Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Rock Against Racism: DOA to headline a varied, positive night of music (plus a new Tim Chan interview, with a couple notes from Tony Lee and Eric Lowe...)

Tim Chan of China Syndrome and Asian Persuasion All-Stars by Gord McCaw

Rock Against Racism, taking place this Saturday at the Rickshaw, is kind of a masterfully-curated smorgasbord of music, headlined and organized by local hardcore punk institution DOA, but it's a lot more than that - especially in terms of the music on offer. We presume DOA might whip out a few of their reggae tunes for this event, but they're really the only punk act on the bill, which also includes the Kàrá-Kàtá Afrobeat Orchestra (who helpfully contain their genre in their bandname), Buckman Coe (who kinda contain a few genres but the song I linked reminds me of Jack Johnson's more happy-go-lucky moments), long-lived local reggae/ funk unit Roots Roundup (whose co-founder Greg Hathaway I interviewed not too long ago about this very event), power-pop trio China Syndrome (whom I have written about many times; you can go here for further links) and the Asian Persuasion All-Stars (see here for my interview with them). That last is kind of a supergroup united by the members mostly coming from Asian backgrounds and having a desire to fight anti-Asian racism, incorporating members of a few of the bands playing that night. You're not going to get a richer, more fullsome, varied or longer night of music for $25 anywhere in Vancouver (that's including the fees! Eventbrite page here). 

I've got a new interview below with Tim Chan and a couple of his bandmates, but a few notes from the press release might be in order first. Key to the night is that it's a benefit; "all proceeds from ticket sales will go to local organizations that are standing up for people of all races, fighting racism, enabling our youth and working to make Reconcolliation a reality." Organizations that will be benefitting include the Aboriginal Mothers Centre, the  Kàrá-Kàtá African Village, the Urban Native Youth Association, the South Burnaby Metro Club, and Nation Skates Youth. So you can party all night for twenty bucks and actually do something moral and helpful with your  money? Jeez, why would you go anywhere else this Saturday? 

DOA's Joe Keithley says of the event,

"We are in a tough and unsettled time right now and as we have gone through the pandemic we have seen racism grow in Canada, to the point where racists organizations are seemingly getting stronger. So as a way of trying to fight this scourge I thought back to the Rock Against Racism rallies that D.O.A. played on in the late 1970's. Those rallies were a great success and they motivated people to stand up to this kind of BS. So the Rickshaw Theatre and I have asked musicians to join this cause. I really believe this will work because music has always had the effect of making us stronger and it has the power of healing at the same time."

Joe Keithley, awhile ago, by Cindy LeGrier

My questions for Tim Chan were brief (and in fact contained in a single sentence!) but I'll break them down to set up his answers. 

Allan: Are there new members?

Tim: Asian Persuasion All Stars (APAS) is a big band and in being this way we can perform with different configurations depending on people's availability, illness, etc. Actually I don't think we've had the same lineup for two gigs in a row! We just played a gig last week as part of Asian Heritage Month to benefit local anti-racism organization Elimin8hate at D6 Bar & Lounge in the Parq Hotel and, due to illness and scheduling conflicts, we had a relatively 'stripped down' lineup of APAS of 10 members -- we were missing three people, but we did have a full three piece horn section. Nonetheless we still pulled it off and had a great time. For the gig before that at LanaLou's we had a totally different horn section, co-opting Melissa Lee and Jose Blanco from the Vanrays. We are fortunate that we have such great musicians in the band, so we can adjust easily to whatever configuration we end up with. Our usual horn players (Kevin Tang, trombone and arrangements; Ashton Sweet, trumpet, flugelhorn, sax; David Brown, baritone sax) are all well-seasoned and incredibly talented players and are involved in multiple bands here in Vancouver; I feel so privileged to play with them.

Asian Persuasion All-Stars by Gord McCaw

Are there new songs or new recordings?

We are still primarily a covers band and we have been talking a little bit about writing our own material. All of us have the potential to write, so given time we will hopefully come up with some songs of our own. Covers-wise, we've added some eclectic new material including a reggae-fied version of Depeche Mode's "People Are People," the raucous "Birthday Cake" by Cibo Matto, "September" by Earth, Wind, and Fire, and some upbeat 'dark wave' in the form of the Cure's "In Between Days." We have recorded a new cover song and will be shooting a video for it outside as soon as the weather cooperates with us -- we've just had really bad luck over the past month or so with the bad weather as well as trying to get everyone in the same place on the same day!

Have there been any interesting experiences, discoveries, life-lessons or such playing in a band organized around anti-racism? 

Our experience so far has not been that different really from being in our other bands, though others in APAS might have different opinions... Overall, again it has been a fabulous experience, having the opportunity to play with musicians I've never played with before (as well as reuniting with Eric Lowe, whom I've been in multiple bands with), and really getting to know everyone. We were mostly aware of but did not necessarily know each other, and APAS was a great chance to get quite a diverse group, musically speaking, to play together.

I remember you saying once that the name of your other band, China Syndrome, wasn't really about you and Mike having shard Chinese background, but more of a reference to the 80's and that Jack Lemmon thriller - you never really played up your background before. Has it been interesting for you to do so?

Tim: Well my ethnic background is something that is always there, but not necessarily played up. For sure, APAS definitely leads with our identity and it's been a really positive experience. I'm really proud of who I am and who we are, which is different from when I was younger and wanted to hide from it, mostly in reaction to racism. But Eric and I have always flirted with playing up our background -- we did a campus radio show together in Victoria called the "Two Chinese Guys." The name of the show had nothing to do with the content, which of course was playing the punk/indie rock of the day, though we did do one show with both of us speaking in our respective Cantonese dialects and not understanding what each other was saying at all! Eric and I, along with Kev Lee (of Bum and Infamous Scientists fame), also had a fuck band going for a few years called the Rocking Chinamen. We initially focussed on taking the piss out of songs that had any small mention of Chinese or Asian content (e.g. "China Grove," "Kung Fu Fighting," "Rice Riot" [our version of DOA's "Race Riot," but with the lyrics "Rice riot, don't fry it, bird's nest soup, don't even try it..."]), but we eventually ended up just playing fun stuff we all enjoyed like the Replacements, Ramones, the Saints, the Lyres, NRBQ, Descendents, and the Dictators.

Tony, Eric, any input here?

Tony Lee: One surprise from playing in the band is what a joy it is to hang out with all the friendly people in the band. No one his big ego, which makes for a few Canadian standoffs with decision making (no, after you!) Not surprising is how difficult it is to get everyone together.

As far as Asian identity goes, we were trying to find compatible opening bands but we are a bit trapped in a scene of mostly white and mostly older (fifty something) musicians. Good ones though. We have recently met some great younger singers like Amanda Sum at Elimin8Hate events.

We like to cover Asian artists, but my taste is stuck in the nineties with Cibo Matto, Shonen Knife and the Blue Hearts (who only sing in Japanese). We've got Japanese Breakfast and Mitski and the amazing Linda Lindas now, and I'll get some BTS going eventually.

Eric Lowe:One unexpected reaction in playing with this group is how audiences and other musicians just treat us like a band, not an Asian band. Our ethnicity rarely, if ever comes up. I guess I shouldn't be surprised considering the musical circle we hang in is quite inclusive, but it's still refreshing. A second surprise is how despite being a 12/13 piece band we manage to fit onto the tiny Lanalou's stage - like we've squeezed into a clown car holding instruments. On a personal note it's been a pleasure getting to know everyone in the band, a really great group of people.

China Syndrome by Tony Lee

Tim, any China Syndrome news would also be welcome!

We've been keeping things pretty low key on the China Syndrome front, despite getting this more high profile gig. We've decided to continue as a three-piece for now--we're really enjoying playing in this configuration and further developing our sound this way. We've come up with a few new songs during the pandemic, but don't really plan to record until we have more new material to choose from. However, we have been rehearsing some older songs from our back catalogue; we're revisiting some stuff we haven't done in years or have never played as a three-piece. So if you're itching to hear some deep cuts from the debut China Syndrome album or Nothing's Not Worth Knowing, check us out over the next while!

See the Rickshaw page for more on Rock Against Racism, this Saturday, or buy tickets here.

Monday, May 30, 2022

Terror is a Man, aka Blood Creature

Right, so... I posted a bit about The Island of Dr. Moreau not too long ago; as I mentioned, I recently read the novel and have been quietly watching adaptations, as a kind of morbid amusement relating to my own fairly recent experiences of surgery (I've quipped at times that with my new voice, hairy tongue, and surgical scars, I feel like an escapee off the island, myself). Haven't gotten to Dr. Moreau's  House of Pain yet, which comes and goes off Tubi (at present being on the site, punctuated by a few odd commercials), but besides the official adaptations (Laughton-Lancaster-Brando), I attempted a 1921 German version, Island of the Lost, an extra on the three disc version of Lost Soul. Was finding that slow and clunky and ultimately set it aside, though I hadn't gotten to the beast-men yet, which may lure me back...

...But I finally caught up with the artful 1959 film Terror is a Man, aka Blood Creature, again via Severin, today, and I must say, it's an unexpected treat, well worth the investment of time. If your standards are low, you can actually see the film in what looks to be its entirety (minus an opening title,  more on which below) on Youtube, but that is a highly degraded print. By contrast, the movie looks gorgeous on the Severin disc - a "fine grain" 4K scan of a print discovered in the UCLA archive - so I would advise seeing their version of it if you can). It's subtlety and craft are actually kind of surprising, especially by comparison to the later native-made Filipino horror I've been exposed to, only one film of which I've watched to completion, Brides of Blood. (I know it must seem like I'm just shilling for Severin, here, but it's entirely an accident that they also distribute that; I had first encountered  it years ago on DVD, enjoyed the discussion of it in Machete Maidens Unleashed, and sought out a blu-ray of it, only noting after I found it at Sunrise that it was Severin, again. They just seem to hit my sweet spot with the films they release - I might even consider the recently announced Ray Dennis Steckler box set, though I'll have to think carefully about that...). 

Anyhow, I don't mean to diss Brides of Blood, which is interesting and entertaining in a way a lot of schlock cinema isn't, but it's got  cheesy low-budget effects - the "plant tentacles" in particular flop about randomly like a rubber bat in a Hammer film - and a fairly low-level of esteem for its audience, whom it apparently doesn't trust to keep watching unless they include plenty of tits, salacious dialogue, and gore, which - based on what I've seen of the Corman films shot in the Philippines - is what I kind of expected of it. It IS an interesting watch, but you have to be prepared to rise above the sleaze  (or revel in it, if that's your thing). You really do get the feeling with Brides that the people making the film are primarily interested in money, not ideas - and while that keeps it briskly-paced and entertaining, to the extent that there are ideas in the film, like an anti-colonial subtext, you feel they're not the point or even necessarily present by design. 

And, I mean, just compare monsters; the Brides of Blood monster is one of the ugliest, most amateurish-looking creations I've seen in a horror movie, looking like it was crafted out of green clay, moss, and dollar-store fangs by drunks at a tiki lounge:

...whereas the creature designs in Terror is a Man are actually pretty fantastic - a realization, harkening back to the uncredited source text, of the puma-creature in Wells, who - while female - is described running about in bandages, much like you see here:

The film is also beautifully shot and edited. It has the look and pacing of a classic film noir, with a level of professionalism and restraint that I simply didn't expect, based on the later Brides (which was made about ten years later by the same two people, Gerry De Leon and Eddie Romero, though in different roles). There is a bit of salaciousness - I gather from one of the extras that love triangles are a commonplace in Romero's screenplays - but it's relatively restrained, compared to the striking vulgarity of Brides. There are actually some at least plausible discussions of the science behind the transformation, which (as I mentioned in the previous piece I wrote) is something that can sometimes take me out of a text, if it gets the science too obviously wrong. At some point the protagonist observes to the doctor (not named Moreau, since the film is is a plagiarism) that evolution moves by natural selection, not conscious control or design, and I was impressed that screenwriter Romero actually seemed to understand how evolution works, which is definitely not a given in genre cinema of this sort or of this era. There's also a discussion of increasing animals' cranial capacity as a necessary adjunct to humanizing them that occurs in no other Moreau adaptation that I've seen, and an almost Frankenstein-ish level of pathos generated for the beast-creature, whose rampages you don't really begrudge it, given the two-year-long experiment that it's been subject to. You also get an interesting level of moral complexity in the way the doctor is framed; he's not a sadist (like Laughton), not a colonial overseer (like Lancaster and Brando) and gains a bit of sympathy in that the "hero" (a shipwreck survivor) is actually soon cuckolding him with his dissatisfied wife (...not a catwoman, but an actual human, whose desires and frustration with being stuck on this island for two years are presented quite sympathetically, as well). If Brides of Blood feels pretty misanthropic at times, Terror is a Man is almost humanistic. 

There are huge portions of Wells text that are not included - there is only one beast-creature, no "law," no "House of Pain," and almost no words spoken by the creature to convey its plight - Frankenstein's monster says more. There is one silly, William-Castle-like gimmick in the film by which they announce at the beginning of the film that at one point something so shocking will be shown on screen that they will sound a bell...

And indeed, there is a pretty startling bit of gore at this point in the film. I can only show it to you as a screengrab from the Youtube clip, so know that it's a lot more vivid if you see the film on blu. Sam Sherman explains in a featurette (an outtake from Machete Maidens Unleashed, in fact) that the effect was achieved by shaving a (presumably dead) pig and cutting into its flesh, this occurring just after the 55 minute mark:

Since the Youtube version lacks the opening title, if you watch the film that way, you might not even understand what the "bell" signifies, but in point of fact, though I was waiting with some curiosity for the scene to come, I was also expecting a sort of ting-a-ling sound, something that might actually be described as the ringing of a bell. What the filmmakers do instead is insert a buzzer sound, which might be taken for the ringing of an office phone, more of a "blat" than a "ting-a-ling," so I didn't actually clue in that we had arrived at the scene in question; when the "blat" sounded, I thought, instead, that a phone in the lab was ringing, and got confused that no one onscreen paused the surgery to answer it. When the end of the film came, my initial reaction was, "so where was the bell? Did I nap through it?" Only then did I remember the unanswered phone, and realize my misunderstanding; so not only is it a cheesy gimmick, unworthy of the otherwise high level of respect the film has for its audience, it didn't even work (unlike the surgery scene itself, which is pretty damned effective). 

The only other observation here I must make is about the Severin extras. I've been trained in recent years to think of Severin as having the most knock-'em-out-of-the-park extras around; I'm not even generally attuned to extras, but I really enjoyed the tone and content of their featurettes on Grizzly, Day of the Animals, The Changeling, and indeed, on Lost Soul itself - which is also seeable for free on Tubi, but well-worth the investment in the Severin blu, since even the one-disc version has a ton of interesting bonus material. Unlike those discs, the extras for Terror is a Man are actually a wee bit disappointing; there are a few brief outtakes from Machete Maidens Unleashed - one clip of which, an Eddie Romero interview, feels very similar to what's on the better-equipped Brides of Blood disc, and may even duplicate moments (I haven't checked); there's also a trailer, a stills gallery, and, well, not much else! There's no commentary, no Severin-made featurettes, and most strikingly, nothing from Richard Stanley, who would have been a natural to involve. I don't fully understand what went wrong, since - having made the Lost Soul film themselves, Severin obviously has a larger-than-average investment (as do I at the moment) in The Island of Dr. Moreau. Maybe they just burned out on it, or didn't figure there was enough interest in this particular title to warrant the extra expense? Maybe other discs on their now OOP Blood Island collection were more extra-rich, so they skimped on this one? Dunno.

But even if the extras are a little thin by comparison to other Severin releases, this is a great little film. Terror is a Man plays much more like a classic Universal monster movie than it does a low-budget Filipino-made exploitationer, and leaves me wanting to revisit some of that later Creature from the Black Lagoon movie where the creature has been surgically altered to almost pass for human, if you don't look too closely (The Creature Walks Among Us was made only three years prior to Terror is a Man, so who knows, maybe it actually was a direct influence?). With Cronenberg's new surgery-themed horror film en route, it feels like a thread worth continuing to follow. I mean, I'm not all that wild about my own new flesh, but I recall there being a fair bit of pathos in this film, too, and I suspect I'll be able to identify with the creature at least a little, since I spent two weeks in hospital feeling like this guy. Some days I still do! 

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Buy, Buy Black Dog...

...to the tune of "Bye Bye Blackbird," of course...

Having stood in line for over three hours on the first day of the Black Dog stock sell-off on Sunday means not having to go back until maybe mid-June - I grabbed a few desired upgrades and while I did forget to check a couple sections, I feel like I have sufficiently scratched my itch for now. 

The lines are probably dropping quite a bit by now, and it's unlikely to ever again be as bad as it was that first day, but if you do plan to go down on a day that is likely to be busy - on the weekend, say, or whenever they put their new arrivals or TV series up for grabs or announce a price drop, or so forth:

a) wear sunscreen or bring an umbrella or something.

b) bring water (or some other beverage) and tissues, so you can hydrate and/or blow your nose.

c) evacuate your bowels beforehand, or get friendly with the person behind you, so you can duck out if an emergency hits...

d) Have a clear idea of what you're looking for, because they may have a time limit for browsing. They did that first day! 

Some observations from that first day, this past Sunday:

There was TONS of great stuff left by the end of the first day. Mostly on DVD. I hadn't spent a lot of time previously looking at their rental stock, since I've been out of the video rental market for over ten years, electing just to buy what I want (or occasionally get it for free out of the library, or see it streamed, or such) - so I was surprised to realize just how much of it was on the older format, which seemed no barrier to people buying it. So many people were happily leaving with fistfuls of former rental DVDs that you'd never know that physical media was dead.... 

People who are on the "I only want blu-ray" page should note that blu-rays are gathered together on the left hand side of the store (except for a few sections like animation, where they are merged, I gather)

The pricing scheme basically has $10 as the baseline and goes up from there. I presume that will be subject to change, but the store is open and selling off stock through June, so it may not change that quickly!

Stickering is minimal, and in most cases all the art is included - the one case that it wasn't, of the films I bought, was Lords of Chaos, which looked like they had split it up, selling the DVD and blu versions separately, each one getting half the art; the blu I bought had the cardboard slipcover, but not the insert. Everything else I got was complete - blu and DVD combo sets for more common items included both discs but added five bucks to the price. If you're concerned about booklets or art, check before you get to the till.

The stickers that ARE on everything are velcro patches that they use to attach their "rental" tags to, and number-stickers taped on the spine. The latter are easy to remove, but some of the velcro seems to be very firmly stuck to the case, so don't try ripping it off unless you have a cutting tool with you (or maybe some Goo Gone or such - I didn't try that myself, electing to just try to rip off the velcro of the items I bought, but my coarse, impatient ripping ended up stretching/ tearing a couple of the blu ray cases, so it is not a recommended method). 

If there is a "rented" tag on the case, it means just what it says, and as they aren't holding titles for people, you'll just have to come back another day and hope that the disc gets returned. 

There was a 20-item limit per purchase, so hungry, rich, but budget-conscious sharks couldn't come in and buy the whole collection. This was very considerate of the Black Dog people. One guy I chatted with doubled his haul by dragging his wife with him, having her join him in line late in the game - he left with a box of forty discs. Again, the rules might change as the sale progresses, but best to bear it in mind during these early days.

High-prestige filmmakers, people with huge "brand recognition" to their names seemed to be the main targets - people were still hungrily snatching up the Kurosawas, the Bavas, etc. A Facebook friend reported that somebody got to the Greenaways and cleared them out. Personally I would be cautious about buying things that had high cache on DVD, especially if they've been on the shelf for ten years or more, since they're more likely to be worn and/or potentially have been subject to a lot of resurfacing. I remember renting a few discs like that from Limelight, out on Alma, back when I was taking a few film studies courses at UBC; Limelight used to buff the hell out of their discs, I believe grinding a layer or two off a disc every time it got returned. You can't just buff off layers ad-infinitum, so the older things I rented off them had all sorts of digital distortion on them. I don't know if that's the case with Black Dog's stock - they do resurface discs, but hopefully less obsessively than Limelight did - but people who actually want to be able to WATCH the movies, who aren't just trying to "accumulate prestige" for their shelves, might want to just shell out the new prices for things like David Lynch or such, rather than paying $20 for a disc that has had a long and busy rental history.

For the deal-hungry, the real action is on the common, second-tier stuff, the populist crowd pleasers or the sleepers. Marvel blus were in the $10-15 range, for instance - half what they cost new. Older arthouse films that don't have a huge cult cachet were priced reasonably, too - I was happy enough to pay $20 for a used DVD of Soderbergh's Schizopolis, which I've never owned, because I was never gonna pay $40 for it, which is about as cheap as it can be had otherwise. I'm assuming - compared to The Seven Samurai, say - that Schizopolis didn't ever get rented enough for it to be worn, even though the disc was probably 20 years old. There's probably a ton of stuff like that left on the shelves. I wonder if someone has grabbed their Highway 61 yet? 

If you figure that "half what it costs new" is a good calculus for pricing a used movie, there were, in fact, a few unreasonable prices that I saw, mostly for in-print Criterion blu-rays, maybe because the name "Criterion" still evokes a Pavlovian response from people with a need for prestige imprints; with apologies to friends of mine who shelve their Criterions separately from their other discs, so they can show'em off - I know a couple of people who do that, and one person who also has separate sections for Scream Factory, Arrow, Severin, Indictator, etc - I am fine on Black Dog taxing that demographic, exploiting their irrationality or vanity or hunger for prestige a bit; I don't begrudge them for having done this. But I am not interested in paying more for a used rental copy of something than I can get it for brand new on Amazon.ca, and that's exactly what I saw on the Criterion blus I examined. I would have been very happy to upgrade from DVD to blu for a few Criterion titles - namely The Thin Red Line, Blow Out, and Quadrophenia, for example, but the blus for those were, if I recall, all in the $40-50 range, while they sell for $30-40 new. No thanks! (Someone probably bought them all without blinking, though, salivation triggered by the mere brand). 

On the other hand, the high-end OOP items that they did have seemed, on later investigation, to be priced reasonably - like, they were asking $40 for Cronenberg's eXistenZ, which might seem a lot for a used rental disc; it was certainly more than I wanted to pay, so it was still there when I left - but I see now that it is unavailable new in R1 and Amazon and eBay sellers are asking upwards of $200 for used copies of that same disc, which has been out of print for awhile. Personally, I am confident it will come back into print someday and am in no hurry to upgrade - the DVD is totally watchable, until then. 

In the end, I grabbed a fistful of cheapish Marvels, Eggers' The Lighthouse (which I had never seen and was delighted with), Schizopolis, and Lords of Chaos - nine vids, total, for which my combined savings was maybe $100. It was barely enough to justify the wait and the concomitant sunburn, but it was also all I could afford right now). I'd let y'all know what I forgot to look for, but who knows, maybe I'll get the chance to pop in again, and I don't want to give anyone any ideas. 

BTW, here's what my neck looked like when I got home... photo by Erika! Looks worse than it felt, I am happy to report. 

Post-script - okay, so after writing that, I went for a nap and actually kind of dreamed about going back to Black Dog, where I discovered a lot more of their stock had sold, and that they'd brought in VINYL RECORDS to add to it - including a solo record by Brian Ritchie, the bassist of the Violent Femmes. I am partial to Ritchie - mostly his album The Blend - but they were asking $100 for this record (not one Ritchie ever made, btw) because the shrinkwrap, which was still on it, had been signed by Lorne Michaels, the Saturday Night Live creator, who as far as I know has nothing whatsoever to do with Brian Ritchie. So I was rehearsing my pitch to them - maybe you could take the shrinkwrap off and put it on another record, because all I want is the Brian Ritchie album, I don't care about Lorne Michaels' signature - I'll give you ten bucks for the record?

BTW, they do say "no negotiation" on their signage for the sale. So don't try to talk'em down on those Criterions! 

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Raimi-thon Night 3: Spider-Man 2

Note: I have COVID, slept poorly and I'm a bit delirious with it all. Give me some berth, here, okay? A bit of wiggle room. I'm not at peak. 

So as previously posted, in writing about Darkman, I have Sam Raimi on my mind. I'm excited to see his new film! I was, actually, kind of excited by the prospect of seeing Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness before I had even realized it was the new Sam Raimi, the news coming as a happy surprise late in the trailer, which already had me excited, as the previous Dr. Strange movie - along with Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok and Constantine and Hellboy - was one of my most-enjoyed superhero movies ever. 

It is hard for me to write about something so normally beneath my notice, but I guess I should confess at the outset - though it feels like this should be kept secret, like masturbation or an enjoyment of Jim Steinman - that I do have some fondness for Marvel (and the odd DC) superhero movies, if I'm in the right mood. I do sometimes join the unwashed hordes, and sometimes have plenty of fun in so doing. I just don't see every one, nor care for every one I do see.

I have no interest in the Deadpool films, for example - feel about them re: superhero movies the way Ayn Rand did about later James Bond films (or at least the ones after Dr. No - she described them as "bootleg romanticism," a sort of hypocritical, bad-faith romanticism that needs to snigger at its hero, to mock the hero and have him, too). And since I was an eight year old, when I was watching Saturday morning cartoons and actually reading comic books, I've always found Superman a bit too clean, a bit too, uh, "comic book"; I gave Quentin Tarantino credit for his clever ideas about Superman and Clark Kent at the end of the Kill Bill movies, but it didn't make me want to watch Superman movies (I've seen almost none, just that first Christopher Reeve one). I'm well behind on The Avengers, have no interest in the X-Men, and find aspects of Batman distasteful, but primarily because my experience of him has been largely filtered through the not-even-very-crypto-fascism of Christopher Nolan, whose craft I acknowledge but whose sense of responsibility to the real world, in terms of the ways his films interact with the political landscape, I find somewhat lacking (see here - please do not mind the weirdly gigantic picture of Adrian Mack, which is some sort of artifact of a long-ago Blogger template shift). 

In fact, more than the flashy, bold, and busy feel of these films, more than the preponderance of action over thought or character, more than - what was it Scorsese called them, "roller coasters? - the roller coaster aspect, the main reason I don't watch every single entry in every single franchise is that the MCU, in particular, is just too damn prolific. Like Guided by Voices albums, Marvel superhero movies are produced at a pace that makes my keeping up impossible, so much so that I shudder at the prospect; I wouldn't be able to feel truly "up to date and in-the-know" unless I took a year off and listened to nothing but GBV I've missed, or watched nothing but Marvel movies I've let slide by. But I don't WANT to spend a whole year on nothing but GBV albums (or MCU movies), and realize that even if I tried to, at least three more records (or movies) would come out during that year, so I would still be behind regardless: a fool's game!  

So Erika and I just keep up with the characters we most enjoy, like, say, Thor or anything with Mark Ruffalo as Hulk or, because of Erika's own childhood, Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman is to Erika what Carl Kolchak is to me. I shall not judge, and truth be known, I enjoyed the Wonder Woman episodes and movies we watched more than I've enjoyed going back to Kolchak: The Night Stalker). 

...But this gets a bit complicated when there's a new MCU movie we want to see, and I haven't been doing my homework, because one of the problems that MCU movies have that GBV albums don't is that things happen in one franchise that bleed over into others. Characters, concepts, plot points are introduced in an Avengers movie without which you won't fully understand what's happening in the Black Widow movie, that sort of thing. But if you haven't heard Class Clown Spots a UFO, it won't take away from your ability to enjoy How Do You Spell Heaven? (as far as I know - I don't really know either album; but I'm guessing that there are no characters or themes introduced in one that are repeated or expanded upon on the other; even if a new bandmate was introduced on the earlier album, and - quelle surprise! - he's still around on the later one, not knowing the older album won't keep you from understanding what he's doing or where he came from or what his role is supposed to be - unlike the addition of a new character in the MCU). 

And I do want to understand the rules of the multiverse, relevant to the Dr. Strange sequel, and they apparently are laid out and elaborated upon in detail in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Which I haven't seen, having fallen off the Spider-Man train after the first Andrew Garfield movie (it was fine - I'd just had enough, as did many other people, it seems).  

So I have some homework ahead of me. Of course the original Spider-Man franchise, the Tobey Maguire one, was directed by Sam Raimi, so it's not a chore at all; Erika and I are now watching the Spider-Man franchise in toto, beginning with the first Raimi movie, with the thought being we will work through them all up to the present day before attempting Dr. Strange. With me still recovering from COVID, we have a little time to spend before we can go to the theatres, anyhow. 

We watched Spider-Man 2.1 last night - the expanded cut of the second movie, which she'd never seen before in any form. While the first is as enjoyable an origin story as possible, the second one is where things really amp up. Neither film is as packed with Raimi touches as Darkman was, but both are very much his work, and the second in particular gets downright meaty, if you're inclined to analyze films.

Y'see, Spider-Man has troubles with "performance" in the film. He loses his powers - becomes, um, impotent. He even loses the ability to shoot his goo. 

No, no, not that goo. His webbing. But given the context - his crisis of potency - you would have to be, I think, pre-pubescent not to think of the goo as a metaphor. I even found myself remembering those days when, around age 14, I was masturbating frequently enough - I think my record was eight times in a day - that I discovered the more you jerked off, the less goo came out. I remember having dry orgasms - nothing came out at all, because I hadn't given my body a chance to catch up; my mind went exactly there when Spider-Man first started discovering he couldn't get his web to shoot. 

And there's an awful lot of "stuff with hands" in the movie - including hands that "take over" Dr. Octopus, that start to think for him, like a pubescent boy might feel about his own bodily changes, masturbation included. "It's not me, it's my hands, Ma, I swear - they made me do it!"  

I kept up some smartass banter along these lines as Erika and I were watching the film, and even she finally got into the spirit of it, asking, for instance, in the scene where Aunt May is dangling from a long web that Spider-Man has shot from his wrist, "Does this mean she's really hanging from a long strand of his jizz?" She normally kind of mocks the stuff I read into movies, on this level, but I could tell she was entertained by the idea.

I found myself thinking of the rather fascinating Urotsukidoji films - Japanese tentacle porn anime, the stuff I gave Lemmy, in which male adolescence is expressed by images of male bodies erupting tentacles and doing rapey things with them: the engine of the films is a sort of horror of male adolescence, as made for and expressed by other male adolescents (or their adult descendants). The picture of adolescence in Spider-Man 2 is less sexual by far and far kinder, but it still has a person torn between two identities, two orientations, and there is a strong temptation to read his secret identity as a metaphor for something in Peter Parker's life  - masturbation, homosexuality, or even too much  consumption of comic books (or superhero movies, or other childish things) well into childhood: yes, Spider-Man 2 works as a metaphor for the adult consumption of Spider-Man, like Spider-Man himself is a figure for the inability of the geeks in the audience to let go of their childhood and grow up - back when obsessiveness over comic book culture was still being treated as a pathological thing, a failure of socialization, and not a cultural norm. Back then, you dig?:

I won't even attempt a queer reading here, though one does sense there is one to be had, by which it is Spider-Man's complex relationship to the James Franco character, whatever his name is, that is really what's getting in the way of his being with MJ. The very youthfulness of Tobey Maguire lends itself to reading Spider-Man as figuring some aspect of male puberty/ adolescence, in any event - at least as much as Ginger Snaps works as a story about female puberty/ adolescence. However you read it, Parker's devotion to this secret aspect of his identity begins to interfere with his ability to pursue adult relationships, in particular his one with MJ, whom he very nearly loses; and his near loss of her feeds into the loss of his superpowers. Turns out he needs a balance of both in his life to be functional - without MJ, he can't be Spider-Man, but without Spider-Man, he can't be with MJ. (I think I tried to sell Erika on the idea that this is why I need my movies and music and such - that my collecting is my own version of "being Spider-Man" - but I think she was skeptical, there). 

The second thing we noticed in watching Spider-Man 2, besides Spider-Man seeming to be a metaphor for something, is that, of all the superhero films we have seen - because I think Erika agreed with me on this - Spider-Man 2 genuinely feels like you are consuming a comic book. Rowan Lipkovitz, on Facebook, also pointed out Ang Lee's Hulk film here, and I can see what he means, but the use comic panels and so forth, consciously quoting comic art, is not what I mean, as much as the rhythms of the storytelling. Pushe way the characters behave (Jonah Jameson, especially) is self-consciously broad-stroke archetypal in the way comic book characters are; the way the images are framed to pop is akin to comic book panels; the progression of the story feels like the progression of a story across multiple issues. Raimi, of any of the Marvel filmmakers, seems to really understand what reading a comic book feels like - not just what a comic panel looks like, but how the story progresses. It seems like he might well have grown up reading them obsessively himself, and is better than anyone I've seen at making you feel like you are reading a comic book while watching his film. I don't recall feeling like that, or feeling that as vividly, for any other Marvel film. It's possible, of course, that the only reason I feel this way is because I in fact did read Spider-Man comics as a child, unlike The Avengers, for example, or Iron Man or X-Men or all those other comics I ignored. Mostly my comic consumption involved horror and fantasy comics, or Howard the Duck or, a bit later, Cerebus or Heavy Metal or undergrounds, but I did read a lot of Spider-Man as well, for awhile, such that watching the movie took me right back to my eight year old self, to the little boy who still lives inside me somewhere, that earlier stage of evolution that hopes its host lives long enough to see Stegron make it to the big screen. 

...Stegron being Spider-Man's half-human, half-stegosaurus nemesis, who at one point leads an army of resuscitated dinosaurs in a march on New York, as I recall. Let's not get into it here. The point is, Spider-Man 2 was great to revisit, one of the very best of the Marvel movies - made early enough in the current cycle of superhero fare that it no doubt can be considered, uh, seminal in framing how Marvel handled its properties. It's a very fun way of gearing up for Dr. Strange. I gather Raimi himself has confessed to not thinking much of Spider-Man 3, up next, but I am looking forward to revisiting that one, myself; I strongly recall it being characterized by a giddy excess, which at the time I thought made it the most "Raimilike" of the Spider-Man films.

And yes, again, all of this is somewhat unworthy of my abilities as a writer, a bit trivial. What can I say, I have COVID. Let me entertain myself how I choose. Spider-Man 3, here we come!

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Sick#3: Day Eight, plus weird dreams of taking off my pants.

Went to bed around midnight. Woke up at 1 to pee and cough and blow my nose. Came back to bed for a couple of hours - then, having only half-slept, got out of bed again at 3 or so to pee and cough and blow my nose some more. Went over to the computer and burned away a couple of hours on Facebook, went back to bed eventually (around 5?), unless I'm confused about the night's patterns (I *am* a bit foggy, here). Erika was trying to sleep through all this and I hope she made it. I woke up again around 8, interacted with her as she was showering, but failed to make breakfast or so forth, and ended up back in bed after she left for work. Slept til about noon, then - aided by a meowing cat who wanted treats - woke up to pee and cough and blow my nose, take a Tylenol and an allergy pill, since they seem to help abate some symptoms, then puttered for a few minutes on Facebook, but all I really wanted to do is go back to bed...

...so I did. Woke up again around 2pm. Took Tylenol, had breakfast - bowl of Special K and almond milk. My cough is productive but I have to hold the tissue to the light to see if it's just thin liquid or has any content, because the colour is the same - whitish with maybe a slight yellow tint, none of that grey green stuff. What I'm blowing out my nose is the same. I can inhale through my nose, but it feels rumbly up there, like the air has obstacles to movement.

Had weird dreams where I was scouring a used bookstore that I knew sometimes radically underpriced their books. Found a giant hardcover of an L. Ron Hubbard life of Christ on a shelf, was going to buy it to flip... next thing I remember I had connected with Bob Hanham, who was going to join me for a run for more books after we had a fast lunch. As we were walking past his car, I said, "Hang on a second" and took off my pants, draping them along the back seat, then I continued with him - fully clothed except sans pants - when I realized what I had done. "Did I just take off my pants?" He admitted that he thought it was a bit odd, but hadn't wanted to say anything. We went back to the car and I put my pants back on, telling him, "If I try to do this again, don't let me." 

Somewhere this song was playing, but it wasn't Randy Newman, it was a cover. (Far as I know no covers of the song exist). 

Monday, May 16, 2022

Sam Raimi, Dr. Strange, and Darkman


Are people excited about Sam Raimi’s new movie? 

I realize people are excited about Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. Apparently you can even see it in 3D at the Imax. I am home with COVID, so I won’t be hitting the IMAX anytime soon, but a friend went and – while he likes any 3D – was a tad disappointed to see that the 3D had been added in post, that it wasn’t actually filmed as a 3D movie. When it is conceived in 3D from the gitgo, it generally means “things coming out of the screen at you.” (Lots of particulate, too, methinks = flashlights in dusty rooms, that Prometheus thing... you know what I mean). My friend's friends thought the 3D was "ho hum," he reported.

I believe Raimi's last feature as director, Oz the Great and Powerful, was, in fact, filmed as a 3D movie. It didn't really connect with Raimi's fan base, though, I don't think. Wizard of Oz fans might have enjoyed it, or people who like James Franco... there are people out there who do, right? He is very, very James Franco in it. The film itself was inoffensive,  but - having seen it twice - I have decided it really isn't even worthwhile without the 3D. 

To return to the new Dr. Strange, same friend also notes it has “good Sam Raimi input.”

Oh, yeah, if it wasn’t clear, I was creating a false distinction above between the new Sam Raimi and the new Doctor Strange. The new Doctor Strange *is* the new Sam Raimi, as I'm sure some of you recognized. But much as Raimi has his fans, I don't think - for example - that a lot of people flocked to see the Spider-Man trilogy he did, for obvious example, out of an excitement to see "the new movie by Sam Raimi," nor were they expecting that much of his signature style. Similarly, I *think* the brands that are relevant here to most people will be Marvel, Dr. Strange, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Not only will these be the primary draw, they’ll be the key determiners, along with the sheer budget involved, of the eye of the film; Raimi will have some freedom to put some of his distinct signifiers on it, but he won’t be able to pee in every corner of this particular territory (not that he should necessarily need to, but some people LIKE it “in Raimi territory,” the same way they want excess and smashingly surreal imagery from Ken Russell). To put it in terms of DePalma, the new Dr. Strange might be to Raimi's filmography what The Untouchables was for DePalma, distinctly his but not his in the same way that Snake Eyes or Raising Cain are HIS, if you see what I mean. Or to put it in terms of other Raimi - it might be about as Raimi as, say, Spider-Man, but it is unlikely to be much more so - probably not even as Raimi as Spider-Man 3, which gets into some very frequent Raimi territory, like visual and performance excess and characters being confronted by malign doubles. 

But even if there are flourishes here and there, the very nature of Dr. Strange and MCU movies and the stakes at hand will probably require some modulation of the Raimi scale. Dr. Strange will not battle Deadites, for instance. (Does Dr. Strange battle Deadites? Don’t tell me, let it be a surprise.)

A brief consideration of Levels and Degrees of Raimi: The Evil Dead movies all have the Raimi-factor set very high, but one feels it isn’t until the second and third that the, uh, Raiminess has been identified and is being self-consciously cultivated, that Raimi has figured out what makes a film distinctly his and is doing it a LOT. Let’s say that the Raimi is set at 10 for The Evil Dead, and then in the manner of Spinal Tap, set at 11 for Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness.

Ash Versus Evil Dead, which does have Raimi’s input, but often is directed by others, dials it back to eight, maybe. Other people attempting to Raimi it up can only achieve so much. 

But of the non-Evil Dead films that Raimi has made, while I enjoy many of them - especially A Simple Plan and The Gift - only three that I have seen (and probably Crimewave, which I haven’t) are very strongly Raimi, and they’re all ones he wrote: Spider-Man 3 is more Raimi-fied than the first two; then Drag Me to Hell, which seems to be Raimi very consciously making a Sam Raimi movie to reward his fans for having stuck by him through his "superhero years"... and one kinda-forgotten gem from 1990, Darkman.

Darkman deserves serious re-evaluation from genre fans and a whole new generation of eyes on it; it’s a cult movie which hasn’t got near as big a cult as it deserves. Has it been released in a loving 4K scan? It should be. We watched it last night (sadly on DVD, which is all I have around; it's definitely one to upgrade) and both thought it was ripe for re-evaluation.

There are lots of reasons people might want to look at it again. It’s Liam Neeson’s first-ever action film, for one thing. It has an early Frances McDormand role - a meaty one, where she's a smart, able co-protagonist. There are a host of cameos for cinema insiders, from Bruce Campbell himself (whose presence in anything increases the Raiminess by a couple notches, even if Raimi is not involved) to William Lustig, the Coen brothers, and John Landis. Jenny Agutter – practically still in her Nurse Price uniform from An American Werewolf in London – is onscreen long enough that her role counts as a role, not a cameo. And there are a host of other genre references – at different points, I found myself thinking of Frankenstein - both doctor and monster; the Phantom of the Opera; the Abominable Dr. Phibes, the Mummy, the Elephant Man, Spider-Man, and Batman. 

Oh, and Robocop, too, a little. 

Plot summary: Neeson plays a badly disfigured scientist given superhuman strength, an insensitivity to pain, and a somewhat unstable temperament by his ordeal, who, like Batman, supplements his meagre superpowers with technology, including what reads now as a prototype 3D printer for genetic materials and a recipe for believable but photosensitive synthetic skin, which melts after an hour and a half in the light, but makes him a short-term master of disguise. There is some doubling in this film, too, though none on the level of Ash having to battle dozens of mini-Ashes in Army of Darkness; but a villain is caught, for example, in a revolving door with his double, each telling the gathered henchmen to shoot the other for being an imposter. Darkman - he really only takes the name at the end of the movie - uses his strength and his tech to battle the people who injured him and help save his wife, McDormand's character, from their clutches; I have not seen the sequels to see if he becomes a flat-out crimefighter, or if it’s always the same people he’s fighting, but he’s basically an all-in-one superhero, mad scientist, and monster.

There is, I admit, an added personal reason to the appeal of Darkman for me. As someone newly disfigured - if my lispy, newly-inarticulate speaking voice doesn't count, then consider the graft-site marks on my wrists - I found the scenes where Darkman awkwardly attempts to reconnect with his wife, wearing his own face as a mask (!), quite poignant, and occasionally turned to Erika (I was wearing a mask at the time, too, but due to my current COVID case, not because of disfigurations) and repeated some of the more pathos-rich lines from the film as Neeson said them. We both got a good laugh out of this; it was not just myself who experienced the relevance. 

If the text that spoke to me most on coming out of surgery was The Island of Dr. MoreauDarkman earns a strong second place. But mostly as a Raimi fan, I enjoyed the very distinctly Raimi-like moments of excess, the giddy, shameless, in-your-face inventiveness of his craft, as when, for example, Darkman is typing with one hand wearing a synthetic flesh glove and the other in a near skeletal state, having been exposed to both fire and acid. The "fake" hand - the one in the fleshglove - is played by a real hand, but the "real" hand (the burned, quasi-skeletal one) is stop motion (you can see a GIF of it here). Who else has ever done such a thing, in the history of cinema - have two hands on a typewriter, one of which is stop motion? It's hilarious. And there's a very old-fashioned Gothic horror feel to Darkman's burned-out lab, where he perfects his masks. One applauds Raimi for not going so far as to have his protagonist be an organ aficionado. 

There is much more visual wigginess in the film - but I've only ever seen it three times, and two of those screenings were back in the 1990's, so forgive me if I can't detail them. I hope it will suffice to note that there are hallucinatory montages of nightmare images that actually do bring Ken Russell to mind. Now THIS is a film that would be fun to see in 3D, or at least in 4K - neither of which formats is it actually available in, alas. 

People steeped in contemporary music will wonder if perhaps Robert Pollard saw Darkman and cribbed the central conceit from "I Am a Scientist" from the film - but again, don't tell me if he didn't. (There is a scene where Neeson talks himself down from a flight of hallucinatory rage and panic with the calming mantra of "I am a scientist," four years before the GBV song was recorded.)

I will get out to see Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness eventually - after I stop testing positive, say. Meantime, the rest of you might want to check out Darkman - especially since there may be a reboot/ sequel underway, which Neeson himself might return to (I have not seen the two direct-to-video sequels to Darkman, but have heard they are not great; neither involve Raimi or Neeson).

Darkman has grown in my estimation since the last time I saw it - a film well worth seeking out. I gather it can be rent or bought for five bucks via Prime; I have no better ideas, but it's very visual and the DVD doesn't look so hot, so I recommend the highest-def version you can access!

Sunday, May 15, 2022

An interview with Heather Haley: Skookum Raven and her new musical project, Pluviophiles (with Keir Nicoll)

Keir Nicoll, left, and Heather Haley: Pluviophiles

Heather Haley - author of The Town Slut's Daughter and singer for the Zellots and the .45s, previously interviewed by me about her Vancouver-to-LA punk rock past here - has a new book, a collection of her poetry called Skookum Raven. A descriptive blurb online explains of it: "There are some rough and wild birds around Howe Sound - West Coast avians like the sharp-shinned hawk, the northern harrier, and the whiskey-jack. Heather Haley, an accomplished mapper of human migration, pair-bonding and predation, takes these feathered frenemies as her starting point in this assured third collection, Skookum Raven."

Haley also has a new musical venture, Pluviophiles, undertaken with fellow rain-lover Keir Nicoll. Their debut performance occurs at the launch of that book, May 17th at Massy Books, so in  respect of that, I fired off a few email interview questions for Heather. Let's get right to it - I'm in italics, and Heather is not. 

What kind of music do Pluviophiles make? Are there samples online of your music? Is any of it similar to what's on Keir's Soundcloud?
No, not yet. We're working toward recording. Everything has happened in baby steps but despite the pandemic and various other setbacks we've persisted. We're pursuing several avenues of funding and hope to be able to accomplish a single or two, or perhaps even an EP this year. "What kind of music do you make?" Why am I always stumped by this question? I suppose because I'm busy making music, don’t have much time to analyze it. Folk? Folk influenced certainly. Neo-folk? Contemporary folk. I think it’s definitely folk but it also rocks. Ugh. Keir said something to the effect of "serenely emotive music" which is fair to say. And no, it's nothing like what he has up on Sound Cloud. Keir pursues many avenues of expression and performs with several other ensembles. Along with guitar and bass he plays piano, saxophone and was a member of The Carnival Band and All Purpose. With our endeavour, I provide him with words, poems which Keir adroitly adapts to chord progressions and the music he composes. Then we hammer out phrasing, melodies and vocal arrangements together.

My friend Julie Vik, of Resin (with Alex Varty) said, "Songwriter folk in the tradition of Robyn Hitchcock or Elliot Smith."

Are you both actually rain lovers, or did you just like the name?

I would say both; that we love the word, the name, and Vancouver's rain; with reservations at times of course. Certainly it can make life challenging but rain also summons melancholy. Beauty. I love the smell and sound of rain, the way it 'cleans' the air and perhaps provides a new beginning. Day. Also, living in Vancouver, if you can't at least tolerate rain, well, you're fucked.

It sounds like the project was entirely borne of the pandemic - true? How have you weathered things, generally? (Have you been going to shows or other public things? Did you or Keir already have COVID?).

No, we were playing together before the pandemic, rather haltingly because when we first started I was still residing on Bowen Island so logistics were an issue. We met when Keir interviewed me for Citrus Magazine and then came to a reading of The Town Slut's Daughter that I did at the Noir at the Bar series in 2017. I can't recall exactly how or when we decided to collaborate. It must have seemed like an obvious conclusion. We just sort of fell into it. Keir says we "fell into a bottomless whole."

I've avoided shows during the pandemic, laid low as much as possible. Keir was working on a food truck, being careful. We also avoided COVID, far as I can tell. After two years I caught something this past December, which I suspect may have been Omicron. I couldn't get tested due to being snowed in and rapid tests weren't available yet.

Do your poems become songs - can you give us an example of a lyric?

Yes, with The Pluviophiles, there is much cross pollination between my poetry and our songs.

Fathers must frown
On all that flags or is soft,
On sentiment and church-dodging,
On dummies.

Dad disapproves of alone moments
No matter how hard it gets.
Extend yourself, Numb Nuts
Be rewarded with stature.

Ample mama frets the fluids,
Alpha Pop declaring:
No stains. No beach. Align yourself
With your brothers. Mask nothing,

Abide. Or I’ll give you something
To cry about. I’ll inflict the day.
Bumps. Loads. Crowing cocks.
A crossroad or two.

This one is fun to perform. Many of our songs are ironic/tongue in cheek. I imagine most people assume by the title that we're referring to the pandemic and current "hard times" but it's actually about teenage boys staining the sheets with uncontrollable erections/lust and their frustrated devoutly religious parents.

Oh, my, I just re-read that with your explanation in mind... But, uh, anything else we should say about the launch/ concert? (Other artists performing? Any notes on the venue...?).

I'm opening the evening with a poetry reading, works from my most recent collection Skookum Raven.

We're sharing the bill with award-winning playwright, poet and spoken word artist Johnny Trinh who will also be emceeing. Rafael Zen and the people at Massy Books have been nothing but kind, encouraging and enthusiastic. I admire the store and their commitment to community. All the deets are here.

A final question, out of curiosity - Susan Musgrave gets mentioned as a kindred spirit in some of the writing about Skookum Raven. Did you ever cross paths with her? Any stories there? (Or do you have other BC poets that you have better ones about/ feel more akin to?).

Yes, I have crossed paths with Susan Musgrave many times. I first bumped into her in Whistler. She had just completed collaborating with Lincoln Clarkes on a short film based on his Heroines book. Since then I've visited her on Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii and we've shared bills at several poetry festivals. I've always admired Susan and her work and feel honoured to call her a friend along with BC poets Catherine Owen, Hilary Peach, Jude Neale, Joanne Arnott, Fiona Tinwei Lam, Susan Cormier, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Miranda Pearson and Heidi Greco.

Facebook event page for the May 17th launch here! Pluviophiles Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/PluviophilesLoveMusic 

Fred Ward and Escape From Alcatraz

When it comes to obituaries, these days, I might post on Facebook, but in the case of people whose death is widely felt and who I have no great personal associations with, I generally don't write about them here. So much as I loved Fred Ward - in Tremors, in Miami Blues, in Southern Comfort, in Thunderheart, basically in any role I saw him in - I had nothing in particular to say about his passing when it was announced this past weekend (he apparently died, at age 79, back on May 8th, but the news didn't break for awhile thereafter). He had an appealingly cynical smile, a gruff but engaging manner, could play a cop or a criminal, a hero or a villain and do it with style. I liked him a lot; I've been sad for awhile that he's been less visible in film than I felt he deserved, and a few years ago, hoping I'd just been missing out on some great performances by him, I tried watching a movie - Exit Speed - specifically because it had a late-phase lead role from him. I was underwhelmed - Fred was fine, but the film was pretty routine. So I was sad to see he had died, but with nothing cool to say, I was going to just say nothing. 

But then last night, I decided to play Escape from Alcatraz for Erika, in part to mark Ward's passing; I couldn't remember him in it - he plays one of two brothers who teams up with the Clint Eastwood character in the film to break out of the famed prison. It's based on a true story. I also don't have that much to say about it - maybe because it's film that itself doesn't have much to say! - but there's an interesting personal realization that I will get to in a minute. It really isn't MUCH of a personal realization, and it's really about me, not Ward, but first I do want to say a couple of things about the movie...

Escape from Alcatraz is an odd film, in that it exists almost entirely on the surface of its story. Most movies out there - even most Clint Eastwood movies! - are about more than they seem to be; the characters represent something larger than themselves, the action of the film works through some sort of thematic struggle, the climax of the film produces some sort of "meaning" or at least a feeling of emotional closure. Even if the filmmakers are not consciously aware of what they're doing - which is definitely possible - there's almost always a subtext to a film, a level on which meaning is produced that can be extracted if you take a minute to think about it (which, granted, a lot of movie viewers never bother to do, but that doesn't mean the meaning isn't there; apples on a tree remain apples, even if no one ever picks them). 

To pick a relevant example, Dirty Harry is not "just" about a cop and a criminal - it's about the antipathy between police and the counterculture at the time of its making, and the pathology of that counterculture, which the film renders in the ugliest terms possible. It revels in the righteousness of the righteous and writhes in disgust at the perversity of the perverse, digging into the hatred of the normal for the aberrant to arrive at a celebration of old-school masculine righteousness over the forces that would constrict, challenge, or undermine it (like having to follow rules or not use racist terms or so forth). I mean, I'm being pretty slapdash here in characterizing it, but there's plenty going on under the surface, which enabled Pauline Kael to describe it as a "fascist" film. If it were just a story about a cop and a killer, if there were nothing below the surface, no wider meanings that it engaged with, that wouldn't be a possible judgment. Of course, you can watch it as if there was nothing more than a cop story going on, but not wanting to think about thematic, political, and psychological aspects to a film doesn't mean that they aren't there - it's kind of an impoverished way to watch a movie. If a story doesn't function beyond its own limitations, doesn't "mean" anything to us, is really and truly "only a story" - why would anyone care about it? 

Far as I can see, Escape from Alcatraz is really, really, really about three guys who escape from, uh, Alcatraz. It is perhaps the most meat-and-potatoes movie I have ever seen, a film that is almost all text and no subtext, all plot and no theme. It tells you in the very title what it's about, and accomplishes almost nothing besides realizing that title. We learn nothing about the characters that makes them signify more than their being men in prison - I suppose because any specifics of their criminal pasts or characters might make some audience members squeamish about identifying with them. Plenty is known about the real men who escaped from Alcatraz in 1962... but all we really ever know about their analogues in the film is that they don't like being in prison.  What do they want to do when they get out? What relationships or desires or inner struggles drive them? Are they a danger to anyone, or to society, if they get free again? ....The film isn't remotely interested. We see exactly enough of their life in Alcatraz to understand why they want to escape it - from the possibility of gay rape to the excesses of authority to the sheer grey monotony and unpleasantness of life inside, none of which requires much subtlety ("cue the cockroach!" "Cue the rat!" "Now in the shower sequence..."). Perhaps there's a little bit of that "racist words don't mean racist feelings" thing that permeates Eastwood's movies, which crystallizes around his character's relationship to the prison librarian, English - terrifically played by Paul Benjamin, of Across 110th Street. But it's not like there's a secret thesis about race relations in America to be teased out of the movie. As far as I can see, there is utterly nothing else going on in the film, besides the story it is telling; it's the rare example where the question, "What's it about?" can almost entirely be answered with, "Just what it says in the title - an escape from Alcatraz."  

Which I'm fine on - once the escape attempt is underway, the film has plenty enough to do just detailing how the men plan to get out, and Siegal keeps things interesting enough visually. But you won't go away with meaty analyses or theories about what it all really means. I mean, I sure didn't, and I'm pretty inclined in that direction.

So what has this all got to do with Fred Ward? Well, the thing is, it was made very early in his career, in 1979. He'd done a bit of TV - was in an episode of Quincy, the year before, which I might have seen as a kid - I liked Quincy! - but otherwise, he'd done nothing else prior that I've seen even to this day. He was in movies called Ginger in the Morning, Tilt, and Hearts of the West, but they remain unviewed by me. He made plenty of films that I saw afterwards - starting with 1980's Southern Comfort, a film I have seen many times and have great love of. But in 1979, he was 27, and just didn't have many films under his belt. 

As I was re-watching the film Escape from Alcatraz last night, I remembered seeing it first run, theatrically, I believe at the no-longer-extant Starlight Cinemas in Maple Ridge. And this brings us to my big reveal, the point such-as-it-is of this piece of writing: I can conclude with utter surety that Escape From Alcatraz is the very first movie I ever saw Fred Ward in. 

I couldn't tell you the first time I saw most other actors I like. I can't even say with certainty that the first time I saw Brian Cox was in Manhunter, because I may have watched, in high school, the 1971 film Nicholas and Alexandra as part of Henry Bugler's Western Civilization course, and Cox was in it. I think I did see that film as a kid, so then it becomes a question of  the order I saw the films in - and I have no clue. I probably saw Sigourney Weaver, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt, Tom Skerrit and Ian Holm for the first time in Alien, but all of them had done things I could have seen otherwise on TV as a kid. Even Weaver was in Annie Hall, briefly, and I cannot say with any certainty that I hadn't seen that film on TV before I saw Alien on the big screen (also in 1979, but not at the Starlight). Veronica Cartwright I know I saw before Alien, in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, made the year before, but had I already seen The Birds, at that point? No idea - maybe; and it's the same with her co-stars Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum - I mean, re: Goldblum, that's certainly the biggest early role I ever caught him in, but am I sure I hadn't seen Death Wish or Nashville or, again, Annie Hall on television prior to seeing Invasion, theatrically? Nope. 

It becomes surprisingly tricky to make these valuations. Probably the first time I saw Sir Alec Guinness in a film was Star Wars, when I was nine, but I also know I watched The Bridge on the River Kwai and Situation Hopeless... but Not Serious (written by Robert Shaw!) and The Quiller Memorandum on TV with my parents, at SOME point in my childhood, and cannot tell you if that took place pre-or-post George Lucas' smash. With almost any other actor whose work I am long familiar with, I cannot say with 100% certainty what the first movie I saw them in is; it would require someone - like Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz -  whose work I have very slight exposure to, who acted in a film I saw theatrically at  a very young age - for me to be even remotely sure, and even with Garland - though I do know that I had a very memorable first encounter with The Wizard of Oz, at about age five, also at the Starlight, where my parents had to escort me from the theatre because I saw so traumatized about what those flying monkeys portended for Dorothy -  I remember seeing Judgment At Nuremberg on TV with my parents, when I was too young to really understand it. Can I say with certainty that I didn't see her in that before my parents took me to see The Wizard of Oz

Nope. My wife has an easier time of it, because she wasn't obsessively watching movies on TV as a child - she can say with certainty, for example, that her first exposure to Julie Andrews was Mary Poppins, for example - which she also saw theatrically, at age five, and without the attendant terror of those goddamn flying monkeys. But as deeply as I love cinema - as invested as I have been in it, my whole life - it is actually very, very uncommon for me to be able to say "that first time I saw _______ in a movie, it was __________, in _________." 

Unlike the first time I saw Fred Ward; it was in Escape From Alacatraz, in 1979, at the Starlight Cinemas in Maple Ridge.  

So that's the interesting thing I have here: unlike with almost any other actor you can name, I can pin down my first exposure to Fred Ward, and got to revisit the film last night. Which I enjoyed doing a great deal, even though - or possibly because - it's as meat-and-potatoes as a movie can be.

That's it. RIP, Mr. Ward.