Saturday, April 29, 2006

Signal+Noise +Womb-fear: a very male night at Video In

(Image: the "surgeon" from the Guinea Pig movie, Flower of Flesh and Blood -- click the link for an interesting description of the film. You can see what he is operating on here, though I would actually recommend not looking).

Hm. Somehow Friday’s Signal+Noise event ended up being all about gender politics, when it didn’t intend to be. No women performed music – at least not as part of the live show at Video In. Men hit each other, talked to each other, dined with each other onstage, and performed operations and art in equal measure, while women remained on the margins, were rendered “objects” of male performance, or were excluded entirely; by the time, midway through the evening, Jesse Scott Colin & Paul Warren Bennett performed Microclimate – which involved both men eating different courses of food while a female (uncredited in the online program) stood in uniform behind them, ready to take away plates and pour wine for them – some of the women in the audience were getting uppity. One threw a plastic cup in the direction of the stage as a protest; as I heard a woman sitting next to me remark: finally a woman appears, and she’s a servant? In fact, I’d had the same thought myself. Usually women are more widely represented in Vancouver arts events – politics demand it – such that the evening seemed to harken vaguely back to the 1980’s, when it was more common for men to dominate and exclude and make an evening all about themselves. My review will unavoidably hearken back to the humourless good old days of 1980's "pre-post," pre-Madonna, anti-porn, male-bashing feminism, but what can I say, that's where the evening took me.

Certainly none of the performers in the lineup should be held individually responsible for this. The woman who threw the glass could use a lesson in manners, at the very least, and perhaps needs to reflect that she was actually expressing disapproval at the performance that had, in fact, the most active participation from a female, servant or no (the other live woman of the evening, Christine Carriere, as the patient in Turbulent Bodies: An Aesthetic Odyssey, simply lay on a table immobile). Further, the individual performers are not responsible for the context in which they perform – they didn’t conspire to exclude women from the night, which women were indeed involved in arranging (note: Velveeta Krisp did not get any cell phone calls). Probably Microclimate would have seemed quite innocent of any questionable representation of women if the rest of the evening’s line-up had been more balanced. There is an even larger mitigating circumstance that needs to be taken into account, too: very few submissions came in from women – which is believable, since much of what we were listening to was relatively high-tech stuff, a niche that women don’t inhabit in great numbers. Signal+Noise can hardly be blamed for not representing women in equal measure, if almost none applied; and the festival organizers, cognizant of the issue, put out a sign-up sheet for workshops to get more women involved in making electronic music/noise/etc, which shows their hearts were in the right place.

All the same, the sheer maleness of the night did colour reactons to pieces. Austrian artists Stefan Brunner, Michael Wilhelm & Daniel Lercher began the live performances with a piece in which two men, wired with contact mikes, hit each other, producing sound – heartbeats, breaths, thumps, and so forth – in both a ritualistic/rhythmic fashion and in a bit of free sparring. I’d’ve liked to have gotten Michael V. Smith talking on that one – he was sitting beside me; even though we were seeing two shirtless men interacting, the violent nature of their interaction alone seemed to make it strictly heterosexual – as if by punching each other, they were able to fulfill the need for contact without crossing boundaries into queer eroticism. Michael Wilhelm’s photographs, mostly of his own distorted body parts, suggest that there is an erotic awareness in his art (and if anyone has a link to online images of these, I'd like to see them again). Still, the piece seemed more about militarism, competition, repression, and capitalism than it did about men touching; and regardless of its overt political intent (which could be read as a critique of the repression of eroticism among heterosexual men), reality in this piece was a contest between men, where women were insignificant, not even visible in the background.

Several chairs, a table and maybe some magazines by Benjamin Bellas, Justin Cooper and Reed Barrow of Chicago certainly also seems to be about men, in relations to each other that exclude women. Two men engage in a conversation: one a therapist, the other a patient. The patient describes a dream, which involves being watched by an audience who is waiting for something to happen, as the therapist – who, we are told, appeared in the dream – asks him questions. No women are mentioned – as if men in therapy talk about anything but! The routine is performed at first slowly; it comes to an end, and repeated with the main two men switching roles, talking at ever increasing rates. A drummer joins them and adds some rhythm to the routine, and a strange (uncredited) furry-costumed creature begins to wander the audience, hugging members (arguably this was a feminine role -- the hugs seemed nurturing and the body of the beast soft -- but the gender was completely invisible and it didn’t hug me, so who knows how "female" it really was. I’d be curious if there were breasts under all that fur). It was actually a really fun piece to watch, and had the quality of an elaborate game, but the male dominated nature of the night made the piece seem like a commentary on men talking to men, in closed circles, with women nowhere in sight, excluded from discourse, excluded from all but, perhaps, a role in the audience. It’s a man’s world. None of this was part of their intended theme; it was noise, not signal, but, given the context, it was growing difficult to tune it out.

Air Pressure by Michael Lloyd – which followed the restaurant piece – almost seems to have deliberately played off such themes. A trumpet player stands on stage – Lloyd, we assume – and performs, while images of a female face appear, very large and often at the margins of the screen, behind him. The woman seems "framed," unable to escape the screen, ie, her role as the object of the male gaze. Her eyes are occasionally shown in close-up, dominating the screen, staring at the audience as if asking us to acknowledge how trapped she is, staring out from the other side, TRYING to claim some degree of subjectivity by virtue of the intensity of her gaze, but unable to actually step through and speak for herself. At one point the eyes seem to focus on the trumpet player (Blake Smith, in the audience, and I apparently both wondered throughout the piece if the artist was commenting on male narcissism – he doesn’t even look at the woman, is totally involved in his own “performance,” which requires her only as silent spectator/object -- the eternal feminine as the background against which men play with their horns). At one point the woman is shown with her mouth open, such that we can imagine the strangled, discordant sounds of the trumpet coming from her, but she remains just an image on a screen, mute. Again, whether Lloyd intended these readings seems irrelevant (though one suspects he did); given the situation, they were inevitable, unavoidable, writ large on the screen – and in fact, he got points for at least seeming to comment on the silencing of women in our culture.

No points can be given to Dan Kibke or Ole Eldor on this account, though in a gendered reading of the evening, it is entirely fitting that their piece, Turbulent Bodies: An Aesthetic Odyssey, came as the night’s climax. If Lloyd crafted the least “politically problematical” piece of the evening, Kibke and Eldor crafted by far the most (it is hard to hold Christine Carriere to account, since her role, like that of so many women of yore, appears to have been to just lie there). To be aware of the politically problematic nature of their work doesn’t require us to condemn it: one does sense that these guys were TRYING to be creepy and evil, first off, so succeeding at making audiences uncomfortable can hardly be held against them. To give them credit, their piece was by far the most visceral of the night, was visually compelling, and had some very interesting sound texture, succeeding on a level of musical sophistication where many of the previous pieces failed (...though some of the samples they’d recorded themselves sounded just a bit clunky, particularly the in-flight announcements). They managed to craft something very provocative out of very simple sources; and their insensitivity to gender politic issues surely merits them the Brass Balls Trophy of the evening.

(Image from David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers -- it's not up as of this writing, but Moving Pictures will be screening Dead Ringers at the Vancity Theatre on May 18th. A rental, it is not listed in the Vancity online program, though you can find it in their printed guide)

It was simple enough in conception: both men are in surgical scrubs, with Ole in the role of doctor. Sounds are made by Ole and manipulated, along with a host of prerecorded material, including hospital-style beeps, by Dan on laptop. Intially they’d planned to actually draw some sounds from Christine’s body, as she lay there anaesthetized, but apparently their stethoscope/microphone combination didn’t work out. Some of the audio used had Christine taking a “trip,” using announcements by flight attendants and descriptions of flight conditions to represent the interior experience of being under anaesthetic (hence “an aesthetic – anaesthetic – odyssey”). If the video footage they used in the background had followed this theme, probably no one would have cause to be upset – if we’d seen images of an imaginary trip, say, of airplanes, skies, or Christine’s dreams and hallucinations. The piece would probably have been nowhere near as interesting (and required much more work to make, requiring actual filmmaking, rather than the use of found footage), but it wouldn’t have gotten anyone’s hackles up; in fact, we would have had the female, for the first time in the evening, PRODUCING something herself – the figuring of female subjectivity uncontained by male systems of power, dreaming away, free. Feminists in the audience would have been applauding with gratitude and relief. Instead, we were treated to a host of squirm-inducing medical images, taking us “inside” the woman’s body, showing us glistening organs and interior surgical images that could have been lifted from autopsy scenes in Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes. The two men are shown as impassive technicians in impersonal, identity-obscuring uniforms, perfectly composed and controlled, drawing meaning from their exploration of interior female flesh. While one obvious connection to draw might be with David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, that film deconstructs and disparages the neuroses and insanities of its male gynaecologists, rendering them so vulnerable that it greatly problematizes and undercuts the scenes where, clad in red surgeon’s gowns, they “perform” on women. Their dominance and mastery is shown to be tied throughout to neurosis, dysfunction, insecurity, fear, and inadequacy – all of which are acceptable states to show a man in, in the current political climate; showing a man as having authority, mastery, and power, dominating and exploring the passive female is quite another matter, and that’s what Turbulent Bodies ended up doing. Having come of age in the 1980's, constantly provoked to contemplate whether all men are really rapists at heart, afraid that there was something fundamentally wrong with my sexuality that I had to atone for, the piece crossed a line of political correctness for me -- provoked a reaction. It, uhm, offended me a little. Why?

Any gender political reading of the piece needs to consider that bodies are scary, weird, fascinating places, when you get inside them; it is not easy to contemplate their interior without thinking of death, of fragility, of our meaty, slimy reality, so divorced from our goals and intentions and dreams and ideas about ourselves. Bodies are fucked up places, inside, and if bodies are fucked up, female bodies are doubly so, in part because they have a hole that allows us ACCESS to this sticky, bloody, weird interior, and in part because if you go up the tunnel to the end of that hole, you find a red, warm chamber where people are incubated, where each one of us, male or female, began. I derive no comfort from imagining myself a helpless tiny foetus ensheathed in my mother’s womb, and at age 38, in many ways I still feel myself struggling to leave its confines – the female enfolds and contains ALL of us, and it is an uncomfortable reality, something that annihilates our independence and threatens to smother the self; sure 'nuff, the reality of the womb sits ill-at-ease with the construction of male heterosexual subjectivity under capitalism (or somethin' like that), but I suspect feminists are kidding themselves if they say these issues are ONLY a matter of living in a patriarchal/capitalist society. The queasiness, fear, discomfort, etc we might feel at contemplating the reality of the womb, of menstruation, and of the non-being that predates us and will survive us, linking womb and grave, have deep primal roots and analogs in other cultures, from vaginas dentata to the Sheela-na-gig and beyond; as long as humans are born of woman, vaginas and wombs will exert a strange power, sometimes being figured as menacing.

For whatever reason, some men are more screwed up by all this than others. Jack the Ripper, for example, whose sexuality’s peak expression involved cutting open women and getting at their internal organs, seems to have had a definitely unhealthy fixation on dominating female insides. In “low art,” from The Last House on the Left, with its disembowelling of a female, to the Japanese Guinea Pig series, in which men cut apart female bodies and pull out their organs, so realistically and graphically that they were mistaken for snuff films (and used as a source of inspiration and ideas for a Japanese serial killer -- click the previous link for more) – these dark fascinations with the power of the inside of the female body are given free reign, such that men can experience the mystery “tamed,” laid bare, subordinated to masculine power and authority. It’s pretty hard not to see Turbulent Bodies in that light; it was as close as I needed to come to watching a Guinea Pig movie, and I noticed some women walking out, which really was no surprise. Once again, it seemed like they were reacting to noise, not signal, insofar as Dan and Ole's description of their piece in the written program was oddly "innocent" of any of these issues (Dan says that all of the above may have been how I reacted, but had nothing to do with his intentions or ideas). Still, for me, in Turbulent Bodies, the noise BECAME the signal.

Eric Lanzillotta’s final piece was one of two pieces in last night’s live performances, along with the rather serene Microforming (part II) by Jamie Drouin of Victoria, that DIDN’T appear to have any gender-political significance, save for the fact that again a man was alone on stage manipulating his tools. It seemed like an interesting excursion into straightforward noisy drone, but by that point (nearing 1 AM), I was exhausted, still dressed in my work clothes from the morning, and needed to consider getting on the last skytrain. Once again, as during the pancake noise breakfast, I only caught fragments of Mr. Anomalous' work. I promise, Eric – I WILL hear your music at some point. Really.

Note: if anyone is unclear, this article has been written by a man. Oh, and it is possible that some of the ideas Dan and Ole used took their genesis over a breakfast discussion between Dan and I, ie., I might have suggested them. Hypocrisy is a whole 'nother can of worms, tho'.

Post-script: this piece has generated a bit more correspondence than usual, from people who both agree or disagree with my take on the night. (Writers seem to be on my side and musicians on the other, tho' no clear pattern has emerged as of yet). Unfortunately, no one has posted their comments on my blog; you're all invited to, y'know...? I do gather that the next night of Signal+Noise was much more gender-balanced and "lighter," but I couldn't make it. I did enjoy the evening, troubled tho' I may have been by some of it... Er.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Upcoming Excitements: Signal and Noise at Video In

For fans of odd musical soundscapes: the next Signal and Noise festival lineup is up; the event begins on Thursday at Video In. I'll be checking out Dan (of G42), Ole (of the Creaking Planks) and Christine's piece, "Turbulent Bodies: An Aesthetic Odyssey" -- which gets bonus points for the clever buried pun -- and Eric Lanzillotta's performance on Friday night. Congratulations on Christine's 2005 prize in the Mandarin speech contest. Eric was last seen here during the Pancake Noise breakfast, doing some fairly mind-altering stuff (from what I could hear from the grill).

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Vancouver International Jazz Festival listings: yeehah!

Ah, the jazz fest approaches... Y'all know already that McCoy Tyner is coming. I might go, actually, but try this on:


(Plus they’ll be opening for Nomeansno’s June CD release party - question: what happened to John?).

The Nels Cline Singers and Mats Gustaffson/The Thing!


Tobias Delius (with Han Bennink in tow... should make up for my having missed Ab Baars at the Ironworks this week)!


(I hung out with Maja Ratkje a bit around the Merch tables at Vancouver New Music’s Vox Festival awhile back. She looks like a vaguely Satanic Pippi Longstocking and made music that had Paul Dutton and Koichi Makigami retreating into the merch area in fear (prompting me to go check it out). Noisy vocal/electronic experiments, in duo format with this project. Seems like a really interesting person).

Also exciting, tho' I don't know their music well enough to use exclamation marks just yet, are
Hilmar Jensson/Skúli Sverrisson (from Iceland) and AACM member Nicole Mitchell -- related to Roscoe? -- who will be taking over for Mwata Bowden as the High School Jazz Intensive educator... I might consider the cleverly-named Unconscious Collective (harmolodics, eh?) and the Joost Buist Astronotes.

Canadian-jazz-wise (since I may be perceived to be dissing the locals above), I'm hot to see Masa Anzai perform with Almost Transparent Blue (more here), and I don't just mean the free show! Haven't heard Masa blow since the Sugar Refinery days, unless you count the Black Mountain disc... I'm also curious about the Existential Angst Party and Field, mostly because I quite like some of Chris Kelly's sax work on the Little Stitches CD I have ( appears to be down, so I can't give y'all a link). Never have seen the Inhabitants, either... Like the name... Peggy Lee has been impressing me more and more in recent years (I loved what she did when she played with Torsten Mueller, Phil Minton and Maggie Nichols at a jazz fest awhile back -- was that only last year? -- and with Evan Parker and Fred Frith at respective shows)... but I've seen her a bunch of times -- maybe I'll check her out with Tony Wilson and Jon Bentley at Rime... and I'll definitely check out Torsten Mueller's solo show, and maybe the trio he's in... or the other trio that he's in... Maybe I'll do the NOW orchestra with Marilyn Crispell, too...

They aren't Vancouver-based, but I'm also keen to see Bourassa/Derome/Tanguay, especially Jean Derome, whose facility with little instruments at last year's Fred Frith concert really caught my ear, enough for me to check out Le Magasin De Tissu, a delightful album he put out awhile back focusing on unusual sounds made by unusual means. He's a fine sax player, too, don't get me wrong...

Anythin' else I should be excited about? (afternote: I missed the Yusef Lateef listings, cleverly hidden in the program under the Belmondo Brothers or somesuch...).

Monday, April 24, 2006

Wreckless Eric Takes Vancouver, plus the rest of the Big Smash Festival

The Big Smash festival is still pretty fresh in my memory, but I'm willing to venture that, looking back from some random future date, the most memorable moment (of a very memorable festival!) is going to prove to be the Wreckless Eric show at the Railway Club Sunday night. From an earlier vantage point, I didn’t really expect that would have been the case – I certainly was in no way as excited about it as I was about the Daniel Johnston, Albert Ayler, and Minutemen documentaries, or the chance to see Peter Watkins’ PRIVILEGE... Mr. Goulden has managed to usurp my sense of how I thought things would be, for which I am quite grateful (and a bit humbled). I also didn’t expect I’d end up buying his new CD – thought I might snag a greatest hits thing, if anything at all, for nostalgia purposes, which is all I figured he’d really be good for. He’s proven me wrong on a few counts, actually… Mea culpa…

I’ve already written quite a bit about THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON, below. One thing to add is that it’s interesting that Kier-la seems to have woven a thread of madness and death through the festival. Daniel Johnston at the start, Roky Erickson at the end, and Klaus Beyer in the middle (to say nothing of Tadashi – what exactly the hell was that, anyhow? Assumedly this is the same Tadashi described as Cinemuerte 6's "most retarded fan"), and an abundance of docs on dead musicians, often focusing on their last days – Jeff Buckley, Joe Strummer, D. Boon of the Minutemen, Esquivel, Nina Simone, Albert Ayler, Ronnie Lane (the last being the only show I missed – I needed a nap to be able to handle the Wreckless Eric gig, which started late). Her I WAS A TEENAGE QUINCY PUNK features an episode that circles tongue-cluckingly around the corpse of a dead punk rocker; PAYDAY ends in death; and STUNT ROCK is all about its defiance. Even the cartoon about the drunk being half-sodomized by a dog (click to view it!) has a bit of a dark side to it, really… (Insert arty-weird pseudophilosophical musings on the relationship between sodomy and death, namedropping Leo Bersani, here). Perhaps this is all coincidental, something emerging by chance from the selection of films; there’s something in the ephemeral quality of music – what was that Eric Dolphy quote, you know the one – that perhaps places it in relation to death, makes us aware that our celebration of life is transitory, fragile, like music. Maybe, tho’, Kier-la is the sort to plot things out in subtly buried themes… I’m somehow shy about pinning her down for an interview – or else I just prefer trying to second-guess her – but will be watching closely to see if any themes emerge at future festivals (BECAUSE THERE WILL BE MORE OF THESE, RIGHT? By the way, note that a chat with BJ at the merch table reveals that as of yet no one is taking up the Cinemuerte reins, not even Mr. Bougie of Cinema Sewer. Alas. Actually, it's kinda scary that Kier-la is ending the festival with a film called YOU'RE GONNA MISS ME. Maybe she's trying to convince the film geeks of Vancouver to move to Austin...).

Some reactions to films:

PRIVILEGE was an interesting experience, but I gotta admit, given my high expectations and current level of Peter Watkins interest, somewhat of a disappointment. It's kind of heavy-handed -- it comes across as a bunch of "filmed ideas," where each character represents their social role and little more -- and despite some very striking images and the odd effective moment, it tends to work on a fairly obvious, clichéd level: the Church, Big Business, and the Government want you to CONFORM and they conspire to manipulate the media to make you do it. (The film is obvious enough in its treatment of this that at a Christian rally one of the priests instructs the crowd, when he cues them, to shout WE WILL CONFORM en mass. Subtle, wot?). That a pop star is the "agent of conformity" and not the agent of nonconformity, as they seem to often consider themselves, was somewhat more interesting -- but the dramatization of the idea wasn't, very, nor was the character, who is entirely a pawn of the "system" (which is referred to monolithically, just so: "the System"); and the relationship between “nonconformity” and consumer capitalism really requires a more complex treatment to hold ones attention these days (see the very interesting book, THE REBEL SELL, for more of that – particularly the chapter “I Hate Myself and Want to Buy”). “Asserting one’s individuality” is in fact absolutely in harmony with consumer capitalism -- which thrives far more on nonconformity than conformity, as long as you're seeking your identity out there in the marketplace -- and the film ultimately doesn’t get there; it treats individuality as something that needs to be pursued AWAY from the marketplace, by rejecting it, as if capitalism strives to make us all the same...

And yet it did have its good bits, and was visually very striking. My favourite scene in the film is actually the first, when anticipation was still beating out disappointment -- a dramatic, operatic set-piece where the pop star central to the film enacts his suffering and desire to be liberated -- as policemen onstage beat and imprison him -- to the tunes of a song that Patti Smith would later cover as "Privilege/Set Me Free" (with slightly modified lyrics), on her album, EASTER. I'd always taken it to be a Smith original. Penelope of DISCORDER, in attendance, said the sequence brought to mind the description of public executions in Foucault’s DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH, which productively had me thinking of Foucault when watching the Klaus Beyer documentary on Saturday night. If PRIVILEGE was in some ways the disappointment of the festival (sorry, Mr. Watkins! I love your films! Everyone should come to my May 30th screening of PUNISHMENT PARK at Blim) -- THE OTHER UNIVERSE OF KLAUS BEYER was the unexpected treat.

Beyer is only “mildly” retarded – “mildly” being a word Kier-la added to her pre-screening description of the film, but omitted from the festival program (which strangely makes a point of saying that there is “no kinder way of saying it,” which clearly isn’t true. In fact, he seemed very nearly normal, if eccentric, to me – I’d be curious what evidence there is for mental deficiency, or if it’s just something people say based on his strangeness and apparent naïveté…). He’s obsessed with the Beatles, and likes to re-record their songs with him singing the lyrics in German, often making animated “rock videos” of his performances. He also does things like take photographs of himself in odd poses, cut out the images, and decorate objects in his home, such that he can be seen on the mantelpiece, riding a decorative elephant, or straddling the volume knob of the radio. This seems in keeping with his filmmaking and singing, which also have him inserting himself into his environment. His films often have him as the star – a typical moment being in his Germanized version of “I am the Walrus,” which has his face appearing on an egg as he sings “I am the eggman," and whatever the German equivalent of "goo goo g'joob" is. He seems to have a transparent, innocent need to see himself participating in the landscape of art and music that affects him, to be a star. It’s my theory that the popularity of Beyer has something to do with our own innocent desires to participate in the mediasphere; by celebrating him, we can cheer on our own vulnerable need to be important, to participate, to be seen – which we all have to be a little bit protective of. Karaoke buffs notwithstanding – and who among us has not thrown the odd rock at them? – most of us would find it embarrassing to get up on stage and do what Beyer does; his unselfconsciousness about it comes as a sort of gift and an affirmation of our own desires… Beyer admits that he finds it depressing when people laugh at him when he’s not trying to be funny, but I suspect that a great number of his fans – and he does have a following, as the film shows – greatly like him and feel protective of him and are actually getting something they NEED out of the transaction (as I think is also the case with Daniel Johnston). (There DID something to be a tad "ironic" about the cigarette lighters some were waving in the air during a live performance of his, tho'...).

Foucault comes into all this again in regard his book MADNESS AND CIVILIZATION. It’s been a long time since I (partially) read it (and even then only partially understood it), but one of the thrusts of the book is to follow the thread of madness through the development of modern civilization, from a time when the insane and the “different” were allowed to wander the streets as village idiots and holy fools. Just as in DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH we see a progress from public executions to intensely private, secretive ones, Foucault shows how the development of the modern condition has involved a sequestering away of madness, of placing the insane and different at a safe remove from the rest of us, such that we can no longer learn anything from them, no longer interact with them, no longer look in their mirror. I guess my current theory of Outsider Music is that what we’re seeing is a return of these repressed aspects of the human condition. It seems, in fact, quite a natural development, and not at all unhealthy. The democratization of information technology means that more and more marginalized figures will eventually claim their turf in the mediasphere. Beyer, Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis, et alia are the pointmen for the movement…

(As a side note, there are a few other theories we could assert about the current Outsider Music thing. The Minimalist Jug Band, in a conversation at the bookstore that we both work at, has been pondering matters and opined that one of the reasons people might be drawn to such odd forms of music is as a sort of consumer rebellion against the stuff the big corporations want to stuff down our throat. "You want me to listen to THAT? To hell with you -- I'm gonna listen to THIS!" Certainly Daniel Johnston, Klaus Beyer, et alia exist on the far, far end of whatever pop spectrum Britney Spears is on... This fits nicely with one of the pet theories Irwin Chusid seems to nurse in his liner notes for the New Creation CD -- Kier-la, if you're reading this, you would love it -- that music geeks are using Outsider Music as a way of one-upping each other, seeking deeper and deeper vats of obscurity to plunge into to prove their all-knowingness and hipper-than-though savvy. Penelope at Discorder is a bit blunter, suggesting there's a "freak factor" here, a desire to see difference, weirdness, and so forth, which our praising artists like Daniel Johnston as a "genius" is a subtle compensation for, a way of letting ourselves off the hook... Everyone seems to have their own take on Outsider Art).

In any event, the Beyer documentary was the perfect second-course follow up to the Johnston one, and I’m very curious how the Roky Erickson film tomorrow will cap things off.

Some brief reactions to other films:

Re: Jeff Buckley: though the film was not terrible by a long stroke, and would be of interest to Jeff Buckley fans, recall that I said about last month’s Shane MacGowan film at the Cinematheque that I’m tired of the let-us-now-praise-great-men documentaries that indulge in a breathless hero worship and manage to say almost nothing, except that our heroes are great and we are great too for knowing this…? Not only was there such an abundance of effusive blather about Buckley in this film, but it didn’t stop praising Buckley long enough to really either get a sense of him as a man or to let us hear a single one of his songs to completion (a brief clip would play, interrupted by a talking head saying generally very obvious things about how cool Jeff Buckley was.) The interviews DID contain lots of snippets of Buckley talking -- the most interesting point for me was of his signing to Columbia just because of the musical associations the label had -- Dylan, Miles, etc -- even tho' he knew they weren't at all the same company now. Still, these too were cut down to soundbite size. The film also didn’t once mention his father, whose music was far more original and suffers even greater neglect than his son’s (tho’ Kier-la compensated for this a bit by playing footage of the elder Buckley singing “Song to the Siren” -- the only thing remotely classifiable as a love song that would make a shortlist of my favourite tunes, unless Bob Dylan's "Dirge" and Townes van Zandt's "The Hole" count -- before the documentary ran). In my opinion, the filmmakers greatly OVERESTIMATED Jeff’s talent, which I think is sort of a vice that his admirers fall into, perhaps as a way of compensating for the fact that he wasn’t a big star. There was a sort of self-conscious attraction to celebrity in Buckley, though – in the way he posed himself, styled his hair, and worked so hard to succeed, which the film didn’t really do justice to, wanting instead to repeat clichés about musical integrity, which was minor compared to that of certain artists who are far less famous, and make far more challenging music. I do LIKE his music, mind you, but, I rather would have watched an hour-long performance at Sin-E than this talky, unconvincing bit of film. (It almost feels like it could have been made by "professionals...").

Dick Rude did a better job at Joe Strummer worship; he had the sense to let a number of Strummer’s songs play out in full, and to let Strummer speak for himself (I don’t believe there was a single post-mortem interview with anyone about Joe in the film, though Mr. Rude – who gave a friendly video introduction to the film and shared his cats with us – had the advantage of being able to interview him in person, before his death). Having seen Strummer perform with the Mescaleros twice in Tokyo, it was great fun to see footage shot there, of him backstage (not, I believe, at either of the gigs I was at.) It was depressing to see how humble Joe was forced to be, during his last phase – we hear him tell that ROCK ART AND THE X RAY STYLE, which was one of my favourite rock albums of 1999, didn’t even break even, and there are many scenes where he’s obliged, in requesting interviews or trying to promote his show, to explain who he is. He seemed like a really sweet guy, though, and didn’t seem to let any of this bother him; one gets a sense of Strummer as a very down-to-earth fellow, with few pretensions (tho’ more interesting things could have been said about how what I think is a subtle utopianism in his later music, a mixing and matching of musical traditions worldwide and blending them into a celebration of daily life, where we can all find union).

The Minutemen documentary was similar; if you like these guys, you’ll love the film, even tho’ the vast number of talking heads in the movie don’t say a whole lot that’s new. (They’re all pretty cool heads, tho’ – I’d rather hear Thurston Moore or Ian Mackaye tell a Minutemen anecdote than someone I’ve never heard of talk about Jeff Buckley). Still: tons of performance footage, and interviews with all three bandmembers back in the day (plus interviews with Watt and Hurley now). Mike Watt – who, producer Keith Schieron told us in the post-show Q&A, is “a bit of a chatterbox” – toured the filmmakers around San Pedro in his van and talked without needing to be asked a question -- I remember reading Henry Rollins, in one of this vast number of old tour diaries, bitching about how Watt just wouldn't shut up -- but I kind of like hearing him speak (and was pleased to briefly meet him after his last performance here; he seems like a really nice guy, very open and personable). Apparently the DVD, when its released, will be a 2-disc set with some complete concerts of the Minutemen’s on the second disc – a must have, sounds like.

Strangely, the Albert Ayler documentary left me wanting more. The interviews are much more focused in the case of this film – Ayler’s surviving family and a few musicians, most notably Sunny Murray – and Ayler’s music is well used, as are some very interesting recorded comments from Ayler – his voice is softer and gentler and younger-sounding than one would expect and it seems very strange indeed to hear it, like something ghostly is transpiring. Still, the performance footage the film uses is generally interrupted after a minute or two; some aspects of his career are left out, perhaps because they’re too painful – there’s only a very brief treatment of Ayler’s embarrassingly wrong-headed attempts to gain a rock crossover audience, which are made to seem like they were his idea, which one hopes/prays they weren't; no footage of Mary Parks singing those FUCKIN’ WEIRD songs she did with him (check out "A Man is Like a Tree" sometime -- what universe is SHE from, anyhow?), and no commentary on the apparent bitterness of song titles like “Drudgery,” as attached to a routine blues number on MUSIC IS THE HEALING FORCE OF THE UNIVERSE, and apparently signifying an ironic protest on someone's part -- probably Ayler's -- that his music was being used in such a context. Though there is mention of the neglect Ayler’s music received in America, there’s nothing much like criticism of the music industry or its role in Ayler’s demise, and it seems like Impulse! are let off the hook a bit more than they could have been – the film acknowledges that they were probably going to “not renew his contract” prior to his death, but that’s about it – contrast it with Peter Brotzmann’s liner notes for the first DIE LIKE A DOG quartet release. Some tougher questions could have been asked of his family and friends, too – about the state of Ayler’s mind leading up to his suicide, if that’s what it was; if whether drugs played any role in his music or in the odd religious tenor to his later career (he speaks of being a “prophet,” and we’re told that he had taken up an ancient Egyptian practice of staring into the sun in pursuit of illumination); and so forth… Still, the things that the film does are pretty important, and I’d recommend the film to any Ayler fan. It would be impossible to make an entirely bad documentary, given the material the filmmakers had at their disposal (eg, footage of Ayler's father looking for his son's grave, to lay flowers on it; it’s very strange to discover that Ayler’s father is still alive, and to see him talking about the life and death of a son gone some 35 years). The most interesting anecdote of the film: Ayler talks about how he, on hearing that Coltrane had requested him to be one of the musicians to play at his funeral, thought “How could I do that? How could I play crying?”

Free promotional MY NAME IS ALBERT AYLER postcards were graciously made available by the distributor, as well as posters, which I bought two of. I don't know who I'll give the other postcards to, but I immediately mailed one to Eugene Chadbourne.

I don’t have a whole lot more to add about the festival’s films. PAYDAY is a good film and worth seeking out (it’s directed by Vancouverite Daryl Duke, who also made THE SILENT PARTNER; Duke’s wife attended as a special guest and introduced the movie); I don't have a whole lot to say about it but I really liked what it did. STUNT ROCK was not really as bad enough to be funny enough for me to enjoy it, which raises interesting questions of just how bad a film has to be... Maybe I actually had EXPECTATIONS of the film, though, having seen it previewed at the final Cinemuerte, in which case the fault is probably mine. TV PARTY had a little bit too much talking-head stuff at the beginning, and wasted some opportunities to hear some pretty fucked up performances by stoned NY hipsters of yore – many of whom (DNA, John Lurie, Debbie Harry, Jean Michel Basquiat, and a list far too long to do justice to) are only shown in a fragmentary, hurried way, teasing us with the potential of the footage and making us wish we had a video library of every damn TV PARTY to air; but it ended up really being a delight to watch, no less, and by the end even the talking heads were holding my attention (I am not referring to the brief David Byrne performance shown in the film, tho' that was charming, too). The show's host, Glenn O'Brien, gets the Quote of the Festival Award for his suavely stoned quip, "Socialism begins with socializing")...

What else? Nina Simone seemed like a pretty weird person and a bit of a diva (she is seen ordering an audience member to sit down before she continues a song she’s begun) but she did say she was “half-high” during the performance and that can explain a lot, including, perhaps, why this film is rarely seen. Great music, though. I liked the David Chance documentary, but have nothing to say about it, and I skipped THE MUPPET MOVIE – I just wasn't in the mood.
THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is an amazing film and that Paul Williams looked great. I wish I'd had the guts to ask about the Winnepeg connection -- something offered to those In-the-Know, among whom I am clearly not numbered -- but what the fuck, I can always look it up on the internet. I guess this film counts as the "pleasant surprise/relief" of the festival. Having been recently disappointed greatly by SISTERS, which in no way merits the praise Robin Wood gives it (emphasizing its interesting ideas and ignoring just how clumsily they are translated onto the screen), I was kind of worried, but this appears to in fact be Brian de Palma's first masterpiece -- not to say anything against GREETINGS and HI, MOM, of course. (And I haven't seen all his early films -- maybe GET TO KNOW YOUR RABBIT would blow me away, I dunno). The Roky Erickson documentary is also a masterpiece of sorts. I'm not gonna say very much about it, save that it's a must-view for anyone concerned with psychedelic rock, abnormal psychology, the hell which is family, and healing: the film managed to convince me that grown men skipping in a circle in a sort of New Age-y, inner child-healing psychotherapy is IN FACT HEALTHIER and more productive than just wallowing in one's own illness... which is no mean feat.

One final note on the movies: to my surprise, one of the most promising of the filmmakers represented in the fest was festival organizer Kier-la Janisse herself. I was really interested in the Krautrock documentary she played a bit of between films, and I WAS A TEENAGE QUINCY PUNK was a most entertaining archival feat – a compendium of bad TV representations of punk rock. (Kier-la, if I forget to mention it, you know that SNFU wrote a song called "Real Men Don't Watch Quincy," right? It would make a great postscript to the film, having them perform it – “the punks respond”). I think she’s got a career as a documentarian, if she wants it – it would be easier than organizing festivals in distant cities! (And I mean it: you give me a way of buying a copy and I’d love to see the Krautrock documentary in full).

On to the main event, then:

I imagine that it’s only a fairly small percentage of people in Vancouver who remember Wreckless Eric, as I did (having owned his LP, BIG SMASH, which gave the festival its name, and, I think, having had “Semaphore Signals” on a tape I made off Co-op radio). Even those of us who do remember him from his late 70’s-early-80’s “punk/pop” days probably had no idea that he was still active – that he’s written a book, has a new album out (BUNGALOW HI), and has “matured” (I think given his self-descriptions and the richness of his current music, he won’t object to my categorizing BIG SMASH and such as “immature,” delightful as they may be; whereas early recordings by him are pretty much straightforward popsongs, BUNGALOW HI features a few very interesting instrumental assemblages of samples, and some very edgy, insightful lyrics -- using a torn Durex packet found under a bed as a signifier o' memories of a failed relationship is brilliant). With apologies to Eric – he seems sensitive (cranky?) about people being “condescending” in their approach to him, and/or regarding him as a sort of zombie, a pop failure too dumb to just lay down and die – I gotta admit that I approached him, the other day, as a sort of has-been; I’d read that he’d had problems with alcoholism and had been briefly institutionalized. While this fit with the odd aforementioned “theme” – or was it a subtext? – of the rest of the festival, I figured that he was someone Kier-la had unearthed from near-total obscurity, whose day was more or less done, not someone passionately still engaged in making music. (A chat with Kier-la reveals that when she started considering having him come down, she was of a similar mind as me -- it seems like I'm not alone in my path of rediscovering this man). I’d seen him wandering about the Cinematheque, not really seeming to be enjoying himself, looking vaguely disconnected from the people around him (which I know well is an easy feeling to cultivate in this city, where everyone seems nervous about crossing boundaries and protective of their own circles of comfort and/or cliques). Feeling vaguely sorry for him -- and having enjoyed his witty introduction to SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL ("being a British musician there's a lot I have to be grateful to the Rolling Stones for, and a lot I have to despise them for"), I went up and told him that I’d owned BIG SMASH and liked it when I was younger. He didn’t seem that excited by what I intended as praise. Having seen him perform – even tho’ I arrived late, since the show began much earlier than its listed 11:30 start time – I now understand why.

It was one of the odder gigs I’ve seen – the venue, the Railway Club – wanted him off the stage, so they could close down – due to regulations? Acrimony? Lazy stupid owners? I dunno. He refused to get off the stage, did about five songs after they told him (or, rather, Kier-la, standing up front with Adrian of THE NERVE MAGAZINE) to stop, and was seeming to really get OFF on the anger/defiance – the last number he actually kinda started shouting at the Railway people – “You can cut me off, I don’t care! You can’t cut a man down when he’s up this high! Go ahead!” – inviting cheers from the crowd and deepening the intensity of his playing. It was fiercely ALIVE music, and a couple of the songs on the new disc (“33s and 45s” and “Local”) which he played are as strong as anything I’ve heard a “rock” musician do – strong enough that I bought the disc, when I wasn’t planning to buy anything. He had the sort of fierce integrity that I associate with the New Model Army, actually, though his recent songs were far quirkier than that would suggest. He also read a passage from his book, A DYSFUNCTIONAL SUCCESS, which Kier-la recommends (tho' it doesn't deal much with his Stiff days, she says -- he doesn't much like writing about that). His website has a ton of writing on it, and is worth exploring – he’s a performer who deserves a LOT more credit than he gets… He has my salutations and my apologies if I too seemed to have been condescending to him… I didn’t understand…

Anyhow, it’s been a very fun few days, even tho’ my ass has gotten quite sore from sitting in the Cinematheque for such an extended period, which sitting in front of the computer now is doing nothing for. Cheers and salutations to Kier-la Janisse and Eric Goulden and everyone else involved in making this festival happen – I really enjoyed myself. I pray that there will be future festivals. Losing Kier-la would be akin to losing the jazz fest or the VIFF to me -- if anyone wants to buy my left testicle for the $10,000 she'd need to do it all again, I'd gladly give it -- assuming a sterile, anesthetized operation. If she screens a nice print of Timothy Carey's THE WORLD'S GREATEST SINNER I'll consider throwing in one kidney, too.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (and the role of the artist in consumer capitalist society and other stuff that I thought about tonight)

There are questions people ask themselves privately all the time, as they experience the disconnect between their public lives and their private experiences, that are seldom made a matter of record, seldom publicly discussed, difficult even to articulate in the current milieu, since they interfere too much with the daily business of getting up and going to work; questions that deeply resonate with the way most of us live: for instance, what value does any of it have, to stuff away the most personal aspects of your life, to deny or ignore your authentic experience of things, your deepest feelings, so you can strap yourself into a suit and go shake people’s hands and try to make money? What is the worth of “growing up and getting a job” – or, once you’re there, of “being an adult” – if it means spending most of your day not being yourself, not even needing to be yourself; not needing to feel or think about the things that matter most to you, that reach the very ground of your being, that most personally speak to your experience, so that you can do “productive,” money making, but ultimately impersonal WORK, to which the majority of your time needs to be devoted? Thoreau, in Walden, says: “Actually, the labouring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labour would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance – which his growth requires – who has so often to use his knowledge?” Given the boring, impersonal realities of functioning in capitalist society, selling your very self for the price of shelter and “comfort” and entertainment – wondering every day if the trade is worth it – wouldn’t it be better to just burrow into your fear, confusion, loneliness, and private obsessions, and seek self-respect (and the love and attention and respect of others) not through knowing that you are regarded as a productive member of a community that you feel no personal connection to whatsoever, but by making your soul public, by producing art that DOES speak of your private experience? If you could fulfill your need for love and attention and esteem in the community that way – if you could somehow produce work that got their attention and won you the acclaim and notice you need -- wouldn’t that be better than a day-to-day life as a drone?

I wonder how Daniel Johnston would respond to these questions? (The Q&A after the film I just saw certainly didn’t do them justice -- not that he was in attendance, and not that anyone asked anything very challenging). It remains unknown at the end of the film how much insight Johnston has into his own career; it seems possible his talk of Satan could productively be attached to my rants about consumer capitalism - he does at one point assert that Satan drinks Mountain Dew in the film -- and that maybe we're getting at the same thing (the religious formulation of the above questions asks what it profits a man to gain the world but lose his soul, and one imagines Johnston has pondered the quote). All the same, there is an aspect of uncontrolled spiralling in his impassioned metaphoric experience of the world -- a condition commonly described as "religious delusion" -- that makes it hard to know how objective he is capable of being about himself. In any event, The Devil and Daniel Johnston just played to a sold out and appreciative audience at Vancouver's Pacific Cinematheque, as a Big Smash/ Frames of Mind - affiliated sneak preview before it opens next week at Cinemark Tinseltown. It’s a fascinating film, but it raises far larger questions than it could possibly hope to deal with, and it’s these questions that are interesting – the film is only the springboard. I could toss off a few more, since it pleases me to frame them: what is the function of the art of a man like Johnston in a consumer capitalist society? How would we describe it? If only Rainer Werner Fassbinder were alive to make a film about Johnston, he could maybe do it justice – making sort of a black comedy of it all: a mentally ill man, as part of his illness, is inwardly compelled to produce art; the rest of the community around him at first despise and reject him as a freak, but somehow he develops a huge following of young people who, ambivalent about losing their own identity to their jobs and social roles, seize on his “authentic expression” of emotion as a passport to connecting with their own personal, private, but publicly unspeakable selves (we could drop references to the Pied Piper into the mix, perhaps, and have parents expressing dismay about their children's taste in music). The man personally cannot be dealt with – he is deeply mentally disturbed and needs to be institutionalized and medicated and controlled by others, and in his daily life is treated as an object, a patient, an inferior; but he is periodically let out into the world to perform his songs, which his fans so need. He is loved by them (tho’ they’d rather be spared the details of what his personal life is like); and to him, all is right with the world -- he is happy to be a star, and that's how he thinks of himself. (Though it's an unkind analogy, I remember Brian Fawcett writing somewhere, perhaps apocryphally, that Zip the Pinhead -- not to be confused with the cartoon character -- believed he was in charge of the circus he was a part of and would occasionally bark orders from his cage to people around him, which P.T. Barnum encouraged them to indulge, since it made him more manageable). After soaking up their love, at the end of the tour, he is driven back to the institution, medicated, and kept quiet. What a relationship of the artist to society…! And what a society, to produce and support it!

(Note: Daniel actually seems to live most of the time with his parents, who obviously love him deeply, though he has caused them much worry and fear and anxiety. The above is a sort of "fictionalized" scenario -- one which does resonate against tonight's documentary, tho').

On some level, tho' I liked the film far more than I suspect she did, I think Penelope Mulligan is absolutely right in her Discorder column; this film fails to really ask the important questions about Daniel Johnston. It contents itself with participating as enthusiastically as possible in the adulation of the man, while “objectively” (and creatively – Gibby Haynes is interviewed while receiving dental surgery) documenting the details of his illness, which is given second place. It's certainly an entertaining ride -- in a more superficial way than a "serious" treatment of the subject matter would be. At one point, for instance, we are shown footage shot, apparently, by Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, as they drive around NY looking for Daniel, who has gone off his meds and is wandering the streets in the grips of religious delusion and ambitions to be famous. They believe he gets on a bus to go back to his parents, but awhile later, he is seen again in NY, and eventually ends up in Bellevue, institutionalized. He gets out after a few days and, as the story goes, ends up opening for fIREHOSE that night at CBGBs. That this is the punchline to the story got a hearty laugh from the audience, which is a testament to just how "entertaining" the film manages to be, but maybe just a few people were, like me, left just a little uncomfortable about what we were laughing at. It didn't seem cruel, exactly -- I think most of the audience love Johnston and his music and see bits of themselves in him -- but there are definitely questions of "exploitation" that come up, and of voyeurism, and of the entire nature of this transaction -- questions which Johnston himself is inclined to occasionally voice, tho' not in this film, where he is mostly spoken about (or represented through his tapes and songs), rather than being given a chance to express his own views for the camera. Still, I remember him singing on one of the tapes of his I had, back in the 1980's, about how it's easy for us to come and listen to his songs, but he has to live with his problems all the time...

I can’t wait to see how tomorrow’s screening of Watkins’ Privilege -- which posits the pop-star as the manipulated messiah of a totalitarian state, controlled by the powers that be to help fans conform – resonates against tonight’s show. Daniel Johnston as Christ? Why not? I wonder if he's seen the film...?

Artists occupy a privileged place in North American life: they connect us to the real emotions and private experiences that we, by taking the path most taken, have forsaken. All the better if the artists are insane – all the more “authentic” their expressions. Anyone concerned about these issues, whether they care about pop music or not, is strongly urged to see The Devil and Daniel Johnston. It’s an amazing, bizarre experience. And it's bound to sell the man a few CDs -- he apparently has a new "greatest hits" thing out this week -- which doesn't seem like a bad way for people to spend their hard-earned money, I suppose.

Speaking of which, I now must curtail my writing and go to bed, that I may get up for work in the morning. Be free, Daniel! ...because many of us aren't...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Upcoming Vancouver Nomeansno Gig (a ways off)

(Photo of Rob Wright taken by Yari in Italy, borrowed shamelessly from the website linked below. Yari, if you object, let me know! -- I'm assuming no one will care or notice. I'm not sure yellow is Rob's colour -- it's a bit shocking, wot?).

Locals who measure out their lives in terms of Nomeansno gigs will be happy to know that the band will be playing June 29th in Vancouver, as part of a CD release party (which is news in and of itself -- I wonder if they'll actually do the Mission of Burma cover I chatted with Tom about at the Mission of Burma gig awhile back? I suggested "Fun World" and he said that band had been thinkin' of doing "Outlaw." Either would work... Note: new Mission of Burma album coming soon! Now if only we could get a reissue of the Volcano Suns' All Night Lotus Party... apparently you can download it here). To put a cherry on the fact o' the gig, Nomeansno will be playing with the heavy Italian avant-jazz unit, Zu -- who have recorded with The Ex and others, so they're no stranger to rock. Zu will also be performing with Mats Gustafsson at the Commodore and the Culch as part of the jazz fest that week).

Seeing Nomeansno live is like therapy for me -- once a year at least, I need to mosh to "The River," to purge myself of the pain of being constantly made aware of how true the lyrics are... Nothin' spells catharsis like that song.

The first glimmers of a good musical summer on the horizon... Hmmm...

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Peter Watkins and Oliver Groom

(above: a still from Peter Watkins' Punishment Park).

Since Privilege is screening at the Cinematheque this week, I thought it would be timely to put up some comments from Oliver Groom on distributing Peter Watkins' films, which he has been doing through his Toronto-based company, Project X. See my column in Discorder in May (the current one is on Fassbinder) for more on Watkins, focussing on Punishment Park, which I'll be playing at Blim on May 30th. I'd never heard of Watkins -- save for a couple of comments from friends about The War Game -- until I stumbled onto Punishment Park and was intrigued by the box art; if it weren't for the earnest efforts of Mr. Groom to bring Watkins back from total obscurity and marginalization, I probably would have never explored his work -- I wouldn't have had the opportunity to see it, for one, though the Cinematheque DID screen Edvard Munch a couple of months back (their site includes a link to more press material on the film, through Capri films). The interview with Mr. Groom follows...

1. On the reception of Punishment Park:

Punishment Park is being very well received, both critically and by the public, who unsurprisingly respond strongly to the political and the dramatic content. I think that many are surprised at how effective and topical it still is and wonder how it has remained undiscovered for so long. I've seen a couple of reviews that dismiss it for being dated and naive but these are more the exception. DVD sales have been ok but not gangbuster. Such is the fate befalling older indies without star names or reputations. There is a small hard core of Watkins afficionados but obviously, to be worthwhile from a release economics point of view, we have to go beyond these and I think that we're getting there. As far as I'm concerned it's also very important to get the film out there without compromising it.

2. On the Masters of Cinema edition

There was no serious competition from the MoC release and vice versa, principally because we're talking about different countries and different TV systems. In fact, we (MoC and I) collaborated somewhat in that I provided them with stills, the commentary and Watkins intro.
I think that Peter feels a little less marginalised. He gets regular e-mails through his website (and so he may well reply to yours...) from the aforementioned hard core and from newbies who are discovering his work. However whether he will have the opportunity to return to filmmaking remains to be seen. I know he'd like to and, if that happens because his star has risen a bit more on account of these releases, that would please me enormously.

3. On Watkins the expatriate, his experiences in Canada, and meeting Groom

Peter's currently living in Vilnius. He and his wife Vida have considered moving to France. They were in Canada for about 2 1/2 years and I met him in late summer 2003. About 3 years previously I had suggested collaborating on a Watkins retrospective with the Cinematheque Ontario but they blew me off (although they did finally go ahead with it in March 2004). I was aware of Peter's work but mostly he'd slipped off my radar after Punishment Park because of the increasingly lack of proper releases his films were getting. I was moving ahead with setting up this DVD label in 2003 when I found out that he was living in Hamilton - about 100 km down the road! He was initially a bit diffident about meeting up but we did and we talked about the problems his films had had over the years. In particular he was concerned about Edvard Munch and apparent damage to the original negative, etc.. Well, one thing led to another and the DVD series was born. In spite of the Cinematheque Ontario retrospective and involvement in the restoration and new video transfer of Edvard Munch, Peter was not happy in Canada. He'd had a bit of a bust-up with the NFB and he wasn't getting the opportunities to work and so he and Vida returned to Lithuania in June 2004.

4. The history of Project X's Watkins series

I first saw Punishment Park back in 1972, when I programmed it for a university film society that I was running back in England. I remembered it vividly but hadn't seen it since. That day I first met Peter, he kindly lent me a copy of the French release DVD and, since it's one of the films for which he retains the rights, soon afterwards we agreed a deal so that it could be my first DVD release. There are a number of good reasons why this was the best title to launch the series with: it was immediately available and had been recently re-mastered to video in France; it's a US subject; it's dramatically more direct than some of his others ( - that's not a criticism of the others, I hasten to add!). An important part of rekindling awareness of Peter as a filmmaker is to take advantage of "recognisability" and, for Punishment Park, this involved presenting it as a political thriller (again without compromising it). Meanwhile Edvard Munch has a different kind of recognisability and arguably a different (older) target demographic. So to follow Punishment Park with Munch is, I think, to expand the potential awareness that we're striving for. Currently US sales on Munch (release date 21st Feb 2006) are running at about 60% of those of Punishment Park (release date 28th Nov 2005) but I think that, in the long run, Munch will overtake it.

5. Current and future releases:

The Gladiators has just been reviewed by Glenn Erickson.
This will be followed by The War Game/Culloden on one disc. Then there will be The Freethinker, which will be a challenge (4 1/2 hours) but I haven't started work on it yet. We've spoken about The Journey (14 1/2 hours!) but that's even trickier and so I don't recommend you hold your breath for that one. Meanwhile we have tried to work something out with Universal for Privilege but those discussions have foundered a little. Other titles (Eveningland, The 70's People) are merely possibilities at this stage. And, finally, one of my pet ideas is to publish in print or CD-ROM form a script that Peter wrote in 1968 or thereabouts called Proper In The Circumstances, which was a big project that didn't happen with Universal and Marlon Brando about Custer and the Indian Wars: it's very violent and very Watkins.

6. On net rumours that Punishment Park was "banned"

I don't think that anybody has come up with a White House directive banning Punishment Park! I think that things happen more subtly and more insiduously in the States. I haven't seen much right wing vitriol poured on it. The World Socialist Web Site was negative from the other perspective and I saw one UK review that took the opportunity to have a go at hippies (duh!).

7. Rumours of a Watkins bio

I was in touch last year with one of the guys writing this new book about Peter for Manchester University Press and he said that it was being targeted for early 2006 but it's been very slow coming and I didn't really believe that that would happen then. Hopefully it will be out eventually.

(...thus ends Mr. Groom's interview. He's been most facilitating of the article and has expressed his happiness that Privilege will be screening here -- cheers to him, both for the interview and for making it possible for film geeks to actually SEE Peter Watkins films, and cheers yet again to Kier-la Janisse for her amazing skill at organizing festivals in Vancouver from Texas). Interested parties might want to note that one other of Watkins' films is currently available on VHS, La Commune, distributed by the NFB, who also sell a documentary on his work, on both VHS and DVD, The Universal Clock.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Peter Watkins' PRIVILEGE to screen at Cinematheque

Exciting news: Peter Watkins' PRIVILEGE, a rarely-seen film of his made for Universal just after his controversial THE WAR GAME was banned from the BBC, will be screening at the Pacific Cinematheque as part of the upcoming Big Smash Festival, on April 20th. Kier-la, to her surprise, scored the print directly from Universal, who apparently struck it about 5 years ago for festival purposes (and have yet to make plans to release it on DVD). Oliver Groom, the man behind Project X, who have distributed three of Watkins major films on DVD, says "its very nice;" Privilege is one the Watkins' films he would like to see released, but says that discussions with Universal "have foundered a little." (See last months' articles on the "censorship" of the new print of Cassavetes' Love Streams and the chopping up of his Husbands -- as written about by Ray Carney --for an indication of just how much Sony seem to care about film as art; and watch these pages -- or this screen, I guess -- ? -- for more of my interview with Groom). By the way, I'll be writing about Watkins' PUNISHMENT PARK for the May issue of Discorder and screening the film (on DVD, that is) on May 30th at Blim. It is long past time that people knew this man and his films. I will probably mention the May 30th screening in every second post from now on...

Oh, also: in the odd event that a Peter Watkins fan stumbles across this and doesn't know, THE GLADIATORS is now available on DVD... One wonders if Watkins sometimes feels suspicion about the slow increase in excitement about his films -- since its linked in part to the elite shopping activities of film buffs...

Monday, April 10, 2006

Mecca Normal: New CD, upcoming concert

Never really followed these guys, but I kinda like the song "Attraction" on their Myspace account -- some nice lyrical twists, an eccentric sense of detail and authenticity in their observations. They have a new CD, and play June 4th in Vancouver at Pub 340. I think I might go... but it's a ways away...

Now there's a phrase I'm grateful I don't have to teach my ESL students...

Friday, April 07, 2006

BIG (Fucking!) SMASH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(Note: links below are to things generally MORE INTERESTING than IMDB listings, and often are to official sites. I advise you to click on every single fucking one).

Sometimes I don't pay attention to stuff. Sometimes there are surprises. Like this month's BIG SMASH festival, put on by some of the same people who used to (and may yet still...?) bring us Cinemuerte (since there's an Alamo Drafthouse connection I'm takin' this to mean Celluloid Horror-girl herself Kier-La Janisse, whom I've just sent a fawning email of thanks and devotion). I didn't bother to look into Big Smash until this very night, and what a surprising night it is. The films lined up for this are nothing short of fuckin' STUNNING, from my point of view -- the Minutemen movie, We Jam Econo, My Name is Albert Ayler, Peter Watkins' Privilige -- very rarely seen and important; CLICK THE LINK! -- and a Rip Torn vehicle called Payday, considered his best film; I've heard about it, but never much thought I'd get to see on screen. The Devil and Daniel Johnston is being brought to us in affiliation with this festival, and Dick Rude (the "white suburban punk" with a shaved head in Repo Man, one of the coffee addicts in Straight to Hell, and a former Circle Jerk, if I recall) has a film on Joe Strummer, Let's Rock Again -- I didn't even know it existed! (I was priviliged to see Mr. Strummer four times in my life -- once with his altered Cut the Crap Clash lineup, once with the Pogues, and twice in Tokyo with the Mescaleros). There's soooo much more, too -- including concert performances by (the apparently not dead) Paul Williams (and a screening of DePalma's Phantom of the Paradise) and Wreckless Eric, from whose 1970's pop classic, pictured above, the title of the festival is lifted... Anyone remember "Semaphore Signals" or "It'll soon be the Weekend?" I actually OWNED Big Smash when I was a kid). There's too much more for me to drool over in so short a space -- Jeff Buckley, Roky Erickson, Esquivel, Nina Simone, dub documentaries and more -- so check out the festival program -- some AMAZING music-related films are happening! Hell, I might even buy a festival pass and see Stunt Rock... I only had to sit thru the preview a dozen times during Cinemuerte...

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Fingers! (and more!)

James Toback always seemed like an odd fellow to me. An early film based on a screenplay of his, The Gambler (1974), is as dark and Dostoevskian a film portrait of a self-destructive, hubristic gambler (James Caan) as one can find; it actually is a bit creepy when you discover that Toback is a gambler himself, since the film doesn't leave one particularly comfortable with its title character. Exposed (1983), starring Nastassja Kinski, Rudolf Nureyev and Harvey Keitel, is a quirky film that locates itself at the nexus of fashion and terror, which is a streetcorner filmmakers seldom visit; I remember thinking that the film was subtle and intelligent enough, when I first watched it, that many people would fail to perceive its true theme -- but now I forget what I thought that was; I recall that Keitel's performance is interesting enough to make the film worth seeing, tho'. I've only seen one other of Toback's films, his first as writer/director, Fingers (1978), a bizarre, troubling, and fiercely, strangely intelligent character study of a concert pianist who is also a gang enforcer -- another unusual nexus to locate a film at -- that stars Harvey Keitel; I like that film a lot, but since I've seen nothing else by Toback, my ability to comment knowledgeably about him ends there, save to say that there's a reason I've seen none of his later output. Since I associate him with the gritty, challenging, character-driven cinema that occupied a certain corner of American moviemaking in the 1970s, I don't know what to make of, an am a bit put off by, the fact that he made a movie with Robert Downey Jr. and Molly Ringwald (The Pick Up Artist, 1987), wrote the screenplay for Bugsy (1991) and has gone on to make movies about race and hip hop (Black and White, 1999). His recent venture with Neve Campbell, When Will I be Loved (2004), got good reviews from some quarters, and he seems to have retained a certain degree of independence, but I've found the recent careers of many American filmmakers active in the '70s to be somewhat depressing -- compare David Holzman's Diary with The Big Easy (Jim McBride) or -- well, actually, I won't even watch any of the later output of Jerry Schatzberg, but I have a strong feeling it doesn't measure up to Scarecrow or The Panic in Needle Park. I want to retain my sense of Toback as an outsider, an obsessive, an eccentric making curious little films on the fringes, in a quietly uncompromising and oddly confident way; I don't want exposure to his later films to threaten that image, because it's important to me to believe that people like Toback are out there on the margins, doing what they do (even if they really aren't, anymore).

And the thing is: I didn't think anyone cared but me, so there was no pressure to explore his later films. Who would I discuss them with? Who do I know that cares? ...Well, apparently the world is catchin' up with me, or else I'm nowhere near as far ahead of it as I think, because a documentary has just been made about Toback, The Outsider, and there's a French remake of Fingers that sounds like a must-see, The Beat that My Heart Skipped. (Note: those two links were to official film sites, not just to the IMDB listings). And both these films, along with a projection of the DVD of Fingers, will be coming to the Vancity Theatre in April! There'll be a special event on the 15th where both Fingers and The Beat that My Heart Skipped screen, with a critical introduction to the films, so that sounds like the night to catch them. Mark Peranson of the Vancity is continuing to surprise and intrigue me with his programming choices -- I hope their attendance is improving! (New programs are out now, btw).

Anyhow, I gotta get to work...

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Cane Toads for Beer

Thought this was a charming story on innovative solutions to Australia's cane toad problem. Once again, thanks to the Fortean Times for making such delightful news available for easy access...

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Triple Book Launch Poetry Event featuring Elizabeth Bachinsky, Michael V. Smith, and Jennica Harper

Photo by Dave Aharonian

Odd to see someone you grew up with succeeding at what they do. It's almost as strange as starting to feel like you're making some headway yourself... I've known Elizabeth Bachinsky for longer than anyone else in my circle, growing up with her in the suburban-white-trash backwater of Maple Ridge, where the absence of cultural artefacts (aside from the odd neon sign or the Coke cans in the ditch) played a role in our development into creatures hungry for art, literature, film, music, knowledge, and so forth -- though it's really only since that Damo Suzuki show where we ran into each other that we've been socializing regularly (Damo leapt down from the stage, hugged me and kissed her... it was the sweetest thing I've seen a performer do and not at all a bad memory to share in common with someone). It's starting to seem like the day may come where those early chapbooks I have of hers (Skylab and A Grease Fire in the Diner of Your Heart) are actually going to be worth money -- too bad it probably won't be in my lifetime, but this IS Canadian poetry we're talking about. Liz has had two books published this last year, one through Bookthug (given a glowing review here -- I pitched in on a few lines of her anagram of -- all of -- TS Eliot's "The Wasteland," by the way, tho', as fond of anagrams as I am, I couldn't possibly make it through the whole of that poem, so hats off to her) and one through Nightwood Editions, Home of Sudden Service, which is the more personal of the two and speaks to our shared background in a way I find jarring, recognizable, and oddly comforting -- to know that someone else with aspirations could not only survive the 'burbs, spiritually speaking, but live to write about it, and well... Elizabeth will be shortly embarking on a cross-Canada tour, reading at some fairly significant venues, beginning on April 20th in Vancouver, in conjunction with her cohorts Michael V. Smith (aka Cookie LaWhore) and Jennica Harper, both of whom are also launching books. (Matt Rader of Mosquito Press will also be on the bill for the Vancouver gig and is also a fine writer indeed). The event will occur at the downtown UBC bookstore at 7 PM. I've never yet seen Liz fail to win the audience when she reads; Michael I know better for saucy jokes, his novel Cumberland, and his gender politicking more than I do for his poetry, but he's always engaging and thought-provoking. Jennica I don't really know, tho' she has a fine title indeed for her newest book, The Octopus and Other Poems (how deeply pleasing to imagine an octopus as a poem). April IS National Poetry Month, after all -- or so Liz tells me, and I assume she'd know. Read more about the tour and the reading here, on Michael's site -- and come to the event! April 20th, 7pm. Mark the calendar NOW...

Cool Ray Carney article

I continue with my ambition of going to study under Cassavetes' scholar Ray Carney. For those curious as to why, read this.

Cinema Aspirant is Underway: Fassbinder

My new column, Cinema Aspirant, is underway at Discorder, with the first article being on Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Next month it's going to be on Peter Watkins, with a screening of Punishment Park on May 30th at Blim.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Timothy Carey on Farting and more

Just read this great article on Timothy Carey, pictured below.

It includes anecdotes about Carey and Kubrick and Carey and Cassavetes ("theanthropist" is misspelled -- it means the union of God and man, usually figured in the person of Christ, but here applied to Cassavetes) -- Carey worked with both men; apparently they were two of the very few directors who could deal with him. The article also includes a brilliant passage on Carey's feelings about farting; one line of Carey's is so good that I hereby declare it to be my quote of the week: "I always thought if you really want to be a good actor, you've got to be able to fart in public." Amen to that -- I'd place it on the fart-shelf next to Robert Stone's description of the attitude of a hippie guru towards flatulence, in his novel, Dog Soldiers (my favourite book): "Dieter farted loudly and without embarrassment. For every Cassavetes out there, who manages to beat the odds and make a few great films -- I wonder how many Careys there are?

An interesting profile/interview with Carey is here; plus you can apparently buy copies of some of Carey's work from his son's appreciative website, here. I feel so fond of this man tonight, I think I'll go pick myself up a copy of Kubrick's The Killing, or maybe Paths of Glory, just to see him in them again.