grossouts and gore in the film's second half, mind you, so maybe there's an audience for films like Rabid. Maybe this is some millennial's idea of fun. It certainly seems like the Soskas were having fun with this film - more than I did, to be sure. 

I mean, I still kinda want to like the idea of the Soska Sisters and their brand and their success. I don't want there to be hard feelings, particularly since the last time I saw the Soskas in person, they were toting an axe. But jeezus, I kinda wish they'd either left Cronenberg alone, or done a little bit of a better job making sure there was a point to this remake. Wasn't one that I could see. 


Saturday, August 15, 2020

Dark Horse De Palmas: Snake Eyes versus Raising Cain ("director's cut")

A post of Robin Bougie's the other week listing a "fan edit" of Raising Cain as one of his favourite De Palma's got me briefly excited to revisit that film, which I'd always considered a lesser De Palma. While it is full of the stylistic excess and Hitchcockian cinematic flourishes of his "signature" work - with no less than two sequences lifted directly from Psycho - I always found the theatrical cut - which I saw first run in the 1990's and have never since revisited, tho' I have had a DVD around of it for years - to be dramatically inert and borderline incoherent; I wanted to like it, but I didn't. The idea of a fan edit, re-sequencing the film to follow De Palma's original vision (taken from a leaked early screenplay), seemed to burst with promise and delight, and it excited me even more that De Palma had himself given the re-edit his thumbs-up, having included it as a "director's cut" on the Shout Factory blu-ray that came out a few years ago. I had ignored the release at the time, but got really excited to see it, even moreso after swapping a few messages with Robin; I quickly purchased the blu-ray, took at home, and discovered that:

a) the fan edit is indeed vastly superior to the theatrical release, becoming dramatically far more effective (and also even more incoherent, since it tells much of its story in flashback and leaps from dreams to reality in truly demanding and disconcerting ways)

b) it has one awkward transition, since there was  no cutting room material to work with (not even in De Palma's command, apparently), but otherwise does look and play like a professionally-done cut of the film (something I was actually slightly concerned about before I saw it) 

c)  it is formally one of De Palma's more interesting films, since in either cut it uses its fundamental incoherence to undermine our sense of stable identity (relevant to the theme of MPD)

d) it still is a lesser De Palma, if you want to actually be emotionally engaged by a story. I mean, I've loved Frances Sternhagen since I saw Outland in the theatres, and I love Psycho, but having an extended riff on Psycho's clunkiest scene, where the psychologist (in Raising Cain, the role played by Sternhagen) explains Norman's split personality... I just didn't need that, and unless you're the type of movie lover who is gonna get excited about riffs on Hitchcock for their own sake, it's gonna play exactly like what it is: excessively clunky exposition that bogs down any sense of human drama. It's also really, really hard to connect with some of the characters, with Lolita Davidovich - whose perspective is fronted by the new arrangement of the film - playing more of an archetype than a human being. I was curious to have seen it, was glad to watch the extras, and tip my hat to the re-editor, Peet Gelderblom, but no way is this film ever going to displace MY dark horse De Palma favourite, which is Snake Eyes. (Note that fans of Raising Cain on Facebook, including Bougie, think I'm as weird as I think they are for this choice). 

It is hard for me to defend Snake Eyes, because it's a film I love deeply, and to this day do not understand why no one else seems to. To me - besides Nic Cage being a vastly more entertaining overactor than John Lithgow - it's a fascinating portrait of innocence and corruption, America-style, with the film's formal qualities doing much to echo its themes. Cage plays an innocently corrupt, full-of-himself, unashamedly crooked Atlantic City cop named Ricky, who shakes down drug dealers, places illegal bets, brags about screwing around on his wife, flirts hornily with two other women, and boasts constantly throughout the first 13 minutes of the film, while repeatedly saying he should run for office (ha!). All the while, he grins, dances, cheers, and otherwise reveals that he really and truly does not realize that HE IS ONE OF THE BAD GUYS; he loves himself, and his life, too much to actually take this in, and somehow has been allowed to get away with this for years. The plot of the movie turns on his discovery of how compromised he is, his "I Ain't No Nice Guy" moment, and how he comes to terms with it,,, all of which is very interesting and entertaining for me, but even moreso because the first 13-and-a-half minutes of the film formally echo the unbroken flow of "innocent corruption" that has been Ricky's life up til that point, by at least pretending to be shot in one seamless, breathtaking 13-and-a-half minute long flow. Just like Ricky - form mirroring content - De Palma cheats throughout this sequence, disguising several edits in camera pans, at 2:45, 4:30, 7:22, 10:16, 11:30, and 12:45, sometimes in the process of jockeying back and forth between a character looking and what the character sees, but never so obtrusively to break from the sense of breathless, exuberant continuity. Only when the assassination attempt happens - the "here comes the pain" moment in the film, where in fast sequence a boxer fakes a knockout, a politician is shot, and Ricky in horror realizes that he has blood, literally, on his hands - only THEN do we break from the flow into a couple of quick shot-counter-shot cuts and a "god's eye view" overhead of the arena. I once, in taking George Rosenberg's History and Aesthetics of Cinema at SFU, was tasked to write about a minute of my choosing in a film, highlighting all the thematic elements present in that minute and connecting them to the text as a whole; at the time I chose a scene from Pasolini's Accatone, but if I had a chance to do the assignment again, I would pick the moments immediately before, during, and after the scene where Ricky's (and our) flow is broken and we learn that all is far from right. 

I am not, I should add, saying that I think Snake Eyes is De Palma's best movie, by any objective standard. I mean, I don't even begin to know how to measure that, though probably for overall significance and richness I'd have to give the credit to Blow Out (which was Bougie's pick for #1, and could as easily have been mine). I actually think it's kind of morally dishonest to go about proclaiming your loves as if they were the only and correct loves, as if the films you like are somehow by virtue of your liking them objectively better than the films other people like. Taste is subjective, and should be, and the less we try to compete with each other about such matters, the better the world is - y'all can love Raising Cain as much as you like, you know? But man, do I love Snake Eyes; it is subjectively my very favourite De Palma, the one I return to most frequently, the one I have the most fun watching; and it doesn't even need a fan-edit-cum-director's-cut, because it's perfect just the way it is! 

BTW, Domino, De Palma's new movie, is now on Netflix, but De Palma didn't have final cut and apparently was not involved in post-production, so, like, how good could it be? In fact, not very: I saw it the other night, and there is very little about it that impressed me; a few good set-pieces, and easier to finish than Passion, but nothing really worthy of the master. I hope he makes one or two more great movies before he retires (looking forward to his project tackling the whole Harvey Weinstein thing...). 

Unhinged: back to the movies at Landmark New West


A cruel zinger occurred to me in contemplating how to write about the new film Unhinged: that it is in some regards a remake of Duel, with Russell Crowe in the role of the truck. 

It's a nasty joke, and I hope Mr. Crowe will forgive me for abusing whatever license I may have, as a fellow Man of Girth, in poking a little fun at him. He is no longer the pretty boy of yore, and may even have a few pounds on me. But above and beyond the sophomoric jab at Crowe's heft, the observation does have some truth to it. Like Duel - Stephen Spielberg's fine debut feature, initially made for TV but available (should you have missed it) in a very attractive and affordable widescreen theatrical release blu-ray - the film is a lean and mean tale of a minor bit of conflict on the road that erupts into a life-or-death struggle between a more-or-less innocent motorist and an utter madman in a truck, bent on destruction. Unhinged does offer some framing comments about road rage and contemporary discourtesy, including disturbing and presumably real news footage, but besides this, it doesn't really attempt to draw any overt thematic, moral, or philosophical observations from its story. As with Duel, thematic elements can be teased out if you have a mind to do so - and some of the reviewers who are comparing it to Falling Down obviously have a particular political reading in mind about white folks with grievances - but it's also possible to view this as a pure thriller, a movie where any and all thematic elements are expressed solely through the plot. It's a sort of filmmaking I'm partial to, actually: a shallow movie if you are shallow, to crib from Jodorowsky, but not without depths if you're prepared to do some work.  

Unlike Duel, however, the truck is not a rig but a mere pickup, and we get to know the driver (barely glimpsed in Duel) quite well: a recently divorced white male who has (we discover in the pre-credits sequence) just murdered his ex-wife and her new suitor (?), blown up their home, and fled. Also unlike Duel, the protagonist is a woman (played by Caren Pistorius), and she's not alone in being victimized: her entirely family and even her lawyer become targets of Crowe's wrath, as tools by which he can teach her a lesson. Finally, while in Duel, it is never entirely clear what perceived discourtesy provokes the trucker's wrath, it is made abundantly clear what gets Crowe's character so mad: a really minor rudeness, but one he makes it his mission to correct, initially even attempting to do so civilly (something the trucker in Duel doesn't bother with).

Of course, there is a whole lot to be said, with or without the promptings of this film, about white male privilege and the type of man who is inclined to fly into a rage over minor things that upset him, because he presumes he has a right to do so, maybe even sees it somehow as his responsibility (wannabe Alphas have to maintain social order, after all, and occasionally that involves punishing a transgressor - very much what Crowe is doing, here). I have been that guy in the past (not, like, murdering people over stuff, but, you know, frothing a bit), though have done a reasonably good job for a few years now of keeping my temper in check (there have been maybe three episodes since I got married where I got vocally steamed at someone, and I'm kind of embarrassed by all three). There are at least two men of my acquaintance (also, interestingly, white men of girth, in their late 40's/ early 50's - failed Alphas, the lot of us) whom I have witnessed get in people's faces over minor discourtesies, where their correction of the infraction was in fact the far greater rudeness, and it's helped make me not wanna be that guy. It would be a reasonable takeaway from Unhinged for people, as they leave the theatre, to turn to one another and say, "So what is it about fat, middle-aged white guys, anyhow?" 

But as lean-and-mean thrillers go, I liked Unhinged a fair bit, and like I say, if it does contain material that facilitates that sort of discussion, it hardly beats you over the head with it. It also ends on a surprising cover of the Blue Oyster Cult (who by the by have announced their new album, The Symbol Remains, for October release). 

Alas, that's where the one disappointment comes in, and it's not with the film, but the theatre where I saw it, Landmark New West. I really, really want to support the Landmark chain, who have incredibly comfortable seats, a staff that seem a bit better prepared to do their jobs than that of Cineplex, who have been responsive and courteous when I've had feedback, and who have almost never irritated me in the ways that Cineplex sometimes can do (most recent example: I ducked out of the Train to Busan sequel at Scotiabank last week, to take a fast poop in the men's room in the one stall not closed due to social distancing, only to discover - after I had crapped, alas - that NO ONE HAD BOTHERED TO FILL THE TOILET PAPER DISPENSER. It got messy - but I kept my complaints civil, managed to salvage my underwear, and ultimately got a refund for the ticket, so whatever. I did miss more of the movie than I'd expected to!). Landmark, however, have decided as a COVID safety measure that to avoid overcrowded hallways, they will, on busy days, have announcements from staff telling people which exit to leave from, so as soon as the credits roll and the lights slam on (same as Cineplex, but I guess we have to live with that), they (suddenly and jarringly) drop the volume of the music more or less in half. That meant that my initial delight at the unexpected and ethereal Blue Oyster Cult cover was immediately replaced by irritation that I wasn't being allowed to hear it at full volume. Ironically, this was being done despite a very thin audience and NO announcements about which exit we should leave by, so it wasn't even in aid of anything. I chatted with the manager (also a man of heft, but totally civil with me, and I stayed the same with him) and got his explanation, but I made sure he understood that the sudden volume drop detracted from the experience, for me. I mean, what can I say, I am one of those people who usually stays for the credits, and sometimes can really enjoy the music that accompanies them. It's not like I'm getting to hear loud music in a live setting these days - at least let me enjoy it at the movies! 

Other than that, though, the Landmark experience is in every way nicer than Cineplex's, and rivalled in Vancouver only by the Vancity Theatre (who also have extremely comfortable seats) and the Cinematheque (whose seats are only okay, even after two upgrades in recent memory, but whose programming, as with the Vancity's, is generally exquisite). For first run commercial films, the two Landmarks - there's another right by Guildford Mall - are the nicest experiences in town, overall, and it looks like both are veering back to playing first run features (though New West also had Inception, I guess in preparation for Christopher Nolan's upcoming new SF thriller, Tenet). 

So check out Unhinged at Landmark, if you're of a mind to, and if you too are annoyed by the pointless drop in volume at the end of the movie, leave that feedback on their website. They're pretty responsive (but, like, be polite about it, lest they sic Russell Crowe on you).  

PS, oh, and if you like pasta, you can get a discount movie ticket at the Old Spaghetti Factory and make a meal-and-movie night of it, if that's what you're craving. I am not a man of girth for nothing.