Saturday, October 30, 2010

Straight to Hell Returns! Alex Cox Interview!

Attentive followers of this blog will know that in July of last year I called out for someone somewhere to project Alex Cox's Straight To Hell, in memory of Joe Strummer and in acknowledgment of the fact that this film, a critical and commercial failure at the time, is "a gleefully idiotic, deliriously inventive, thoroughly postmodern gem," too long neglected, almost forgotten... This despite its being beautifully shot in Almeria on the disused, decaying set of a Charles Bronson western, in the same region where Sergio Leone shot his westerns, and being smarter, funnier, and richer than several successful recent spaghetti western homages like Sukiyaki Western Django and The Good, the Bad, and the Weird. It also boasts performances - some great, others at worst enjoyably ridiculous - by Strummer, Courtney Love, the Pogues, Elvis Costello, Jim Jarmusch and Dennis Hopper - to say nothing of having at least eleven roles for the cast of Cox's earlier cult favourite Repo Man, including Joe Strummer collaborator/ Circle Jerks' bassist Zander Schloss (Kevin in Repo Man - "there's fucking room to move as a fry cook"); Straight To Hell co-author and filmmaker Dick Rude (who'd played Duke - "society made me what I am"); Jennifer Balgobin (Debbi, the gang's co-leader); Miguel Sandoval ("King Archie"); Fox Harris (J. Frank Parnell, here playing a non-radioactive lounge singer); and the inimitable Sy Richardson (Lite, of whom you need no reminding). I suggested with some arrogance that Cox could even tour with this film. The time is ripe to reevaluate Straight To Hell, I pleaded. I made a wee fuss.

This Sunday - Hallowe'en - a new, digitally retouched cut of Straight To Hell, dubbed Straight To Hell Returns, debuts in San Francisco. Cox will be present. I hereby pat myself on the back and smile. There is order in the universe, after all, and I have correctly perceived it. And now if all goes according to my wishes, thanks to the legwork of Quentin Tarantino, Miike Takashi, and other postmodern hipster filmmakers who delight in playing with the codes of cinema past, Straight To Hell Returns will be "discovered" as the fine entertainment it always has been and Cox will be heralded as an ahead-of-his-time genius.

Such is my fervent wish, anyway. Vancouver audiences will have a chance to make it come true on November 12th through the 14th, when the film is double-billed, as part of a tribute to Dennis Hopper, with Hopper's 1980 shot-in-Vancouver feature Out of the Blue - the film with the much-talked-about appearance of local punk-pop legends the Pointed Sticks. (Straight To Hell Returns gets the 9pm slot on Friday and the 9:45 on Saturday, with various people involved in the shoot of the Hopper film invited to attend the Saturday screening). I will be on hand to introduce the film on November 12th (a Friday), but bear no grudges to those who would rather see it on one of the other days. Nardwuar the Human Serviette will be interviewing Cox on his radio show at 4pm of Friday the 12th. (Nardwuar's interview with Dennis Hopper is here). I have left aside all questions about Dennis Hopper (...and Courtney Love) for Nardwuar; what follows below is my talk with Alex Cox about Straight To Hell Returns.
Allan: I'm delighted that you've recut Straight To Hell and it's going to get a second chance at life!

Alex: Heh heh heh. It's better!

Allan: Well, there's more of Karl being tortured, so - yes!

Alex: There's quite a bit more of that - also Elvis Costello being tortured.

Allan: Did you have to get Zander Schloss' permission, to include more of the Karl-torture?

Alex: I don't think so, because I think the thing is, when they signed on, everybody who was involved agreed to make the movie, so whether the movie was 87 minutes long or 91 minutes long isn't relevant.

Allan: He always seemed so unhappy about being tortured and abused to such an extent.

Alex: I think so, but the thing is, because he agreed to do it - it's a bit like if you buy a car; you may be unhappy with it, but if it's still running, then... you're stuck with it, you know?

Allan: I've been trying to figure out the smaller things that have been added. Miguel's clogs, the torture scenes, the digital skeleton - that's all quite obvious. But it looked to me that you may have added some digital flies. Is that true?

Alex: Yes, there are digital flies. There are a lot of - you know, the flames and stuff coming out of the guns, and dust hitting the walls and stuff - a lot of it is digitally enhanced. But the skeletons, though - the skeletons in the car are digital skeletons, but the skeleton of the wolf and the skeleton of George are actually animated, in the old-fashioned way. They're model skeletons, like Ray Harryhausen.

Allan: And you did those especially for the new cut.

Alex: Yes! They were done by a guy named Webster Colcord, who specializes in skeletons - he has a whole web presence devoted to skulls and skeletons and flying skulls and all this stuff. (Not sure which site Alex is referring to, but here's Colcord's blog, showing varied bits of art and animation). He did the two animated skeletons with Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts as his inspiration. Ray Harryhausen's like, 90 years old now - they had a party for him in London at the BFI...

Allan: Were you there?

Alex: No, I wasn't invited - I'm not really a special effects-y person, but do you know Phil Tippett? He's a CGI/ special effects/ monster guy from Berkeley, in California. He went, and he said a whole bunch of Harryhausen's surviving colleagues were there or sent messages, and Spielberg and Lucas recorded tributes to him and stuff, so it was pretty cool.

Allan: Wouldn't it have been cheaper and easier to go for CGI instead of stop motion? Did you deliberately choose stop motion?

Alex: Yeah, because I think what it is - the Collateral Image guys who did all the blood spurting and bullet hits and stuff - it's more interesting if people get to do stuff outside the norm. A lot of the work that special effects people do is to "try and make it look as realistic as possible" - to try and make that cat hairball rolling across the carpet look as realistic as possible, which isn't necessarily as much fun as doing some stop motion animation, or doing something that's really gross and over the top and would normally be rejected. It's fun to - you know, "step outside the box" is the corny way of saying it.

Allan: It's fun to see in the film. It looked like you darkened some of the blood spatter, too, when George shoots one of the Pogues.

Alex: That's enormously more, now. What happened was, there was a little squib on him and blood flew out and hit the lens, so what the Collateral Image guys did was, they enormously exagerrated that. It's huge - like the liver section of the supermarket exploded (laughs).

Allan: Where did the decision to recut and re-release the film come from?

Alex: I watched the old DVD, and I was thinking, "Ohh, I wish that we had, back in 1986, the digital technologies that we have today, in order to amp this up and make it much crazier." And then I thought - "but wait, we DO have the digital technologies that are available today!" And the very good fortune was that the archive at UCLA had manage to preserve, somehow, the interpositive of the original version of Straight To Hell, so we could go back to something that was as near to the negative as you could get, without being the negative, and do our HD transfer from that. So there was incredible high quality, which didn't exist previously. Previously, the best editions of the film have been either the 35mm version or the digibeta tape. And now we have the HD transfer and this new colour scheme by the cinematographer, so it's all kinda - better!

Allan: It looks great, it looks wonderful. Did the passing of Joe Strummer and Dennis Hopper have anything to do with the decision to re-release it? I mean - I think it's Joe's best film role. I like him in Mystery Train, but he really gets to have some fun in Straight to Hell...

Alex: I agree. I think he's very good in it. Your eye is really drawn to him, in the film - I think of the acting jobs I saw him do, this is the best. So I suppose it is a bit of a tribute to Joe and Dennis and all the other unfortunate Straight To Hell people who are no longer with us.

Allan: Do you have any Joe Strummer anecdotes that you haven't told before? I've read X Films, so I know some of your stories (which range from Strummer's involvement on the soundtrack to Cox's previous film, Sid and Nancy, to his scoring and acting in Cox's next film, Walker)... is there anything from the last years of his life that you haven't told?

Alex: No, I only saw him one time in the last few years before he died, and that was at Cannes, when we went up the red carpet, and I'm thinking, like, "Whoaaaa!" - y'know - "there are all the photographers! They'll take our picture!" And he says, "When they see who we are, they'll turn away." And I'm going "No, man, no - this is Cannes, we just got out of a big limo, it'll be okay." And we got to the top and the photographers all clock us. They all turn away. So rude! Not only do they not want to take our photograph, they don't even want to look at us. (Laughing).

Allan: It's heartbreaking - it reminds me of the footage in Dick Rude's documentary about Joe (also used in Julien Temple's film), where he's passing out flyers in the streets of New York, saying "Come see me, I used to be in a band called the Clash..."

Alex: Yes, but it's interesting - he had all of that, he had this enormous success and fame and celebrity and great, wonderful transcendent admiration by all. And then everybody hated him, because he broke up the Clash, y'know, and then he had these other careers, as an actor and a movie composer, and he had these other bands - the Mescaleros, but he also had that band that Zander was in, the Latino Rockabillies (aka The Latino Rockabilly War, Joe's backing band on Earthquake Weather, also appearing on the Permanent Record soundtrack - check out "Trash City" if you don't know it).

Allan: Did you ever see them perform?

Alex: I did, I saw them perform several times, because they did a tour of England. I saw them in Poole and - really horrible cities, very unpleasant minor English cities. But they were a great band.

Allan: I never saw them, I saw the Mescaleros twice in Japan, but never them...

Alex: And I saw the Mescaleros once, they played with The Who - as, like, the warm-up band for The Who.

Allan: Oh, yes. I remember hearing about that concert. And then Roger Daltrey appeared on Global a-Go-Go... You didn't use the Commando cigarettes commercial that you shot with Dick and Joe, in the new version.

Alex: Where is that, that's the thing - I don't know where that cigarette commercial is. I know we did a thing where Dick just walked into frame, in his, y'know, beach outfit, and said, "Hi, I'm Dick Rude - I'd like you to meet the McMahons." But it was too arch, it was too outside the movie. So maybe the cigarette commercial... I don't remember the cigarette commercial very well, so maybe we didn't do a very good job, or maybe it was just something Dick and Joe did, and I never even saw it. I don't know. It's not in the interpositive - had it been in the IP we would have seen it, we would have evaluated it, and then we would have looked for audio to go with it.

Allan: And then the red car training scene -

Alex: The red car training scene was never shot. It was our intention, but we bit off a bit more than we could chew in the first couple of days, and we had the little driving school right outside the hotel, and the Rambler, where we could have done our little car chase with the police - but we didn't have time.

Allan: If you could help me, I want to try to track down the different film references. There's Django Kill (which Cox - a spaghetti western expert and author of a recent book on the form - talks about here; if you don't know this film, hearing Cox talk about it will make you want to see it!). There's the Point Blank shooting-into-the-bed; there's the For A Few Dollars More title sequence. There's the Cool Hand Luke homage when Jennifer washes the motorcycle. The car crash owes something to Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. Is the branding-seen-through-binoculars a nod to Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom?

Alex: It would be if I had seen it! (laughs)

Allan: (flabbergasted): You haven't seen Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom?

Alex: I should, I should see it.

Allan: Oh, my lord! I've ALWAYS assumed you were paying homage to it! The climax of that film - the big torture scene - has someone being branded, as seen through binoculars (see 1:55 of the recent Criterion DVD; by the way, if someone could contact Tom Richmond, I am now desperate to know if he's the man responsible. It cannot be mere coincidence, could it? How many brandings-seen- through-binoculars are there in cinema history?).

Alex: The thing is - I can't watch that! I couldn't watch Secretary, you know, because it's about this girl delicate-self-cutting. I can deal with guys getting shot, but that's about it - anything else, I'm very squeamish about.

Allan: Wow! ...and yet you make such bloody films!

Alex: Ah, but it's only guys getting shot. It's a whole bunch of machos getting shot. That's all right. That's great - that's like The Wild Bunch. Everybody likes The Wild Bunch.

Allan: Anyhow, are there any other references that I'm missing?
Alex: There's probably references to spaghetti western characters, borrowed from other films. And I'm sure that Edward Tudor Pole, the part that he plays is full of a million-and-one references in his head - I imagine he's channelling Warren Oates in Two-Lane Blacktop or somebody from Cockfighter. Because I think that's the other thing - the actors in their heads had certain thoughts and goals, which they never even told me about. Joe is Michael Caine, throughout.
Allan: What are your hopes for the first screening, in San Francisco? Are you nervous? Are you hopeful? Are you blasé?
Alex: I don't know, because it's on Halloween, and Halloween people have a lot of other things going on, if they're apt to do anything at all. But it does seem an appropriate day, as well, for the return of Straight To Hell. And because of the colour scheme that Tom Richmond chose for the new version, there is kind of a pumpkin quality to the whole movie. It's got this kinda yellowy orange look. So maybe that'll stand it in good stead!
Allan: Any messages for Vancouver audiences?
Alex: I'm just honoured to think that people in Vancouver are going to watch this film, as I am honoured anytime anywhere people watch any of the rubbish that I've done! It's marvelous to think that people can spare an hour and a half of their time in this endeavour, and I'm very grateful - I hope they enjoy it very much indeed! ...or at least to a certain extent.
Straight To Hell Returns screens at the VIFC, Nov. 12-14, double billed with Out of the Blue! I introduce it on the Friday! Nardwuar talks to Alex on the radio at 4pm that day! Check it out! Check it out!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Joe Strummer memory

I saw Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros twice in Tokyo when I lived in Japan - both times at the Akasaka Blitz. I'm very glad I went to both shows, but as sometimes happens with concerts, my memories are a bit vague; specific performance details are forgotten in favour of peripheral oddities that stood out, snapshots that summed up the night. It occured to me to mention one of them, because the clearest image and the most delightful moment at either concert was when, during the first Mescaleros tour of Japan, the band struck up "Pressure Drop," and this young Japanese kid in a pork pie hat zipped his way past me through the crowd so he could dance up front, springily skankin' along as he cut his swath... His enthusiasm was so palpable and so in line with the joy that that song channels that I felt a moment of great uplift, perhaps bouncing along a little in place myself... It wasn't even, musically, the better of the two shows, but....

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Little Guitar Army, Barry Truax and more

It's a good time to be a fan of the Little Guitar Army (Myspace-Facebook-Straight article). They have the most entertaining live show I've seen locally since I last saw... who? Have I seen a more entertaining live show in this city? They have a bazillion members, mostly playing cute li'l teeny guitars; a flare for goofy costumes; a sexy and insanely energetic (energetically insane?) female vocalist (one Linda Stang); Nick of Aging Youth Gang and Gnash Rambler; Tony Bardach of the Pointed Sticks; and damned if I know the CVs of everyone else... but anyhow, they put on a bloody good show, they have a new album (30 Watts to Freedom) in the works, and there are a few events involving them upcoming: a Halloweeny-type concert on October 30th, another that LGA honcho (or so I gather) Doug Smith has put together that involves the return of Curious George (of "Pit Bull Attack" fame); and on November 6th - I'm not sure how public the event is, since "space is severely limited" - a video launch for their first rock video, at Tony Bardach's artspace, THE DENTAL LAB, located at 1125 E. Hastings Street. I've only seen'em three times... maybe I'll be able to make it out to some of these events...

For fans of a vastly different style of music - electroacoustic experimentation, electronica, and so forth - y'all should check out the Vancouver New Music portrait of local composer Barry Truax, happening November 19th. Couldn't get their poster to load properly on my blog, but here's the full press release for that event. (That's it - my writing is finished, you're now alone with the press release. Don't do anything too naughty to it).

Vancouver New Music looks back over Barry Truax’s impressive 40-year career in music. Truax is a composer of national and international acclaim, and has pioneered some of the most groundbreaking work in electroacoustic composition. Vancouver New Music is pleased to present the first full evening concert in Vancouver dedicated entirely to the work of this city’s most celebrated composers.

The evening will feature a retrospective of Truax’s works, beginning with Riverrun (1986), a now classic work that introduced the technique of granular synthesis to the world. The audience will also be treated to the world premiere of excerpts from Truax’s forthcoming music theatre work Enigma, The Life and Death of Alan Turing.

Enigma, The Life and Death of Alan Turing is a music theatre piece in five scenes, written for three singers, a dancer, and six-channel electroacoustic soundscape. Vancouver New Music has commissioned the first and last of these scenes which will be premiered this evening, and will feature performances by Will George (tenor) and Catherine Laub (soprano) of the Vancouver art-song chamber collective, Erato Ensemble. The performance will also feature a newly commissioned solo dance work from up-and-coming choreographer and dancer Josh Beamish. Enigma takes its story from the facts and words of Turing’s life, as well as poetry from Alfred Lord Tennyson and others.

Alan Turing (1912-1954) was a British mathematician who has been widely recognized as the father of the modern computer. After his death Turing became famous once his role in deciphering the German “Enigma” code during World War II finally became publicly known; this work was key to the British war effort in the Atlantic. In 1951 Turing had an affair with a 19-year old working class youth in Manchester that eventually led to his conviction under the charge of “gross indecency”, the same crime that Oscar Wilde had been convicted of more than fifty years earlier. To avoid a prison sentence, Turing agreed to the injection of female hormones. A year after his probation ended he was found dead, presumably from eating an apple laced with cyanide. His death was declared a suicide.

Enigma’s first scene takes as its subject a 16-year-old Turing, a precocious youth given to scientific experiment and idiosyncratic behaviour. The scene revolves around Turing and his infatuation with another brilliant youth, Christopher Morcom. The final scene leaps forward in time to Turing at age 40 and takes the audience through his relationship with Arnold Murray, and Turing’s final tragic days.

The evening will also feature a the Vancouver premiere of Androgyne, Mon Amour (1996-97), a music theatre piece originally commissioned by the American virtuoso performer Robert Black, performed here by Arraymusic bassist Peter Pavlovsky (Toronto).

The program includes as well some of Truax’s recent works, including The Shaman Ascending (2004-05), a piece inspired by Inuit throat singing that involves a high energy display of vocal material simulating a shaman chanting to achieve spiritual ecstasy, as well as Chalice Well (2009), a soundscape composition for 8-channel tape. Chalice Well takes the listener on an imaginary journey down into this holy well in Southwest England, passing through several cavernous chambers on its descent, filled with rushing and trickling water. Chalice Well was premiered at the Sonic Arts Research Centre in Belfast.

Program for Barry Truax – A Portrait:

Riverrun (1986), new 8-channel version (2004) (20’)

The Wings of Nike (1987), for digital images and a new 8-channel tape (12.5’)

Androgyne, Mon Amour (1996-97), for double bass, video and soundtracks (16’)- Vancouver premiere – with Peter Pavlovsky (Toronto)

The Shaman Ascending (2005-04) (16’)

Chalice Well (2009), for 8-channel tape (14.5’)

The Enigma, The Life and Death of Alan Turing (2010) (~ 15-16’)- World premiere of scenes 1 and 5, featuring Erato Ensemble singers Will George, tenor; Catherine Laub, soprano; baritone TBD; with solo dancer, Josh Beamish

Barry Truax is a Professor in both the School of Communication and the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University where he teaches courses in acoustic communication and electroacoustic music. He has worked with the World Soundscape Project, editing its Handbook for Acoustic Ecology, and has published a book Acoustic Communication dealing with all aspects of sound and technology. As a composer, Truax is best known for his work with the PODX computer music system which he has used for tape solo works and those which combine tape with live performers or computer graphics. In 1991 his work, Riverrun, was awarded the Magisterium at the International Competition of Electroacoustic Music in Bourges, France, a category open only to electroacoustic composers of 20 or more years experience. He is also the recipient of one of the 1999 Awards for Teaching Excellence at Simon Fraser University.
Barry is an Associate Composer of the Canadian Music Centre and a founding member of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community and the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology.

RIP Lenore Herb, aka Doreen Grey

...gather that Vancouver punk photographer/ videographer Lenore Herb passed away; my condolonces to her loved ones. I only ever interacted with her briefly - she and Bill Scherk offered mutually incompatible descriptions of what the Young Canadians/ Dead Kennedys video screening would entail a few months ago... She seems to have been an eccentric woman, but there's nothin' wrong with that... 'specially here...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Jello review in Big Takeover

My concert review is up on the B/T site - it's a bit different from what I wrote below, and includes a Bev Davies photo of Jello with Ani Kyd (Ani take note!).

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A few brief video notes before I leave

Right, so... I have some projects to focus on, so that'll be the end of blogging for a little while. I hope to be back with an interview with a filmmaker I much admire, about a very special film screening that is supposed to happen in Vancouver mid-November. I'll keep that to myself for a bit until there's confirmation that the screening/ interview will happen.

Briefly, tho', a few parting notes on some film fare. Though I did enjoy Splice, the most interesting video I've encountered on the New Releases wall in the Maple Ridge Rogers Video is a Canadian-made feature called The Wild Hunt, a drama that takes us inside the world of Live Action Role Playing. It's a unique and provocative film - I recommend it for anyone for whom LARP, the SCA, D&D or such resonate - even for skeptics and naysayers. It's also really fun to watch, smartly filmed and plotted - interesting characters, interesting business between them, interesting questions of the need for/ value of this sort of role-playing fantasy, so popular in certain quarters... it was as good as I'd hoped, seeing the poster - maybe even a bit better!

Two VIFF features also struck my fancy during the last week of screenings, and I hope people will keep an eye out for them, should they get picked up. There's a very odd monster film, Monsters, which uses an SF premise to explore the experience of being an "American refugee." I couldn't quite puzzle out how the love story in the film connects to the curious, quasi-"poverty porn" narrative of Americans trying to return home through a Mexican infected zone overrun by dangerous alien lifeforms, experiencing poverty and desperation firsthand. Is the film actually saying something about class, about America's relationship to the developing world, or is it just an unusual and effective but ultimately incoherent SF thriller? Not quite sure, but I did enjoy thinking about it.
Finally, VIFFwise, on an entirely different level, any cineaste out there should see the Iranian film The White Meadows. Unfortunately, I caught it after a night's poor sleep, and - no comment on the film - nodded off at various points, so I can neither describe it on the level of "plot" or "theme" - though the latter would be the relevant matrix, since the film is a dreamlike piece of mythmaking, with some of the poetry of Cocteau. However sleepy I was, I can certainly attest to the beauty of its images and the care with which it has been crafted. I'll see this one again if I can, and make sure to keep my eyes open...

The main video I wanted to make a note on, though, is Avatar. Yes, folks - months behind the curve, I've finally caught up with the film. It's James Cameron's most interesting work, to be sure - it was compelling, rousing, perfectly plotted, and thoroughly entertaining. Not sure what seeing it in 3-D would be like, but it's very interesting to look at as an ordinary 2-D experience (tho' there's a certain shot-on-video crappiness to some of its images that surprised me). I'm glad to have seen it, in any event - tho' I also wonder if it's funamentally immoral, or at least deeply problematic, since we see the American mythmaking industry therein crafting a version of the Native American genocide and/or the invasion of Iraq - because on some level it manages to conflate the two - in which we - white North Americans - get to experience ourselves yet again as the good guys, by a very odd erasure/ rewriting of history. Sure, MOST of the Americans are bad in the movie, and what they're doing is bad, but our protagonist, our own "Avatar" within the film, isn't. A Marine who joins the Na'vi, he - as, of course, prophesied - leads an indigenous resistance against the imperialist invaders of the planet Pandora, ultimately trading in his very body (changing from white to blue) as a measure of his solidarity with The People - and thus fulfilling some weird liberal fantasy that Americans could atone for their own evils by similarly changing race. It's kind of Dances With Wolves with the Injuns painted blue; the values it upholds are laudable, except I think it's very important to remember that these are not the values that have historically driven America, and that however "innocent" and "heroic" we want to see ourselves as being - we are compromised, complicit, tainted by our history and by imperialism that is still ongoing. At the very least, copies of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee should be issued to everyone who sees the film, lest they forget the real history entirely... More on Avatar's problematic aspects here, say.
Okay, that's it - no more writing for awhile, unless something really dramatic happens...

Ari Up: RIP

It has been reported that Ari Up of The Slits died at age 48 today. "Typical Girls," when I saw the video on Much Music in the 1980's, was a bit of an eye-opener, with the band members appearing naked and smeared in mud at the end - since it didn't seem in slightest sexual or exploitive; the lyrics were reassuring, too, that there were some pretty atypical girls out there (tho' always too few for my tastes). Both Cut and Return Of The Giant Slits are essential listening, as is their very unique cover of "Heard It Through the Grapevine." Haven't followed Ari's later career that closely but its clear the world has lost an original spirit.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

In which Jello meets Chris Towers (and an East Van drunk tries to save my soul)

I arrive at Chapel Arts, on Dunlevy - a few blocks from Main and Hastings - shortly after five PM. I've been in the city, staying at the highly affordable St. Clair Hotel, for two nights -
seeing the Legendary Pink Dots at the Biltmore on Friday and Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine on Saturday - but this is my final evening; as soon as I complete my mission, I'll be loading my gear back home - a backpack of books, DVDs, and dirty laundry, a copy of Pere Ubu's Terminal Tower on vinyl and some other goodies in a Zulu Records cloth tote (tho' I actually bought the record at Dandelion). I'm also packing my CPAP machine, looking conspicuous in its carrying case, like there might be a camera or something else expensive therein. (CPAPs aren't cheap but probably not so easy to pawn; I'm worried that someone will nick it on the assumption that it is something more easily sold). I sit outside the disused funeral chapel on the cold pavement, a protective arm around my pile o' stuff, and wait for others to arrive; who knows who is inside the building, or how many people are coming - but I'm meeting Chris Towers at 6, and want to be sure to be first in line for this event.

At some point, Nardwuar comes by - he's the first person to arrive after I get there - and we chat briefly; I explain my mission - to introduce Jello (Christian outsider music enthusiast and former Ty Scammel customer) to Chris Towers (Christian outsider musician and member of the New Creation, the band Ty brought back from oblivion, their CD coming out shortly before his death). I explain the plot to a few other people, too, as people start going in-and-out, including Susanne Tabata. She seems to have other things on her mind.

A car pulls up and suddenly there's Jello, approaching the cluster. I remain seated, more or less out of earshot, though I catch a few things - like Jello explaining that he runs "on Biafra time," which is a pretty entertaining turn-of-phrase.
Widower director Marcus Rogers, Susanne, and a few other people are standing in the doorway talking with Jello, when suddenly a guy in his 30's, walking by on the sidewalk, says, "What the fuck!?" and stops. Everyone looks at him, and by way of explanation, he rolls up his t-shirt sleeve to reveal an Alternative Tentacles logo on his upper arm. "I got it when I was 17," he says, explaining that he's just walking through the neighbourhood on his way to or from work - he wasn't expecting to run into Jello Biafra. Well, who is, really? Jello takes an interest in the tat - the border has been altered and he takes a closer look - and then the door opens and the group hustles inside, leaving the guy standing on the sidewalk, and me. He looks at me, still a bit dazed. "That was random!" he says, shrugs, and continues on.

I maintain my vigil. I'm not entirely thrilled to be seated outside, but Chris isn't here yet. A few decimated locals pass by - the "People of the Plague," whose personal damage is really far scarier than any threat they might pose. Susanne comes out, organizing something, when one drunken, scrawny fellow, carrying on his shoulder a sort of improvised tote made out of a plastic wastebin with a strap attached to it, suddenly stops and turns to face her in the street, observing that he knows where her Indian sweater comes from; he turns out to be right. I watch from a distance as he continues asserting himself at her - he wants to tell her a joke. She indulges him, and I hear him offer some sort of cornball thing involving the Pilsbury Dough Boy. I miss the punchline, but Susanne smiles and rolls her eyes and moves to step away. Suddenly he's on Phase Three, praising her beauty and comparing her to Sophia Loren, and she shoots a worried glance over my way. I'm watching, but not intervening yet, since intervening can cause further problems; but as she takes a cellphone call, it's clear that buddy has no intention of walking away from her, and is saying things like, "Thank you for being so beautiful." He's got a tension in the way he's addressing her - he's too still, as if he's holding himself back - that doesn't bode well. So finally - leaving my pile of stuff unguarded - I walk over. "Hey, buddy, listen... I think she's got other stuff to do, but I want to hear the joke you told her."

He doesn't acknowledge me, continues to stand in address of Susanne, but I persist, and she takes the moment to walk away, leaving me with my new friend, who is not pleased that I've interrupted. "I'm harmless," he tells me, somewhat defensively, and I hustle to keep it real, keep it calm, keep it positive: "Yeah, I believe it, but she doesn't know that, and it looked like she wanted to extract herself and maybe didn't know how to. You know, you could be anyone, and she's someone I know. I had to step in. Sorry, man - no offense."

He takes it in and continues briefly to defend himself - there's a slight sense that he's pissed off that I "let her get away," or such - but I hustle to refocus him. "Besides," I tell the guy. "I really do want to hear your joke. I heard part of it - something about the Pilsbury Dough Boy? I couldn't make out the punchline."

Buddy and I are standing over by my stuff, at this point - I've negotiated him to a position where I can continue to keep an eye on it and still interact with him. He tells me the joke, which is about how the Pilsbury Dough Boy won an Academy Award for Best Performance in a Dinner Roll. He asserts three or four more jokes at me, and suddenly I realize that he's not going to go away so easily. I've got a good half-hour before Chris is supposed to get here. I've got absolutely no excuses to shuffle him away, and - I didn't mention this - I took the liberty of smokin' a bit o' herb when I first arrived, so my mind is not entirely up for the task of brushing the guy off; I feel, if anything, friendly and distractable, which means I'm probably easy pickin's for this dude. I mean, his jokes are actually making me laugh, corny as they are. My father would have liked them.

He smells of alcohol. When I ask him what the wastebin strapped over his shoulder is about, he reveals that he's a binner, and shows me, further, that it's a good place to hide his beer - he has an open can tucked inside, held tight in his right hand, though at no point, as we talk, does he sip from it. Two things occur to me about him physically - that his mustache and goatee aren't that different from Ty's, and that he has some serious need of dental work. The rigidity of his stance, I think, is mostly because he's drunk - he's compensating.

He explains to me that he's slept with all sorts of beautiful women. "I mean, look at me, I'm no prize," he says, "but you want to know my secret? I just memorize a shitload of jokes. Keep them laughing!" he explains. He tells me another - none remain in my memory. But there's more to his approach to females than joking, it becomes obvious - he has all sorts of strategies up his sleeve. For example, when a hardened local prostitute/ addict type walks by, he booms at her, loudly, "Do you know something?" She turns, skeptical, bracing herself slightly in case abuse might follow, and he says, "You're beautiful! We were just talking about you!"

Where Susanne seemed worried and tense to be receiving dude's attention, the hooker's face lights up and she smiles and thanks him. (And, thank God, keeps walking; I'm blushing furiously and trying to be invisible). He is entirely satisfied with this as a response; and he does some version of this routine with every single woman who walks by while we stand there. He thanks them for being beautiful. He asks them if he knows how beautiful they are. He surprises them - asserting himself loudly like he might say something nasty and then turning it into a compliment. One is cynical - "Yeah, right"- but most respond with smiles and thank you's, and there's a little exchange of positive energy between locals, taking care of each other; while he seemed potentially creepy directing his unwanted attentions at Susanne, he now seems like he's on a mission to boost everyone's self-esteem just a little (or to make me uncomfortable as fuck - maybe that factors in, too, though I doubt it; I expect that what I'm witnessing is a shtick this guy has refined through long practice). Then a thin black girl in pink track pants comes by, looking about 40, but quite possibly a teenager. Her system seems absolutely destroyed by crack - she walks with a stooped shuffle and a dazed sort of focus, all her being seemingly aimed at her next rock. She doesn't react much when he complements her, but finds an interesting crevice between the sidewalk and the building to explore with a stick, looking, against all odds, for a dropped rock. She makes me nervous - though it doesn't seem like she's in any state to try to grab my stuff and run, she's slowly working her way closer to it in her crackhunt. I don't know what to expect, and I step a little nearer my pile.

She shuffles off down an alley. He tells me that she's crazy, or somesuch - I forget his exact words - but he doesn't once mention drugs. Does he not realize what her problem is, or does he think I might not? He starts to talk about religion, about how he doesn't need it - it's just a way of keeping people divided - but this is simply a lead-in to his discourse about God.

Suddenly the black girl is back, attentively exploring the sidewalk. (I wonder - does anyone actually ever find dropped rocks of crack this way?). I resume my seat by my stuff, letting buddy address me from above. Where's Chris? How will I get out of this? When she shuffles off towards Oppenheimer Park, a few minutes later, buddy is still with me, telling me that I'm a stand-up guy. He's thanking me for being such a good person. And at one point, he says something utterly remarkable that somehow cuts right into me. "Don't ever disparage yourself for bad things you feel you might have done," he says. It comes out of the blue, but somehow, it immediately connects with my feelings that I could have and should have done better and more when my father was dying, my guilt that maybe Dad never really understood that I did love him - that I didn't make sure he knew that. "Whatever you've done, you forgive yourself and you be humble and grateful that God loves you and forgives you. Know that you are a beautiful and unique human being. But don't give yourself too much credit - because its not you."

He's like some sort of drunken combination of comic and preacher, a holy fool staggering about, addressing himself to whoever will listen - and it's a good pitch; you go around telling people to forgive themselves and accept love, and chances are, they'll like what you're saying, at least in this neighbourhood. He continues to thank me for being a stand up guy. I thank him for his good-heartedness and his jokes. There is a prolonged leave taking and I eventually have to resort to telling him, "look, my brain is full, I can't take anymore" - which is something akin to what my father used to say when I tried to explain to him how to use his computer. (He only ever really got good at betting on races). When he finally moves to walk away, he suddenly starts to stagger drunkenly, and laughs at himself for saying all this profound shit but being barely able to walk. When Chris pulls up across the street, I babble at him an abbreviated, still-stoned version of the above.

It takes awhile, once we get inside, to put Chris and Jello together. There's a sort of informal meet-and-greet going on inside; Bill Mullan, Marcus Rogers, Ani Kyd, Nardwuar, and who knows who-all else, are talking in clusters.
Nick and Regina from Gnash Rambler - Nick also from Little Guitar Army and Aging Youth Gang - are there. Pockets of conversation are happening everywhere, and Jello joins a few, but he doesn't know me at all, though we spoke, and when I attempt to linger in his peripheries, he glances at me like I'm "someone who wants something," which is not looking promising. It's Nardwuar that finally finesses the introduction (thanks, Nardwuar!). In my minute with Jello, I quickly explain to him about the New Creation and remind him of Ty's role in their resurrection, note that a copy of their LP sold for $1700 to a Belgian collector, give him a brief intro to Tunnel Canary ("contemporaries of the Haters, who opened for the Dead Kennedys when you played here in 84 or 85"), give him the Tunnel Canary doc and a copy of Jihad, thrust The Animal Lovers Book of Beastly Murder at him ("a book about pets eating their masters" - looks like he doesn't know it!), give him two printed-out articles of mine on Tunnel Canary and the New Creation, and then, turning back to the two New Creation CDs that he is now holding, point at Chris on the cover of Troubled and say, "and see this guy here? That's this guy over here," which is Chris' cue...

Jello's "hello" to Chris is warm, interested, and laced with that inimitable Jello twist; his attention, laserlike, shifts in an instant; it's like I've disappeared, but that's fine with me. Chris (who has been doing his homework for the encounter; he's not so versed in punk) shakes his hand and says, "You've led a very interesting life!" I slip away and let them talk: mission accomplished.

The Widower, by the way - the film with the lesser rep - is terrific fun, a very interesting work, in which all the characters are so locked in their private obsessions and peccadillos that the social fabric has come unglued and is peeling back from the floor. I read it - granted that my state is still a tad altered - as being about cultural disintegration under capitalism, where individuals' private desires and fantasies only tangentally connect with the bigger picture and all sorts of craziness can occur in the private zones. It's less chaotic than Terminal City Ricochet (which I don't have time to stay for, but snag the DVD of); that doesn't necessarily make it the better film, but it sure is a lot easier to watch. I enthusiastically recommend it. I slip out at intermission - Chris gives me a quick ride to the Skytrain - since I have to commute back to Maple Ridge now; leaving at 9 means getting home at 11 or later...

Now if only I'd had the guts to say hi to Ani Kyd... I could have told her a joke...

Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, by Femke van Delft, not to be reused without permission (all cellphone photos above taken by me: Legendary Pink Dots, Jello in the pit, Subhumans, Little Guitar Army gig poster for their October 30th show... plus there's a Widower still in there).

Monday, October 18, 2010

Catfish: It Must Be Fake

Though I enjoyed Catfish, and recommend it, I have no intentions of reviewing it. For those who have seen it or care about it, however, I want to weigh in that I think the film, which purports to be a documentary, is a fake - a faux documentary, as some Sundance attendee apparently asserted, the newest major entry in what is becoming an odd little tradition of faux documentaries, largely made up, thus far, of shakycam horror films (The Blair Witch Project, The Fourth Kind, Paranormal Activity, The Last Exorcism) - tho' I gather the new "documentary" about Joaquin Phoenix's "meltdown," I'm Still Here, has also been outed as a fraud. Catfish - not a horror film, though the trailers I saw made it seem like one - is one of the most subtle and intelligent of these, and the directors are still maintaining its veracity, which most people seem to be accepting... but I don't buy it at all. I don't know what the real deal is, but:

a) The narrative arc is simply too perfect for this not to have been a highly structured experience, plotted long before the cameras rolled. Real life could not be so perfectly, dramatically satisfying. I don't buy the argument from design when it comes to the existence of a supreme being, but in the case of this film...

b) The value of the first half of the film would clearly be negligible without the "surprises" of the second half, raising the obvious question as to why the filmmakers would film so much of the early phases of an online relationship when it only begins to get interesting months later. The filmmakers have responded to this objection, but I don't buy it.

c) There are - as the fellow linked above notes - various things that stretch credibility, like the sustained absence of online research on the filmmakers' part into the truth of their main subject's claims - though I don't think that it is a case of them knowingly exploiting a "wackadoo," as said fellow describes her; I think the wackadoo is in on it, too.

d) By the law of parsimony alone I find it far easier to believe that some of the people shown in the film are actors who are "in" on the fraud than real people who are willing to go public, since some of what people go public about... makes them look like wackadoos, and would surely be regarded as a threat to their relationships and position in the community, especially given that children are involved...

e) I did not in the slightest believe the speech given by Vince that the title is taken from was the spontaneous offerings of someone who appears to be a bit drunk and none-too-perceptive. His story springs unbidden from the void, apropos of nothing, to "accidentally" offer one of those brilliant titles that is entirely enigmatic until you see this very scene - at the climax of the film, no less - creating an enormous resonance when it is unveiled. Part of the reason I don't buy it is that THERE IS NO PRIOR CONVERSATION that I could imagine the tale emerging from; it is presented out of context of any conversation Vince might have been having with the filmmakers, as if the real context in which he is speaking is that of the film. Which, I suspect, it is; I wouldn't be surprised if the anecdote and title pre-existed the screenplay, were a starting point. The writers of Catfish are clever, but not so clever as to sufficiently motivate this speech.

f) The film fits too well within certain genre conventions for this to be accidental. From David Holzman's Diary and The Connection through Blair Witch, when fictional features present themselves as documentaries, showing us the work of filmmakers who are in fact characters, it is almost always to suggest the filmmakers are in some way morally or perceptually lacking and must be shown that reality is far more complex than they were prepared for. They are inevitably chastened, and if they're lucky, redeemed. The film plays too well within these conventions - the emotional responses of the characters staying well within a rough framework. Real life would be messier.

There's probably more to be said. None of it detracts from my admiration for the film, though I must say I'm getting tired of the whole "faux" thing. It pleases me that recent entries in the form, like The Last Exorcism, have given up the conceit that they are REALLY docs. It's less insulting to our intelligence, that way...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Jello Biafra and the Gitmo School of Meds: fucking amazing

What a fucking magnificent show. I always enjoy the Subhumans more with an appropriately appreciative crowd - I've seen a few gigs where the discrepancy between how good a band they are and how small an audience they've sometimes drawn in this city was painful enough that it kinda ruined the show for me, however good their performances were. They were fantastic last night, though, playing to an enthusiastic moshpit and doing cookin' versions of "21st Century," "War in the Head," "Behind the Smile," "Moving Forward," and all three of their biggest hits, "Fuck You," "Slave To My Dick," and "Firing Squad." I felt happy that a few punks who might not have seen them live lately got to appreciate how great a band they are - including Jello, who made a comment later about how he never thought he'd SEE the Subhumans again. I was happy for him that he did.

Jello, meantime - I mean, jeezus. In one of the quotes below he contrasts himself disparagingly to Henry Rollins and Iggy Pop, but even Iggy has called a halt to his stage diving. Contra his routine in the Dead Kennedys days, Jello didn't launch himself off the stage at all when he played with the Melvins here last, so I assumed that was a past phenomenon for him, too - but he went into the pit three or four times last night, never missing a word, the first time being during the Schwarzenegger'd version of "California Uber Alles" (the first Kennedys' song he did, though the night also included versions of "Let's Lynch The Landlord," "Holiday in Cambodia," "Too Drunk to Fuck," "Bleed For Me," and - most delightfully - "Police Truck," one of his best-ever songs. (He also did versions of, I believe, every song on the new album, briefly even allowing himself to be upstaged by the very, very sexy Ani Kyd, who did backup vocals on "Pets Eat Their Master" and one as-yet-unrecorded song; she wiggled like a burlesque dancer in her highly fetching nurses' outfit and was a most pleasant addition to the lineup). I was actually kinda shocked at how much energy Jello put into his miming and performance - he really does seem to be revitalized and tireless; and his between-song rants - about a Canadian Business article designed to "greenwash" the horrors of the tar sands, about the evils of torture, and the craven nutlessness of Camp Obama for not going after the Bushies - were as lucid and clear-thinking as I've heard from him. One fan in the audience commented to me that Jello was "smarter than Noam Chomsky," and while I don't think I'd go THERE, he's sure a lot more entertaining to watch in action... An amazing night; thank you, Mr. Biafra.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, plus Terminal City Ricochet screening and more!

Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, photo by Elizabeth Sloan

I suppose anyone who cares realizes by now that Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine play October 16th at the Rickshaw Theatre, with Vancouver's own Subhumans opening up. For most Vancouver punks, regardless of generation, this is going to be an essential show. Tho' Jello recently turned 50, he's still a tireless and compelling frontman, as anyone who saw him with the Melvins a couple of years ago can attest, and his new band's first album shows him to be in fine form indeed, with two guitars, killer songwriting and an evolved, genre-spanning conception of music (including elements of punk, surf, grunge, and garage rock). He says of their European tour, in a Q&A conducted in 2009 by Jesse Luscious, that:

"I held up pretty well - I could do my thing and not just stand there and still do a show so that was still good. I ain't no Henry Rollins or Iggy Pop - I'm a mortal. The idea of a theatrical front person is almost lost at this point, so again I began realizing that people don't see demented people on stage so much anymore and you gotta try to do more of it and do it better and whatnot. But it came out pretty well and even in Germany people seemed pretty happy that we were doing almost all new material instead of doing nothing but old material. Even the ones that began yelling for 'Too Drunk To Fuck' after one soon as I laid down the law and said 'Hey look we're here to play some new songs,' they went 'Yeeehaah.' Or 'Jaaaaa...' "

Presumably a couple Dead Kennedys songs will be in the set - the Jelvins did a crowd-pleasing encore of "Holiday In Cambodia" and a revised, updated "When Ya Get Drafted" when here - but if you don't yet know the two Jello/Melvins collaborations (especially Never Breathe What You Can't See) or the Guantanamo School of Medicine debut, you should definitely check them out; some songs, like the Jelvins' "Caped Crusader" or GSM's "Pets Eat Their Master" - which Jello observes is "a really upbeat song" - stand up there with the very best of Jello's output. And openers the Subhumans have yet to have an official Vancouver record release for their excellent, expanded re-recording of Incorrect Thoughts, also available on Alternative Tentacles. They've just returned from shows in Ontario and Quebec and should be smokin'. (There's another opening act, Fuel Injected .45, but I don't know their music).

Anyhow, all that is known to anyone with an eye for gig posters around town. What is not being so widely publicized yet is that Jello will also be in town the next night, Oct. 17th, for a Q&A, DVD signing, and screening of two films he acts in, both being released this month on A/T - the legendary, long-unseen, Vancouver-shot Terminal City Ricochet and the less-well-known, but equally rich-sounding The Widower. (I've seen neither film, so I'm quite excited). In addition to Jello, both films involve - either in performance or on the soundtracks - a bewildering who's-who of Vancouverites, including, between them, Joe Keithley and the Goble/Card DOA lineup, Art Bergmann, Nardwuar, Neko Case, Ani Kyd, Watermelon, and Subhumans bassist Gerry Hannah (whose "Living With the Lies," off one of his prison cassettes, is on the Terminal City Ricochet soundtrack and about the only way the non-fanatic can access any of Gerry's solo recordings). Screenings will be at the Chapel Arts Center (304 Dunlevy), on Sunday, October 17th, with tickets $10 at the door - The Widower shows first at 7 and then Terminal City Ricochet at 9, with Jello appearing afterwards, at least according to the press release...! (It was still all a bit mysterious to him when we spoke).

And now for the interview. When I reached Jello by phone, there had been a bit of a mixup, and we only had a few minutes to talk - forcing me to cut short questions about his record collection, his fondness for outsider music, and about a mutual acquaintance of ours, since Jello used to shop at the late Ty Scammel's booth at the Vancouver flea market - Ty who unearthed the lost New Creation debut, Troubled, and paved way for its reissue and the revitalization of the band, all of which can be read about here. Jello doesn't know about the New Creation, it transpires - I'll be taking care of that. ("Do you like Christian outsider music?" I asked him, and he responded, with dark relish, "Oh yeah" - spawning a plan to bring Chris Towers to the films). Meantime, since we only had five minutes, we talked about the two movies.

Jello Biafra onstage in Europe with the Guantanamo School of Medicine. Photo by Marc Gärtner, not to be reused without permission.

Allan: Why were Terminal City Ricochet and The Widower so long out of print? Were there rights issues, or...

Jello: I'm not really sure with Terminal City Ricochet. (Widower director) Marcus Rogers just came to me with The Widower when he knew we were interested in trying to get Terminal City Ricochet out. When TCR came out, I think it showed in Vancouver, and probably in Toronto, Montreal, and in San Francisco, I think Los Angeles and London, and on the USA cable network, which is where Joey Keithley made a video copy of it that a lot of people used for reference for years. I think there was some kind of squabble over rights fairly soon after the movie came out, and it just kind of wound up on ice; and now the original producer certified to us that he does have the right to license it to us... so I figured, "Well, we're not really a movie or TV company, but these films should be seen!" And the kind of audience that likes Alternative Tentacles' various kinds of music that we put out certainly would dig these. Terminal City Ricochet was supposed to be a kind of worst-case scenario, dark, somewhat science-fictiony kind of future, and I had to tell John Conti, the producer, "Hey, wait a minute - a lot of this is going on in America right now!" And that was in 1989. And of course, what the film is about is a dictator who masquerades as a freely elected mayor of Terminal City, one of the last livable places on earth. He needs to get himself re-elected, and of course he manipulates the media, very much in a Fox News fashion, and knows that fear is the best way to get people to vote against their own interests. And so he invents a terrorist threat, and picks somebody almost at random, to label them a terrorist in order to stay in power. And every two years, we have national elections in America and every election cycle reminds me more and more of Terminal City Ricochet.

Allan: (laughs)

Jello: a major motive in releasing it would be so that more Americans would view their own election cycle accurately and realistically. (Laughs).

Allan: Did the falling space junk thing in the movie come from the song, or did the song come from the falling space junk in the movie?

Jello: The falling space junk came from a spoken word track of mine called "Why I'm Glad the Space Shuttle Blew Up," and that inspired Bill Mullan or one of the other screenwriters to put it in the film, and then the film inspired the song.* I suppose in a way I was wearing too many hats at this period. I was trying to resurrect my method acting skills that I'd learned as a teenager, and wangle the soundtrack rights for Alternative Tentacles, and come up with music for the film all at the same time. And it might have been the acting that suffered a bit - let the viewer be the judge on that. But the cross-pollination also inspired two different versions of the song - the one I did on the album with Nomeansno (The Sky Is Falling and I Want My Mommy, just reissued by A/T on vinyl - check it out!) is almost a sequel to the one on the Terminal City Ricochet soundtrack (to be included with the DVD). Same music, but different vocal tracks, because I was having trouble getting the lyrics to work, and I finished one version and then this other version poured out of my head, when I realized - "oh my God, what would happen if people realized the world was going to end and they only had a short time to live, what would they do, what would happen to law and order?" That's kind of the premise of the second version...

Jello: And then another one on the Nomeansno album that resulted from the film is "Bruce's Diary." Bruce Coddle is my character in the film, kind of an Ollie North/ Karl Rove secret police figure all rolled into one, and to try to immerse myself in the man - I'd gotten the flu when I first arrived in Vancouver, and they'd put me up in this apartment hotel, where I could stare across streets and whatnot into a lot of other people's apartments, especially when the lights went on in the evening. And so I began to do this in character, and explore more and more what motivates somebody to pursue surveillance and control as a lifestyle, and eventually wound up masturbating as Bruce Coddle.

Allan: (begins laughing in the background, which persists for several minutes).

Jello: And while I was doing that, I thought, hey, wait a minute, I should flip on my tape recorder and record my thoughts, so I did, and then I transcribed that later and boiled them back down to the lyrics for "Bruce's Diary."

Allan: (still laughing): sorry - you transcribed - while you were masturbating -

Jello: I didn't transcribe, I recorded; you know, wank in one hand, and hold the recorder in the other.

Allan: That's great. I didn't know that story.

Jello: There you go.

Still from The Widower

Allan: Okay, let me ask about The Widower - I know almost nothing about this film! It's you in a starring role, right?

Jello: I think the Terminal City Ricochet role is the bigger role, but The Widower, it's a more demented role in part because it's an even more demented film. It's sort of like, if Eraserhead goes to Mortville - the town in John Waters' Desperate Living. And it's about a guy who accidentally causes his wife's death and he's so grief-stricken that he can't bear to part with her, not even her body. And that slowly causes trouble with the neighbourhood and the town and everything else. He originally does the right thing and approaches a mortuary, but guess who the funeral director is? ...So a few seconds with me, and he flees out the door. And I was also cast as Satan in the film, and a still from the Satan role is what Shepard Fairey used for the album cover of the Audacity of Hype.

Allan: Wonderful. It all connects. Perfect - thank you, Jello.

Jello: Right, I gotta run! Bye.


Having listened to a version of the "Why I'm Glad the Space Shuttle Blew Up" piece, I can't blame Jello for thinking that he inspired the screenwriters, but it appears one of them has just written me to say it ain't so. An email from Mr. Mullan - I'd misspelled it! - includes, in part, the following: the original writer of Terminal City Ricochet (initial idea cobbled together with Al Thurgood, wrote first two drafts of the screenplay on my own, second with Phil Savath story-editing, ongoing involvement through pretty much all subsequent drafts) I've got to fact-check something Jello Biafra said in your recent discussion with him. Specifically, the falling space junk of the movie was NOT inspired by his
Why-I'm-Glad-The-Space-Shuttle-Blew-Up. It couldn't have been. The Space Shuttle blew up in January, 1986, so I doubt he recorded that piece until at least a few months later, whereas the first draft of Ricochet (as it was called a the time) was pretty much complete by the end of January, 86. Furthermore, the first time space junk fell in a screenplay of mine was 1979 (a short script, SFU film school, that was never produced). Basically, I loved the humour inherent in creating a situation so hopeless for a character that the only way out of it would be for random chunks of metal to come hurtling from the sky and kill all the bad guys. mind you, I have no easy ability to fact-check THAT, either - I mean, it's just stuff from my inbox, and memories of the Great Chuck Biscuits Death Hoax of 2009 make me a little wary... but I didn't fact-check Jello either, so... How does one say "let the reader beware" in Latin? It's the internet, Jake.

Two final VIFF reviews

...I'm running out of steam, have a sore back, and other pending projects, so these will likely be my two final comments on VIFF fare this year. I had an amusing experience with Abbas Kiarostami's first "international" film, Certified Copy, today (it plays again on Thursday). The film plays a rather sly game with its audience; people who intend to watch it and value a fresh experience shouldn't read further... The title and the opening scenes raise questions of the "objective" value of originals versus the "subjective" value of fakes and copies - defending the second and querying the value we place on the first. (This is a very crude approximation of the theme of the film - I'm tired, it's been a long day, and this is not an altogether simple film to describe). It then frames a relationship between two people that could be interpreted in one of two completely incompatible ways. Both myself and the people I went to the show with were somewhat non-plussed at the end of it all, confused about what we had seen and what it amounted to. I couldn't immediately enlighten them. As we shuffled out of the Visa Screening Room, I encountered critic and VIFC programmer Tom Charity in the lobby, also fresh from the screening, and rather unfairly - since I was myself dazed - asked him what he'd made of it; whereupon he made an observation that, to my surprise, favoured a reading of the relationship shown onscreen that completely clashed with mine. It wasn't until I discovered that he'd seen it in an entirely different light that I realized what had happened - the film had offered us two paths, and he went down one, while I the other, finding ourselves at an utter divide, the filmmaker having offered both of us ample evidence for our views (this understanding, I should note, took place mostly in my head, not in conversation, so Charity might be entirely unaware of my reaction). And then suddenly it all fell into place: we were, ourselves, in trying to sort out our incompatible interpretations, in fact discussing which version of the relationship was authentic and which was fake; we were caught up in a miniature version of the very dialogue about experience that the film frames. It was an entertaining experience, having a penny drop so dramatically five minutes after the film had ended. Confusion has never so completely transformed itself into understanding in quite the same way.
Unless I'm still confused, and just don't realize it.

Aside from questions of epistemology, however, the insights the film has to offer about human relationships or experience probably can't be decisively stated by ANYONE after a single viewing; but the performances are strong, Juliette Binoche is very sexy, the Tuscan scenery and the photography are quite lovely, and there is something highly entertaining about the "game" it plays, if I can call it that... so I think I can recommend the experience. It may be awhile before I give it another look, but at some point, I may well do so - I have lots of other Kiarostami to catch up on, in the meantime.

I felt equally uncertain about Aaron Katz's Cold Weather. It's an odd little film - it has more plot than any so-called mumblecore film I've seen, with the possible exception of Baghead, but it stands at an ironic distance to that plot, treating it almost like something akin to the games played by the young couple in Quiet City. It was agreeably funny, possessed of at least some of the character-driven tenderness of Quiet City (tho' little of the emotional intensity of Dance Party USA, which is still the Katz film I most admire); and there were some striking images of Oregon, making it yet another highly interesting independent film made in the Pacific Northwest. I'm not sure that the film does justice to any one of its three levels (the "plot," the metacinematic querying of plot, or the gentle character-driven stuff that the plot engages and/or overtakes) - I think Baghead much more elegant, and not entirely dissimilar - so in the end, it seemed a bit "light;" but it was undeniably highly entertaining.

By the way, I'm told The White Meadows is a work of genius by a friend with pretty solid tastes.
Hope y'all are enjoying the VIFF. Watch this blog for a Jello Biafra interview!

Monday, October 11, 2010

John Gianvito and Vapor Trail (Clark)

John Gianvito shooting at the site of Marcos Village. Still provided by the filmmaker, not to be reused without permission.

I greatly admired John Gianvito's previous documentary, Profit motive and the whispering wind - a document of massacre markers and tombstones of strikers and labour leaders past, inspired by the work of Howard Zinn. The film has almost no music or spoken language - just the ambient sounds and the various gravesites Gianvito visits, and the texts on the markers and stones; it invites the viewer to meditate in great quietude on sacrifices made for the benefit of all future workers that have been, for political reasons, effaced, minimized, and, for many of us, largely forgotten. Gianvito's new film, Vapor Trail (Clark), is less formally adventurous - save, as I mention in my Straight note on it, in that it is 4 1/2 hours long - but it is very much in keeping with the politics of the earlier documentary (and has a brief spoken introduction by Zinn). It's essential viewing for anyone interested in politically engaged cinema, in issues of imperialism, water quality in the Third World, or the impact of US military bases worldwide. It depicts, largely through interviews, the toxicity left behind in 1991 when the US shut down Clark Air Base in the Philippines, and the resulting impact on Filipinos - some of whom actually lived on the Clark base when it was used as a refugee camp when Mt. Pinatubo erupted, drinking water pumped from below. It's not entirely clear just what has caused the groundwater to be polluted - buried munitions? - but it is abundantly clear that people in the area of Clark base are suffering to this day, and that the US have no intention of cleaning up the mess they've left behind. Gianvito's film in particular focuses on two activists, Myrla Boldanado and Teofilo "Boojie" Juatco, who have founded the People's Task Force for Bases Clean-Up. The "history lesson" segments of the film, meanwhile, show us the early history of US imperial ambitions in the Philippines, which few Filipinos that Gianvito interviews seem to know much about.

What follows is from a phone conversation I had with John Gianvito a few weeks ago; Vapor Trail (Clark) plays twice this week at the VIFF. Note - the following omits the material covered in my Straight note, so read that first.

Allan: Sorry to start with a lowbrow question, but if we could talk about the film’s length, the decision to present it in a 4 ½ hour format obviously runs the risk of alienating some potential viewers.

John: It’s the gorilla in the room, or whatever... I mean, I may be naïve about many things, but I’m not so naïve to not be mindful that decision to allow the film to allow the film to reach that length was going to critically limit the audience - that many people, regardless of the content, may refuse to sit through something of that duration. The decision was arrived at on a number of fronts, but most principally with the dialogue I myself was having with the material. For me at least, it’s a refusal to come down. I was certainly looking for opportunities to sculpt it into a shorter form, but, given the complexity of the issues, I felt it necessary to understand, to really have any kind of perspective beyond just an emotional kneejerk reaction to the material. It warranted a certain amount of space, to be able to lay that out - both the historical perspective and the perspective of the on-the-ground work being done by the NGO that had led me to these communities.
Elena Neverida explains about health problems resulting from drinking contaminated water. Still provided by the filmmaker, not to be reused without permission.

John (continued): ...And people take their time when they speak there, and don’t necessarily speak in sound bites. I also thought, given the magnitude of what I was bearing witness to, it didn’t sit easy with me to limit the number of people that you would encounter. In a way, there’s a kind of corollary within the film, to the insistence that’s made at one point by these larger NGO’s who wanted to restrict the visit of Prince Andrea to meeting just three or four families, and that would suffice, and there was no reason that they could see that he would need to be exposed to the full community, even though it was going to be for the same duration.

So you meet maybe twelve people at length, out of hundreds who are dealing with these issues. There is repetition, but for me, that repetition was vital to indicate that one story wasn’t just an aberration, but was occurring again and again as I met people - individuals who said they’d had bloodwork done and never been shown the results, or people who were describing the quality of their water in identical ways... to also expand the film so it wasn’t wholly focused on the fallout of the evacuation of the CABCOM area after the Mt. Pinatubo eruption, but also extend it to earlier periods that give indication of the consequences of the US presence there on the indigenous community and the impact of the test bombing they would do - the aerial bombing raids that they would do, et cetera. It’s a big, complicated picture that requires time.

When I was coming close to finishing the film, I flew the lead activist, Myrla Boldanado, to Boston to look at the film, and she revealed to me afterwards that she was rather nervous, specifically about the issue of length. She certainly trusted me on many levels, but didn’t imagine that the film would be on that scale, and I think had been hoping that it would be an hour long piece - as others that have been made; this isn’t the first film that’s ever touched on this subject - that she could use as an organizing tool within her community. But her first comment was, okay, maybe one hundred people are going to see this, rather than a thousand people, but those hundred people are going to have such a deeper and fuller appreciation of what’s going on here that perhaps they’ll be more moved to actually do something about it. Rather than those films that move you, but then you move on and they kind of evaporate.

I don’t know if you saw, but there was a nice statement that I can’t quote verbatim, but - the critic Chris Fujiwara, wrote on Vapor Trail in the online journal, Senses of Cinema; in the current issue, he’s writing on the Jeon Ju film festival in South Korea. And he quite elegantly states a defense for the length of the film, and he talks about how it avoids two traps of well-intentioned advocacy films, that either produce cheap emotion quickly or get you angry, but in a way that’s kind of useless. But he says it much better than I’m saying it now.

John Gianvito shooting gravesites at Marcos Village; still provided by the filmmaker, not to be reused without permission.

Allan: Having seen tombstones figuring prominently in two of your films now, it seems like this is emerging as a motif in your work; but is that an accident?

John: In essence it is, although as it unfolded I wasn’t aware that it was resonating with the previous film. I had gone to this first cemetery strictly to look for the gravesite of Crizel Valencia, after having met her mother and conducting the interview that you see in that film, and we weren’t quite sure where it was in the cemetery. We were wandering around looking for it, and as I was exploring, I couldn’t help but notice how many markers there were for young children. Someone who wanted to criticize the science of my film - because I’m making this as an individual; I don’t have the resources, and few would have them, to do an absolutely unshakeable scientific analysis of the health problems in this region - could say, “Well, how do you know that that child didn’t die in a car accident or of malaria or something else? You’re just looking at these dates...” And it’s absolutely true; I don’t know that, but the just the preponderance of them - and then I went to other cemeteries in the same area - seemed far beyond the norm.

Sort of the structure of the film is to gradually build up through a variety of vectors enough evidence to say, “what’s wrong with this picture?” Clearly even a lay observer is going to say, “Clearly something is amiss here.” So I thought that would be a way to evoke some of the magnitude of what this community is facing, or has faced - I’m coming into the situation many years after its reached its apex, when people were still on the Clark base.

And so, just as there I’m shooting and going back and thinking about how to make this work as a film and not just as a piece of advocacy work, it started to feel like it could be a powerful motif, so I continued with it.

Allan: Yes. Just to confirm - I’m skeptical when I watch films, and I had exactly that thought when at first we see these tombstones: how does he know that these are all connected to the toxicity at Clark. And exactly what you said - the preponderance of tombstones of infants was overwhelming and it made it irrelevant: like, “okay, maybe a few of them did die in car accidents, but who cares, there’s a huge number...”

John: Even if they just died of malnutrition or other illnesses that are part of extreme poverty, poverty itself is part of the problem. I mean, its existence is a crime that we all shoulder some responsibility for, and it’s as tied as anything else to an analysis of what the impact of the US coming into this part of the hemisphere was.

Allan: What did you do, yourself, for drinking water when you were in the Philippines?

John: You buy bottled water. Most people will offer that to you wherever you go. There was one point - I don't remember where it was, but I was at someone's house and I suddenly realized I was not drinking bottled water. It wasn't intellectual - I could tell there was something off about what I was just drinking. And of course within the communities I went to, the people who providing me this, or that I could buy it for, couldn't buy it regularly for themselves, and you hear that expressed very clearly in a couple of the scenes.

Allan: You leave out some of the history - the history lesson only proceeds so far. Before talking about this history. Is that going to be taken up in the next film, Wake (Subic), do you plan to continue the history lesson?

John: I do. Part one ends with basically the declaration in 1902 that the Philippine-American war, at that point called the Philippine Insurrection, was over, and my text very briefly acknowledges that it persisted for many years after “mission accomplished” was declared. So in part two, one of the things that happens that it will follow that history in the years right after the war was declared over, and look at various stories of insurgent resistance, but I don’t know that I will bring that all the way up into the present. It’s a lot to do it justice, when you’re dealing with the Hoek revolution during World War Two and all the intervening issues with Marcos and Estrada and Arroyo and so forth. I’ll have to figure out how far to take it, but there is an appearance of George W. Bush visiting the Philippines that does come in near the end of part two.

Allan: How far are you from completion?

John: Honestly, I would say it’s probably still a year away. It’s looking like the second part is as robust as the first part, and it’s also just a consequence of the amount of time that I have, given that I have a full time job and am working in another language - so I have to hire a translator in the editing room and the subtitling and the working of that out is extremely time-consuming.

Allan: Do you see an unbroken history of US imperialism in the Philippines?

John: I think, up until the present, the power elite in the Philippines have had an almost unshakable relationship with the US... In part two, there’s even someone - a man on the street who’s being interviewed - who points out, he says, “just look at the Philippine peso, and the American flag is intertwined with the Philippine flag. I forget on which bill, but it’s something I photographed then, and cut to as the person was speaking.

Allan: That’s current?

John: Current, yeah. Without having explicitly said it, I’m hoping that the parallels between our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan come through, and the ways in which we historically have withdrawn from a situation, so it appears we’re granting independence and democracy to some part of the world, when we still retain bases and political and economic leverage in decision making. I see that happening in Iraq right now.

Allan: When was Clark actually founded?

John: I probably should go into this in more detail in part two. I’m not going to be able to give you the exact date right now, but it was very early on during the last part of the Philippine-American war - the official years, which are 1898 to 1902. In that area, because it’s on higher ground, and good grazing ground, the cavalry had set up there, and it first evolved into an area that was called Fort Stotsenberg, but then it got rechristened Clark base. I think by 1903 or so, it’s already being called Clark - so, for pretty much the duration.

Allan: For me, the most interesting sequence of the film is you are being toured through the salvaged scrap from Clark. Two moments stand out - one, when your interpreter explains to the man in charge - I'm unclear on his role - that "you're an American," and he glances at you. I wonder how that felt - if you briefly felt worried how that observation might affect your reception. Secondly, a few minutes later, one of the girls washing scrap makes the observation, "They're not going to show it here anyway - they just want to show what happened to their garbage." It's a heartbreaking comment - her mistrust and cynicism are totally reasonable, given her experience with America, but it's also very misplaced, given what you're actually doing... How did that all feel? ...There’s a fascinating essay by Robert Fisk, where he’s in Afghanistan and a group of refugees started beating him with rocks -

John: But he understood where their rage was, he didn’t hold it against them. As I remember it.

Boojie and a villager at the site of military tests in Crow Valley. Still provided by the filmmaker, not to be reused without permission.

Allan: Were you exposed to any rage over there, any resentment?

John: I was on the hunt for it! And I was initially quite sorely disappointed when I wasn’t encountering any kind of anger or resentment. In fact, it was the opposite: as an American, I was being bestowed all kinds of good will wherever I went, and it’s part of how I started to realize that this is accomplished through the erosion of ones history, that I think was not an accident of fate but done quite wilfully. Discussing what could improve the lot of the people that I’m presenting in my film, one of the things that could have the most long-standing chance of redirecting their fates is the recovery of their history, which has been taken away from them. I think, for instance, that if people just knew that their great grandparents had been slaughtered in large numbers for the US to have a foothold there, no matter how much they were in need of economic support, my inclination would be that they would probably say, “Thanks but no thanks - we’ll figure something else out.” But that - as you get some indication of in the film, that’s not information that they’re equipped with. There’s only one point I can remember, where I was going up into an indigenous community up in the mountains and there’s some young kids who were yelling out something about, “Hey, Uncle Sam!” to me. And I was glad - I was saying to my friends, “Yeah, they should be mistrustful. They should wonder what I’m doing here.” But I almost never encountered that.

It’s a sort of a separate issue, but I did have a very unsettling encounter with one of the paramilitary groups within the first few days of my first trip there.

Allan: You state in the film that the Philippines is the second most dangerous place for journalists after Iraq.

John: Right. Well, I quote Human Rights Watch, or some organization who had made that determination. But it’s something that was common knowledge during the time that I was there - you would read about bodies being recovered in all kinds of places. My experience was that the People’s Task Force were trying to take me into the most toxic part of the former Clark base, and when the US left, you could essentially go anywhere you wanted to, but at that moment, for reasons unknown, it was cordoned off. So they were just saying, “Well, let’s try some other routes,” and there was this dirt road, so - “let’s try it and see what happens, maybe this is going to get us to where we want to go.” And we went down this road and there’s eventually this enormous pile of dirt in the middle of the road so we couldn’t go any further, and as we slowed up, all these men came out from behind this pile of dirt and from this other shack on the right hand side that we hadn’t seen; and one of the four people in the car, a young fellow named Mario whom you see later in the film - he’s giving the explanation on the map in the church of the river systems? - and Mario says to us, these are some of the men involved in the killings, because they’d tried to recruit him a few months earlier, and he’d wanted no part of it. And it wasn’t so easy - it was a one-lane road - to turn around; we were trying to do that, and - this is part of my first political awakenings there about the people I had come involved with - I noticed on the visor on our car that had the word “police” on it. And what it is, it’s a strategy - you pay somebody a couple of hundred dollars, and you get that; and I don’t know how much protection it bought us, but it probably slowed these men’s progression to our car to just sort of find out who we were and what we were up to, so we could just sort of drive away. And I don’t know for sure what would have happened - I had my videocamera on the floor, so I don’t have any footage of this encounter, and maybe that’s also why we didn’t have more difficulty. But I remember as we were leaving - I had known about these extra-judicial killings and people had warned me about this before I first had travelled there - and I’m quite sure I was probably trembling at that point, and so we were all discussing it, and I took note of the fact that my new friends, they were concerned - this definitely wasn’t a cool situation - but they weren’t really undone by it. And that’s when they first started telling me about their lives as activists, and it’s the first time I learned that both Boojie and Myrla had been longterm activists before this “bases” issue, that they had both been involved in the anti-Marcos campaigns, both had been imprisoned for years, both had been tortured. And so they said they never expected that they would actually live to the age they are now. You start looking at issues of life and death through a different lens when you’re able to share other people’s realities.

So that was the only specific incident where I felt any kind of threat to myself, potentially. And I kept a generally low profile. I did have to get permits from the Clark Development Corporation to film, and when I went back a second time, on another year, I could see that (CDC environmental liaison) Mr. Fuentes was much cooler in his demeanour and was very restrictive of the number of days I had this permit.

(My favourite image in the film. Still provided by the filmmaker, not to be reused without permission.)

Allan: He comes across as a man in a very conflicted position - he doesn’t come across as a bad man, at least not most of the time, but he’s involved in a very fraught enterprise. What was your feeling about the CDC? Are they inviting further disaster, by developing this land?

John: It is a complicated situation. I mean, both the Subic Freeport Zone and the Clark Economic Zone have a large financial boon to the national economy - my understanding is, significantly larger than even during the US occupation time. Texas Instruments, for instance, has built its largest factory in that area. And as I give some evidence of throughout this film, the speed with which hotels and casinos and industries are being constructed is astounding. Now - I can’t be the conscience of these individuals; are they genuinely oblivious to the fact that health problems persist? I find that unlikely - but I think when you grow up in an environment where life is a struggle on any number of levels, constantly, and mortality rates are high - I think in the Philippines it’s something like 72 percent of the population live below the poverty line - it’s hard to even parse out, to what degree are people dying because of what they’re drinking, or from any number of other factors. To have the capacity to see some seemingly positive improvements in the economic life of the society - I’m sure it gives Mr. Fuentes a sense that he’s contributing in a positive way. In part two, there’s a similar interview with the environmental spokesperson for the Subic base. She’s even more aware of the contradictions and is very sympathetic to the desire of groups like the People’s Task Force for Bases Clean Up to bring some remedy to the toxic issues, and she says, very movingly says at one point, very simply that “beggars can’t be choosers.” It’s a third world nation; there’s this economic gun to their head and legally the US arranged it so they weren’t obligated to do any further cleanup than they undertook. Morally, of course, I would argue, that supercedes whatever legal documents were signed, but of course the bigger issue here is, if we could move the US to accept responsibility for the contamination that persists in Clark and Subic, it sets that first precedent. And this is an issue that you can find at virtually every military facility globally. It’s how I first learned about this, through an expose in the Boston Globe in the late 1990s about the global problems around military bases and pollution. And so I’m sure they’re well aware that the moment they move on one facility, everyone else is going to say, why them and not me?
A local child, Samuel, at a church meeting that Prince Andrea was supposed to attend. Still provided by the filmmaker, not to be reused without permission.

Allan: What should people do to help with the cause?

John: Well, there's a flyer that I pass out at screenings and at the tail end of the film there's a website address... Quite immediately, one can make a small donation to the work of the People's Task Force. Even small amounts of money can make large differences within that community, and can very directly provide assistance and medical help to many of the people one sees in that film. That's something real and tangible that is within reach.