Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Exhausted and sore

Jeezus. First day back to real work. Yesterday was intake for new students, which I partook in, but today I was actually in class, morning and afternoon - my first day back since late November. My throat feels fucking RAW, which observation, in the presence of my many Asian students, I kept translating inwardly into Japanese ("nodo ga itai"), while straining to project my voice so that everyone could hear me. I will slowly adjust over the next few weeks, but in the meantime might even lose my voice entirely, as has happened more than once when I've returned after an absence. It makes me wonder how people like Max Cavalera of Soulfly (performing tonight at the Venue; see below for a link to my Straight interview with him) manage to do it; if and when he takes time off, how does he manage to get back onstage and bellow like he does without completely going raw?

I've been looking forward to tonight's Soulfly show, but at the moment, I really have my doubts I'll be able to make it. How I wish that my workplace - like the high school I taught at in Japan - had a teacher's lounge with an easy chair or couch or such, something that I could sink back into and relax for awhile. A nap would be thoroughly welcome...

Monday, March 29, 2010

Strange dream...

Odd to wake myself up thus: I was, in the dream, walking in the forest in the evening - I think on a trail in Stanley Park. There were different people with dogs also on the trail, and I stopped to pet one. Later, I was chatting with a woman with a particularly handsome, big dog of a breed I cannot determine - perhaps part Rottweiler, but very friendly. I was sitting on a bench. Suddenly the dog began to whimper and ran behind the bench, apparently afraid of something approaching through the forest. Rather than feeling fear myself, I chose to mock the dog, making a whimpering sound myself, loud in my throat. I'm not sure if I actually made a sound as I slept, but the sensation was enough to wake me. Just as well - whatever was coming through the forest couldn't have been good.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Soulfly in the Straight...

Just briefly - my Max Cavalera interview is in this week's Straight. Cavalera is the former frontman of Sepultura and currently works in two bands, the Cavalera Conspiracy, with his brother Iggor, and Soulfly - who play The Venue on March 30th, with a new album, Omen, slated for release this spring.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Fake Jazz Festival: There Will Be Pancakes

The pancakes at the first ever Vancouver noise pancake event at Blim a few years ago, plus a pic of the self-proclaimed head pancake chef in his Nihilist Spasm Band t-shirt. The damn thing bleeds red ink to this day and must be hand-washed in the bathtub.

The Fake Jazz Festival starts this week, at different venues around town, corresponding on the weekend with the Western Front's Not The Noise series and a performance by KK Null. There will be pancakes on Sunday at the Casa Del Artista - the Front's website mistakenly states that the pancakes and noise happen sequentially (pancakes from 1pm, noise from 6pm) but I assure you as long-standing noise pancake chef that that is not the case: the whole point is to have the noise and the pancakes simultaneously, and I'm told by Anju that the pancakes in this case will correspond to performances by Coingutter and Ejaculation Death Rattle. I sneakingly suspect that in fact the demand for pancakes among noise fans will keep us flipping until far later into the performances.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Fourth Kind DVD review. Sort of.

I would briefly like to ruin the critically despised The Fourth Kind, for the sake of anyone contemplating renting the DVD. If you're dead set on doing so, be my guest, but don't read what follows until afterwards... The film, a UFO abduction thriller, purports to be based on actual events, and goes to great length to convince us of its veracity, using split screens to show admitted re-enactments alongside "actual" archival footage showing nearly identical "home video" versions of what we're seeing (mostly hypnotherapy sessions that go very weird). It swears up and down that what it is showing us is true. As any viewer with a few firing brain cells will strongly suspect while watching the film, none of it is. Dr. Abigail Tyler does not exist, is being played by an actress whose name is known, and the various news stories Universal planted online to virally suggest, a la The Blair Witch Project, that the events in the film are real, led to a lawsuit and a settlement. The initial debunker of the film appears to be an Anchorage journalist named Kyle Hopkins; his original article is here. More links to people debunking the film are on the Wikipedia page. The film is entertaining, if you have a taste for brainless hysteria, but the most interesting thing about The Fourth Kind, in fact, is observing the ridiculous lengths the filmmakers go to to make us believe that what we are seeing really happened; they place so much weight on this angle, in fact - explaining that the actors are merely actors every time they appear (except for the ones playing Abigail Tyler or her hypnotized "real" patients); announcing each tape recording or video clip used within the film as being actual archival material - that once one discovers it was all crap, the film entirely collapses, becomes nothing more than an immense gimmick, akin to a very elaborate instance of someone pointing in the sky, saying "it's a UFO!" and, when you turn your head, going, "Ha ha - made you look!" Also noteworthy in being a career low for Elias Koteas and Will Patton, tho' perhaps it's a step up from the Resident Evil movies for poor Milla. You have been warned.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

RIP Alex Chilton

Wow: apparently Alex Chilton just died at 59 of a presumed heart attack. If you don't know his music, and appreciate pop craftsmanship and American singer/songwriter stuff, you should spend a few minutes on him. You needn't, in my opinion anyways, spend a lot of time on the Box Tops; check out this vintage footage of Big Star, with Chilton singing "Thank You Friends;" or, say, the even better songs "The Ballad Of El Goodo" and "September Gurls;" or the fragile, haunting (if sometimes somewhat bitter/maudlin) "Take Care," "Holocaust," "Nighttime," and "Big Black Car," off my favourite album of his career, Big Star's 3rd: Sister Lovers (The 4 Men With Beards vinyl repress sounds great, by the way - I highly recommend it). (I'd also put up a link to "You Get What You Deserve," one of their stronger rock numbers from an earlier Big Star album, but I can't find one). There's also a really good countrified version of his "Free Again" from around this time on Youtube. You should further acknowledge, after Big Star had disintegrated in the mid-1970's - along apparently with Alex - his sloppy rock rave-up years, where I assume he was stoned or drunk in the studio quite often, since he presents as a bit of an indifferent wastrel - tho' there is a careless exuberance to his songs from this period that can be quite delightful, as with "Take Me Home And Make Me Like It" (which I think Art Bergmann could cover credibly) or, say, these three cover songs - climaxing with the terrific "Alligator Man" - from Like Flies On Sherbert (1979), which is taken either as a gem or as excrement by music fans, with little middle ground. There may have been a few lost years thereafter (or at least periods where he wasn't active musically) - I would have to actually read his Wikipedia page to say for sure - but around the time of the Replacements tribute song about him, he had attained enough of a cult status that he enjoyed a comeback and ended up on college charts (and even MTV!) with songs like "No Sex," a reaction to AIDS at the height of the panic. There was even a Big Star reunion and a new studio album, which I confess to not having heard... I really didn't follow his last few years that closely, and never had the opportunity to see him perform, but I've gotten a lot of pleasure from his music over the years, so: my respects to Alex Chilton, those close to him, and his fans, and my sympathies for his too-soon departure. In closing, one last great song by Big Star (tho' I think Chris Bell sings this one): "Try Again."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

(Re)birth of a metalhead

After childhood forays into country music (following my parents' tastes) and radio-friendly pop (my Billy Joel years, back in elementary school), the first form music that I actually took to as an expression of my identity was heavy metal. Back when I was too young to get into clubs, "live music" meant, generally, seeing a big rock act at the Pacific Coliseum. As a teenager, I saw Black Sabbath (on the Mob Rules tour, with Ronnie James Dio), Judas Priest (on the Screaming For Vengeance tour, back before Rob Halford gave a hard jab to his teenaged fans' homophobia and came out of the closet), Iron Maiden (I think touring The Number Of The Beast, but perhaps slightly later, with a giant dancin' Eddie onstage), Van Halen (touring Diver Down - the "Lock Up Your Sheep" tour, as I recall), the Blue Oyster Cult (twice, with the big mechanical Godzilla), and a dozen lesser-known bands like Saxon, Krokus, and Fastway (with Motorhead's former guitarist, Fast Eddie). Also caught metal-inflected stadium rock acts like Rush and Styx. Before I owned a single punk album, I had dozens of metal albums - even the recently-revitalized Anvil's first release! When I first heard the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks, around age 14, it seemed quite compatible with metal: loud, rude, and rebellious, and played on the same basic instruments - only more aggressive, and a tad more concise. The two genres coexisted in my collection for quite some time, though, without my ever feeling that I would someday have to choose between them.

Within a couple of years - by 1984, say - I had given metal up and sold off most of my metal LPs. There were various reasons: lyrics I often found repugnant to my growing leftist/pro-feminist political consciousness, from perceived misogyny (say, in a song like AC/DC's "Squealer," which I remember interpreting as a kid as being about so traumatizing a woman through violent sex that she'll never have sex again, which the singer gloats over) to overt racism (such as that of SOD's Speak English Or Die period, tho' I'd abandoned the genre by the time that disc came out). I felt a growing distaste for the macho swagger of the bands, too, and was greatly affected by the "tribal division" between punks and metalheads, which generally saw the latter turning on the former, with the perverse and hypocritical logic that sometimes makes one minority grateful to have an even smaller minority to persecute and distinguish themselves from (punks, howevermuch we sneered, didn't go around beating ANYBODY up, but headbangers sure did like to turn on us). I vividly remember an experience in my teen years, walking home for lunch from Maple Ridge Senior Secondary with a tinny little Realistic tape player blasting The Exploited's "God Saved The Queen," with, as I recall it, a faux-hawk fin on top of my head, and one of my dad's jail-issue olive drab jackets on over a prison workshirt - a getup that I intended as a commentary on the institutional nature of high school - when I felt something pelt against my leg; I turned around to see that the assorted longhairs who had gathered in a nearby park to smoke up were throwing rocks at me. I would wring an amusing anecdote from this for years to come - I was stoned by stoners! - but, even tho' the rocks mostly clattered on the pavement at my feet, the experience hurt and puzzled me. Repeatedly being sneered at by people in Led Zep and AC/DC t-shirts led me to purge those elements from my record collection, as with anything else that seemed metal, with only one or two exceptions (Motorhead's Iron Fist, the first three Blue Oyster Cult albums, and, when they came out, the first two Danzig records, which I counted as guilty pleasures for years). Punk served all my needs for rebellion and catharsis - and punk just wasn't as flat out stoopid as some of the metal stuff out there; by the time Motley Crue released Shout At The Devil, I held metal in a fair bit of contempt. When the big "crossover" blurred the genres in 1987, I remember being distinctly disappointed to see bands like DRI, Suicidal Tendencies, and Bad Brains adopting a more metal-friendly approach, which may have won them a wider audience - but seemed to involve a deal - or at best a compromise - with the devil. What had seemed natural to me at 14 (metal and punk's compatibilty) seemed deeply questionable in my late teens and early 20's, so gross had I found the behaviour and attitude of high school headbangers; those early experiences stuck, and up until last year, the only metal I would go close to was, as before, Motorhead, early BOC, and Danzig (tho' I guess the couple of Tool CDs I picked up count, too).

Something, somehow, has changed. Incrementally, I have been led back into the fold - walked slowly there by a variety of experiences that wore down my resistance, from being rather tickled by Thor's goofy, costume-rich performance at the Scratch birthday celebrations a few years ago to rediscovering the amazing guitarwork on "Hallowed Be Thy Name," as played instore at HMV when the Iron Maiden doc, Flight 666, came out. Jello and the Melvins' cover of Alice Cooper's "Halo Of Flies" helped, as did the rest of the Melvins metal-friendly discography (they play the Rickshaw in June, I believe it is, btw). Spending some time with a couple of Marilyn Manson discs helped. Interviewing Lemmy and Bison BC helped, with live shows by Motorhead and Bison being the first metal-related music I'd gone to see by choice in about 25 years. Jamie Saft's Jewish black metal album on Tzadik helped. Talking to people like Harlow of Funerary Call and Sistrenatus and Ross Birdwise of Ejaculation Death Rattle - both of whom have a fondness for metal - played a role, too. And Sam Dunn and Scott MacFadyen's two great anthropological surveys of the metal world, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey and the even-better Global Metal, were crucial in tipping me over the edge; suddenly, I have a craving for metal I cannot suppress.
I still think about 3/4s of what I hear sucks, mind you - I'm fussy and not all-embracing in my plunge, and find myself saying "nah" to a lot of what I spin, as being too cliched, too conservative, too operatic, too simple, or too silly. Reading about some of the "Black Circle" behind the Norwegian church burnings in Lords Of Chaos, I have to roll my eyes at the psychology of the players, who take themselves way more seriously than I am able to, basically seeming to be caught up in the basest of male competitive behaviour, trying to outdo each other on the field of evil rather than the astroturf ("jocks in corpsepaint" - tho' the fact that certain of the folks on that scene, like the murdered Euronymous and Gorgoroth/God Seed singer Gaahl were/are either bi- or gay does seem a mitigating factor; there's something about a Satanist being gay that makes it much more understandable and sympathetic). Still, the things I say YES to I'm saying yes to in a big way: Sepultura, Soulfly, Melechesh, Gorgoroth and the Golers are the bands I'm most excited by at present, with some Swedes lingering on the fringes (Amon Amarth, Entombed) and a Cradle Of Filth album that is definitely growing on me. I have even - gasp - re-purchased Alice Cooper's Killer and Iron Maiden's Number Of The Beast, and am contemplating actually SEEING Maiden and Alice on their tours here (the former at GM Place, the latter at the Pacific Coliseum with Rob Zombie). I'll definitely be checking out Soulfly, March 30th at the Venue. Maybe moving back to the suburbs and having undergone some difficult life experiences of late has something to do with it too, or maybe it's some sort of weird mid-life crisis, but much to his surprise, this old punk is suddenly, at age 42, listening to stuff he thought he'd grown out of in high school. I mean, fuckin' Melechesh rock, man. What else can I say?

And since I'm in Maple Ridge now, let me mention that there's a gig tomorrow night at Hammond United Church Hall (11391 Dartford), with various ska and metal bands performing: Ninjaspy, Paradosis, The Bone Daddies, and At Times Of Madness (whose Myspace pages I must invite you to look up yourself, since my internet connection is running at Romero-zombie speed tonight). Ninjaspy will play the next night (Saturday the 13th) at Pub 340, as well, for those of you not so geographically disadvantaged as myself.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Suburban DVD fare

...meantime, I continue to watch movie after movie with my Mom. If it's got a big enough budget and name stars and seems like it might be amusing - I'll rent it, or buy it from the local pawnshop that pays 50 cents a DVD and sells them for 10 for $35. We're averaging one movie a day. Most are unexceptional: The Recruit, say, with Al Pacino and Colin Farrell, is about your baseline "average" Hollywood spy thriller, with a few clever mind games, but nothing to really make it praiseworthy, and Pacino giving one of those broad-as-a-barn-door performances that dot his later career. The trouble with watching these sort of formula films is that there's really no way to tell the good ones from the bad at the rental shop.

So here's the fruit of my wisdom: a few Hollywood films that are worth a look as entertainment:

Lakeview Terrace and The Cleaner: I'll basically pick up anything with Samuel L. Jackson in it, since, his brief appearance in Iron Man aside, he seems to have some sort of baseline level of integrity in agreeing to do a project that keeps him out of total dogs. Even films he's in that fail (Freedomland, say) have a few interesting things in them (at the very least a good performance by Samuel L. Jackson). Best two I've seen: Lakeview Terrace, in which Neil Labute brings his patented stripe of nastiness to bear on race relations in an affluent California suburb, with Jackson as a cop, embittered by the loss of his wife, who takes his hatreds out on the young mixed-race couple next door. It's perfectly wrought - the sort of film that knows you'll see the end coming, so just tries to make sure you have a fun journey down. The Cleaner is not quite as good, because it thinks it's actually going to surprise you with its twist (Ed Harris did it; you will see this coming from his first scene in the movie, since there's no other reason to have his character in the movie, so let me assure you, your intuitions are correct). The first half of the film, before it gets down to the business of resolving the story, is great, however - nice, detailed and vaguely sickening images of Jackson's job as a crime scene cleaner - basically mopping up blood. He's an ex-cop with all too much experience of police corruption in his past - which, of course, catches up with him and presents him with some difficult choices.

Fracture and Untraceable: both directed by Gregory Hoblit, who made some awful Satan-is-alive film called Fallen some years ago. Nice surprise to discover that two of the best thrillers I've seen lately are by the same person. In the previews, Fracture LOOKED like an awful vehicle for the hammy Anthony Hopkins to play Hannibal Lecter again, so no one with any degree of intelligence or discernment went to see it, missing thus a surprisingly nuanced little thriller about law and justice, with Ryan Gosling as a smarmy-but-likable lawyer determined to solve a "perfect" murder. It's a bit better than Untraceable, with Diane Lane hunting a serial killer who uses the internet as a murder weapon, but that film too is a fine entertainment, not without ideas. In a world with Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich in it, it's actually damned hard to know which films on the wall at Rogers or Blockbuster will keep you amused and engaged throughout. Try these four.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Spring arthouse fare in the city

By far the most exciting upcoming screening for me is the restored UCLA print of John Cassavetes' A Woman Under The Influence, happening at the Cinematheque next Saturday. I'm in full agreement with Jonathan Lethem, in his Granta article - reprinted in the Criterion Cassavetes box - that for the true Cassavetes-phile, Husbands and Love Streams, the films where the director is most present in front of the camera, are the real gems of Cassavetes' canon, since they give a firsthand taste of Cassavetes' character, as well as his art - but, as Lethem also observes, Faces and A Woman Under The Influence - neither of which feature even a walk-on by him - are probably his greatest artistic achievements, his most perfectly executed films. And though Faces' rough-hewn, dizzyingly energetic handheld aesthetic makes it an unforgettable and inspiring experience (as depressing as its content may be) it's probably A Woman Under The Influence that makes the best introduction to Cassavetes' work, or at least the safest point of entry - if we can call a film like this "safe;" it's a powerful emotional experience, but has a recognizable level of craftsmanship that makes it a bit less likely to scare weaker viewers away, since you sort of sense that things will remain, harrowing as they get, within certain parameters of control. This further makes it impossible to regard the film (as has been done with others of Cassavetes' films) as "self-indulgent" or chaotic, which is a good thing; it's nice to have a film to point the nay-sayers to. Gena Rowlands, as Mabel Longhetti, gives a rather scarily intense performance as a woman driven to great emotional extremes by the pressures of family life, and Peter Falk probably never had a better role as her somewhat brutishly working-class husband, whose attempts to keep his wife from spiralling out of control often have the opposite effect. Careful viewers should note that not only is Katherine Cassavetes present in this film, as the stern Longhetti matriarch, but the filmmaker's father, Nicholas John Cassavetes, makes a bit appearance as Adolph. (It's a pretty loaded name to give your father's character, eh?). See Ray Carney's online essays on it for more about the film, and note that the title of the doc about American cinema in the 1970's, A Decade Under The Influence, borrows from this film, which should give some sense of its landmark stature. Still more on its background as a self-distributed film, and an amusing anecdote about Richard Dreyfuss' reaction to the film, can be found on its Wikipedia page.

There are other noteworthy screenings in the UCLA restorations series - including John Sayles' delightful The Brother From Another Planet and Edward S. Curtis' In The Land Of The Head Hunters, about the Kwakwaka’wakw of Vancouver Island (featuring a staged but, I gather, fairly authentic potlach). In terms of other programs, I look very much forward to seeing Inferno, about Henri-Georges Clouzot's final, unfinished film, but direct you elsewhere for information about it. There's not a lot else I've seen or have opinions on at the Cinematheque, but the Dutch film Can Go Through Skin - a favourite of more than a few people at the last VIFF - is a compelling, almost disturbingly close-up portrait of a psychologically traumatized female that may appeal to some followers of this blog.

As for the Vancity Theatre, see below for my comments on The Neil Young Trunk Show.
I had a hard time with the much-praised Quebec film I Killed My Mother - given recent family history, I really didn't want to watch a snotty young kid verbally abusing his Mom. More to my taste - tho' still not quite my style - was a gentle, elegant, and rather quiet Italian film called Mid-August Lunch, which shows a middleclass loafer with a passion for food and wine suddenly entrusted with the care of four senior citizens (including his own mother). It's got a quiet wit to it, and bears utterly no resemblance to the film Gomorrah, also written by the director/star of the piece, Gianni Di Gregorio; prepare yourself for a very low key film, if you check this out. There will also be two presentations of note, a Cinema Salon presided over by Vancouver cinephile, patron of the arts, and theatre owner Leonard Schein, who will be introducing Woody Allen's Annie Hall; and the art deco musical 42nd Street, presented by Dal Richards. Vancouver documentarian Chris Gallagher's Time Being sounds promising, too, but I've yet to see it...

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Neil Young experience continues

(Poster photo by Larry Cragg)

I had promised the Cultural Olympiad to write something on Hal Willner's Neil Young Project, but am challenged on a few fronts - most grievously by the fact that nearly everything I want to say about the event, as well as much I hadn't thought of, has already been said by Alex Varty in the Georgia Straight. Varty blows me away in seeming to know which of the dozens of artists present were Canadians and which Americans; either he was provided an insider's who's who - which is possible, since he interviewed Hal Willner before the event - or he truly does exist on some plane of journalism far above me, knowing who everyone on stage was (or keeping track of the brief introductions) and being able to observe their performances through the filter of regional awareness not open to me. Clever to make an Olympic-themed US vs. Canada competition out of it, too; it might seem an obvious writerly gimmick for a piece about such a night, but I assure you it never occured to me. However, almost everything I did intend to mention about the three hour production, he covered. Elvis Costello's absolutely stealing the show the first night, rescuing us from what was turning into a lackluster second act and channeling at least some of the energy of Neil Young into his guitar solos, getting everyone on their feet? Check - every detail worth noting is in there, every observation about Costello's performances so near identical to my own that I'd have to bend over backwards to write anything about Costello's performance without seeming a plagiarist. Good think Elvis was added to the bill at the last minute - he saw exactly what was needed and brought it onstage with him. Eric Mingus' "fantastically vivid avant-gospel" version of "For The Turnstiles" being one of the night's high points? Check that, too. (And congratulations, Mr. Varty, on your surely being the first person to put "avant" before "gospel;" fond as I am of inventing new genres by tacking "avant" to them, I will ever be jealous that you got there first with this one. I thought of the Art Ensemble of Chicago's "Old Time Religion" throughout that performance, and I imagine you did too). Emily Haines bringing "a new dimension" to "A Man Needs a Maid," another one of my favourite performances that night? Check, though a lot of that dimension came entirely from the fact that the song - which I've always interpreted as a singularly bitter slice of heterosexual male self-loathing - was being sung by a woman, which Varty doesn't go into. He does mention Broken Social Scene's Jason Collett's "goofy but effective" rainmaking stunt, tho', which I got nothin' to say about anyhow, save that, sentimental sucker that I am, I ate it up, which not everyone did. Almost everything I thought would be worth putting in a review is in Varty's. What need is there for me, then?

I do have a few quibbles, mind you. I didn't mind the rave-up climax of "Fuckin' Up," but found it too difficult to hear, let alone evaluate, James Blood Ulmer's guitar solos during “Scenery," a Neil Young song I didn't know beforehand or much care for, as given; maybe Alex had a better seat? Moreso, apparently contra Varty, I thought the fragile sincerity of the obviously uncomfortable Vashti Bunyan during her numbers (especially "After The Gold Rush") was spellbinding and moving, despite her having difficulties with her voice. I probably would have mentioned, too, that Lou Reed's "talking delivery" utterly suited "Helpless," the only song he actually sang that night - though the epic quality of his interpretation made being helpless seem oddly transcendent and empowering, which somehow suits Lou (note to audiences: "Lou" sounds a little bit too much like "boo" to make it a good thing to moan en masse). I might have noted, too, that the weirdly-named Joan As Police Woman was one of the most reliable performers in the band, onstage through almost every number, and almost always bringing something interesting to the mix. All in all there was a bit too much emphasis on the folky troubador side of Neil, tipping the night towards something altogether too slacker-ish and Harvest-y, lacking much of the passion, ugly charisma, and cohesion that one sees with Crazy Horse -- with several of the songs usually performed by that band going totally untouched (like "Like A Hurricane," "Cortez The Killer," "Keep On Rockin' In The Free World," "Tonight's The Night," and "Hey Hey My My," five very large items to leave off the set list). Finally, surely it must have occurred to someone sometime to give "Southern Man" to James Blood Ulmer - maybe a bit too obvious, too dated, or too controversial, but a lost opportunity for a powerful and memorable performance no less. In all, the night was a little less than I'd hoped for, though quite enjoyable nonetheless.

Otherwise, I got nothin' to say. Did I ever mention that I once goofily rewrote at least part of Simon and Garfunkel's "Richard Cory," so that the chorus was "I wish that I could be Alex Varty?" Really, I did. (I won't stalk you, Alex. It's okay). I still don't think it a fair trade to lose arts funding in exchange for one-off spectaculars, but I have to admit that the Cultural Olympiad folks pulled some astonishing feats with the resources at their disposal, not only with the Hal Willner night, but in getting Young himself out for the closing ceremonies; and I'm definitely grateful that Ornette Coleman, a performer I never imagined I'd get to see, was brought to town last year. Mostly, though, I'm relieved that the Olympics are over and we can get on with the business of life in the city. I'm particularly happy to note that the Slovakians will now vacate the Vancity Theatre...

...who will, fittingly enough, resume regularly scheduled programming with The Neil Young Trunk Show, the second feature film made around the music of Neil Young by Jonathan Demme. Seeing films like this theatrically is about as close as a goodly number of music fans' pocketbooks will allow them to get to a Neil Young concert these days, so they're not to be dismissed lightly; and in fact, there's much about them that surpasses the experience of a live concert, almost making it an optimal experience for a certain stripe of music fan. The sound is loud, but not overwhelming as at a concert, and in a theatre like the Vancity, with an excellent soundsystem and acoustics, you'll have an immensely rewarding listening experience, hearing each note with clarity, with no apelike whooping from the crowd to interfere with your appreciating the passages of sustained feedback at the end of songs; plus, tho' he won't be physically present, Neil won't just be a distant dot on the stage, but a huge figure on the screen in front of you (most of the time during Demme's film the camera is squarely on Neil).
That said, I have to confess that for me, the greatest Neil Young movie imaginable was Year Of The Horse, made a few years ago by Jim Jarmusch, showcasing Neil with Crazy Horse, blown up from footage shot in Super 8, which Demme tips his hat to with an extremely grainy bit at one point during his film. Crazy Horse's recent, ongoing disappearance as Young's supporting band is something I sorely hope is temporary, though hearing Neil talk about them in the past tense in this film doesn't bode well on that count. It's probably unfair to compare ANY band to Crazy Horse - one of the most organic and passionate brotherhoods in the history of rock - but even the most raucous guitar workouts in The Neil Young Trunk Show (including an astonishing 22-minute long electric jam around a song either called "Show Me The Way" or "No Hidden Path," or perhaps uniting two songs of those names) force a fan like me to see Ben Keith - a precise, attentive player and, we gather, a multi-instrumentalist whose versatility Young makes a point of praising onscreen - in contrast with Crazy Horse rhythm guitarist Frank Sampedro, a player who packs all the guts that Young does into his playing and can meet him force-for-force. However good Keith is, he might as well be a studio session guy by comparison. Bassist Rick Rosas does a better job of not making us miss Billy Talbot overmuch, and is definitely physically grungy enough to play congruently alongside Neil; and Ralph Molina does just a fine job of being Ralph Molina; but even during the climactic 14-minute "Like A Hurricane" or the rockier numbers like "Spirit Road," you've got to settle in to accepting that Neil is the star of this performance, not his chemistry with his bandmates. (It is interesting to see Young's wife Pegi onstage with him, singing and playing vibes, but she doesn't really stand out as a musician or contribute much to band dynamics; it seems a cosmetic presence, even if her name appears on the theatre marquee where Young is playing).

All this said, there are Neil Young fans out there who don't place an outrageously high premium, as I do, on his work with Crazy Horse. For such fans, as I imagine them, seeing Neil doing solo acoustic renditions of "Harvest" or "Ambulance Blues" (both included in the film) is just as satisfying as seeing "Like A Hurricane," and they may actually like the fact that Young here reinterprets "Cowgirl In The Sand" - the very song Elvis Costello wrought so much blood from on Feb. 18th - for acoustic guitar. The novelty of a few unfamiliar songs that may or may not survive in Young's repertoire likely won't make such all-embracing diehards resentful that they're not getting to hear "Cortez The Killer;" and the sensitive cover of the country classic "Oh Lonesome Me" won't make them feel in the slightest impatient for songs actually written by Young. For such a fan, this film will please like Year Of The Horse does me. And even a Crazy Horse diehard can admit that The Neil Young Trunk Show does a better job than any previous Neil Young concert film of showing us the range of emotion and instrumentation a Neil Young concert can embrace; we see him performing not only on acoustic and electric guitars, but on piano, harmonica, and banjo, giving us both old and new songs, and introspective and extroverted ones. Short of breaking out a Trans-era vocoder or lapsing into rockabilly, pretty much every phase of Young's long career is acknowledged in some way. The film is definitely worth a look, and there's a "special advance loud show" playing TONIGHT...
...for those of you not coming to see Crime (see below). Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Fake Jazz tonight!

I did a Music Note in the Straight about this a couple of issues ago, but in case you missed it, Fake Jazz Wednesdays is re-starting at Lick TONIGHT, with performances by Ahna, Yellowthief, Shearing Pinx (in duo form!) and Stamina Mantis... I won't be there, but you should be! Starts around 10pm...

Monday, March 01, 2010

Tom Scholte's CRIME: Vancouver Dogme to screen at UBC

For the last couple of years, around the time of my birthday, I've hosted private movie screenings for friends and family, footing the bill for a theatre rental so I could show people favourite fare like John Cassavetes' Husbands or Saul Bass' Phase IV. Much as I enjoyed doing this, this year, I haven't the income or ambition to organize something like that - but luckily, one of the films I'd considered playing just happens to be screening anyhow, on Friday, March 5th! I'm speaking of the locally made dogme film, Crime, written and directed by (and co-starring) Tom Scholte, perhaps best known for his roles in fellow Vancouverite Bruce Sweeney's first three films, Live Bait, Dirty, and Last Wedding. Like Sweeney's films, Crime is not only made in Vancouver, but set in Vancouver - "Vancouver plays itself," as they say; like Dirty, which was based in part on a screenplay Scholte wrote, Crime deals with a varied group of all-too-human characters as they travel along different tangents towards a moment of intersection, probing with wry dark humour and at least some fondness into their areas of weakness, excess, self-misperception, and desperation. (There's a fair bit of sexual trauma and drug addiction in the film, too - and some hockey!). I spoke to Scholte at length about his film - which I hope a few friends will join me for when it screens Friday night at UBC Point Grey (at the Royal Bank Cinema, 6265 Crescent Road, starting at 7:30pm; admission is free!). Crime was one of my favourite films at the 2008 VIFF; I am very happy that I'll get to see it again on screen this week.

A note on spoilers: there was no way for me to conduct the following interview without revealing various plot points. While the film is highly character-driven and not so plot-heavy, some people out there may be like myself, wanting to enter a film fresh, knowing as little as possible about the experience to unfold. If you're like that, and you know now that you'll be attending Friday's screening, you might want to see it first and come back to read this later. I'll warn you again when the spoilers seem particularly significant...

Tom Scholte and Frida Betrani in Crime

Allan: Why dogme?

Tom: A number of reasons. One is that I've experienced a lot of Canadian filmmakers who feel the need to jump to the next budget level, after they've had some success at a low-budget level. And many of them start losing creative control very quickly, and things get compromised. I sort of adamantly wanted to push against that, and to try and make a film outside of any Telefilm funding at all, and any of those sorts of pressures. Some of it was to push back against this idea that "well, we can't keep making ultra-low budget films forever" - that somehow that's a sign of our film culture not maturing. So that was part of it. And I thought it really suited this film, which I wanted to be as gritty as possible, with none of those usual tricks of audience manipulation such as music and stuff. I've always just sort of believed in what the Dogme Manifesto stands for - not that it's the only way to make films, but I appreciate pushing back against the idea that film had become so cosmetic, that what you needed were characters that were interesting and dramatic situations that people could relate to, and were powerful.

Allan: Tell me a bit about the genesis of the project.

Tom: I chose to fund this film as a UBC research project, testing some things in the dogme manifesto against Syd Field's classic, more commercial three-act film structure - which is very prescriptive, right? It's like, "Ten pages in, this needs to happen; thirty pages in, you need a plot point here." So it's a very simple equation to put those two things together, but I was really experimenting with what you lose or gain by marrying these two paradigms, one that comes very much from an alternative, anti-commercial cinema, and one that is very much at the heart of commercial cinema, which is "narrative narrative narrative."

Allan: Right.

Tom: A lot of this, also, came out of working out of the film Dirty - which I love, and I'm very proud of. But I'm very cogniscent of the fact that the film tended to polarize people. They loved it or they hated it, and people that loved it loved its kind of authenticity and grit, and people who hated it were usually craving something more narrative, or more narrative payoff... And so I just became interested in whether you could 'split the difference,' in a way that was satisfying to both audiences - audiences that want that kind of unvarnished social realism and audiences that want to feel... I wanted to see if there could be more of a 'classic structure' that would hopefully be submerged enough beneath the surface of it - so you wouldn't be thinking, 'wow, this is a really well-plotted film' - but that it would sort of hold the thing together, without sacrificing authenticity.

Allan: You co-wrote Dirty?

Tom: Yeah. I wrote a play that was called The Bingo Sweethearts - I did a staged reading of it, and Bruce (Sweeney) heard it and liked it. It was a two-hander, just the chracters David and Angie - my character and Babs Chula's character, in the movie. (Allan's interpolation: for those who haven't seen Dirty, David is a stressed-out student with a compulsive need to be dominated sexually, and Angie is a middle-aged Strathcona pot-dealer and object of David's obsessions, who has indulged his kinks from time to time; there's also Ben Ratner as a socially awkward, possibly unwittingly homosexual pothead from Port Alberni with anger management issues, and Nancy Sivak as a young unemployed binge-eater with massive student loan debts - all desperate, confused creatures whose damage is all too recognizable. Unfortunately, the film never made it to DVD, coming out in 1998, just as the format change from VHS was gearing up, but it's a must-see, especially since, like Crime, it is self-consciously Vancouver-based). So the original version explored this sadomasochistic relationship between these two people; then Bruce asked me to take a crack at writing a screenplay based on those characters and sort of fleshing it out more, which I did. But we weren't satisfied with where that screenplay was going, and he had done these workshops with Mike Leigh, and was more and more interested in generating work through improvisation, so he said, "What if we kept those two characters and the basic situation between them, and just tossed out the script completely and created a couple of other characters and started improvising from within that framework?" So we did, and the film was developed through a series of improvisations that were videotaped, and Bruce sort of carved out a script out of those improvisations.

Allan: All right.

Tom: So what I did with this film was, I went the sort of reverse way, in that I used improvisations to help generate the actual text, but I started with a complete three-act structure. I think it's fair to say, with Bruce on Dirty, he sort of generated a pile of stuff and carved a structure out of that, whereas with Crime, I built a structure first, right down to a scene-by-scene breakdown - I had it all plotted out - and then we used the improvisations to put the meat on the bones.

Allan: Did any odd changes to the plot happen as a result of the improvisations?

Tom (laughs): Well, it was never my intention that the coach and Rick were going to kiss, and they didn't actually kiss on the lips in the improv... At the end of the day, a lot of it was stuff that I essentially wrote on my own, but based on things that came out of what they did, or sometimes there'd be an actual line, here or there, that came out of the improvs. A lot of time, what happened was, it just gave me a flavour for it, or it showed me how important transitions could be made. It was really helpful that way. But in terms of the coach and Rick scene, there's not a line that Tom Butler says that didn't come directly from his mouth in those improvs. He just so inhabited that character... I knew he was going to be great - he was the only person I wanted to see do that role. And then when he got to that point - this was with a different actor than the one who ended up playing Rick, I had another actor who had to drop out - and when he said, "It's okay, coach, I'm still on the team" and Tom looked at him and said, "Okay, prove it: kiss me" - in the improv he just kissed him on the cheek, but I went "Oh my God." But that moment just happened. That's, in a way, my favourite scene in the film. That scene would not be what it was without the input of those actors, for sure.

Evan Frayne as Rick

(Note: spoilers mount!).

Allan: In terms of the hockey thing - I think it's Theo Fleury who has written this book about sexual abuse from his coach or such. Was that out, when you were working on Crime? Where did that stuff come from?

Tom: Well, I knew about, obviously, the Sheldon Kennedy story - who was coached by Graham James, the same guy who had coached Fleury; and when Fleury's life started spinning out of control and there was all this substance abuse, and he was getting arrested and stuff like that, the speculation around the NHL and in public, in sports circles, was that he had been one of Graham James' victims. And now he's finally come clean. But the case that really inspired me in terms of this stuff was Mike Danton, the player who had this very, very strange relationship with his agent/coach; and then Danton, who played for the St. Louis Blues, went to jail for taking out a contract. Now he's claiming that he took out a contract to kill his father, but there was this phone call between him and his agent, while he was in jail; he's allowed one phone call, and he phones his agent, and his agent is saying, "Am I safe?" He's like, "Yeah, yeah." And then at the end of the phone conversation, his agent says, "Do you love me?" and he says "yeah." And the agent goes, "Well, I want to hear you say it." This kid was completely alienated from his parents; this guy - his name is David Frost - was famous for preying on kids who had sort of troubled home lives. And he was a coach, and he was suspended for punching a player in the face when he came off a bad shift one time. So it was really the Mike Danton case, and the strange enmeshed quality to it. Then all these stories started to surface about the hazing that went on, and one of the things I really wanted - what I tried to get out of that kiss - was that it's not even as clear cut as a kind of homosexual thing. It's this bizarre world where this hypermasculinity and homoerotic hazing are all in this strange blend. People will say to me, "I don't get it; is the coach gay?" I don't really know! To me, it was more about the power.

Allan: Yeah.

Tom: Because this is the same coach in the tape of the gang bang. And people are going, "I don't get it - I thought this was going to be some gay thing." Well, but it's not, right? I'd also read this great book by a woman named Laura Robinson. It's called Crossing The Line: Violence And Sexual Assault In Canada's National Sport. And it's all about hazing and about acquaintance rape by a hockey player, and how the whole town rallies around the hockey player. So it's a really great expose of the dark underbelly of junior hockey. And I'd been aware of it through guys I knew that had played junior hockey. I mean, I knew a guy who'd intimated that there was some dark stuff that he'd been involved with, but he wouldn't talk about it, which is indicative of something... So it was a combination of things.

(Spoilers intensify further).

Allan: It interests me that right up until the end, pretty much, we sympathize with Rick. It's really quite skillful of you, to keep us with Rick, thinking he's actually a pretty decent guy.

Tom: It was important to me for him to be sympathetic, absolutely. To me, that's way more important: for the audience to have to confront horrible things done by people that they like, where they can feel they understand how it got that bad. They can't excuse the act, but - to me, that's what's more provocative. That's what I hunger for in theatre, in film, in fiction: when I'm forced to grapple with that. We can get as far away from "knowing who the good guys are and who the bad guys are" as possible; my experience of life is that it's so much more complicated than that. I wanted the audience to be very troubled by the scene. I wanted the audience to be with him, to think that he was a little foolish or a little naive or maudlin - "oh, this guy is clearly hanging onto a dream that's over" - but I really wanted them to be blindsided by the fact that he could do this thing. And that we could hopefully see some of the factors that had created this situation - that didn't let him off the hook, but at the same time, needed to be accounted for, in the reckoning of this character.

Allan: You had said at the VIFF screening that your inspiration for the whole film came from an episode you actually witnessed...

Tom: Yeah. I was in a bar/restaurant on Granville Street that no longer exists, and I was eating out on the patio, and there was this guy skulking around - sort of a greasy looking punk and his girlfriend. And it was actually a friend of mine who spotted that he had come in and did exactly what Brent does in the film - he took $40 off the table. And my friend alerted the staff. It looked to me that it was a bar that was run by ex-athletes - they were all really ripped and it had that kind of vibe to it. It wasn't a sports bar, but it had that kind of vibe. And one of the guys took off down the street and dragged the guy back in an armlock and they forced him to apologize to the waitress in front of the whole restaurant. And then the cops came; the guy was humiliated and taken away, and his girlfriend was sent off stumbling down the street in tears. And then I watched these guys start to celebrate and take tequila shots and get all jacked up... I looked at them and I thought, "I'm more afraid of these guys than I am of the guy who got taken away in the police cruiser." There's a kind of menace to that super-jacked testosterone thing that was sort of eerie to me. It just sort of popped into my head, as they really started to rip it up - the night was young, and I was thinking, "What are the odds that one of these guys is gonna do something way worse tonight than what that guy just did?"

Tom Scholte as Brent

Allan: Let's talk about substance abuse a bit in the film. The 12-Step stuff is really interesting to me. You don't see a lot of that in cinema. You also don't see a lot of people taking bong hits like your character does.

Tom (laughs): Right.

Allan: Where did the 12 Step stuff come from?

Tom: What I was interested in portraying about the 12 Steps was - first of all, I'm really interested in people who are afraid of the 12 Steps, and their reaction to it that it's a cult, or it's this or it's that. And the idea of someone in a couple trying to clean up while the other person is deeply fearful that that person is going to have to change everything, and that's going to have to include them. Brent's character (a potsmoking struggling musician) was really built on a fascination I have with self-sabotage in people - particularly in people with a lot of talent. I've known a lot of musicians over the years, that this character was based on, that had a lot of talent, but were completely socially inept and had great talent for self-sabotage. I was interested in that fear. Where does this fear come from, of this thing that seems to empower people - not everyone - to sort of clean up their lives and find a new way to live? One of the important things, in terms of Tula's character (Frida Betrani, Scholte's wife and co-star) going off the rails: she doesn't go off the rails because of the 12 steps. In fact, she doesn't do what her 12-Step sponsor tells her her to do - her sponsor tells her, "Don't go and talk to your Dad about this until things calm down; don't rush this." ...I'm interested in addictive behaviour and compulsivity, and how, even in trying to get clean, she's compulsive. She has no patience. I'm deeply fascinated by the addictive personality, the compulsive personality, so I was interested in that kind of sabotage that went on, as well. But I wanted to leave it up to people to decide whether I was saying something positive or negative about the 12 Steps. In fact, I think the film is neutral about the 12 Steps themselves. But it's important to me that when someone crashes and burns in this film, it's because she actually didn't listen to what this person told her to do.

Allan: Right.

Tom: She had begun to, right? They said, "We're not telling you to break up with him, but you've got to set some boundaries. He's got to get a job. You can't live this way anymore." And then she rushes it, ignores the advice, and stumbles ahead and the whole thing collapses again. Though the film does end with her calling her sponsor again. Of all the characters in the film, I think she's got the most chance of starting over the next day.

Allan: Right, although at the time I first saw it, I remember thinking when she called her sponsor, "Uh-oh, she's copping out and deferring responsibility to someone else to bail her out... Here we go again..."

Tom: But I want people to react to that however they want to. I see that as a completely legitimate response. Someone might see that as "Oh good, she's going to call her sponsor, she's going to try again;" someone else might think, "Oh, here comes the first step in the next cycle of futility." I wanted to make something that people bring their own experience to - one's own experience in the world is going to colour how one responds to a moment like that.

Allan: There seem to be a lot of different ways of reacting to the film. In the theatre, at the same moments, I noticed some people were laughing, others looking uncomfortable or serious...

Tom: To me there's actually quite a bit of humour in Crime, but people don't seem to pick up on it in the same way. I'll be writing something that I think is funny, and my wife reads a scene and goes "This is so depressing! The people are so sad..." So I dunno. All I can say is that I'm making something that I would want to watch.

Allan: Any comments on Frida's contributions to the film?

Tom: She was very involved, and is really just a merciless critic of mine in the best possible sense. I would read her stuff and show her stuff and get her feedback throughout from the beginning, to put the story together, and the characters... She really encouraged me to explore the dark side of the hockey stuff - which was in there before, but she saw the same Fifth Estate piece as me on the Mike Danton story, and she said, "You've got to talk about this, this doesn't get talked about!" And throughout the writing process, she let me know when something wasn't working, or was forced; and I'd show her every cut of the film. She's an amazing sounding board and support, and she's got a very high standard. She certainly doesn't hold my hand and tell me it's all gonna be great. And I think her performance in the film - I mean, this is my wife, and I'm going to see it in a certain way, but I'm probably her worst critic, too, because we know each other so well... I'm so thrilled by her performance in the film, and she's a huge contributor to everything in the movie.

Frida Betrani as Tula

Allan: Can we talk a bit about pot? I mean, we chuckle at Brent, we think he's a bit of a loser, though we're fond of him. I think I remember people actually tittering when he reaches for the waterpipe. Are you trying to make a comment about marijuana in Vancouver?

Tom: Well, not so much of a comment... I believe that marijuana is in and of itself a totally benign drug, but I also believe that if one has a penchant for self-sabotage, for avoiding taking responsibilty for one's life, and for procrastination, and all kinds of other things, it's a pretty handy place to hang out in. The wake-and-bake world is one of responsibility deferred endlessly. So I'm sort of interested in that. I'm interested in what happens when... Pot can be a very creative tool for a lot of people, and then it can be, "well, I'll smoke a little more pot." What happens when you get to the point where you don't feel like you can do anything without takin' a bong hit? Like, "I need groceries. I can't go grocery shopping without a bong hit!" This guy's going to go job hunting! He's got to the point where he can't look for a job unless he's high, because there's so much disappointment and resentment and such a sense of failure and futility and lack of self-esteem piling up, so that this guy is now at a point where he's going to get up, take a bong hit, have a brief euphoric moment, then spend the rest of the day chasing that high. Then eventually falling asleep for a couple of hours, and doing it all again. But again, I'm not trying to say anything for or against pot, I'm just trying to portray a realistic example of someone who has used it in a particular way, and has found themselves at a particular point...

Allan: Why are you so interested in compulsive behaviour? Do you have a history of fairly compulsive behaviour yourself?

Tom (laughs): Yeah, yeah. I've had a history of fairly compulsive... I can try to dance around it - and I'm trying to dance around it now - but yes, I mean - it's something I have some experience with, and that I've experienced in my family and people around me. You're supposed to write about what you know, and there's no denying - there's things about that world that I do know.

Allan: Right. Because in both Dirty and Crime, the characters are barely in control of what drives them.

Tom: Yes. And when I look at the world through that lens - I'm not saying everyone in the world is an addict, but the whole capitalist paradigm is an addictive paradigm. The old idea is that it's never enough, and that we're always looking for a fix of some kind, that next thing around the corner that's gonna be a payoff. But definitely, I'm interested in characters that are not in control, that are struggling to have some kind of control but are driven by forces that they don't comprehend. So yes, it's an ongoing fascination, and yes, it does come from my own personal experience...

Allan: Okay, well, we don't need to delve further there. But to go back to questions of structure, it occured to me that there's also a certain similarity to a rather popular device being used in films like Magnolia, lately, where several disparate threads connect at one very precise point.

Tom: Right, yeah. And Dirty was similar in that way, where all of their lives kind of intersect in a confrontation at the end. In a weird way, I was inspired by the great German director and playwright and theorist Bertolt Brecht, in terms of how he wanted his work to be instructive, that you would watch something and not just try to guess what's going to happen next, but to try to piece together why it happened. So if there's a car wreck, rather than being swept away in the emotion of it, can you see the anatomy of how the car wreck happened: what speed was everyone going, was someone distracted... I wanted to start from that climax point where everything crashes together, and when I built the story, I worked backwards: "what are the causal relationships that lead to this car accident?" In a way, that accounts for the structure as well, these seemingly divergent threads coming together.

Allan: Thanks, Tom... I think we have enough!

Tom: Thanks again so much for your support... and again, when I read your review and you talked about it as a critique of masculinity, that was like, reading my dream review: that phrase in particular - I was so thrilled, that was a big part of what I was after. It's that old cliche, if one person gets it, it's worth it, but you so got it, and it's been so gratifying. And then to go your site and see all these punk connections, it's like - it's funny, man: the people who dig this film even listen to the same music, even though there's no ostensible connection between us - that's wild!

Once again, folks, Crime will screen for free this Friday at the Royal Bank Cinemas, near UBC Point Grey, starting at 7:30. There's a short film on the program as well - my apologies for not doin' justice to it - but if you show up at 7:15 or so, you should be fine! I presume Scholte will be in attendance to further comment on his film (it won't be quite like my last couple of b-day events, in that this is his show, not mine, but I hope to see some familiar faces there!)