Monday, November 30, 2009

End of an outsider, plus token Jandek reprint

Well, folks... I have to admit, at the moment, I'm thinking of doing what Katherine Dodds would describe as "rebranding myself." I don't really have any interest in detailing the Vancouver scene at present, feel like it's time to come out of the world of music and movies and learn how to be a better human being. My well-being depends on it, to some extent; plus I'm no longer so amused by the idea of sticking myself out into the world as Mr. Alienated. I might seize the moment, in fact, to see if the tumultuous emotions in the wake of my father's death can help me reassemble myself in a different shape - something a bit healthier, something I could be prouder of, because - as a friend points out - in things like my previous CPAP-mask profile photo and other aspects of my self-presentation, there is more than a hint of bad conscience, anger, and self-harm - not to mention a smidgen of rage at the world as it presents itself to me. All fine punk traditions, mind you - but I'm not sure they serve me so well anymore. Plus I'm working hard to take care of my mother right now - not only her feelings, but to get all the paperwork surrounding my father's death done, to get her a steady income, and to get her moved into a smaller suite. I really just don't feel like music and movies and fringe culture are that important at the moment.

All the same, I am a great fan of Joshua Stevenson (see also here) and Jeffrey Allport (see also here) - two of Vancouver's most accomplished and under-appreciated improvisers - and am delighted that they are among the band chosen to play with Jandek here Dec. 7th (sorry for the boy's club element, but I simply don't know Wendy or Rachael's music, and have never seen them play live). My enthusiasm for Jandek is not as strong as it once was, but I enjoyed both the concerts I did see (Toronto and most of the Seattle show) and would, under any other circumstances, be at the Vancouver show.

In lieu of my attendance, I'll show my support for the venture by reprinting my 2006 Nerve Magazine article on Jandek. I hope it's a well-attended, successful night, and that Josh and Jeffrey get some new fans because of their involvement. The original article was subtitled "(but not here. Yet)," but it seems strange to offer it thus when he plays the Scotiabank Dance Centre in two days...

Photo by Dan Kibke; not to be reused without permission

Jandek: He/They Is/Are Coming
by Allan MacInnis

When I get home, there’s a message on my voicemail from Jandek. Or Corwood Industries. Him, them, it. Whatever. I listen to it, stunned.

I had framed the note he’d sent previously, politely declining an interview and saying that there was nothing as yet planned for Vancouver; it’s in a sort of collage with the envelope, the customs declaration, and a partial photocopy of the DVD cover for Glasgow Sunday, the document of his first live show at the Arches in 2004. Jandek looks to be about 50 in the DVD, which is available from Corwood for $17.60 US postpaid to Canada, or $8.80 apiece as part of a box of 20 or more discs – Corwood always gives a great bulk rate. He is well-dressed, and seems quite confident for a man who hasn’t played in front of a large audience before. After years of mystery and speculation, watching him on my TV is very strange.

Hearing him on my voicemail is stranger.

Jandek, for the terminally unhip, is somewhat of a legendary recluse – the Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger of independent music. Beginning in 1978, he has released a whopping 47 albums, producing an ungainly, jangly, but often blues-related music with eccentrically-played instrumentation, uncredited back-up musicians (if any), and often mournful, moaning lyrics about alienation and loss and despair. Though part of the myth of Jandek is that he has never given an official interview, John Trubee, the man behind the Ugly Janitors of America, actually recorded an interview with him for Spin in 1985 (included in full on the Jandek on Corwood DVD); and more recently, the man chatted off the record about allergies and matters unrelated to music with journalist Katy Vine, when she tracked him down in Houston, Texas. For the longest time, the only way you could interact with Jandek was through the post office box of his label, Corwood Industries. Seth Tisue, the webmaster for the excellent and informative Jandek site, casts some light on the confusion surrounding the man at

Officially, Jandek is not a person. The man from the album covers and live appearances is “a representative of Corwood Industries”, and “Jandek” is a musical project which he directs. The trinity of Jandek, Corwood, and “the representative” is both three and one.

These distinctions became clear only recently, especially when Corwood started negotiating Jandek performances with promoters. But an early hint was that the first Jandek LP was originally credited to “The Units”, a name implying a faceless collective. Even the recent live releases do not credit individual musicians.

The name of the real individual behind all this is known. He almost always avoids using his name in connection with Corwood or Jandek, but he has never made any great secret of it, either. Written communications from Corwood are signed “Corwood” or not signed at all, and in a further distancing move, he/they always refers to himself/themselves in writing as “we” rather than “I”.

This leaves the rest of us in a bit of a quandary how to refer to him/them/it — this Jandek thing. It’s common to just refer to Jandek as “he”, avoiding verbal contortions, but it’s also now common to follow Corwood’s own practice and use “Corwood” in contexts where it makes sense; some even go as far as to use “they” even though everybody knows it’s one person. Others aren’t bothered by informally using his real first name (including several of the musicians he has performed with, in their published interviews). (2009 addenda: a growing tendency is to call the man "The Rep" - the representative of Corwood Industries).

Jandek, thus, seems to have inspired a one man variation on politically correct speech. I know his name, too. I am not mentioning it here. I have spoken of him as “they,” myself. I feel guilty and confused about it. I am a liberal.

Somehow, though, actually hearing his voice on my voicemail is anticlimactic. He sounds entirely normal. He is “not sure we should give out information” on other musicians he has played with (I’d requested this in the follow up to his note). Instead, he suggests I contact them over the internet. He helpfully offers me the name of the Toronto promoter, Gary Topp of Topp Notch, as a possible interview. I’m already in touch with Topp – he was the first promoter to win a Toronto Arts Award and has brought many an odd show to town – so the tip doesn’t really amount to much. Corwood neither encourages nor discourages mentioning the possibility of a Vancouver concert. The message is so polite and ordinary that I end up looking at my framed collage on the wall and wondering what kind of silly asshole I am.

Topp’s company with filmmaker Ron Mann, Filmswelike, distributes the film, Jandek on Corwood. The 2004 documentary on the enigmatic musician, in which various critics and musicians speculate on the Jandek mystique, appears to have played a role in bringing Jandek out of his post office box, since it was shortly after its release – after 26 years of putting out music without touring – that he began to play live shows. Topp, a Jandek fan himself, tells me, “I have been writing Corwood for about two years. In April 06, he wrote me that they would be in contact with me in early June; they called me June 1st.” Corwood stipulated that he/they would be giving no interviews for the show, which will happen on September 17th at Toronto’s Centre of Gravity. Jandek will play Korg synthesizers; Toronto based Nilan Pereira is on guitar, by Topp’s arrangement.

Pereira, with whom Topp puts me in touch, has been playing in the “improvised/ avantwhatever” scene in Toronto for about 20 years, “starting with the punkfunk harmolodic scene in the late '80s early 90s. I then went on to more improvised projects with various people like Rainer Wiens, and from there went into dance/theatre as a sound designer/collaborator. I've recently (over the last 2-3 years) re-integrated into the improv music scene.” He has a solo CD of prepared guitar and electronics out and will soon be putting out a “a mirrorimage CD of remixes” by Canadian avant-heroes John Oswald, Martin Tetreault, Sandro Perri, and others. While he is only a recent convert to Camp Jandek, he admits “a profound admiration for his DIY ethic and his rigorous integrity as an artist.”

I asked Pereira how one goes about preparing for a show with an artist this elusive. “There will be a day of meeting and playing before the gig that will determine the music; we’re improvisers and that in itself defines our approach in terms of the depth of palette that we bring. I am bringing some of the best musicians/composers/improvisers to this gig,” including bassist Rob Clutton and drummer Nick Fraser. “The meeting is in the act of creation, and although personality is a factor, the willingness of all to make music is the determining factor; we’ll be making music regardless of the situation. For myself, it's Jandek’s lyrics and musical phrasing that intrigue me the most and will function as the axis that my collaboration will turn on.”

I buy my ticket for the Toronto show as soon as possible, figuring I can scrape up plane fare by some means – besides, Nomeansno play three gigs in a row in Ontario that week, and Tony Conrad will be doing an hour of drone, too. It is only after my plans are made that I discover from Tisue’s site that Jandek will be performing in Seattle on October 27th.

Andrew Morgan was a liaison between Corwood and the Seattle music venue, On the Boards, getting things in motion and talking to Corwood. “There weren’t any stipulations or requests that were too odd,” he tells me, only “things you would assume would be an issue, such as anonymity and the prevention of rumors relating to the show. Corwood wanted a seated, nice venue in a good part of town. That was his only real request... everything else was up to me.”

Morgan has a more-intimate-than-usual history with the Man from Corwood. “Before I moved to Seattle 6 months ago, I lived in Houston, where Corwood Industries is based. There was a lot to get excited about, there, as a Jandek fan. I worked at a natural grocery store that he frequented. Friends of mine would see him at bookstores, restaurants, and bars. It was fun and harmless.”

I asked Morgan about the whole mythos behind the man – in Jandek on Corwood, music geeks are seen commenting on everything from the possibility that the man has mental health issues to his choice of flipflops for footwear on certain album covers; they show off their own scribbled notes from Corwood, play taped conversations, and speculate for all they’re worth about who Jandek actually might be. “As far as the mythos goes,” Morgan says, “I don’t feel as if it’s something Corwood has intentionally created. Obviously the dude wants to be left alone, but he’s not completely unavailable. He returns letters and phone calls. I think he just has a certain idea of how he wants to present the music and he’s not going to stray from that. I always think back to the article in Texas Monthly by Katy Vine and how she asked him if there was anything he wanted people to ‘get’ from his music and he simply responded with ‘There’s nothing to get.’ I think part of the charm and magnetism of Jandek’s music is his complete and total disregard for the listener. It’s extremely refreshing.”Morgan continues. “A friend of mine in Houston and I used to have lengthy conversations about Jandek and Corwood. Together we came to the conclusion that he’s not playing shows to capitalize on his new weird pseudo-celebrity or to try and follow and sort of normal convention of touring or performing live. Since he’s playing all unheard material live and recording every show (both audio and video), these are just new ways of recording records. This is just the next ‘period’ of Jandek. The Live Music phase or something.”

Jandek had played Portland a few weeks previously. For one number, two female backup singers joined the stage, much to the audience’s surprise. Fan descriptions can be found on Tisue’s site. Morgan tells me, “I saw the Portland show and thought it was one of the single most enjoyable live performances I’ve ever seen... which I did not expect. It was extremely accessible and almost rock and roll. Very close to a record like You Walk Alone (my personal favourite).”
I asked Morgan what he thinks the future will hold: will the touring and accelerated activity lead to greater fame for Jandek, or will it crush the mystique and end the saga? ”I wouldn’t be surprised if he stopped doing shows as suddenly as he started. If you’ve heard Jandek’s music you know that it will not lead to anymore fame than already exists. It’s difficult, alienating music. I think the only thing that the performing will change about the ‘mystique’ will be that people will no longer be distracted by the facelessness of the music and just start focusing on the music itself. Which is good, considering the quality of the recent recordings. They’re so good!”
The Seattle show will probably see Jandek on guitar, since he has requested an amp. Emil Amos, who was the drummer for the show in Portland, says, “I've never seen an audience be as patient with improvised songs as his audience was.” Bassist Sam Coomes and Emil had practiced a couple of times before the show, Jandekless, “but we agreed that any preparation probably wouldn't end up altering what would happen in the performance on an instinctual level;” once the Corwood rep arrived, “the practicing we did as a band (on the day of the show, for 3 hours) was just to ultimately get comfortable in each other's presence.”

I asked Emil how it feels to be playing with Corwood yet again, for the Seattle gig. “I'm interested to see what themes will repeat themselves and which ones won't, considering that this particular backing band seems to have it's own 'sound'. But I'm in the dark as much the audience is and it's cool that way.” Emil describes Jandek as “one of the most ruthlessly instinctual players I've ever heard. In the blues/folk setting that he is often viewed in (as opposed to jazz or noise) I think it was widely accepted that it would be virtually impossible to have that much freedom of instinct.” Wisely, during the Portland experience, Emil managed to simply avoid referring to him by name at all.

My continued researches lead me closer to home. Will there be a Vancouver show? Ironically, there is some slight possibility that an article like this will sour the possibility, so y’all are requested to LEAVE CORWOOD ALONE. Wait. Hum “I’ll Sit Alone and Think a Lot About You” to yourself (from Jandek’s1988’s On the Way, which, mostly due to the energetic bluesy raveup, “Message to the Clerk,” is my favourite of his/their discs). Watch Jandek on Corwood again. Get a life!

(2009 addenda: and once again, Jandek plays the Scotiabank Dance Centre Monday, Dec. 7).

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Note for my father

I won't be blogging much this month. Tough times - I have to take care of mother, move her into another suite, and do a lot of paperwork.

I wish I'd said more to Dad the last night we were together. I told him jokes and played him music and told him Mom and I would miss him, but there's a lot more I would have liked to have said if I'd known it was my last chance. Stuff, maybe, he didn't actually need to hear, as much as I needed to have said it; though I've said it many times over the last years, I would have told him I loved him, and that I hoped he knew I loved him. (I would have made that a question, actually - do you know that I love you?). I would have told him that I would take good care of mother, that I knew he loved us. The only real thing I said was that we would miss him so much. In the end, on the last night he was actually awake now and then, when I left him, he was sleeping - with Johnny Cash's American Recordings playing through the TV on the DVD player. I left a note by his bed saying I loved him, encouraging him to try to eat a bit, and telling him I would be there tomorrow. I had to go home and be with mother, who is not so independent these days, and to do some of the chores around the building that he was still doing right up until he couldn't. I didn't want to wake him to say these things, and to say goodnight. It seemed selfish - best to let him sleep, I thought. Maybe I chickened out a bit. I could say them tomorrow, I thought... we all thought he'd be around for a few more days, even the nurse I spoke to...

The next day, after they called us in to hurry, though I got to say many of the things I would have said the night before, with Mom and I holding his hands and sitting with him for his last few hours - I don't know for sure that he heard us or understood. I joined in when the priest came to read him his last rites (having moved off to one side, sitting with Mom at the foot of the bed). He would have been moved to hear me saying the responses ("Lord have mercy on us," "Pray for us sinners," etc). I also said the "Our Father" (most of it - that was the one that got me started, the old pull of it - memorized in childhood - making it impossible not to repeat it in my mind, and then to say it aloud; if I try to say it now I feel like I'm talking to Dad, not God). He'd wanted me to pray for him - one of his last notes for me read "Don't ever cry for what is, just pray for me" - but as a non-believer in any conventional God and a non-member of the church, that has always been difficult. It was easier to do it sitting beside my mother at his deathbed, especially since her aphasia from her stroke made it difficult for her to say the words clearly; maybe it took some of the stress off her, that I was saying the responses - the rite was being performed correctly, and she only had to say what she could. When Dad opened his eyes (just at the end, with "Elvira" playing on the mix CD), among the things I said - that I loved him, that Mom and I were there, that we'd miss him - was that I'd prayed for him. (I think I also apologized that he didn't get to make a final confession; he was unwakable, unable when the priest came, receiving the anointing without waking).

I hope he heard some of it, knew it was happening. He seemed to stir just enough that we seemed to be listening, sometimes when we spoke to him, or when the doctors or nurses or visitors spoke to him directly and clearly. His head would seem to turn a little, though he wasn't able to acknowledge with any other signs...

He was never really one for words, though - not compared to me! The many times I asked him if there was something more we needed to talk about, he didn't think so. These last few months - with my very stressful move at the end of September, my Mom's stroke, and the extra burdens on me and him both, to get our jobs done and keep Mom safe - we didn't get to talk half as much as I would have needed to. I had to go through his papers to find this note, which I wrote for him when he entered the hospital in 2007, to reassure myself that I said some of the things that I needed to say, because frankly, my regret at not saying more that last night when I knew he was listening has been eating me up and commingling with my grief and making my head hurt. (Literally - there's a dull throbbing in my brain that doesn't go away; my body does NOT feel good). I'm not sleeping so well, and I'm crying a lot. I'd be a total wreck if it wasn't for having mother to take care of; I'm not holding it together so well now, and maybe wouldn't be able to at all if I weren't needed. So it helps me that at least he got to read this, back in the hospital when he went in for his operation, two and a half years ago. He said at the time that it really moved him (though it was more like, "and that note - sheesh!"), and I'm glad he kept it (along with racing forms, notes about tenants, notes on his cancer, notes on mom's stroke, and other emails and articles I'd sent him, including some of mine).

This is a scan of what I wrote him, offered here as a public gesture of mourning. Thanks to those of you who have sent me condolences. I'll be heading to mass with Mom today to talk about the service for father; in case I don't get to say anything, it's good to put this out into the world.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Friday November 27: Larry MacInnis, 1933-2009, RIP

My father died quietly in the hospice today, after a very rapid decline. Mom and I were with him most of the afternoon - he was sleeping quite peacefully, though his breathing was laboured. He didn't wake up - though he was awake yesterday, laughing at a few jokes I told him and listening to music. The last song he heard today was the Oak Ridge Boys' "Elvira," which he always loved - he opened his eyes as it was playing, though I don't know if he could see us, and Mom and I crowded in to say hello to him, and tell him we loved him, and then wish him goodbye as his breathing slowly stopped, just after the song ended. Thanks to those of you who have offered me support these last few months, and who sent in jokes. I didn't get to tell him all of them, unfortunately. My favourites were:
Q: What's the difference between roast beef and pea soup?
A: ANYONE can roast beef.
And (in slightly modified form from how it was told to me):
Q: What did the Buddhist monk say to the hot dog vendor?
A: "Make me one with everything."
He was one month and one day away from his 76th birthday.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans

I wanted to dislike this film. Herzog's recent work has often proven annoying - Invincible is bloated; Grizzly Man is overpraised - since much that is interesting about it stems from material that Herzog did not himself shoot and doesn't deserve THAT much credit for assembling, and Herzog's insertion of himself into the film is awkward at best. His participation in Incident At Loch Ness - a rather silly film that makes too much of the myth around the filmmaker, who plays himself - seems equally questionable; while Wild Blue Yonder is godawful, unwatchable, a lazy, silly mishmash of archival NASA footage with Brad Dourif muttering about being an alien that has been praised by some simply because of Herzog's name (I assume). Rescue Dawn seems to suggest an attempt to convince the world that he could channel his mythic stature into cinema on a Hollywood scale; so much of the press around the film focused on the ordeal the actors went through or Herzog's passionate confrontation of the jungle that these things somehow ended up being what the film was about - a testament more to the filmmakers own grandiosity than a film about war or escape or nature or... anything, really; it seemed to be about the very fact that it was a Werner Herzog film. I have such regard for some of his early work - and I sufficiently enjoyed one of his recent docs, The White Diamond - that I still picked up the DVD of Encounters At The End Of The World, to see his take on Antarctica, to be put off almost immediately by a rather silly joke (I assume) that he inserts into the beginning of the film - an image of a monkey riding a goat, with Herzog posing the question, in his narration, of why monkeys don't actually do that. I didn't stick around to see how he would tie this in with his purported exploration of Antarctica: I rolled my eyes and pressed stop, thinking, "What a bloated ego this guy has. What a precious fool he has become. He should stop making films. He should just stop, before he sullies what has gone before."

Well, sorry, folks, but I utterly loved Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans. I expected not to. I thought this would be the film to excuse me from seeing any subsequent films by Herzog, but it turns out to be an inventive, strange, and funny film, often brilliant and consistently compelling, both visually and in terms of performances and narrative. It appears to have been written (not by the director) as a remake of the Abel Ferrara film, but has been turned into something quite else by Herzog (who has protested publicly that he's never even SEEN the Ferrara film). For one, it's not a Catholic redemption drama - someone alert Mark Harris, but the themes of the previous film are nowhere visible here, despite all the coke, gambling, and corrupted sex. There's nothing particularly Catholic or even Christian about the film, and the ending and its meaning are vastly different from those which Ferrara crafted. If I had to say what the film was, if NOT a redemption drama, I'd call it a black comedy about American life at present - desperate, compulsive, out of control, selfish, corrupt, and deranged, but still adulterated with wide and glowing streaks of virtue and decency, just like Nic Cage's character, who crosses the line between virtue and vice so many times that you're seldom sure, at any given moment, which side he's on. Anyone attentive to Herzog's canon will note some of the same Sonny Terry whoops and yelps and harmonica playing that accompanied images of a dancing chicken in a certain other Herzog film set in America - the one that Ian Curtis liked so much - to help make it clear (I presume) that Herzog, now that he lives in the USA, is offering us his jaundiced reassessment the country, both fond and mocking and by no means simple (tho' vastly entertaining - and shit, America is nothing if not entertaining). The music, details of performance, and bizarre digressions like the utterly delightful reptile stuff make the film something very much other than what it might appear on the surface (or what it likely was in the screenplay), but attentive, intelligent cineastes - people who had a great deal of fun with Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, say - will have no problem enjoying it, and will delight in the little audacious surprises Herzog throws our way (including exchanges that are quintessentially Herzog; though it's in many ways a genre picture, his identity as a filmmaker is all over this film, often most visible in the quirkiest characters). Can't say whether it will prove to have lasting mass appeal, but the cinema tonight was packed, so that seems a good sign.

Apologies to Werner Herzog for having liked so few of his recent films. I will cease to badmouth him as of now.

Anyhow, gotta go to bed, but for what it's worth, I liked this film a lot. Now if only Antichrist were still playing (it lasted all of a week).

Friday, November 20, 2009

What I did instead of going to 1067

I didn't know for sure that I wouldn't be able to go to 1067 to see Paul Dutton and Alex Varty tonight until I got to the hospital today. My father is checked in, having proven too weak to return home when he went in for chemotherapy; at first they held him to hydrate him, and now they are holding him until a doctor or hospitalist or somesuch can determine whether he qualifies for palliative care - a formality, really, since he clearly will, but things run slowly in hospitals around here. They can hydrate him in the meantime, so it's not a bad thing. Since he went into the hospital a few days ago, I've held out hope that the situation would improve enough that I could sneak off for one last show tonight; I like Dutton and truly would've liked to see Varty play guitar. All the while knowing the gig was upcoming and wondering whether I'd make it, I've gone to the hospital daily after work, then come back to my parents' apartment to sleep on our couch at night, so my mother would not be alone here while he is there - a request my father made a few days ago that I could only honour. And so it goes tonight. If he'd ended up safely back at home with Mom this evening, and they were together, I could possibly have rationalized not being here and bused back into the city for the show, but it just didn't happen that way.

The temptation to go was there, believe me. For quite some time now, I've led a life that allows for such comforts: to devote my freetime to listening to music, watching movies, reading, writing, and shopping - to bullshitting with friends in smoky apartments, going to concerts, spending idle time eating in restaurants, walking on the seawall, occasionally having a woman over... I've lived five minutes away from work for five years; the concept of "work" in my life has been something I've done during paid hours, 27 hours a week, and no more (with odd exceptions for household chores). Even my second "job," little as it has paid me - writing, I mean - has been vastly entertaining and rewarding, such that, as much effort as I've put into it, it hasn't felt like work at all. And now, despite my relocation, at least some of my instincts, my ingrained desires, are still those of this person - a selfish, soft, spoiled and pampered person whose most dire cares up til now have been rooted in profound comfort and ease of life (relatively speaking). Contemptibly selfish though they may seem now, my desire for these pleasures has not gone away.

For instance: I am quite aware of several films I want to see at the moment. I want to see Collapse, theatrically, since the screener I previewed was missing the last five minutes, and since I want to see audience reactions to Mike Ruppert, even if my interest in him largely stems from voyeuristic curiosity about the mind of Adrian Mack.

I want to see Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans, because I figure it will make-or-break Herzog for me. I cannot imagine any middle ground with this film, and would almost hope for the latter, less because of any fondness I have for Abel Ferrara - though I would like to see Nine Lives Of A Wet Pussy someday - than because it simply would feel like good hygiene to be able to dismiss Herzog as a filmmaker of interest, as I have, say, Scorsese, Jarmusch, and Wenders (all of whose work may still have merit; I just don't care to stay current). Too much success, too much attention, too much praise can deform the ego and make you lazy; John Lurie once said to me in an interview - not referring to any of the above, I might add - that people who end up being told they're geniuses can "stop putting themselves through the fire," and it's very true. So: what serious filmmaker alive currently receives more success, attention, or praise than Herzog? I almost roll my eyes when musicians and artists whose work I enjoy (Rob Wright, Alan Bishop to name a couple) mention his name when I ask in an interview setting what filmmakers they value. The closest analogy I can graft with another living celebrity: Herzog has become the Bob Dylan of cinema (and look at Bob Dylan's output for the last 30 years...).

Tho' I do want to see Lars Von Trier's Antichrist. I will, too, at the nearest possible convenience; whatever might be said about him, he seems remarkably resistant to becoming lazy. And I badly want to see The Yes Men Fix The World, if it gets another screening. I assume my interest in these films requires no explanation.

Oh, and I do want to see 2012. Not because I actually want to see it, you understand, but because I'm fascinated by all this apocalypse-mongering going on. It disturbs me, confuses me: I feel like we've started praying for death, as a culture, and that this is the hidden subtext of such films as Knowing, the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Day After Tomorrow - or a hundred doomsaying documentaries that have been made in the last few years (including Collapse, dammit - it's just a more personalized version of the bad news). We want some grand self-purging apocalypse to wipe humanity out, or reduce us to workable numbers, maybe so that the survivors (whose number we imagine ourselves among in the vast majority of such films) can have a shot at a higher standard of living. I think even the recent popularity of zombie movies is evidence of this morbid apocalyptic streak; few rival the original Dawn Of The Dead as a manifestation of such a trend. If films like True Lies, The Siege, and so forth read now from the vantage of hindsight like dress rehearsals for 9/11, I quake to see what 2012 is a rehearsal for...

...and speaking of the apocalypse, I do want to see The Road. And I kinda want to see The Fourth Kind, since Elias Koteas has a lead role (the list of actors whose work is so interesting that I will see anything they are in is very, very small, but Koteas is one of them. Have you seen Hit Me? - a charming, if imperfect, adaptation of Jim Thompson's A Swell-Looking Babe, with Koteas in the lead? It's one of the better contemporary noirs).

Instead, tonight - and in lieu of a trip to 1067 (which would also have entailed a visit with a ladyfriend I'd like to have seen, I should note), after visiting the hospital and consulting with various people about father, I went grocery shopping for my Mom, cooked dinner, took out two shopping carts' worth of the garbage of the seniors in this building, locked up the laundry room, and ultimately - after joining Mom for her evening ritual of Deal Or No Deal, Wheel Of Fortune, and Jeopardy, I watched Trial By Jury, since she likes courtroom thrillers (I'd bought it for her last year and we'd never gotten around to it). It stars Johanne Whalley-Kilmer, Armand Assante, Gabriel Byrne, and William Hurt. It is absolutely fascinating cinema: it's like John Grisham or... - what the fuck do I know about courtroom thrillers? Some guy like that - writing a Harlequin Romance. JWK is a virtuous female and single mother, dig, who is picked for jury duty at the trial of a handsome, charismatic, and sadistic gangster (Assante). One of his thugs is a fallen ex-cop and alcoholic, played by a stunningly good William Hurt (it's very strange watching him actually act; he's been so bad in so many films for so long that you have a hard time believing its him at points; I actually, without irony, enjoyed his performance). He helps turn JWK by threatening her son, and she convinces the jury to acquit Assante; Byrne, the ambitious DA, eventually figures this out - but is powerless to help her. What's hilarious about the film is that it plays as a cynic's version of a female fantasy, where the JWK character gets to seduce each man in turn (including a handsome jury member who I haven't bothered to mention), experience victimization, flirt with evil, try on vintage clothes (twice), redeem her virtue, convince a group of her peers to follow her lead, nearly "rescue" a man in distress, and ultimately single-handedly administer justice to the bad guy, all the while looking out for her son and maintaining an acceptable hairdo. And she does all this without compromising her career or independence (since she ends up alone at the end of the film, no man at her side); she even avoids getting any blood on her when she stabs Assante repeatedly in the neck with an icepick (after seducing him, mind you; they're in bed when she does it, echoing Basic Instinct - the one moment of excess in the film, however bloodless). The film is so transparent in its profile of its target audience and knows so well how to pander to their innermost desires that it should play on a double bill with a Die Hard movie (or perhaps The Last Boyscout), so mainstream couples can see them in a double bill and thus reflect in horror and awe on their partners' psychology. It works its target audience over with such skill and craft, seducing, pleasing, and fleecing them, that you have a new level of respect for prostitutes when the film ends (is it a coincidence that the film begins with a prostitute walking through a hotel?).

My Mom enjoyed the film. In a way, so did I. Especially the cameo by David Cronenberg, just because it makes no sense whatsoever: why the fuck does David Cronenberg appear in a film like this? Can someone explain? (It isn't that he was shooting A History Of Violence at the time and got dragged over to the set by William Hurt, by the way - or that Gabriel Byrne dragged him over from the set of Spider; Cronenberg was between M. Butterfly and Crash when this film came out, in 1994. So far as I know, neither of these films share significant cast members with Trial By Jury - directed by Heywood Gould, by the way, whose connection to Cronenberg, if there is any, is unknown to me).

Anyhow, so I didn't go to 1067 tonight. I wanted to. I hope people who went had a good time. I would not have had a good time, so I can't really say I regret missing the show - not like I would have regretted leaving my mother alone here, at least.

Sorry to Paul and Alex for having missed it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More vocal improv: Phil Minton on Paul Dutton

Vocal improviser Phil Minton just sent me a comment on Paul Dutton, performing tonight at the Railway (and Friday at 1067 with Coat Cooke, Alex Varty and others - see below): "Paul Dutton was the first person I saw singing through his nose, genius." In the next while, I'll be putting my full Phil Minton interview, originally published in Bixobal #2, on my blog to promote his Vancouver Feral Choir performance, being put on by Vancouver New Music.

Don't know that I can make the Railway tonight - apologies to Paul and Roy Miki, both of whom I'd love to see read, but it's a long commute to the suburbs and I'm feeling exhausted and way behind in work. Hope it's a good turnout!

Monday, November 16, 2009

...too early to be awake...

Howling wind, strange (forgotten) dreams, the need to pee: something wakes me at 3AM, and somehow bears with it the certain knowledge that there will be no more sleep tonight. I get out of bed, putter about on the computer for a bit, then - when browning lights make me fear for a blackout and possible damage to the computer - shut it down, get dressed, and - rather than awake my oversensitive, late-rising downstairs neighbour (who has politely requested I not bathe in the mornings) with the noise of cooking, I make my way to Maple Ridge's new Tim Horton's, to try to negotiate the breakfast menu with the ESL student behind the counter. When I ask him "what's on the 'breakfast sandwich,' he offers me a dizzying number of ingredient combinations, without ever once telling me what the usual is. Perhaps there is no usual? I end up ordering egg and sausage on a bagel - and getting exactly that, no tomato, lettuce, butter, spread of any sort, or any of the other accountrements that one might expect on a sandwich. He misses that I request hash browns, though I ask twice, and fills my coffee to the brim, without regard for my plan to add cream (which comes in three tiny creamers), adding a plastic lid that I don't want or need, since I've told him I plan to eat in. I can never quite get with the Timmy's program... but I eat, reading Erich Fromm's The Art Of Loving and sorting out the garbage in my pockets, which was reaching critical mass...

I arrive at the West Coast Express station - wind whipping rain vertically under the hood of my coat - shortly before 5AM, to discover that the station is not prepared for early risers; they have boards with all manner of schedules printed on them, but they're locked up with the ticket machines, and I can't read them through the barrier - though I lean in and squint - to discover when the first train leaves for the city. No other signs are posted anywhere in the station to tell me; apparently, if its off hours, it's none of your business. When the attendant arrives to unlock things - eyeing me suspiciously as I pace on the platform - he ignores a direct question as to what the time is, perhaps taking me for a nut, so early am I there; I feel obliged to flash my monthly farecard at him, and reassure him that I am, in fact, a commuter, which doesn't make him much more sociable. He putters about sweeping up garbage while I check the time on the ticket machines, check the schedule (now that I can get close to it), and find a corner that is lit and sheltered from the wind, there to lean and read and wait.

The Fraser River would be lovely to see on such a day - the water choppy and dramatic - but it's still dark, and remains so when the train arrives, at 5:44. I spent the whole of my weekend either with my parents or running chores for them (including taking out the garbage for the building and setting up Sunday coffee upstairs, since my father is still officially the caretaker). It hasn't quite gotten to feel normal yet, spending this much time with them, but my father is getting sicker and sicker - bone thin, fatigued, and almost unable to eat - so it seems the right thing to do. I bought him a Johnny Cash DVD and we watched it together, and he enjoyed it a great deal...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Yes Men Fix The World

...plays Thursday at 7PM at the Fifth Avenue, as part of the Doc Soup festival. I figured some of you might be interested...

Paul Dutton, Alexander Varty, and more - a 1067 Night not to be missed

Paul Dutton at the Gladstone Art Bar, photo provided by Paul Dutton. Not to be used without permission

Part One: On Paul Dutton

I love vocal improv. (If you're not sure what that means, click here, or here, or here). It's a small, weird niche of the world of improvised music in which the performers' instruments are their mouths. There is something delightfully populist about this, since everyone has a mouth; there's something that appeals to the linguist in me, because not everyone who has a mouth makes - or even can make - the sounds that vocal improvisers make ( least not without a lot of practice). Best, there's something highly enjoyable about the discrepancy between the appearance of the form (by which an uncultured outsider might be forgiven for perceiving it as the stuff of Gong Show eccentricity) and the reality (that the primary exponents are prodigiously talented people who have developed their instrument far beyond the realms of the average person). This is shaping up to be a good winter for those who enjoy this unique art form, since both Paul Dutton (bio here) and Phil Minton will be coming to town in the next couple of months (Dutton next week; Minton will be organizing a Feral Choir performance of locals in late January - see the Vancouver New Music website for more).

A Canadian (yay team!), Dutton has had a long and active career as an improviser and sound poet. He was a member of the vocal improv group Four Horsemen (seen in Ron Mann's film Poetry In Motion; alas, Youtube only offers a defective clip and a manipulated one at present). He's recorded several albums, both solo (Mouth Pieces, say - which you can hear online) and in different units (with CCMC, alongside John Oswald and Michael Snow, say). He's even jammed with Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo, as part of a very enjoyable performance at the No Music Festival 2000, released as part of a box set by the Nihilist Spasm Band). He's written novels and published poetry and is an articulate defender of Canadian arts funding - one of those standing in the path of the neoliberal juggernaut that is determined to mow down anything that separates Canada from our market-worshipping neighbours to the south (Dutton notes that the recent "B.C cuts leave me speechless with disgust, despair, sadness.")

Some of the more delightful qualities of vocal improv are visible in an anecdote Dutton relates about the recording of Five Men Singing (one of the most engaging vocal improv CDs out there, featuring Dutton in collaboration with Jaap Blonk, Koichi Makigami, David Moss and Phil Minton; I'd actually asked if he had a Phil Minton story, thinking ahead to Minton's upcoming event.) He wrote: "in one of the Five Men Singing performances, during which, as is my habit, I was singing with my eyes closed, there came one of the points where we’d left space amid our structured pieces for spontaneous solos or duos or whatever materialized. I was thinking what a nice bit Phil and David Moss were doing together to the left of me, and when I opened my eyes and glanced over, there was David staring mutely off into the distance. What I thought was a duet was Phil singing univocal intervals."

The news: Paul Dutton will be coming through Vancouver as part of a west coast mini-tour that saw him at the Poetry Gabriola Festival this weekend. On Tuesday, November 17th - from 6:30 to 8:30 - he'll be performing for free at the Shortline Reading Series at the Railway Club (579 Dunsmuir St. @ Seymour); the first set will feature Christine Leclerc and Jen Currin, and the second, Dutton and Roy Miki (whom I know better as an SFU prof - he taught a highly politicized Asian-Canadian lit class I took that was one of the most provocative, memorable, and at times maddening courses I encountered at university; he was also one of those behind the movement to get reparations for Japanese Canadians for their internment, and wrote a book on the topic, Redress: Inside The Japanese-Canadian Call For Justice). This will be the first time Dutton has shared a bill with Miki and his first Shortline Reading Series appearance.

More of interest to music fans: thereafter, on Friday November 20th, either starting at 9 or 10 depending on your sources, Dutton tells me he will be part of "two sets of free improv in a trio-plus setting," featuring Alex Varty (guitar) and Coat Cooke (saxes), and Dutton on "soundsinging and mouth harp," at what is being described as the "1067 Loft." I do not know if "Loft" indicates a different space from the one normally used; the entrance is now around the FRONT, I'm told. This is "a free-admission private party" - donations at your discretion - "that anyone can come to (you'll be greeted at the door!)."

I asked Paul if he has any special way of preparing for musical performances. "I’ll prepare for the performance as I would for any free improv performance: by not thinking about it. Same for the poetry reading. Generally for readings, I decide what to read just before going on stage. Sometimes I do a set list, but don’t necessarily stick to it." Dutton may or may not have recordings with him - I highly recommend Mouth Pieces, the CCMC CDs, and Five Men Singing. He tells me he is currently "planning a trio recording with guitarist Tim Posgate and cellist Cheryl Ockrant, for which we’ll collectively improvise, amidst which I’ll also read poems, a new blend for me. I’m planning a book of collected essays, and a new collection of poems. Some time yet before they’ll materialize."

By the way, did anyone else perk up to note that Alex Varty will be performing?

Alex Varty, photograph copyright Victor Anthony 2009; used with permission, from his Gabriola Daily Photo blog

Part Two: On Alex Varty

In his writing for the Georgia Straight, Alex Varty sets the standard for writing about avant garde music in Vancouver - a standard I cheerfully admit not to have reached, myself, and never will, since he's an accomplished musician and I just plain ain't. When one hears people praising the Straight, he gets mentioned quickly. When one hears people dissing the Straight, he is immediately brought up as an exception. Varty has performed with a great number of people on the Vancouver scene, including AKA, Resin, Dog Eat Dogma, The Generators, Tim Ray (at times alongside Scott Harding or Pointed Sticks guitarist Bill Napier-Hemy; see here for a link to iTunes downloads of some of these sessions), Tunnel Canary, poets Julie Vik and (Alex's partner) Hilary Peach, and... hell, I don't know the whole of it, actually. (He was part of Mark Spybey's Propellor project for awhile, too, if memory serves.)

Alex Varty with AKA onstage at the Commodore, opening for Capt. Beefheart, Jan 16, 1981; taken by Bev Davies; not to be used without permission

Alex Varty tells me he's never actually met Paul Dutton, "but I've been familiar with some aspects of his work for maybe 25 years, especially with the Four Horsemen. Coat Cooke set the gig up, and I don't know why he thought I'd be a good guitarist for it; I'm flattered, and somewhat terrified, and a bit out of practice. I've got three shows to play this week, two of them improv-oriented, so I should be in better shape by the 20th."

Has Alex performed with many vocal improvisers before? "Not many but some: back in the punk-rock days with Dense Milt (AKA), Randy Pandora (Generators), and Ebra Wiwchar (Tunnel Canary), and slightly later (once only) with Al Neil, all of whom included vocal improvisation as part of their performance repertoire. More recently I've been performing in Suitcase Local, a trio with percussionist/renaissance man Andreas Kahre and my partner Hilary Peach ( Hilary's more into slightly surreal semi-narrative epic monologues, but uses vocal improvisation as part of her creative process and occasionally on stage. She also used to be part of a polyvocal improvising quartet in Vancouver. I've enjoyed two or three entertaining performance encounters with bill bissett; there's something about the combination of his lunarian chanting and my prepared table-steel guitar that seems to work. We even had one person streak us at a show on Gabriola, but apparently that had more to do with bill's magnetic charm than the music...the guilty party had streaked bill before."

Varty, like myself, feels an affinity for vocal improv. I ask if he's tried it himself. "Yes, but not in public."

Does he have a favourite performer or recording in the genre?

"Its charms tend to resist recording, I think, but then I think that of much (but not all) free improv. Favourite performers? Everyone already mentioned, Phil Minton, dB Boyko and Christine Duncan (singly or together), Vivian Houle, D. Kimm, Genevieve Letarte, Tenko, Jaap Blonk, David Moss, Kedrick James, Yoko Ono, Alexis O'Hara, Al Neil, Mike Patton, Mary Margaret O'Hara...and Don Van Vliet." (AKA opened for Captain Beefheart in 1981 at the Commodore, for the Doc At The Radar Station tour). Favourite vocal improv shows seen include "dB and Christine performing as Idiolalla on Gabriola for a very middle-aged, middle-class audience, most of whom got into it...although one elderly woman later said she didn't like 'all that lesbian stuff', waggling her tongue to illustrate." Like me, Varty is much looking forward to Phil Minton's Feral Choir, telling me, "I met Phil a long time ago when I was working at the Western Front, and am continually inspired by his fearlessness."

I asked about the guitar Alex will be playing for the 1067 performance. "Maybe a new Stratocaster-type guitar that ace tech Paul Iverson just assembled that uses an intricate switching system to get a bunch of sounds not normally associated with Fender-style was my idea to do this, although I stole the circuitry from someone who had stolen it from Queen's Brian May. No real history with the guitar though - I've only had it a couple of months. If I'm feeling rugged I might also bring along my 40-pound Rickenbacker table steel from the 1950s, which I prepare a la John Cage or Keith Rowe, with paper clips, bits of metal, secondary bridges, small electric motors, etc." (Varty tells me incidentally that Keith Rowe was an influence on Syd Barrett. I'd had no idea).

AKA, same show as above, by Bev Davies. Not to be used without permission.

There are apparently plans afoot to reissue some AKA recordings. Anything else? "I'm not really that interested in documenting my playing, although a couple of people close to me are saying I should do some kind of solo CD. Maybe if they get really pushy? But, basically I don't think I'm all that special...and, unfortunately, this is not false modesty. It's probably telling that I have a house full of instruments and no recording technology other than what I use for doing interviews..."

Though I've read countless of his articles, it will be my first time seeing Alex Varty play guitar on the 20th. Hopefully I can find a way to get back to the suburbs thereafter. I do not want to miss this show, and highly recommend those of you less geographically disadvantaged get out to see it, too.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Second thoughts on The Men Who Stare At Goats...

I thoroughly enjoyed the film The Men Who Stare At Goats, but after reading Jon Ronson's book, on which it is based, I'm not sure how I feel about it.

The book ends up being a much more disturbing affair. While the first half of the book, at least, echoes Ronson's previous (very funny) Them: Adventures With Extremists in maintaining a light, quizzical, often mocking tone, The Men Who Stare At Goats eventually takes us to much darker and more disturbing places, Ronson's humour withering away as he discusses Abu Ghraib, or recounts the experiences of an innocent Brit who ended up in Guantanamo Bay, who appears to have been targeted with subliminal messages buried in music - something Ronson makes quite believable, suggesting that US interest in mind control didn't die out with the Cold War. Climactically and most relevantly, he introduces us to Eric Olson, the son of Frank Olson, the military scientist who died as a result of his involvement with MK ULTRA, the most famed of the CIA experiments into mind control. Though conventional versions of the story - including that recounted in The Search For The Manchurian Candidate - suggest that Olson freaked out under some acid he was surreptitiously dosed with and, a few days later, killed himself by jumping out a window, Eric Olson believes his father was, in fact, murdered, to keep him from leaking what he knew about Project ARTICHOKE, an even more disturbing secret venture by the CIA into mind control. A reasonable amount of evidence seems to support this theory, and Ronson's smirk is nowhere to be found as he recounts it. The book begins, as does the movie, cutely and implausibly, with a general attempting (and failing) to walk through a wall, but rather than the silly feelgood ending of the film, it leaves me feeling like I've been hanging out with a certain drummer/editor/writer I know, worrying that underneath the surfaces of the world we take for granted, at the deepest levels of state (and economic) power, there are some very perverse and evil things afoot, things that people are nowhere near as concerned about as they should be.
So what do I make of the movie now that I've read the book? It's pretty trivial, by comparison, taking a story that should be unsettling in the extreme and making a light entertainment of it - one that I thoroughly enjoyed, but... I'm not sure that's actually an appropriate reaction to this material. I suppose it's rather a good thing that a movie being widely distributed even acknowledges the existence of MK ULTRA, but that doesn't necessarily make it radical filmmaking. One of the more interesting passages of the book - and perhaps the fulcrum point at which it stops being amusing - is Ronson noting that almost every media representation of the famed use of the Barney theme as an instrument of torture presented it as a cute oddity, instructing us even as they informed us that such things were in no way worthy of serious concern. Does the film fall victim to the same tendency, making a cute oddity out of a story that is ultimately much more troubling?
I'm not sure. Guess I'll have to see it again.

So much for the great brown hope...

I've written off Barack Obama. Guantanamo Bay is functioning still, and will be past his previously announced sell-by date, but in the name of shutting it down, five of its key "detainees" will be tried IN NEW YORK, the last place on earth they could get a fair trial - including former child soldier and Canadian citizen Omar Khadr. Who has been tortured and illegally held for 8 years in Gitmo, and could now still face the death penalty. Fuck Obama - it's Bush-lite, maybe, but it's still the same monstrous machine he's at the wheel of. (Meantime, our own government is rejecting arguments to repatriate Khadr... even tho', even if he WAS implicated in killing a soldier, he was a child at the time, under the influence of his Al Qaida father, and on some level - one that no one mentions - merely defending his country against a foreign assault - the criminality of which I have a hard time fitting my mind around. Just because the US decides to invade a country, it doesn't follow that it's illegal to resist that invasion, does it? Is our standard of law entirely dictated by US military ambitions?).

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Slickity Jim's, Lugz - victims of fire

Sad, bad news for those of you who live near Main and Broadway: a fire is blazing through the Southwest corner. I've been to a couple of shows at Slickity Jim's (Brian Goble of the Subhumans; the Minimalist Jug Band and Petunia - that latter being a night Femke and I documented) and loved the food and the atmosphere. Here's hoping it isn't totally destroyed, though it sounds pretty bad... My condolences to those affected.

...oh, speaking of Brian Goble, Rude Norton will play the El Dorado (2330 Kingsway) on the 20th...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Men Who Stare At Goats

This film is not being appreciated properly. I do not have a great deal to say about it, but I'd like to clear up some lazy observations circling around it in the critical cesspool that is Rottentomatoes, because they might prevent people who would enjoy this film from seeing it.

A) The Men Who Stare At Goats is not a romp, poking fun at US intelligence by looking at its lunatic fringe. Jon Ronson's book might do that - I dunno, I've only read Them, but that book certainly exists primarily to poke fun at its targets (which it does wonderfully well, I might add, and is a significant and brave thing to do, since these are some very extreme people he's dealing with). The film actually has a theme it appears to care about, which is being given short-shrift in most writings I've seen on it - a sad, significant theme: what's happened to America? What do the 1960's mean, in light of subsequent developments? Can anything be salvaged from that time? How? If these questions mean anything to you - and they do to me - its a film that will probably win your sympathies, regardless of how it is being received.

B) Despite what nearly every critic is saying, Heslov in no way appears to be attempting to make a Coen-esque film - not even Burn After Reading. There is not a trace of the Coen's smug misanthropy, nor their often purposeless "lets have cinematic fun" tone, which allows them to frequently make movies that they don't seem to mean. (...Because many of their films have no theme or purpose that they appear to have considered deeply; at their least, the Coens are all about throwing together goofy images and following their perverse muse wherever it may lead. If O Brother Where Art Thou or Barton Fink, for instance, can actually be said to be "about" anything, it's not through any great intentional crafting on the part of the Coens - they're meanings we have to impose on them at the end, often with the Coens trying hard to foil us in the attempt. The dead bird that falls from the sky at the end of Barton Fink, in fact, seems to be a little grace note letting us know that the Coens' have contempt for anyone who tries to take the film seriously. Nowhere is this sort of contempt for meaning-making apparent in The Men Who Stare At Goats).
C) The performances are being read wrongly, in part because of the lead actors' past roles. The film actually might be setting a bit of a hurdle for itself, here. Case in point is casting Ewen "Obi-wan" MacGregor as someone investigating a group whose members call themselves Jedis. There is a chuckle to be had here, to be sure - but the film is trying, overall, to pose serious questions about what happened to American idealism; how it got co-opted (or hijacked?) by corporate greed, cynicism, and bitterness (symbolized for the most part by Kevin Spacey's character). Making a cute casting decision like this throws a crumb to comedy-seekers, but if anything, is a distraction from the main point of the film and should not be made much of. Likewise, George Clooney is not meant to be "zany," like he was in varied Coen films... and most significantly, Jeff Bridges is NOT channeling Lebowski. See above, on the Coens vs. Heslov - Lebowski is just a joke, a gag character, a Coenesque indulgence, but Bill Django is, in the flashbacks, a sincere (if naive) idealist who (in the "present time" of the story) is profoundly disappointed and dismayed by what has happened to the dreams and ideals he had triumphed. His character is a significant and very sad commentary on America today; it's almost a shame people are getting distracted by his long hair and hippiesh manner, but this seems more down to critical/viewer laziness than any fault on Heslov's part. I don't believe the word "dude" appears once in the film, thank God.
D) ...and if various elements in the film don't work so well - the rather absurd backstory provided MacGregor's character, say, or the less-than-satisfying, perhaps even ironically goofy "feelgood" climax (involving a barnful of goats and various orange-jumpered Iraqis who have been tortured to the Barney theme) - this is because, to some extent, they are not so very important, and the filmmakers know it. It doesn't matter in the slightest that we be involved in MacGregor's backstory, and it would actually be counterproductive if the climax were so satisfying it resolved all the troubling stuff that had gone before it - because the issues this film deals with are in no way resolved in reality; Guantanamo Bay is still functional, remember. To say that these passages compromise the film is to fail to recognize that they are very-near throwaways, inessential distractions from the business at hand. Unlike the contempt-for-meaning gags we see in the Coens' films, what we see here is a film that is so intent on framing its central questions that it doesn't want to waste time on trivia, and so fills in inessential spaces with light comedy, not believable enough, it hopes, to distract us from "the important stuff," merely enough to keep the narrative moving along. Intelligent viewers should perceive this and forgive the film its occasional silliness.

The Men Who Stare At Goats is a significant film, worthy of respect, and of smarter criticism than is being directed at it. It's probably one of the few films at the multiplex at the moment that is about anything at all - that isn't just more reactionary Hollywood mind-control-cum-pandering. People for whom the above review resonates should not feel worried about seeing it; it's very likely better than they think, and certainly nowhere near as bad as they fear.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Magnificent Obsession at the Cinematheque

With little ability to stay in the city for concerts or even late movies, parents who need my help nightly, several hours of commuting added to my day, and as big a workload at school as I've ever had, it seems like my subject matter will have to shift away from live music reviews and reports on things happening in the city more towards CD and movie reviews - since I can listen to CDs and watch DVDs without having to stay late anywhere. So here's another plug for an upcoming film at the Cinematheque: Magnificent Obsession, by Douglas Sirk, playing on the afternoon of November 17th. I just re-watched it tonight with my ailing parents. Father, tho' very ill, stayed awake throughout, and Mom - though she had difficulty producing the sentence, given her aphasia - at the end commented that they "don't make them like that anymore." The best measure of how effective a piece of filmmaking Magnificent Obsession is, is that it takes a completely unbelievable chain of events and makes them... completely believable.

Spoilers follow - highlight the paragraph below to read it, if you don't care:

Spoiled millionaire playboy Rock Hudson cracks up his boat, and because emergency medical equipment is needed to save his life, a philanthropic doctor dies of a heart attack, not having access to that same equipment. The playboy, recovering at the hospital run by the late doctor, meets and is smitten with his widow (Jane Wyman, also from Sirk's All That Heaven Allows), not realizing it is she. When he figures it out, he tries to buy off his guilt by donating money to the hospital; she rebuffs him in contempt. Guilt ridden and deeply troubled by the chain of events, after a drunken accident, he learns from a former friend of the the dead doctor that his philosophy involved selfless service to others. The playboy tries to imitate it, because he wants to be made right with the widow, and also because he remains smitten, but he selfishly bungles his gesture and, instead of being rewarded with love and forgiveness, accidentally BLINDS the widow (don't ask me to make it plausible - he just does). But because she's blind, she doesn't realize that he returns to her yet again, courting her under an assumed name whilst slowly taking the principles of philanthropy more seriously, secretly pulling strings to make it possible for her to go to Europe for an operation that might restore her sight. All the while, he has renewed his interest in medicine, previously abandoned for his life of debauchery, and is studying to become a neurosurgeon. When he hears that the operation cannot be performed, he flies to Europe to console her, and they have one wonderful night together, during which he confesses his identity and proposes marriage. She is now in love with him, and forgives him all past wrongs, but cannot be with him, and flees. Years later, he is a practicing neurosurgeon, and hears of her again - she is in a distant hospital in a coma; it seems that the old injury has led to a new and life-threatening condition. He flies to her, performs an operation to save her life and restore her sight, and she wakes to proclaim her love for him. Happily ever after: amen.

Judged by any standard of realism, it's an absurd story; adults should not be able to suspend their disbelief long enough to swallow it. I doubt the average Harlequin Romance is so implausible. But Magnificent Obsession works; it somehow invites our complicity by telling us such a morally uplifting and inspiring tale (infused with "deep irony," it's said, tho' I'm not quite sure where) that audiences still are willing to go along with it, all these years later (tho' it does have a couple of dated moments that will doubtlessly make attendees chortle). It is also romantic, elegantly structured, beautifully photographed (in gorgeous/garish Technicolour), and delightful as cinema. It has less of the social critique of American values that one expects from Sirk - there's no querying of racism, sexism, ageism, or business ethics, and about the only way to view it as a political film is to see the young Rock Hudson as a symbol for America itself - rich and spoiled, immature, arrogant and reckless. But that's potent enough - call it a portrait of what America would look like if it really were informed by Christian principles. It would require a radical change in course - then as now...

By the way, take heart, if you cannot make it on a workday afternoon to the cinema: it is also available as a Criterion DVD. They really don't make them like this anymore...

More Mike Ruppert, dammit

So in my idle time, I've been reading a bit online. Anonymous friends of mine have been slowly seducing me towards views I would normally have scoffed at; intrigued and slightly alarmed by the fact that Mike Ruppert, in the new sky-is-falling documentary Collapse (reviewed below, and coming soon to the Vancity Theatre), actually says pretty much nothing that I disagree with or take exception to, I've been reading some of his old articles - like this one, on insider trading before 9/11. It's chilling. Fuck controlled demolitions, missiles hitting the Pentagon, and anything that has ever been yelled through a bullhorn; this is plausible 9/11 conspiracy writing. Granted, Ruppert has distanced himself from the 9/11 truth movement, and I'm a long way from plastering a "9/11 was an inside job" sticker on my forehead, but more and more, the people who brutally assault the 9/11 truthers online seem histrionic and smug; there seems something suspiciously defensive about their vituperative unwillingness to even entertain the possibility that the government's dishonesty about 9/11 didn't just begin after the fact. Anti-truthers, shall we call them, seem mostly like they just don't want to go there lest it upset their comfortable world view, scare them too much about how things might actually be... Because if the world isn't flat and the earth isn't the centre of the universe, then what? I think I'm starting to find them as distasteful as the Alex Jones crew.

Jeezus... what am I becoming?
Further: sent by a different friend, also pertaining to peak oil: an interesting article about how the US has been fudging figures to make it seem like there's a lot more oil in the world than there actually is.
...Well, it beats panicking about swine flu.

Movie marathons at the Cinematheque

Ambitious cinephiles of Vancouver should be aware of two movie marathons upcoming at the Cinematheque. I wrote about The Human Condition here, though really I'd recommend Glenn Erickson's review over mine, since it's much more thorough; I still haven't made it through the second two films. The Human Condition is ten hours long and will screen over the whole of Remembrance Day, suiting its anti-war, anti-military themes. (People interested in an equally exceptional but not so daunting film experience that day are also directed to Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line at the Vancity, one of the most poetic and philosophical films ever made about war and surely one of the greatest works of cinema of the 1990's, playing in a 35mm print). People interested in the other side of the Japanese experience of WWII are directed to the James Clavell version of the Japanese internment in BC (!), The Sweet And The Bitter, presented by Michael Turner, at the Cinematheque on December 10th.

A very different kind of cinematic marathon will occur on Sunday the 15th, with Matthew Barney's whole Cremaster cycle playing (official site here). Having seen none of the Cremaster films, I am a tad skeptical: critical response to Cremaster seems to polarize. Christopher Null of - chosen as a random sample of a negative review off Rottentomatoes - calls Barney's work "pretentious nonsense, taken to its embarassing extreme in an attempt to pose as a legitimate movie;" Anton Bitel of Movie Gazette - who gives an overview of the whole cycle - calls the Cremaster movies a thing of "rare beauty and great wonder, making a unique viewing experience that is not easily forgotten" (though he also counsels patience). I am entirely uncertain what my response will be; the stills I've seen certainly seem striking, but I am not always a particularly patient viewer... Sunday seems like a good day to try it on.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Tom Cruise is still alive (I guess)

Every morning, there are websites I peek in at. After I check my email, I almost always look at for the daily Engrish. I usually scan the News1130 headlines to see if, amidst the uniformly depressing stories of murders, rapes, burglaries, arsons, and car accidents (the only news that's fit to print is bad news, apparently), there is something Vancouver-related that I need to know about. And I check in with Wikipedia recent deaths, usually posting a little RIP here if someone I care about passes (tho' I neglected to mention Sirone's death a couple of weeks ago, I realize now, mostly because I didn't figure any of my blog readers would know who Sirone was). Very occasionally, you'll catch a bogus death report that someone has posted for a laugh; usually, these are removed within minutes.

Today, just a few minutes ago, a report that Tom Cruise had died at age 47 of cardiac arrest on a plane to Hong Kong lingered briefly at the top of the page. I must confess it: I felt a flickering of hope that it was not a hoax. Granted, the media frenzy around that sad deformity of the spirit, Michael Jackson, since his departure proves that death is no remedy to the problem of overhyped, insane celebrities fouling the world with their presence, but the thought of a planet without Tom Cruise briefly warmed my heart. Could it be? I promptly searched Yahoo News, but no one else was reporting it, and now it's been taken off the board. Looks like Tom Cruise is still alive.

But I'll check in again with Wikipedia Recent Deaths in a couple of hours, just to be sure...

Monday, November 02, 2009

Collapse: coming soon to a civilization near you

Michael Ruppert in Collapse

There are various homilies that I have come to value as offering useful assitance in life. "Never ask anything of a folly save what it accomplishes" is one. Another comes from everyone's favourite aged reprobate, William S. Burroughs, from his "Words Of Advice:" "Beware of whores who say they don't want money. The hell they don't. What they mean is, they want more money. Much more." The logic of this latter quote can be productively applied to Michael Ruppert: anyone who calls his publication (newsletter, blog, what-have-you) "From The Wilderness" absolutely craves mainstream validation.

If so, Michael Ruppert's moment in the sun - if he's ever going to have one - may be just around the corner, as a new documentary, Collapse - starting November 17th at the Vancity Theatre - brings his theories to the widest audience they have yet received. In the film, Ruppert is given close to 90 minutes to present an articulate, provocative argument for his rather grim prognosis for the world, once oil supplies run out - a view my Mom, still with limited language abilities since her stroke, summarized, most articulately, after we watched the film last night, as "Doom, doom, doom." (My father was more impressed - noting Ruppert's egomania but not being bothered by it, rather to his surprise). The film resembles an Errol Morris doc, right down to the Philip Glass-esque score; is concise; and director Chris Smith (American Movie) is reasonably supportive of Ruppert - though he does catch him in one rather embarrassing non-sequitur. A bit of illustrative archival footage aside - including film of a younger Ruppert in action - it's mostly just Ruppert talking (and chainsmoking with a conviction seen by few).

For those of you who don't know of him: Ruppert is an ex-cop and writer who has been doomsaying and engaging in provocative political muckraking, whistleblowing, speculation and prediction with fervour and passion for around 15 years, beginning with his assertions that the CIA were involved in drug sales in Los Angeles - which got him thrown off the force and, he says, shot at. He wrote one book embracing a variant of 9/11 conspiracy theory, which he has now apparently thrown out - having found the baby in the bathwater, which is the concept of peak oil. As we presume is now reflected in his more recent A Presidential Energy Policy, he believes - and it's hardly that marginalized or radical a view, even if there are many millions of people who have not yet seriously considered it - that we're headed for a global economic disaster, as known oil reserves run out and new ones cease to materialize. Ruppert doesn't place much stock in any of the most popular alternative sources of energy, doesn't see our society preparing itself as earnestly as it should be, and accuses various figures at the top of concealing the truth from the public and failing to respond appropriately to the true crisis that faces us.
Well, fair enough. "Even a broken clock is right twice a day" - a homily I have applied to Ruppert many a time; if his "connect-the-dots" logic is quintessential conspiracy-think, that doesn't mean he's wrong. The truth is, Ruppert doesn't even seem all that broken in this film... tho' there is one point where he starts sobbing, having made a pronouncement about how tribal values and family commitments are the things that will see us through these hard times, not the "rugged individualism" of the past. He apologizes briefly, saying "he has emotions" about these matters, before the tears start. I will leave it to others to say whether this is a) Ruppert's sincere and touching expression of feelings about the value of human community; b) a sham of the same, designed to make him seem sympathetic; or c) an eruption of self-pity that his own "rugged individualism" should be, by his own predictions, outmoded. It does suggest that the personal stakes Ruppert has in his views are fairly high; but if he has hearty ego investments in his apocalyptic pronouncements, that's also not necessarily to be held against him - the human ego can inform all manner of human behaviour, including the desire to save the world, or at least convince it that it's in deep trouble. By the end of the film, you almost want the world to collapse, just so Ruppert can feel vindicated...

In any event, the film is compelling. If you enjoyed any of Errol Morris' docs focusing on single subjects, or James Toback's Tyson, or if you're just of a grim apocalyptic mindset and want to be cheered by hearing how bad things could get, you should definitely see Collapse. It seems that Ruppert's own personal "peak oil" - the moment at which he will command the maximum amount of attention and respect he will ever get - is approaching. He would never be commanding this degree of attention were it not for the world's recent economic woes, which, he says had been anticipating for some time (along with dozens of other less vocal but equally intelligent observers of the planet). People are just scared enough that they may well be ready to embrace this once marginal figure. Maybe it'll even do the masses some good - beats the shit out of gobbling up crap like The DaVinci Code, anyhow. Even if nothing he says is that revelatory, having the bad news laid out to you by a man so passionate is not a bad thing.
Read more about Collapse, or view the trailer, at the official site.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

London After Midnight plus more (Vampyre Weekend ends tonight!)

Okay, folks - last chance for some vampire action, tonight at the Vancity. There will be a reconstruction (from stills) of Tod Browning's legendary "lost" film, London After Midnight - with Lon Chaney Sr. in a makeup job so famous (see above) that his image has survived the loss of the film. The screening will be introduced by film historian Rick Schmidlin, who was also involved in the reconstructions of Greed and Touch of Evil. After that, it's Mark Of The Vampire - with Bela Lugosi; David Cronenberg's Rabid, starring the late Marilyn Chambers in a rare non-pornographic role; and Ganja & Hess, which stars Duane Jones, the hero of the original Night Of The Living Dead. I wrote about Rabid below, and Adrian Mack left a comment about Ganja & Hess - though I believe he'll be unable to attend tonight's screening. I am not quite sure when my household chores will be done for the day - much to do, much to do - but I will be making my way out from Maple-fucking-Ridge to see at least two of these films, dammit. Hope to see some other people there, too!

Vampires Vs. Granville Street

Sigh. A couple dozen folks came out for the relatively recent Let The Right One In tonight at the Vancity Theatre, but attendance was very disappointing for Martin (my fondness for which I detailed in a previous post) and (the highly compelling) Habit - the two other films I could stay through and still make my bus home. I live in fear that the Vancity Theatre - the theatre with the most comfortable seats, nicest screen, most welcoming staff and some of the best programming in the city - will eventually be driven under by lackluster attendance; I imagine Suspiria was fairly well-attended at the Cinematheque, but somehow movie lovers just don't come out in the same numbers to the Vancity. I'd kind of suggested the idea of Martin a few months ago on this very blog, in fact, so I was particularly disappointed, looking around at the mostly bare seats. I imagine even The Rio regularly nets more attendees for their relatively unimaginative midnight movie fare...

Afterwards, as if to rub in that my cinephilia is somehow outmoded, aberrant, an atavism, I then had to walk to my bus - since I included a pizza pitstop - through the horrors of the Granville corridor, where what seemed thousands of yelling, drunken young idiots had descended to celebrate Hallowe'en and try to get fucked. The costumes, oddly, didn't make it particularly stranger than your average night in the "entertainment district." It fills me with despair to contemplate the values of the people on that street - the shallowness of their self-display, their general lack of manners, taste, or tact, and most of all the hideous apelike whooping sounds they make... I fear for the future of Vancouver's cultural life; one senses it will only get worse.

On the way back to the suburbs, I listened to GG Allin sing Warren Zevon's "Carmelita" over and over and felt melancholy...