Thursday, March 31, 2011
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Monday, March 28, 2011
The thing about Japan - ask anyone who has lived there - is that it is in no way as technologically advanced as its public image would have you believe. Maybe some people are getting the picture, now, but for years - since the days of the Bubble economy, when the west was terribly threatened by Japanese dominance of various markets (...especially cars!), we've tended to vastly overestimate their capacities; the fantasy - which in many cases is all you'll see represented over here, even still - is that they all are computer geeks, have a plethora of weird electronic gadgets, can manufacture anything to higher standards than the rest of the world, are perhaps the most advanced nation in the world, technologically speaking.
There might be some truth to some of these claims - but there's also a deep confusion about the realities of life in Japan, which the Japanese won't ever do much to correct, since they LIKE this public image an awful lot. Japan HAS had a powerful economy at times, and DOES have some stunning tech, but when I was over there, I also witnessed all sorts of total backwardness - X-rays being given without lead vests to protect one's bits; powerlines strung right over houses (or were they houses built under powerlines?); and a nuclear accident at a plant where it seems some Japanese Homer Simpsons, in a rush and not necessarily so well-trained, were mixing materials in buckets (see here and here). While it seemed like EVERYONE had a cellphone that was smaller and more functional than the ones we were using at that time, there was also a surprising amount of computer illiteracy, with most of the students and many of the teachers at the high school where I taught - admittedly not an elite school - having great difficulties doing even the simplest tasks on a computer (not that they weren't without special challenges; just ask yourself how one would go about typing in kanji. This was in 1999-2002, by the way, when most westerners, especially kids, were already online).
Nevermind the bizarre construction projects and misguided public works - I heard tales of bridges built without roads at the other end, of land harvested from the sea that it turned out no one actually wanted, and saw with my own eyes rivers that had been drained so their banks could be lined with concrete and "fortified," seemingly needlessly. Nevermind the degree of unregulated noise pollution, the weirdness of seeing vending machines smack in the middle of two ricefields, or the giggling insanity behind SOME of the gadgets on hand (from toilet seats with control panels that heated the seat in the winter, to UFO catchers filled with sex toys; I never saw the vending machines with schoolgirl's panties in them, myself, but we've all heard stories, right?). These can all be seen as relatively harmless eccentricities, present in every culture.
No, if you really want to know how behind the west some aspects of Japanese culture can be - rent an apartment there for a couple of years.
For the three years that I spent in Japan, I lived in a Leo Palace, one of a chain of apartments that among other things, though being relatively recent constructions, like many apartment buildings, had no central heating and maybe no insulation (everyone had to pay exorbitant fees to heat or cool their apartment, depending on the season, with an air conditioner; without running the aircon, my thermometers often read that the apartment was colder inside, during the winter, than outside). The hot water, rather than operating through a central hot water tank, was heated outside individual apartments, as well, with un-insulated pipes out on my balcony that froze up every winter (this was not in the backass of the countryside, but the suburbs of Tokyo. Imagine not being able to shower in the morning in a supposedly first world country because the hot water was frozen in the pipes!). My stove in the tiny, tiny kitchen was a single electric burner placed right next to the sink, as if water and electricity are a good mix; I shocked myself more than once and shorted out the burner a couple of times, which was hard to avoid doing. At one point during a cleaning I noticed a black smudge on the living room wall, which I tried to clean off with a wet rag, to discover that whatever material the wall was made of was WATER SOLUBLE, turning into a gooey, muddy, irrepairable patch, much worse than it had been, because of my gentle attempts to clean. The front door wasn't flush with the door frame, with a half-inch gap at the bottom to let cold air, dust, and insects in (leading to one memorable ant invasion in my kitchen, when a whole colony discovered where I had stored my spent pop cans, awaiting recycling day); no wonder there were billions of cockroaches everywhere, even in new buildings. When there was a windstorm, too, there would always be a very visible line of dust that had blown in my front door that I had to wipe up. During rainstorms, meanwhile, drainage was so poor the streets would routinely flood, so that everyone had to contend with walking, cycling or driving in five inch rivers of water for a couple of hours, as a regular feature of life; maybe there was no way, given the severity of storms, to construct drains that worked - but there WERE deep, narrow ditches lined in concrete at either side of the road; they just weren't EFFECTIVE. Plus I'm really not sure if the concept of lessening damage to homes with the use of lightning rods has made it over there, since when lightning hit near my apartment one time, not only my computer, but my TV and the control panel for my hot water system were both completely, irrepairably fried.
Meantime, there were all sorts of exorbitant we're-fucking-you-because-we-say-we-can fees that came with renting an apartment, like a surprise gift I had to give to my landlords of around $250, over and above the rent, that was required to renew my lease: because more than a lot of places in the world, shit rolls downhill in Japan. (Anyone ever seen Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well?) The wealthy, the powerful, and the connected royally fuck the average consumer on a regular basis, and being a good Japanese means taking the fucking with grace: bowing deeply, muttering "sho ga nai," and thinking of the Emperor while you're being plundered. That's how you get phenomenon like karōshi - death from overwork, doing insane amounts of unpaid overtime to prove your loyalty - or what were, when I was there, comically exorbitant fees for internet usage at home. The average Japanese is trained from elementary school on to take a fucking without complaint - read Karel van Wolferen's The Enigma of Japanese Power for a serious analysis, if you don't believe my rant. Everyone KNOWS that that's what it's like, too - you just don't admit it publicly.
When the system backfires enough that a public scandal DOES emerge - like the horrifying historical example of the Minamata disaster or, from my time there, the Snow Brand milk scandal, where it was discovered that a major producer of dairy products was just dumping returned, expired milk products back into the vats of new milk, to be repackaged and resold, leading to widespread and serious food poisoning - the government and the media are generally bent on minimizing any face-losing shame that might attach to the corrupt incompetence that flourishes in the shadows, rather than taking steps to make sure such things can never happen again; public image trumps public safety, nine times out of ten, and if you ever do fuck up - well, you just have to bow deeply enough to be forgiven... It's un-Japanese to make a fuss about such matters, after all... you're supposed to "gambatte" and endure...
And so: for those of us who have actually LIVED in Japan, when we read a story like this one - "Radiation in Japanese seawater spreads north" - we feel a sense of horror, sorrow, and rage that might not be present in the hearts of those of you who actually buy into the Japanese myth of hyperefficiency; and we read all sorts of things between the lines that others might not.
"Highly radioactive iodine seeping from Japan's damaged nuclear complex may be making its way into seawater farther north of the plant than previously thought," the article begins, and we ask ourselves how it can be that anyone could have been UNDERESTIMATING the dangers at hand in a case like this, and whether in fact the trouble was not that the "previous thoughts" were wrong but were LIES that someone has now been caught in, forcing an admission of error. "Mounting problems, including badly miscalculated radiation figures" - NO SHIT! - "and no place to store dangerously contaminated water, have stymied emergency workers struggling to cool down the overheating plant and avert a disaster with global implications." And we think, sorry, folks but it's a bit late for that...
Skipping down a bit, we read, "the contaminated water, discovered last Thursday" - because no one realized that pumping a plant damaged in a tsunami full of corrosive seawater, as TEPCO had started out doing, then replacing it with fresh water, would lead to contaminated water coming out; hell no - "has been emitting radiation that measured more than 1,000 millisieverts per hour in a recent reading at Unit 2 — some 100,000 times the normal amounts, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said... Airborne levels outside the unit are more than four times the level that the government deems as safe for humans." And cynical or not, what we think here is that the numbers don't add up, that radiation is being emitted at 100,000 times the normal amounts, leading to airborn levels "four times" what is safe for humans... but wait, 100,000 times the radiation leads to four times the risk? What?
"Plutonium — a key ingredient in nuclear weapons — is present in the fuel at the complex, which has been leaking radiation for over two weeks, so experts had expected some to be found once crews began searching for evidence of it this week. As such, its presence is no threat to public health, officials insisted." These officials should be made to eat said plutonium, then. And what a nice word that is, what a fine rhetorical device: "insisted." The subtext of that word is, "look, WE'RE not saying this, THEY'RE saying this." Riiiight. "Only some of the plutonium samples were from the leaking reactors, they said. The rest came from earlier nuclear tests." (Whose face is being saved here, exactly - and how can you save your face and bury your head in the sand at the same time?). "Years of weapons testing in the atmosphere left trace amounts of plutonium in many places around the world." To which we must add a measured, "yeah, right." And even here, you notice the reporter using nice distancing measures like the words "they said," because it's starting to be obvious that what officials say in Japan doesn't always attach to reality - unless it's the reality of needing to cover their own asses.
"Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano repeated Monday that the contaminated water in Unit 2 appeared to be due to a temporary partial meltdown of the reactor core." Appeared? Temporary? Partial? ...you see how truth leaks out, a wee piece at a time, in public statements like this, but note that none of this means that the meltdown has been averted. It IMPLIES that... but it doesn't MEAN that. "He called it 'very unfortunate,' but said the spike in radiation appeared limited to the unit." "Appeared" = "they don't know and don't want to get in trouble when it comes out that it isn't, which it inevitably will" - maybe as soon as the next paragraph. "However, new readings show contamination in the ocean has spread about 1.6 kilometres farther north of the nuclear site than before. Radioactive iodine-131 was discovered just offshore from Unit 5 and Unit 6 at a level 1,150 times higher than normal, Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told reporters Monday... He had said earlier there was no link between the radioactive water leaking inside the plant and the radiation in the sea. On Monday, though, he reversed that position" - does that mean that he admitted that he lied, or that he was merely capable of making public statements that were completely, dangerously wrong? Which would be worse? - "saying he does suspect that radioactive water from the plant may indeed be leaking into the ocean." Suspect, right? It's not KNOWN, regardless of the fact that it's pretty much fucking OBVIOUS...
"Closer to the plant, radioactivity in seawater tested about 1,250 times higher than normal last week and climbed to 1,850 times normal over the weekend. Nishiyama said the increase was a concern, but also said the area is not a source of seafood and that the contamination posed no immediate threat to human health." I mean, Jesus Christ, folks, read between the lines there. It's not a source of seafood? (It's not connected to other parts of the ocean? Fish never swim through it? What?). It poses "no immediate threat to human health?" (But please don't ask us about the long term risks?).
"On Sunday, TEPCO officials said radiation in leaking water in the Unit 2 reactor was 10 million times above normal — an apparent spike that sent employees fleeing the unit. The day ended with officials saying the huge figure had been miscalculated and offering apologies... TEPCO vice-president Sakae Muto said a new test had found radiation levels 100,000 times above normal — far better than the first results, though still very high... 'We will work hard to raise our precision in our work so as not to repeat this again,' he said, but he ruled out having an independent monitor oversee the various checks despite the errors." ...because, however overwhelmed TEPCO and the Japanese government actually are, the last thing these people will do is admit that they need help: half of Japan can melt before they'll lose face by asking a foreign body to step in, it would be the biggest humiliation the Japanese have endured since losing the war, because it would mean that their precious myth of "technological advancement" really was nothing more than that - a myth.
Don't get me wrong: I loved much of what I experienced in Japan, have often thought of returning there, but none of this horrifyingly black comedy of errors unfolding comes as a surprise to me. I don't wish to be NEGATIVE, or to EMBARRASS anyone, but if a "state of emergency" could ever exist that merited a foreign intrusion into Japanese turf, this is it. It makes me very angry, it makes me very sad, and it makes me very scared for my friends in Japan - all of whom are in Saitama, to my knowledge, but that's close enough for discomfort. Sad, sad days for the Japanese people - the disaster has only just begun.
PS - oh, by the way, certain episodes of the Simpsons have been pulled for being in poor taste, in light of the current situation.
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Saturday, March 26, 2011
Friday, March 25, 2011
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
37 WEST HASTINGS
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Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Before proceeding with a brief interview with Michael Turner, an anecdote is in order from Skip Tracer's assistant director, Tom Braidwood, the same man who played Frohike in The X-Files and The Lone Gunmen spinoff (read about that role here). Skip Tracer appears very, very early in Braidwood's filmography (according to IMDB, it's the first film he was ever involved in, but Braidwood is unsure and the internet isn't always reliable). Though it was long ago, he was able to dredge up a memory of the shoot for me. "The one funny thing was - David Petersen, when he did the show, he was obviously a skip tracer in it, and he had to drive around to different places to reposses things or to threaten people; and he didn't have a driver's license, he didn't know how to drive. So that was kind of fun - we had to kind of teach him how to drive, and we would have him just out of frame, so he would coast in in the car and hop out..." (Petersen is expected to attend Thursday's event, as may Braidwood).
Braidwood's story resonates immediately off the stories of the Repo Man shoot in Alex Cox's memoir X Films; according to Cox, Fox Harris, who played J. Frank Parnell, the driver of the radioactive Malibu, didn't know how to drive, either, which made filming some sequences rather challenging. Skip Tracer, made a few years earlier, deals with a similar world as Repo Man, and features at least one dramatic car repossession, but the films are quite different. When I spoke with Michael Turner, Repo Man did come up - but by way of establishing a contrast. "It was kind of more of an action film than a philosophical film," he noted, as opposed to Skip Tracer, which "does speak to something deeper than it's surface."
The fact that Skip Tracer uses genre conventions to express meaning is significant, Turner observes. "A lot of the more interesting writing and film art - music, even - in the last 30 years is coming out of what we used to call the subgenres. Elmore Leonard writing in crime, James Ellroy's White Jazz - I don't know if you're familiar with the book; it's a marvel of dialogue and lyricism, but this is a crime novel... Quentin Tarantino going into the subgenres to mine them as a material in themselves... Locally we have people like Stan Douglas, who occupy the western and science fiction to speak to today, as a visual artist using the subgenres... William Gibson is I guess another good example. It's across the board" - and Skip Tracer, made in 1977, is well ahead of its time, in mining the thriller to serious ends.
How did Turner come to appreciate the film? "I think I saw the film maybe on BCTV back in the '80's, when they used to show movies after the news, I think around midnight, back in the days when there were two channels and no internet. And I'm pretty sure I watched it one night around midnight and immediately recognized the city and, at the same time, a kind of noir quality to the atmosphere and mood to the film; and, as well, a character that I was seeing a lot in the '80's, a real hard driven person out to succeed at all costs. That was the '80's as we knew it then, and even moreso now: a relentless accumulation, a real 'me-first moment', the 'Greed is Good' era... We had deregulation in North America, fiscal conservatism, markets-over-nations; it was the Brian Mulroney era - this person just seemed a perfect emblem of the time, and to see later that it was made in 1977 made it seem prescient." Turner selected the film as part of the Vancouver Art Gallery's WE: Vancouver - 12 Manifestos for the City series; the Cinematheque screening is an offshoot of that, following in what is shaping up to be a tradition of very interesting film presentations by Turner, including one on two Vancouver-shot Robert Altman films (That Cold Day in the Park and McCabe & Mrs. Miller) and another on the James Clavell Japanese internment film, The Sweet and the Bitter.
If the fact that it's one of the only thrillers shot in BC in the 1970's isn't enough to make Skip Tracer seem a unique must-see, there's also the fact that debt is a central theme. It's an an issue of considerable timeliness that is seldom explored in cinema; the only other Vancouver example I can recall would be the young woman played by Nancy Sivak in Bruce Sweeney's Dirty, who is in default on her student loan payments. "Vancouver is a speculator's city," Turner offers. "It has always been about what's going to happen, from placer gold mining to resource extraction, the Vancouver Stock Exchange, and ultimately now real estate, for the last few years. It's about making money based on something that's going to happen. And the commodity in this film, of course, is somewhat the opposite: it's about what has happened, and what has happened is that a purchase has been made, and that purchase is not fulfilled, because there's money owing, and suddenly that commodity becomes the embodiment of debt. And so rather than what is going to happen, it's what has happened, and has not happened, at the same time; this person is out to collect on this debt, and that to me is a nice figure/ground way of speaking to the moment that became the '80's" - worth discussing in light of Oliver Stone's Wall Street, which Turner "thought was in some ways the ultimate mainstream film about our time, in the '80's... But again - that's stocks and futures, and this is past and debt," Turner continues. "We are in a debt culture now, and may remain always in debt, as we may remain always at war. The things that are besetting us - there's something to be gained by them; a world of fear is best brought about through ongoing wars and what-have-you, and debt, I think, is just another way to keep people scared. When they're scared, they're compliant."
A final reason to check out Skip Tracer on Thursday - it's not available, at present, as a region 1 DVD or Blu-Ray, and neither Turner or the Cinematheque's Steve Chow are aware whether the film is coming out in those formats. "It was hard to get on DVD," Turner notes. "I ended up getting a PAL version to transfer onto NTSC," which itself was a point of interest. "The reception of the film in England is quite unique. Certain film scholars see it as an important Canadian film, in a way that a lot of people go - 'I don't know this film, but I know Bruce Sweeney, or Bruce McDonald, or Lynne Stopkewich, or Atom Egoyan.' It's not part of our canon, but it actually is a perfectly intelligent film that deserves to be, and for some reason is not. I don't know why that is - clearly Zale Dalen did not remain a player in the film industry, to the point that this film would have been elevated as he rose within it." (Dalen's only other film that anyone I know of has seen is Terminal City Ricochet, recently released on DVD by Alternative Tentacles - read more about that here).
From the Cinematheque page on Skip Tracer:
Also on the program: On Location 1: Elvy Del Bianco's Annotated Film Collection (11 mins.) and On Location 2: Four Double Bills (22 mins.), two moving-image works created by Michael Turner for the WE: Vancouver exhibition. In the first, the titles of 167 Vancouver-shot films run on a credit roll with local arts researcher Elvy Del Bianco’s one-line “pitch” descriptions below each. In the second, eight well-known Vancouver-made films are edited to remove everything from them but their Vancouver locales.
Hope y'all enjoy the night - I won't be able to attend, having duties in Maple Ridge, but I'm sure glad I got to see the film as a screener. Really, really interesting stuff.
PS: Canuxploitation review of Skip Tracer here.
Monday, March 21, 2011
...Oh, heck: I think I'm just going to share my thoughts (bearing in mind please that I enjoyed the show) as emailed in two installments earlier to a Residents lover in the USA:
Part the first, 8:50 AM, Sunday morning March 20th (the early AM after the show, sitting in a Vancouver netcafe):
Interesting show. Much more of a rock concert than I expected, and "Randy" is a much more powerful performer than I'd realized - he really held the audience's attention through his stories, even tho' rock audiences are usually drunk, stoned, and/or stupid and not that sophisticated... he ignored the stupid shoutings from the pit and kept the stories going, was very physical in his performance... very interesting. The set included "Semolina," "Six More Miles," "The Old Woman," the pigeon song from ANIMAL LOVER, and a few others I recognized but couldn't stick a name on. Of Randy's Ghost Stories, "Talking Light," "Milton," and "The Unseen Sister" all featured...
She replied by asking me if I'd enjoyed the show, and I replied, leading us to:Part The Second, 8:17 PM, Sunday evening, March 21st, sitting at my home computer in my underwear:
Well, you know, it was kind of hard to process? It was basically a one man show with multimedia enhancements - the guitarist and the laptop fellow, however much they did musically, weren't much to watch, so it really wasn't quite the same as watching a band. "Randy" had a great, powerful voice, really commanded attention, and was gesturally fascinating, using his hands -and whole body, really - to great effect; I wonder if he's been a teacher in real life, or if he's had training in theatre or such, or if he just developed this confidence through touring...? However, his routines were obviously a matter of memorized performance, which is odd to see at a rock concert, where the between-song patter is typically spontaneous (and when it isn't, it usually means that you're being bullshitted - Leonard Cohen, when I saw him here years ago, picked up some roses conspicuously left on the stage and made a comment about how under the influence of LSD he "once gave a sermon to creatures such as these" - or something like that - and it struck me as quite a phony and rehearsed moment; even tho' it may not have been, it had me rolling my eyes - "give me a fuckin' break, Leonard"). The whooping and annoying chattering of the audience, their oddly misguided attempts to interact with the band (someone shouted "Santa!" a few times as some sort of request or in-joke - not "Santa Dog," but "Santa!"), the fact that the venue was such that we all had to stand (being jostled pretty much every song by at least one person pushing through this way or that, making full focus impossible), and the general distractability that came from (portion omitted) didn't do much to enhance the theatrical/multimedia numbers, which would have been better processed seated in a more highbrow venue (or sitting alone at home watching them on DVD); rock concert environments aren't the best place for reflection. Also, the "Milton" video was really hard to understand live, the way the voice had been processed... Meanwhile, the really forceful and striking "rock" songs were kind of shocking as a departure from my understanding of the band's nature [being as it was the first time I've seen them live] - but hard to respond to and process as rock songs per se, since the context was still one of quasi-theatre; the rawness and forcefullness of rock were there, but enshrouded and rendered non-transparent by the heavy layers of mystery, irony and artifice, a distance there not usually present at mere rock shows that made things more confusing than they usually are... It was equally hard to read it as a commentary ON rock, the way The Third Reich'n'Roll is, however, because it DID partake of a lot of what makes rock work, regardless of how much more it complicated matters, so it kind of stuck me in a grey zone, intellectually. The stories and between song routines were, of course, interesting (if the whole point of the mirror people spiel remained somewhat mysterious), and I greatly enjoyed some of the music with my eyes closed, when I COULD concentrate (alas, that was not at all during the version of "Six More Miles," one of my favourite tunes on Lonely Teenager, a great reworking of a Hank Williams song that I somehow couldn't enter in this context), but only one moment of the show had a really powerful emotional impact - ending "The Old Woman" with an abrupt, forceful wall of silence on the last word of the line "tell me if anyone - CARES." I think, overall, I enjoy experiencing the Residents more on CD or DVD than I did live. That isn't really a commentary on them, tho' - it was a very well-put together show, Randy really put his back into it, and the audience all had fun (it was packed, btw) - I would go see them again in a second (and I really, really want to hear more live material by them, since they really ARE a different beast live) - but if I had a choice, I'd rather see them in a seated theatre next time... I think I'd have to see them live a whole lot more frequently than I'm ever going to have a chance to to REALLY get on the bus, tho'... [ie. because only then might it all start making perfect sense to
Oh - I bought a Smell My Picture, they had several.
Now, bear in mind that the above is a private reaction, not a public review; I'm not commenting on the show so much as confessing that I didn't understand it enough to enjoy it, exactly; which has nothing to do with "not enjoying it," in case that's not clear. I mean, if an alien being landed on the ground at your feet, knelt between your legs, extruded three purple, hairy tongues and began passionately licking your bellybutton, would you enjoy it? Would it turn you on or off, and if so, how would you feel about it on "higher" levels? Whatever the answer might be, my guess is, it would take more than one repetition of such experience to be able to fairly evaluate it. Until then, the best you could really say would be, "...uh, I think so... it was interesting..." Or maybe just a slow, thoughtful "I don't know..."
You know who had less difficultly processing things? Femke van Delft. Not only does she take great photos, she also sometimes completely outdoes me in her perceptions of shows, leavin' me slapping my forehead in dismay: "I'm supposed to be the writer!" She processed the show thus:
Kinda like Jan Svankmajer meets Jello Biafra... it was totally Czech animation, and it was really deeply sad. It was funny, but it was absolutely black and sad, all about aging, getting old, dying... it was an amazing show, and it defied genres. It was quite profound work, and, like, God, if you can sort of cruise into your mid-60's, kicking and screaming like that? ...It's amazing. It sets a good example for aging. I really enjoyed the show, it was really impressive...
...which is a very clear and lucid explanation of the show, quite in tune with Hardy's observations in my Straight interview. Other thoughts from attendees or otherwise are welcome, including from those who wrongly assumed that the show wouldn't start until past 10 (with doors at 8, with guests who never materialized announced on the ticket), and thus missed a big chunk of the show, since the band went on shortly past 9:30...
Oh, by the way, people wanting to know more about the Residents are directed most earnestly towards the liner notes from the late-90's "bookcase-y" CD reissues of The Third Reich & Roll and Tunes of Two Cities/The Big Bubble. They are, as someone else observes in the thread linked below, likely the most revealing writings ever put together on The Residents, because they're coming from the the band itself (or its immediate vicinity); they aren't trying THAT hard to be secretive, folks (which is why questions about their identities are somewhat unnecessary, a tiresome game of pin-the-name-on-the-Resident that kind of misses the overall point that it probably doesn't even bloody matter!). A bit of discussion on the backstory revealed in said notes, including the tale of the Greasy Weasels, can be found here.
The biggest Residents fan at the Vancouver show poses for Femke van Delft, not to be reused without permission.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
Friday, March 18, 2011
Thursday, March 17, 2011
Mark Berube plays tomorrow at the Cultch (Myspace here). I have a great photo of him somewhere that Femke took, but I'm not at my home computer at the moment, and the netcafe is makin' it very difficult for me to lift a photo from the 'net - sorry, Mark! (Those of you who don't know Mark's music might think of him as African-inflected Tom Waits-meets-Nina Simone showman; he's got an amazing voice). I, however, have plans for THAT night, too... But anyhow...
For years, for me, The Third Reich'n'Roll filled all my Residents needs, so brilliant an album it was. Some of their other material seemed a bit too "weird for weird's sake," however; I found Meet The Residents somewhat offputting, a gross, musically crude, unwholesome THING that I had no easy ability to work with, and their (much later) album of sendups of Elvis tunes, The King and Eye, seemed almost trivially silly (and somewhat disrespectful - it probably didn't help that I bought it, in part, to play during Scrabble games with my parents, since my father was a big Elvis fan; he hated it, found it an insult to the King's legacy). I realized that there was a lot of interesting work in their back catalogue, and it's certainly intriguing that they've been around quite this long without anyone actually being sure who the Residents are, but it wasn't until I heard that the band were coming to town that I really took the plunge.
My lord, what a rewarding plunge that has been - suddenly the Residents are the most intersting band in the world. In the last few months, I've acquainted myself with Residents classics like Eskimo and Not Available, revisited Mark of the Mole and Meet the Residents, spun my CD comp of their most accessible songs, Petting Zoo, about a hundred times, and beefed up my selection of Residents DVDs. Between the obvious and omnipresent influence of Harry Partch (more about that in the spring issue of Big Takeover!), their interest in gamelan music, and the surprisingly passionate and emotive qualities of some of their recent stuff (off, say, Demons Dance Alone or Roadworms, a "live"-ish reworking of material off their Bible-themed Wormwood project), I've discovered with delight just how sophisticated the Residents have grown since their beginnings in the early 1970's. From the freeform mutant jazz of The UGHS to the Partch-in-Java tingly sonic complexities of Dolor Generar (a CD that will be sold on the road, of the "house music" for their current tour) they've become quite richly MUSICAL, while losing none of the unique, dark aura of terminal strangeness that has always surrounded them. Somehow once you get the Residents bug, nothing else quite suffices: with brief digressions (to listen to the Swans and Zev Asher, due to recent Vancouver shows), I've spun pretty much nothing but the Residents for the last two months, and the main effect of that has been that I'm hungry to hear more.
It's kind of shocking to me that the Residents Vancouver show (March 19th at the Rickshaw) didn't sell out in a few minutes - is it possible that there are a lot of people out there not yet hip to how much this band, soon to celebrate their 40th anniversary, has to offer? Could there still be tickets available now? It's not like Vancouver gets a lot of chances to see them live...(The Residents on the Talking Light tour)
Without further fuss, here are a few snippets of my conversation with the Cryptic Corporation's Hardy Fox, not used in the Straight or Big Takeover pieces.
So if I could ask about the issue of retirement – I gather a member or members have retired from the Residents?
I suppose you mean Carlos...
Okay. What’s the story with Carlos?
I don’t think we can talk about Carlos. Yeah, can’t really talk about Carlos. Maybe next year. It’s tied to a project, and the project is still in development.
Can I quote what we’ve said thus far?
There was also something, though, where one of the band’s recent tours was mistakenly announced as being a retirement tour?
There was a venue, I think in Boston, that said, “Final tour of the Residents” or something like that. I think it only said that for three days or something because somebody contacted us and asked about it, and we said, “what are you talking about?” – so it was quickly pulled, because it’s obviously not true.
Okay. Is there also a plan to tour in 2012?
Um. That’s being worked on, yeah. It’s less of a plan, it’s more in the hands of agents. Because Residents don’t plan tours, they just play them. It’s all handled by promoters and agents and venues and stuff – it’s far too complex for any of us to comprehend.
Okay. So, I'm curious - there seems a chance, since both the Residents and Harry Partch were musicially active on the west coast in the early 1970's, that they were aware of each other - that he could have heard their music, at the least. But I don't know...
I don’t know either. Yeah, I have no idea. But I did not have any connection with him or any of the people he worked with. I did see a concert one time that was done on his instruments. That was after he was dead, though – they had organized his instruments and his musicians to play some of his compositions, and it was quite remarkable. That was here in San Francisco – something like that may never happen again, I don’t know. I do wonder what happened to his instruments, though.
There’s a Hal Willner project, Weird Nightmare, that’s recorded on his instruments.
Some of them, anyhow.
Yeah, I’m not familiar with it.
It’s his tribute to Charles Mingus, so it has a bunch of his music, interpreted by a really diverse crowd of artists – Diamanda Galas is on it, Leonard Cohen, Chuck D., Henry Rollins, with Harry Partch’s instruments being used.
Wow. Y’see, I would think that someone would license those or something for a sampled set, for samplers, for people to use!
Yeah! So the Residents have never had contact with Partch, nor Partch’s instruments, then?
No, none whatsoever.
But they’ve designed their own instruments, at times.
They have. But they’re very project-oriented. They don’t think long term, like, building instruments for the rest of your life. You might build something because you need a specific sound for this project that you’re doing now, for the next few months, or something. So it’s never anything elaborate or very pretty.
Okay. In terms of projects where they built their own instruments – Eskimo is one, right?
Yeah, but Eskimo has got an awful lot of lying in it. They claim that they play with frozen fish, and they didn’t do that.
But they do have some invented instruments on that? Can you give me an example?
They have some specially tuned, sort of marimba-type instruments that they built for the tuning that they were using for that album, only because they needed those notes. They’re actually wooden, a wooden instrument, but they claimed that they’re played on bones. They’re not played on bones. You know how it is with mythology – you gotta say what sounds pretty interesting, where the reality is pretty boring.
Were there ever any Inuit reactions to Eskimo?
There was – we got very positive reactions, even totally acknowledging that the term “Eskimo” is somewhat insulting… The people that we heard from – I mean, there may have been people who were insulted, but the Inuit people that we heard from loved it, because they really understood that it was totally fictional. It’s an invention of the fantasy concept and the romance of being an Eskimo, not of being an Inuit, because Inuit life isn’t like that at all. Inuit life is much more boring than that, as far as we were able to tell, when research was being done about Inuit – it’s not the most exciting world to live in.
Was there ever any attempt to mount a show of Eskimo up there?
No. There’s never been a show of Eskimo. There was work on one – a show was designed, but it was designed for an opera stage. It was a big production – it was an opera, basically. It was for a festival in Germany decades ago, and basically it didn’t get funding, so it never happened.
Okay. Are there any other projects where they’ve come up with their own instruments?
Well, what happened was, pretty early - I guess it was around 1984, or something like that – they really went digital. They started really working with samplers. And at that time, instead of building anything, they would collect samples of things and create instruments digitally, because it was so much faster. So anything they did would have been in the 1970’s, and there really wasn’t that much call for it. They did some things with electronics pretty early on, but I don’t know if any of that actually got released, now that I think about it. We’ll simplify it and say no.
Okay. Anyhow - the pieces on Randy’s Ghost Stories have all been developed for the live show? These were written for the show and now films have been made around them?
Yeah, these were all stories that had been in the show. The show is not the same every night.
“The Unseen Sister” is in every show, though?
“The Unseen Sister” is sort of a prime piece. It always gets performed, and I’m sure that’s going to be true for the upcoming tour as well.
And then – “Talking Light” has been in every show?
Yeah, it’s been in every show. They’re sort of bookends, like, the opening and ending.
And it’s sort of variable what happens elsewise?
It’s variable what happens in between.
Things like “Lizard Lady” has been reworked for the Lonely Teenager CD. Will that be performed live?
You know, I don’t know. I don’t know – because there have been no rehearsals for this tour yet. They start Monday. And I would think it might show up at some point – I don’t know if it would be played at every show. Y’know, they obviously have been working on it, so it’s going to be familiar – it was recently done. I wouldn’t be surprised – I don’t know if it’ll be in Vancouver or not.
Okay. Let me ask you about “The Unseen Sister,” then. That’s a very disturbing story – where did that come from?
You know, I’m not in any real position to be able to tell you that. I’ve never asked!
Some of the surrealists had talked about being interested in things that couldn’t be easily explained, images – I’m thinking in particular of the smoking toaster in the video. It really has an impact, but it’s not all that easy to unpack what it means. So I’m wondering if the Residents in writing songs follow a surrealist strategy of coming up with things that aren’t easily explained, if they want their images to be irreducible, uncategorizable, or if they want them to be decoded…
Well, they do make giant jumps sometimes from one thing to another. I’m not sure, but it seems like I heard something that the toaster originally sprang out of this piece of toast that Madonna’s image appeared on. It can be that obscure of a connection, though. I think it sold on eBay for a lot of money.
I wondered whose face was on the toast. It doesn’t really look like Madonna. In the video, that is. Not on the actual toast. I haven’t seen the toast.
I don’t think it is, in the video, no. There’s sort of references to Renaissance qualities – religious paintings and things…
And sort of subverting those with the toaster and the burning toast.
Yeah. It’s not just toast. It’s burning toast.
Yeah. Okay. You know – do the Residents encourage people to try to analyze things? Because I’ve worked up quite an analysis of things that I see in “The Unseen Sister,” but I wonder if in some ways if that’s foolish to do. If the point isn’t to unpack meaning and arrive at a statement – “this song is about that” – but rather to just process it for the emotional and aesthetic effect.
I know for sure that their point of view would be that there’s no answer to that. That people should take from things what they get from it; that there is no correct meaning, and that often the artists themselves can’t see the depths of the work, because they’re too close to it.
Tell me about the actual dynamics of the tour – how many people, how much gear travels with this show?
Surprisingly little. It’s a three person show. It’s Randy, Chuck, and Bob. Because Carlos is gone. So it’s down to the three of them – they’ll tell you about that. They’ll tell you about that onstage.
A couple of other quick questions – Lonely Teenager, the CD. Were the Residents lonely teenagers?
Ahhh… I dunno, isn’t it required to feel lonely when you’re a teenager?
Do they feel less lonely now?
Well they might feel less teenager, if nothing else. No, I don’t think they’re lonely now, probably because they just stay so busy. They’re filled with ideas to realize and I think they know at this point that they won’t live long enough to accomplish all the things that they’ve started that haven’t ever been finished.
Are there plans to – plans afoot to put out the next volume of the Mole Trilogy or the Baby Sex album or the Warner Brothers album – are there plans to go back?
Well, like, Baby Sex and Warner Brothers weren’t Residents albums, so they won’t go back to those. They won’t go back any further than Residents.
Okay, and the American Composers Series – there were plans at one point to release a lot more?
Yeah, well, they don’t really want to do that anymore, and I don’t want them to do it either, because it got into royalty problems and accounting problems that I just do not want to entertain anymore. It was too complicated on the business end.
A different question - it sometimes occurs to me that Jandek might be inspired by the Residents model of maintaining anonymity.
Who is that?
Jandek. He’s a guy in Houston, Texas who has released forty or so albums and remained more or less anonymous. Most people know his real name, but he won’t grant interviews, won’t talk about himself.
Yeah… he’s anonymous to me!
There’s a film about him, anyhow, called Jandek on Corwood. Speaking of which – there’s people trying to make an independent documentary on the Residents. Is that something that the Residents would want to encourage or discourage?
I haven’t heard about it.
Do you think the Residents would encourage it?
No, they would not encourage it.
Because their whole world is contrived as a piece of mythology and documentaries are not included in that. Except a fake documentary.
Is there anything else I should be mentioning? Plans for the 40th anniversary?
There’s not really any plans right now for the 40th that can be talked about, probably because this last tour needs to be completed. And that’s taking precedence for energy. The thing is, they just came off tour at the end of November, and went immediately into production for finishing up Lonely Teenager and getting this stuff all done, as well as taking a little time off. So now they’re going back into rehearsal to get back up to go back out again. They’re sort of getting tired of touring, actually. But they’ll make it to Vancouver!
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Then again, I also know that there's a Chicken Little thing that happens online - people panic and reach for the grimmest possible conclusions... Still, it's stressful, being connected to people so far away - most of whom I'm no longer in touch with - when all this horrible shit is going down.
Don't really know what to do, though. Most of the people I knew, I no longer seem to have correct email information for... I should look in with a few more people, though.