Friday, January 28, 2022

Peter Bogdanovich mini-retrospective at the VIFC

I didn't post much here about the passing of Peter Bogdanovich, but I have greatly enjoyed some of his films - Targets and Saint Jack, especially - though there are some I have yet to get to. But I have owned a book of his, have enjoyed his contributions to documentaries I saw him pop up in, and generally thought him an intelligent, articulate cineaste. When Erika suggested an ascot to cover my tracheostomy scar, it was Bogdanovich who flickered to mind. He leaves a sizeable hole in film culture and will be missed, to be sure.

While no one booked Targets - a film I bet really could use a nice digital restoration - three of Peter Bogdanovich's films will be popping up at the Vancouver International Film Centre (formerly the Vancity Theatre) starting this Sunday: the bleak, black-and-white, early-period Jeff Bridges/ Cybill Shepherd film The Last Picture Show, the frenetic, Hawks-inspired screwball comedy, What's Up Doc, and, indeed, Saint Jack - an adaptation of a Paul Theroux novel, always sorta seeming to me to be Bogdanovich's tropical relocation/ continuation of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, with Gazzara as a likeable American opportunist in Singapore who gets involved in pimping. That's the one I'm most excited to see theatrically - best thing Ben Gazzara ever did without Cassavetes, by far, of the Gazzara's I've seen... I've seen a lot of Gazzara's...

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Nightmare Alley reactions/ review

(the first edition of Nigthmare Alley)

I finally saw Guillermo del Toro's Nightmare Alley today. I am not upset I did, but I must say, I was much more excited about the film before I saw it; and once I was actually seeing it, I was more excited to be seeing it before it reached its midpoint. Generally a bad thing, though it is not necessarily del Toro's fault, as this sort of mid-point lag in enthusiasm is something that happens often with me with commercial films. I often have higher hopes for them than they end up meeting, and I almost always prefer setups to resolutions, since it is in the resolution that the clunkiest manipulations invariably occur, to compensate for any flaws in the setup. (Alternately, in the event of a flawless setup, the resolution is where a film can start to just feel like the inevitable, clockwork culminations of what has gone before). Setups almost always feel fresh; resolutions almost always feel a little bit like letdowns. They're also a signifier that the film is coming to a close, which is a bummer, since it means the good times are drawing to a close, too!

Anyhow, like I say, it might not be entirely del Toro's fault, but it seems like these feelings - dissatisfaction with the second half, a sense that the film is less than I hoped - apply more than usual to the movie I just watched...

Briefly, if you don't know it, the story of Nightmare Alley - first told in novel form by William Lindsay Gresham and adapted into a film noir, both of which came out in the late 1940s - is that of an ambitious young grifter, a hustler with a troubled childhood who becomes first a carny, and then eventually a successful mentalist (a professional psychic) before his demons (or just desserts) catch up with him. Even though he has a trusting young female assistant he professes to love, he hooks up with a sinister, femme fatale psychiatrist (psychologist?) who gives him access to client information, so he can really pull a deep swindle on the local rich and powerful; one of these swindles turns bad - it isn't much of a spoiler for me to say it, as you can see it coming from afar. Then there is a settling of accounts between the femme fatale and the protagonist. The bookends are also particularly significant: the book begins with the main character observing a degraded alcoholic being used in a geek show, and ends - I guess this must count as a spoiler - with the protagonist signing up, broken, to himself become a geek, the weight of his past failures having proven too much to bear. It's sort of a fatalistic, "character-is-destiny" story, at least as del Toro tells it - which sort of is much more emphasized in the book, which (for instance) names each chapter for one of the major arcana in Tarot - like the story itself is a Tarot reading for the main character/ reader/ all of us.

Before I get to picking at why the film does not entirely live up to the promise of that very interesting-seeming story, let's show del Toro some respect. Akin to Peter Jackson, he has earned a place in mainstream cinema with some very striking films, and while I am not actually a fan of most of them, I love a couple of them (Mimic and Hellboy) enough that I still go see each of his new movies, and often my reaction to them involves respect and admiration - Pan's Labyrinth won both from me - even where it doesn't necessarily ultimately include enjoyment or enthusiasm (I still don't know what I really make of that film, and have still only ever watched it once, first run, which is also true of basically every other del Toro film, except Mimic and Hellboy - and Hellboy II, actually. Otherwise I've just never wanted to re-watch any of his movies, tho' I certainly have liked aspects of all of them - maybe Pacific Rim least of all, but...)

Then, besides his actual movies, and better than them, are the CHOICES behind them, the choices of what to make and why, which I applaud. Like, I didn't care very much about The Shape of Water, first time out, and also haven't tried it a second time - it is the del Toro I am most likely to revisit one of these days - but I also do feel like, because of it, a whole generation of young moviegoers know and care about The Creature from the Black Lagoon who had no reason to before. Yay for that - as a big Creature fan, I love that lots of people DID like that film even if I didn't (and love Abe Sapien, too!) - but it's also not just about consequences: regardless of the effect he had, I respect and honour his desire to MAKE an homage to The Creature from the Black Lagoon in the first place - even if he was picking that film purely selfishly, as an expression of his own love for that movie, without a single thought for influencing young movie goers, preserving the past of horror cinema, or enhancing popular film culture, I approve. He's picking very good things to love, things worthy of being passed down/ revitalized/ revisited/ repackaged/ resold to us. I don't want to seem like an ingrate! 

And indeed, Nightmare Alley (the book AND the original film) is a very good thing to love, a choice that speaks well of him as a filmmaker which also will have good effects on cinemagoers learning about this story for the first time. And there is some magical stuff in the first half of del Toro's Nightmare Alley, evoking the world of the carnival. There is a scene where the geek gets lose, and Willem Dafoe (as his keeper) and Bradley Cooper (the main character, here a novice to the carnival) go hunting for him with flashlights in the rain, which is a feat of production design, pacing, and camerawork, especially as the chase ends up in an amazingly-designed "Damnation"-themed carnival ride, one of those Geisterbahn-type things that Billy Hopeless is so fond of, where you sit in an automated cart and go through a series of displays designed to scare you, monsters popping up and so forth. This sequence looks great, and is, I would guess, the stuff that drew del Toro to the story (tho' as with the film's Tarot references, there is probably more to be made, thematically, of that particular ride than del Toro accomplishes; potent as it is visually, the thematic resonance seems to fall a bit short). There is also a memorably ugly chicken-geeking, a striking double-jointed dance from the Snake Man, and much else to keep your eyes happy in the film's first half. And while I eventually overdosed on the star power in the film, as I discovered that every single face of a main character was familiar except Mark Povenelli, the Major, I consistently enjoy watching the work of Ron Perlman, Toni Colette, David Strathairn, Willem Dafoe, and even Arthur from Peaky Blinders, Paul Anderson - who was actually unrecognizable as the geek!

What else did I like about the film? There are a couple of moments where Bradley Cooper actually seems well-cast. When he hustles a sheriff - Jim Beaver, whom you will recognize from various long-form TV shows he's done, including Deadwood - into not shutting down the carnival, you believe the glitter in his eyes, his inward delight at being able to pull one over on someone so thoroughly. Cooper is generally well-suited to playing a con artist, and I am predisposed to like him, having greatly enjoyed him in The Midnight Meat Train, Limitless and even in Joe Carnahan's idiotically entertaining A-Team feature (an unlikely recommendation from me, but there it is. They fly a tank!).

Mostly though, to talk about Cooper in this film, I have to switch gears and talk about the bad of Nightmare Alley, because the film never really gets to recover from the fact that COOPER IS TOO OLD FOR THE ROLE. Certainly in the first half of the film - where he begins as "the Fool" in the Tarot, at least in the book - its clear just from the context of the film that this is supposed to be a much younger man, someone maybe in his 20's or 30's, starting out his (fool's) journey. Cooper is 47 - maybe 46 when the film was being shot  - and looks every year of it. It's like having Mel Gibson play Hamlet (a forgotten film, but it actually happened - and critics complained about Mel being too old for the role, though he was only 34 at the time); it's just not credible casting, and the film makes no effort to make him look younger - he doesn't even shave off his trademark stubble. Because of this fundamental mistake, you never really buy into this as being the arc of someone's life, which is my impression is sorta what you're supposed to do; which means it fails to resonate on the archetypal level, Cooper's progress from being The Fool to The Hanged Man; in fact, not enough is made of the Fool, considering the Cooper-character is so strongly identified with him in the book, when we first meet him.

...And as I say, I also wore out on the starpower. Cate Blanchett I was prepared for - playing the role less as a human and more as an archetype - but it started to feel, as new cast members turned up, like we were in the grips some sort of weird, showoffy egomania on del Toro's part ("YOU WILL RECOGNIZE EVERY FACE IN MY MOVIE! LOOK HOW MANY ACTORS WILL COME TO WORK WITH ME! KNEEL BEFORE ME IN AWE, MWAH HAH HAAAA!"). It's not that I minded the cast, and I'm am truly glad that Mary Steenburgen, Peter MacNeill, Richard Jenkins, Tim Blake Nelson and Holt McCallany are appearing in a high-profile, at least half-good, semi-successful film, because they are all actors I like and respect - but most major films have two or three familiar faces in them at best. When you recognize everyone in the film - it's kind of like having cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, if you see what I mean.  It also guarantees that there are very few fresh discoveries to be had.

(Oh, and can the next filmmaker to use him maybe see what Holt looks like in a non-Mindhunter haircut? It is a cool haircut but it's getting to be a Bronson moustache, and someone needs to Indian Runner him, so you don't suddenly feel like the movie you are watching is about to turn into an FBI profiler story)

The other annoyance for me is that - tho' I have not finished Gresham's novel - I noticed that there were a few scenes where information essential to a bit of dialogue got thinned out to the point of compromising the scene/ scuttling the meaning. Take, for example, when Willem Dafoe explains to Cooper how to get a man to geek. According to the book, the trick is to find a "one bottle a day alcoholic," promise him booze, then give him a temporary job "faking" geekery; he won't have to actually bite the heads off any chickens, tell him - they'll hide some razorblades on him so he can make it look good and bloody. As long as he is doing the temporary job, you give him his bottle a day, but eventually you tell him you need to find a real geek, someone who will actually do the biting. Faced with the loss of his bottle and bed and security, "he'll geek." 

Now, the screenwriters do add a couple of interesting details to this - changing the one-bottle-a-day drunk to a two-bottle-a-day drunk, I guess since ideas of how bad addiction can be have progressed since the 1940s, and suggesting that you add a drop of tincture of opium to the bottle you give the geek every day. Those are welcome additions, making the whole processes of training a man to geek seem that much more cruel and cunning. But making sense of the scene ABSOLUTELY requires that you understand the difference between real geeking (with your teeth) and faking it (with razorblades): AND THIS CRUCIAL BIT OF INFORMATION IS LEFT OUT. Willem Dafoe has a line about "fake geeks," but there's no explanation of what faking it might entail, no mention of the razorblade cheat, so you're left puzzled by the scene. Scenes of explanation should not, ideally, leave you puzzled. And as a result of this obvious, if tiny, bit of dialogue misfire, later, when I got confused by other exchanges in the film, feeling like I'd missed something - it's a feeling that comes up a few times - I wondered if it was for precisely the same reason: something essential being left out at the writing phase...? 

Finally: I have no great knowledge about del Toro, but you start to think his ambition is to be the Douglas Sirk of horror - like he's been watching all these Todd Haynes films that mimic a distant cinematic sense of craft and colour, and is trying to do the same thing, developing a signature "eye." I have nothing wrong with that, per se - and though I didn't much care for The Shape of Water, I did like how it looked, a look which fit the material. But the second half of Nightmare Alley asks us to invest in a very short time period in some fairly complex, unusual characters (Cate Blanchett's, Richard Jenkins'), and to take us down some fairly emotionally tortured roads, and it started to feel like del Toro was lacking in getting us to buy into them - not really even trying all that hard, maybe because his idea of cinema is more about images and editing and camerawork and less about character and dialogue and emotional truth (you know Mojo Nixon's declamation that Michael J. Fox has no Elvis in him? Guillermo del Toro has zero Cassavetes). He proceeds from image to image, uniformly beautiful and aesthetically loaded, following the classic rhythms of Hollywood, and I just sort of glazed over, not entering ANY of it as much as I wanted to, floating with the filmmaker on the surface of things. The carnival half of the film offers us a visually interesting world, so it befits a visually-oriented filmmaker, but the last half of the film requires us to feel ensnared by the psychology of the characters, both gripped and horrified. There were a couple of moments that worked - Mary Steenburgen's big scene is pretty great - but more often than not, I had no idea why the characters did what they did or how I was supposed to feel about it. Why does Cate betray Bradley, again, after co-operating with him? Just to amuse herself? Is she really just a femme fatale stereotype with no need for deeper character motivations? And why was it that Bradley had poisoned Pete? We only learn about it late in the film, though it is set up early; but he had seemed to love the guy, so it ends up more puzzling than satisfying, the explanation kind of buried so you don't make too much of it. Strangest of all, I cannot in the slightest recall what happens to Rooney Mara in the film. The young girl that Cooper seduces into his conman's life is a main character, so we should feel something when her storyline ends, but for the life of me I can't recall how that happens: does she leave him? Does he kill her? It's startling to me that such a major development in a story left no imprint at all upon my memory; it feels like if I were properly invested in the character, I would remember what happened to her.

And not only does the character motivation get a bit obscured by the seamless progress from image to image, the rather relentlessly-paced, formulaic ending also seems not to do justice to the profundities of the story; there's no space to pause and wonder what any of this means for ourselves - just the clutch of image-propelled narrative, paced like any of a billion Hollywood films, which kind of keeps the film from realizing its most profound implications... am I the fool? Do I deserve a life of geekery? What role was I born to play? You feel like the story is meant to leave you contemplating these questions, but instead, you'll likely walk out of the theatre like you've seen a Marvel movie, asking no questions whatsoever. Something feels lacking in that. It's too rich (and too dark) a source text to not leave you more troubled by its implications. 

In the end, I am glad that Guillermo del Toro made Nightmare Alley, but mostly so that a whole new generation might discover the book and/or the original version of the film (I'm told it is better, but I wanted to see the del Toro first, so...). I did like parts of the film, but I left wishing I'd liked it a whole lot more. I gather it is being re-released in black and white, but I don't think that that's going to fix any of the issues at all...

Saturday, January 22, 2022

My Shopping Problem, #1: What to do with myself?

Okay, so: I shop too much. I have been shopping too much for quite awhile. Leaving movies alone - I got a couple of those too - this last week, I've purchased the following records and CDs:

Frank Zappa: One Size Fits All, Lumpy Gravy, Chunga's Revenge, Freak Out, You Are What You Is, Zoot Allures, Cruising with Ruben and the Jets

Warren Zevon: 1st s/t album, Bad Luck Streak at Dancing School

Shriekback: Care, Jam Science, Oil and Gold

The Jam: In the City, All Mod Cons, Sound Affects

Andy Partridge: My Failed Songwriting Career vol. 1 (EP)

Andy Partridge with Robyn Hitchcock: Planet England 10"

The Ramones: Too Tough to Die (CD only, sadly, but spinning now, and with a ton of bonus demos, etc).

The Velvet Underground: The Scepter Sessions

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts: I Love Rock'n'Roll, even for me, that's an excessive list of records for one week's shopping. Yes, $100 was paid for on a gift card my coworkers sent me with a Get Well Soon card. Yes, many of these items were second-hand. Yes, I am sort of running at limited capacity at the moment, recovering from my surgery, and really appreciate the extra entertainment, since I am spending a LOT of time at home, not working, seldom going out. But I can see why Erika - who wants us to be saving for a house - is concerned about my consumption, especially since, while the above is a rather excessive week of record-buying... it's not UNPRECEDENTED, you dig? (I also periodically sell big chunks of my collection, but Erika has figured out that that is just a phase in the overall pattern of acquiring stuff, where I am basically just making room and money for more record-shopping).

The problem is: I want to go outside. Waking up this morning, reclining in the bed while the cat pawed at me - Erika off visiting family - I realized that I have quite a bit of energy and a strong desire to interact with the world outside my walls - to chat with people, to do social things in a social space. But what social spaces are available to me, other than stores? Who do I know that I could drop in on and say hi to, who is not, for example, Ford, Penny, Dave, or Luke at Red Cat, or Rob or Ben at Neptoon, or Jeff at Dandelion, or...? (I never have felt all that close to the dudes at Audiopile, tho' I get a couple of stories from Mark now and then, and used to enjoy chatting with Geoff - who doesn't come in since COVID hit). 

Now, I have told myself - have been telling myself for awhile - that this week is the LAST WEEK, that I need to take a lengthy moratorium from shopping, a "media fast," where I just enjoy the records and movies and books and so forth that I *have,* and add nothing new to the stacks. I still, obviously, need the Severin Folk Horror box, since I have an extra or two on it, and there are a few things that linger in my awareness ("I shoulda got that Shut Up and Play Your Guitar Some More at Neptoon while I was there"). But I could easily declare my collection COMPLETE right now, and just live off it for a year or more. That, in fact, was the idea when I was at the last shop yesterday, grabbing a final Zappa and those Shriekbacks: "Okay, there, my collection is done, I can live with this, I am finally finished, finally have what I need to take me forward into the future..." 

Today, though, it feels differently. Besides the pleasure of some social interaction - chatting with Rob about how he knows Jeff Simmons of the Mothers, say - there is meaning and satisfaction to be had in the LOOKING for things, and re-enforcement and reward in FINDING them. And it's fun to have an excuse to go out and explore my community. With concerts shut down again, with no job to do, and not all that many friends that I see socially - especially few of the "pop over for a cup of tea" variety - if I want to go out, it basically means some variant on GOING SHOPPING.

I will probably go thrift in North Vancouver. It's easy enough to get to, I sometimes have luck at the Sally Anns there, and it never costs me THAT much. But I would like SOME OTHER OPTION, some other way to satisfy the desire for social activity, exploration, and seeking/finding. Honestly don't know what that looks like right now... I would like to reinvent myself, here, but there's a reason I've adapted to the world thus, and the world itself isn't changing much... at least not for the better.

(Incidentally, the demos on this Ramones album are great! I never feel very confident about demos but the sound quality is fab and the performances are equal to or better than the actual studio album!).

Friday, January 21, 2022

In Dreams Begin Urination, or How Pissing Myself in Hospital Led to my Current Frank Zappa Phase

In the dream, I was on Vancouver Island. There was some mystery, some controversy, some problems to solve, maybe related (at least tangentially, by dream-logic) to a couple of unvaxxed relatives. I was trying to solve the problem, but there was some danger, and - mostly I remember dark, forested landscape and what seemed like stormy weather on the rise.

I realized that, in the dream, I needed to pee. I am not sure if I asked someone, or talked to myself, but I was told by way of reply not to worry about it. I don't recall having the lucidity to ask, "What will it do to my bed, back in the real world?" But part of me answered - I do recall having this thought: "Don't worry, you're on catheter."

I was at Surrey Memorial Hospital at that point, and came to in bed with my bladder already half-emptied. I had come off catheter two days before, but either my dreaming self forgot that detail, or lied. I had an enormous visual in my head - maybe the last image of my dream, as I swum up into the awareness of a spreading warm puddle - of my penis, nestled in its furry pocket, spouting piss everywhere. And so I rang for a nurse.

"Oh, my," one of them said, as she went about removing my bedding. "There's a lot of it." She and her partner dove into removing the sheets, wiping down the plastic bed. "Has this happened to you before?"

"No," I said embarrassedly. But as the word left my mouth, I realized that in fact, one previous dream incident led to my wetting the bed a little, many years previously. It involved Frank Zappa - this image of him, in particular:

Y'see, in that dream, maybe ten or fifteen years ago, I was Frank Zappa. And I was sitting on the toilet. And it's okay to pee if you are sitting on a toilet, so I began to pee, only to realize as the urine started out of me that a) I was not, in fact, Frank Zappa and b) I was not on the toilet. I stopped that time before any sizeable amount of urine could soil my futon (the former "bed of pain," as Erika called it, back in my apartment in Maple Ridge). But I did set a precedent, so I knew not to trust any dreamed directives to go ahead and pee.

Various things went wrong with that self-caution when I was in hospital, the most pressing of which was no doubt a UTI, that came from my having been on a catheter for the first week or so, but which was not diagnosed or medicated until I checked out. I would pee myself two more times while there: once because I couldn't get my dick into the portable urinal (because I hadn't opened it, but thought I had, and literally could not hold back any longer) and once because even though I did get myself into the urinal in time, the pee just ricocheted back out (sometimes you just can't win). Between being weak and groggy and medicated and having a UTI, I don't make too much of it - didn't go down any dark roads of shame - though Erika felt it all alarming enough to buy a supply of puppy pads to put under our fitted sheet (they're still there, with 0 urinary accidents since I got home, mostly thanks to the treatment of my UTI; the puppy pads, meantime, did come in handy as a drool catcher, when my head was down on the pillow, because sometimes my mouth did runneth over). 

The upshot of all that pissing, in any case, was I felt a bit bad for Frank Zappa, like the association with my bedwetting was undeserved and insulting. I mean, as an artist, he was a bit on the obnoxious side sometimes - a bit misanthropic in some of his lyrics - but he was a brilliant musician, and didn't deserve to be associated with people pissing themselves in the night. Then came the SLPs - the Speech Language Pathologists - to help me with my speaking and assess my swallowing, and I discovered that the easiest way for me to swallow fluids was by sort of tossing my head like a brandy snifter, to create a (Zappa fans will immediately get it) CIRCULAR MOTION that swished the water to my strong side (the right, where I have some of my "old tongue" remaining), where I could just open my hole and have it go down. That circular motion (and the use of centrifugal force) put me in mind of Frank Zappa's Apostrophe, an amazingly musical (but lyrically obnoxious) album, best remembered for the song "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," and its follow up, "Nanook Rubs It," wherein Nanook rubs said snow, tainted by Huskies, into someone else's face, "with a vigorous circular motion heretofore unknown to the people in this area"  (Zappa illustrates the motion with a guitar solo). I spent the next week in hospital thinking of "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" every time I drank fluid with recourse to my own circular motion. I guess there's a common theme of piss between images, but it seemed a little more respectful of Frank to associate him with taking IN liquids, rather than ridding myself of them.

Somehow in there, for no other reason I can name, I emerged from hospital with a serious hankering for the music of Frank Zappa. I've never been a committed Zappa fan; there are people I know who are so sold on his genius that they have all his albums and don't seem to mind that at least in some of his performances, he comes across as a bit of an asshole, maybe. I'm sure the band Angel think so! 

Now, artists who are assholes (or whatnot) are a hot topic lately, and some people feel like we're not supposed to consume their art, but I try not to trouble myself with this too much. I just watched a Roman Polanski movie the other day, even. I didn't sell my two Marilyn Manson CDs when (duh) it came out that he was abusive to women. I barely even read the recent article on Joss Whedon. We live in scandal-ridden times, and I have no doubt all of us at some point or other have done questionable things - it's part of being human; as my friend David M. has observed, on some level, "We're all monsters." Sometimes some people do shittier things than others. Sometimes they repent, recant, can be redeemed, and in other cases, it is simply too hard to forgive them. I have a few on the latter list, but more often than not, I am able to say,  "Damn, I love this Polanski film - shame he seems to be some sort of predator/ rapist" - and try to keep the two things separate. Which I'm generally prepared to do AS LONG AS WHATEVER MONSTROSITIES THE PERSON HAS ALLEGEDLY PERPETRATED are far removed from their art.

What I don't want to take part in, however, is ART THAT ITSELF PARTICIPATES in the monstrous. Polanski may have put plenty of his perversions into his cinema, but he's never made a film (not even the very twisted, strangely enjoyable breast-fest What?, which I am glad is finally out on a nice blu-ray thanks to Severin) that had any direct bearings on his having been predatory towards at least one, and maybe more than one, young woman. (At least that I've seen - I haven't seen Tess, which does seem to have an erotic interest in teenagers, in the form of Ms. Kinski, but... I haven't seen it, so...). On the other hand - while I don't know what the truth is about Woody Allen, I ain't leaping to revisit his own overt confessional about underaged girls, Manhattan. Whatever Woody has or hasn't done, Manhattan invites our complicity in it, asks us to participate either in absolving him, or licensing him, which may be the same thing. 

That I'm not down for. 

Anyhow, I don't really know if there is dirt on Zappa out there, but there are plenty of songs of his - the virulently homophobic/ misanthropic "Bobby Brown Goes Down" is a good example, that are just so fucking ugly (and smug!) in their intent and execution that they kinda ruin the albums they are on. Sheik Yerbouti is a brilliant Zappa album, with some delightful moments, and "Bobby Brown" is actually really catchy and funny... but I just don't wanna hear it, you know? (Or find myself in public singing about taking an hour on the tower of power "as long as I gets me some golden shower," or about how "I'm gonna ram it up your poop chute," from another tune on the same album). It's just yucky, a little pool of human fugliness/ smugliness that I don't need to step in, and these pop up in Zappa's world from time to time. So I've never delved deep into Frank; I've allowed myself to be stopped short, and the list of Zappa albums I have never owned or heard is longer than the list of Zappa albums that I presently have - even including my recent purchases.

But I'm making amends, and have heard some just incredible music as a result -  like, for example. "Watermelon in Easter Hay," which my friend James shared on Facebook, surprising me with the gentle emotiveness of Zappa's solos, or the whole of Zoot Allures - with its incredible centerpiece of "The Torture Never Stops," but many other great moments besides. I've acquired about a dozen used Zappas over the course of the week, making runs to Audiopile, Zulu, Red Cat and Neptoon, and am off to Redrum Records in New West in a moment to pick up another, One Size Fits All - a nice new vinyl reissue - and to see what else they might have. I've never even owned One Size Fits All before, but having checked it out online, I am really excited to sit down to it later this afternoon... 

And the funny thing here is that it all got started because I pissed myself in hospital! (Some friends on Facebook helped with recommendations, too). Never before has a musical kick of mine been spurred by urination, that I can remember. Go figure.

Thursday, January 06, 2022

Catseye and Kevin James Howes

This is almost more of a social media post than a blogpost - but it's already making the rounds on Facebook, and I want to put up something more permanent, to announce how pleased I am that Kevin James Howes has followed in the footsteps of his mentor and friend, Ty Scammell, in unearthing what seems to be a lost semi-Canadian gem of music from the past - the band Catseye, written about on the CBC here. I love these sort of rescue stories; of course, my favourite was the New Creation, the Christian garage band that Ty set on the road to rediscovery after thrifting one of their albums. But Catseye - bandcamp here - sounds pretty damn great too! Kevin already has made a huge mark on the musical landscape with the Native North America releases, of course, but this is just a fun story, awakening hope that YOU TOO MAY SOMEDAY SALVAGE SOMETHING PRECIOUS FROM A THRIFT STORE, someday - if you work as hard as Kevin! 

Congratulations on being part of such a fun story, Kevin Howes!

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Ryszard Bugajski's Clearcut, All the Haunts Be Ours, and the story of an unlikely commentary/ interview

A note about screengrabs from Clearcut - these are not taken from the Severin box set, but from a DVDr of the Vision Maker Media screening transfer that I mention below. They are sourced from the same print as the Severin - director Ryszard Bugajski's own - but they are lower-res, and no doubt only a glimmer of how good the film looks from the brand-new Severin 4K scan.

So the Severin Folk Horror box set , All the Haunts Be Ours, is now purchasable online. I have only seen a few of the films on it, including Kier-la Janisse's essential documentary history of folk horror, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, which I interviewed the filmmaker about here, but her documentary has me excited to see many of the other films on the set, which casts a broad net in defining films as "folk horror," not just focusing on the obvious British manifestations (The Wicker Man and The Blood on Satan's Claw and the like - those films are not part of the box, though they do loom large in the doc) but taking an international sweep - including, most importantly to me, the Canadian-made film Clearcut, in which Graham Greene gives a chilling, career-best performance as either a pissed-off, violent fella named Arthur, or else a trickster manifestation, who abducts a mill owner (Michael Horgan as Bud Rickets) and a liberal lawyer (Ron Lea) who is involved in their losing land claims case. 

Arthur takes his two hostages into the forests of Ontario for a Canadian "outdoor ordeal" par excellence. As a thriller, with ruggedly physical performances, considerable suspense, and amazing locations, Clearcut would play (in some respects) just fine on a double bill with other Canuxploitation classics like Rituals - my other favourite Canadian film, incidentally. As the ordeal progresses - and they arrive at a sacred site decorated with ancient rock art - the film takes on the flavour of an "involuntary vision quest," by which Arthur's trickster is striving to teach the unteachable Rickets about the value of nature, and maybe actually reaching through to the lawyer when it comes to the need to take ACTION, even direct action, rather than just submitting briefs and playing by the rules and making ineffectual oaths about injustice when the system predictably fails to correct itself. The lesson is proven to have worked when the lawyer actually attacks Arthur, his tutor - though the ending is still not entirely what you might expect...

Now, the filmmaker at hand, Ryszard Bugajski, was a serious man, a serious filmmaker - a man who, before leaving his home country to come to Canada, had made a very challenging film about the injustices and tortures perpetrated by the Communists in Poland, The Interrogation, which got suppressed for years, and won him the honour of being told he would never work in Polish film again (unless maybe he informed on his colleagues). You can hear Bugajski tell all of these stories on the Clearcut commentary, which is edited together out of an interview I did with him maybe five years before he died, which really took in his whole career - even though it was Clearcut I was most interested in; still, you have to tell a story like this; how does a Polish political filmmaker end up making one of the most challenging and confrontational political thrillers ever made in Canada? How is it that my favourite film about Canada's relations with its First Peoples is made by someone from Europe? (Granted, there's a fine book that the film is based on, MT Kelly's A Dream Like Mine, which I've read and recommend - but there's a lot that the film changes from the book, which is also something Bugajski and I talk about on the commentary)...

The Interrogation can be found for free online; it's a key film to watch if you have illusions about life under Soviet-style Communism - or just if you want a sense of the film practice Bugajski was coming from, before he made Clearcut. The Interrogation is typical of the serious, compelling political dramas Bugajski made, even has direct similarities between three of his later films (General Nil, The Closed Circuit, and Blindness, all also telling true stories from Polish history about characters who are unjustly tortured by the state). And it has its own interesting and unusual release history, too (as we discuss on the commentary, the director himself helped make bootlegs of The Interrogation available underground, so that people could see the film after the authorities gave it a big thumbs-down!).

But all told, Ryszard Bugajski's background was very different from yours or mine. What your average English-speaking/ North American movie fan might see in a film like Clearcut - what parallels we might notice between the story arc and that of horror movies or thrillers we have seen - well, those resonances might be there for us, and they might even help us view the film in different or interesting ways (some rich, some perhaps perversely irrelevant), but to the extent that they are there, they're functioning on an archetypal level, as a feature of some sort of universal subconscious,  as a universal feature of storytelling, maybe. They sure aren't there because Ryszard Bugajski SAW the films you might be reminded of; I know, because I asked him.

For instance, it is difficult for a film viewer who grew up watching horror in the 1980s to not read aspects of Clearcut in light of films like the old Eric Red classic The Hitcher, where it turns out the point of the ordeal imposed by the abductor is to strengthen the victim to take up arms against him; the killer is training a non-killer to kill, enacting a kind of death wish against himself, creating his own chosen assassin. That's exactly what happens at the end of The Hitcher, and not that far off what happens at the climax of Clearcut; after his being a punching bag through most of the film, the lawyer character (Ron Lea) finally has enough and tries to kill Arthur, which Arthur seems to genuinely respect - all quite like how Rutger Hauer approves at the end of The Hitcher of C. Thomas Howell's attempts to kill him. It turns out that the director had not seen The Hitcher, at all, however. Even though Bugajski, as a filmmaker under Communist authorities, had access to films that the average Polish movie-viewer would not be able to see, something like The Hitcher was not the sort of film that the authorities in Poland would have deemed important enough to allow them to screen. (Re: The Interrogation, I also asked Bugajski if he was aware of, had been able to see any of, the Corman-produced Women in Prison-type films that someone steeped in sleazier fare might see resonances with, but ditto, there - though I have seen The Interrogation pop up on lists with films like The Big Bird Cage or such, located within the WIP subgenre, But Bugajski didn't know the subgenre, had no intention of participating in it, and never even saw films like that prior to leaving Poland. He'd heard Corman's name, he explains - that was about all. Raises interesting questions, really: should a film be located within a subgenre by fan categorizations when the filmmaker was completely unaware of those films? ...or should we try to look at the film as outside that category, & consider it a mistake to class it with films the filmmaker had never seen...? 

I'm not going to give anything more away about the contents of the commentary - there ARE American films and filmmakers that made a mark on Bugajski, but I'll leave that for people to hear about in the commentary itself; they came as very pleasant discoveries to me and there's no reason to deprive you of that pleasure. Let me instead give you a tiny bit of a history of my involvement with the filmmaker, and how the commentary came to be. 

I first saw Clearcut in 1991, when it came out on VHS during my tenure as a video store geek at Rogers Video in Maple Ridge. In fact, I still have the VHS tape I bought at the store where I worked. It seemed something special to me even in 1991, though (as I say in the commentary) I knew people who felt very much otherwise about it. There's a kind of remarkable figure in my past, who came into my life in the 1990's and made me question a lot of my values, a kind of "spiritual teacher" if you will, himself of a First Nations background, who was of the opinion that the film was "irresponsible," because it wasn't the kind of film that would win friends for First Nations activists, since it made them seem dangerous and scary and so forth, rather than spiritual and sympathetic and easy to embrace.

I mean, sure, Arthur is not a great PR spokesperson - not one who is likely to win friends and influence people on the campaign trail, as he goes around biting the head off a snake, "debarking" the film's mill owner with his giant knife, and just being pretty sharp-edged and nasty in some of what he says (including the infamous "I'm going to cut my finger off and make a necklace for your fat fuckin' wife" chant he goes into during the climactic, "wrong" sweatlodge at the end of the film).  He does have a fair bit in common - relentless, unstoppable, possibly omniscient - with the monster in monster movies, the slasher in slasher movies, and however naive Ryszard may have been about those kinds of films, you do have to sort of note that the film resonates on some level with them.

But the objection still misunderstands that throughout Clearcut, mean as he might be, Arthur is the one who holds the moral high ground, and the viewer realizes that. We the viewers may be more similar to the liberal lawyer - I certainly am - but that doesn't mean we think he's in the right or don't want him to learn from his ordeal. He's a man of talk - "the man who talks for us," as a young girl named Polly calls him in the film; but who, it is implied, does precious little else. We may not sign up to man the barricades at a future mining site because of the positive impression Arthur makes, but we won't go off patting ourselves on the back about how our right white liberal sympathies actually make a bit of difference. Something more than hand-wringing and cursing the injustices is required... 

That objection, then - that the film is irresponsible, will lose sympathy for the cause, etc - also misunderstands that the film isn't really saying anything about Native activism at all. It's discussing the failures of Canadian liberals (you can capitalize that if you like) to actually make way for any meaningful progress for First Nations people, even though we've known about the problems in Canada for years (and yes, there is discussion of residential schools and missing children between myself and Mr. Bugajski, late in the commentary; it chilled me to revisit it on the tape, since the topic was nowhere as timely when the conversation took place). We have been the perpetrators of genocide. We have not come to terms with it as a nation. And we are more than happy, usually, to say right-sounding things, in the absence of taking adequate action to ensure that these injustices do not keep continuing - to do what Peter Maguire does: to talk. (Consider the case of our prime minister...). 

Anyhow, loving this film, loving how righteously pissed off it is, loving (maybe) the punishment it doles out to, uh, well-meaning liberal do-nothings like myself, I have done, over the years, everything I knew how to do to keep the film from disappearing from public view. Adrian Mack interviewed me about a screening I hosted at the Vancity Theatre back in 2015, when the film was only available as a German DVD with forced subtitles, too much contrast, and darks that were too dark. I think only a couple dozen people made that screening - but it didn't matter; arranging it was less about who came to see it that night and more about just asserting into the world that the film still existed. At the time, I blogged about it, posted an interview snippet, and even - as a direct result of the Mack story, I think - helped connect a company called Vision Maker Media in the US with Ryszard Bugajski, the filmmaker, to get a better scan made, for a screening they were hosting. The scan was based on his own personal 35mm print (which would also be the source of the Severin scan), and used for at least one screening in the States, and was a vast improvement on the German DVD (I am presuming the Severin 4K blu-ray scan is even better yet, but haven't seen it; like I say, my screengrabs are from the Vision Maker version). The film had long been unavailable in anything like a decent format on DVD or such in North America, and when you could find it on the grey-to-black market (or on torrent sites), it was presented in terrible-looking pan-and-scan based on the old VHS tape. Over the years, I bought three different "bootleg" releases to see if they looked any good or had anything special going for them. They didn't. There was (and still is, as I write) a shitty-looking VHS transfer on Youtube, but it really does not do justice to how GOOD this film can look, how spectacular its compositions can be; it's a lousy way to watch the film. The film needed to come back to the world, so people could see it, in a proper restoration; for my money, it's one of the most confrontational, biting, politically fearless films about First Nations in Canada, and it hasn't gotten less relevant since it was made circa 1991... but it's also a real source of visual pleasure, a really fine film to settle in and WATCH...

So how did I end up interviewing Ryszard Bugajski? It happened in 2013, when  I was covering VIFF for local papers (and this blog), and I noticed that Ryszard Bugajski had a film in it (The Closed Circuit). All this was a couple years before that public screening that I hosted, note. Given the opportunity to speak to him, I seized the opportunity, even though it wasn't exactly clear who it would be for or when it would come out into the world; lucky for me, he was just fine talking to someone with a passionate interest in his films, took it on trust that I would do SOMETHING with the material. We spoke over a few occasions in 2013-14, some of which saw him talking to me from a car phone between public appearances in the US, and some of which took place with Bugajski at home in Poland - he had eventually repatriated and resumed movie-making there - with me on my Mom's landline in Maple Ridge, feeding the call into a cassette recorder. The idea initially was to do a career retrospective for a film magazine, and to time it with the release of Clearcut then being discussed by a UK label (at that time, Second Run DVD, who had put it out  The Interrogation, had expressed interest). 

It was challenging from the start, trying to figure out where the article should be published. The one film magazine I *had* written for at some length, CineAction, would have been a perfect home for the piece - an academic film journal dealing with the politics of film, published out of Canada, and having a historical association with my favourite-ever film critic, Robin Wood. Alas, they had folded (they're back online now, I gather, but all of this took place while they were calling it quits). The other magazine I found who was interested in the article had no desire/ budget to pay me a red cent for it, to my dismay. It was going to be a lot of work to transcribe, and it just annoyed me that a glossy American film mag you could buy at Chapters would pull the "sorry, we don't pay" thing on a prospective contributor - one who was offering (what seemed to me, anyhow) a major piece of writing, certainly a labour-intensive one. Another complication: Second Run never did put out Clearcut, for reasons I remain unclear on; it's possible they just weren't happy with the quality of the German transfer previously mentioned, and didn't have the wherewithal to create a new scan. I wrote them a couple of times to try to figure out what was happening, but it was always... just... stalled. Which meant that even if I found a magazine that WOULD pay for the work of transcribing and shaping the piece - even a pittance, just to make a gesture at being fair - there would be no way for people who read the article to see the film in a decent quality North American release; nor were General Nil and The Closed Circuit available here, either, for that matter. I did write a few DVD labels, including very high profile ones like Criterion, to let them know about the film, to request its release - but no one seemed to care much. Without a way for people to follow up reading about the film by actually seeing it, the timing all just felt wrong... so I stalled, hosted that 2015 screening, and waited for a moment that seemed right to put the interview into the world, with the tapes of my talks with Ryszard always close at hand...

...And then he died. I had no idea he'd even been sick. With his untimely passing, it seemed further away than ever that his film would be restored and made widely available... I pestered the VIFF, the TIFF, pestered Jesse Wente (who had a hand in making the film the centerpiece of a tribute to Graham Greene that had taken place in Toronto)... I begged friends who I thought might know more than I do: if we're going to keep this film from being forgotten, WHAT DO WE DO?

Finally I decided two things: to involve the Cinematheque in hosting a public screening - which we set up as a free event for Canadian film day, April 22nd, 2020 - and to just skip the movie mags and put the interview online here, on my own damn blog, so anyone empowered with Google could find it. I dug out my tapes and started transcribing again... as news of a strange new virus began to spread. The Cinematheque screening was all planned out; we acquired a copy of the Vision Maker scan as the basis for projection, had a page all printed in their program, and then it all got unceremoniously cancelled, as the Cinematheque went dark that spring due to COVID. By the time it was shut down, it came as no surprise whatsoever... we've been in discussions to make it happen again, using Severin's even higher-quality scan, but with omicron causing havoc, who knows when exactly that will take place! 

I was feeling pretty bummed after that cancellation, when a few months later, to my total surprise, I got an email out of the blue from Severin's Kier-la Janisse, telling me that Clearcut was being included on their folk horror box set, and asking her to help track down a 2015 video introduction that Ryszard had done for his film, I believe for that Vision Maker screening (she thought it had been done for my screening, the one Mack had written about in 2015 at the VIFF Centre - but it hadn't). She knew me from a few things in Vancouver - I had attended a few festivals she'd curated, and had hooked her up to host the Border Radio Q&A with Chris Desjardins a few years ago in Vancouver, when the Flesh Eaters were in town. She also knows Mack, and had presumably read my 2015 interview with him. But we are in no way close, and she didn't know the half of what I had on Clearcut, and I didn't know that that introductory clip (since found) existed. Instead, what I told Kier-la at the time was that "what I do have is a 90% unpublished interview with Ryszard Bugajski, which I would be very happy to edit into a commentary track for the blu-ray." 

She was game. Despite it all being last minute, slightly panicked on my part, and requiring way more back-and-forth between us than she'd envisioned, I delivered before my due date. It took about three or four days of committed work, at this very computer, for the most part, to get it done, with the help of my vastly more computer-savvy friend Dan Kibke, who helped me transfer the 4 hour interview from cassette into a digital file with a (roughly) hour and a half-long commentary. There was lots we had to cut, of course, but most of that dealt with General Nil and The Closed Circuit. It was actually super fun to do, watching Dan manipulate software that stupified me, and getting to hang out with him; we haven't spent a lot of quality time together in the last few years, and having a project to work on together was really good for our friendship. Plus the end result was a really cool, lucid commentary about Ryszard's history up to and including his coming to Canada, with a fairly in-depth interview about the making of the film ("How did you do the dying moose?" "Did Graham really bite the head off a snake?" "Was there any direct or indirect influence on the shoot from the Oka crisis?"),  with some brief discussion of his return to filmmaking in Poland, ending, in fact, on his final film, Blindness, which he had yet to begin making when we talked about it (but which played Vancouver at the Polish Film Festival, about a year or so before Ryszard died; that's how I met Shane Harvey, in fact). And through it all, as Dan and I shaped the piece into its final form, I had fireworks going off in my head: I MADE THE RIGHT CALL! PEOPLE CAN NOW HEAR RYSZARD TALK ABOUT THE FILM HIMSELF! I HAVE MADE GOOD USE OF MY INTERVIEW AND DONE RIGHT BY THIS FILM! ("...and I didn't have to transcribe four hours of tape!"). You don't have to buy some stuffy film mag - you don't even have to be able to read; you can just switch on the commentary track on the Severin disc (one of two commentaries on the disc, note; there are LOTS of cool extras, as fits Severin's MO) and listen to a more-or-less seamless conversation between Ryszard and myself. 

Now, at present, as I write this, Severin's website - recently rebuilt - does NOT mention this extra, but a friend who bought the set confirms that my commentary with Ryszard IS on there; I'm told the omission is just an error from the rebuild of their website after Black Friday. Also unmentioned is an audio interview with Graham Greene that I helped set up - a thing which briefly saw me standing in a Tim Horton's parking lot in Duncan, texting some suggested questions for Kier-la to ask Graham, because once we got his contact info, we were told to act fast. I haven't experienced THAT extra myself, and am very keen to hear it - some of those, presumably, are my questions Graham is answering ("Ryszard was unsure about why whether people were more respectful to the production when Floyd Red Crow Westerman showed up - was it because he was an elder, or because he was a celebrity, or...?"). There's also something that I did with soundtrack composer Shane Harvey, who was instrumental in setting up the interview with Graham and who had some really interesting stories about Clearcut and working with Ryszard - 

- one snippet of which I held back for just this sort of blogpiece. Shane and I had wrapped the Zoom interview, and then he thought of another story; it was easiest for me to just record the audio, quickly, than to figure out how to re-start a Zoom recording. "Did he tell you about going to a Native reserve to get gas at one point in his career?" Shane asked. Lord no, I laughed, and settled in for a story.

"It was like, Idaho or something; I can't specifically name the places he went," Shane began. "I guess he felt a bit guilty at the time that he was a Polish director, even with his great success with The Interrogation, that he was able to direct a film about Canadian Natives; like, how can a Polish guy know what's going on with Canadian Natives? And he went to a gas station in mid-west America, that was on a reserve, and he was paying for his gas. He got talking to the people in the little store, and this was back in the day when people had a few movies stacked up in the back corner of the store. And there was a Clearcut there! He said. 'I directed that film; see that film that is on your shelf?' And apparently the Native gas station attendant said it was the most used, rented-out video of all time in the store. 'It's never available - it's always rented!'"

Shane and also talked about Polly, the young girl in the film, who smokes the film's first cigarette (befitting its sacred use as visible breath) and who pops up throughout the film, toting the lawyer's briefcase. "She's in some way a continuation of him [Arthur, I think Shane means], and that's why when Peter Maguire says, when he's been arrested, and they're like, 'What happened to that Indian guy?' 'He's dead, but he can come back.' And I think it's coming back every day in our lives." 

All of this equals real cause for 2022 to be the best year of my film geek life. Clearcut is finally back among us, looking better than it has looked since the 1991 film release. By dint of having stalled on publishing a print version of my interview, anyone who wants to learn about Ryszard's career or his ideas in making Clearcut will be able to ACTUALLY HEAR him talk about the movie himself - a man who is no longer around to be interviewed, speaking anew in nicely cleaned-up audio (thanks, Dan!). My conscience is now clear, my strategy, such as I had one, is vindicated - I don't feel guilty about the four straggling tapes anymore. About the only thing that I feel could have been better is that I had no great quotes in the formal interview section of the tapes to elaborate that Graham Greene, who had initially not been very friendly to the film, had actually come round to pick it as THE film for a retrospective of his work (involving Jesse Wente; see the Kier-la interview linked above for more on that). That is in there, but not as clearly explained as it might have been. 

Mr. Greene, if you read this article and/or listen to the commentary, you might be distressed to learn that for some time there, Ryszard thought you kind of hated Clearcut. Rest assured, as a result of the conversation between us, he was very happy to discover you'd changed your tune and came to really appreciate the film. He did learn of the Toronto screening where you picked it as the representative film of your many works. (It's certainly my favourite of your films, I must add, though I enjoyed you plenty in Thunderheart and Dances with Wolves and pretty much anywhere else I've seen you...).There just wasn't a way to shape what we had into the commentary, given the time limits Dan and I faced, the fact that Ryszard was no longer around to provide new quotes, and that some of our discussion about these aspects was part of sort of chit-chat outside the interview per se. (Did Kier-la ask you about that whole "I see a naked man" thing, I wonder? I'd love to know what was goin' on there...).

Of course, as I say at the outset of the commentary, there are some less than circumspect phrases that turn up, with Ryszard frequently defaulting, for example, to the term "Indian." He knew just as well as I that that term is passe and not really part of accepted discourse when it comes to Indigenous people; we even talk in the commentary about how he discovered this. But habits are hard to break, and AT NO POINT had we envisioned the conversation appearing as a commentary, when we initially did it; when you're writing for a magazine, you have a bit more freedom to tidy up things like that.

It's a pretty interesting commentary no less, if I do say so myself. Very proud of it. Also, fans of Willie Dunn, Kevin James Howes and the Native North America series should note that Dunn's film "The Ballad of Crowfoot" is also an extra on the Clearcut disc (disc #9 of the set), with an interview/ commentary with Kevin himself... I mean, Severin are some kind of amazing when it comes to their extras, eh? There's lots more I'm not mentioning, because I've yet to experience it myself...

The All the Haunts Be Ours folk horror box is now available through Severin Films. No stand-alone disc version of Clearcut has yet to be announced, so just go ahead and buy the whole damn box; if the other films are anywhere near as good, it's going to be the purchase of the decade. Also note that Severin is now the copyright holder on the film Clearcut, by arrangement with Mr. Bugajski's estate, so contact them if you are looking to set up public screenings. Note that there may be one this spring/ summer at the Cinematheque, but COVID is a factor again, so... who knows what will happen!

Thanks again to Kier-la, Dan, Shane, and to the estate of Ryszard Bugajski.