Thursday, December 27, 2012

RIP Fontella Bass

Death must be easier to accept if you've put something like this into the world (stick around for her vocals!).

Enter the Void: Dec. 28 and 29th at the Vancity Theatre

...and while the metaphor is fresh, you know what film DID bust my block? Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void. It's astonishing - intense, profoundly trippy, utterly unique, and visually unforgettable, in ways that the "bigger and better explosions/ monsters/ sets/ violence" schools of filmmaking mentioned below cannot approximate (though in a more cinephilic world, it wouldn't be hard to imagine Noe working a 3-D Imax movie. He does like to make bold, big statements, it seems - seems more comfortable with hyperbole, excess, and bold gestures than with, say, subtlety and humility, and this doesn't seem to rule out Hollywood finding the man; who knows what the future holds). Enter the Void offers a one-of-a-kind experience in cinematic immersion - a psychedelic neon candystore-vision of Tokyo, experienced by an out-of-body soul on a journey. I will not disclose if this soul is tripping on hallucinogens or one newly dead or some other option, but I will mention that the Tibetan Book of the Dead, on which the film is loosely modelled, was in fact used as a template for psychedelic experience by people like Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner and Richard "Baba Ram Dass" Alpert - who actually wrote a book called The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, in those heady hippie days. So it works either way: however you view it, you're in for one hell of a trip.

And be assured: you don't actually have to subscribe to any of the ideas on hand to find the film's visualization of them intensely rewarding. I'm not much interested in mystical/ religious models of the universe, but I loved this movie. I can't begin, frankly, to imagine what Tibetan Buddhists, or people who ARE seriously involved in some spiritual practice or another, would MAKE of it; I *think* the intended audience is cinephiles and psychedelicists, but who knows who-all has found it rewarding? One wonders if Ram Dass and Ralph Metzner have seen it? (Presumably Timothy Leary has not, though depending on your model of the universe...).

There is so much more to be said about Enter the Void, but how can I speak about it at all without taking something away from your experience of viewing it? I can't; I've said too much as it is. Go and see for yourself, when it screens theatrically this weekend at the Vancity Theatre. And if you should choose to squeegee your third eye very clean, or prop a wedge in to hold open your doors of perception - by whatever means you choose to do such things - let me assure you that the film will amply reward your efforts. Should you be afraid, do take my word that it is nowhere as traumatic an experience as, say, Irreversible or I Stand Alone, though it's not without its intense bits; it is safe, though by no means gentle, and if you do start to find it unsettling, well, you know the song, eh? (That was inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead too. Or maybe the psychedelic experience, or, er, The Psychedelic Experience, or...). Thanks to the Vancity Theatre for running this again! A great film to end 2012 on!).

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Meh: three blockbusters fail to bust my block

Maybe it's just me. I don't feel as excited as I once did about film, these days. Is it disappointment at being rejected by UBC - almost a year ago now? Am I watching too many movies, or simply too much Ma-friendly fare? (The other day we took in The Long Long Trailer -- though I have to admit, I was rather charmed by it). Maybe it's just that I have more important things on my mind? I can't really say, but in the last couple of weeks, I watched three of the biggest films going, was not very excited by any of them, and have very little interest in writing about them now. It makes me retroactively want to give Prometheus a little credit, in hindsight; silly as that film is, it at least provoked me to care about it, even if just to reject it.

Life of Pi is visually magnificent, I'll grant. It was quite something to watch (and watch in 3-D on the big screen; I can't imagine it any other way). It's impossible not to be wholly engaged in looking at this film, and as such, it presents the strongest argument for the validity for 3-D I've yet encountered; it's one beautiful object to behold. It was very strange to me, though, that on the level of meaning, the film's highly overt statement of theme is plunked out in casual kitchen conversation with such a matter-of-fact, banal delivery that I have no doubt countless viewers, far from being forced to reconsider the whole film from the point of view of this line and/ or shuddering in some revelatory truthgasm, will wholly miss its significance, or, if they notice it at all, brush it aside as a distraction from the real business at hand (the making and consuming of pretty pictures). I imagine it is not handled thus in the book; I haven't read it, but based on the evidence of the film, Martel seems to be offering (and I guess this is some sort of spoiler) a variation on Keats "Ode to a Grecian Urn," that we can be drawn to certain sets of beliefs, certain stories because they are beautiful and poetic, even if they're not actually true, and that faith in God is one such instance. I'm not actually sure that I buy that - it seems a bit of a New Agey pseudo-profundity, and a none-too-original one at that; so in a way I can rather forgive Ang Lee for downplaying such elements, in favour of telling a visually arresting story about a boy on a boat with a tiger. Still, doesn't all this imply that the film fails on some level? When a story exists in service of an alleged Big Idea, and no one involved has much interest in the Idea, when it is unveiled, or is inspired to spend any length of time thinking about it - that's a kind of curious phenomenon, eh?

There are no big ideas to ignore in the case of The Hobbit. The biggest challenge the film poses, depending on what region you live in, is figuring out which theatres offer 48fps projection of it, which is also known as high frame rate projection, and, where I saw it (on Vancouver Island), was being described as Ultra Avx projection. If that's not confusing, different websites offer different information, mention different theatres that feature this relatively new tech; and listings for theatres that don't have it don't go out of their way to make sure you realize this fact. The fuss, in any case, has been whether this relatively new way of showing film, with exactly twice the visual information one finds in conventional film, works; I find myself within the camp that is evenly divided. I got over the "sped-up" quality that some have mentioned within the first minute, but I thought the interiors, particularly at the beginning of the film, looked exactly like the sets they were, that the "clarity" of the image made everything look fake, and at times I was struck with the uncanny feeling, watching the actors, that I was watching a BBC-TV adaptation, where you're very aware that these are people in costumes reading lines, and you have to consciously agree to go along with it (they're really GOOD costumes, but they're obviously costumes no less). I really, really didn't like the "shot on video" feel of things, either - a look I do not care for.

On the other hand, the creature effects and the CGI are astonishing, and almost cool enough to redeem the film. Before I saw it, just having read about it, I was irritated with Peter Jackson, grumbling about his gimmicky innovations and his need to speak in an epic, Hollywood-sized voice, and thinking back fondly to his smaller, earlier works, some of which - The Frighteners, believe it or not - I am very, very fond. However, the trolls and goblins (and Gollum!) were all so interesting to watch, so real-looking, so detailed that I could immediately connect with his fannish desire to make the fantastic as real as possible. Some of it IS excessive - there's a goblin-kingdom that is so huge and spectacular that it loses its reality and leaves you very conscious that you're not watching a special effect, but the monsters themselves are worth the price of admission, and should delight anyone with a taste for the fantastic. If there was an award to give for "best monster," I think the goblin with the giant one-ball scrotum for a chin would easily win...

The story, though? It's much like The Lord of the Rings, only slighter. I like Martin Freeman better than Elijah Wood, but generally this isn't the kind of film that does it for me. Mostly, exiting the theatre, I felt a bit old, and envious of children for whom this will be a formative cinematic experience; what a sense of the possible they will surely grow up into, what a bold new paradigm for filmmaking is at hand. I've been rather fond of cinema as it has existed, mind you, and am rather saddened by the rapid changes we're seeing, but I can't turn fogeyism into a basis for criticism...

...Though speaking of younger viewers, it's too bad that Jackson didn't have the jam (or the freedom) to be a bit gorier. Never before have I left a Peter Jackson film complaining about not being shown the full aftermath of a disembowelling...!

I have little energy left with which to write about Django Unchained. It also was a bit of a disappointment. It was entertaining, and had moments of brilliance - but seems also to be Tarantino's slightest, shallowest film to date, taking on a very serious subject matter and doing very little of interest with it, save for reiterating ideas from his previous film (its another movie about how the power of storytelling and performance can right the wrongs of history, especially if a filmmaker feels free to depart dramatically from the historical record - something that is actually not that new or daring, for Hollywood; Hollywood has been lying about history from the gitgo.  I mean, maybe Quentin could make a movie about the Indian Wars where the Indians win, next?). Jamie Foxx doesn't really accomplish much with the character of Django; Christoph Waltz, described by many as a scene-stealer, was actually somewhat irritating, as was the generally chatty, digressive, self-indulgent Tarantino-esque "flavour" to things. As with Inglourious Basterds, the most interesting, most fully-realized characters - Leonardo di Caprio as a sadistic plantation-owner and Samuel L. Jackson as his shrewd, suspicious Uncle Tom - are the bad guys.

As for the film's connection to spaghetti westerns, there are obvious nods for people who know - Franco Nero, who played the original Django, pops up; the original title-song from that film is recycled and recontextualized; and there are other pieces of music that strike genre notes (like Beethoven's "Fur Elise," which also appears in The Big Gundown, one of Tarantino's favourite spaghettis). But the sort-of spaghetti that it most brought to mind - a highbrow, unusual entry in the subgenre, to be sure - was Pontecorvo's Burn!, a film I greatly admire, even in its abbreviated English-language cut. Both involve European white men who help to liberate and instruct slaves in their uprising (on different scales). To the extent you notice the parallels, however, you can't help but notice how much lesser a film Tarantino's is, how less ambitious, less interesting, less provocative, right down to its large-scale, "satisfying" Hollywood ending. That was really where the film lost me, actually; all the while while watching it, I'd kept hoping that it would end in such a way that it would make me appreciate the beginning and middle more, that the film would end in something startling or uncomfortable or unexpected, that would somehow enrich and enliven what had gone before, but instead, quite the opposite took place. You need to understand that, like films noir, spaghetti westerns were one of the few popular film subgenres that often ended on downbeat, cynical, or ambivalent notes, leaving audiences uncomfortable with what they've seen, sending them out into the night with a bad feeling, often with political or moral overtones. Burn! sees both of its protagonists dead, and its revolution crushed. The original Django ends in a shoot out where the hero has both his hands smashed and can barely use them. One of the other much-admired Corbucci's, The Great Silence, ends with all the good guys dying. By contrast, for all Django Unchained's brutality, there's not much of that at hand here; in fact, whatever horrors we're shown are meant to be resolved by a particularly big, satisfying explosion, like we're suddenly in Michael Bay-land. All has been resolved! Go now and leave the theatres happy! One particular shot of a grinning Jamie Foxx, mugging in front of a flaming plantation, just sort of hammered in the nail: you have just invested nearly three hours of your life in something entirely trivial; don't you feel stupid, for having cared?

But like I say, maybe it's just me. I would have liked to like the Tarantino film, of the three, but I can't say I did, much; perhaps it will take more than one viewing for me to come to admire it, but my next viewing, I think, will be several years from now. I'm in no rush. I watched twenty minutes or so of Graham Reznick's film I Can See You last night, and was more excited and entertained by those twenty minutes than with the whole of the above three movies combined. Maybe I need a break from the multiplex...

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

My new Nardwuar/ bev.davies article

...on the Big Takeover website, pertaining to the Busy Doing Nothing album/ calendar - surely the coolest calendar any music freak could hope for! (Photo of Gerry-Jenn, Nardwuar, and bev courtesy - thanks!).

...And now in honour of Xmas I am going to listen to some X. This song has been lingering of late in my mind, for some reason - one of their greatest moments...

RIP Charles Durning

During his long career, Charles Durning acted in films by John Cassavetes, Robert Aldrich, Brian De Palma, Joel and Ethan Coen, Billy Wilder, Sidney Lumet, Sydney Pollack, David Mamet, Abel Ferrara, and many others. He was always distinctive and watchable - a character actor who brought style and substance to the roles he played; yet somehow my favourite of his performances remains a very early one, in De Palma's caustic and rather brilliant 1970 race-relations/ sex comedy Hi, Mom - written about at some length here, and starring Robert De Niro and Allen Garfield (Paul Bartel supposedly pops up, too, but I don't recall the moment). Durning wasn't even Durning then, but Charles Durnham, and his role is a brief one, but he plays it to the hilt - a rather sleazy superintendent of a rundown apartment building, as I recall it, all sweat and bluster and innocent-faced corruption as he tries to impress a prospective renter. Roger Ebert has his Stanton/ Walsh rule - that no movie with M. Emmett Walsh or Harry Dean Stanton can be all bad; while I wouldn't begin to disagree, Durning is on a shortlist of other character actors I feel that way about. He'll be missed.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

My Cool New Shirt!

Proud to promulgate the smartest, coolest band of the second wave of Vancouver punk! (Sorry, Death Sentence! Sorry, Slow!)

Note: while only a few Spores songs have made it onto Youtube - none of Schizofungi! - one of the few to be found is, indeed, their Christmas song, "Xmas Jeers!"

Friday, December 21, 2012

Instead of being at Funkys...

...I'm wrapping presents for my Mom and spinning Kenny Rogers and the First Edition's Greatest Hits, bought at Value Village for the express purpose of having their version of "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" on vinyl. I mean, why not?

So I'm essentially passing up Abriosis to listen to Kenny Rogers. People who live in the suburbs do things like that; I wonder if Stephen Lyons would have anything to say about it? (My review of his new CD, with Limbs of the Stars, here).

PS. - Someone has finally posted the studio track for Mickey Newbury's recording of "Just Dropped In" on Youtube - he's the guy who wrote it for Jerry Lee Lewis, years ago. I kind of like his acoustic rendition better, it's more soul-scorched. Mind you, Kenny Rogers seems to take his cue from the Bettye Lavette version, which seems also to have inspired the Sharon Jones version... any other recordings of this out there?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Abriosis tomorrow at Funky's, featuring Alxs Ness

Former Without Mercy frontwoman Alxs Ness has changed bands, and as much as I like Without Mercy - whom I haven't seen with their new singer and am presently not qualified to comment on - she seems to have traded up, because Abriosis kicks some heavy-ass ass: some of the most intense, intimidating technical death metal I've heard. You can download a song off the new EP for free here; you can read my review of their new CD here; and you can read my old Alxs Ness interviews, mostly about her vocal technique, here and here. Local metal fiends might also want to know that I reviewed Auroch's new album, and that Dead Asylum, tomorrow's headliners, is the new band for Theocide's Metal Mike... And Without Mercy in their new incarnation plays Funky's January 12th. I hope the "You Smell Like a Bitch" t-shirts on their website aren't an indicator of hard feelin's towards Alxs!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Running dry again...

Is it obvious that I'm running out of steam for this blog again?

I mean, I missed High on Fire last night. My favourite (non-local) metal album since I started re-exploring the genre is probably their Blessed Black Wings, but as amazing as that album is, travelling to the city for shows isn't worth it these days. Between looking out for Ma, and maintaining a relationship on Vancouver Island, and looking for PAID work, I just don't have a lot of time or energy for commuting or giving a whole evening over to the experience of seeing music played, especially with the added complication of having to stay overnight for most shows. I barely even enjoy the shows I do make it to - my heart just isn't where it once used to be. Plus I barely get to see ANY of the films I write about on this site (I've missed, I think, all the screenings of Nausicaa I'd so wanted to attend). And writing about a music scene I can't participate in and writing about movies I won't be seeing is an exercise in masochism. If I'd been able to turn the blog into a source of income, it would be another thing, but AdSense rejected me last time I tried, for not having enough content (!?!) - a strange enough verdict that I don't really feel all that enthusiastic about appealing to them again. VERY occasionally I'll feel a moment of inspiration or write something that I think is important - but it's generally not enough to keep me goin'. Besides, who reads blogs anymore? Everyone is on Facebook and Twitter and so forth, INTERACTING with people, or watching goofy animal videos, or such. Hell, lately *I'm* spending more time on Facebook than I am here, and am enjoying it more... some of those goofy animal videos are just delightful...

Anyhow, I'm not going to announce a blog closure this time, since the last time I did that, I only lasted a month or two before I started posting again. But between writing here in my free time and reading Michael Connelly novels, right now, I'd rather read Michael Connelly novels, to be honest. I'm thinking I'll try to make the best of the 2012 apocalypse/ New Year to make some changes in my life; cutting down the time I spend here is definitely on my list of changes to be made.  

...Tho' who knows when inspiration will strike me. I still do have a couple of things I'd like to put up before the end of the year - I have some ideas for a few final pieces before I go on hiatus, or whatever it is I'm going to do...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas Alone In No Fun City tonight!

That same old feeling inside

Once again, the news from America is such that I'm trying to limit my time on news sites, because I really, really do not want to look at the face of their latest mass murderer. He is being described as a "quiet honour roll student" on the CBC. I really, really do not need to know, thanks; I'm quite aware of the sort of world we're living in and can pretty much infer everything I need to know about this creep without reading his fucking biography on the news. He doesn't deserve the attention; if anything, he deserves the opposite - an erasure from humanity, a complete disappearance from history, the media, all public discourse; giving him headlines for days on end is vastly more than he deserves for what he's done.

If you recall, I posted similar things about my dismay as to having to look at the Batman shooter's face for weeks on end - remember THAT dude? That was in July. Seems like there's a story like this coming out of America every few months now - I mean, the Connecticut one isn't the first since July by far, it's just the worst. I wonder how often this sort of thing has to happen before Americans wise up and adopt strict gun control laws? Monthly? Weekly? Daily? Isn't there something obscene about all the public angst and handwringing and cries of "why" when the government CAN and SHOULD take steps to stop such things from happening so often, so easily, so brutally, whenever some misfit blows a fuse?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Al's top albums on 2012

The best thing in music about the year 2012 - not that anyone asked me, and not that I've made an exhaustive attempt to stay current - was the reissue of the two Dicks' LPs (as well as two of their early singles, included with the CD versions). More to come on that eventually, but check out the Dicks doing "Pigs Run Wild" off their legendary Austin hardcore album Kill From the Heart...

Also, Swans' The Seer and Bison's Lovelessness are up there for me as albums of the year, as well as the two Neil Young and Crazy Horse albums. I wish the vinyl of Psychedelic Pill wasn't so obscenely overpriced (it's only 85 minutes of music, and COULD fit on two discs; plus even at three discs - one side of which isn't even playable, it's just an etching - asking more than $60 for it is offensive. C'mon, Neil - if you're such an audiophile, why are you making the vinyl so prohibitively expensive? Give us a break!).  

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ghosts With Shit Jobs

...upcoming at the Rio, Dec. 18th. Adrian Mack on the film here. Sounds fun - click on poster for a version you can actually read.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Michael Gira's top 12 albums

Great little interview with Swans' Michael Gira about his most revered LPs.

French horror evening: Frontiere(s) and Humains: DVD reviews

Two recent French horror films caught up with on a stay-at-home, sick Tuesday evening: Frontiere(s) and Humains. Both, it happens, involve innocent protagonists abducted by bad guys who hope to use their women for purposes of breeding. In the case of Frontiere(s), the bad guys are a clan of Nazis, who have been hiding out in a remote French hostel; one of them is actually an aging German war survivor who, we are asked to accept, has been secretly attempting to repopulate the master race for some 60-odd years, but has run out of  fresh genetic material, since he never leaves the hostel, and in-breeding doesn't appear to be an option. He does have two attractive daughters, but they mostly come in handy for seducing tourists, who appear to be a food source for the family (cannibalism, unlike in-breeding, is apparently okay; for people with an alleged taste for purity, this is one singularly degenerate bunch). His attempts to mate one of his sons with a previous female captive have produced only mutants. When a group of mixed-race, part-Arab thieves, fleeing riots in Paris, stumble across the hotel, hoping to hide out, the Nazi Dad proves more than willing to overlook the genetic impurity of the female among them, if it means furthering the interests of the Master Race; he becomes delighted to discover that she is already pregnant...
Remarkably, of the two films, Frontiere(s) has the more believable premise. In Humains, the bad guys are a surviving tribe of Neanderthals, who have run entirely out of women; they can't even in-breed. A group of anthropologists - including French mainstays Philippe Nahon and Dominique Pinon - arrive in the remote Swiss valley where these Neanderthals have been hiding, doing the things that Neanderthals do - painting on the walls of their caves, hunting with spears, fashioning a Stonehenge-like burial ground, grunting. Our protagonists must find a way to evade capture, and then, when their women get taken, to get them back... Humains belongs to the survival horror genre that I so love - its references are Deliverance and Rituals and The Hills Have Eyes, as opposed to Frontiere(s)' constant mining of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hostel (and maybe to a slight extent Kichiku Dai Enkai). In addition to boasting a talented cast and some terrific landscape photography, Humains is actually the more original of the two films, reading as a valid, new entry in its subgenre, while Frontiere(s) ends up seeming highly derivative, borrowing chunks from movie after movie.
Alas, much as I wanted to like it, this originality is not enough to save Humains from the fundamental absurdity of its premise. The concept of surviving Neanderthals is so ridiculous that when the film finally reveals them, any ability to be scared or suspend disbelief goes out the window; it's like Quest for Fire has suddenly waged a Mel Brooks-like invasion from the next theatre over. The film was enough of a failure in France when released in 2009 that there has been no region 1 DVD release; I'm fond enough of survival horror films that I picked it up as a European DVD, but having seen it - though I was amused throughout - I can't really recommend anyone go through that much trouble, unless you're really into cavemen. 
Frontiere(s), however, is worth a look. It is, as I say, almost entirely derivative, and doesn't do as much as it could to mine its latent political meanings; had the youths been rioters or activists, as opposed to mere criminals, the confrontation with Fascism would have been that much more loaded, and the degradation, humiliation, and so forth they encounter at the hands of the Nazis could be read as being the pit at the bottom of a slippery slope they'd gotten on, and perhaps given the film the aspect of being a cautionary political warning, or a parable about racism, or such. It would have deepened the meaning of the ending, as well - I won't reveal the final images, but they're poignant, among the best moments in the film. As it is, tho', Frontiere(s) is still superbly crafted, and achieves a pretty stunning level of brutality (enough so that it apparently was given an NC-17 rating in North America). And its slickly made, with great gore effects; Humains seems to flinch from its violence, a bit - not that it would have improved matters much to see Dominique Pinon actually get impaled on a spear, but Frontiere(s) wins a certain level of respect for going for the gusto.
I should add, however, that I had cause to wonder while watching both films if the versions I was seeing had, in fact, been trimmed; some of the mutant cannibalism in Frontiere(s) flickers on the screen so briefly that you wonder why, given Xavier Gens' obvious enthusiasm for gore, we don't get loving closeups of the mutants munching away; Humains, meanwhile, fades to black at various points, not always subtly, making one wonder if big chunks haven't been removed at the last minute from whatever the director's intended version of the film was.

I need another good European horror film or two - preferably French or Belgian - to hold in reserve for my next sick day. Anyone got suggestions? I've done Them and Inside and In My Skin and Trouble Every Day and Calvaire... what else is out there?

RIP Ravi Shankar (and get thee hence, '60's nostalgia!)

Growing up in the 1980's meant experiencing 60's nostalgia. At the time, I thought this was because the 1960's were a very special time period in American history, and I obligingly tried to take in as much 60's culture as I could. While not busy being a punk, I burned incense, wore the odd tie-dye t-shirt, and eventually watched Woodstock (or spun the soundtrack) enough times that I discovered I'd memorized the lyrics to Country Joe and the Fish's "Fixin' to Die Rag" (it helped that the words appeared on screen, complete with bouncing ball). I read Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary and Alan Watts and Richard Farina and Ken Kesey and Robert Stone (I found Kerouac kind of tedious and self-involved, truth be known - never could get into him, but I felt obliged to try, on several occasions). I owned Jerry Rubin's Do It!, Abbie Hoffman's Revolution for the Hell of It, and Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, though I can't really say I read any of them. I learned about the Vietnam war and Kent State and the riot at the Chicago Democratic convention and Charles Manson. And I listened to a lot of music that had been popular then, because it had been popular then: I spun records by the Who, the Beatles, the Stones, the Dead, CCR, Pink Floyd, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan. I might even have briefly owned a Joni Mitchell record or two; I certainly had a couple of Crosby, Stills and Nashes, including ones without Neil Young. I watched The Big Chill more than once, attentively trying to understand what was going on, and comparing it to the attitudes in, say, The Return of the Secaucus Seven. There was a genuine sense in me that, whatever the failings of hippiedom, the culture of the 1960's was somehow a special, sainted, necessary experience - that it was essential for me to explore and understand it, if I was to be a culturally aware, well-rounded, "with-it" kind of guy.

Little did I realize that come the 21st century there'd be a wave of nostalgia for the 1980's - that a sort of 20 year cultural lag is built into the marketplace, so that whatever was cool for broke teenagers in a given time period suddenly becomes a hot commodity around the time their purchasing power and cultural influence maximizes, two decades later. Whatever was actually special about the 1960's, I feel like I was fooled, a bit, as a younger man: I bought into the romantic image of the time, thinking it was somehow important, when really, I was just surfing the crest of a trend in the market, identifying myself with an older generation who were getting swept up in their excitement for their own youth, believing with them that it mattered more than it did. There are still things that interest me about the 1960's - I'm kind of pleased, for no real rational reason, to have been born in so momentous a year as 1968 - but nowadays I'm just as likely to strike a defensive, skeptical posture when exposed to something supposedly great from that time as I am to rush to explore it, and I'm rather relieved that, when exposed to music on the radio or in the public sphere these days, you're more likely to hear about rockin' the Casbah than getting back to the garden. I'm basically full of the 1960's, at this point, and am more interested - as befits the 20 year pattern mentioned above - in going back and catching up on music I missed from when I was young, or seeing what the heroes of my own youth are up to lately. If I'm going to get caught up in marketplace narcissism, I might as well be narcissistic about my own demographic!

Fittingly, nowadays, I don't care what Pete Townshend or Keith Richards or so forth are up to, but I'm eagerly awaiting news of the new Tad Doyle record. I had no interest whatsoever in seeing Sir Paul McCartney's show in Vancouver, but I'm kind of curious to note that Michigan's Negative Approach are going to open for Off! in February. Boomers, if anything, have come to irritate me a bit, seem to carry with them a sense of privilege and self-importance that sets me on edge; when I find myself inadvertently in rooms full of them - as when I went to see Terry Riley and Michael McClure at the Chan Centre some years ago - I generally find their behaviour annoying, and explain it to myself as being somehow typical of their generation. I remember, that night, hearing people chatting, as Riley played his rather meditative music. When I looked around angrily to try to glare the culprits into silence, I expected the talkers to be among the young and unwashed - people who might, in fact, be excused for not knowing how to behave - but they were well-to-do types in their 50's. I've had enough similar experiences that I have come to associate boomers with such behaviours, and there are certain cultural experiences I will now actively seek to avoid because it means being in the presence of a bunch of them, since (I believe) they will doubtlessly irritate me all to hell with the visible markers of their feelings of entitlement.

And to make a long story short, that's one of the big reasons I missed the one opportunity I had, some years ago, to see Ravi Shankar when he played in Vancouver. The other was that I only ever really explored his music as an extension of my interest in the tastes of the 1960's; I knew that hippies thought sitar music was cool, so I obligingly bought any Indian music I happened across at thrift stores, and tried to get into it, as if by so doing I was somehow increasing my sophistication or proving something about myself or bettering myself or so forth. I did *enjoy* a lot of the music I heard thus, but the truth is, I probably couldn't tell a great raga from a mediocre one, am not so interested as to want to learn how to tell the difference, and I never really was. A big part of my interest back then seems to have been based in something suspect and silly. I do still have a couple of Indian thrift store records - including one by Ravi Shankar - but I actually feel self-conscious about ever spinning them, like by listening to them I'm participating in the cliched exoticization of the East by the spiritual and aesthetic wannabes of generations gone by. It says nothing against the music of Ravi Shankar, but since he was the superstar figure of that exoticization, his music, more than others, has kind of been tainted, for me. And really, I'd be more inclined to check out Indian disco than ANY sort of Indian classical music, these days; at least listening to it doesn't seem pretentious, and doesn't smack of a '60's cliche.

Truth is, I don't really have a lot to say about Ravi Shankar. I might go see if I *do* have one of his records, and spin it, for old time's sake, to demonstrate that whatever hard feelings I have about being taken in by '60's nostalgia, they don't actually have much to do with him or his music. RIP, Ravi. I never really understood your music, but I felt cool about myself for listening to it, once upon a time...

Monday, December 10, 2012

Studio Ghibli festival hits Vancouver!

There's a major Miyazaki Hayao/ Studio Ghibli retrospective starting this week at Vancouver's two arthouse cinemas (Vancity Theatre writeup here, Cinematheque here). I normally don't have much fondness for family-oriented cartoons, truth be known; I find Disney product particularly annoying, and often wonder if they bought the rights to distribute Ghibli products on DVD in North America with an eye towards overpricing them so as to lessen the competitiveness of Ghibli with their own studio's (far crasser) output.
Seeing Ghibli product on DVD priced at $30 and above in North America has long bugged me - I'm not sure how wise it was for Ghibli to have entered into a deal with a company that regards them very much as competitors, since Studio Ghibli films often outperform Disney product in Japan, and Disney may want to make sure such a thing never happens here. Frequently I've contemplated buying a few of these DVDs, and been stopped by the exorbitant pricetags. It's a shame, because Miyazaki, the main force behind Studio Ghibli, is a gifted artist, and a non-pandering, sensitive storyteller, with genuine respect for his audiences, which I don't for a minute believe Disney has. (There's a great song by Dutch punk band The Ex about Disney and Hollywood and such - they're after my heart on this one; hear it with lyrics here).

Disney-gripes aside - I was first introduced to Miyazaki's work in the 1980s via what at the time seemed a rather magical VHS release called Warriors of the Wind. I have since learned that it was a disrespectful North American re-edit of Nausicca Of The Valley Of The Wind. Nausicaa is my favourite of the Ghibli films, but even the truncated, dubbed version - click the title for the Wikipedia page, including stories as to the changes made - there was clearly more meat to chew on than in thousands of North American-produced children's films. The original story, like Warriors of the Wind, follows the "hero's journey" template (tho' Nausicaa is, in fact, a heroine), but is packed with ecological meaning that the American version downplays. The film is so visually rich, creative, and ambitious that its rather stunning to realize it was Miyazaki's first; the original version will screen at the Cinematheque in Japanese and at the Vancity Theatre in English, which is the pattern for several of the screenings in this series.
Certainly Spirited Away is also a must-see, if you've managed to miss it (Vancity listing, Cinematheque). The film follows the adventures of a young girl who inadvertently gets her first job at a public bath for Gods and spirits, working under a witch (voiced in the English language version by Suzanne Pleshette, whom I used to have a crush on back in the days of early Bob Newhart, but I guess I don't need to include that detail). While generally I prefer to watch animated films in their dubbed versions, so as to focus on the imagery, I first saw this film in Japan, in Japanese, without subtitles, and was so impressed that I went back for a second viewing, even though my Japanese was so rudimentary, I couldn't really follow the plot, which does get rather... unusual. Some sense of the richness available to people who understand the film in its original language can be gotten from looking at the original title, Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi. The concept of kamikakushi was explained to me by the student I first saw the film with; it involves being abducted by Gods or ghosts or such - which makes "spirited away" a pretty apt translation. The first part, though, refers to the abduction as pertaining to "Sen" and "Chihiro," who are actually the same person; people who have seen the film will recall the scene where the witch steals Chihiro's name, and gives her back one character in it, which can be pronounced as "Sen." This sets up a bit of wordplay in the title, which has to do with the fact that "sento" is the Japanese word for public bath. So "Sen and Chihiro's Divine Abduction" also reads as "Bathhouse Chihiro's Divine Abduction" - a level of meaning that really can't be appreciated if you delve no deeper than the English-dubbed version. Then again, if you don't speak Japanese, a lot will be lost on you anyhow...!
True die-hard Ghibli fans will want to take special note of two particular screenings, both at the Cinematheque (and only seeable in Japanese with subtitles). The Ocean Waves, directed by Mochizuki Tomomi, has never screened in North America previously; there's also Takahata Isao's Only Yesterday. I haven't seen either of these films, but I'm familiar with Takahata's better-known Pom Poko, which I hope I'll have a chance to catch; that one is a story of magical, mischievous tanuki - a sort of Japanese raccoon, often called "raccoon dogs" in translation, though there's not much doglike about them. As with many of these films, Japan's nature-worshipping pagan past is a highly visible element, though people with no real knowledge of Japanese culture can still find a lot of magic here.
Most of these screenings are all-ages friendly; anyone with film-loving, creative children should attempt at least one of these films, while you can see them on the big screen. There are tons more films in the series that I have not mentioned. Of the ones I've seen, I'm also a big fan of My Neighbour Totoro, and had neighbours in Japan who had their hedges cut to resemble totoros... but I'll leave you to explore the listings on your own. Thanks to the Vancity Theatre and the Pacific Cinematheque for putting this series on; I'll probably only catch one or two films, my life bein' what it is these days, but even getting to see Nausicaa on the screen (for the first time ever!) makes me amply grateful...!

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Heaven's Gate: a film I will never have to see again

I watched Heaven's Gate tonight. It was not an easy watch - my 82 year old Mom was singularly difficult to keep awake through the 216-minute runtime, and when she was awake, tended to loudly shout "boring" at the screen at various intervals, which made my wholehearted engagement somewhat challenging. The film is certainly not without its merits, though I would not advise anyone to rush to buy the DVD, if there are still decent rental shops in your area (or if there are other opportunities to see it).

Briefly, for the sake of my own clarity, I'll sketch the pros and cons of watching this film.


Heaven's Gate has stunning period authenticity in every frame. Whatever the hubris involved in Cimino's striving to capture the look of the west, the sets, costumes, and so forth are superbly crafted and believable (even if Oxford stands in for Harvard - see Robin Wood on that; it makes perfect sense).

There are beautifully photographed, painterly, striking compositions at every turn; the film has great visual poetry. Whatever one says about Cimino, the cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond is obviously one of the great masters of his craft.

The film boasts several lovingly-crafted set pieces - dances, musical performances, and so forth are staged with considerable period authenticity; people with a taste for visual spectacle and costume, or fond of mandolins and fiddles, will be rewarded amply.

There's a terrific cast (including Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, John Hurt, Jeff Bridges).

The film attempts to do something interesting and politically sophisticated with the western - it's a revisionist western, particularly interested in class loyalties and conflicts.

Unconventional narrative choices may prompt interesting reflections on classical narrative structure (cf. Robin Wood, Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan; an admirer of the film, he writes about this aspect of the film at great length, and with great respect, though I suspect some of that may have been due to a contrarian streak).

Finally, the vast amount of fuss attendant on the film has long made me curious to see it, and makes me glad now that I've finally gotten it over with.


Period authenticity in Heaven's Gate does not extend to dialogue, character construction, or - if Wikipedia is to be trusted - actual historical verisimilitude; the film is interested in capturing details, not facts, and this only applies to images, not dialogue. The characters simply do not speak like people in the 19th century might be believed to (contrast it with Ang Lee's Ride With The Devil). Though I have nothing against cussing in movies, one three-minute exchange between Huppert and Kristofferson has a near-Deadwood level of profanity, with a fuck, shit, and a goddamn, none of which really jibe with my sense of how men and women spoke to each other back then. And much as I normally love Isabelle Huppert, her character - a spunky madam/ prostitute in love with both male protagonists - is singularly unbelievable. Worse, she seems to be aware of this as an actress; she's not quite as bad as Burt Reynolds in Uwe Boll's In The Name of the King - she doesn't walk through each scene looking like she feels trapped in a pile of shit - but she doesn't seem to try very hard to invest her character with any real emotion. Even the best role in the film - Chris Walken's character - is sadly underdeveloped; you're given enough information about him to actually be curious about him, but that curiosity doesn't ever really pay off.

The film has a frustratingly loose sense of narrative. There are two intersecting plots - one involving a love triangle, and the other a conflict between wealthy land barons and impoverished immigrants - but neither is handled in such a way as to really grip the viewer. One can suggest with Wood that Cimino is deliberately foiling narrative expectations and subverting conventions, but I'm really not convinced that he doesn't simply get bogged down in period details and images and lose sight of the story; the film meanders here and there, expends great chunks of time on its dances and other digressions, but there's not much suspense, considering the film makes clear that there will likely be a bloody conflagration at some point. You don't so much as build up to the payoff as wait for the film to get around to it. You can make a virtue of this vagueness if you like, but the fact remains that if you LIKE being compelled by a narrative, the film is not for you.

Because the film carries on at great length, its digressive, unfocussed nature really starts to call attention to itself, standing out in contrast to its epic size and the beauty of its images. If Cimino were a painter, and not a filmmaker, you might be able to spend a happy three-hours-thirty-six minutes with these images, but it's not so easy to do when you're busy trying to figure out what the story IS, or what certain scenes contribute to it.

There are various other oddities. A few lines of dialogue that were edited in in the panic to rescue the film, after its disastrous first run, are still present, and hover on the soundtrack without any clear speaker, sounding like exactly what they are - desperate late additions; perhaps these would have been better left out, since they mostly call attention to the difficulties the film had, without really resolving them. There are also a few moments where I actually got confused as to which character was where, or who was saying what line, or what the spatial relationship between locations was. I don't think that this was entirely my fault. One good instance: there's a scene where Isabelle Huppert takes leave of Walken, in his cabin outside town, to go to Kristofferson in town - what seems a long journey, which she undertakes on her own; then suddenly, when she's with Kristofferson, Walken walks in, as if he'd been following her five minutes behind. Since she doesn't immediately exclaim, "What the hell, are you stalking me?" - or whatever the 19th-century equivalent of "stalking" was - we can only assume the confusion we feel at this moment is due to inadequacies in the construction of the film. (Walken's cabin also seems to change location at one point, appearing not where one expects, but I'd have to revisit the film to make sure the fault is not merely in my own head).

The Criterion DVD also makes the strange choice not to subtitle the movie's abundant non-English dialogue. Presumably this is in response to critics like Roger Ebert complaining about the laborious subtitling of the German and Russian and so forth in previous versions, but Cimino should have stuck to his guns on this point. It sure appears that the film was INTENDED INITIALLY to be viewed with subtitles, since perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes worth of its dialogue is not in English; you get Russians yelling at other Russians in Russian, for instance, followed by a Russian reply, and you have no idea what the hell anyone is actually saying (unless you speak Russian). If seeing it with subtitles during such moments is how the film was originally meant to be seen, even if it drew some heat from critics, surely that's how we should be seeing it, no? I'm ill-prepared to comment further, since I don't KNOW what the non-English dialogue was, or whether it would have added to the experience of Heaven's Gate had I understood it. At the very least, though, it would have been nice if Criterion had provided two different subtitle options, so that we could choose the degree of translation we wanted.

By the way, the original theatrical cut was 219 minutes, and I've yet to determine what three minutes have been left out of the current version, though there's mention somewhere about a "mooning" scene that I didn't notice tonight.

Finally, one gathers that the film, even in the director approved cut, is still an "unfinished" film, that Cimino himself has mixed feelings about. His original vision was apparently a five hour long movie, which, to my knowledge, was never publicly screened; what was released theatrically was something that he hurriedly assembled under studio pressure, as a deadline loomed. That might help explain a great deal of what's missing from the film (gripping narrative, character development); what we're seeing is actually a sketch towards a film that was never, and never will be, completed.

And while there is a lot that IS interesting about Heaven's Gate, ultimately I have to say that that's just as well, because I don't think I could take five hours of this movie; the last feeling in the world it inspires is that it should be longer. I'm glad I saw it, but even gladder that I will never have to see it again (Robin Wood apparently saw it at least eight times, in two different versions; that's some dedicated film scholarship). There are many, many other films out there; if I want to earn contrarian/ revisionist cred by launching a defense of a neglected or unfairly savaged film, I think I'll pick a movie more enjoyable to watch than this one.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

(metal directors?)

Ha! These are kind of great, in a very, very silly way: famous director t-shirts done up in very specific metal fonts. Laughed aloud - one big "Ha!" and then it was done, but still... Thanks to Dave Bowes for posting this link on Facebook

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Pictures from the weekend

When in Victoria, try Lady Marmalade for breakfast!  
(The author received no promotional consideration for this statement)

My cellphone only takes bad photos at concerts. 
A very few of them are bad enough to be good. 

Bison BC at the Rickshaw, Dec. 1, 2012

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Bison: Second Servings

Bison BC by Femke van Delft. Since Bison BC have a new drummer, I figure there's not much harm in posting some more of these photos, from the last gig with Brad Mackinnon at the Red Gate, before that venue was killed by the city (help Raise the Red Gate here). Photos are not to be reused without permission! (I routinely say this, by the way, because apparently no less an entity than the Vancouver Sun lifted a photo off my blog, without so much as a hi-howareya, a few years back. This doesn't show disrespect for ME so much as it shows disrespect for the photographers I work with, whose work should NOT be presumed to be public domain, especially if someone can afford to pay for it). 

My conversations with James Farwell and Dan And of Bison covered a lot of ground, and not all of it could appear in the Straight article. We talked about new drummer Matt Wood, for instance, who has taken over from Brad, the guy pictured above; I glad I spent some time on him during my 2011 Rickshaw birthday party review, because I couldn't really fit him into this piece. It wasn't for lack of quotes. James was really enthusiastic in characterizing Matt's contribution to Lovelessness: “The space that’s on the new album, man - he creates this space for these riffs and for the song structures: he knows when not to fuckin’ play drums! It’s insane. I think he brings a lot to the band.”

Dan And and I also talked about Matt. "He’s a completely different drummer than Brad was," Dan said. "They think about music in totally different ways. And that was the one thing about him joining the band, we told him, ‘you’re not the new guy, you’re not the fill-in drummer, you’re a part of the band,’ so all of the decisions we had to make, arrangement-wise, he was 100% involved in. Anytime you bring a new member into a band, it can be really difficult, but because we’ve known him for so long, there wasn’t a big adjustment period at all. He dove in with all he’s got.” 
I mentioned to Dan that one of the things I really love about Matt's drumming has nothing to do with the drumming per se, but how HAPPY Wood looks to be doing it. Dan knew immediately what I meant: “Anytime I think I’m havin’ a bad show, all I have to do is just look at Matt, and everything I’m worried about is just gone instantly.” 
There's a terrific photo that Femke took at Fortune Sound Club awhile back that illustrates that quote brilliantly, but I'm going to restrain myself from posting it here - it has more important places to be in the future. Meantime, since he's not really focused on so much in the Straight piece, here's a cool photo of Dan, doing his thing as lead vocalist for the Bison BC grindcore project, Cooked and Eaten, who also played that Red Gate gig. 
Photo by Femke van Delft, not to be reused without permission

Not to shortchange him, Brad Mackinnon's decision to leave the band was also still clearly being felt by the guys in Bison. Talking about the various stresses the band feels - from the energy consumed by constant touring to the pressures placed on them from without, Farwell said, “I don’t need to lose another band member because they’re burnt out, bummed out, and angry in the wrong way! I want to go on the road, but I want it to be good - I want it to be sustainable, man. I want to make these records for awhile longer, and I mean, you know - we lost Brad!"

Farwell says that it would be great at some point Bison can be all the focuses on - that he won't have to continue his dayjob - but he's very realistic about the prospect of that. "We’ve been doing this band since 2006. What does a band that plays incredibly unpopular music have to do? Dan’s getting married, I’m turning 40… I mean, how long do we have to stay on the road? Do we have to go on the road for eight months a year, and completely devastate our lives in our city?"
James Farwell by Femke van Delft, not to be reused without permission

Dan said similar things - that making Bison sustainable is a priority right now. It's an understandable concern, because he had to miss a few shows last year.  “The last tour we did was about two and a half months, and when we circled America and came back to Vancouver for a show, we left Vancouver without Dan,” James told me. “And that was the hardest thing that the band has ever had to do. Dan, for his reasons, had to stay home for a couple of weeks, and we made the decision that we would go out as a three piece,” not knowing exactly when Dan would rejoin. “And this was Matt’s first tour with us! And we went out, and we did two weeks with Weedeater, in front of big crowds - and crowds that knew the band, knew the songs - as a three piece. And we fucking overcame, we slayed everybody, and Dan came out and met us two weeks later,” and was on hand by the time the band left for Chicago. “But this is how we are - we overcome and we get it done.” 
I for one am very, very happy with the new album - very glad that the band continues to overcome and get it done. I think Dan is a killer songwriter, mind you, and am looking forward to what he does in the future, but in the meantime, Lovelessness is a remarkably cohesive album, showing the band continuing to grow and grow more powerful - so I have no problem waiting. If you haven't seen Bison live yet, you're missing out on one of Vancouver's best bands; Saturday's show would be a great night to come check them out. For more terrific Femke van Delft photographs of Bison, and a sort of compilation of a few past interviews I did with the band, see here. See you at the Rickshaw!
Brad Mackinnon by Femke van Delft, not to be reused without permission.