Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Boxing Helena, Julian Sands, and Jennifer Lynch: a film begging to be re-considered

So Erika and I watched Boxing Helena last night. It's fascinating - a very unconventional use of conventional narrative structures, telling a story that is equal parts Harlequin Romance and Human Centipede. I remembered liking it when I saw it theatrically, first run - in the midst of a furor of negative criticism and in the awareness that Madonna and Kim Basinger had been sued for walking off the film. But I had forgotten exactly where it was going; there was so much that was bizarre and fresh in it that I can't but recommend it - though there are some problems, too. 

The thing I loved about it - it takes you non-judgmentally into the heart of obsessive male sexual damage. Lynch surely does not approve of her main male character's behaviour - it's not like she gives him a moral carte blanche; but she doesn't let any judgments she may have about what he does interfere with her seeing things through his eyes, which is a bit of a remarkable feat, given that no doubt, as a woman, Lynch has been the uncomfortable recipient of the unhealthy male gaze herself. Said main character, Nick Cavanaugh, played with verve by Julian Sands, is a successful surgeon with a supportive girlfriend and an apparently good life, even though he has some unresolved mother issues and sexual insecurities. Alas, as good as his life may seem, he is obsessed with something he cannot have, a beautiful, but cold and vain woman (Helena, played by Twin Peaks' Sherilynn Fenn), whom we see rejecting other men as well (including Bill Paxton, whose presence in the film I had forgotten).  She's not very pleasant, but somehow, despite a bitchy exterior, tolerates Cavanaugh's semi-stalkerly schemes to get her attention, even though she knows he's romantically fixated on her. Along the way, as he pursues his obsession, we experience voyeuristic images of her undressing, as seen through Cavanaugh's eyes - Lynch keeps his hands visible on screen - and are invited to sympathize more with him than her, even though his behaviour at best often seems annoying and at worst - well, you may find yourself thinking of films like Silence of the Lambs or the Jeremy Renner version of Dahmer at times, though Cavanaugh does NOT become a serial killer and neither skins nor eats people, Helena or otherwise. Suffice it to say that his predilections are simply that far far from normal.... and the sympathy with which he is treated that unexpected (Silence of the Lambs isn't such a good touchstone there but Dahmer certainly is). 

Of course, Helena ends up a prisoner in Cavanaugh's house, with him taking some fairly radical measures to keep her there, but if you don't yet know the details, it's best I not spoil it for you. There is never any real sense of her as a character - no Story of O/ 50 Shades of Grey seduction into her new role - and in fact -- weirdly, given that it's written and directed by a woman -- Lynch does a better job with Cavanaugh than she does Helena, who does transform a little, without going full Stockholm-syndrome. There are problems with the film as well, however - namely:

a) Why is Art Garfunkel in it? He barely serves a purpose, feels like he has been worked into the story at the last minute to justify his casting. It's possible that he was included because a far greater film about male sexual insecurity and obsessiveness, Bad Timing, stars him, but he is given vastly less to do in this role. He seems misplaced. 

b) What's with the ear? Maybe I missed something, but Cavanaugh has an unexplained ear infection (or such) that he is seen treating. Perhaps this is meant to symbolize a failure to hear what is being said to him, but if so, it isn't emphasized enough to make it seem meaningful or significant. There is no dialogue about it; he just walks around with a cotton ball in his ear, and is once seen medicating it. It ultimately has the feeling of a random detail thrown in for no good reason, a pointless distraction. It makes you wonder if there were scenes cut that it actually mattered to. 

c) The film pulls its punches when it comes to body horror and sexual imagery, possibly due to budgetary issues, but maybe also because Lynch is afraid to go "all the way" with her story. Janet Maslin - one of the film's few supporters, in the initial critical onslaught - likes the film for avoiding pornographic exploitation, which is what she'd been led to expect, but - spoiler alert! Do not read the rest of point C if you want to preserve your innocence about the plot points of this film! - what on earth is the point of an erotic amputee movie without visible stumps? Given what was accomplished, effects-wise, in the film Cutter's Way, couldn't more have been done to make Helena's reduction to a trunk and head more realistic? (You never really buy her as a quintuple amputee - she sits up too straight!). What happens to her severed limbs? (That would have been an interesting scene to see). Why was it deemed necessary (effects budget aside) for Helena to grow her arms and legs back for the fantasy lovemaking sequence? And how can it be that, despite her gradually being seduced into at least a sort of sympathy for Cavanaugh, she and he never consummate their relationship post-amputation? Even if it just ends up a pity-fuck, the film stops short; that MAY be necessary to the final twist ending - because perhaps we could not so easily and thoroughly rehabilitate Cavanaugh if his fantasy was allowed to come to fruition? One wonders if alternate endings were written, even filmed. Perhaps we could go full on Venus in Furs, and have a "happy ending" (even in the fantasy-within-the-fantasy) where she becomes utterly commanding of Cavanaugh and he becomes her willing slave; that would have been quite the happy ending... 

(Point C continues, here, spoiler-wise). Don't get me wrong, it's not that I'm myself particularly kinky. I have a mild fascination for stump-humping, perhaps borne of an interview with Annie Sprinkle, who I was geared up to ask about her own amputee sex bust before she drew a line forbidding the question, but the idea that someone could go to jail for having sex on film with someone missing a foot - which Sprinkle did - is kind of fascinating to me, how public gatekeeping of morality extends into sexual life: "This kind of body is not normal, so you may not suggest sexual interaction with it, lest we corrupt the general public." Yet there really are amputees out there; they have erotic lives of their own; and they do want to be experienced as desirable... though perhaps not through the lens of fetishism: one nice detail of the film is that Cavanaugh doesn't sever Helena's limbs because he has stump-lust; in fact, her limblessness in fact has no impact on, positive or negative, on his obsession with her. He loves her regardless of the shape of her body (unlike her jealous lover - the Bill Paxton character - who says Cavanaugh has made a "freak" of her). 

d) And like I said, something always feels missing, not-quite-believable, in the way Helena is presented. She is nothing but sadistic, vain, demanding and unpleasant in the first half of the film; later, in the post-accident narrative, she softens and actually becomes a bit more complex and likeable, but - though there is maybe a good reason why this softening is not wholly convincing - we don't entirely feel convinced by what we are seeing, or by Fenn's performance. Given how three dimensional and compelling the Sands character is, we would like to see the same with Helena, and we never really do. She is MOSTLY an object of fantasy, and her behaviour is tailored to suit that role...

But note: none of my objections to the film are moral or political. Boxing Helena is deeply perverse and unsettling, but fairy tales can be that way; it's also highly original and utterly compelling. And while we may judge the character of Cavanaugh all we like outside the film, using him to cast a light on unwholesome and unpleasant behaviours from men - it's still important, in a work of art, to get inside characters, to understand what makes them tick. Again, a good comparison point may be the Jeremy Renner Dahmer film (the only Dahmer film I have seen); we are invited to understand Dahmer (and Cavanaugh), and in order to do so, have to suspend our judgements about him, at least while the story is unfolding. This is unsettling indeed, but it also is enriching in a way a film that simply portrayed Dahmer as monster could not be. Cavanaugh is a creep, for sure; but men CAN be creepy, and there's value in letting down our guard long enough, at least in a work of art, to try to understand that creepiness: "This is how not to be a man." 

...which is where the film excels; both Lynch and Sands understand the character of Nick Cavanaugh remarkably well, and Sands brings him vividly to life in a way that is kind of remarkable and brave (and probably was ultimately kind of bad for his career, sadly, though one hopes he remained proud of the film later). Obviously Erika and I watched it last night in his memory. I think my readers might enjoy doing so, as well. The full film appears to be on Youtube, though (no pun intended) it's cut into several pieces. 

RIP, Julian Sands. 

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Jeff Andrew Interview: of Blood Moon, Todd Serious, and the Spell of the Numinous

Jeff Andrew by Mary Matheson

Vancouver songwriter Jeff Andrew has a new album, Blood Moon, with an album release coming up June 30th at the WISE Hall and tour dates around the province throughout July. Andrew is one of the most interesting songwriters in Vancouver, a natural storyteller, fine lyricist, and keen observer of human nature; while none of that has changed, the new record heralds a significant shift in direction. People who have seen Jeff live will be used to him performing solo, self-accompanying on either a fiddle or guitar, singing topical folk songs with a strong connection to history, place, and to themes of social (in)justice. Lately, he's taken to having a full rock band backing him, singing songs about monsters, murderers, and surviving the apocalypse (some of which we spoke about for the Georgia Straight back in pre-pandemic 2019, somewhat as a preview of this record; Andrew had started playing some of the songs discussed below before COVID hit, so there is a bit of overlap, here). The songwriting is no less serious and the songs no less moving for having slightly more fantastical themes, though it's a shame that (late Vancouver punk and frontman for the Rebel Spell) Todd Serious isn't around to offer his opinions about it, since the subject matter is a bit different from what Todd was used to...  

In fact, Jeff Andrew is one of a few musicians - along with Drum and Bell Tower and the punk band the Fight United - whose music I was introduced to by Todd (who died in a rock climbing accident back in 2015). He had recommended I check out the album Hobo Postcards, initially, long before the two had collaborated on a song, "The Tsilhqot'in War," about the hanging of the Tsilhqot'in Chiefs and the history of indigenous struggle in BC; I have an interview with Jeff Andrew about his work with the Rebel Spell here. I actually didn't get around to Andrew until his next album, Tunnels, Treehouses and Trainsmoke, but "Professional Asshole" on that would be pretty much the only song I'd want to play Phil Ochs if I could travel back in time, just because I think Phil would have dug it.  

Anyhow, it is fitting that Todd's all over the first few questions about Blood Moon, the bandcamp page to which includes the note that "this album is dedicated to Todd Serious Jenkins and The Rebel Spell family" (including the Rebel Spell's guitarist, Erin, now with Alien Boys; more on her below). I am in italics, Jeff is not.

Allan: Am I correct in thinking that "Sacrifice” is directly related to the Rebel Spell's "Last Run”? How did Todd’s lyrics for that song inform your own? I think we may have talked about this before, but I was troubled by Todd’s suggestions in "Last Run" that if you need a sacrifice, you could "take me," particularly since he was taken not too long after that song came out...

Jeff: That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it as directly related to “Last Run,” but there’s a lot of parallels. Many people’s lives are softer and cushier than they’ve ever been. Tremendous things are possible now that were beyond fantasy only a few generations ago. But the cost of living such easy lives is that we’re destroying vast swathes of land and ocean, sacrificing animals at a prodigious rate, and potentially making the planet un-livable. Something is wrong with the equation.

“Sacrifice” is about that. The cost that we’re all supposed to pretend isn’t there. We look down on ancient cultures that supposedly practiced human sacrifice as a way to appease the gods, and tell ourselves we've evolved from that - but we're still doing it, or at least letting it happen. Towns burning down in raging fires (when I wrote the song, it had already happened to several towns in California, and then in 2021 it happened to Lytton), people dying from toxic air and water, kids getting shot at school, disasters like the Brumadihno dam collapse in Brazil in 2019 - similar to what happened to the Mt Polley dam in BC in 2014, except the one in Brazil killed about 300 people.

These things are the inevitable by-products of our systems. They’re sacrifices to feed the machine. It’s nothing new. We don't make an event of it anymore like a priest sacrificing someone on an altar, but people seem to accept it as the cost of living the way we do. You just hope you’re not the one holding the shortest straw.

I can’t remember if I was thinking about that line in “Last Run” (“if you need a sacrifice to your God of greed, take me…”) when I wrote this song, but it seems like we’re talking about the same thing. “Last Run” has a line about “massive dams and their floods of death” (which he wrote before both of the dam collapses I mentioned - a lot of things he sang about are coming true now). There’s a lot of Todd on this album.

I notice that 1, 6 and 10 all have guest vocals from Erin, is that a clue that the Rebel Spell have more of an impact on those songs? Also curious about "Murderers," which is also the title of a song off It's a Beautiful Future, but it seems to be a different song…

Well, she demanded a cameo on the album, and she got it! I loved the way they did backup vocals, especially on “Beautiful Future” - the “whoa whoa” parts. I wanted some of that on these songs, and I was listening to Rebel Spell a lot when I was working out the arrangements, so it just got stuck in my head. I’d never really worked with backup vocals before, and it was a new thing to explore. Plus we’re good friends, and I wanted her to be in there.

That song “Murderers” on my album (which is different from their song - I tried a few different titles, but that one made the most sense), there’s an echoing vocal part in the pre-chorus where I was trying to do something like the Rebel Spell song “Dec 8, 1980.” The part “You use fear! You use hate! You use terror! You use pain!” where it sounds like an echo, with different words and more voices added each time - I love that kind of thing. There’s a song by Dr. John called “I Walk On Guilded Splinters” where they create an echo by having different singers sing the same line, each a little quieter and further away from the mic, so it sounds like one person in a big cavernous room. It’s spooky.

A lot of the backup vocals on “Blood Moon” are Adam Farnsworth harmonizing with himself. He’s really good at that. I think we did all his vocals in an afternoon, just working things out on the spot.

Courtesy Wretched Erin: "the crew from our last show, new years 2015. Travis, Elliot, Jeff, Todd, Stepha, Ronnie, Erin"

Of the things that really struck me when I talked to Todd about "I Heard You Singing" was that he had no interest in, no sense of, not even any real patience for a sense of the numinous, and had no interest in looking at that song as describing a mystical experience. But I would have, and often did use spiritual/ mystical, when it came to mysterious experiences in the forest - the feeling of connectedness to a numinous unknown, a beyond pulling at me (mushrooms aided there, as well). There seems to be a patience for or interest in the numinous on
Blood Moon, more of a wiling to “believe.” So do I take it you're not a materialist in the way Todd was? That you DO have a patience for the supernatural or mystical or "religious experience?" Was this ever a topic between the two of you, an area of disagreement...?

Yeah, that would be something we disagreed about, though I don’t remember talking about it too much with him. I’ve always been interested in what’s on “the other side” - if there’s more to reality than we can see. There’s gotta be. I love folklore and mythology, ghost stories, faerie stories. The idea that there are parallel worlds alongside ours, overlapping with ours, is fascinating to me. Partly it’s wanting to escape this one, and partly it’s wanting to see meaning and magic in what we have here.

A lot of people who reject the idea of religion - of a hierarchical power structure which tries to force you into a certain belief system - seem to end up rejecting anything to do with the mystic along with it. Which is understandable, but I think it’s unfortunate too. A lot of the richness of existence is in the mystery, at least for me. Plus, a lot of the mystic strains within the major religions - like Gnosticism in Christianity - were sources of resistance to the church’s power, and were persecuted for it. Like the Cathars in southern France in the 13th century. They didn’t believe they needed to submit to a bunch of corrupt priests, because they had their own direct knowledge of God. The Catholic church launched a Crusade against them, and wiped them out.

So there’s a lot of interesting history there. It’s not unlike the Diggers movement, which The Rebel Spell sang about (their version of “The World Turned Upside Down” by Leon Rosselson). 

Jeff Andrew by Mary Matheson

How many shows did you do with the Rebel Spell (including the posthumous ones), doing “The Tsilhqot’in War?” Did playing with the Rebel Spell live have an impact on your decision to move into electric band mode? Were there other factors?

We did a couple shows together before writing that song, and then I think I sang it with them twice onstage (would have been at the album release at 333, which is also where I remember meeting you, and then the New Years show at the Wise Hall, which I think is the last show Todd did). Then the tribute shows. So about half a dozen?

Definitely playing with them had an influence on me wanting to do more electric songs, though I did some on my second album (Hobo Postcards) too. I learnt to play guitar from metal and classic rock, so it’s always been there.

Tell me about your collaborators? Any that you have particular history with? I have seen Kenan with a couple of different projects, particularly Red Herring; he seems affable and able but I don’t know everything he’s done... I also love Leo D.E. Johnson's vocal contributions, and wonder what your history with them is?

We’re all friends that have been playing music together for a long time, and it just feels right to have them on here. Kenan and I played in the Joey Only Outlaw Band (in fact we all lived together at the time), and Leo played with him in High Society. Kenan is one of the unsung heroes of Vancouver music. He's played with more bands than anyone can count, he's had a show on Co-op Radio for something like 18 years, he's always down to help with projects like this, he records, plays drums and bass really well, he's a tireless performer at the just goes on. His main project right now is Babyface Brass.

Leo is another fantastic musician that I'm really glad to call a friend. We lived together at one point too, about ten years ago, when I wrote “The Lonesome Death of Jack the Ripper.” I was trying to get better at singing, and they’d given me a list of soul songs to work on. So it partly came out of that - using a bigger vocal range than I normally did, and really pushing the high notes.

They loved the song after I wrote it, and I think we’ve sang it onstage a few times. I always knew when I recorded it that I wanted to have them sing on it, and now it's one of my favourite parts of the album.

Tell me about "The Lonesome Death of Jack the Ripper," the song Leo is on? I thought it's interesting that you used a black, non-binary trans musician for a song about victims striking back. But as I remember, there was an early version of that I saw you do at the Heatley, that you said you might still tinker with. What happened there?

Oh yeah, I think I was trying to change the perspective. I like writing from a character’s point of view, 'cause it can really bring you into the world of the song. But it felt awkward singing “I” and “he killed five of my sisters,” when it’s such a heavy subject and it’s so far outside my own experience. I tried changing the whole song to 3rd-person, so I could be the storyteller instead of the woman in the song, but it just didn’t work for the verses. The chorus is in 3rd-person now, which I like - it gives me a bit of distance, and also the changing perspective makes it feel kinda cinematic.

Or maybe it’s just confusing now, I don't know. I hope people get it. Someone else could sing it differently if they want.

Is there a connection to the Pickton pig farm? I recall there being suggestions of official complicity in those crimes, as well.

There’s a double meaning to a lot of the lines in that song. I wrote it in 2012, when the Oppal report on Missing Women was coming out. It’s historical fiction about Jack the Ripper and the London slums, but it could also be about Robert Pickton and the DTES. Or any number of similar stories. It was a quick one, I wrote it in a couple days. The verses haven’t changed at all since then, but the chorus has the perspective change, and also the line "stolen from a hard life of dirty tricks” used to be ‘harmless little girls out turning tricks.’ But I thought that didn’t give these women enough dignity, which was kind of the point - everyone knows the name Jack the Ripper, but the victims are forgotten.

At least now their names are in a song.

I guess the song I have least understanding of here is "Deus Ex Machina." It seems inspired by stories or movies I mostly do not know (tho' I note the Morlock reference and the time-travel element, and I do know the literary term you're using, but not quite how to apply it - who is the God in your machine?).

Not just HG Wells, but also The Terminator! (“Come with me if you want to live”). It’s kind of an action movie love song. I’m not sure who the Deus is, but the plot device is the sudden, unexpected romance that comes out of nowhere and changes everything. Love becomes a wormhole through which you can escape the boring reality you’ve been trapped in. A person you’ve never met (unless it was in another world), but it seems like you’ve known forever, and a new adventure starts. Like breaking through the pages into a totally different story.

At the time I wrote it I was fascinated by tunnels and walkable storm drains in cities. ‘Morlock holes’ is about the underworld - it’s also a sly Stephen King reference. That’s what Ben Hanscom calls the sewer drains in It, which the kids go into to fight Pennywise.
Jeff Andrew by Mary Matheson

Aha! Okay. But speaking of HG Wells, after my tongue cancer surgeries and given the impact the have had on me, I took a much greater interest in Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, watching four different film versions and reading the novel for the first time. Your aesthetic and some of your song topics - like Jack the Ripper – sometimes have a Victorian feel to them, or at least a sense of having a connection to past history; I'm wondering if there are works of horror or SF from the 19th century or early 20th century that had an impact?

HP Lovecraft and Weird Tales. Not much from earlier than that, it’s more mid-20th century and onward. Ray Bradbury (‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’). Stephen King, and then Neil Gaiman a bit later on. Clive Barker. There’s a great book by Susanna Clarke called Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, that turned up a fair bit in my earlier songs. Dune and the influence it had on sci-fi, and I think also the post-apocalyptic genre. Ursula K LeGuin (who I only recently started reading - The Left Hand Of Darkness - but I think her ideas had already gotten into my mind through osmosis).

In "The Last Wild Werewolf," there's a reference to St. Petersburg, which seems very specific; is there a relevant werewolf story (or wolf cull story?). There are also wolves in "Shadow Figures" and "Wounded Wolf" - is this a connected narrative? As someone who travels in BC, do you have any actual encounters with wolves to speak of? Any favourite werewolf movies or novels or so forth?

There’s just something about wolves. About werewolves. The transformation, the crossing over from human to animal and back again - are you escaping yourself or becoming yourself? What does it mean if the animals we hunt (or who hunt us) are also human?

The cover of the album seems to have a monstrous you who is in ambivalent relation to a monstrous female across a body of water. Then there's a little centaur family in the corner (?). I am not sure what to make of the centaurs but the main transaction reminded me of my time on Plenty of Fish, I must confess - "sure, I'm a craven misfit myself, but holy shit, get me outta here!" What's going on out there?

Nah, it’s not me on the cover. If I’m anywhere in that painting, it’s the little figure flying in the sky above the tree. The werewolf and the cyclops I saw as having more like a mother-son relationship. I like that it’s ambiguous. I gave a bunch of ideas to Oliver (aka Miccaotli - he did the covers of the last two Rebel Spell albums, and some of their t-shirts and other imagery), and that’s what he came up with.

I love the layering of worlds. There are these giants, and these massive trees erupting out of the ground, but there’s also people (centaurs in this case) going about their tasks in a normal-sized world, all in the same landscape.

What rock bands are revelant to the music on Blood Moon, besides the Rebel Spell? I find myself thinking of the Blue Oyster Cult's "Sole Survivor" and maybe "Veteran of the Psychic Wars" in the song "Survivor." Are they a band that mean anything to you? If not... who?

I dug into my teenage guitar nerd skills (which have mostly lain dormant since then) for this album. The harmonized lead guitars on “Murderers” - definitely having an Iron Maiden moment there. The beginning of “Deus Ex Machina” is an attempt to combine the drone sound from Metallica’s “Orion” with the arpeggio lick from Pink Floyd's “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”

Blue Oyster Cult could be in there. The Cure definitely are. The first riff in "Survivor" makes me think of “A Forest.” My guitar solo on “Wounded Wolf,” I was thinking of Robert Smith for that. 70s and 80s sci-fi movies, all the synth sounds - Vangelis’ soundtrack for Blade Runner. Stadium rock from that era, and then all the early 80s post-punk and pop music. Movies like The Warriors.

There’s something spooky to me about the music from that time. The way cities looked in movies. It was right before I was born, and then it was my early childhood that I vaguely remember, so it all has this dream-like feel to it. People were so confident that they were living in the future, and now it all seems so dated. Like they were reaching for a world that never happened. Somehow nobody predicted touch screens.

Jeff Andrew's bandcamp is here, his Instagram here, his Spotify here, and the link to tickets for the June 30th record release is here

Friday, June 23, 2023

Back to the 80s: Al's favourites from the VIFF Centre's upcoming series

Having knocked it out of the park last year with a series of stellar 1970's films, the VIFF Centre has programmed a series of 60 1980s American films, starting soon. A series pass is only $199, and there is an option to buy a 10-pack for $99 (Indigenous peeps get in free, I'm told!). It's a very exciting series of movies, with several must-sees included. Without harping much on the things I hated about the 1980s - me 'n Robin Wood both! - here are the films nearest and dearest to me, the ones most likely to get me out of the house, the ones that tap into what nostalgia I do have for the 1980s - which is the nostalgia of an alienated white suburban punk, basically, searching the shelves of video stores of Maple Ridge for a lifeline to a world that made sense, because what I was seeing around me wasn't it, and Culture Club, the Tom Tom Club, Bananarama and so forth were NOT HELPING. This was, after all, the era where I was beginning to get out to movie theatres in earnest, the time of my formative cinematic experiences, the time when I was learning to love movies almost as much as I love music. All of these are films I have seen more than once, sometimes first run theatrically, all of them viewed in the decade of their first release. Some I have seen a dozen times or more, and yet may well see again this summer... 

Repo Man: Have I ever even seen Repo Man theatrically? I don't think so; that alone is reason for excitement. The vast majority of my screenings of it were on VHS, but I've owned at least three different versions of it on DVD and blu. I've also  interviewed writer/ director Alex Cox and the actor who plays Kevin, Zander Schloss. I still get joy from this film, many viewings later; it seems more and more of an unlikely accomplishment, a real slip-it-past-the-goalie move, the least likely film of the decade, in many ways, and the one that probably helped me most with that aforesaid alienation. My friends and I - the ones who made me watch the films I am less enamoured of in this program, like Ghostbusters and Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, despite my protestations - did not always agree about films, but Repo Man was a movie that we could recite dialogue verbatim from, because we watched it so many times: Did you do a lot of acid, Miller, back in the hippie days? We didn't even GET the whole Kiss Me Deadly angle, but we would, on encountering a random synchronicity, sometimes mutter "plate of shrimp" at each other, or roll our eyes when at the mall and say "ordinary fucking people, I hate'm," just loud enough for each other to hear. It kept us sane, because Maple Ridge in the 1980s was NOT a very fun place to be growing up (I imagine the internet has improved things, but it didn't exist for us). Do you realize that Timothy Carey was almost cast as Bud? This guy - you've seen him in a Kubrick or a Cassavetes (or maybe even the Monkees' Head, befitting the Nesmith connection to Repo Man):

The experience of approaching Carey is very entertainingly detailed in Alex Cox's memoir, X Films. Also, you know From Dusk till Dawn? The vampire band? 

The singer, Tito Larriva, scored Repo Man with his band the Plugz, three of whose songs appear in the film; the rhythm section of the Plugz also accompanied Bob Dylan on Letterman, more on which here, while their drummer Chalo/ Charlie Quintana lived for years in Vancouver. Why is the Plugz' Better Luck not available on vinyl? Someone really needs to reissue it...  

An American Werewolf in London: Robin Wood, in his essential Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan... and Beyond, linked above in PDF form, writes about An American Werewolf in the context of the 1980s buddy movie: 

[t]he ambiguity or evasiveness of the buddy movies can be read positively in the context of the collapse of confidence in normality and in relation to Freudian theories of constitutional bisexuality: the men are explicitly defined as heterosexual yet involved in what can only be called a “male love story.” It is striking that, just before the sudden outcrop of explicitly gay movies, the buddy cycle virtually ends. My Bodyguard, with its extraordinary motorbike-riding montage sequence in which the two male teenagers are seen trying out all available positions, is perhaps its last fling; An American Werewolf in London might be seen as a corrupt mutant form, the male relationship made repulsive and impossible by the fact that one of the partners is progressively decomposing throughout the film.

Less reflective people I know roll their eyes at the idea that there's anything queerish between David and Jack, but I think if you don't read this film as being steeped in male ambivalence about heterosexuality, sorry, but you're not actually reading it at all, you're just watching it. Jenny Agutter is incredibly sexy in the film as Nurse Price, but Jack knows there is something wrong with him, something that involves secret, guilt-soaked rendezvous in porno theatres with a male friend, not to mention wearing women's clothing and waking up naked in the zoo (which I guess technically is not a regular feature of gay life, but still...). Consider this Spanish lobby card:

Anyhow, this is the only R-rated movie I tried to get into before I turned 18, but I would not lie at the box office, and so was turned away: "But I've already seen it with my father!" ('Struth, but it fell on deaf ears). I have seen it a dozen times or more since that time. For a John Landis movie, it's quite horrific at times; for a horror movie, it's quite funny (it even has Frank Oz in it!). Note: if you have not seen John Landis' earlier film Schlock, it actually has a strong relationship to this film (tho' I cannot say how without spoilers), and will enrich your appreciation of it; it will also expand your understanding of Landis' fixation on a certain line of dialogue from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which recurs throughout Landis' films, even his "Thriller" video, which riffs on Werewolf a little. By the by, you can see Schlock on Tubi for free. Landis has lost a fair bit of money, we gather, making sure that the film remains available, which he gripes affably about on the commentary for the blu (a great buy); I like him for this a lot. 

Suburbia: There are lots of good reasons to see this film, some of which apply to me, some less so, like being a big fan of TSOL's most artful, gothiest album Beneath the Shadows (songs from which get performed) or being fixated on Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers (he acts in it, and very well, too, creating a fun character as Razzle, the kid with the pet rat). 

...Or maybe you're a big fan of Slayer's cover of "Richard Hung Himself" and love the footage of the band who originally recorded it, D.I., performing it live; or the clips of the original Vandals, with Stevo, doing "The Legend of Pat Brown," based on a true story about a rather antisocial punk rocker, recounted in a very street-level narrative here (he really did try to run cops down with his car). But as much as I enjoy those performance clips - as much as they were a draw for me as a kid - I actually find the story to this film pretty moving (if at times bleak). It's basically the Roger Corman equivalent of Italian neorealism, as applied to the South California punk scene. It captures the prejudice and skepticism punks received in the 1980s, and speaks to our self-pity the way Die Hard speaks to the self-pity of manly white dudes everywhere. And yet as much as director Penelope Spheeris - who had previously made The Decline of Western Civilization and went on to more commercial fare like Wayne's World -  clearly enjoys her punk characters (real punks playing extensions of themselves, more-or-less) she doesn't try to flatter them or paint them as heroes. I interviewed Spheeris about the film when I hosted a screening of the movie a few years ago, apropos of my 50th birthday (and the third anniversary of Todd Serious' death); this will be a much nicer version of the film, which has since been restored and presented on an affordable blu. I think Erin of the Rebel Spell and Alien Boys, who came to the show, described it as "grim," but it's also pretty honest... 

Near Dark: Kathryn Bigelow is, in many ways, the most disappointing filmmaker of the 1980s, because I absolutely loved two of her films from that decade, Near Dark and Blue Steel. As she got increasingly enfranchised, she seemed to be drawn more to macho-boosting, "tough guy" films that flattered the centers of power, catered to their dubious political narratives, tacitly embraced "enhanced interrogation," and in the case of Detroit, just flat out seemed morally suspect, wallowing in the phenomenon it purported to be criticizing (which you could also say about The Hurt Locker). The breaking point initially came with Point Break, for me, but I've since come to terms with that film, my initial rejection of which had a lot to do with the fact that Keanu Reeves couldn't act his way out of a barrel back in those days (there's a scene in the film where a character describes the emotions she sees playing on Keanu's face that STILL reads like an attempt by Bigelow to make the audience realize what Reeves was supposed to be emoting, in the absence of any expression at all). I now enjoy what she does right up to Strange Days, but beyond that, I see very little trace of the things I loved in her early films (sorry, Ms. Bigelow. I guess your three Academy Awards must be some consolation). Near Dark - co-written by The Hitcher's Eric Red - in an unapologetic, highly inventive genre film, a vampire western with a love story. Blue Steel, not screening - maybe because it is technically from 1990, which to me is the last year of the 80s - is a feminist cop thriller about the male attraction to violence and how women have to come to terms with that (Jamie Lee Curtis' best role, maybe?). Blue Steel is probably the most interesting film Bigelow ever made, but Near Dark is the most fun, especially if you're a fan of the late great Bill Paxton, or Lance Henriksen, or Jenette Goldstein; they play three of the central vampires of the film (note: pretty much ALL of you have seen Goldstein somewhere else, but I bet most of you don't realize where!). We had some memorable lines from this one, too, my buddies and I,  none better than "I hate'em when they ain't been shaved." And the Cramps are on the soundtrack, too! Damn we watched this a lot; it even looked great on VHS, y'know? I have never seen Near Dark theatrically. How can I resist?

By the way, you Bill Paxton fans, did you realize that he co-directed the "Fish Heads" video? I am sure some of you did. It's just not as easy to impress people with this shit now that the internet is around. 

Blood Simple: This is a film that I actually had a hard time with the last time I revisited it, since a) I thought the Coens were silly to cut a few minutes out of it, apparently done solely for the perverse pleasure of having a director's cut that is shorter than the original; some of us have seen the film enough times that the missing lines leave an echoing gap in our experience of the movie, even if they're pretty silly/ negligible. Also, b), it was, for whatever reason, not a film that looked all that great when viewed with a flatscreen TV and blu-ray player. I had remembered it as gorgeously cinematic (even on VHS), but it looked oddly shot-on-video on my current setup, which was distracting as hell, because again, this is a movie that used to look pretty damn good on VHS and DVD. Nevermind all that, though: it's a great film, a stunning debut, and I'm sure it's going to look just fine on the big screen. People who hold to Roger Ebert's Walsh-Stanton rule, that “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad," who have somehow not seen this film, should amend that forthwith, as it features what surely is M. Emmet Walsh's greatest performance. It also probably has Dan "Carla's husband" Hedaya's and John "Stathis Borans" Getz's best roles, too, though Frances McDormand gives herself more competition later on in her career; she's good in it, but she's a bit of a Helen Mirren figure, an actress who comes into her full force as she gets older. She mostly just has to be confused in Blood Simple, but boy, is her character good at that. 

I think if I had to pick my favourite murder scene of the 1980s, it would be this one:

Anyhoo, my friends and I used to talk about this movie, maybe sometimes with the aid of diagrams, to try to keep track of what everyone thinks is going on and what it means; as teenagers, we analyzed this film like it was Shakespeare. No one trusts anyone; everyone operates on assumptions; everyone misperceives everyone else, with only one character coming to a flash of realization as to the full depth of his own confusion, the instant before he is shot dead. There was a six year period when this was the high watermark for Joel and Ethan Coen, for me, the film of theirs that I loved, that made everything else they did (Raising Arizona, that is) seem kind of trivial. It remains their most European film, their most noirish film, and one of two films of theirs (the other being Miller's Crossing) that I love in a deep, personal, unqualified way, even though I have not seen it in some time. And again, I have never seen it theatrically! 

The Big Chill: ...But this film I did see theatrically, more than once, because in 1983, we still didn't have a VHS player at our house. Maple Ridge did have a theatre back then, however, the Stardust, and there were a few films I went to see repeatedly there, like The Big Chill and (another 80's favourite not repped in the series) Ordinary People. I think I had seen The Big Chill theatrically at least three times before we finally got a VHS player, whereupon I rented it and dubbed it onto VHS. I continued to watch it afterwards almost obsessively, between the ages of 15 and 17, because in 1983, the 1960s had a deep fascination for me, and because I was hungry to teach myself how to "read" film. I associated the popular culture of the 1980s with easily consumed, mindless trash - the Bananarama factor, let's say. Most of the movies, most of the music, almost all of television, hell, almost all of what passed for popular culture seemed cloying and annoying and false, brightly coloured, noisy, trivial confections designed to distract the masses from asking questions or being upset about things that were worth being upset about or noticing just how insane the world we were living in was. I've since come to terms with a lot of that - or at least run out of energy to object to it - and am prone to a certain nostalgia even for things I found irritating in the 1980s; hell, I even spun a Cyndi Lauper album BY CHOICE the other day and loved it - but back then, with very little trace of authentic culture to grab onto on the radio and television, with me still a year or so shy of "discovering" punk, and no internet to help me connect to other ways of thinking, I was prone to the same 60s nostalgia that people FROM THE ACTUAL 1960s had in spades. All the best rock music seemed to be from the 1960s and early 1970s; there were glimpses in song lyrics and in the films one saw on late night TV that people WERE taking the problems of the day seriously back then, that a politically-engaged, intelligent, focused popular culture HAD existed, that there had been popular ART being made, not just crap, before the 1980s came and stuffed our mouths, eyes and ears with brightly-wrapped, nutrition-free candies. How had we gone from Woodstock to Bananarama in the space of a generation? What the fuck had happened to our culture? How could a sensitive, intelligent kid not feel like he had to make sense of the 60s? it was natural that I was fascinated by The Big Chill, about a group of friends from the 1960s coming to terms with their inheritance in those same 1980s, trying to understand, in the wake of a friend's suicide, what any of what they'd experienced together meant and what, of their past, still mattered to them. I wrote about the film at some length here, having revisited it shortly after the death of William Hurt. It holds up; if you try to tease a theme out of the film, you will find one, interwoven through a rich, complex web of character relations and sharply-written dialogue. The cast is great - especially Hurt, Mary Kay Place, Glenn Close, and Jeff Goldblum. There's also a great early role for Meg Tilly, whose character I adore and who does get points from me for being a bit of a homegirl (she lived near Maple Ridge for quite some time; I never have had cause to interact with her, but her partner back then, Colin Firth, was one of two celebrities I met while working at the Maple Ridge Rogers Video, the other being Art Bergmann; Firth actually came in to rent a movie, and I recognized his name, having seen him in a couple of films. He was shy about my attempt to engage him, though, and never returned to the store - I periodically checked his account to confirm this).  

Incidentally, I loved the character of Nick - William Hurt - so much that I went out and bought a corduroy jacket at a thrift store, in emulation of him, which I wore to junior high school. I was not a drug dealer; I was not even a drug user. I just loved the character of Nick. 

sex, lies and videotape: As was not the case with Kathryn Bigelow, who made a few great films early on, I only ever really loved one Steven Soderbergh film: this one (Schizopolis is kind of fun, too, mind you, but I've only seen it once). When this film - the forbear of dozens of multi-word-titled copycats like Sex, Lies and Naked Thighs - came out in 1989, I associated it with arthouse films that were being made at the time by Atom Egoyan (Family Viewing and Speaking Parts), Peter Mettler (The Top of His Head), and even some European cinema that made it into Maple Ridge, like Bertrand Tavernier's Death Watch and Wim Wenders' The State of Things: self-aware, self-reflexive cinema that was as concerned the morality of filmmaking as it was with its characters, that called the viewer's own consumption of images into question, that asked you to think about what you were watching, HOW you were watching, and why... It was a type of cinema I was very given to back then, as I was asking questions of my own morality and image-use (what can I say, voyeurism, pornography, and masturbation are very relevant themes to a 21 year old, and they're all over the Soderbergh in question). There were more garish, outlandish examples of films that folded back on themselves (Body Double, say), but Soderbergh's debut had such a sincere, serious, self-questioning aspect that I rather fell in love with it. I made multiple trips to the theatre to see it first run; I bought and read Soderbergh's screenplay; and I even - when the VHS came out - made an audio recording of it so I could LISTEN to the film, without images (maybe the only time I have done that; I got almost all of it onto one audiocassette and listened to it through on headphones more than once). 

Alas, whatever sincere self-questioning you see in this film (and the others I mentioned) seemingly disappeared in the early 1990s, replaced by winking postmodernism (Tarantino and his imitators), Godardian irony (Araki, Hal Hartley), and, in the mainstream, big budget spectacle (Michael Bay, James Cameron, the continued dominance of Spielberg, etc). Even Soderbergh got dramatically less interesting. Maybe I just stopped noticing the right films, but sex, lies and videotape truly seems like an anomaly now - like if David Holzman's Diary had become a mainstream hit? 

In some ways, the key film of the decade - the film that contains qualities of the American cinema of the 1970s and prefigures the even shallower 1990s, is the next film under discussion, from 1982: 

First Blood: I assume we have all seen this movie at some point, but perhaps our memories of it are clouded by its less worthy sequels, two of which are reactionary, sub-cinematic Reaganite crap, and two of which are hyperviolent, lowbrow exploitation films (I actually quite enjoy those two, but they're definitely not the most sublime cinematic pleasures out there; they're basically splatter movies by another means). Even if you admired First Blood when you first saw it, and remember that it is a Ted Kotcheff film and also one of the very first acting roles - the second feature film role - of Bruce Greenwood, whom I assume is one of everyone's favourite Canadian actors, if you haven't seen it since the early 1980s, you probably will be surprised to revisit it. I certainly was. Filmed largely around Hope, BC., it is one of the few violent action films that climaxes in an explosion of tears. Which is actually a pretty radical, moral thing. The 70s pivot into the 80s, really, around the figure of John Rambo; the Rambo of First Blood owes to the battle-scarred, PTSD-afflicted vets of  70s films like Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Rolling Thunder, and maybe even Taxi Driver (I gather there's some controversy about whether Travis was in Viet Nam, but it's certainly a believable theory). What comes later in the franchise, with Rambo the film, is rah-team bullshit and vicious wish-fulfillment (particularly visible in the fourth film, where the Burmese soldiers are basically the equivalent of the aliens in Aliens - an excuse for killing, with their humanity (and the actual politics of Myanmar) completely irrelevant. The film might as well be set in a fictional country, so as to avoid offending no one. We just want to see Rambo blow people up, and boy does he ever... extreme contrast, First Blood is an honest, touching, powerful film about trying to reintegrate into society when the powers that be don't want to give you a break. It's a great movie, a moral movie, and an important movie, regardless of whatever has come since, and I'm really glad it's screening, because I missed all that 40th anniversary stuff that went on in Hope last year, and I'd love to see it on the big screen. It's been over 40 years since I last did!   

Matewan: I am running out of steam, and have nothing much fresh to say about this film, my second-favourite John Sayles movie after the under-appreciated Limbo, and as yet the only film of his to get the blu-ray release it deserves, via Criterion. Will Oldham fans out there should definitely see it for his role in the film, as Danny, the young preacher and union supporter (that's him, above!). The film was also the first great film to feature Chris Cooper, as a union organizer, and has a fantastic role for longtime Sayles collaborator David Strathairn, as well as Mary McDonnell (who later paired again with Strathairn in Sayles' Passion  Fish) and James Earl Jones. This is a moving, historically-based film about a devastating but important chapter in American labour history, involving coal miners in West Virginia who attempt to organize. My only quibble with it is that the company guns are almost cartoonish in their repugnant, irredeemable evil; Sayles is unable to rise above his own convictions and values to make them fully human, they're just bad guys. Otherwise this is one of Sayles' greatest accomplishments, and a film anyone concerned with labour history should see.   

Aliens: If I may seem like a snob above, picking the most counterculture-y, artsy, serious-minded and/or subversive films in the program as favourites, while snubbing "the fun stuff" like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Back to the Future, let me say this in my defense: of all of the films in the Back to the 80s series, the one I am most excited to see on the big screen is Aliens, which I still hold to be James Cameron's best film, and which I saw theatrically three or four times back in the day. I am not immune to a good action movie or a good shoot'em up; Aliens is maybe one of the best, and I'm doubly excited to learn that the version the VIFF Centre will be playing is the extended one with Ripley's backstory included - the stuff that made Sigourney Weaver sign on to the film, the stuff that motivates her protectiveness to Newt, which was later cut from the theatrical release. That missing footage is out there on home video, possibly in your own home video collection, but the extended version does not screen often, and (in Weaver's opinion as well, I assume) it IS the right way to see the film. 

Surely this is Sigourney Weaver's best role, the film she should be proud to be remembered for; it is almost definitely Michael Biehn's best work, too (an actor I really liked at the time, whose career did not really live up to the promise he showed in the films of James Cameron, but who is great in The Terminator and The Abyss, as well). It's going to be a pleasure to see this film in the "proper" cut on the big screen, which I've never had the chance to do, and to appreciate the fine work of Cameron, Weaver, Biehn, and the production designers and so forth behind this superbly-realized ball of excitement... 

...but while we're talking about the cast, as strong as it is, does the actress who plays Vasquez not utterly steal Aliens? Is her tough-talking Latina warrior not one of your very favourite characters in any action film, ever?  In the face of so much talent - Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton again, too! - the actress who plays Vasquez creates one of the most indelible tough-gals in cinema history. Howard Hawks would shit himself. It's funny that she's not better known, because...

Wait a minute. Who played Vasquez, anyhow? 

Yes, folks, that's Diamondback from Near Dark, Janette Goldstein. Maybe you already knew that; I didn't, not for an embarrassingly long time. While I'm guessing with a name like Goldstein she isn't actually Latina, and may even be wearing a bit of makeup to get her skin the right shade, she is so thoroughly believable in the role that it's almost impossible to object. If Michelle Rodriguez had been available back then, perhaps that would be a grounds for complaint, but Rodriguez was only nine when Aliens was released. So it's that same trio, Heriksen-Paxton-Goldstein, who make Near Dark so special, also at the very heart of Aliens. How 'bout that? 

So those are my top ten picks, the films nearest-and-dearest me, that will be screening at the VIFF Centre starting next week. 

There are at least another half-dozen films I might check out, films I love and have not seen on the screen in years, if ever. If you'll forgive me, I'll let you search out your own links on the VIFF Centre website. Some of the other films I'm thinking about hitting include Brazil, Down By Law, They Live, Scarface, Lost in America, and Streets of Fire, though, fun as that movie is - featuring a memorable role for Lee Ving of FEAR (below, with Willem Dafoe) and an appearance by the Blasters - I'm a bit sad that that was the Walter Hill picked. It's definitely a great night out at the cinema, a real crowd-pleaser of a film - a rock'n roll musical with songs by Jim Steinman of Bat Out of Hell fame; but I've always been more a Southern Comfort kind of guy, myself...

But it's still a hell of a series, even if you overlook those films I don't want to even think about. At least there's not a whole whack of John Hughes! 

...And then there's the films I have not seen. I am particularly curious about Born Into Flames, which feels like a film I should have seen in my 20s (except it wasn't possible). I saw Lizzie Borden's NEXT film, Working Girls, theatrically, and found it pretty bleak, but I somehow have completely missed this film, as well as another to-be-screened female fronted film of the time, Love Letters, with an early Jamie Lee Curtis performance - and directed by the person who made The Slumber Party Massacre! Finally, there's Hollywood Shuffle, about racial stereotypes in Hollywood, which also sounds very intriguing. Plus I've never seen Desperately Seeking Susan or done justice to Once Upon a Time in America, which I am assured is a masterpiece that I need to reconsider. Maybe I will? I don't think I've seen the full version to completion, to be honest (I turned it off, which won't be an option at the theatre).  

See you at the VIFF Centre...?

Very realistic record-shopping dream

In the dream, Erika and I are at a record store in Seattle - one that doesn't actually exist, but that I know in the dream to be overpriced, and they have a Specials album she wants to hear, one I have never seen before (because it doesn't really exist, in reality, of course). I offer them $15 and to my surprise, they take it. They try to shortchange me by $5, until I point it out to them, but I'm impressed that they were so reasonable on their price, because I'd expected they would try to charge me $40 for it, vinyl prices being what they are now. Then I see another record by an obscure Jamaican musician named, get this, Leeroy Stagger, whose music I don't know (which is because he's a Canadian alt-country musician - not reggae at all! In the dream he was like Mikey Dread or someone the Clash turned me onto). I am showing Erika imperfections in the vinyl and explaining how you have to look out for vinyl from "third world countries" sometimes, because the quality of vinyl that they have access to varies and you get mis-pressings (something I believe I have actually heard from someone but cannot verify). I point out the "made in Jamaica" to her on the album cover and show her a place or two where the vinyl looks a bit crazed. I'm trying to look it up on Discogs but I'm having trouble with my phone; I offer them $15 for it, too, "because I'm not sure how well it will play," but they aren't interested, as the stack I got it from has yet to be priced. I look around for some other records while Erika is in the washroom, check a couple of sections for things I am looking for (maybe they have Toxic Reasons' Kill by Remote Control?). But they don't, and Erika is done, so we leave.

Lying in bed after we're both up, I play Erika "A Message to You Rudy" to show her the band she wanted me to buy - and she's still humming it a bit now, as she heads for the shower (I don't actually own any Specials on vinyl, just CD). Then I play some Leeroy Stagger, who I discover (only then) is not a reggae musician at all. Doesn't his name sound like a reggae musician's? I don't blame my dream for getting it wrong.

Very realistic dream, otherwise. To the point of being prosaic - details like taking an American $50 out of my wallet, or how Erika was wearing a leather jacket... 

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

COVID Round 2

Right, right: COVID is still a thing. 

But what kind of thing will it be this time? It is already different from the last round. It's taking longer to fully manifest. We haven't even got to the fever, yet. In fact, my body temperature seems to be dropping. If I'm using the thermometer right. Low body temperature apparently correlates with severe COVID. But the thermometer was behaving oddly so I am not inclined to trust it; I think I would feel it if I had hypothermia.

Or my wife would. I apparently am radiating a normal amount of heat. 

Anyhow, this time last COVID it was fever, so that's different. Also different is that I have a weeping right eye!

If I had a finger on the trigger of BBAWF, I would suggest, "Best Biblical allusion in a (non-Christian) rock song," so I could nominate the Original Sins' "Possession": "There's something wrong with my right eye." Referring to Matthew 5:9., which I'd always thought was from Paul - where did I get that idea, Harlan Ellison's "The Deathbird," maybe? Not exactly scriptural scholarship. Robert Anton Wilson? (A bit more scholarly when he wanted to be but maybe not entirely reliable himself).

Whoever incorrectly identified that as being from Paul - y'know, Saul of Tarsus - also offered the opinion that it was referring to self-castration, to remove temptation. King James: "And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell." 

NIV: "If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell." But this is medical advice I am not prepared to follow.

There is something wrong with my right eye, though. I woke up with my eyelashes gooed together two mornings in a row. They weren't quite stuck as bad this morning - I didn't even notice it until I got to the computer; I can see the liquid making my vision fuzzy on the right side of my right eye, a patch of fogginess that I can momentarily wipe away. 

(I pause to get a swab prepped for a home test. It's jammed up my nostril as I type this. Yesterday the line was very faint, but definitely visible).

I was reading Matt Taibbi on 9/11 Conspiracy theorists, in his book The Great Derangement, which was written pre-Trump, hearkening back to the "saner times" of the second GW Bush presidency.  He has a very funny series of interludes about the 9/11 Truth Movement that are a must-read, satirizing the internal logic of the movement. I remind myself that the friend I seem to have lost to COVID conspiracy theory was also into the 9/11 Truth Movement. 

Would things be different now if I'd kept up my boosters? I jumped off the booster train after my first; I'm triply-vaxxed, no more. There is, I suspect, a lot of "weaponized misinformation" out there from actors determined, for one reason or another, to undermine public safety responses to COVID. But when it seemed easily verifiable that the second COVID booster had not had a human trial at all... I got nervous. It didn't help that there did seem to be a tide of people shouting down with great hostility attempts to ask questions... there did seem to be a tendency to smear or discredit people. Mattias Desmet's idea of "mass formation" resonated (thank to Murray Acton for clueing me into that concept). And weirdly, about the time people started shouting loudly about totalitarianism, the government started scaling back its public safety measures, until the idea of having any concern at all about COVID seems a whisper. Mask up in hospitals? Mask up on transit? Why would we do that? It's not like the pandemic is still a problem...!

But now here's COVID round 2. Wonder what it will be like this time? (Would it be in any way different if I'd had that next booster, I wonder?). 


Addendum: I am being told to do a warm saline rinse, just with a homemade solution of salt and warm water, and get a medicated eyedrop if it doesn't improve. Rinsed both eyes and they feel clearer this evening, but then, my symptoms are always best in the evening - and worst in the morning. I actually feel almost okay at the moment, but there's a raspy/ wheezy quality in my throat and upper respiratory system and a bit of fog in the right eye. But it's interesting that I always feel worst on waking. Wonder why that is?

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Of Daniel Romano's Outfit, Bob Dylan, and the Plugz: some thoughts apropos of Thursday's Rickshaw show

I do not know the Dirty Nil at all, playing with Daniel Romano's Outfit at the Rickshaw on Thursday. Their current album is called Fuck Art, which is a fun title. The music sounds like melodic, even romantic pop-punk, and they seem to have pretty witty lyrics, including a line in an apparent love song ("Doom Boy") to the effect of, "Do you like the Cro-Mags?" They do not sound like the Cro-Mags at all, but it's cute to contemplate someone using that question in the context of dating: "We could hold hands and listen to Slayer/ in the back of my Dodge Caravan." Sounds like a good time to me! ...But my reasons for being curious about tomorrow's show at the Rickshaw ultimately have more to do with the other band on the bill, Daniel Romano's Outfit, and even more to do with Bob Dylan. And the Plugz. If you care about Dylan (or the Plugz) you might want to go to the Rickshaw tomorrow night, too, or at least read the rest of what follows. What does Daniel Romano have to do with Bob Dylan, you ask...? 

Maybe some of you know where I'm going with this, but let's back up for a second. 

Do you like Infidels? It's seen as Bob Dylan's return to form after his less-than-popular digression into Born Again Christianity, which dominated 1979's Slow Train Coming and 1980's Saved, but which was moving into the background on 1981's Shot of Love and not really a factor at all in Infidels, which came two years later. It was kind of a comeback album, and garnered a lot of attention, but after having owned it and played it dozens of times, having genuinely tried to like it, I have to face the fact that I just (mostly) don't. I do like some of the songs on it - especially "Neighborhood Bully," the hardest rockin' and most lyrically daring song on the album, which is a spirited, entertaining, creative allegory for the way Israel gets bashed by the left - the most energetic and committed political song Bob had written in some time, at that point! But even that song I have mixed feelings about, because in a couple of its verses, at least, it is dishonest to the point of scandal: "he's got no allies to really speak of," he says of his fictional bully, an allegory for Israel - no allies, that is, except for the most powerful country on earth, Bob; did you forget about that? Because you really can't; you score a fair number of points for Israel with some of your images, get me to regard the country from a point of view I normally wouldn't, but that whole angle - plus the bit about "buying obsolete weapons" - is a "yeah, right" eye-roller that gives lie to the whole song. You can still appreciate the spirit of the thing, observe it as a piece of craft, appreciate how catchy and rockin' it is, but the whole allegory of the poor misunderstood isolated bully, friendless and alone, falls apart when his best buddy is feckin' Rambo.

And I like "I and I," too, and "Man of Peace" (especially as covered by Lucinda Williams) and "Union Sundown" (with some standout guitar from Mark Knopfler, whom I might otherwise try to blame for aspects of Infidels I don't care for, but I like him on that track!). But overall, the album is overproduced, over-thought, and kind of too damn laid back for its own good. I don't need soppy, pastel lounge tunes like "Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight" or "Sweetheart Like You." Even on those songs, I do enjoy some of the lyrics - "how much abuse will you be able to take?/ There's no way to tell from that first kiss" - but the songs are so sleepy and harmless and boringly arranged that whatever potential they do have just makes me wish for something rawer, rougher, less processed. It's not a Dylan album I have kept (and I have Street LegalSlow Train Coming and Saved, and might reunite myself with Shot of Love next time I see it, so that's saying something... Dylan's big 80's comeback is kinda where I got off the boat...).

Coming back to Thursday's show: just like I don't know the Dirty Nil, I don't really know Daniel Romano's Outfit, either - but I've peeked a bit deeper, and am more curious, for reasons that have everything to do with Bob Dylan (and the Plugz), which I will get to presently. Romano's new album, La Luna, each side of which is a suite of interlocking songs, sounds pretty damn cool. The one album of his I've picked up, How Ill Thy World is Ordered, which is the one Ford Pier recommended of those in stock at Red Cat, is pretty rich, too; he's the sort of songwriter I want to sit and read the lyric sheet of (or maybe the Genius lyrics page, because there's no lyric sheet included). It's intelligent, emotive indy rock made by someone who clearly knows his Beatles and Dylan (and Neil Young and the Grateful Dead and Ray Davies and...). I gather he performs in other modes as well, some rootsier, some punkier, while self releasing on his own label, You've Changed Records. I am early in my explorations and maybe even a bit reluctant to get too enthusiastic, since I can't afford another deep dive into a prolific artist, not having the money, the shelf-space, nor the room in my head to take one on...   

But Daniel Romano's Outfit did at least one thing that is absolutely, undeniably fucking brilliant, seizing on one of the great lost opportunities in rock history and making something of it. Something which was never released on physical media, and which has since been removed from his bandcamp,  which furthermore probably won't be manifesting in his Rickshaw set, and - depending on Romano's personality - he might even be annoyed to be represented by, in this piece of writing, in preference to his own music - but it's all I've got, folks, I barely know Romano, and I won't be able to fix that, given his dozens of releases, in time for tomorrow's show...

But there's one thing he's done... this one thing...

Back up again. Do you know the Plugz? They were a Los Angeles Latino punk band, active in the early 1980s, fronted by a guy named Tito Larriva, who you have probably seen (or whose music you have probably heard) in a Robert Rodriguez movie or two. You may know the Plugz' later incarnation, the Cruzados, but you've probably encountered the Plugz before, too: they contributed to the soundtracks to Repo Man - doing some of the score and contributing a couple of songs to the soundtrack album, including the instrumental ("Reel Ten") when the car flies away. The title track of their first album is used in the notorious porno New Wave Hookers; Tito is also the vampire rockstar in From Dusk Til Dawn; and the Plugz late drummer - Chalo Quintana - lived for years in Vancouver, which I never realized until after he died.   

...And two of the Plugz backed Bob Dylan on television. I highly recommend reading this interview with the Plugz bassist Tony Marsico about the experience. It's really a fun read (which I found on Facebook thanks to the Scenics' Andy Meyers; thanks, man!) and actually mentions the Romano project briefly. You see, Marsico and Quintana (and a guitarist friend of theirs, JJ Holiday) were picked to jam with Dylan, to back him on the David Letterman show, where they did punchy, raw rock versions of Infidels songs. It was way, wayyy better than the material on Infidels, and way rougher, including an infamous gaffe in the midst of "Jokerman" (about 3:20 into the clip, below) where Dylan grabbed a harmonica set to the wrong key, tooted a couple of notes, and set off on a quest, while the band played on, to get the right one, returning to finish the solo. If you don't know "Jokerman," and have a minute, check out the Infidels version and the Letterman version and compare.  

Now, I dunno about you, but to my mind, that Letterman version kicks the Infidels version into a soft pastel pulp. Sadly, the collaboration turned out to be a one-off, a road not really taken, a digression in Dylan's musical career that he chose not to explore further beyond that appearance. From what I've heard, his next album, Empire Burlesque, far from taking up the punk potential of the Letterman set, dilutes things even further; if Infidels is an album I have grappled with, at least wanting to like, Empire Burlesque is one I have been quite content to ignore. Can you imagine what it would have been like if Dylan had actually done a whole album with Marsico and Quintana and Holiday? If he had chosen - instead of Knopfler's slickness - to approach Infidels with the sort of verve you see in that Letterman clip? It's one of those haunting What Ifs of musical history, up there for me with "What if Phil Ochs' gold lame shtick had been a hit with the public, instead of drawing boos?" or "What if Lemmy had recorded a whole album of acoustic blues?"

Daniel Romano's Outfit press photo

Well, Daniel Romano - who can do a damn fine Dylan voice when he wants to - must have had the same idea, because a few years ago, he recorded an EP devoted to realizing the potential of that project, re-recording a fistful of Infidels songs exactly as they might have sounded had they been recorded with the Plugz. I don't even know what to call it - can something be a reconstruction of an original that never existed? I stumbled across this EP quite by accident on a file-sharing program, trying to find if anyone had some decent audio of the Dylan/ Plugz performances (there's a complete rehearsal recording, too, which is also fun, though even rougher). When I found the Romano versions, not knowing Romano, I was completely blown away by how much they really did sound like a polished recording of Dylan and the Plugz, complete with - about three minutes into "Jokerman" - a replication of the harmonica gaffe. What the hell was this? It took me longer than it should have to figure it out, in part because some part of me really just wanted it to be a real recording of Dylan and the Plugz. 

It ain't, but it is a damn fine facsimile. The perfect "might-have-been" trip to an alternate universe. Plus it's just flat-out BETTER than those Infidels recordings, y'know? I don't want to listen to Dylan do "Jokerman" ever again - at least not the studio version - but Romano? Hell yeah!

Anyhow, I don't know Daniel Romano, not really, but that one project is so inspired and comes so close to my own weird heart's desires, I'd love and respect him even if his own material sucked. Which it definitely does not. I have a bit of a conflict of interest tomorrow, so I don't know if I'm going to be able to see his full set, but I think I'm going to pop by the Rickshaw to buy his new album, La Luna, and maybe hear at least one song. He's probably not going to do any of the Dylan stuff anyhow - he's removed it from his bandcamp and probably doesn't really want to be known for covering someone else's material, however creatively this has been accomplished. But maybe I should check out Cobra Poems, too? He does sound quite Dylanesque on that opening track, and I'm digging this album Ford recommended... hmmm...

Just to emphasize, there is very little chance you're going to hear any Bob Dylan covers tomorrow; I've written Romano to check in, but he hasn't responded, and may not, but odds are, you're going to hear nothin' but originals. I'm hoping that the coolness of his Dylan project is enough that it might get a few people curious about Romano, regardless. It's certainly had that effect on me. 

For more information about Daniel Romano's Outfit and the Dirty Nil, Thursday June 15th at the Rickshaw, go here...