Friday, July 01, 2022

Barium, Bison, and a Burnt-Out Thrift Store: a somewhat odd day for Al

All photos by Allan MacInnis, unless they are album or book covers. Not to be reused without permission!

This is a kind of long thing just sorta documenting my day yesterday. But my day was not without its interesting moments. 

After an uneventful breakfast and a cadged ride from my wife, things began at Burnaby Hospital, with the scheduled swallowing of radioactive materials so that my inner workings of tongue and throat could be x-rayed and video'd. This way, my SLP (and potentially others) can better figure out what's going on with my chewing and swallowing. Turns out that barium on its own, mixed in water, tastes like a vaguely vanilla-flavoured chalk - not vile, but not exactly yummy, either. Besides drinking it, I was also recorded on video X-ray eating barium-coated canned peaches and banana slices, butterscotch pudding with barium mixed in, and finally a little chunk of barium sandwich, which (I coulda told them) was the hardest thing for me to eat, since, without a normal tongue muscle to move it around, bread can tend to clump up in the roof of my mouth. There was some concern about aspiration, coughing, etc - but I have no idea if other than proving things that I coulda told them about, today really accomplished anything - my Frankentongue remains a Frankentongue, and there were few surprises, just a formal documentation of stuff I kinda knew. Presumably that documentation may be useful for insurance purposes, later on. My SLP did advise me that, based on what she saw, I should use beverages to help me swallow, not my airy "slurp," since the latter seems too likely to result in my inhaling food. I guess that's useful! 

Alas, I have no photos of the procedure, because the hospital had a no photos rule. All the radioactive materials made my tongue sting a bit, somewhat to my surprise, since it's on the side that has next to no nerves. It's also interesting that that's the side I tend to chew on, since you'd figure I'd have more control on the side of my mouth with my "natural" tongue. But I don't - and again, that video documented that. 

All that radioactive snacking left me a bit queasy, so - having rinsed out the remaining barium in the hospital bathroom and caught a bus to a Skytrain, thence the train to Commercial Drive, I ate at the first restaurant on my route, which was Cafe Deux Soleil - a place I don't go to often, since a musician friend of mine was once censured for an insufficiently-woke gig poster he'd designed, for a gig that he ended up cancelling. But really, I needed food ASAP.  

It was interesting enough. I have never been served by a girl in a Crass t-shirt before, ever, not even at the Cobalt or Funkys, I don't think. She didn't really care to chat about it, though. The huevos rancheros, re-named huevos angeros, for reasons unclear to me, was pretty darn good. The coffee was oddly not - cheap gutrot, unworthy of any restaurant, kind of surprising, really. Even Denny's has better coffee. It tasted less than some primo fair trade brand (which is kind of what I'd expected) than it did my in-law's uber-cheap, acidic, giant cans of MJB. Served lukewarm. No refills for me! 

Lotta SJW-type graffiti in the Deux Soleil can. I peruse, snap pics, but about my only thought about it is wondering whether the fish doodle was put there by a Flipper fan. Probably not.  What the hell is CATA, anyway?




Ted Falconi of Flipper once told a story into a tape player that I'd left on the table, when I was taking a breather from interviewing David Yow at the Astoria, about how Flipper graffiti ended up on the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, and other famous places, but the story implicated Flipper a bit, and while Yow - who had recorded the story for me while I peed or did whatever it was I was doing - probably intended me to use it, I didn't want to get Ted and Steve into trouble, so... the deets remain unprinted anywhere. 

Proceed to Audiopile, where I look for items that I can get Zander Schloss to sign at his Sunday in-store ("Is Zander on this Weirdos album?"). I gave away or sold my copy of the vinyl for Walker, sadly, because the album was full of skips, and I'd gotten the CD instead, but now I regret it, since the cover would have been GREAT for Zander to sign (he plays the Latin stringed instruments on the album, his second musical collaboration with Joe after Joe co-wrote "Salsa Y Ketchup" with him). 

Hmm, do I want to spent $42.99 on the Wild in the Streets reissue for the sake of a few added live cuts? I contemplate it, elect not to. Maybe it will be on the merch table Sunday. Maybe for less. But maybe I don't need it at all (I have the album, just not with the few live tracks tacked on to the second side. And the 20-page booklet. It could help me research if I ever talk to Keith, but... hmm).   


Then I spy something I've just never come across on vinyl before: the Black Flag My War demos, with Vancouver's favourite punk rock drummer,  Chuck Biscuits. Okay, well, it's prolly some sort of bootleg, but I'm never gonna see it again, and... yeah, no, this I can't resist (they had a copy left, note).

I notice while at Audiopile that they have Bison's Quiet Earth on the wall for a mere $60. I snap a photo and post it on Facebook, because I have friends who are Bison fans. I used to have a t-shirt of this album cover, swiped off me some ten or so years ago at Funky's while I drunkenly watched Auroch. Here I am wearing it while chatting with the Minimalist Jug Band outside Neptoon, I think, back when I had a bit more face fur...

I miss that shirt and still keep an eye out for it when I pass the street vendors on East Hastings, in case it turns up. I hope whoever wears it nowadays is worthy. My wife tried to buy me a replacement direct from the guys in the band, but they don't have it anymore. I guess Metal Blade owns the rights? Too bad.

Oddly, I also lost my other favourite Bison shirt at the Commodore, coming out of the Descendents, where James of Bison in fact had been leaping up and down using my shoulders as support when the band kicked into "Silly Girl." The pit had gotten pretty sweaty and I had another shirt with me, for some reason, so on the way out, I took off my Bison Wizard Staff shirt - previously the topic of this blogpost - and changed, putting the Bison shirt (I thought) into my bag, just soaked in perspiration. But it must have fallen out. Kinda weird that the only t-shirts I have lost - EVER, either by theft or carelessness - were for the same band. I've worn out the odd shirt, given away the odd shirt, even donated a few cool punk rock shirts to thrift stores ("Someone will be happy to find this"), but never LOST shirts by bands. Unless they were Bison shirts. 

Of course, I've never owned as many shirts by a band as I have by Bison - not even Nomeansno! - so... 

My next errand takes me to Hooked on Phono in Burnaby, a fun little record store, better for new vinyl than used, but - as they are quite far out of town - too often overlooked, which means that if you are shopping for something that was reissued five years ago - especially punk and metal - and which now is out of print, you have a better chance of finding it there than elsewhere, which was the case with the Circle Jerks' Wonderful, reissued awhile back and not in any other local store that I've found (I'd seen it last time I was there and lucked out: it stayed on the shelf waiting for me). I mean, how can I not get Zander to sign this, it's got him right there on the front cover! Maybe I can get Keith and Greg to sign it too... I never did ask Zander when I interviewed him about the "Snake" nickname/ "ironic spirit animal" or whatever that Zander is associated with on the back cover - I presume "Just Another Broken Heart for Snake" is written about him, but, well, ya miss a few, sometimes. Sounds like a biker nickname, really. it wasn't really part of his look back then, but Zander makes a pretty convincing biker, these days. I wonder if he had that "Schloss Angeles" jacket made for the video, or...?

Truth is, Wonderful is not my favourite Circle Jerks album. I don't care for a few songs on it - "American Heavy Metal Weekend" is kinda a cheap shot, and they fire a shot at the Blue Oyster Cult in it, whom I love, which makes me bristle a bit. And much as the sentiments behind "Making the Bombs" and "Killing for Jesus" are agreeable, the songs themselves don't grab me as much as, say, "Wonderful," "I and I" (written by Chris D. and Tito Larriva!), "Dude," and "Mrs. Jones," my faves on the album. "Karma Stew," one of the Zander songs on it, is pretty great, too. But I never really got hooked by "Firebaugh" (maybe because I still don't know what a firebaugh is) or "Rock House" or "The Crowd," so, unlike Group Sex or Wild in the Streets - which are 100% gold - or, say, Golden Shower of Hits, which is also almost perfect, I have not paid that much attention to Wonderful over the years. 

But it's too perfect a front cover for me not to try to get it signed, so...

On the way from the Drive to Hooked on Phono, I had passed by the smouldering ruins of Value Village. There's water streaming down the sidewalk, wreckage in the path ahead. I see some charred pages of a book on the road. Books were one of the things I used to shop for there; I actually found myself wondering whether those French editions of several Georges Simenon novels that I'd noted - thinking "Someone will want those, but I don't know who" - were ever purchased, or if they went up in smoke like the rest of the stock...? I don't think anyone got seriously hurt in the blaze - unless they inhaled some asbestos - but it's too bad about all the STUFF that got torched...



When I get close, I am sternly walked to the far side of the street by some coplike security fella who does not seem to believe I am complying with his request. "Okay, okay, I'm going, you don't have to walk with me, I know how to cross the street, man!" (I wasn't even that close to the wreckage). I used to shop there periodically, but wracking my brain, cannot recall what my last purchase there was; Value Village have been consistently raising the prices of all their books and movies and CDs and such,. so that the most expensive thrift store in the lower mainland just got more expensive. While I kind of resent their prices, even more than I resent their masquerade as a legit charity - they're a for-profit enterprise that only donate a pittance to charity - I do recognize that they served a valuable community function and were a kind of hub in the neighbourhood. Hell, I've even made plans to meet friends there ("see you in the book section"). The community has lost something, no doubt. 



My most positive associations with Value Village are from a very distant past, where you could find really cool records sometimes (like the Circle Jerks Wild in the Streets, actually, bought back in the 1980s at the Maple Ridge VV in its original incarnation near 223rd and Dewdney) but it was always interesting to see what they had. Sometimes the amusement was just in seeing how ridiculously high they could price things. There's a somewhat damaged original pressing of Quadrophenia at the Braid location that I would have bought if they'd been charging actual thrift store prices, but $19.99? That's almost what a real record store would charge, maybe more considering the split in the cover... I thought the deal was supposed to be that you saved money at thrift stores, got things for less than you would at a regular store? Isn't that the whole concept behind "thrift"...?

Not many specific recollections from the location that burned down, but I do remember one time, back in the late 1990's or so, seeing a book club edition of Stephen King's The Shining priced at $199, because they couldn't tell the book club from the first edition (very basic knowledge in the book world but, what's the expression, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing?). That was quite awhile ago, but around that time, in perfect shape - which this wasn't - the book club of that book was worth about $15, maximum; I know, because I'd bought it and flipped it a couple of times, picking it up for two bucks or so and selling it for seven or eight to a bookstore, which in turn would price it thus. There are completed eBay auctions for it at the moment for $13, $15 and up, but back then... jeezus, $199 for a tattered book club... was anyone stupid enough to buy it? 



My friends on social media are divided between suggesting that the store was set ablaze for the real estate value of the lot (some $13 million, did I see?) and that it went up accidentally as a result of a meth user in the alley making a mistake with one of those little torches. I have no idea. It does seem like there's been an awful lot of fires in Vancouver in recent years, often in areas that are itching for condos, so I understand where the mistrust comes from, in such a development-oriented and somewhat slightly corrupt city. I'm a bit skeptical - I think an arsonist would have waited until later at night, when it was less likely that anyone could get hurt, and kinda suspect that the punks and miscreants I'm friends with on Facebook have a somewhat jaundiced view of humanity, but it's a lot of asbestos-laden smoke to set into the air, a lot of stress to put on a kind of impoverished community - friends of mine in adjacent buildings were evacuated, briefly - so I hope there's an investigation.  I guess if it is done well, arson is pretty hard to prove...




Anyway, Hooked on Phono done, I satiate my thrift desire at the Gilmore Sally Ann (Richard Scarry books for my young nephew, Elvis CDs for my wife - we both really enjoyed the Baz Luhrmann film the other night - but not so much for me). I take a break from everything at a bench for a bit, enjoying the sun and the breeze, contemplating how rare it is to find a bench on the sidewalk unless it's a bus stop bench. Enrico Renz of Red Herring tells me he's written a song about a bench. I like this. This particular one is near a little parklike cluster of greenery and I enjoy sitting there, putzing with my phone, even taking a selfie...

...until a construction worker stands upwind of me and lights a cigarette.It's hard to express just how resentful I get at breathing second hand smoke, these days, having likely lost half my tongue to my smoking habit of yore. But the bench was fun while it lasted, and puts me in a gentle, observant mood. I pause to try to get a good photo of the bees on some wild clover, and make a post on Facebook about the growing evidence that colony collapses are due to neonicotinoid pesticides... I can remember my childhood, when every flower in this field would have had a bee working it... now I see a handful of honeybees, a handful of bumblebees. It's not normal, but not as sad as it would be if there were no bees at all.

It turns out the weirdness had not yet truly commenced. Checking Facebook as I ride the Skytrain from Gilmore to Commercial, I see that Dan And of Bison himself, and the author of my favourite song on it (and also my Facebook friend) actually NEEDS that copy of Quiet Earth on vinyl; turns out he'd given his last copy away, years ago, not realizing what he was doing. Audiopile had priced it at $59.99, which might seem like a lot, until you realize that a) the record sold for over $40 when it came out back in 2008, which was an unheard-of price to pay for a new record back then; and b) there are presently only two copies of it on vinyl on Discogs, only one of which will ship to Canada, which with shipping comes to over $300. Which is a bit ambitious, really, as the median is humbler - $85.78 CAD - but it's very cool that Audiopile have priced it a fair bit below the median.

Then I notice that Dan has posted a post of his own, asking if anyone he knows would pick the record up for him? It happens that I am on almost back at Commercial Drive as I see this. My feet are getting a bit sore, but I had been trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my day anyhow, so I volunteer.

This turns into a kinda silly story. I pay for the album, getting my Audiopile point-card filled, giving me $10 with which to buy a used Toxic Reasons LP that I had missed on my previous visit. I take the opportunity to peruse the stock. There are a few other cool things I pass on - the cheap CD rack has some Steve Earle, a CD of Lou Reed's Set the Twilight Reeling, and a couple of other things I contemplate ("Do I need Lou Reed's The Bells on CD?" It's only $5.99, and not a CD you see often, but I only ever play side two of the album, so...). I text a friend who is a big Burroughs fan to see if he needs Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, for $2.99... but he doesn't. 

Paying for my added purchases, I check our messages back and forth to see that Dan has asked his friend Ryan of Himalayan Bear to pick up the album off me, since Ryan will be driving out to Dan's neck-o'-the-woods soon. At that point, I've paid for the record and Dan has e-transferred me the money  (plus a tip with which I buy a Scratch Acid CD, since when was the last time I saw a Scratch Acid CD?)... but there is some sort of miscommunication between Ryan and Dan and myself and I end up cooling my jets in the store for half an hour, which Ryan does not realize I am doing  until I get his phone number from Dan and text him. CDs and LPs keep leaping out at me: Do I need Theatre of Hate's Westworld on CD? I don't listen to the LP much. But I have never even SEEN it on CD. Hm. Well, I can always give it to Bob Hanham if I decide I don't need it in two formats, I'll be seeing him on Sunday for the Circle Jerks...

I exchange enough messages with Dan and Ryan on social media that people start to comment that they are being entertained by the saga, but it has a happy ending - Ryan and I end up meeting on the street, and I get visual confirmation of his pick up so I can post it and end the story (and confirm with Dan that I just gave the right guy the record, because the whole transaction has been visible online). 

By this point, my feet are killing me and I'm happy to make it to the Skytrain, but not before popping into Spartacus Books on Commercial. I had no idea they had moved there. I have fond associations with Spartacus, since, as a 14-year old suburban punk, I bought my first issues of Open Road there, a local anarchist paper that I was interested in for coverage of the arrest and trial of the so-called Squamish Five. If memory serves, they were burned out of a location once, too, in the distant past. Or was that just a renoviction? I'm glad they still exist, but they don't have the book I ask about (Keith Morris' My Damage), so I spend nothing.

Excited about the concert(s) on Sunday. The local support has been announced: the Shit Talkers - who also play later today at the Hands in the Air festival at the Princeton Legion - will play at 8, 7 Seconds at 9, and the Circle Jerks at 10. The Zander Schloss in-store at Neptoon is earlier, at 4:30. I'm stoked. It's gonna be a great day of music. 

If only I still had that Walker soundtrack! By the by, speaking of soundtracks, Hooked on Phono had a copy of the (really good) promo soundtrack that Reg Harkema put out on vinyl for Monkey Warfare. It was never commercially available, but he brought a few copies of it to town when the film screened at the VIFF, some of which ended up in odd places, like the vinyl bin at Budgie's Burritos. $20, but I don't know anyone else who is a fan of Monkey Warfare, so I left it behind.

If you want it, go get it yourself!

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

All the Haunts Be Ours, reviewed one film at a time: Lake of the Dead

Picked a film somewhat at random from the Severin folk horror box set - only caring that it be one of many films on the set that I haven't seen before - and began watching it this afternoon. My main impression so far is, I feel like I'm watching a ghost story scripted by Agatha Christie and directed by Ingmar Bergman. I'm not enjoying it very much; while one gathers it is a somewhat hard film to see, and that Severin have done a significant thing bringing so lovely a transfer into the world, it's really just not that entertaining to someone who has long given up any pretense of seriously studying cinema. 

Lake of the Dead is a 1958 Norwegian film in which a group of friends go to a cabin that may or may not be haunted, or cursed, or so forth. There's a backstory to the place in which a recluse and his sister? lover? both? drowned in the lake, or went missing and were presumed drowned; the brother of one of the members of the party has recently been to the cabin, as well, and is now himself missing. There are a few creepy events - and eventually some death - but mostly the film is filled with people arguing about what everything means, poring over diaries and their impressions of things, trying to understand what transpires: is something supernatural afoot? Is the best explanation psychological, criminal, supernatural, or a combination of all three? 

I still have ten minutes to go in the film, before the big reveal, if there's to be one, but whatever that may be, it's a film that feels more work to get through than play, kind of like watching one of those early Bergman's that never excited me that much, but that I forced myself to watch out of a sense of responsibility ("Summer with Monika at the haunted lake"). Perhaps if I had some deep passion for Norwegian ghost stories, or a deeper-than-average interest in the way folktales and legends inform our relationship to place, it would help get me through, but as things are, I eventually just  fell asleep and had to re-watch a chunk, which is saying something for a film with such a short runtime (just over an hour and sixteen minutes). 

The film does have things going for it - it's gorgeously photographed (in black and white); it's interesting to hear Norwegian being spoken (it sounds very much like Swedish to me, hence the Bergman comparison); and for enthusiasts of SF and horror, there's one kind of neat moment where the filmmakers needed to have an ominous one-legged crow appear at the top of a tree - the same crow that appears on the box art for the set - and rather than handicapping a real crow, they used stop motion, which was kind of a pleasant surprise. It's also kind of interesting, given that the film is shot in the land of the so-called midnight sun, that it never actually gets dark - that night and day look pretty much the same; and because the film looks to have been shot with a Norwegian audience in mind, no one bothers to even remark on this (which meant that it took a minute's thinking for me to sort out what the deal was; initially I thought I was just seeing totally incompetent day-for-night, but I don't think that's the case). 

So I wanted to like it, and did take pleasure in some of its images. But part of the problem is that there are more characters than seem  necessary for the tale being told - six, not counting ghosts, flashbacks, and incidental characters like police officers; and most of them have Norwegian names - including some relatively unfamiliar ones like Bugge, Mørk, and Bjørn (who is also sometimes called by his family name, Werner). Trying to just keep the characters and story straight ("which one is Bugge? Is he the psychiatrist or the crime writer?") is slightly draining for a non-Norwegian. And I suspect part of the reason there are so many people in the film is simple sexism; the only people with perspectives or ideas are the men, so to have a good argument, there needs to be four of them, plus wives and whatnot to make it a believable vacation. The women aren't exactly just eye-candy, but nor do they participate as equals in the conversation; they're more talked about, than they are talkers, or there for emotive effect, or to have things happen to that the men can then discuss amongst themselves. I'd say at least 40 minutes of the film consists of men arguing. In Norwegian. Can you feel your eyelids growing heavy?

So, uh, cabin in the woods or no, The Evil Dead this ain't. Still, it was a good pick, because my wife is out and she would NEVER be able to make it through a film like this. It also allows me to start off my explorations with nicely low expectations; it's a cinch that whatever film from the set I watch next, I'll enjoy more than this one. Sorry, Severin! 

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Zander Schloss In-Store on Sunday! (plus Circle Jerks)

Well this is fun: Zander Schloss of the Circle Jerks is going to do an acoustic in-store at Neptoon Records prior to the Circle Jerks show at the Commodore this coming Sunday. It's not a punk rock set, but acoustic folk, and considering Zander's 40+ year career in music and film, it's really pretty easy to be completely caught up on what to expect, in case you haven't been following; and you might really enjoy the experience, if you're a Circle Jerks fan, or a fan of movies like Repo Man, Straight to Hell, or even Walker (especially the soundtrack, which makes superb use of Zander's skill with Latin stringed instruments and marks the first album-length collaboration with Joe Strummer, tho' Joe did co-write "Salsa Y Ketchup" before that)... It's free, and Zander will have copies of his solo album, which isn't in any of the record stores up here yet. You can also bring your Repo Man or Straight to Hell memorabilia or, say, your copy of Joe Strummer's Earthquake Weather (or Joe Strummer 001) for Zander to sign. It's a pretty rare opportunity, really...!

...but you might want to check out some of his music, first. Zander Schloss' first solo album, Song About Songs, is out now on Blind Owl Records; it's also on bandcamp. Part one of my interview with him is here; I am holding off on part two until we have fresh photos from Vancouver. But Zander's done something very smart - not unlike what Paul Leary did for his recent solo album: he's put out some terrific rock videos to promote the album. Probably the best one to start with is "I Have Loved the Story of My Life," which is done with marionettes, representing different iterations of Zander in film and music, from Kevin the nerd in Repo Man to Karl the Wiener Boy in Straight to Hell to his tenure in the Latino Rockabilly War with Joe Strummer to  the "punk rock Zander" of the Weirdos and Circle Jerks. The song is quite moving and reflective, expressing gratitude for the experiences that have brought him where he is. 


That's a fun video - the marionette use is brilliant - but I actually kind of prefer the mini-biker movie that he's made out of "Dead Friend Letter," a toe-tapping tune that reminds me a bit of Mississippi John Hurt, whose upbeat qualities mask a darker theme: the letter is a suicide note. Zander plays the suicide, and the film seems to be a bit of a cautionary tale. It fits in nicely with a somewhat jazzier song called "My Dear Blue," in which Zander addresses depression itself. 


There's also "The Road" and "Song About Songs," which is literally a song about songs, with a melody a bit similar to the old folk song "Long Black Veil." There's another version of that song on one of Zander's albums with Sean Wheeler, but most of the vocals on those records are by Wheeler, I believe. Zander and I didn't talk about those albums much, since there seemed to be some trouble around the way that duo fell out and not much bearing on what Zander will be doing on Sunday (tho' there are some great songs, like "Good Pussy," say). 

Y'all might want to check out "Straight to Hell," too - Zander's cover of the Clash song; or check out Zander with Joe Strummer, doing this superb version of the song with the Latino Rockabilly War. 

See, that's not so bad - you're all caught up! (Tho' you might also be amused to see how the Circle Jerks have edited Zander into their video for "Wild in the Streets.") Wait, there are still tickets available for the Circle Jerks? Really? (See my previous post about the Circle Jerks and openers 7 Seconds here). 

Friday, June 24, 2022

On George A. Romero's Season of the Witch and There's Always Vanilla


There seems to be interesting news happening for George A. Romero fans - none of it exactly cutting-edge reporting here, but some readers of my blog might not have noticed a few developments, and it pertains to a film I want to write about, Season of the Witch, so I might as well delve a little. 


The Amusement Park is now streaming on Shudder, which I don't get, but which one can try for seven days free... so that might be worth a look. It was filmed as an educational movie on elder abuse, starring the actor who played Tateh Cudah in Romero's vampire film, Martin. I know too little to comment, but its rediscovery awhile back was greeted with great enthusiasm, so I'm expecting it is quite good. It's the fifth film in Romero's filmography, made in 1975 between The Crazies and Martin.  

Of course, very few people have seen the alleged 3.5 hour long b&w alternate cut of Martin - a more recent discovery, which is undergoing restoration or digitization or somethin'. No sense of the timeline there or what plans there are for the film; I await further news, along with many other fans.



As for films that have been available for some time, but that I still haven't yet seen, there's always There's Always Vanilla, though I just watched the first few minutes of it on the b-side of the old Anchor Bay DVD of Season of the Witch. I wonder how many people are like me on this front? I have owned that disc for so long - maybe 20 years? - without ever flipping it over to see the bonus feature that my actually having watched a bit of it yesterday feels like news. Described, depending on which box art you trust, as "a romantic comedy" or "a bittersweet drama," which Romero made in-between Night of the Living Dead and Season of the Witch, There's Always Vanilla, too, was lost, I believe, for some time - or perhaps just "forgotten?" Romero himself wasn't a big advocate for the film, apparently saying it was a "total mess." 


Romero may be being unkind to his own work, here, but his dismissal of the film is one reason I haven't rushed to see it. The "messy" element  - bearing in mind that I've only seen the first fifteen minutes or so - may relate to a few trippy, associative edits that may eventually pay off in terms of meaning (but I dunno): there's a beginning that involves a balloon floating tied to some sort of flying device (?), images of which are intercut with that of some sort of perpetual motion machine operating on a city street. I had no clue what any of that was about, especially since the narration, describing the machine, actually begins during the images of the balloon, so you aren't even sure what is being talked about - is the machine the thing the balloon is attached to? What the hell is it? No, wait, it must be this machine on the street, but what the hell is that? Is this a metaphor for something? What about the balloon, why did... No, wait, now they've moved on. Will we come back to this? Will we ever see the balloon again or know what it means...? But the impression isn't one of incompetence, necessarily - it seems like it's deliberately jarring and slightly enigmatic filmmaking, a "one hand clapping" gesture, done for a reason as yet unclear to me. I'd need to see the whole film to know for sure. 

So "mess" I cannot speak to - but it seems ambitiously crafted, in fact, and actually looks a bit better and bigger-budgeted than Season of the Witch. One thing, though, is certain: it and Season of the Witch are the most dated of any of Romero's movies. Play a clip of of either film to someone with a sense of cinematic history and they'll place them in a window between 1969 and 1973. The dialogue, the photography, the editing and the acting all smack of the cinema of that era - which in a way is kind of interesting to see: with There's Always Vanilla, you kinda expect Elliot Gould to materialize, or for there to be a montage involving bubbles being blown in a park, perhaps as set to the music of BJ Thomas or Burt Bacharach. The words "groovy" may be used, or "far out." At one point I even thought I glimpsed Mark Frechette of Zabriskie Point. Between the "looking dated" and "looking like it might require some mental effort to process," the film actually looks less like fun and more like work... 

...except it seems like work that's maybe worth doing, at least if you're a Romero fan. For one thing, There's Always Vanilla stars several people from other Romero films, including Ray Laine, the charismatic actor who plays Greg, the swinging young associate professor who "balls" the protagonist of Season of the Witch. Only 52 at the time of his death, back in the year 2000 - which makes him an old-looking 20-something at the time of these films - Laine did not make many movies, with his last role being in the Peter Hyams' 1995 Die Hard "adaptation," Sudden Death - which I've seen a couple of times without realizing Laine was in it, as one of Powers Boothe's henchmen. Laine, like many of Romero's regulars, it seems, was also involved in local theatre in Pittsburgh, which makes sense, as he's a very compelling actor, in fact, who brings to mind Seymour Cassell in Cassavetes' Faces, a film that Season of the Witch periodically reminds me of (!). So he's a talented unknown, basically, but if you enjoy him in Season of the Witch - and I do - there's good reason to be curious about his earlier role...



Night of the Living Dead cast members also pop up in There's Always Vanilla: Judith Ridley, the young woman in Night of the Living Dead who is hiding in the basement with her boyfriend and the Coopers, is here under another name; there's also Russell Streiner who - besides being Ridley's husband - has a habit of turning in uncredited roles in Romero films, including Johnny in the original Night of the Living Dead - the "coming to get you, Barbara" guy - and the sheriff in the Savini remake (which I just re-visited and wrote about, here, without having recognized Streiner in it). He's directed a film of his own - there's a bit of a "Pittsburgh rabbithole" here - and worked with NOTLD co-author John Russo as a teacher at Russo's Movie Academy. 

One or two frequent Romero associates in the cast still may not make it a must-see, but looking through the IMDB, there are other familiar names. Bill Hinzman, the "first" zombie in the cemetery in the 1968 NOTLD is in there, too; Hinzman also directed his own films and had other involvement in the Pittsburgh scene, as well as a bit of a lasting career in low-budget horror. Similarly, There's Always Vanilla screenwriter Rudy Ricci directed a feature of his own called The Liberation of Cherry Janowski, which co-stars David Emge, the "flyboy" from the original  Dawn of the Dead (which Ricci appears in as a biker). These seem to be the names of cast members of There's Always Vanilla that have the largest roles in other Romero films, but several other names in the cast, if you click on them on IMDB, show actors who only have one or two other credits to their name, but they're all Romero films - including plenty of folks who were zombies in NOTLD.

The rabbithole effect when you start delving, here, feels a bit to a Vancouverite like looking through the filmography of people tied to Bruce Sweeney, for example, and how it branches out and overlaps with the careers of other filmmakers - like Carl Bessai - or actors who have had small roles in big productions and starring roles in local ones (Gabrielle Rose, Tom Scholte - himself also a filmmaker). Just like we have a local music scene, we have our on local cinema scene - and I'm guessing most major cities do, that there's nothing so exceptional about Vancouver (or Pittsburgh) that they support this sort of journey down the rabbithole. What's unusual with Pittsburgh is that, due to Romero's more widely-appreciated films, the rabbithole has a doorway, an easy access point for people like me who get curious. Night of the Living Dead leads to Season of the Witch leads to There's Always Vanilla, which in turn leads to The Liberation of Cherry Janowski (AKA The Booby Hatch) or The Devil and Sam Silverstein, then before you know it you're trying to see every movie Ray Laine or David Emge or Ann Muffly acted in...  which is actually kind of doable, in the sense that there are only one or two other titles in their filmographies, in some cases, but on the other hand, is also kind of impossible, because... how are you going to see those films, which probably never came out on VHS, aren't on Tubi, and probably aren't ever going to come out on DVD or blu, even if prints of them still exist somewhere...?
Maybe that's another reason I've resisted There's Always Vanilla, because I sense that if I got into it as the next logical step in my interest in Romero's  horror output, it opens the door to a bunch of other movies that are going to be hard to track down and not necessarily shed that much light on the movies I'm actually interested in (the horror films Romero made up to Monkey Shines). Except There's Always Vanilla is actually directed by Romero, and not only has familiar names in the cast and crew, it also seems to make some commentary on the media, a theme which is actually present (most visibly in Dawn of the Dead, of course) throughout Romero's films, where radio and television always play some role... 

So maybe it's time to watch that. I'd really just rather re-watch Season of the Witch, however - which you can see for free (with commercials, just like the good ole days) on Tubi... because that film is very interesting, very rich, and while it is clearly very low budget (and dated), it's quite potent from a number of different angles. Romero apparently described it as feminist horror film; I've actually called it as much myself. 

The film isn't perfect. It has some of that "dated" early 70's feel I mention above. It also looks quite low budget - because it was, which means not all of its more "daring" elements, like its somewhat surreal dream sequences, are executed as effectively as one might like, feeling at times like the elements in them have been chosen in part based on what could be conveyed cheaply ("and to show her frustrations with her marriage, we'll have her walk behind Jack on a forested path and have her getting hit by the branches that he bends back" - inventive stuff, really, and effective if you make the decision to ride with it, but its the sort of invention that is borne of humble means, and these also show through. Not everyone has an easy time with cheap-looking cinema!). 

And it's not just a question of execution. I know there are Wiccans out there who take exception to a scene where the main character of the film - a dissatisfied housewife who gets involved with a coven and finds her life changing - writes the Lord's Prayer backward as part of a conjuration; the confusion between Satanism and Wicca irks them, and stands out, since so many of the other ritual elements aren't that far off the mark. Romero gets so much right, he deserves to be faulted when he gets something quite wrong.


And while there are some truly fine performances - Ray Laine being one of them, but also Ann Muffly, pictured above in the role of Shirley - the lead actress, Jan White, is somewhat stiff throughout. It's not entirely inappropriate to her character, as a stifled housewife trying to embrace her repressed sexual side, but she still comes across as kind of pinched, squinty and mean, no matter what part of her character arc we find her on, not because of anything she does, but just from how she seems to look - some people just have cold faces! We want her character to succeed because of the nature of the journey she is on, from repression to self-expression, and recognize that her journey is meant to have analogues with our own - she is very clearly the protagonist, and we accept her as such - but it's not because we ever really like her or like to watch her. It doesn't even look like her image on the poster - I'm pretty sure that the marketers ditched their lead and used Joedda McClain, who plays White's daughter, even though she is a very minor character with an even smaller filmography than White.


White's chilliness is not improved by putting her alongside Laine and Muffly, who are very likeable, warm and watchable, even if they at times are antagonistic characters, and almost approach scenery-chewing levels of Cassavetean intensity in one key scene (the "Faces" moment, where Greg tricks an already drunk Shirley into thinking she's smoking a joint, and she lets loose). Setting White's character alongside such emotive fireworks only underscores the actress' own lack of expressiveness and risks getting us to root for the wrong people. In the end, much of White's transformation, from stifled housewife to self-confident, sexually self-possessed occultist, seems to be handled not through acting, but via costume, hairstyle, and makeup, reminding me of that scene in Point Break where Kathryn Bigelow gets a character to comment on the emotions we're meant to be seeing in Keanu Reeves' quite blank face, like the wardrobe changes were pushed further to compensate for a lack of a sense of the character herself changing. None of it is enough to ruin the film - and I'm very conscious that Jan White is still alive and might read these words - but, sorry, Season of the Witch kind of succeeds despite White's performance, not because of it. 

Doesn't matter. The remarkable things about the film are truly remarkable. That Cassavetes moment - you have to see it (and have seen Faces) to understand - taps into female anger at aging, at being "over the hill," in a way that one very seldom sees encountered in cinema (in fact, the only other analogues I can think of are Opening Night, another Cassavetes, and possibly Fassbinder's Angst vor Der Angst, though the enemy there is more domesticity and marriage than it is aging, if I recall). Maybe if I watched more female-directed dramas about middle aged women, I'd see more of it, but generally with mainstream filmmaking in America, the theme of women aging seems almost a taboo area, like there's more of an effort to DENY the effects of aging than there is to confront and foreground them (the day will come when even Scarlett Johansson has wrinkles and grey hair, but Hollywood will take pains to hide them for as long as humanly possible; now 37, she'll be playing characters in their 30's until she's well into her 50s, probably - longer if she gets work done). This willingness to speak the unspeakable and delve into emotionally uncomfortable waters, and to really push a performance in the name of so doing, seems to belong more to live theatre than cinema - especially so given that the scene in question, the "fake pot-smoking" lingers in the same set, Joan's living room, for a very long time... It would be pretty easy, in fact, to do a stage version of this film, given its economy of locations...


There's also a very striking masturbation scene. It's not subtle - very little in Romero is subtle, ever - but it sure is memorable: White's character, said housewife - returns home unexpectedly, having told her daughter and Greg (Laine) that she's taking Shirley (Muffly) home and will probably stay over. Nikki, her daughter (played, as I say, by the very able Joedda McClain, who is good enough in the role that it's surprising to realize it's the only thing she ever did, filmwise), told she and her boyfriend have got the house to herself, does what any 20-something year old woman would do, and takes Greg to bed. When Joan (White's character) returns home, she hears them fucking, but having nowhere else to go - she and Shirley have had a fight - goes quietly upstairs to her bedroom. It's bad enough that she lies there in silence listening to her daughter's moans, but Romero - in one of his most potent bits of filmmaking - pushes the scene further, and cuts between Joan lying on the bed, beginning to explore her body, to images of an almost demonic-seeming bull statue overlooking the bed (the film makes excellent use of knickknacks, also including a mischievous figure on a lamp who "watches" during Joan's first attempt at ritual, which I put a screen cap of at the top of this post). Of course there's also a storm blowing outside, billowing curtains, dramatic thunderclaps, etc (like I say, not subtle stuff). The scene builds to a dramatic, uh, climax, whereupon the daughter bursts in the room and angrily demands of her mother, "How long have you been here?"


Just on the strength of that one scene, you can see why there was an attempt to distribute the film as softcore porn. Hungry Wives is an awful title, unfair to the richness of the film and much less clever than Jack's Wife, the other alternate title - but it's not actually entirely unwarranted by the plot of the film. Joan IS a hungry wife, and the plot of the film does revolve around an older, frustrated housewife seducing a younger man - so, well, you can see what the sleaze-merchants were thinking. I don't know if extra material was added to the Hungry Wives cut - there's very little nudity in the film, and it's quite hard to imagine anyone masturbating to it, unless the idea of being watched by a demonic bull figurine turns you on...


And in fact, aside from (obviously) The Graduate, which Romero deliberately riffs on a couple of times, about the only other film that I can readily recall where I've seen a film where a mother and daughter compete for the affections of the same man is, in fact, a porno called If My Mother Only Knew - one of the more character-driven porn films out there, wherein Honey Wilder - having spied on her daugher (Amber Lynn) having sex with her boyfriend (Tom Byron), ends up seducing him, whereupon, in true hardcore fashion, Amber "pays her back" by fucking her stepdad (John Leslie). Probably there are other pornos - I haven't seen the Taboo series - that have a similar plot; I'm personally kind of disturbed by the sheer volume of incest-themed or step-parent themed porn out there, so forgive my lack of expertise in these matters. All I can say is, while - in Season of the Witch - there is nothing remotely arousing about watching Joan bring herself to orgasm while listening to her daughter and the man that Joan will herself later have an affair with, it's still one fucked-up, memorable, transgressive scene, maybe the greatest-ever female masturbation scene in a horror film (why is there no Academy Award for that?). From the moment Joan enters the front door, you watch the film in building suspense: Oh, God, she can hear them... oh God, she's going up the stairs... oh, God, she's lying on the bed... oh, God, she's not going to... Oh, God, yes she is! Erika, watching the film with me, was very unsettled by it, too. It does make one wonder what it might have been like if the film had been made by someone who actually WAS interested in transgressive pornography - Zebedy Colt, say, one of the few genuinely interesting porn filmmakers I've encountered. (I am happy to see that my article on Zebedy Colt from a few years ago has had over 1000 views. Happy to be of service, folks). 



I'm going to leave the rest of the film mostly unremarked upon, in the interest of being spoiler-free. I won't write at length about parallels with films like Dancing in the Dark (no, not the von Trier film, but a moving Canadian film about a stifled housewife) or The Soft Skin (mostly about a businessman having an affair, but his wife gets to, um, assert her point of view at the end), though they do have a bearing (Truffaut fans have now been spoilered, I guess, but don't read further if you didn't get the reference). And to some extent, I *can't* really sum up what the film all means, anyhow, because though on the level of story everything resolves quite dramatically, on the level of theme, I'm left with more questions than answers (not in such a way as to be unsatisfying, but enough that I'd be risking being corrected if I chose too narrow an interpretation; Romero may not be subtle, but he doesn't mind a bit ambiguity). Is Romero on the side of Greg after their final romp, complicit in ridiculing Joan for making a big mumbo-jumbo mystery out of something that Greg himself tells her is "just balling, lady"...? He certainly could be - he allows viewers to take that position, to be sure - but it need not be the only position audiences are invited to inhabit. Is Romero quietly mocking Joan at the end of the film, hinting (okay, maybe a bit subtly) that she's traded enslavement to her husband in for a sort of figurative enslavement to the coven - or is he on her side, happy that she's found a healthier, more fulfilling (if somewhat weirder) way of relating to the world? (Are we supposed to read her as empowered, or lost? She does seem quite a bit happier in the film's final moments than she is at the outset). Her social status and self-comfidence definitely improve as a result of her interest in occultism, too, but is there a bit of skepticism on Romero's part about the uses of witchiness among bored housewives to elevate ones social status and/or sense of self-worth? Is he hinting that she's more interested in jockeying for position amongst her peers than she is genuinely interested in magic? And do Joan's nightmares of a demonic intruder continue after the film's startlng (but in hindsight inevitable) climax, or are they ultimately resolved by it...?
 
I suspect different people will have different takeaways, depending on what they make of the topic of witchcraft, but they're all provocative questions. I admire that Romero is careful enough in how he frames them to not tip the scales too far when it comes to privileging any one reading of the movie; even if he isn't letting the coven or Joan off scot-free, even if he does have at least some skepticism about Joan's journey,  I do think Season of the Witch is easily properly described as a feminist film, just in terms of the issues it brings to the screen. Sometimes the value in a work of art is not in what it says, but the conversations it inspires afterwards. And it is easily as interesting and rewarding as either The Crazies or Martin. It might even be my favourite of the three.   


But a final scene needs remarking on. I utterly love that the use of Donovan's song "Season of the Witch" is reserved for only one scene in the film, where Joan goes shopping. Having acquired the rights to the song presumably means that Romero could have used it elsewhere - but mostly he settles for bloopy, bleepy avant-garde electronica for his score, safeguarding the impact of the moment when the song kicks in. And seriously, how many horror movies make a noteworthy set-piece out of a woman going shopping? Shopping is another one of those aspects of daily life that is hugely significant to self-expression, to self-realization, even to education (I've learned easily as much about culture from clerks at video, book, and record stores as I have from formal study). We're all lost in the supermarket, these days. But as important as shopping is, though, it somehow is very seldom represented in realistic terms in genre film. I actually kind of feel excitement during the shopping scene, which the music intensifies; watching Joan select potions and tools for ritual feels a bit like I might, browsing the stock at Videomatica or Red Cat...

Season of the Witch does have its issues.The Arrow blu seems to be a significant improvement, if the stills at DVDBeaver are any indication; certainly they put Jan White right where she belongs on the box art, and amplify her scary aspects a bit. But it doesn't seem quite so big an improvement for me to want to invest $45 or so on the upgrade. Anyone looking for a Christmas gift idea for me should note that I also don't have the blu-ray of the original Romero version of The Crazies, either - I'm generally slow to upgrade when it comes to movies that just never looked all that good to begin with, where your final comment will be, at best, "it still looks pretty bad, but it's an improvement over the previous version." But if you don't own any version of the film - well, there's always Tubi, but I highly recommend checking it out by SOME means... because whatever its issues, ultimately, it's just great.