Sunday, December 30, 2018

More on Mandy, plus my issue with geek culture

Okay, I tried Mandy again last night.

As you may gather from my previous post, I have some hostility towards what I regard as the fanboy mentality. There's an element of "wouldn't-it-be-awesome," prurient giggling idiocy afoot within so-called "fan culture" that I find irritating and unwelcome and best avoided. Much as I love movies, and horror movies and science fiction movies in particular, I very seldom visit stores that cater to their fandom, never go to fan expos, and never even look at websites like Ain't It Cool or such which promote what "movie geeks" are taken to like, these days. Perusing the headlines at Ain't It Cool just now, I see things like "Holy Shit! The new trailer for Dark Phoenix looks awesome!" Or, say, "Disney's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge Theme Park Opening Announced with a Video!"  But I know nothing of Dark Phoenix - don't even know what it is; have found Disney vaguely repugnant since childhood; never go to theme parks; and gave up on Star Wars about five movies ago, I think - after the one where Darth Vader is "born." (which websites like Ain't it Cool actually regarded as a good film, sealing the deal that they are meant for someone else). The sort of stuff that "geeks" of that self-described sort ejaculate all over - Pacific Rim, Ready Player One, what-have-you - seems loud and annoying and trivial to me, mostly, and I'm mostly content to stay away.

None of that is to say that there's anything WRONG with being a geek. I'm not judging. I'm all wrapped up in popular culture too, and if you flash back to my friends and I in the 1980's, we were quipping lines from Repo Man at each other - often involving pointing out "ordinary fucking people" in our proximity - or using "I take your fucking bullets!" like a private idiom, whenever the social circumstance (figuratively) permitted it. ("You stupid fuck, look at you now" was easier to adapt socially, actually, as I recall). We recited dialogue from Carpenter's The Thing at one another. We were using "I'll be back" as a one-liner before Schwarzenegger's people figured out kids were doing that and tried to give him a one-liner or two in every single movie he was in. I may have grown tired of all that, or just grown up, but I still consider myself a geek, in some sense of the word that probably doesn't mesh with how it is used now.  Hell, if you go back early enough I seem to recall even having a toy light saber, and plenty of Star Wars trading cards to boot.

So it's not just that I'm being a snob, here: I like a lot of crap, too. And I don't, though it puzzles me, think that the people who ejaculate over crap culture online (I will continue to point at Ain't It Cool, as a perfect example, but there are tons of others) are insincere or cynical about doing so. There's a sense that they genuinely WANT to participate, that when the new Star Wars/ Star Trek/ Marvel Universe/ DC Universe movie comes out, they genuinely are keen for it, WANT to see it, WANT to buy the merch that goes along with it - that they think that that's what participating in popular culture entails. It's weird to me - weird to me to see grown men in superhero shirts, weird to me to see grown men shelling out fifty bucks or so for replicas from The Fly or The Thing or Spawn or such - but I don't begrudge them; I just try to stay well-clear of the things they like, because time has shown me that the current movies said geeks find most satisfying - The Shape of Water, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Aquaman, whatever - will at best seem like a trivial amusement to me. It's  not being a geek I object to, it's just that the things that KIND of geek gets excited about do not move me at all - or move me in the opposite direction, as in, "make me want to get away from them."

Which brings us, sadly, to Mandy. There are at least a dozen things that knowingly wink out from the film, from geek filmmaker to geek audience, to forge a presumed bond. I have no doubt the people at Ain't It Cool (or Den of Geek or whatever the hell) loved it to pieces. There are heavy metal t-shirts in abundance. There are references to popular cult movies (Including use of the line, "don't you fuckin' look at me;" gee, where have I heard THAT before?). There are digressions into anime that add very little to the film that I could discern except giving it added appeal to the anime freaks out there. There are three elaborately costumed evil biker figures that obviously evoke the Cenobites of Hellraiser (but with fighting skills). There's a chainsaw fight, right out of Hooper's sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There's even a killer phallus that evokes the thing the guy in the "lust" murder in Se7en is made to wear. And there's a very, very silly scene, when Cage, setting out on his revenge mission, pauses to forge his own weird-ass weapon - some critics have described it as an "Orc sword" - not because the plot demands it, not because the theme demands it, not because there is a shortage of weapons at his disposal, but because it will look "badass" to see people killed onscreen with a fancy sword. No explanation is provided, or seemingly needed, as to why a lumberjack HAS a forge for said sword in his basement, or knows how to use it, because who cares? The sword is cool to look at, and Cage can kill people in colourful ways with it, and that's really what you want to see, isn't it?

Nope, actually, it isn't.

None of this would annoy me at all - not even the unnecessary, cutesy nods to other films - if it wasn't for the things that Mandy does very, very well. If it was just some trashy compendium of in-jokes and playfully inventive gore, like Rodriguez's Planet Terror, for example, I probably wouldn't care about it much, but nor would I have any basis for judging it. It's BECAUSE it is visually and sonically brilliant in its execution and construction, it's BECAUSE it has deeper, larger ambitions than wallowing in trash cinema, it's because it seems willing to make demands of its audience, it's because it even seems to have some IDEAS in there, that its failings come as such a letdown. There are even moments where you think the film is going to be ABOUT something, that it has actual meat on its bones. Its Manson-like cult leader, played by Linus Roache, is brilliantly written, and there are two scenes in the film that stand out as being very rich, resonant, and powerful, the sort of scene you come away from the movie wanting to think about. The first - the real peak of the movie, by me - is where Jeremiah Sand gives the abducted Mandy acid, and then, in the midst of swirling, trippy, tracer-streaming visuals, puts on a record of music he wrote (he's presented as a sort of failed folk musician: his messianic ego trip is justified by his outrage, in his own mind at least, at his having been rejected as an artist). The song he plays is about himself, and as he strokes his naked body - his uncircumcised cock very much the centre of the screen - he speechifies grandiosely about how the world is his. Mandy - taking it all in, tripping - comes to a sudden, dramatic realization of how ridiculous he is. You're playing a song you wrote... and the song is about you? She bursts into laughter - humiliating, cruel, but very, very apt laughter at how absurd this little man's ego is. He cringes - and it's brilliant. The scene captures something very real and honest and interesting about psychedelics, about the freedom from ego they can afford, about the penetrating insights that can flood you; and about how badly things can go when ego reasserts itself under their use. I mentioned earlier that I preferred both van Bebber and Harkema's Manson movies to Mandy, for the insights they offer and the earnestness with which they offer them, but watching Mandy again, I have to say that at that moment, the film is on the cusp of brilliance. It's as close as it ever comes to being great, as Mandy laughs, and Jeremiah recoils, and the streamers swirl all around. The scene is lessened a little in impact by the ironic, unnecessary Blue Velvet reference that I mentioned earlier, but it still works, still has you believing that you're watching something great transpire. You don't realize that, at that moment, you've actually reached the thematic and emotional peak of the film, barely even halfway into it - that it's going to be all downhill from there.

I realized last night that I don't actually object to the bum-trip that follows, with Mandy burned to death inside a sleeping bag, as punishment for her disrespect, while the Nic Cage character is made to watch. It's an ugly and cruel thing to stick into a trip movie, and I feel sorry for anyone who watched the film on psychedelics, for what that must have felt like, but actually, it seems to me that the problem with the scene is that it pulls its punches. Because if you're going to burn the moral center of your film to death, alive and onscreen, you have to do it in a way that counts. You have to think of Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc or Ken Russell's The Devils, say. You have to cry, to suffer, to scream along with your protagonists; to convey the depth of trauma required, to make the scene have the emotional impact that is needed, you can't hide the suffering and death inside a fucking bag. Mandy's death is nowhere near as painful as it needs to be for the audience in order for it to work. Hell, you're even allowed to indulge the belief that Mandy might still be alive, that the person in the sleeping bag is someone else; there's a subplot involving a second victim, a chubby guy, and on first viewing, I suspected that maybe it would turn out that HE was the one in the bag, and that Red and Mandy would be reunited at the end - all of which you gotta lay at the hands of the director, because you don't see how Mandy GETS into the sleeping bag; you don't hear her screaming; you don't get a final exchange between her and Cage. You don't even see her face, between her laughing at Jeremiah and the bag being lit on fire. You just watch the bag burn, writhing like something is inside it, and see Cage's traumatized reaction. It's about as sanitized and abstracted and safe and gutless as a scene of someone being burned alive onscreen could possibly be. It needed to be on the level of strength that Heather Matarazzo's death scene in Hostel 2 has, needed to be nearly impossible to watch, but if anything, Cosmatos tries to make it as painless as possible.

And even still, there is potential in the film. I was still with it at that point, still willing to forgive. The scene isn't as strong as it could be, but it's strong enough, and you know there's going to be a powerful resolution ahead. Which brings us to the other peak of the film, as you might guess: the final confrontation with the cult leader at the climax of the film, where Cage - Red - humiliates him completely, reducing him to a kneeling, pathetic specimen offering to suck cock to be spared. THAT death is graphic, and satisfying, and a worthy degradation, and even if it ends up in a cinematic cliche - Cage walking away as Jeremiah's church burns behind him - it works well enough to be satisfying. 

The real problem with Mandy lies in what exists between these peak moments. A lot of reviewers, of the ones who criticize the film, harp on the "boring" opening, but the slow build is fine by me. It's gorgeous to look at, and if we don't get to go particularly deep into the characters of Mandy or Red, we get to like them well enough. Andrea Riseborough - who, I didn't realize, was in the other film I saw last night, as well, The Death of Stalin - has a very charismatic, compelling mien, and manages to convey a sense that her character has great depths of wisdom and soul even when she is given almost no interesting dialogue with which to do it. Her scar, her penetrating gaze, her paintings, her Black Sabbath shirt - it's all very nicely handled and kind of makes you love her along with Red.

No, the people who describe the first hour as boring - the fanboy contingent, drawn to the film for the promise of seeing Cage go batshit - almost all seem to like most the stuff that I like least, the stuff that begins immediately following the great little Bill Duke cameo: namely, Cage's "awesome" revenge. That's where the film panders to its fanboy audience the most, positively going Wolfcop in the endeavour, like Cosmatos polled his friends and fans and stuck stuff in that would gratify their desires, regardless of its bearing on whatever theme he might have been developing. You get the sword-making, the pretty much meaningless and unnecessary confrontation with the Cenobites (who actually are peripheral to the film's plot). You get the chainsaw battle, and the flaming head-cigarette lighter scene (as I expected, people in the theatre laughed aloud at that). The promise of the film's stunning imagery and soundtrack and that high-watermark set up all gets lost in a bunch of silly crap, that seems to exist to fill a void between the great premise and the decent climax: it's like Cosmatos came up with the two peak moments - the death of Mandy and Red's final confrontation with the cult - then shrugged and, in the absence of other ideas, just filled the film up with crap.

And it IS crap, folks. The key selling point of  the film - Cage finally in a film where his overacting is not out of place - is crap, crap sold to sniggering fanboys, without any heart or soul or value behind it. It is, I suppose, entertaining crap, if that's what you want - and it is certainly TRIPPY crap; but I couldn't give less of a fuck about Nicolas Cage doing badass shit. I wanted a move that was ABOUT something, that actually has ideas, a purpose, something to offer; that didn't just gesture at brilliance, but WAS brilliant. Lighting a cigarette on a flaming severed head isn't brilliant, it's cheap, it's a cop-out, it's an insult to the film's potential and the faith people are bringing to the theatre. The film could have been so much more. It actually makes you believe that it IS so much more, briefly; and then it isn't. I very much suspect that I'll never watch it again. I already had given away the Blu-Ray I bought of it to a friend who liked it a whole lot more than I did, before revisiting it on the big screen, and wondered if I would regret having done that, but you know what, I didn't, and I don't, and I'm done with it. Sorry, Mandy. Sorry, Panos. Sorry, fanboys - you can keep this one.  

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Time off for VIFF? Best of 2018 now ongoing

The Vancity Theatre - home of the VIFF year round - is still the best theatre in Vancouver, and this week, if (like me) you have time off work and the energy to commute and a passion for cinema that you've been neglecting, it's a real treat to go sit in their incredibly comfortable chairs and experience films on the big screen - because I don't care how large your flatscreen is, folks: their screen is bigger, and their sound system better, and there's a good chance their chairs are more comfortable than the ones in your home, to boot (they're still the best seats I've sat in in any movie theatre, ever, though Landmark's recliners are giving them a little competition of late; they're just a smidgen too ergonomically awkward to quite take the prize, though). As 2018 winds down, the Vancity is doing a Best of 2018 series, appropriately enough, and though I have seen only a couple of the films in it, there look to be some amazing choices indeed.

Case in point: I just caught Leave No Trace - a quiet, positively Reichardt-ian Pacific Northwest mood piece about a father and daughter living off the grid in Oregon. It's painful and beautiful and very gripping; I'm sad to report that has done its run, but it's a great film if you get a chance to see it, one I thought, with no reservations, was powerfully moral, deeply touching, and exquisitely crafted, in that quiet, intense, Reichardt-ian way (it would work very well on a double bill with Night Moves, though it tells quite a different, and ultimately less upsetting, story). I haven't seen a lot of really great new films lately, or even really good ones, and certainly very few that speak to me, in my alienation and disillusion, as powerfully as did this one. It's the kind of movie the Unabomber might enjoy (but has no bombs in it, so fear not. I'm not even sure, thinking back, that there's profanity...).

Also, with thanks to Danny Nowak, tonight I got to revisit Alfonso Cuaron's stunning Children of Men, which I believe is still playing a few more times. It's a film that Danny got me to reconsider some years ago, and I'm ever in his debt: When I first saw it, in 2006, I was in a fairly political place, outraged about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the war on terror in general, doing lessons in my ESL classes about Guantanamo Bay and torture, playing them Phil Ochs' "Cops of the World" and clips from The Battle of Algiers. I have calmed down a little, since then, and had the softening spoonful of sugar of the Obama regime to soothe and butter me up for the outrages, offenses, and absurdities of Trump. You'd think that in my mood of rage and anguish over the state of the world in 2006 I would have been totally receptive to a film as grim and "prophetic" as Children of Men, but I wasn't: it was - along with Brian DePalma's Redacted - like pouring salt on an open wound, for me,  back then, and made me upset and angry in bad ways, ways antithetical to being able to appreciate it as a film. I mean, I was already seething, so much so that I couldn't take in its more hopeful aspects (it is, after all, basically a Christ story). It was only at Danny's insistence that I revisited it a few years ago, and I've seen it twice since, counting tonight, again thanks to Danny; it's a masterpiece of cinema, maybe one of the greatest films of the 21st Century - which seems to have produced very few truly great films, or at least great films that I've seen - and it benefits nowadays from not being quite as troublingly timely as it was in 2006 (or maybe we're all just that much more numb?). If you haven't seen it lately, you should (and it looked great onscreen tonight, and hey, Peter Mullan plays Syd! I don't think I knew who Peter Mullan was when first I saw it).

There's also Roma - which I'll let you read about on the Vancity website. It's Cuaron's newest film, and is also being hailed as a masterpiece; I know pretty much nothing about it, and want to keep it that way until I can see it (those of you unable or unwilling to make the pilgrimage should note that it is on Netflix, but like I say, the Vancity screen is bigger and their sound system is better and hey, other people will be there, maybe even some friends!).

There are some films I'm less excited about, even of the ones I've seen. To be honest, I wasn't actually a big fan of Panos Cosmatos' Mandy, though I will consider giving it a second chance tomorrow night. I realize that most young movie geeks are in love with it, and even a few older ones. My thought on it, on my first and only viewing thus far, is that if you're going to make a movie in which you make it obvious in pretty much every image that you intend it as a trip, best seen with your doors of perception not just cleansed but blown off their fucking hinges, why would you also have someone burned alive, at some length, inside a sleeping bag in that film? Isn't that, umm, kind of the stuff of bad trips? It's not the stuff of good trips, that I can see. Maybe I'm missing the point, but - much as I loved Beyond the Black Rainbow and am happy Panos has gone "bigtime" and all, Mandy seemed like a pretty trivial, maybe even slightly kinda offensive, film: if someone had at any point said to me, "wouldn't it be great to make a super violent movie for acidheads starring Nicholas Cage? We could have him do all this crazy hardcore stuff, like chop of someone's flaming head and then light a cigarette off it, but with trippy visuals all over the place and references to Manson-style acid cults and so forth! ...Wouldn't that just be AWESOME" .... in all honesty, if someone had put that question to me, I would have looked at them oddly and said, "no, no it would not be AWESOME to do that; it would be childish and a waste of cinema and bad advertising for psychedelics, and it would pander, for no loftier purpose, to the worst aspects of its audience, who do not need these aspects pandered to. Leave that shit to Tarantino and grow the fuck up."

I mean, sorry Panos, but as far as I could see (on first viewing only, again), Jim van Bebber's Manson  movie had higher moral ambitions than Mandy, and was less objectionable, and that film was pretty repugnant at times, too. Or maybe it is time to re-watch Reg Harkema's Leslie My Name is Evil?

...But fuck me, right? All you ironists and belly-laughers who roll around in cinematic cesspools like it's a playground of excess and debauchery, for whom watching Salo is nothing more than a badge of how hardcore you are - who watch that poor girl being forced to eat shit and laugh at it, instead of weeping for her - you should DEFINITELY get to see Mandy theatrically at least once, right? And there are a lot more of you then there are of me! Ya fucks.

I reserve the right to take all the above back and proclaim Mandy a masterpiece when I see it again (possibly tomorrow - fans of it can come and beat me up, if you like; I'm sure it will improve my opinion of it).

I'm much more curious about Paul Schrader's First Reformed, actually. I used to really like Paul Schrader, but haven't had a positive cinematic experience associated with him in a long time, unless it involved revisiting one of his classics (someone remind me that I want to see his Patty Hearst movie again, okay?). I have grown somewhat cynical about his limitations, in fact, after seeing him steal the same scene from Bresson's Pickpocket for THREE SEPARATE MOVIES (American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, and, unless my memory fails, The Walker). I'm willing to lay odds that he pays that particular "homage" in this one, too, but for old time's sake, I'm inclined to give him a chance. People ARE saying this is a great film, and I do like Ethan Hawke (and so does my wife!).

There's lots else, from Japanese anime to a Hadai Gwaii film shot in two Haida dialects to a comedy about the death of Stalin. There's also some pretty interesting-sounding film fare screening that is NOT part of the Best of 2018 series, like a documentary that features Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins talking about their acting careers, called Nothing Like a Dame. Or maybe you'd rather see Paddington 2 (which for some reason has no hyperlink available)I have no experience of Paddington in any form or media, but my wife has said I dress like him at times, so I guess I'm positively disposed. Actually, Judith Beeman, mentioned in my previous post on Bird Box, was saying that Paddington 2 is pretty great, as a matter of fact. I don't know that I have the time or need for that - it seems a bit of an investment to go THAT far out of my way for a Paddington experience, no matter what Judith says - but, well, maybe that one I will check out on Netflix someday, or something.

Anyhow, the great thing about cinema (or music, for that matter) is that there really are very few wrong answers; everyone craves something different, from romps in the trash to the minimal and refined, there's something for everyone at the table. And it's quite the table set at the Vancity over the next while, also including Orson Welles, an upcoming Italian festival, and... well, I can leave you in their hands for more.

Thanks to the Vancity Theatre for putting on such stellar programming (even Mandy - I really might use tomorrow to give it a second chance. Who is with me?).

Actually, it will be interesting to see how an audience reacts to that film. Hmm...

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Immoral Parable of Bird Box, plus a few pleasant discoveries re: my writing

An unexpected, but pleasant, surprise: Jim Santo of Big Takeover online was posting about the most read articles on their website for 2018. Turns out two of my interviews and one of my concert reviews from years past were actually the top reads this year (!): my 2011 interview with then-Amon Amarth drummer Fredrik Andersson was #2 in their top ten most-read interviews, with 620 page views (I presume for 2018 alone); and a 2015 interview with Christian Vander of Magma was #9; while the #1 spot for concert reviews is held by this piece of writing I did on Electric Wizard (which I actually am really proud of), again from 2015. Thanks to Jim Santo for posting it - I am happy to know, because I wouldn't have, otherwise, that my old writing is living on.

In other news, there's Bird Box. Erika had watched it the other night with her parents on the island (while I am back at home, preparing for interviews and getting some needed me-time in). She recommended it to me - as had Judith Beeman - and while both those recommendations were sufficient, my keenness to see it skyrocketed as soon as I learned it was the first horror movie to be directed by Susanne Bier, some of whose earlier films - like her Oscar-Winning In a Better World - impressed me greatly. (I also enjoyed her Dogme film Open Hearts, which I would love to see again, but which has not been distro'd over here to my knowledge; I watched it on a borrowed disc, and only saw 2/3rds of it, not realizing I would never again get a chance to finish it, so I still don't know what happens!). Like some others out there, I am sure, my awareness of Bier greatly increased with Lars von Trier's absurd potshot at her during that "I used to be a Jew til I discovered I was a Nazi" kerfuffle at Cannes, which at that point I thought was the most entertaining thing he'd done since Dogville.  (He had yet to make Nymphomaniac; I like that one. I want nothing to do with The House Jack Built, though). I wonder if she's in any way grateful to him for that comment?

(Digressively, if you haven't read it, the GQ interview with Lars about that episode is pretty damned entertaining. Hard to believe it's seven years old now! I know children who are younger!).

Anyhow, Bird Box is a curious film (probably there are spoilers throughout what follows, by the way; don't read further if you care about such things). I watched it and couldn't make sense of it, because I was distracted by tracking down what previous movies its ideas were lifted from.( "And this is the part in The Mist where they go to the drugstore..."). It's got a bit of The Happening, a bit of A Quiet Place, a bit of It Comes at Night (thanks to John Clark for pointing that one out) and a lot of Blindness, which it kinda makes me want to see again. It's skillfully made, has some effective scares, but it does a few things that I didn't care for, besides being obviously derivative of a bunch of other films: like, it never once tries to explain what the nature of the evil besetting its world IS. What are these entities that make you want to kill yourself? Why can they only function outdoors? Why do they come in at the eyes? Why do some people survive seeing them, and decide they're beautiful and make you want to rip off your blindfold? I can live with that sort of cop-out, but it does seem to be one, if you approach it as a genre film. Of course, you can take the whole thing as a surrealist nightmare, or an overt moral parable, I suppose, like Blindness (which also declines to explain why there's an epidemic of contagious blindness afoot). But if you do that, the problem is, it is not easy to figure out what it is SAYING: if it's meant to be a moral parable, what the hell is the moral? Don't look at the bad things around you or you'll kill yourself? Keep your eyes closed at all times, and make sure that your children keep theirs closed, and don't trust anyone who asks you for help, because they might just want to rip off your blindfold and make you see the evils all around you? ...because the people who point out things that you're shutting your eyes to, are actually a threat to you, are actually deranged, co-opted forces of evil who mean you ill, and they should not be trusted; even if they ask you for help, it's just a trick?

What kind of fucking moral parable is THAT?

I went to bed irritated by all this, then woke up interested. Is this actually a film ABOUT denial? A film about how people, for example - can we call them "Americans," perhaps? - protect their children from reality? Is it a sort of horror movie illustration of a quote I vaguely recall from Nietzsche, about how human life may depend on NOT knowing, not understanding, not seeing - about how one must learn to "boldly stop at appearances?" ("He who has looked beneath the surface with disastrous results knows how much wisdom their lies in the shallowness of men," that's one I think I recall a bit better).

What kind of moral is THAT?

Maybe a relevant one, sure, but kind of objectionable, on the surface of things. I suspect in the world of Bird Box, I think I'd be one of the people trying to sneak into your house, open the curtains, rip off your blindfold, and make you look. I wonder if those characters get a bit more space in the book that is the source for the film?

Anyhow, I went to bed annoyed with Bird Box, and woke up interested in it. I'm not sure it is moral, but it certainly does seem relevant, because it DOES seem many people are living in a state of apocalyptic denial these days; how else to explain that Donald Trump still has supporters? Suddenly it's one of the more interesting and provocative "apocalypse" movies I've seen. Immoral, maybe offensive, but what the hell, it's timely and topical. Maybe we can make a horror movie next about an evil that descends on Americans that makes you want to take automatic weapons into a high school?

I still don't know how I feel about Bird Box, but I guess I have to concede that, at the very least, it's one of the more interesting horror movies I've seen lately. I am now going to read this Den of Geek interview with Susanne Bier, and this Gizmodo article, to see if any of my concerns about the film's staggeringly immoral apparent subtext get spoken to.

By the by, Leave No Trace, playing this evening at 8pm at the Vancity Theatre, as part of their Best of 2018 series, sounds great, and sounds like it might appeal to people who liked Bird Box. It will be followed by a 10pm screening of Children of Men, which is a truly great apocalyptic movie, which I'm pretty sure is VERY moral indeed (it's a rip-off-the-blindfolds film for sure).

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Have an Alienated Christmas!

(Like you  have a choice!).

I'll be out of touch for a bit... irons in the fire, and holiday stuff to do. But there is some fun stuff I'm hoping to get to while off work, where, by the current plan, I will have the Apartment! To! Myself! for a few days (unless you count the cat). So even as I try to wrap presents and make sure I have my rent paid for January, I'm thinking on things I want to write.

For instance, I discovered that John Werner of the Furies is going over to England to reunite with members of the Pack, who would later morph into Theatre of Hate. It's a jarring thing, to discover a guy you know from the local scene co-wrote one of your favourite British punk songs. I knew some members of the Furies and the Shades (also fronted by Chris Arnett) went over to England; Jim Walker, playing drums on "New Clientele" I believe, ended up on PiL's first album - but I either spaced on, or never knew about, the Pack connection (which also involved Walker for awhile, and Werner's brother Simon, known for his time in the Skulls, sort of a prototype version of DOA). Hoping I'll be able to get to that story soonish.

Also, I'm in the process of reaching out to a noted US punk figure, coming to Vancouver this spring, but I should leave off mention of who, for now, since that one might actually see print. And I want to do a Bev Davies project, too (who found previously unseen photos of that noted US punk figure, taken at the Buddha in 1982 and forgotten until I asked, apparently!).

Meantime, it's Christmas and presents and family and, at the moment, a shitload of holiday cleanup that I gotta get back to. I will leave you with this, in case you're wondering how to celebrate M-Mas this year. (David is also doing stuff sort of "fast and loose" this weekend but I don't know where or with whom. Maybe he'll be busking in front of the Railway Club for a bit? He's done that).

Merry Christmas, folks.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Ricky Jay and Deadwood: Jewel's Boot is Made for Walking

This one is for Ricky Jay.

If you're like me, you've forgotten just how good Deadwood is. You last watched it ten or more years ago. It was one of the first long-form HBO dramas you took in, when the idea of binge-watching a long form TV series was relatively new - many, many series ago, before you got to Dexter or The Wire or  True Blood or Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead or any of a hundred notable others. You haven't forgotten that it IS good - that you really got into it back when - and you're cheering to hear that they're finally going to make a feature film of it, all these years later -  but there are tons of things about it you simply don't recall. Like, say, the cast, beyond a certain handful of names. You can, of course, bring to mind Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant,  Keith Carradine, William Sanderson and homegirl Molly Parker (yay team!), and maybe you're even impressed with yourself for remembering that many of them, but - take a minute, here, and try to recall who else is in it. Like, do you even remember that Ricky Jay is in it? Or Garret Dillahunt, or Powers Boothe, or Peter Coyote? (Wait a sec - Powers Boothe, Peter Coyote, and Keith Carradine are all in the same show? Wasn't there some other movie that they all were in together...? Hmmm. Speaking of which, do you remember that Walter Hill directed the first episode?). And was Kim Dickens even a name on your radar before Deadwood?

Or, say, do you even remember Brad Dourif as Doc? I mean, it's okay: I love Brad Dourif, yet still, I was  going, "oh right!" Didn't remember John Hawkes, either - someone I loved from Benny's World of Blood in From Dusk Til Dawn, which I had seen years before Deadwood, but not a name I actually knew until a few years later, when Winter's Bone came out and he firmly made a mark on my filmgoing psyche.

Then - speaking of things you have forgotten - there's the dialogue: can you even remember a single conversation from the series, besides Wu and Swearengen having - as esteemed/ missed Georgia Straight writer and UBC prof Mark Harris once remarked on in class - a conversation where the only word common between them is "cocksucker?" Other than that, and the overall high level of profanity - which I also had somewhat forgotten - do you remember a single bit of dialogue?

The "cocksucker" conversation takes place in Episode 10 - "Mister Wu," which, thanks to the Minutemen's cover of Steely Dan, I keep wanting to represent as "Doctor Wu." It's where the first season really starts to roll, as others have noticed - and the episode that first shows us the Chinese district of Deadwood, setting up the tabling of anti-Chinese racism as a means by which certain powerful figures attempt to direct the herd, exploiting the masses' fear of the Other to help solidify their own power base. These ideas only begin to get full expression in the even-stronger Eleventh Episode, the weirdly-named "Jewel's Boot is Made for Walking," which stands out as the writerly high point of Season One, maybe even the single strongest episode all around. Do you remember who wrote it?

Yeah, folks: the answer is, Ricky Jay.

There are a billion brilliant turns in the episode, a billion brilliant flourishes that will fill your heart with fondness for Jay, who has, as of this writing, recently died. It was if, watching the show, we conjured him, sitting at his keyboard in underwear and a t-shirt, letting his imagination reign. Again, if you're like me, you like him, and maybe even have been meaning to show your significant other some David Mamet in Jay's memory. (It wasn't for Jay that I got Erika and I onto this kick, because I'd forgotten that Jay was even in Deadwood, but it's a pleasant and convenient coincidence indeed; rest assured, House of Games is now on the menu, too). It is the only episode Jay wrote, and one of only five writing credits to his name on IMDB.

The entire point of this post is to say, if you've kinda forgotten just how good Deadwood is, if you're happy there's a feature film out there being made, and if you're a fan of Ricky Jay, you really have to start season one at the beginning, to ride out the slightly uneven first few episodes, so to have all the pieces fresh and in place in your mind when Jay's episode comes around. You will, I think, be very glad you did (and even moreso if, unlike me, you have somehow previously missed Deadwood, which I'm sure is the case for a few of you; you've missed something great, and soon to be made relevant and timely again).

If you are unconvinced of any of that, if you have never seen the series, if you want more provocation, let me remind you of a few details from Ricky Jay's episode.

A recap blogger - didn't know there was such a thing - opines that an early scene goes on way too long, but I disagree. It's where the handicapped woman - Al's maid, Jewel, abusively referred to as "the gimp" and treated as a figure of uncomfortable, dismissive comedy in the first few episodes - walks with great difficulty down a muddy street, mocked for her twisted step, stared at derisively from the Gem's upstairs window. all so she can bring a book to the Doc (why she is doing this I will leave for you to [re]discover, though obviously the episode title gives a bit of a clue). The scene does take a long time to come to fruition, but do consider that up to that point, she has been a peripheral figure in the series, her role confined to being the cripple who sweeps up the Gem. She's barely had dialogue before this episode. Suddenly she's, in many ways, the driving force of a scene, fully humanized in a way I don't think I've seen a handicapped person be before on TV.  In fact, I don't think I have seen any other non-able-bodied person ever made the focus of anything in a television series; maybe I'm watching the wrong series.

Also consider that walking a few blocks unassisted down the street is perhaps a meaningful challenge for her character. This puts us in a political/ moral territory - we are, in essence, walking in her shoes, or at least alongside her. While said recap blogger may not have found her journey particularly moving or meaningful, you would imagine that anyone watching who was NOT able bodied would find the scene quite remarkable and rich. While there is cruelty in it - there is no attempt to sweep racism, ablism, or any other human evil under the rug in Deadwood -  ultimately the scene serves a very  moral end indeed.

You'll wonder - unless you're a big Facts of Life fan, maybe - if the actress really is, as she appears, non-able bodied herself. It would almost be offensive if she were not, the equivalent of having someone in blackface play an African American. But fear not, Geri Jewell, the actress, indeed has cerebral palsy. She is, I gather, a motivational speaker, and talks about her involvement in the series here. That's a very moving and interesting clip, where she talks about how the character came to be named after the actress, and how she helped develop her own character in correspondence with David Milch. It gets even more interesting when you discover that Jewell is queer, and may have written her character as such (see the link above - she talks about Jewel being "friends" with Calamity Jane, another remarkable character in the series, one who trashes gender norms left and right). I'm only now discovering that Jewell came out as gay in a memoir called I'm Walking as Straight as I Can, punning not only on the word "straight" but also on the title I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can, but suffice it to say, this is an interesting woman playing an interesting character, representing two groups that are under-represented, except in the tritest of terms, on television.

And Ricky Jay gets to write all these scenes. There are great lines throughout the episode - as when Swearengen inquires of Jewel as to her purpose for visiting Doc, and she retorts, sarcastically, "I'm knocked up." There are also turns of vulgarity that put Quentin Tarantino to shame ("hey, you suck my dick and shut the fuck up, huh," Al says at one point, in what is possibly the greatest ever filmed monologue delivered by a character receiving head). There are also scenes with the mentally infirm Reverend Smith (played by Ray McKinnon) that go beyond the normal bounds of TV. As his brain degenerates under a tumour, Rev. Smith gives an impassioned sermon to a steer in the street about circumcision and the law ("if thou art a transgressor of the law, thy circumcision becomes uncircumcision"). He could practically be reciting Artaud, or perhaps mad Nietzsche embracing whipped horses in the street. Jay's compassion for Jewel, and Reverend Smith, and his ideas about the way racism functions in Deadwood (the town, not the series) may seem a little on-the-nose at times - I can see someone of more reactionary blood finding the episode too "politically correct," or something - until you consider how truly rich, radical, and intelligent the writing is, regardless. It may not be entirely subtle - but hell, neither was Shakespeare; this is, after all, drama.   

...and so it goes. Overall the episode develops a half-dozen neglected characters, brings to fruition several important themes, and seems to have a wonderfully developed idea of human psychology behind it, as no one, whatever their point of view, is presented as stupid or incorrect; everyone has their own angle, their own perspective, their own reason for doing what they do, and they all express themselves quite eloquently, showing the breadth of Jay's understanding of their characters. It really s like watching really great theatre - the characters drive the episode, with dialogue as their principal tool. It's the key episode of the first season of Deadwood and the one that will hook you so deeply that you will have to watch Seasons Two and Three hard after, whether you've seen the series before or not; it will definitely whet your appetite for the "more" that is "to come."

So: with the film in production, it's a great time to return to this town, to contemplate its ideas and re-familiarize yourself with its themes, characters, and delicious profanity. There's a lot more I could say, but I have things to do, people to be, and anything I do remark upon further threatens to take away from your (re) discovering it yourself, so I'll shut up. The screenplay for the episode is online here, if you're curious. Personally, I would just stop everything and find Season One, Episode One and get started. Hell, if time permits, I may even watch Episode Eleven a second time.

Rest in Peace, Ricky Jay, and thanks.

Therefore, if thy uncircumcision keeps the, uh the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be count for circumcision? Yea, the uncircumcision that is by nature fulfilling his law shall judge thee, who by by letter and uh circumcision transgresses the law.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Bob Mould in April

Might not be too much of me online for awhile - I have some Bev Davies stuff to do, but my next big gesture is probably going to be Bob Mould in April. I am excited about that show. I have become quite fond of how happy and well-adjusted Bob Mould seems, and am discovering that I may actually have grown out of Zen Arcade a little myself (I still love it, but not the way I did when I was a younger man; it is, really, a younger man's music). 

Anyhow, I'm looking forward to speaking to him, if it happens, and to seeing him again, this time in trio form.

Meantime, the new Big Takeover has articles on DOA (parts of which were previously previewed here, though most of it has not previously seen print) and my interview with Brother JT (actually, the majority of that is below, not too far back, but people who enjoyed that, or enjoy his music, might want to read the magazine, as well). 

Be well - I won't be around much.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

BIson at the Astoria, 2018

Man, that was a nice change: I actually went out to a gig last night! Did a fun little interview earlier in the week with James of Bison - a kind of ridiculous one, on my part, actually, but I have interviewed this band many, many times, so I just tried to have some fun with it. I arrived early enough to see both opening acts (Teeth to Your Throat and Pet Blessings), both of whom were enjoyable - though I had a Lee Child Reacher novel signed out on a one-week loan from the library, already two days overdue, that I wanted to finish, so I sat off to the side and read while they were on (sorry, guys)... which prompted some odd conversation from people passing me by on the way to the men's room: look, that dude is reading a book! I hope he's not a spy... But rest assured that I put away the book for Bison.

And what a fun set it was! It turns out the little "alcove" in the centre of the stage kinda protects you from the mosh pit, so there I was, front and centre, with my recently acquired Huawei cell phone, which has a kinda awesome camera in it. I restrained myself for the most part but eventually broke down and took some photos, then shot a video for the final song (unless they did an encore, but if they did, it was after I had to go catch the Skytrain). Was fun to say hello to James and Dan, who, at this point, know me a bit, and even more fun to see Eugene of Black Wizard at the kit. I miss Matt Wood - I hope he's all right, and that whatever "personal journey" he's on, as James put it, isn't taking him through too many dark places - but thought Eugene was a really great replacement, actually. He more or less follows Matt's bouncy, minimal style - at least compared to Brad's Keith-Moon-y fills - but he visually evokes Pipefitter of Hard Core Logo a little bit, compared to the obvious Animal of Matt. I will let the photos speak for itself, but I am kind of happy with the video, too... my legs are a bit stiff from the standing but it was totally worth it.

Shane's new haircut totally suits him, whattaya think?