Friday, July 26, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: on track... Blue Öyster Cult every album every song, by Jacob Holm Lupo

[Note: written quickly and amply distracted, without adequate proofreading! Forgive me my imperfections, okay?]

I noticed the above book mentioned on the Blue Öyster Cult homepage, got excited, and eventually ordered it. It's going to take me awhile to really get around to reviewing it, below, but let me give you a hint where it's going: now that I have the book in front of me, and have read a few sections, I'm less excited by it than I was when I ordered it, and kinda bummed that this is the case.

Let me say, the desire to read it in the first place relates to the thought that I might someday write about the Blue Öyster Cult. This may not happen, because of several contingencies, from limited freetime to a sense of journalistic responsibility, which makes the project seem somewhat daunting. Part of the trouble is that the Blue Öyster Cult have already been written about a-plenty. For blogpieces like this, it is less of a big deal, but if I were going to actually talk to the band, I feel like I should at least read Martin Popoff's book about them (I have not, as yet, tho' am currently expecting it in my mailbox). I want to ask them questions that either a) they aren't sick of ("who is Susie?" Actually, I might ask that regardless) or b) the answers to which are not so widely known ("how was "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" recorded, for example, is one I would give a pass on asking, great as that song is, because there's plenty of information out there, even the original demo). It's all a lot of work, prepping for a "real" interview, y'know - even if there's a whole lot I don't really care to talk to the band about; what I'm interested in mostly is specific details about specific songs that I've wondered about since I was a kid, which just might be the sort of thing that they haven't been over-asked about, anyhow.

For example, take the Albert Bouchard composition "Monsters," maybe the hardest rocking, most entertaining track on Cultosaurus Erectus, with unexpectedly jazzy inserts and some of their hookiest-ever guitar riffs. As strong as the music is, for me, for this song, it's the lyrics that are the main draw: the story, as I read it, involves a group of bad guys and one bad girl who take off from earth in a rocketship. One of them, Joe, falls in love with the girl - but this doesn't play out so well, since the rest of the guys, maybe jealous of him, decide to "have her" - whether or not she consents is unclear, but there seems at least the possibility that this is a gang rape. As this is going on, Joe bursts into the room (having awoken "from a stupor," perhaps having been doped by his friends) and kills, not the other guys, but the girl, presumably because he blames her more than his friends.

There's a dozen things I'd like to know about this song. It relates to songs like "Transmaniacon MC," sung from the point of view of an imaginary evil biker gang, who represent the evil energies that emerged out of the Altamont concert, in that it is told from the point of view of the bad guys - and the very worst of the bad guys, the (presumed) rapists in the song. So where does the band's romanticization of criminals come from? Was there an actual story that this song was inspired by? Is it a rape, or an orgy, that Joe interrupts? Is there any non-coincidental aspect to the brother of the author of the song being also named Joe? If that makes the band the bad guys, who is - or was - Pasha? Is the band taking the point of view of the bad guys to criticize them - the song does describe the characters as "monsters," or at the very least as having monsters in their minds - but what about the band's apparent attraction to these characters?

It's all over "This Ain't the Summer of Love," too, which suggests a strong antipathy to the more naive or utopian elements of hippie culture, even if there's an interesting contradiction between that and the band's origins, with the Soft White Underbelly and the Stalk-Forrest Group, both of which are more heavily tinged to acid rock and psych-folk, with the latter even getting compared by some people to early Grateful Dead. Of course, that fits with the whole trajectory of what emerged from the 1960's culture, with music getting darker and heavier, but does the science fiction/ futuristic element of "Monsters" suggest that the band thinks that these things cannot ever be improved? Do they have a fairly dark vision of humanity's future - a world of overcrowding, pollution and starvation, with humanity, having learned nothing, only (like the characters in this song) setting off to new worlds to spread their evil further afield?

Now, that's all stuff I might ask Albert Bouchard, if I had his ear, except he's only one of the band's songwriters (and isn't even a regular member of the band anymore, to my understanding, though I gather he's continued to appear with them now and then over the years). So already we're talking about doing two, not one, interviews, which increases my workload and makes my deciding to make the time to do this less likely. And the questions I have for other members, like Buck Dharma, say, are equally involved. For example, in "The Last Days of May," I want to know exactly who the different characters are in the song. There's actually a helpful quote on Wikipedia that describes the story that inspired the song, about two of the songwriter's schoolmates, who were killed in a drug deal gone bad, with Buck taking the details from a newspaper account:
Three Stony Brook students went to Tuscon, Arizona, to buy some bulk marijuana for resale. I don’t know how they got whatever contact they had, but it was two brothers – scions from one of the better-to-do families in Tuscon. They never intended to sell them any pot. They just wanted to rip 'em off and shoot 'em, which they did. They took them out to the desert and shot them. It was three guys, and one managed to survive and get back to the highway... [taken, I believe, from this article]. 
There is some confusion among interpreters of this song out there (even I had things wrong about it, it seems). I've read people say that the song is about betrayal - that one of the three boys kills his friends and takes the money. Even without knowing Buck's explanation for the tune, above, people who read the song this way are failing to do the math. There are "three good buddies" going to make the deal. When the murder in the song takes place, it is "three boys' blood" that is spilled (no mention is made in describing the act that one of the boys apparently lived, which complicates things a little, but it doesn't take a math degree to sort this out). It is therefore someone else in the car who commits the crime. It makes sense there would be two guys in the front seat, as Buck's story confirms, since the killer has to "turn" to kill the three boys, presumably in the back seat. If one of the boys had been in the front seat, no turning would happen. So clearly, these people are connected to the drug deal, telling the boys they'll take them to the sellers but instead killing them and pocketing the drug money for themselves.

So who is the singer of the song, exactly? Is it one of the killers, or could it be the survivor, or could it be Buck himself, reading the story and having feelings about it, as he switches to a first person narration of someone who is about to leave town, inviting another to come along - since "they say the west is nice this time of year." There's some really evocative possibilities in these images, if you pay attention to them and let your mind go with it a bit. At one point, having learned in an English Lit class that "the west" - where the sun sets - is sometimes a symbol in literature of death - I wondered if the singer was inviting the listener to die with him [which I kind of take as being the subtle, creepy subtext of "(Don't Fear) the Reaper]," but that seems less than likely now; it seems more likely there's just a desire on the part of a criminal, either the killer of the boys or his accomplice, to leave town, maybe (like in "Pancho and Lefty" by Townes van Zandt) with the money he's gotten from his bad deed ("where he got the bread to go, there ain't nobody knows"). It would be interesting to note if Buck sees this as a metaphor for colonialism, for the settlement of the west - if he feels that, maybe, we could expand the narrative outwards a bit to connect it to how the west was "won" by hustlers and murderers and criminals fleeing justice, kind of Deadwood-like.

That reading depends on one particular version of the song, mind you, where the singer is the killer; I don't think it's possible to know that, since the last verse is so ambiguous, but that's part of the beauty of the song: by being a bit fuzzy on this detail, we are forced to contemplate all the possibilities. And so once again, we have to contemplate a pretty dark vision of humanity here, a song that could possibly be sung by a murderer, about a crime he profited from, but who is less filled with remorse or anguish over what he's done, so much as he is filled with a desire to get away, forget it, put it behind him, and have a nice life somewhere else. (I guess the guitar solos are kind of mournful, but maybe they're more about mourning that life goes on, regardless and indifferent, rather than that this crime has taken place...?).

Meanwhile, if the point of view is that of the survivor of the crime, the idea of suicide could emerge as a manifestation of survivor's guilt... "the others are already there" seems to take in the dead....

I could go on. There's five or ten other Blue Öyster Cult songs whose lyrics I'd love to try to go into such detail with with their authors, to find out where the inspirations come from, to clarify exactly who does what, in these stories, and why, and to see what sort of worldview emerges. It's consistently one, I suspect, where death and crime and horror lurk all the time, only semi-acknowledged, at the fringes of life, where people do awful things, but we're left to our own devices to imagine exactly WHAT these awful things were; where people may have a bad conscience about their actions, may even consider themselves "monsters," but carry on no less. All of that - the psychology and philosophy behind these stories - is in fact even more interesting than the whole Imaginos mythos that I explored a few posts back, though obviously there are points of intersection (like, obviously, the fact that this rather dark worldview isn't all that dissimilar from Lovecraft's - or, in terms of identifying with the bad guys, that "ME 262" identifies with a WWII Luftwaffe fighter pilot, flying as a mission over England to drop bombs. That song improbably is one of the most celebratory and boogie-ing of BÖC tunes, practically revelling in its tale in what should be understood as an act of carefree transgression. I can barely begin to fit in my head how the song works as a commentary on rock'n'roll itself; plus it is even more complicated by singer Eric Bloom being Jewish...)

Anyhow, with all these questions and not much likelihood that I'm going to write about the band outside a few pieces like this, I was excited to see, mentioned on the official Blue Öyster Cult page, that there was a book, on track... Blue Öyster Cult every album, every song, by Jacob Holm Lupo (the capitalization is a bit odd there but I'm following the cover of the book). Maybe Lupo would have done his homework and get into such questions for me? The book purports to be a blow-by-blow of the circumstances under which the recordings were made, what happens musically, and what the lyrics are about...

Now, I have not read the entire book, and I've enjoyed some of what I've read. The author gives an interesting introduction, gives information I did not know about the album's backstories, and peppers the book with quotes, often from rock magazines but sometimes from his own interviews, about the albums. There is stuff I still look forward to reading in the book, especially what I gather will be a fairly lengthy treatment of Imaginos; Holm-Lupo does know the Cult's backstory quite well, so realizes just how important Pearlman's Soft Doctrines are (which I myself didn't until fairly recently, I confess). Some of what I've already shown myself to be interested in may in fact be treated in passages I have not read. But - who can blame me? My pattern of reading so far has seen me flipping from song to song, in pursuits of the answers to the questions I have asked, rather than working from cover to cover.

... And that's why I can't really give the book the enthusiastic review I'd hoped to give. Understand: this isn't a review copy I was sent. I didn't sleaze my way into a copy, since I didn't know for sure what would come of it; I just bought the book, because it sounded interesting and a nice consolation prize for not interviewing the band. (It's also a fun way to whet my appetite for seeing them live again, come August 18th at Ambleside). I paid about $30 Cdn to get it mailed to me. I was not objective; I was invested, and thus really wanted to enjoy it.

This frees me to be honest and say, sadly, I don't think the book is going to be very useful to me. It does do, it seems, a good job of giving a backstory to the recording sessions; it also does a fine job describing the music. But lyrically - I've read the stories behind ten or so songs now, hoping that some of the sorts of interests I mention above would be addressed, and every single time I am disappointed. "Monsters" is maybe the worst cop-out yet: after a stellar description of the musicianship, Holm-Lupo writes of the story that "it's not exactly clear what the narrative is, but space travel is a definite element" (p.77).

As for "The Last Days of May," he only notes the idea that one person kills two others, without really delving into any of the theories above, and again apparently failing to do the math.

I mean, I could go on. I know nothing more about "ETI" or "ME 262" than I did before I read his sections on them, for example. "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" gets a bit into the romanticism of the song - the belief that love can transcend death, which is pleasant to contemplate, and backed by a quote from Buck - but doesn't touch on that creepy undercurrent at all, of who is singing this song to whom, and why? (I believe Stephen King has written about the possibility the song deals with a man seducing a woman into a suicide pact, which is always where I've gone with it; no mention of that concept occurs in the section on that song, though).

There is probably still a lot of good to be had from reading the book, if you're more interested in backstory and music than lyrics. Holm-Lupo (himself a musician, I gather, his own band being Norwegian prog act White Willow) excels at describing the composition, recording, structure and style of the songs, and does so at a  level I would find very difficult or impossible to approach. But that's just not what I bought the book for; I can hear the music myself, and am not as interested in having it described for me, even though I'm impressed at the facility which he does this. I'm just personally more interested in songs as acts of meaning-making, storytelling, and so forth - still have inside me the 13 year old kid who was reading Milton by day in high school and rock lyric sheets at home at night, who still has questions burning in him.

All of which means, I guess, that how much you'll value the book depends more on where you're coming at it from. If you want to read about Donald Roeser's guitar solos, there's some nice language here. There's also an extended consideration of albums either deemed failures (Club Ninja, Imaginos) and a welcome, respectful, and at times very enthusiastic treatment of the band's two previous studio albums, which badly need to be reissued and heard again, Heaven Forbid and Curse of the Hidden Mirror.  I think he undervalues a couple songs, but whatever. I do believe Holm-Lupo has been, as the blurb says, "Norway's no. 1 Blue Öyster Cult fan." I just would encourage him to maybe dig a bit deeper into his treatment of the lyrics in the future...?

Anyhow, it will keep me busy til the Popoff arrives, and I'm going to be glad to have not one but TWO books by this band on my shelf...

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Split Image revisited: cults, cult deprogramming, and mind control

Kind of crazy that Split Image isn't available on Blu-Ray. It's one of Ted Kotcheff's most interesting accomplishments, up there with Wake in Fright and First Blood, and it's one of the reasons I am impressed, so far, with the films offered by Amazon Prime, since it's a film I never expected to find there. I'm still not so big a fan of streaming that I wouldn't rather have a physical copy of the film, but it was only ever released on home media, as far as I know, on VHS tape; there is a DVD of it sold on eBay but I suspect it's a bootleg of some sort - probably a VHS rip, since the art is identical to one of the past VHS releases of the film. That's not the case with the Amazon Prime version, which is a high-def widescreen presentation (which is not the case with all their films, note; I was briefly excited to see they had Night Creature, a British horror film with Donald Pleasence as a hunter battling a big cat, because the public domain DVD is unwatchable, only to discover that the version on Prime is just another version of that same crappy-quality vid. On the other hand, their Creature from Black Lake appears to be a big improvement on the public domain versions of that film, so you kinda gotta go case-by-case with them).

Anyhow... the thing that's most interesting about Split Image is that it sheds a light on a phenomenon that has gone, somewhat, out of vogue: cult deprogramming, which itself is based on a premise that is equally out of vogue, the idea of mind control/ brainwashing. (These are Wikipedia links, folks, but have some interesting information and external links for further research if you want; they seem fairly well-written and informative pages, actually). The film purports to show a young man (played by Michael O'Keefe, a terrific actor who is still around, but who I don't recall having had many roles to equal this one) being manipulated, somewhat less-than-believably, into joining a cult. Kotcheff presents some elements of the process in a way that seem quite plausible - how he gets sucked in by a pretty girl, for example - likeably and believably played by Karen Allen, of Raiders of the Lost Ark fame - and sets out for what he thinks is a harmless weekend trip, from which he ends up not returning (until he is kidnapped by deprogrammers, that is). He's always portrayed as a critically-minded, irreverant, perceptive young man, so the latter phases of the transformation, where he appears to eventually just let go of his cfaculties and become a robotic, wide-eyed flower-seller, get a bit harder to buy into; I wonder if Ticket to Heaven - the other great "cult indoctrination" film of the 1980's - is equally hard to swallow, now? (By the by, that's a Youtube link to the full film).

... but returning to Split Image: James Woods - who I'm guessing is inspired by Ted Patrick, though he's the wrong colour - plays the deprogrammer in the film, with all the sleazy, sweaty vitality of Woods at his peak; its maybe my favourite role of his. He's hired by the kid's parents (played by Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Ashley) to "break" the grip that the cult leader (Peter Fonda!) has on their son. Some of the film is really interesting - like the rather confrontational, somewhat unexpected critique Woods offers of the spiritual bankruptcy of the average American family, which is what, he says, let the boy fall victim to the religious movement in the film; there's a lot of angry finger-pointing in the film, and some of it is at the kid's parents... But some of it has aged poorly, albeit in interesting ways. The film really, really works the idea, for example, that there is some sort of almost unnatural hold of Fonda's character on the cult members, but that it can be broken with the right sort of techniques. These are the same ideas that eventually, in the real world, led to actual deprogrammers like Patrick getting arrested and sued, and which led to the movement of deprogramming kind of fading away (which may help explain why films as interesting as Split Image and Ticket to Heaven have all but disappeared from public view; they're based in concepts now considered discredited).

The thing is, if the idea of cult deprogramming is based in a too-simple, 1980's view of "mind control," that doesn't mean that more malign religious movements out there don't have a creepy, weird hold on their members. (I won't bother pointing fingers, but examples are easy enough to come by). It just probably isn't as simple as the picture painted by films like Split Image, and probably does involve a lot more complicity on the part of those who have been "brainwashed." My understanding of the whole idea of "brainwashing" is that it arose in part as an excuse/ defense for confessing US troops captured by Communists - to say nothing of Patty Hearst; they weren't responsible for what they were doing, because someone else was in control of their minds; I don't think real life cult members will find themselves so easy to absolve, which probably makes real life "exit counselling" a far more complex and challenging thing than what we see Woods doing in this film. This, oddly, is where the film is most interesting, in what it reveals about how we thought of these issues back then; the thing that has aged most poorly about the movie is the thing that kinda makes it worth seeing now.

(Though James Woods is pretty damn fun in this, too).

I'm working full-time these days, so I may not be writing as much as I had been for awhile there (you will not likely see a review of Creature from Black Lake, for example, a silly bigfoot film that remains a true guilty-pleasure of my childhood that I am keen to revisit ASAP in a nice transfer. I will even spare my wife this film). But incidentally, while I have the attention of maybe a dozen people (!), two of the best under-the-radar local punk bands, storc and Invasives, are opening a just-announced show at CBDB's on Friday (it had been announced at short notice for the Rickshaw but has been changed). If you haven't seen Invasives, they're kind of the unofficial heirs of Nomeansno (while sounding little like them). 

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

And also: Under the Silver Lake (with a brief shill for Amazon Prime streaming service)

I signed up for a free trial of Amazon Prime earlier this month, thinking I would try it. I blame John Sayles: I was told by someone in his company, Anarchist's Convention, in response to an inquiry, that his rather terrific film City of Hope was available via Amazon Prime (it is, but only in the USA). Having signed up - only to discover the film I wanted to see was not available through Amazon Canada - I set out to seeing which other hard-to-find films (besides obvious exclusive series like Bosch and The Man in the High Castle) they had.

My list, so far (none of which I have yet watched): Split Image, Ted Kotcheff's no-longer-relevant but I suspect still very entertaining 1982 cult deprogramming movie, which features my favourite ever role from James Woods; David Mamet's Things Change, which seems to be out of print on DVD, which I've wanted to revisit for some time, to show Erika a real Joe Mantegna role (she only knows Criminal Minds); The Royal Hunt of the Sun, which I know little about, save that it is about the encounter between Spanish explorers and Incas, that it came out at a time when such films tended to be interesting (1969), and that it is based on a play by the person who wrote Equus and (less importantly to me) Amadeus. Also, it stars Robert Shaw and Christopher Plummer. Plummer I don't care about much - he's fine, and I intend him no disrespect (and I really enjoyed him in Egoyan's Remember, which is the best Egoyan I've seen in a long time) but, you know, when he was in the running for an Oscar against Max von Sydow, I was cheering for Max; and between Jaws and The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 - the original film, that is - I'll watch Robert Shaw in anything. There's also an Amicus anthology horror film I've never seen, The House That Dripped Blood, the art for which disturbed me mightily as a child when glimpsed in Warren Magazine ads (or did it make a cover of Famous Monsters?). I believe it's out there on Blu-Ray these days, but Blu-Rays tend to cost $40 or so, for anything but the most commercial titles, so I'd much rather see it for free (ditto some of the Argentos on Prime, or DOA: A Rite of Passage, about the Sex Pistols' US tour).

However, first things first: Under the Silver Lake, the new film by the director of It Follows,  David Robert Mitchell. I knew little of the film save that it has a small role for David Yow, and I'm still fascinated by Yow (and working on writing about him), so it had to be seen. Turns out it's kinda great. A leisurely, longish mindfuck with knowing winks at everything from Like a Velvet Glove Cast In Iron - in the form of a certain REM song - to the mystique of the number 23 to hidden messages in pop songs (including an attempt to find backmasking, which resembles nothing we ever actually did back in the 1980's) to voyeurism and surveillance to Alfred Hitchcock, whose tombstone briefly appears, the film reminds you of other surreal Hollywood meta-cinema like Mulholland Drive, but it has a smirk and a wink and a fairly goofy sense of fun, once you settle in. It took awhile to win my trust, but as absurdities ratcheted up, and the film took on a dreamlike quality, I found myself laughing aloud at times (though it's not exactly a comedy). Andrew Garfield reminded me of Anthony Perkins throughout, and David Yow got to yell a question to the effect of, "Why are you carrying dog biscuits?" which is a fun thing to have him yell. Overall I recommend it - and think it would make a fun double bill with Refn's The Neon Demon, though the two films have little in common save a metacinematic look at Hollywood - but see it with an open or altered mind, and don't strive too hard to figure out what it all means; think of it as a sort of dream, and let it flow through you. That's what I'd do.

Oh, and there's a skunk in it. Erika and I like skunks a lot (though I suspect this skunk is basically just a set up for a patchouli joke, later in the movie).

There's probably other stuff I care about on Amazon Prime (which, by the way, is presently the only way to see Under the Silver Lake, as far as I know). But the best thing about it is that it is now Chromecast friendly (it wasn't when I first signed up, so I'm pleased: you don't have to watch everything on your computer or phone or what-have-you, as long as you're using Chromecast, which is a handy gadget indeed for putting Vimeo and Youtube vids and other stuff on your screen from your phone).

So there's plenty to see on Amazon Prime - probably more than you can fit in to the one month free trial, but for any of you with ambivalences about doing biz with Amazon - you surely don't object to getting FREE STUFF from them, do you? So, like, check it out. (Hell, I may stay subscribed for a bit, at least until there's nothing more I really care about that I want to see).

Note meta-joke, below: it's Andrew Garfield in Under the Silver Lake, holding up a Spider Man comic!

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Another yes vote: Crawl

I like Alexandre Aja, generally. From the intelligent absurdity of High Tension to his very entertaining, big-budget ghost story Mirrors; from the misanthropic dark humour of his remake of Piranha to the straight-up horror of his remake of The Hills Have Eyes - which is the best damned big-budget remake of the original film imaginable - he's approached his craft with devotion to straightforward, image-based storytelling and a fairly knowing understanding of what horror fans find satisfying. I haven't loved all his films equally - Horns didn't do much for me, say - but I consider him a filmmaker to watch. He's not my favourite contemporary horror filmmaker - I'm not even sure I have a favourite contemporary horror filmmaker at present - but he takes his job seriously, and understands what it is, so I'll basically watch anything he does.

...And, you know, I like movies where people have to fight off marauding animals. There's a real primal satisfaction to it, which was hinted at in my interview with Dr. Carin Bondar a few weeks ago; there's also an oddly sadomasochistic pleasure in watching people getting eaten in horror movies - especially by animals. (I'm not a huge follower of cannibal cinema but I can both take sadistic pleasure in seeing someone get eaten by an animal and masochistic pleasure in the fact that I identify with the species being eaten; maybe there's some sort of tit-for-tat sense of justice that I experience as a failed vegetarian?).

So: Crawl. Crawl is great. Crawl attempts to do absolutely nothing with its story beside tell it; there's no attempt to politicize it, to moralize, to attain a deeper understanding of anything. It does what all the best survival horror movies do: it sets up its premise and plays it out, with plenty of scares and a fair bit of chewing of people, and otherwise stays out of its own way. It's alligators are, probably, all CGI - the film was shot in Serbia, and I don't think they have a lot of 'gators there - but they look good and behave quite a bit like real alligators. The story is simplicity itself: a woman, worried about her father, drives to his home in the midst of a hurricane in Florida to try to locate him. He's stuck under the house with an injury. There are, it develops, alligators coming in on the floodwaters. The two must find a way to fend off the 'gators and rescue themselves from the flood.

That's basically it. There's a little bit of character development, involving her ambitions as a swimmer and her father's past role as her coach, but no more than is needed for an effective genre film. You don't come away discussing subtext; you just enjoy seeing the story play out. It is not quite on the same level with Greg McLean's terrific Australian killer croc film Rogue, but it's damn near close. About the only caveat I'd offer is that there is a LOT of water in this film; since it's also fairly scary and stressful, you would be well advised not to drink liquid for an hour before it begins, and visit the bathroom before you go into the theatre, because otherwise your bladder will be fit to burst by the end.

That's it, that's all I have to say. If you like survival horror/ animal attack movies, or if you happen to be a big Barry Pepper fan, see it (I didn't know the female lead, Kaya Scodelario, though I gather she acted in that recent Berlinger Ted Bundy film, as well. I think that role required a bit more of her, in terms of conveying emotions other than, say, different flavours of terror). Both Midsommar and Crawl have made this a pretty good summer for horror movies, so far...

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Two yes votes: Midsommar and Lords of Chaos

Midsommar is one of an increasingly large number of movies that attempt to take stock of Paganism and neo-Paganism, showing that the idealised, sanitized contemporary version of the lives of Pagans, such as that represented by a lot of the airier "New Age bookstore" versions of Wicca, covers up (or leaves out) some fairly dark and disturbing practices. Telling a story of young Americans visiting a European "commune" that practices the old ways, it joins The Wicker Man, Apostle, Left Bank, and a fair number of movies and TV series about Vikings as a compelling, gritty take on ancient European customs (one of which is the ingestion of magic mushrooms, so it's also fairly trippy at times); but even though it is a horror movie with connection to these films and some identifiable genre elements, it doesn't necessarily end as you might expect. In fact, it may have something else going on under the surface that is suspect and misogynist- there is a little bit of a "devouring vagina" theme that lurks, especially if you count, say, the shape carved into a particular animal carcass of import to the film's climax.  I liked Misommar better than Hereditary, which also has compelling and interesting elements, but belongs to a horror genre that I have little interest in, involving the desire of the Devil for progeny; I wasn't sure that Hereditary amounted to anything on first viewing, gripping as it was, and I haven't looked at it since.  Both films are directed by Ari Aster, who is emerging as a real name to watch...

Lords of Chaos is also very interesting. I've read the expanded/ revised version of the book from which it takes the title, which also tells the tale of murderous, church-burning, and evil goings on as part of the early Norwegian Black Metal scene. I enjoyed the film. I gather that Varg Vikernes has disputed its content, and complained that the actor cast to play him is Jewish. I can't speak to "what actually happened," but this is a well-made, provocative film, which makes fairly unlikable people understandable and interesting (none moreso than Euronymous, who gets to narrate, despite what happens to him). Like Midsommar - maybe even moreso - it has some upsetting violence in it (to be specific, the most vicious stabbing murders I've seen onscreen since I watched van Bebber's Manson movie). People worried that the film trivializes and/or sensationalizes its subject matter need not be. Even Erika, my wife, found it interesting, and she doesn't care at all about black metal (she did have to cover her eyes during some of the murders, though).

All I have time to write, but see these movies!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Bands not included in lists about bands not included in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame: more on the Blue Oyster Cult

I couldn't give a damn about the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. I have seen no indication ever that their votes are anything but a popularity contest, run by people without very interesting tastes in, or historical knowledge of, rock music. So the commenter on the previous post who noted the Blue Oyster Cult's "criminal lack of inclusion" in that institution doesn't really move me much. It's kinda like griping that John Cassavetes never won an Oscar: it presumes Oscars do or should mean something, that Cassavetes somehow needs their validation to be as great as he is. But the best rock music doesn't get played on the radio, ever, either. So what?

That said, here are some lists by people who are, apparently, real music lovers, griping about bands not included in the rock'n'roll hall of fame, who have some other, ideal version of that institution in mind. To my surprise, the Blue Oyster Cult is not on every list!

The first I found has some good mentions - it starts strong. The New York Dolls, the MC5, and Motorhead all deserve inclusion in this better-than-the-real-one Hall of Fame (somewhere below the Blue Oyster Cult, though - and apologies, folks; I'm not bothering to include the umlaut this time out, not for the BOC, not for Motorhead). Probably Iron Maiden and/or Judas Priest deserve mention. Sammy Hagar and the Doobie Brothers sort of call the author's taste into question, however, and, I mean, Soundgarden? They're fun - I like Soundgarden, at least up to and including Badmotorfinger - but if we're talking about a list of bands who have made truly enormous contributions to the world of rock... I mean, I dunno. I'm a TAD man, myself - and my Eight Way Santa can beat up your Louder Than Love with it's eyes closed (and ears ringing) - but I'm not going to lobby for TAD, so I'm hardly gonna go to bat for Soundgarden (no offense, folks).

Anyhow, whoever wrote that list should be spanked for not mentioning the BOC. So should Consequence of Sound, who fail to notice the Blue Oyster Cult on Jeff Ament's shirt of bands not in the Hall (he wore it onstage during Pearl Jam's induction, and by the way, if I have my doubts about Soundgarden...). The Blue Oyster Cult's name is right there, on the middle right of the shirt, pictured above the article! It's not on CoS's (augmented) transcription, however. There are some good mentions on that list, as well - X, Thin Lizzy, King Crimson... but there are also some awful bands represented. I mean, I guess Def Leppard has fans, but I never could stand them (except for one time when I was much younger and watching Basic Instinct in a movie theatre, totally stoned: this fascinating music came on, and I was really getting into it until the vocals kicked in and I realized what it was. Still, that's more about the drugs than Def Leppard, who manifest all the most boring tendencies of arena rock in one band, and then crank it up a bit).

It's interesting to note that Consequence of Sound's 2019 article on the 20 worst Hall of Fame snubs - which weirdly includes John Coltrane on the list - also doesn't mention the BOC. Is it a conspiracy to ignore the band, or an honest oversight? It starts to seem like the former.

Similarly,'s article on the 100 biggest omissions also omits the BOC.

It's not all bad. The website Not in Hall of Fame does finally include the Blue Oyster Cult, but in 74th place on their list. Sadly, the caption, while saying that the band deserves to be remembered for more than a Saturday Night Live skit, doesn't actually mention anything else about them besides that skit! (By the way, I've never seen the SNL thing. Means nothing to me, tho' I flinch at the thought that when they play "Don't Fear the Reaper," there will be cries from the audience of "More Cowbell!"). Loudwire does better, though they're obviously focusing on metal-related music (and also mention Slayer, who deserve it for influence and longevity).

Mostly what you see, perusing these lists, tho', is people lobbying for their pet favourites. Occasionally a consensus artist emerges, people everyone agrees on needing an obvious induction (Brian Eno, for example) if the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame is to have any validity whatsoever. Personally, for me, the Blue Oyster Cult is one such obvious choice, but (obviously) others disagree.

If you do agree, may I point out that there's a Facebook group, Blue Oyster Cult Needs to Be in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, that you can join? I am all for the Rock'n'Roll Hall of fame inducting the BOC. Given that they have a new album coming up, maybe 2020 would be a good year to do it?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Strange Dream of David M.

David M. entered my dreams for the first time last night.

I don't fully remember why, but there had been discussion of my love of Indian food, and there may have been a holiday coming up. Or I might have been going to prison? In any event, he gave me a garbage bag full of something as a gift, and when I opened it, it turned out to be hundreds of freshly made naan, packaged in bundles of five: vastly more naan than I can fit in my freezer, but (apparently) home-cooked by M.

M. does not make naan, but that was my dream. I was showing the naan to Erika when I woke up. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

A Blue Öyster Cult Rabbithole: one fan's journey through Imaginos and beyond

Blue Öyster Cult by bev davies, taken at the Pacific Coliseum, August 22nd, 1982; not to be reused without permission

I never liked the Blue Öyster Cult's 1988 album, Imaginos, back in the day.

I had been, since I was a teenager, a fan of the Blue Öyster Cult, and saw them in 1982 at the Pacific Coliseum at a gig that I would later learn was attended by both bev davies and Cal Thompson from the Little Guitar Army, who has described it as a seminal moment in his rock fandom. I think it was an important gig for a few people, and it was one of my very first gigs I went to unaccompanied; I would have been age 14.

Their first three studio albums – from their 1972 self-titled debut through to Secret Treaties – were familiar to me at that point, I think, and remain to this day one of my favourite three-album runs in the history of hard rock.

It’s an even more impressive streak of brilliance if you include their prior incarnations, the Stalk-Forrest Group or Soft White Underbelly. The former, the immediate precursor to the BÖC, has been the subject of official reissues in recent years, while demos from the Soft White Underbelly – an acid-rock band with two different singers, pre-Eric Bloom, and a different bassist – have surfaced and circulated online, begging for a remastering and official release. (As a side-note: in the process of getting Bev to dig up that 1982 photo of Allen Lanier and Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser, I discovered she actually had seen the Soft White Underbelly, billed with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and Country Joe and the Fish, on February 2nd, 1968, about a month before I was born... Alas, she did not take photos of that gig!).

There are moments of brilliance through the rest of their 1970’s catalogue, too, including, obviously “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Godzilla.” But their 1980’s output –after their excellent 1980 album Cultosaurus Erectus - took some work to come to terms with.

There was plenty of able popcraft on 1981’s Fire of Unknown Origin – maybe their most successful attempt to present a “commercial” rock record, with their last hit single (“Burnin’ for You”), and one creepy science fiction dirge (“Veteranof the Psychic Wars,” with lyrics by Michael Moorcock).

But there were also songs, even there, that I struggled with. For one thing, the title track sounds like it’s designed for the disco. And while I personally enjoyed the divisive “Joan Crawford” – especially live, where, as I recall, keyboardist Allen Lanier tricked it up with a lengthy Gothic organ solo – it’s a pretty trivial confection, coming from a band who had written a song as magnificently rockin’ as “ME 262”.

It got harder, too, to stay with the band through the 1980’s. The Revolution By Night was even more uneven, despite a strong lead single, “Take Me Away” – which is a little heavy on the Aldo Nova influence, but how can you not like a rock anthem about wishing extraterrestrials would abduct you?

1985’s Club Ninja was more challenging still. I quite like “White Flags,” the opening cut, but for the most part, the album sounds like an untried 80’s hard rock band, making something quite generic; some of the songs aren’t even written by the band! It sounds better now than it did at the time, but I still remember my horror and disappointment when I popped the cassette into my Walkman. Albert Bouchard and Allen Lanier had both jumped ship by that point, and I didn’t blame them.

With Club Ninja, it seemed to me like the Blue Öyster Cult I had known and loved was gone, never to return. (I read now that the internal turmoil in the band was so severe that they actually broke up, briefly, in 1986).

I remember that I was positively thrilled, in 1988, when I learned that they were releasing an album designed to hearken back to their roots – a concept album based around the writings of Sandy Pearlman, and revisiting classic songs like “Subhuman” – re-recorded as “Blue Öyster Cult” and “Astronomy” (with a Stephen King introduction for the singleversion!) It seemed like the band knew they had lost direction with Club Ninja, and were righting the course. I rushed out to buy Imaginos as soon as I could – initially, again, on cassette.

And I just didn’t get it. It doesn’t sound very much like the Blue Öyster Cult, for one thing... which makes sense when you read about it; it was actually a side-project from Pearlman and drummer Albert Bouchard, who initially sang the lead vocals. His demo version of it is online, and may actually make more sense than the eventual BÖC release, since a) you won't be weirded out by it not sounding like a band that it isn't; and b) the songs are in the correct sequence, so you can better follow the narrative. 

You can read about the whole troubled production of the album on its unusually informative and interesting Wikipedia page.

Best of all on that page, you get a glimpse into the conspiracy theories behind the album, based in unpublished writings by Pearlman, The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos, which serve as a sort of decoder ring for much of the underlying mythology of the BÖC, including their name (personally I always thought their name was a punning injunction to “be occult,” though other theories are out there).

That mythology stretches back even as far as Soft White Underbelly songs; delving into it, you discover that things you had previously figured it wasn’t worth trying to make sense of, in Blue Öyster Cult lyrics, actually do have a coherent (if weird) explanation.

Pearlman, apparently – the band’s manager and a key lyricist during their early years - had toyed with the idea that much of 20th century history, including the two world wars, were the result of the manipulations of secret, occult societies, versed in alchemy, and led by a group of seven “invisibles” – possibly of extraterrestrial origin, and the basis of the song, “Les Invisibles.” If you get over the cavernous, generic-hard-rock sound, that's actually a really interesting bit of songwriting. I'm finding myself glad (in the absence of a new album) to have material by the band to revisit, and I must say, I find going back to Imaginos ultimately more rewarding and enjoyable than some of their canonical albums, like Spectres. (I have long since reclaimed and fallen in love with Heaven Forbid and Curse of the Hidden Mirror, of course).

It 1988, it was,however, just too much work for me to try to make sense of it all – to say nothing of the presence of Baron von Frankenstein - just so I could appreciate an album that, at the time, I didn’t much like the sound of. It wasn't that I disliked it - it seemed ambitious and interesting; I was just into other things at the moment and not prepared to make the investment; if it had sounded like Tyranny and Mutation, maybe, but...

And it’s not like the band made it easy to get at the underlying narrative, either. As I suggest above, the storyline of the album - not the demos, but the official 1988 band release - is presented non-sequentially, so unless you read the extensive liner notes, you don’t really have much hope of making sense of things.

If you’re also struggling to do just that, there is plenty of helpful material to chew on online about Imaginos, including articles (discovered and pointed out to me by Adrian Mack) on the VISUP blog that attempt to do justice to The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos and the more esoteric ideas of Sandy Pearlman.

This is the must-read, the real rabbithole, the font of "things to think about" that will get any fan excited to go back to Imaginos. Part one of the series – “The Soft Doctrines of Memphis Sam” - is online here; part two here the third here; the fourth here; and the fifth and final chapter here. It's a bit of work, but Blue Öyster Cult fans who, like me, have not come to terms, previously, with Imaginos, or who know nothing of these “soft doctrines,” will find themselves plunged into a very deep rabbithole that will shed light on all sorts of things BÖC-related (no doubt also including some out-there conspiracy theories and sheer speculation; I mean, what story that links alchemy and occultism with extraterrestrials and Nazis is not going to have those elements?)

Sadly, back in the 80’s, I’m not the only one who didn’t “get it.” Imaginos was a commercial failure, and led to the Blue Öyster Cult being dropped by Columbia.

That’s a very sad thing, because the BÖC has made two excellent, rich albums since, 1998’s Heaven Forbid (check out, say, “Real World” ) and 2001’s Curse of the Hidden Mirror (the high point of which is probably the Lovecraftian epic “The Old Gods Return,” with lyrics from science fiction writer John Shirley). Both are out of print, and without Columbia’s muscle behind them, went unheard by all but diehard fans - a real shame, since Eric Bloom has indicated that the commercial failure of those two albums led the band to sort of decide there was no point in recording anything new.

However, the story goes - almost 20 years since their last studio LP - that the Blue Öyster Cult has a new album coming out (perhaps in 2020?), along with several slated reissues. They certainly have a local show upcoming (at Ambleside on August 18th). If you’re diligent, you might just be able to read the whole story of Imaginos by that time. None of that album appears on the band’s recent setlists, but if you delve into the backstory, you’ll have a whole new appreciation of one of the most interesting hard rock bands of all time. See their official site for more.

Live clips I've watched on Youtube suggest the band is in fantastic form these days; check out "The Last Days of May," live in 2011, if you haven't already seen it.

I am so excited to see this band live again - 37 years and four days since the last time I saw them! It's kind of hard to believe... 

Friday, July 12, 2019

Of Kaiju, Robin Williams' suicide, and the cinema of Vincent Ward

Personally, I would rather an interesting but flawed film than a perfectly-made, empty bit of idiocy.

I went, for instance - somewhat against my better instincts, caving in to curiosity - to see the new Godzilla film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the other week. It's flawless in terms of craftsmanship. The special effects are terrific, and, while I'm not really a fan of the sort of smoky, red pallet that cloaks everything, no one could say it was poorly photographed. I'm sure the performances are fine, too - though I have begun to forget the details already. I recall that I spent a distractingly long amount of time wrestling over whether the lead actress was Sarah Michelle Gellar or Maggie Gyllenhaal, to discover to my embarrassment that she was actually Vera Farmiga (whom I liked in Source Code but haven't seen so often onscreen), and I always like to watch Charles Dance, based on a lasting fondness for his pre-Hollywood work in such films as White Mischief. (There's even a connection with the filmmaker I'm actually going to write about, as soon as I finish this preamble). Hell, I even kinda like Kyle Chandler; he's the perfect leading man for a big-budget sci-fi/ horror film (witness also Super 8), and it isn't his fault if it happens that he has only been in one film I enjoyed (Peter Jackson's 2005 version of King Kong, probably the last film of the summer-blockbuster type that I was really, really entertained by; Kong: Skull Island was also okay, mind you - but nothing particularly great).

The problem with Godzilla: King of the Monsters was not the craftsmanship: it was the utter and complete lack of ideas or passion. It attempts nothing. It's interested in nothing. It has no real ideas at its core. There is nothing special or outstanding about it that sets it above, say, Pacific Rim, or the previous American Godzilla film, or any other vast, empty spectacle that exists so people without a thing in their heads can gorge themselves on explosions and monsters and excitement. Of course, I'm not actually a huge fan of the original franchise of Godzilla movies, after the first one, and I'm sure this new film might be different to an actual student of kaiju - but there seemed pretty much nothing to care about in this reboot at all, for me. Even as a non-kaiju fan, I bet I could find 100 more interesting things to think about, and derive 100 more enjoyment-units of enjoyment from, say, watching War of the Gargantuas, which is also not exactly a film for intellectuals (I'm picking it as an example of truly bottom-drawer kaiju action, in fact). I would, I am sure, feel less like I wasted my time.

Damn, now I want to see War of the Gargantuas again. (It really upset me at age 10 or so when one of' 'em picked up the poor terrified lady and popped her whole in his mouth and chewed her up. I had watched a lot of kaiju movies, and probably even Harryhausen dinosaur movies - including ones where dinosaurs eat people - by the time I saw it, but the "chewing up the woman" scene just seemed so damned nasty and sadistic by comparison - maybe because the Gargantua in question seemed more human like than the reptiles in those films - that it counted as maybe the fourth most traumatizing childhood movie experience I've had, after a) the Flying Monkeys from the Wizard of Oz (at age 5 or 6, with my parents, who had to remove me from the theatre - the Stardust! - because I was crying so hard in terror of what would happen to Dorothy at the hands of those fucking... flying... monkeys); b) Ida Lupino being attacked by maggots in The Food of the Gods (filmed on Bowen Island!); and c) the TV trailer, late at night, for Larry Cohen's It's Alive.

(RIP Larry Cohen. You dyin' made me really wish I'd written a certain article last year - because I briefly had a window where I might have interacted with you, and I didn't. Thanks for Q, particularly, and for whatever the hell effect that It's Alive trailer had on me as a child. You were also an interesting filmmaker of imperfect cinema, although very different from Vincent Ward.)

But I digress.

To return to the main point (or arrive at it for the first time, really) as is emphatically not the case with Godzilla: King of the Monsters, there is a TON to care about in the films of Vincent Ward, even if, the further into Hollywood he gets, the less perfectly his ideas make it onto the screen. His best films by far (not counting his documentaries or his small-budget first feature, which I have not seen) are his first two big-budget features, Vigil - a pagan coming of age movie about a young girl growing up in a misty, green, romanticized version of New Zealand, with landscapes that will remind you more of the early films of Werner Herzog than the shorn rolling hills the English settlers created in that country to make it seem like back home (and provide pastureland for sheep); and The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, a fantasy about a small band of emissaries from a plague-ridden village who make an unusual pilgrimage into the modern day, hoping to save their people with an entreaty to the Gods, as laid out by a child in his dreams. (The whole main adventure in the film is sort of contained within an "it was all a dream" frame, but one of the most unusual and interesting such frames ever employed; no idea what it means, but it's utterly unique). I saw that film about five times, theatrically, back when it was first run here, where it was clunkily befitted - in an early example, I believe, of Miramax meddling/ dumbing-down -  with an idiotic opening subtitle, so idiots in the theatre would know what they were watching.

Vigil (pictured above) and The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (pictured below) are Ward's two perfect films. They are also screening this July at the Vancity Theatre (click the titles for event listings).

Alas, because of those two films, Hollywood noticed Vincent Ward. I'm not sure how Ward feels about his 1990's output; both the features that he managed to direct, Map of the Human Heart and What Dreams May Come (which features an appearance by Werner Herzog!) are ambitious, idea-rich, and full of stunning, striking imagery - they're both really interesting films! But you also kind of want to read between their lines a tale of strife and frustration on Ward's part; I know nothing of what he went through, but it's very easy to imagine, when the films get excessively melodramatic, cute, or seem structurally less-than-perfect, that it's due to the demands of producers saying that this scene should be there, or needs to be shorter, or so forth (I know very little about their production history but you kinda develop a nose for these things). Only about 85% of either film really seems to work, as I recall, but you end up disinclined to blame the 15% that doesn't on Ward, because you suspect it's not fully his vision you're seeing on the screen.

Map of the Human Heart - which connects the dots between life in an Inuit village, a residential school in Quebec, and bombing runs over Germany in World War II, while also finding time for a love story and a betrayal - needs to be about an hour longer to not feel rushed. It tries for vastly more than it is able to fully accomplish, giving it a dizzying effect; I would be unsurprised to learn that there's a three hour cut out there, somewhere, that no one has ever seen.

What Dreams May Come - well, it's been a long time since I've tried that film, but considering its visions of heaven as an impressionist painting, and its casting Max von Sydow as a Charon-type boatman, it must have made at least a few missteps that I've avoided visiting it for years. It's adapted from a novel by Richard Matheson, and not produced by Miramax, maybe because of whatever experiences Ward had with them in his previous work...? I don't have vivid recollection of why I found it a flawed film, but it is very, very possible that it suffers from "Robin Williams syndrome," being made at a time when it seemed impossible for anyone to reign in Williams and make him give a disciplined performance. At least the film isn't marked by his apparent desire to take off his pants and caper about naked, as he does in The Fisher King - which is the one film I've seen from the period that almost crafts a story that can contain and channel the intensity of Williams' exhibitionistic excess.

Both films are ambitious and respectable attempts to do something magnificent, even if they don't ultimately live up to their immense potential.

Of course, the last time I saw What Dreams May Come, Robin Williams was still alive. I am somewhat afraid to revisit this film, which deals in part with suicide, for the emotions it may bring up. I do not fully understand Robin Williams' decision to kill himself, am saddened by it, and at the same time reluctant to invite his films deeply back into my life. (I actually kind of understood Henry  Rollins' reaction - almost an angry one, though I was also glad Rollins apologized for it later; save for one very deliberate viewing of The Fisher King, I don't believe I have watched a single film of Williams' since his suicide, which I have not yet found a place for. It is weird to deal with grief for someone you did not actually know, but whom you knew, in part thanks to his exhibitionistic streak, so damned much about!).

We also probably owe much that is interesting about Alien 3 to Vincent Ward, as well, since he was the director to begin developing the project - which, by the by, is the Charles Dance connection mentioned above. Ward, for reasons I forget, was eventually removed from that film, and replaced by a novice director (which must have stung, at least until that novice - David Fincher - proved himself to also be a singularly talented filmmaker in his own right, even though, compared to Ward, he is the lesser artist. Maybe the better craftsman, but the lesser artist).

Sadly, Ward's later career, since he left the bigger budgets of Hollywood, has been less than prolific in terms of film, amounting, since What Dreams May Come, to a documentary and only one fictional feature (an interesting Maori adventure called River Queen, starring Samantha Morton and Fear the Walking Dead's Cliff Curtis; it won't be screening at the Vancity). It's telling that that feature saw him returning to his native New Zealand; one kind of assumes Hollywood is now behind him (which is probably for the best, really, since his New Zealand years were his best years - but it would be great if he was still making movies!). Ward is truly a visionary filmmaker, very unique, trying to do vastly more with cinema than almost any other filmmaker to command a big budget in North America. People with an interest in storytelling, in myth, in film as a sort of mystical experience should seek his films out. What's really remarkable about his Hollywood years is not that Miramax or whomever managed to leave their money-man-slime-trail on portions of the films, but that so much of his idiosyncratic, striking vision actually DOES make it onto the screen. Maybe that's a better way of looking at it.

So kudos to the Vancity for programming these films. Also, if you haven't seen it (and aren't working Monday, since it's an afternoon screening) Tom Charity will be presenting on the superb space-race film The Right Stuff, as part of their Film Studies series. Personally, I don't really give a damn about rocketships, and for me, the words "land speed record" are a reference to Husker Du, but even still, I found this a gripping film, and the cast is great (I mean, Sam Shepard? Ed Harris? Fred Ward? Lance Henriksen? VERONICA CARTWRIGHT!???!... are ALL IN THE SAME MOVIE.. with apologies to Scott Glenn and Scott Paulin and Dennis Quaid and Barbara Hershey and other fine actors who are also in it too...). The film proves that something can be perfectly made AND interesting at the same time, which contemporary Hollywood could learn a real lesson from.

So there's some good stuff happening at the Vancity in July! (And a lot of stuff I know nothing about; The Serengeti Rules sounds interesting!).

Also, if you didn't read my Straight piece with Carin Bondar, about the Nerd Nite series, do so, and watch the links... That event has passed, but the article has penises in it, and there will be other Nerd Nites in the future!

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Bullfrog on my shoulder: a dream

In the dream, I am living, again, in downtown Vancouver, albeit in an area I have never actually lived in, down by where Richards on Richards was, somewhere on the northern margins of Yaletown, hear Davie. It is raining, in the dream, and I am taking a walk down Richards Street - there is an earlier part of the dream involving the effects of the ongoing storm, but I have forgotten it - and suddenly am surprised to see an enormous bullfrog leap from the street onto the sidewalk (by "enormous," I should say, it is still in the realm of actual bullfrog-size, not some Harryhausen-sized monster frog). I chase it for half a block, hoping to catch it, but not for my own selfish pleasures: I am worried that it will get smushed by a car (as frequently happened in Japan, when I lived there: bullfrogs - a ubiquitously invasive species - would come out onto the sidewalks during the intense, semi-tropical bouts of rain, and I would see the evidence in the saddest of ways, finding flattened bullfrog carcasses on the road on my ride to work. Saw a turtle that way, once, too, and would periodically get off my three wheeled granny bike to investigate its corpse in stages of decay). The bullfrog can jump too fast, too far, however, and it soon is clear that I will never catch it this way. None of the other pedestrians appear interested, but at some point, the bullfrog gets turned around, reacting to people walking towards it, and starts coming back my way, which I observe; I get to one knee and make friendly gestures and sounds at the bullfrog, in the hopes that it will come to me, realizing that I mean it no harm.

(...I realize as I type this that this part of the dream may have been informed by watching a small Asian girl playing with her two pet chinchillas in the schoolyard outside our window the other day. They also would never have been caught if they hadn't wanted to be).

The bullfrog actually does come up to me, to my surprise, and soon I have the bullfrog on my shoulder, walking down Richards and turning right on Davie. I take some selfies of myself, thus, as I walk down the street, like some pirate who couldn't afford a parrot; I may even shoot a little video. I'm going to meet my wife on Davie Street, and I figure that I can try to find some water where I can safely deposit my froggy friend (because in the dream, False Creek has morphed into the Fraser River and has fresh water, which is where I presume the frog has come from). I explain my intentions, and am surprised to see that the bullfrog actually seems to understand me; we may actually be communicating a bit! I get to the area I'm going to, and set the bullfrog down in a quiet area, near a brick wall, telling it I will return and that it should wait for me - I need to interact with people a bit, and it will be easier for me to do this without a bullfrog on my shoulder.

 I see a pub I want to go into, maybe to scope out the back "yard," in case there is river access. There isn't, but there is a small, fenced-in lawn (because apparently businesses on Davie Street have lawns and yards in back!), and I see that there is a pond in the far corner of said yard. Okay! I find the owners - there are two people in a side room, shooting pool - and explain my desire to put a bullfrog in their pond. They seem amenable, so I go back out and discover that Erika has arrived.

We talk a bit - I excitedly explain about the bullfrog. There is part of the dream here that relates to something forgotten, something that didn't make it into my waking life, where we see potatoes I'd abandoned previously on a grassy hillside, because they'd gotten damaged by the storm, and I ask Erika if I should try to keep some of them, but on investigation we see that they're deformed and weird potatoes, the skins broken, potato-flesh bulging out, and she confirms that they were worth throwing out. I'm not sure what that part was about, though I do briefly wonder if the potatoes will sprout roots and there will be potatoes on Davie Street (I believe my sleeping brain here conflates Davie Street with a part of rural Maple Ridge, the dikes off Laity Street, where I did once, as a teen, catch a bullfrog, about which there is a long story, involving my sock and underwear drawer... I took Erika for a walk in that area awhile back. There was also a compost pile in Maple Ridge where as an even younger child I discovered that "wild" potatoes were growing from scraps that had been thrown there, some of which I brought home to my parents. It doesn't really fit with the rest of the narrative).

Anyhow - I bring Erika to the pub to wait for me, and go out to find the bullfrog. I go to the wall where I'd left it (and here, Davie Street actually returns to resembling Davie Street a bit), and find I cannot see the bullfrog anywhere. I had left it at eye level, on a ledge, or perhaps clinging to the wall, in a way I doubt a real bullfrog could do. But eventually I look down, and there it is! I pick up the bullfrog and we "converse" a bit, me explaining that I have found a pond for it. The bullfrog may actually be able to speak back - I'm a bit foggy on this detail. I place the bullfrog on my shoulder and go back into the pub, where I announce to Erika and the pub owners that I have found the bullfrog -

- and am greeted by weird looks and laughter, and briefly catch an image of myself from without: the bullfrog is, in fact, part of ME, and when "it" speaks, it is with MY TONGUE. I am confused: is the bullfrog hiding in my throat? (I do have a bit of a cold - a "frog in my throat" - in reality, though it seems unlikely my sleeping brain would concoct so elaborate a metaphor for this). In fact, it seems that the bullfrog was me all the time, that it was a delusional manifestation of something from within. Erika is marvelling at my strangeness through this, but she is being kind about it. I scroll back through my photographs and there is, in fact, no frog; I am unsettled by the thought that I was the bullfrog all along, that the bullfrog was merely a projection of something inside me. But what? What does the bullfrog represent?

I wake up at 3:40 AM, needing to pee, contemplating the symbolism of my dream bullfrog. I attempt to go back to bed, but I am too focused on not forgetting this marvelous, strange dream, and within half an hour, I'm back out of bed and typing this.

Everyone's got something to hide except for me and my bullfrog.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Diabolique! (Or, Les Diaboliques!) and other goodies at the Cinematheque

There's some great stuff happening at the Cinematheque over the next while. Tonight, there's a new restoration of a very well-regarded Czech science fiction film, Ikarie XB 1, also known as Voyage to the End of the Universe, which seems very well-paired with Claire Denis' first venture into SF, High Life. I haven't seen that film, but loved Ms. Denis' previous venture into English language genre cinema, Trouble Every Day (which is only partially in English). 

I love the Cinematheque's summer program, actually: they know on the one hand that to get people who are not diehard arthouse junkies out to the movies in the summer is not easy, but they also know that the megaplexes are stuffed to the brim with comic book adaptations and other noisy blockbusters, leaving people with a love for real cinema gasping like fish on the beach. Focusing on genre films that are respected by movie-lovers, but have a high level of pulp pleasure to them - like their yearly noir program - is a very, very smart move, solving both problems at once. (And yay for them for playing two films in their noir series that were directed by Ida Lupino, The Bigamist and The Hitch-Hiker; both are excellent).

The idea of playing films that straddle the worlds of highbrow and lowbrow was previously discussed by myself and Donald Brackett in regard to the "High and Low: From Pulp to Poetry" program he curated, which is still ongoing. Four new titles have been added to that series: Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows (which features a Miles Davis soundtrack, if I recall); Orson Welles' Touch of Evil - which I hope I need not say much about); Hitchcock's Vertigo - a film I've had some trouble with over the years but which currently holds the #1 spot in the BFI list of the top 100 films of all time - and, most excitingly for me, Henri Georges Clouzot's Diabolique, or Les Diaboliques. One of my favourite thrillers, and far better in the French, black and white original than in the later American remake, it involves two women who are brought together in the act of murder - which has unforseen consequences. It's worth seeing without knowing anything more about it, should you be lucky enough to fit that description. That screens this Thursday, Friday, and next Monday, so I'm not giving you a lot of notice, but if you  haven't seen this film (or haven't seen it on the screen), it's a must-see.

There's lots else to be excited about this summer. For people who like noir and French cinema, for example, there's a potent August retrospective of the films of Jean Pierre Melville, including my favourite of his movies, Le Cercle Rouge (which I believe Bruce Sweeney tipped me to when I interviewed him about The Crimes of Mike Recket; thanks, Mr. Sweeney!). I've been thinking about playing Erika Army of Shadows, too, since we've enjoyed a couple of French resistance films lately. I love it when the Cinematheque's agenda and mine overlap...

All told there's some great film fare coming up at the Cinematheque over the next few months - films that will entertain AND nourish the soul. Nicely done, people!