Friday, May 29, 2009

DOXA Preview: Frederick Wiseman's Welfare

All stills from Frederick Wiseman's film Welfare provided by Zipporah

I met Frederick Wiseman - seeming wry, patient and slightly tired - when he introduced a screening of his first, most famous, and most controversial film, 1967's Titicut Follies, last year at the Pacific Cinematheque. The first of many films of his to query American social institutions, Titicut Follies deals with the horrifying conditions at Bridgewater State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Massachusetts, which are presented in black and white, with no narration and no direct address of the camera, as is the case with all of Wiseman's documentaries. It has moments that are very difficult to watch - like the forced feeding of an unresponsive patient by stuffing a tube up his nose, images of which are intercut with footage from the same patient's subsequent funeral; patients being made to strip or to answer extremely personal questions by highly clinical doctors; being teased in the bath and hectored by the somewhat hardened staff; and so forth. These images all leave the viewer squirming, as do the unheeded protestations of a very rational-seeming patient that he is in the wrong place and that being in the institution is making him worse. Scenes of guards taunting a naked male patient, Jim, who stomps about in his cell with genitals dangling, led to accusations of invasion of privacy, and complex conditions were placed on screenings of the film that limited access to it for years. It is one of the most confrontational of Wiseman's films - and the one where his criticisms of the institution in question seem most damning - so it's no real wonder it garnered a strong reaction, though it is hard to fathom how it could be suppressed because of matters of privacy - a strange decision, to say the least.
I rather wasted an opportunity to talk with Mr. Wiseman when he was here, alas: a friend had asked me to see if there were any way to acquire a cheaper copy of the Titicut Follies DVD than was sold on Wiseman's website, Zipporah Films (Wiseman, like my cinematic hero John Cassavetes, has taken to distributing his own work). My brief chat with him was concerned primarily with this relayed request, with the director remarking, somewhat scandalized, that the price was "only $34.95!" - a reasonable price. Indeed, the DVDs on his site - his entire documentary output is now available on DVD, I believe - are a very good value, given their richness (though a few are available at Videomatica and perhaps Happy Bats and Black Dog, if you'd prefer to rent).
While Wiseman's later films are less polemical in tone than Titicut Follies, they are all extremely revealing and willing to look at things we most often shy away from, from the conditions affecting workers and livestock in slaughterhouses, in Meat, to the horrors of high school - one of the most lied-about and cinematically misrepresented aspects of North American life. Since I am only a recent convert to Frederick Wiseman's cinema (having viewed four of his films to completion), I cannot write authoritatively about his work, but I would like to attempt to explain briefly why Welfare, screening Saturday at the Vancity as part of DOXA should count as essential viewing for at least some of my readers.

It may not be readily apparent why this should be so. If you've stood in line at a welfare queue - and I have, at a very different time in my life - you know how demoralizing it is, how frustrating the bureaucracy attached to the application process can be, and how humiliating and maddening the rather disdainful attitude of the staff is at such offices - people whose capacity for kindness and even civility has, in many cases, been thoroughly burned out of them by incessant exposure to rude, hostile, dishonest, depressed and/or debased examples of the human species. You may not feel the need to experience the same for three hours in a movie theatre, especially if we note that applying for welfare benefits in BC is like being pampered and massaged at a spa, when compared to the experience of applying for said benefits in New York in the early 1970's, when this film was shot. Indeed, unlike here - where, after a certain amount of humiliation and self-disclosure one eventually does get funds, however meagre - one gets the impression that at Manhattan's Waverly Welfare Centre, people are only ever shuffled about from one department or address to the next, invited to testify at a "fair hearing," denied their claims because of some odd Catch-22 or technicality, or told to come back on Monday. Indeed, throughout Welfare, though there is talk of cutting cheques for a few of the many applicants we see, the only concrete "benefit" that I recall seeing anyone receive in the film is the water from a drinking fountain where an old lady pops her meds. The term "Kafkaesque" tends to appear in descriptions of the way the office runs in the film, for good reason.
It is precisely the strong emotions that the process of applying for such forms of assistance tends to invoke that make watching Wiseman's Welfare as rewarding as it is, however. There is no way, in life, to be objective about so unpleasant an experience as applying for state aid, especially when one is observing it from within. The applicants are likely either humiliated or defensive; the workers bored or apprehensive; and the general attitude of distaste for such circumstances (where some must debase themselves by asking for help, and others by the nature of their job must sometimes be "unkind" and refuse it) makes all concerned want to get through transactions as quickly and easily as possible, without having to grapple too much with things one would rather not see, feel, or acknowledge. There is little opportunity to be a "fly on the wall" in such offices, little opportunity to sit and watch the human dynamics at work at any length, let alone to abstract from them. Imagine being able to spend three hours at a welfare office, invisibly observing - without any need to account for yourself or interact with anyone there, so that you could comfortably reflect on the human behaviour you behold, without having to shield anyone from embarrassment or reaction. This is something like the experience that Welfare offers its viewers - one I found compelling and rewarding.
This is not to say that Welfare is somehow an "objective" representation of the reality of what transpires at a welfare office, however; though it is not a simple matter - Wiseman has said, "I don’t like to hit people over the head with a message, because if I could say what the point of view of the film is in 25 words or less, I shouldn’t make the film" - he does have a point of view, and his filmmaking reflects that. For the most part - with the exception of a confrontation between a white racist and several black police officers - Wiseman appears to be thoroughly allied with the applicants; even in the case of one couple, who appear to be "working the system" (being caught in a couple of lies and obfuscations during an interview), the fact that they may be hustling for money they really don't need or deserve doesn't outrage him or us (or indeed the worker interviewing them, who, one senses, is "on to them," but doesn't much mind, since their papers are in order). In fact, this young couple creates one of the strongest narrative threads that guides us through the film, being shown at least four times - during their initial "hustle"/interview near the beginning of the film, where they are promised a cheque and told to visit a different floor of the building; once about fifteen minutes later, apparently looking for the office where they are supposed to go; again after another hour or so has elapsed, waiting, bored and listless; and again, at the end of the film - still waiting, having received nothing for their efforts, which is how the film leaves them.
My hope had been to get a couple of questions answered by Mr. Wiseman, whose current shooting schedule (he is making a new film in Europe) did not allow him to answer in time; primary among them, I was curious to what extent he manipulated his material when editing Welfare, just to get a concrete sense of his method. The appearance of this couple "popping up" throughout the film produces the effect that everything we are seeing is shot in one day, and that events we've seen have transpired more or less in real-time, as we watched; in fact, the film (or so I read in 5 Films By Frederick Wiseman, in the introduction to the transcript of that movie) was shot over a four week period. It seems reasonable to assume that the footage of this young couple was all filmed on the same day, but then rearranged and intercut with material filmed at other times, to produce the time structure that is presented to the viewer (which would thus be completely artificial - an artefact of Wiseman's editing choices). Such manipulations seem well within the range of Wiseman's apparent methodology as an artist; he has said that his films are "based on un-staged, un-manipulated actions," but that "the editing is highly manipulative and the shooting is highly manipulative... What you choose to shoot, the way you shoot it, the way you edit it and the way you structure it... all of those things... represent subjective choices that you have to make... All aspects of documentary filmmaking involve choice and are therefore manipulative. But the ethical ... aspect of it is that you have to ... try to make [a film that] is true to the spirit of your sense of what was going on. ...My view is that these films are biased, prejudiced, condensed, compressed but fair." (Quoted in the Wikipedia article on Wiseman, from Nick Poppy's Salon interview with him.)
What we have, then, in Welfare, is not merely a "document" of a day at a welfare office, but a subtle, perceptive, and rich work of art, drawing on real footage to express the artist's perception of the same. It may not be the best film to start ones relationship with the cinema of Frederick Wiseman - I'd recommend Titicut Follies, for that purpose, because it's such a striking and powerful debut - but the opportunity to see it screened is valuable indeed, and one that anyone unfamiliar with the work of Wiseman should take advantage of. It screens Saturday, May 30th -tomorrow - at the Vancity Theatre at 2:30 PM.
Thanks to the staff at Zipporah for their assistance with this article. Note, also, that if you missed out on seeing any films at DOXA, there will be screenings of festival favourites on Sunday - I believe one can check their website for more.

Frederick Wiseman, provided by Zipporah.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

DOXA Preview Three: In a Dream

I don't always give positive reviews to films, y'know? It's not that I'm easy. I gave a pretty negative review to Ron Mann's Know Your Mushrooms a few months ago; though I have respect for Ron Mann, have admired some of his films, and am interested in mushrooms, I thought the film was overly reliant on anecdotes, lacking serious educational content, and a tad silly and facile -- and I said so at some length. Normally, when it comes to art and music, I *do* try to write about stuff that I actually like, especially on this blog -- but if I'm asked to review something and don't care for it, I say so (or simply decline to do the review).

However: I've previewed four films for this year's DOXA festival, and all have been excellent - engaging, entertaining, and memorable. I'm recommending all of them, but not because of any payola-moochin', ass-kissin', favour-curryin' ulterior motive (it's not like DOXA is buying advertising space on my blog; no one is!). You still have a chance to see American Swing, by far the horniest and funniest of the bunch, tomorrow night; and on Saturday, there will be a screening of Frederick Wiseman's film Welfare, which I will be writing about at greater length in the next couple of days. (If you don't know Wiseman's work, you should check this out). Another film that I haven't yet reviewed, that may well be of interest to my blog followers, is In A Dream (official site here), a lovely but at times painful documentary about a singular American artist, Isaiah Zagar, who has decorated much of his South Philedelphia neighbourhood with elaborate mosaics - stunning to behold and a tourist attraction (his official site includes a map of his work and several images of it).

Isaiah and Julia; photo from the In A Dream website

In A Dream is shot by Isaiah's youngest son, Jeremy Zagar, and covers some harrowing ground indeed. Isaiah Zagar has difficulties with reality, both due to mental illness - he describes himself at one point trying to pull off his penis and testicles - and due to the fact, it seems, that he is an extremely sensitive and perceptive man possessed of considerable vision, who thus realizes that much that passes for "reality" these days is in fact insane, pernicious horseshit. (This in turn contributes to what his wife, Julia, describes as "delusions of grandeur" and what he himself describes as an addictive relationship to his work). Some of his troubles are in the past - like his suicide attempt at age 29; some of them were happening during the period when the film was being made, like his split with his wife or his older son's struggles with addiction. Through it all, we gather, art has been a coping mechanism and a source of identity and joy for the elder Zagar, who appears to be remaking the world - or at least his corner of it - to suit his vision of things, as artists are wont to do.

Jeremy Zagar approaches his subject with a gentle, dreamlike aesthetic that lends a certain artful unreality to proceedings - how, perhaps, he imagines his father perceives the world; it makes the film quite lovely to watch. There are passages I was not very comfortable with - there's something a bit strange and vaguely objectionable about a son documenting his mother and father breaking up, for public consumption, and I would have frankly been more interested in hearing about Isaiah's relationship to his work than seeing real-time documentation of his failings as a man. But the film was compelling throughout, and reveals something about the troubled relationship of the artist to the world that I don't recall having seen so honestly laid bare.

I really don't have that much else to say about In A Dream - but if you're someone who needs to see it, I've probably already said enough. It screens tomorrow at the Cinematheque.

I'll have one more entry, about Frederick Wiseman's Welfare, up in the next few days. Hope at least some of you are enjoying the festival...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

DOXA Preview Two: The Dungeon Masters

Note: after having put this up last night, to get it into the world, I decided that I wanted to re-think portions of the review. So it's been re-written and, towards the end, substantially changed.

I have never quite understood Dungeons and Dragons, or any other form of "role playing" - in the SCA, S&M, or what-have-you. There's some base level of discomfort with the idea of "lets-pretend" that I cannot wholly explain, which may reveal more about me than about D&D (which is surely no weirder than, say, Zombiewalks, which I have participated in most gleefully). As a child, I role-played often; I can remember "leading" a group of kids at the Glenwood Elementary jungle gym during recess through a make-it-up-as-you-go storyline called Dinosaurs on Mars, where we were the crew of a Star Trek-like spaceship evading prehistoric beasts while completing missions. I cannot remember any of the narratives we created - or even if there were any really "developed" stories - but I do remember being the captain of the ship, sitting atop wooden structures in the playground and shouting out to my crew to "Look out for that allosaurus!", for instance. This all seems like normal, healthy, and creative behaviour for five year old children to indulge in, but somehow, for adults in their 20's - or 30's or 40's - to invest significant amounts of their time in variants of such behaviours now seems to me to be suspect and wrong. Perhaps I fear that if I embrace such returns to childhood, some schoolyard bully will come along and beat me up? ...Whatever it is, it hits me at a gut level, which I then try to rationalize in any number of ways, usually by reference to perceived flaws on the part of the role-players: "These are social failures who have not been able to realize their perceived identities in the real world, and are resorting to make-believe as a way of making themselves feel better about themselves," and so forth; I'm sure you've heard this sort of thing before. But the fact may be that I simply don't have the courage or creativity to participate in such activities; I would be too embarrassed, too inhibited to even know where to begin, and if I actually found myself enjoying it, I would probably freak out and quit...

The Dungeon Masters, it turns out - playing at DOXA on the 26th - is the perfect D&D film for an ambivalent but curious outsider. It's directed by Keven McAlester, director of the very interesting doc on Roky Erickson, You're Gonna Miss Me, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in music, mental illness, psychotherapy, or dysfunctional family dynamics. Like that film, it manages to be quite fond of its subjects, while occasionally squinting quizzically at them, and sometimes openly chuckling. (Indeed, there are moments in The Dungeon Masters that are laugh-out-loud funny - like footage of a perfectly costumed Star Wars Stormtrooper exiting a bathroom stall at Gen Con, the role playing games convention that the film begins with, where McAlester met two of the three gamers he focuses on). The film isn't a history of D&D, and doesn't even do much to explain how the game is played; it mostly shows three different Dungeon Masters doing what they do, while sketching out their personal lives away from the world of gaming.

Like me, McAlester is an outsider to D&D, which has made some people within the gaming community skeptical about the movie; one gamer who reviewed the film found McAlester particularly unkind to two of the three gamers he focuses on, Richard Meeks and Elizabeth Reesman. There is probably some truth to this, insofar as I found both of them, as depicted by the film, quite unsettlingly strange, initially. Meeks, who - well-groomed and neat and possessed of a melodious, slightly femme speaking style - initially presents as gay, is gradually revealed to be a rather perversely sadistic Dungeon Master and a nudist (he's also an Army reservist and a convert to Judaism). The child of a broken home, he talks about the abruptness with which he walked out of his first marriage, and we are left to wonder just how happy his second marriage may be. (His current wife, Karen, says she finds gaming "a little strange" and rather boring). He appears to end games or kill off gamers with the same abruptness with which he left his first wife, chuckling at the thought of setting impossible challenges for his players, flat-out wasting them in a Sphere of Annihilation, or petulantly withdrawing as a Game Master when he tires of his players' quarrelling. Reesman, too, also seems to have difficulty in relationships, describing herself as a "drama attractor" who doesn't date well; she lives out the majority of her social life online, and her attraction to the matriarchal Drow Elf character she plays (and dresses as, when acting as a Dungeon Master at Gen Con or attending LARPs) seems tied to her men issues. Her decision to get into full-body Drow makeup - while definitely visually striking and even, in a very disturbing way, quite sexy - certainly crosses my threshold between "normal" and "weird," both compelling and repelling me at the same time (though as the film progresses one comes to accept it as simply an aspect of her life). Gamers who bristle at the cliche that they are "socially maladapted" types will probably not relish being represented by Reesman and Meeks in this film (and indeed, Reesman and Meeks may have their own issues with the way they are depicted).

(Elizabeth Reesman in costume, courtesy of DOXA; note that she even colours the part in her hair)

McAlester is kinder to his third subject, and the one, we gather, he got to know best, Scott Corum (who does not appear to have a website). Scott openly confesses to a level of social awkwardness as a youth that fuelled his interest in role-playing, which he admits to having gotten into "a little too deeply" at some points. Now a middle-aged father, Scott is shown trying to keep his creativity alive and to pay the bills and look after his family; his various career choices not having panned out - he's a trained hypnotherapist, for one, but couldn't find any work in the field - we see him working on a fantasy novel and plotting a self-promotional venture in the role of Uncle Drac, whose "repeated failures as a supervillain" have led him to a gig hosting a cable access talk show. There's heartbreakingly sweet footage of Scott playing with his son; he remains sympathetic during the odd bickering session with his wife (who must surely just want him to "get a real job"); and he tells many enjoyable and engaging stories (here's hoping that the tale of his experiences getting a vasectomy, left out of the film, makes it as an extra on the DVD). While hardly a prototype for success or maturity, he's a reasonably attractive and likable character, and makes it safe to be curious about D&D and role playing, insofar as he seems more-or-less normal.

Scott Corum in The Dungeon Masters, still provided by DOXA

Aside from any issues of whether it is entirely fair to Meeks, Reesman or Corum - because like Erroll Morris' Gates of Heaven or Chris Smith's American Movie, it does seem willing to laugh at its subjects a little - what The Dungeon Masters does really well is to use the stories of these three gamers to paint a portrait of an America where people's inner experience of ourselves - fuelled by fantasy and desire and delusion and the subjective experience of our own importance - diverges considerably from and competes with a far more mundane reality: the reality of the social roles that we all must play, of our jobs, business dealings, of our marriages and families and our responsibilities to others, who often don't care in the slightest how we "really" experience ourselves, as long as we fulfill our roles. As we watch yet another of Reesman's relationships fail, or watch Meeks reject yet another surrogate family, or see Scott find yet another failure waiting at the end of years of labour, the film becomes quite poignant, and by the end, whether we've judged them as weirdos or not, we wish all three well in their ongoing "quests" to fully bring their precious, unique selves into the world, by whatever means necessary. "I think, anybody that you dig into their lives, it becomes atypical," McAlester observed when his film screened at the 2008 TIFF, and one senses that he's right; our ability to identify with these gamers by the end of the film suggests that on some level we must be no less strange, no less human...

I think anyone interested in role playing and D&D (or who enjoyed You're Gonna Miss Me, which is tonally quite similar to The Dungeon Masters) would find much to think about with this film, and much to enjoy. Go with friends; you'll want to talk about it afterwards. (If you're a gamer, you may wish to strap on some armour before making it to the theatre, since there will be a few barbs thrown in your direction...).

The Dungeon Masters plays Tuesday at 9PM at the Vancity Theatre

French for Sled Dogs at 1067: errata and a mini-interview!

Well, do I feel like an idjit now. Fond of Tigers guy Stephen Lyons doesn't play guitar for French For Sled Dogs, he plays drums; I realize now that I've likely already been told that by Chris Albanese - the man whose conception the unit is, and the actual guitarist. I've chatted with Chris on a few occasions, but hadn't made it to one of his shows until tonight. Albanese explained via email that he "had been looking for months for someone to start this with. I asked Stephen if he knew anyone, he gave me a few names, nothing came of it. I saw him at an art opening and he offered to play the drums. I had heard him in Dixie's Death Pool, but it just had not occured to me at the time to ask him, because he seemed kind of busy..."

Chris Albanese and Dave Chokroun, by Femke van Delft. Not to be used without permission.

The project is terrific. Dave Chokroun quipped "the wrath of math" at one point; I was kinda thinkin' "the Melvins go prog." Intense, involuted amplified acoustic guitar noodlin's and cleaver-chop chords from Albanese; Dave permuting loping electric basslines and perversifyin' them into - well, different loping electric basslines; Lyons alternately channeling Billy Martin (in terms of how he sounded) and a young John Wright (in terms of how he looked). Lyons was pleased to hear that I thought he acquitted himself just fine as a drummer, saying, "that means I have you fooled, as well" - though he also drums for Books & Branches, Cloudsplitter, Dixie's Death Pool, and D Trevlon, none of which have I heard. I wasn't really able to make out what Julian Gosper, on electronics, was doing, but then, I'm never quite sure what Martin Swope or Bob Weston are up to for Mission of Burma, either, unless the rest of the band quiet down so I can hear their contributions; my ear for electronics in live band contexts is simply not that sharp.

French For Sled Dogs are focussed and intense without being bugfuck; "math rock," as Chokroun had called them, is not an appellation that I immediately get excited about, since at times it suggests music that makes my head hurt, but there was a freedom in what French For Sled Dogs did at 1067 that kept things from getting too cerebral or manic. It was very easy to close my eyes and just listen (or to watch them; Chokroun seems to play electric bass with his jaw, or at least his lips, slightly off-kilter, something I don't recall noticing when he drums or plays his more regular acoustic bass). "I think that we play the music that I write in an organic way," Albanese tells me. "Before the guys agreed to play in the band, I usually explained that it would be some written music and some improvised. As for what I write, I would say atonal, strong rhythms and a specific mood. The guys write their own parts, unless I have a more specific idea for the rhythm section. That way it is more democratic..."

I asked Albanese about the origins of the name "French For Sled Dogs," which seems to oscillate between two different readings - the French word for "sled dogs," and, say, Berlitz instruction for huskies working in northern Quebec. Albanese directed me to Stephen Lyons, since Lyons came up with it. "The vibrating meaning between the two options is the very reason for the name," Stephen tells me. "I'm attracted to those intersections of meaning where misunderstanding is highly possible. Most people ask 'well, what IS French for 'sled dogs?' wanting to hear some French term, but fewer picture a husky sitting at a cafe, pawing through his vocab book, cramming for his coffee order..."

Lyons reports Fond of Tigers will be undertaking a tour in June, climaxing with their performance at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival with Mats Gustafsson (who now has his own website!). With luck, French For Sled Dogs will play again in town before then (and maybe use the recordings from 1067 online somewhere so I could link to'em). I'm not always wild about what I see at 1067 - since sometimes I feel like I'm watching people jam in their practice space (which, depending on the musicians, is exactly what I'm doing), but I had a great time at this show Saturday. Nice to hang out with Femke again, too!

Stephen Lyons and Julian Gosper, by Femke van Delft; not to be used without persimmons.

Opening act Spectrum Interview were also interesting, but in a more subdued way; tho' Toby Carroll, on Korg, certainly got my attention when he picked up what I think was a speaker and began to bang it around on the floor in the interests of producing feedback. You don't see many people thumping their instruments on the floor these days. I encourage it.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

French For Sled Dogs tonight at 1067

Photo by Allan MacInnis

"What the hell am I doing online on a beautiful day like today," you ask, and I know, I know - you're right; but I had to make mention that French For Sled Dogs - who appear not to have a site of their own yet - will be at 1067 tonight. Dave Chokroun (on electric bass, in this unit, which is draw enough for me; my old interview with Dave is here) tells me this particular project, also with Chris Albanese and Fond of Tigers' Stephen Lyons, is on about math rock - something I don't always groove on but am never bored by. And non-math-wise, I saw Lyons and Chokroun do a variant on Chokroun's other project, The Sorrow And The Pity, one night at 1067 when Darren Williams couldn't make it, and it was smokin' cool, with Lyons playing intense flurries of angular guitar-spazz between, through, over, under, and sometimes into Chokroun's manic percussive flailings; granted, the instrumentation is slightly different tonight, but I am curious indeed, and actually plan to be there (unlike, say, the other gigs I've mentioned below).
...Unless, that is, that tuna I ate for lunch has gone off and I end up with food poisoning. Ever do that - eat something from your fridge that you think, but aren't sure, is safe, then spend the next eight hours fearfully hoping that you don't start vomiting?

The Film Reviews of Rob Ager

Rob Ager's Youtube videos - start here for his analysis of The Shining - are brilliant, detailed looks at various horror and SF films. Occasionally - in the two reviews I've looked at - Ager stretches credibility, but for the most part, he does an excellent job at teasing out levels of subtextual meaning and symbolism within these films (for example, that the genocide of Native Americans plays a significant role in The Shining - a film I actually don't care for, because of, I believe, its strong misogynist streak, but that undoubtedly has a great deal of craft and intelligence in it). I had always sensed that this American genocide was figured in the film, but Ager impresses me mightily by teasing out several details that I had previously missed, and has won my admiration for seeing more than I did and making convincing arguments that what he sees is indeed present in the film. Ager's website, which I have not looked at yet, is at ...I'll be spending a good part of the day looking at his video reviews of Alien, The Exorcist, Psycho, and more...

Thanks to Theodore Stinks of the Art Bergmann fansite for pointing this stuff out!

Friday, May 22, 2009

My most popular post ever: Vancouver haters of the world unite!

It amuses me: a few years ago, I was feeling particularly stressed out and miserable about the area where I live, and decided to vent on my blog. I published something called "I Hate Downtown: A Rant" - something not meant as a comment on Vancouver in general, just on the experience of living in its rather soulless downtown core (which, of course, is having even more of its soul beaten out of it by Olympics preparations). It turns out that this has become my most commented-upon - and I assume most-read - thread; because of the word "hate" in close proximity to the title of my blog, anyone who uses Google or Yahoo and looks up the words "I hate Vancouver" gets this as the top hit. I wonder if there will be an ever-increasing number of people commenting on it as the Olympics approaches?

In fact, I am in no way so hateful towards downtown these days. In particular, the sheer FUBAR hysteria of our Olympics preparation - which gives one the feeling of being stranded in a citywide clusterfuck of colossal proportions - has made living downtown, in fact, rather amusing! I keep hearing stories that tickle me; for instance, about the dull black areas now embedded in the sidewalk along various points in the much-ripped-up Granville corridor. I had been scandalized and shocked by the decision of the city to cut down all of that street's beautiful and flourishing trees, revealing just how old and ugly many of the facades are and making it look, frankly, rather like Toronto; then I heard that there were plans to make the street into a "world-class promenade." The dull black areas inserted along the widened sidewalk were apparently originally going to be made of some nicer, fancier material - black glass or such - but since we're way over budget and struggling to bring the Olympics through in the midst of a recession, the city has apparently substituted something cheaper, so boring to look at that it calls the whole venture of redoing the sidewalks into question. I also greatly look forward to seeing, when they plant new saplings along the street - as I presume is the plan - how long it takes for drunk 20somethings from the suburbs or the 'States to rip them out of the ground during their weekly revels. If any last longer than a couple of weeks, I'll be much impressed... This is all priceless as comedy, and I am no longer considering a relocation to Commercial Drive or such - I'm staying downtown!

All I need to do is find a building to live in that doesn't have bedbugs...

Weird Music Potpourri tonight

This just in - a varied evening of adventuresome music and socializing:

Sink or Swim
Friday May 22nd

A fundraiser and auction with performances by:

Spectrum Interview Electro-Acoustic Textural Onslaught

Birdwise Fehr Rzemieniak Electro-Acoustic Noise Emissions Occasionally Intended For Dancing

Visuals by Victor Ballesteros

Yesod Electro-Acoustic Dub

Jason Corder and Sara Gold Kentucky-Vancouver Electro-Caustic Tele-Presence

iDisaster Berlin School

Vincent Parker Dance Party Mahssif Whut

Brady Marks Electroglitch50squeercoreminimaldub

Thomas Cunningham IV Dance Hearty Pants Party

Cody Gold Minimal Tech House and The Techno

Entrance is by donation, suggested $2 - 10. All are welcome.

A silent auction of local arts and crafts will also take place throughout the evening to be announced at midnight!

All funds generated will be donated to on behalf of the Global Agents for Change who will be riding their bikes from Vancouver to Tijuana in support of Kiva, a micro-loan program connecting independent lenders (you and me!) directly with struggling entrepreneurs in the developing world.

The Sinking Ship Gallery
440 W. Pender (across from Macleod's Books)
Back alley entrance
7pm until we can't stand anymore.

Limited capacity, get there early folks!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Gigs of the week: The Rebel Spell, Brian Goble, Ejaculation Death Rattle

The Rebel Spell by day, by Femke van Delft. Not to be used without permission

Just a few notes about people/bands I like playing in the next while... Vancouver's best "new" punk band, The Rebel Spell, preside over Chris Walter's booklaunch for Wrong tomorrow at the Cobalt, and may even have new songs for people (since they're "balls-deep" in recording a new album, Todd sez). Brian Goble, singer for the Subhumans, does his acoustic set - quite charming and sometimes featuring songs that don't make actual Subhumans shows, like his sharp, funny "For the Common Good" - on Saturday at Lugz at Broadway and Main (a set also featuring the Mike Webster Band and Magnetic West). And the most decadent of our noise bands, Ejaculation Death Rattle, play Honey on Thursday, doing one of their "dancier" sets, which should be fun to see... No time to do justice to any of the above, but I thought I'd call people's attention to them. More DOXA coverage to come... And maybe news about a rather interesting open-mike performance, as yet to be confirmed...

DOXA Preview: American Swing, a Requiem for a Far Hornier Time

The mattress room by Dr. Annie M. Sprinkle. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

There are some subjects that it would be nearly impossible to make a bad documentary about; American Swing - a sheer delight and, I suspect, a great date movie - is one of them. It chronicles the rise and fall of Plato's Retreat, a 1970's New York swing club (a "poor man's Playboy mansion," one former attendee says, and the straight equivalent of the gay clubs of the time) where, for a $25 fee at the door, couples could enter a room with a pool, a buffet, a DJ and dancefloor, and - the highlight - hundreds of like-minded people who had also come to fuck and suck and kiss and lick (and many other things beside) with a variety of partners, many previously unknown to them. The film is formally indistinguishable from thousands of other documentaries - the usual stream of talking heads, archival footage, amusing songs, and TV clips (including a moralizing interview on Donahue with Plato's Retreat founder Larry Levenson, and a charmingly hokey TV spot he and his partner Mary made for the club); while some of the archival footage is fascinating - somewhat deteriorated, pink-hued reels that occasionally appear to be clips from disco-themed pornos (which sometimes they are, since porn films were shot there) - it's really the subject matter itself that makes the film as enjoyable as it is. Watching talking heads talk in a run-of-the-mill documentary can be a bit dull, but when they belong to a couple in their 70's quibbling about whether this night or that was the wife's first girl-on-girl experience (or whether the buffet featured spaghetti or lasagna - a topic somewhat less unsettling to hear seniors argue about), there's a taboo-breaking humour and joyful openness that obviates any need for formal inventiveness. The tales people tell about their experiences of the club are that good.
And American Swing has many tales indeed. One of the filmmakers, Mathew Kaufman, explains that he "spent countless hours on phone interviews, taking jaw-dropping notes from Plato’s patrons, only to be turned down when I asked if they would appear on camera. Early on we decided that this film was not going to have black bars on peoples’ faces, or voices distorted by electronic devices – this was going to be the real story, told face-to-face, by the people who lived it."
Some who do appear are still somewhat protective of their privacy - Buck Henry manages to relate several amusing anecdotes without implicating himself in a single sexual transaction (perhaps he just likes to watch). Other "witnesses" include the ever-delightful Annie Sprinkle, Jamie Gillis, Ron Jeremy, Danny the Wonder Pony (!), and Melvin van Peebles, as well as many of Larry Levenson's friends and family.
Interestingly, it's the club's non-celebrity habitues, male and female, who talk most openly and fondly of Plato's Retreat and of the feeling of sexual liberation that predominated in the late 1970's, when, briefly, the club and others like it were quite popular, attracting hundreds of sophisticated New Yorkers on a good night. My favourite story in the film comes from a woman identified only as Betsy; she now appears to be in her 50's or 60's (tho' she's still very sexy!), and describes herself as a somewhat conservative and shy young woman who attended Plato's Retreat with a minister as a date - a rather liberal minister, we gather. He disappeared into the crowd soon after they arrived, and Betsy - who recounts the evening with a look of worry and ill conscience, her brow furrowed and her eyes downcast - presently found herself in the company of a construction worker from Connecticut. As she says this, she suddenly looks up and gives an enormous smile, innocent and proud and happy, all worry dissolved; it's touching and sweet and speaks volumes of the attitude of attendees of the club, where having sex with multiple partners in a night - perhaps in the "mattress room," where dozens of people could be going at it at the same time - was normal, desirable, and relatively risk-free.

Larry Levenson and his partner, Mary, photographed by Donna Ferrato. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Mathew's co-director on American Swing, Jon Hart, actually got to meet Plato's Retreat founder Larry Levenson. "I was in grade school when I was first introduced to Plato’s Retreat," he says in the press release for the film. "I was having a sleepover party with a few of my classmates and we were surreptitiously watching public access television, Channel J as I recall. Unforgettably, a commercial came on that showed a scantily clad couple frolicking in an enormous swimming pool. It seemed hard to believe that such an establishment was mere blocks from where I lived with my family.

"Years later, I was working as a reporter when I got a lead that the former owner of Plato’s Retreat, Larry Levenson, was driving a New York City taxi. Immediately, a light bulb went on, bringing me back to that commercial: What was the Plato’s story? What had happened to this disbanded Plato’s tribe?

"I tracked Larry down and we met in the West Village on a cloudy, frigid afternoon right before Christmas. I sat in the passenger seat - and turned on the recorder. He was overweight and solemn. But when I asked him about his former glory, he glowed as he drove. 'We were degenerates,' Larry laughed. 'But we were good people.' In his gravelly voice, Larry regaled me with tales of his infamous club and told me that he was once a legend known as 'The King of Swing.' Later, as we drove through Central Park up the East Side, Larry became teary eyed as he discussed his estrangement from his sons. I was fascinated and I wanted to know, well…everything. I interviewed him for hours and compiled hundreds of hours of tapes. For the next four years - right up until Larry passed away following quadruple bypass heart surgery - not a day went by that we did not speak. Larry Levenson was a friend first, a subject second."

I rather envy the attendees of Plato's Retreat. I realize there are swingers and swinger's clubs still - even in Vancouver - and internet dating sites all have their share of people seeking threesomes and "swap" situations - but we seem, by and large, to live in a far more inhibited, repressed, sexually uptight time, where such behaviour is accepted (or "tolerated"), but marginalized, feared, and not really talked about. I don't know if AIDS was, as the conspiracy theory goes, engineered by the Christian right in America, but it was certainly a Godsend to them, in terms of reversing the tide of sexual liberation. Like Jon Hart, I'm old enough to remember reading - as a sexually curious teen with a fair stack of men's magazines under his bed - about Plato's Retreat back when it was still open, but I now take a fear of disease so for granted that there's something bizarrely foreign and exotic and taboo about the world of Plato's; the film at times feels like an ethnographic documentary on a people far removed from my own, whose ways could never be mine, however sweet and otherwise "normal" they might seem. It's sad, because listening to these stories, I, at least, can't but imagine myself having a good time indeed in the "mattress room," and how liberating it would be; too bad that Larry Levenson's wish - that swing clubs would be a mainstream institution by the 21st century - never came to fruition.

It's probably too much to hope for, that couples in attendance at DOXA should mix-and-match partners or organize a group grope after the screening (and I'm sure DOXA organizers wouldn't want me to encourage such irresponsible behaviour), but the idea is probably going to occur to a few people watching the film. Here's hoping some of them get up the nerve to follow through on it, and that everyone has the results of their last round of STD tests handy. Sexually speaking, American Swing seems like good medicine - a taste of a time, briefly, where people really weren't so hung up about sex...

American Swing will play DOXA on May 28th, at the Vancity Theatre.

American Swing poster, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

RIP Arthur Erickson made my undergraduate years feel like I was The Prisoner, but transplanted to Siberia. I spent thirteen years, on and off, walking around in the product of your mind.

It's funny: your buildings look great in books.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Experimental Cinema meets Avant-Jazz: David Rimmer's Al Neil film at the Cinematheque

Photo courtesy Steve Chow of the Pacific Cinematheque

Do you like really fucked-up music?

I haven't spun it for a long, long time, but some of the most fucked up music I can recall having heard is on Al Neil's Boot and Fog LP. It sounds, you might say, like Thelonious Monk on horse tranquilizers - but with vocals; the version of "Over the Rainbow" is as creepily drugged-out a take on that song as one could ever imagine (which, in a way, is utterly perfect). You can find this precious vinyl artifact - a collectible currently listed at $45 US on eBay, that is not available on CD - at Neptoon Records at a reasonable price; if you're a sonic adventurer with a taste for local history, you should at the very least go buy this album (it should come with a 7" single), because this is some important local music we're talking about. (There's also a 2-CD retrospective of his earlier works, which I gather you can also snag at Neptoon). Neil was born here in 1924, co-founded The Cellar Jazz Club, has written memoirs, done visual arts - a collage/assemblage of his appeared on the Vancouver International Jazz Festival program last year - and combined tape music with his piano experiments to blaze some truly bizarre trails through the 1960's and 1970's, all in this very city. There's a bio on Neil and some links to other excellent articles on him and his role in the Vancouver jazz scene here. There's even more at Brunt Magazine, online, here. Ken Pickering informs me that, for the upcoming jazzfest, the Sound Gallery free performance, July 5th at the Roundhouse Performance Centre, will "build on their Al Neil-inspired performance at last year’s event," with Paul Plimley on piano and Neil collaborator Gregg Simpson on drums (and also Clyde Reed and Viviane Houle and Stefan Smulovitz).

Those of you who combine your taste for fucked-up music with a taste for experimental cinema, further, have the rare opportunity - you lucky sods - to see a film about Al Neil, tomorrow night, as part of the Cinematheque's booklaunch/retrospective of the works of David Rimmer. I haven't actually seen the film and don't know that much about the work of Rimmer, I confess - I missed the last night and have only caught Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper - but I gather it's is a 40-minute portrait of Al Neil, so I'm there, and I have a very good feeling about the night.
But I'm also burdened with marking and other life-shit-stuff that I need to negotiate, so I will have to leave you to your own devices for further research. (Ejaculation Death Rattle/ G42 member Dan Kibke writes about the first night of the David Rimmer retrospective on his new blog, here - so that's something you can start with).
I must now go feed my bedbugs.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Nikkatsu Noir - upcoming DVD release

Anyone who saw A Colt Is My Passport - a terrific, stylish Japanese gangster film - when it played last year at the Cinematheque probably also heard that several Nikkatsu films were slated for Criterion release. Turns out it's actually Eclipse, and the box set will feature A Colt Is My Passport when it comes out in August...

Friday, May 15, 2009

Subhumans, plus Bedbuggery

Subhumans at the Lamplighter, picture by Allan MacInnis (not to be used without permission)

I have a splitting headache from the poison in my apartment, sprayed to take on the bedbugs on Monday. Though I've had my windows open and fan on for the last 24 hours, the air is still toxic (though decidedly chilly). Maybe if I do a good sweeping I might be able to render the environment a bit more habitable - the current state of things is ridiculous.

I rather feel that I owe apologies to the Subhumans, who play tonight (ie. Friday the 15th) at the Ukrainian Hall, in a could-be 30th anniversary of their 1979 Rock Against Prisons gig. Since I've been in and out of Maple Ridge the last few days, fleeing my toxic suite and trying to see if I could adapt to the commute if I moved out of Bedbug City permenantly, I haven't had a chance to do a proper blog piece on the show. I kind of blew my interview with them for The Skinny, too: I fucked up the second paragraph, where I should have identified Subhumans vocalist Brian Goble by his full name, rather than leaping straight to calling him "Goble." Shit like this embarrasses the hell out of me; I don't know how so obvious an error can make it into print despite hours of crafting the damn thing and a dozen or more proofreadings on my part. (It's even worse that it's MY error - usually when mistakes appear in articles of mine, they've been introduced by editors, which means at least I can rant and spray bile at them). Too bad I messed it up: I really like how I set people up to expect me to get into talking about prison with Gerry, and then don't, and I love the title ("It Ain't Easy Being Subhuman.") Of course, the Subhumans misfortunes far exceed thuggery at gigs - there's stories of someone postering for them that died in a car accident years ago - a story I've only recently heard; and they've been bootlegged more than most punk bands, with a current boot in direct competition with Death Was Too Kind (their new A/T release of their singles and first EP). Such a good band deserves better! Here's hoping they at least get a decent turnout. Hey, maybe Brian and Jon, who work in the DTES, can give me some bedbug pointers!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Assholes! (Warner Brothers screws up Zabriskie Point)

Warner Brothers has fucked up Zabriskie Point. Found it today at Videomatica, ahead of the listed release dates; I'm very disappointed to find that they use the shitty, sappy Roy Orbison song over the credits - imposed by the studio against Antonioni's wishes instead of his intended reprise of the Pink Floyd tune at the film's climax, which is what you get if you see theatrical prints of the film. There's no commentary, there are no interviews, no essay or insert, or indeed any meaningful extras save a trailer, and WB have done something weird with the colours - which are too "cool" and slightly washed-out and definitely different from the proper hues. This is a great film the release of which cinephiles have been awaiting for years; WB has done about as bad a job as they could while preserving the original aspect ratio. Wait until there's a decent European or Criterion release; as worthwhile a film as this is - don't give these idiots your money, they do not deserve it.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Vancouver Bedbug Olympics

Woke up Saturday with two, maybe three clusters of fairly distinctive bedbug bites on me. (I say "maybe three" because the third cluster may have happened the next night). I've had my apartment sprayed three times in the last few months, to no avail; the dude comes again tomorrow. I haven't actually seen a bedbug since the first spraying (when I caught one for the pest control guy in a jar), but I have no doubt - given the pattern of the bites and the history in the building - that that's what was eating me this weekend. There was a major infestation four floors above me, and I suspect that when they sprayed that apartment, the little bloodsuckers just made their way down the column of apartments -- all of which are apparently connected by a central shaft that the Murphy beds tuck into; I've been told that's how they spread here - infesting vertical rows of rooms, so that if Suite #55 is infested, and 35, you can be sure 45 is, too. The philosophy of our building manager, who is either not that competent or not that honest - and is certainly not committed to eradicating the beasties once and for all - is to basically spray only when tenants complain; he doesn't even warn people not to use the Murphy beds. The bugs just move out for awhile, visit a neighbour, and then come back when the poison wears off.

Anyone planning to come to Vancouver for the Olmypics needs a stern warning: before renting a room, even in a hotel, go to and double-check that it isn't infested. There are close to 200 buildings with reported infestations in the downtown/ west end area, probably even more in East Van. Actually, you should probably ASSUME an infestation, if it's an older building. ASK THE BUILDING MANAGER - get him to put it in writing, if he says there aren't any. There are also silverfish, cockroaches, mice, rats, and meal moths in some buildings, but the bedbugs are particularly widespread right now.

By the way, if I move out, you're welcome to sublet my space... It's a nice building, really. I may even be leaving behind the furniture...

Saturday, May 09, 2009

A Sweet, Inventive Film with a Fascinating Backstory

Sita Sings The Blues (official site here) is a charming animated feature that updates and comments on Indian epic The Ramayana - no previous knowledge of which is required - with 1920's songs by a near-forgotten chanteuse (Annette Hanshaw, who has a fan-based Myspace with song samples here; check out "If You Want the Rainbow," my favourite song used in the film). The songs are great, the animation inventive and pleasing to behold, the politics sympathetic (since the film identifies with the sufferings of Sita); and the "updated" commentary on The Ramayana by some of Paley's South Asian friends is quite funny and irreverent. If you're interested, I'd advise going to the Vancity on the 18th to catch all four of Paley's animated shorts as a bonus; the film makes for a pleasant night out indeed (if lighter and sweeter than my usual fare, I must admit - though it does have flying eyeballs and lots of demons).
The film also has a very interesting backstory, particularly for anyone interested in copyrights and copylefts, Creative Commons and Share Alike licensing, the Free Culture movement and such. If I've got the story right, while the copyright on Hanshaw's songs, which were an important part of Paley's inspiration, had lapsed, the songwriting rights had not ("For me to get permission from them to use these 80-year old songs would have cost me more money than it cost to make the entire film," she says on her site). Once the film was made, Paley found herself faced with insurmountable fees if she wanted to ever sell her work. So she can't - not this film; like John Oswald's initial Plunderphonics project, Paley is more-or-less forbidden to make money on Sita Sings The Blues, if she wants people to see it. Which she does; so she's put it out into the world for free. If you don't want to go to the theatre to see it, you can find free download info for it here, with her sanction. More of the backstory can be found in Paley's FAQ, which opens onto a world of other links.

Trust me, though: you don't want to download this film, you want to see it with friends in a theatre. It's bound to be much more fun that way, as a collective experience with shared laughter and no opporunity to press pause; and the songs will sound much, much better. It plays at the Vancity until May 22nd.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Tyson, by James Toback

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Examined Life returns

If you missed the documentary Examined Life, which I wrote about here, there's a second round of screenings at the Cinematheque over the next week. Though comprised primarily of interviews with philosophers, the film is surprisingly down-to-earth and inspiring, offering us glimpses of people grappling with questions that are very much applicable to daily life - questions of social justice, meaning, environmentalism, and ethical accountability.

Note: for those curious, my vegetarian ambitions that I reported in the previous entry on this film - spurred on in part by Peter Singer and Slavoj Zizek's comments in the film, and by considering the work of Sunaura Taylor, the filmmaker's sister - began to compete with my overriding objective of late to spend more time with my family. Specifically, I'd been trying to talk my father into coming into town for ribs - which he loves - at Memphis Blues, and when, to my surprise, the opportunity arose the other week, I "went back on meat" so as to join him. Working on phasing it out again now, or at least greatly reducing my consumption of it...

Monday, May 04, 2009

Blogging Hiatus: Al Needs Downtime

Photo by Dan Kibke, not to be used without permission

Well, folks: I've got nothing much to report and other projects beckoning, and I'm pretty pooped from tending to my personal life, so I think I'll let my blog alone for a week or so. Not that much to enthuse about at the moment, anyhow. Filmwise, there's Monte Hellman's Cockfighter on Tuesday, and A Scanner Darkly next weekend, both at the Vancity. I may try to stick up something about the David Rimmer retrospective and booklaunch upcoming at the Cinematheque, which will feature a film portrait of local jazz musician/ memoirist/ collage artist Al Neil. (Thanks to Dan Kibke for that link). Musicwise, while I'll be happy to catch the Subhumans May 15th at the Ukrainian Hall (note venue relocation from the Anza), there's not much I'm plugged into at the moment. It'll be interesting to see Fond of Tigers with Mats Gustafsson at the jazz festival...

...mostly I just crave some downtime. Looks like I'll have something in the next Skinny, tho'...

Friday, May 01, 2009


Photo of The Thing at last year's Vancouver International Jazz Festival by Femke van Delft. Not to be used without permission.

Wake up, motherfucker: Mats Gustafsson's primary unit, The Thing, plays Vancouver tonight! Fans of Albert Ayler, Peter Brotzmann, late Coltrane... or people who just appreciate balls-to-the-wall playing in any idiom should make it out to the Ironworks, at 235 Alexander for Mats' Vancouver return (sure, he's here throughout the upcoming jazz festival, but this is The Thing, we're talking about). Check Alex Varty's Straight article for a bit more insight into the new album and an idea of what to expect (a "musical punch in the face" - nice!). See y'all there!