Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Art Bergmann Week Continues: Witness Testimony

Art Bergmann by Bev Davies, March 27th, 2009, Richards on Richards. Note: photographs on this site are the property of the photographers and are not to be used without their permission.

First Witness: Bev Davies
Since the 1970's, Bev Davies has been documenting the Vancouver punk scene so well, and taken so many famous photographs, that I don’t really see much point in introducing her; if you don’t already know who she is, you probably don’t much care about punk rock in Vancouver - or else you need to do some serious homework! Her Flickr site is here; her website is here; and my big interview with her about her last calendar is here. Apparently Bev has been doing some blogging of her own lately, too! She graciously contributed the above photograph and chatted with me over the weekend about the Art Bergmann show at Richards on Richards last Thursday. Note: the photo of Bev is by her late friend Keith Kristmanson.

Allan: So I don’t really know where to start, but...

Bev: ...I’ve thought about it. You’re going to run the picture of Art Bergmann, right?

Allan: Yes.

Bev: So that’s what I thought I would talk about, is that choice of that photograph. The reason that I sent you that photograph - because I have other photographs; one has to go to The Skinny and I posted a couple on my Flickr site - but that one, I felt really strongly about it, because when I photograph people, I stand and I see and I perceive a certain way that people look... And sometimes I’m very surprised by how much better they look in pictures; that does surprise me, sometimes with people. But quite often it’s a matter of taking pictures and - now I can look at them of course, with them being digital - until I find a bunch that start to look the way I see the concert happening. There may be lights that I’m missing or things like that, and I look at the picture and go, “Wow, look how that comes out.” But mostly I’m trying to match the image of the person with the way that I saw the concert and I felt about the concert. So this picture of Art, to me, though it wouldn’t have been something I’d’ve sent to The Skinny, for mass consumption of people who hadn’t been at the show, it still for me really really represents what it felt like to be there; I would call it, “We’ve All Been Bitten By Art Bergmann.”

Allan: (laughs). The feeling or the photo or -

Bev: The feeling, the photo - you know, there was such intensity there. It wasn’t a “clean, nice” show. Everything wasn’t all tied in a little knot. There was an encore... but that picture comes the closest to how it actually felt to be there.

Allan: There’s a bit of pain in Art’s face in that photo, as well.

Bev: Yeah. What you’re not seeing is another photo, that a friend took of Art and I afterwards. It’s a humbling photograph, for me, and I can’t pass it on to you because it’s not my photograph, I didn’t take it of course - but I’m sitting beside Art out where he’s signing records and things like that, and in the photograph there’s Art, and you wonder - who’s that little old lady sitting beside him? So the reality of how young Art looks in the photograph, when juxtaposed with me, was a bit of an eye opening shock. But I don’t think I’ve ever had a photograph of Art and I together. In fact, that’s probably true of most people in the music scene, who I’ve known for so many years. I think it’s a little bit late to go around and get them taken, unless I have my hair done...

Allan: Did you get a chance to interact with Art much?

Bev: No, but Dougie was standing with him while he was signing autographs and then, Dougie said, “Say hi to Art!” and I said, “Hi, Art,” and he just turned and said, “Bev!” and then he grabbed a hold of my hand and shook my hand. Not shaking my hand, but - he held on to my hand for awhile. And then my friend came up and said, “Oh, can I take a picture of the two of you?" And so he took two of Art and the little old lady. Who happens to be me.

Allan: I would love to see this photo... Does your friend have a Flickr site or a page he’s going to put it on?

Bev (laughs): I hope not!

Allan: You were sort of little-old-lady-ish on the bus on Nardwuar’s album cover.

Bev: That was The Little Old Lady from Pasadena.

Allan: (laughs).

Bev: That’s what I always call that woman sitting there. She got stuck on the Vancouver bus by mistake.

Allan: Anything that you want to say to Art, or...

Bev: Just thank him for the concert and the obvious time and energy that went into it. We really appreciate it. I mean, I really appreciate it; I’m sure lots of other people did. I came home and watched fucking “Hawaii” on the video, because I just really wanted to hear one of those songs.

Allan: Were you disappointed or surprised that Art didn’t play any of his Young Canadians songs?

Bev: No, I didn't expect him to; I'd been forewarned that he wasn't going to do that. It's kind of maybe better that they didn't play "Hawaii."

Allan: Yeah.

Bev: What was amazing - like, I was right at the front for quite a while, and then I left and walked around the house and got a better mix of the sound, than right at the front - but the young people behind me, who I didn't know, were singing along to every word of every song.

Allan: Right on.

Bev: I thought, that's cool; that's so cool. And it was nice to see Rampage there, and to see the people that were there. I think it's better to count who was there than who wasn't there. I heard a lot of, "Why wasn't John Armstrong there? He's only in Chilliwack!"

Allan: (laughs)

Bev: But it was nice to see the people that were there.

Allan: Now, is there anything of yours I should plug? Calendars, books, shows...

Bev: No, just remind people of shows coming up - like the Acid Mothers Temple (at the Biltmore on the 7th)!

Allan: Okay, thank you very much, Bev...

Bev: Oh, no, wait - I do have to plug something! Anton and the Brian Jonestown Massacre have a new record coming out, and for anyone who may have thought that they were going to grab for the gold ring and really head into the mainstream, it's totally disspelled by the name of the album, which is called Smoking Acid.

Allan, Bev: (laugh).

Bev: I laughed and laughed when I heard that, 'cos I thought - "Thank God he's not trying to go mainstream."

Allan: Can you actually smoke acid?

Bev: I don't know - you'd have to ask Anton!

(Two more of Bev's pics of Art last week can be seen here and here...)

Second Witness: Al Mader (photo by Femke van Delft)

Al Mader performs, as The Minimalist Jug Band, at Cafe Montmartre with Petunia on the second and fourth Sunday of each month. For those of you who don't want to do the math, that means April 11 and 25th, next month; a photodocument of a past show, with my comments, can be seen/read here, and another interview I did with him is here. Al will also perform at a birthday party for Rowan of the Creaking Planks on April 4th - more info on that here. Al used to sometimes share stages with Art when Art was based in Vancouver, hosting an open mike at the Gate that had been put together by Al's friend Chris Houston. Art would play a few songs on an acoustic guitar, then various open mike performers would get on stage and do their thing, including Al with his washtub. "It wasn't advertised or anything, but there was a higher 'hip quotient' in the crowd because Art and Chris were there..."

Al and I chatted a bit before the concert about how back then, it seemed like there were - quoth Al - "a certain number of people who wanted to see Art go over the edge, like with Shane McGowan and Billy Cowsill." Hard drinkers and drug users at shows would see Art as "one of us" and buy him drinks or dope; and indeed, during the show last Thursday, various people passed Art shooters from the audience. (Al was under the impression, as was I, that Art was a bit drunk by the time the night was over; probably a lot of what he and I were seeing as intoxication was simply Art's illness and the effects of pain meds that he's on, for his arthritis.) I called Al at work - he does the odd nightshift at a used book and record store I sometimes work at (and will be selling records at the upcoming record collector's meet on April 5th, I think...). We talked about the show in-between customers.

Allan: So I'm just curious what the Minimalist Jug Band made of the Art Bergmann concert.

Al: I don't know that I have anything too articulate to say. He certainly is mesmerizing. I found it eminently watchable. Y'know - there are songs I would have liked to have heard...

Allan: Young Canadians material, or...?

Al: I thought he would end with the song about getting together and having a relapse. "The Relapse Song," I guess...?

Allan: Oh, "The Hospital Song." Yeah, I was surprised that he left that out. That's nice - other people have said that they wish he'd played "Hawaii" or something, but I'm with you - I wish he'd played "The Hospital Song."

Al: Yeah, and it seemed so suitable at the end - we were all there having a relapse with him... It was sure nice to see the response he got just for comin' out. I felt like, to some extent, you're allowed to give a belated thanks to someone who has contributed, so that whether it sounds good or not, you're already glad to be there. And I don't think you could go away not being affected. You might have different takes on it, wishing he'd done this or that, but you still feel like you're watching somebody vulnerable up there.

Allan: Yeah - it took guts for him to do that, given how sick he's been. It was really powerful. Though it was interesting to see, when there were fuck ups, how he would scream, "No!" Ray compared him to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who used to sort of torture his actors on set to get more powerful performances from them.

Al: Ah! Yeah. Well, he did seem to go back and forth from being angry to being kinda conciliatory. And I guess some of it is just the creative tension... The interplay was interesting, but they all seemed to be genuinely in the moment and enjoying something about it.

Allan: Yeah, even Tony...

Al: I guess there was a certain affection for Art that came across, even with him not wanting to be yelled at in front of a sold out crowd (chuckles).

Allan: Any favourite Art Bergmann songs?

Al: Oh, there's just so many. I like the relapse song ("The Hospital Song," off Sexual Roulette). And "My Empty House." There's too many to think of. Art really is one of the better songwriters around - it's odd that you don't hear people covering his songs...

Third witness: Tony Bardach (plus a comment from Nick Jones).

Tony Bardach (not the same Tony as Tony Balony, note) plays bass with the Pointed Sticks and plays guitar and croons a bit with Slowpoke and the Smoke. He also does some really interesting fine arts work that doesn't so much as break boundaries as eliminate barriers, or, um... at least radically recontextualize them. I've done two interviews with him, here and here. The Pointed Sticks have new demos on their Myspace page, giving us a sneak preview of their new album, due this summer; and Slowpoke and the Smoke have a few gigs this week - at the Skinny party at Lugz (12th and Main) on April 1st, 9PM; and on April 3rd at Falconettis (9:30 PM; 1812 Commercial Drive).

Tony wrote me, when I asked his reactions to the show: "Wow, Al! We got to see something we hadn't seen from Art before - he was always expressive with his body and stances but now he is able to use his hands as well; this has greatly enhanced the theatricality of his performance and allows the audience to focus solely on his words, whereas in the past we also had his awesome guitar work to consider. I was very proud of him for pulling it off so well and glad to see such a big homey crowd there for him."

Nick Jones, the singer for the Pointed Sticks, couldn't be at the show - he was working out of town - but he had made an important contribution to my rediscovery of Art Bergmann. I'd kind of rejected both Crawl With Me and the much better Sexual Roulette, back in the day, because I couldn't get past the big radio-friendly, thumping commercial sound of them. I'd commented on this awhile ago to Nick, and he replied that it was true that those albums "suffer from 80's production... but both Crawl With Me and Sexual Roulette are loaded with great, great songs. And, trust me, it wasn't Art trying to make it safe for CFOX. Just listen to the lyrics - very dark. Also, on a good night at a packed Town Pump, he was amazing live." Nick, along with my buddy Theodore Stinks of the Art Bergmann fan site, has played an important role in helpin' me re-discover these albums - I can get through the production to the raw bleeding meat at the core of those discs, and it's amazing. Of course, Lost Art Bergmann - the new release from Bearwood Music, reviewed here - is more cohesive and passionate than either of them, but all three document the selfsame lineup we saw at Richards and the two Duke Street discs are well worthy of rediscovery/reissue. And Nick's right; the songs and the lyrics are fucking great.

Art Bergmann and Poisoned; photo provided by Ray Fulber. Note: photographs on this site are the property of the photographers and are not to be used without their permission.

Fourth Witness: Danny Nowak

Zombie, Danny, Randy

A photo by Femke van Delft

(Art Bergmann was watching us as Femke took this pic at the Summer of Love Pointed Sticks show a few months ago)

Danny Nowak is someone Vancouverites should know better than they do - not just because he shows up at a fair number of gigs and horror movies about town, but because he fronted a great 1980's Vancouver punk band, The Spores - who have a new compilation CD of their best songs out on Sudden Death - and because he was the cinematographer on Hard Core Logo (which Art briefly appeared in, recall). He is also working with Susanne Tabata on her upcoming documentary on the Vancouver punk scene (more on which below). I have a feature on Danny in the upcoming spring 2009 issue of Skyscraper. Danny was among those kind of disappointed by the lack of K-Tels/ Young Canadians material in the night's set ("even if he'd done one song..."); so I decided to ask him one of the more troubling questions of the night...

Allan: What was your take on how abusive Art was to poor Tony Balony?

Danny: Was it abusive? Like, did you actually hear him? Because I saw him go over to Tony and it looked like he was saying nasty things, but Tony was laughing and throwing it back at him. I didn't actually hear what he said.

Allan: Well, at one point, he called him the "fuckin' ringer..."

Danny: Yeah, right. I did hear that.

Allan: But I don't know - I don't know their relationship.

Danny: Well, I thought Tony was magnificent that night. He's like, one of my alltime favourite guitarists anywhere in the world. He's not only great playing, he's also fantastic just to watch, y'know? I've often thought if I ever get another band together, he'd be the first guitarist I'd ask to play.

(Actually, I put that up there just for Tony. I enjoyed what he did, too!).

Fifth witness: Susanne Tabata

Art Bergmann and Susanne Tabata by Randy Rampage, March 27th, 2009, Richards on Richards. Note: photographs on this site are the property of the photographers and are not to be used without their permission.

Susanne Tabata has been working for a long time on a documentary on Vancouver punk. At the moment, it stands at the hub of a controversy as to the title: there has been a suggestion to call it Bloodied But Unbowed, borrowing from a classic DOA compilation. It's a great title that can be applied to most Vancouver punk bands, all of whom have gone through hard times, but in many cases are either still going strong, back with a vengeance, or at least refusing to go out with a whimper. The last few years have seen resurgences of the Subhumans, the Pointed Sticks, the Dishrags, the Modernettes (sort of), and now Art Bergmann. But not everyone likes the idea of naming the movie after one album from one band. Due to his longevity and his assertive nature, Joe has already had a huge portion of the attention apportioned to the Vancouver punk scene; people watching films like American Hardcore would be under the impression that DOA were the only punk band in Vancouver (since Joe is the only Vancouver punk represented). Calling the doc Bloodied But Unbowed could play into that tendency, and do an injustice to other bands here. What do people think? Leave a comment - if you like the title, say so, and if you don't like the title, can you suggest an even catchier, more creative alternative?

Anyhow, Susanne has been talking with lots of people for the film, and visited Art on his farm in Calgary. She had many interesting observations about his music (saying at one point that "Art reassures people that it is good to stand your ground. He appeals to people who want to be defiant," which I think is very true). But for the purposes of this piece, she preferred to submit a few sentences in writing. Quoth Susanne:

"Art is incomparable so everything he does is judged 'too good' or 'not good enough'. I think the audience was awestruck and expectations were high. Art delivered for Poisoned. And Tony (ouch! what a tough spot) delivered for Art. I would have liked to have heard a couple of the older songs which made him a legend. But for him to be 'in the house' and play to the tribe, the Laundromat (location of Hardcore 81) is a moment ne'er to forget."

MORE TO COME AS ART BERGMANN WEEK CONTINUES... Next up Ray Fulber, talking about the demos, the rehearsals, and the show... Sometime in the next couple of days!

If you can't wait, join the Art Bergmann Facebook group!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Of Ron Mann, Films We Like, and the need to Know Your Mushrooms

Ron Mann's contributions to Canadian film culture deserve ample praise. For starters, he co- founded Films We Like, one of the most consistently interesting distributors of independent and arthouse cinema in Canada, back in 2003 along with promoter Gary Topp (whom I'll forever think of as "the man who brought Jandek to Canada" - I met Gary when I caught Jandek's Toronto gig, and liked him a lot, but I've never met Ron). Some of my favourite film experiences of the 21st century have been made possible through Films We Like's distro, and I've often thought, "Hey, these Films We Like people have GOOD TASTE!" Some of their titles (full list here) include Be Here to Love Me, the doc about Townes van Zandt; Aaron Katz' Dance Party USA and Quiet City, my two favourite (so-called) Mumblecore films - no offense to Andrew Bujalski, of Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, or to Ronald's Bronstein, director of the rather gruelling but worthwhile Frownland, all three of which were mumblecore movies that they also distro'd. There's also that funky little doc on gig posters, Died Young Stayed Pretty; the amazing and beautiful Rivers and Tides, about Andy Goldsworthy, as well as director Riedelsheimer's subsequent film, Touch the Sound, which I have not seen; and the recent Examined Life and Jerichow, both of which I wrote about below. Oh, and don't forget Jandek on Corwood. That's a great fucking track record, and it's only a quarter of the films on the list. Films We Like is a Canadian company that deserves a loud round of applause for the films they get behind - a savvy, smart, creative distributor whose judgment is damn near trustworthy 100% of the time; even their lesser titles (like the rather embarrassing Incident At Loch Ness) have charm. Yay, Films We Like.

Some of you with a good sense of how reviews are structured are probably expecting a now amply qualified "but," and you're right to, because I'm about to go public about something that I have heretofore kept secret. Like my feeling, say, that Dylan van der Schyff hits too goddamn hard half the time, or that (sorry, Joe!) DOA hasn't put out a great (or even really good) record since War On 45, it's something I've kept to myself, because it seems unkind to say such a thing about people who (in some ways) contribute so much - but also because uttering it in public could hurt people's feelings and/or (what I'm really concerned about) get me in trouble. The thing is: I am not totally wild about Ron Mann's documentaries - the films he himself has made (IMDB here; there are quite a few).

Mind you, at least one of his movies kicks fucking ass, no doubt about it. The first film I ever saw of Ron Mann's was Poetry in Motion (1981), and it's incredible, well worth seeking out; links below are to inferior Youtube clips that I've sought out in the hopes you'll be inspired to buy the DVD or such. Mann caught on film performances and comments on poetics by some of the most significant American and Canadian poets of the day, including John Giorno, Anne Waldman, Ed Sanders, the Four Horsemen, Dianne diPrima, Robert Creeley, Christopher Dewdney, Charles Bukowski, Amiri Baraka, Michael Ondaatje, and even a few artists, like John Cage and Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs, who are not poets per se, but well worthy of inclusion. Helen Adam's cheery singsong about junkiedom amongst the rats and roaches will remain in your mind for a very long time, as will Allen Ginsberg's punk rock song (I forget the title - "Capitol Air?" - but he also was recorded singing it with the Clash; but the movie version is far better, and not on Youtube). The performances are brilliantly shot, presented without undue interference, and are often as interesting as the poems themselves; the commentary on poetics is revealing and often fun (and marked the first video footage I'd ever seen of Charles Bukowski, way back in the days before Barfly); and the poems chosen are often astoninishingly good - if you like beat poetry, that is, since it is pretty beat-centric. If this all sounds exciting to you, seek out the film, since it's exactly as good as I'm making it out to be: the best film about poetry that I've seen. If you know one better, tell me about it.

If you're a jazz fan, I'd also recommend checking out Imagine The Sound, Mann's 1981 documentary (and I believe his first feature) which features some memorable moments from a rather loopy Cecil Taylor, a subdued post-free-jazz Archie Shepp, and stuff on Paul Bley and Bill Dixon that has not lasted in my memory. I liked the film, but didn't love it; I wrote at some length about it here. I've missed many of Ron Mann's other films, like his generally well-liked Comic Book Confidential and Tales of the Rat Fink, since I'm not particularly a comic book guy, but it strikes me that they might be the sort of projects - based on his film about poetry and his obvious love of using animation and cartoony stuff in his films - that he could successfully pull off.

So far so good, but Mann has also made two films I did not hold high in my estimation. Go Further! is just plain fucking annoying - a whole bunch of beautiful and righteous upper middle class "beautiful people" and liberal celebrities rally around Woody Harrelson to celebrate their beautiful and righteous (and ever-so-enlightened) lifestyles, drop Ken Kesey's name, travel about in an eco-friendly bus, and ride bicycles: big woo. It might be a wet dream for a Birkenstock shareholder, but it made my ass itch at the theatre - I very nearly walked out so I could give it a proper scratching, which I would have likely found more satisfying than the film. There is no critical distance taken from its subject, or indeed anything that Mann brings to the plate that wasn't served to him hot and steamin' by his subjects; it appears rather, um, lazy - as if the methodology was just to take a camera to a place where a group of supposedly interesting people were gathering, capture what could be captured easily, without being too intrusive, and then edit it together and augment it to make it entertaining. It's a risky approach, since the interest value of a film made this way ends up tied to the interest value of the people in it; and while perhaps it's useful to have "ethical pop culture" figures for kids to emulate - maybe there are a whole bunch of people living more liberal enlightened lives because of their great Love of Woody - I have never given a shit about any celebrity endorsement of a cause, which strikes me as often involving a sort of moralistic egomania. I care about Woody Harrelson's politics like I care about Britney Spears' breasts or Kirstie Allie's diet, which is to say, not at all. Maybe if said celebrities actually put their celebrity asses on the line and took risks - as in FTA, with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, and others getting rather confrontational about their politics while entertaining troops in Vietnam and elsewhere - it could mean something, but it would be a far less easily consumed thing. What we have in Go Further! is a revolution that the powers that be don't particularly need to feel threatened by, where the only "risk" anyone takes lies in the damage done to the egos of the people who partake in it - because that much vanity and self-righteousness can't be good for anyone. Woody is a damnsite less distasteful than Bono, to be sure - but I wouldn't want to see a film about Bono, either. About the only thing that could have redeemed this film would be for the Dead Kennedys' "California Uber Alles" (with its lyrics about how "zen fascists will control you/ 100% natural") to play as the credits rolled...

Grass - which Harrelson narrates - didn't piss me off like Go Further! did, but it is simply not a great documentary, or at least didn't seem like one when I saw it in 1999. (I read now that it won a Genie that year, but I don't place much stock in Genies, or Oscars or Grammys or the frigging Junos either). As I recall it, Grass was filled with cute video tricks - archival footage, animations, fun sound effects, humorous intertitles and so forth - that seemed to suggest its target audience was a stoned teenager with a short attention span. That's not totally a bad thing - there probably were a lot of stoned teenagers in the audience, and Mann's visual collage is deft and entertaining; one suspects Michael Moore probably learned/stole a lot more from Ron Mann than he did from Emile de Antonio. Still, you get the feeling that Grass is trying so hard to entertain and to reach a wide audience base that it somewhat loses track of what I take to be the primary objective of documentary filmmaking, to to inform its viewers about its subject matter. It was altogether too safe, light, and slight an approach to an important subject, and left me with a persistent sense of its insufficiency, after the credits rolled: what, that's it? I had expected so much more.
It is possible that I am perhaps a bit harder to please than the average filmgoer, mind you. I have no doubt that those of you who saw and enjoyed Grass might well enjoy Know Your Mushrooms, too; it opens in a couple of days at the Vancity Theatre, and I'd hope not to dissuade people from seeing it if it sounds like their thing. Trouble is, the things I didn't like about Go Further! and Grass are both very much present here: for the film, as with Go Further!, Mann once again makes a pilgrimage to a place where interesting people gather - in this case a mushroom pickers' festival in Telluride; he films what he easily can; and then, as with Grass, he augments the film with trippy visual effects, found footage, cute animations, and so forth, designed more to please a fairly general audience than to really educate. (There are these little cartoon shroom inserts in the form of multiple choice questions that at first seem like a fun way to present nifty fungus factoids - until you start to realize, after about the second one, that they will constitute the bulk of specialized information you're going to receive).

These are not the only similarities to Grass, because Mann obviously bears in mind throughout that at least some people in the audience will be there specifically to hear about psilocybin, and perhaps even under its influence - hence some of the visual tomfoolery one encounters, the use of Flaming Lips' songs, the abundant use of the word "magic," and snippets of archival footage of John Allegro and Terence McKenna that shows both men talking about their stranger theories (that mushrooms were actually Christ, or that they came from space to educate us). The people who chuckle at this sort of thing might actually be a bit let down to discover that there's little about either of these men's work, beyond these soundbites, in the film, though - and just as little about how to identify magic mushrooms, where or when to find them, information about different species, their actual effects on human neurochemistry, how to grow them, the legal issues around them, etc. I suspect, too, that if Mann were aware how bad a time people who eat amanitas could potentially have (because I've heard they're often not a pretty trip), he would have inserted a few warnings or such into the film, which, as it is, might inspire casual viewers to just gobble them up. You can find more useful information about magic mushrooms by spending fifteen minutes visiting the Shroomery than by watching the whole of Know Your Mushrooms.

There's the same poverty of information about other mushrooms, too - lots of mention of morels and chantrelles and such, and some cool footage of people picking them, but not much depth coverage; for instance, I'd have liked a bit of biochemical information as to how toxins in mushrooms work, or perhaps a discussion of why some mushrooms are edible and others not; do the edible mushrooms profit somehow in being eaten? Why have other species evolved to be so toxic, then? ...There are barbs, too, against commercial mushroom growers - as spreaders of disinformation and paranoia about the dangers of wild mushrooms - but I've been on a mushroom farm and found the way the mushrooms were grown - sprouting from hanging bags of decomposing paper - absolutely fascinating. Why not visit one? It's not like the film - barely 75 minutes long - is too long and ungainly to include a few extra scenes. Like Grass, Know Your Mushrooms takes a subject I'm genuinely interested in and produces a cute, light entertainment around it, with the great irony at the end of the film being that there is almost nothing I didn't already know about mushrooms contained in it.* Maybe I'm expecting too much, but if you're going to call a film Know Your Mushrooms and hope adults will go see it, isn't this a bit of a problem?

What Know Your Mushrooms has going for it, however, is that the mushroom pickers - and particularly Larry Evans, the main guy profiled (and the guy in the poster, above) - seem like really delightful human beings. Evans comes across as a curious, funny, smart hippie-type who apparently dresses for picking mushrooms 24/7. Gary Lincoff, another of the pickers profiled, tells some pretty fun stories, including one about a mushroom trip with a very strange character. Picking mushrooms seems to be as big a passion for both these men as collecting rare 78 RPM records is to Joe Bussard (subject of a great recent doc that Films We Like hasn't distro'd, Desperate Man Blues). They probably have dreams where they're in the forest harvesting them. I would have liked to know more about Lincoff and Evans - what they do for a living, how much of their day is spent on matters fungal, what their families think of their hobbies, and so forth. Larry Evans has even co-recorded a CD of educational songs about mushrooms - which the film either doesn't mention or does so so briefly that I missed it. Here too, then, the film falls short of gratifying the curiosities it invokes; but given a choice between watching Larry Evans cooking mushrooms (or relaying anecdotes about his Bolivian mushroom-photographing adventures), or watching Woody Harrelson ride a bike and declaim on the evils of rBGH and Monsanto, I'll take Larry every day. He'll be in attendance at the Vancity Theatre, I'm told. If someone goes, maybe you could ask for me if he ever has dreams about fungus? I'd like to know.

Ron Mann has done some great things for cinema in Canada in recent years, and he's definitely a skilled proponent of a certain kind of documentary filmmaking. He may someday make a film I will enjoy and respect as much as I did Poetry In Motion. Know Your Mushrooms isn't that film. It's not an offense to the eye, and might well entertain at least some of you, as a funny, sweet, engaging, and very easy-to-watch film. For me - having hoped to actually learn about the films proposed subject - it was kind of disappointing.

There, I said it.

*Actually, I'm exaggerating slightly. There were a couple of things I didn't know about mushrooms contained in the film, it's true. I did not know that there was a mushroom pickers' conference in Telluride, only that there was a film festival there; and I didn't know that there was such a thing as an insectivorous fungus. The latter was amazing to hear about, but was granted about 3 minutes of screentime, which really didn't do it justice, given how curious it got me.

Punk, avant garde, and otherwise adventuresome or entertaining gigs this week

A few notes on gigs that you might want to consider.

For those who just want to have a fun night out, Slowpoke and the Smoke play the Skinny's one year birthday bash at Lugz (2525 Main) on Wednesday! We like Tony Bardach. We were somewhat surprised to see just how many people made it out to that last Falconetti's gig - the place was packed - so it looks like there are other folks in town who like him, too. The Pointed Sticks, by the way, have put up new demos for their upcoming album, on their Myspace page...

For those interested in musical experiences that are more mind-altering than mood-lifting (musical experiences of the sort that require attentive listening), a group consisting of improvising percussionist Jeffrey Allport, Solder and Sons' Robert Pedersen, and the the Mutators' Lief Hall play at Blim on Thursday alongside Seattle's Gust Burns, and Zurich's Jason Kahn) - a gig which cancels out, for me, Ken Vandermark and Ab Baars at the Ironworks that same night, though if it ends early-ish, maybe I'll try to catch their second set. Ken and Ab both tend towards the more loud, aggro end of the free jazz spectrum - an end of the jazz pool which (with Mats Gustafsson, Peter Brotzmann and Albert Ayler as notable exceptions) that I spend little time swimming in these days (tho' I like Darren Williams and co., locally, I should note). Still, I have a powerful hankering for catharsis lately, and watching these guys blow their lungs out would probably help, if they were still onstage by the time I got there... Hmm.

Alternately, on the 2nd, you could go see the Ahna tour benefit show at Honey, with Robe & Allied, The Nihilist Party, SOLARS and DJ Vera... I will leave y'all to probe Myspace for some o' those links (can't find Robe and Allied), but here's the poster!
Of course, we will be goin' to see Nomeansno on Friday. That's gotta be well-past sold out by now. (My attempts to resist passing on Nomeansno's cherished disinformation about themselves have proven futile, since I am now being included in that disinformation - see their March 27th update.)

Of course, if you're more interested in avant-garde music, there's Xenakis' Kraanerg, which sounds remarkable indeed, at Christ Church Cathedral, that same night. It should be astonishing. Given that I've seen Nomeansno around ten times, I'm almost tempted... but no. I will not be welcome to mosh at Kraanerg, however lamely and briefly it may be, and I need to mosh at least a little.

For those of you who won't be doing either Nomeansno or Xenakis, there is no need to despair, since there will be a Fake Jazz Friday at the Front that very night which will be cheaper than either and likely very exciting. Actually, odds are you could start out there and make it to the Anza before Nomeansno even went onstage. They're almost walking distance from each other, on opposite sides of Main Street... Gotta think about that. The lineup includes a set by LSDJ, aka Mark Gabriel; I have a CD by him that is remarkable and likable and intensely listenable. His MO is to take a whole bunch of really cool records and create trippy, complex, intensely listenable sound collages from them. Names I recognize on the credits to the album I have include Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Steve Shelley, Jim O'Rourke, the Sun City Girls, Meredith Monk, Jean Michel Jarre (!), Graeme Kirkland, Andrea Goodman, and Robert Een. There are many others I do not know. Also on the bill that night: Blouse, Allport/Wilcox/Burns, Broken Sleep, and (once again) Jason Kahn...

Jeremy van Wyck, of course, is (with Bill Batt) the co-curator of all things Fake Jazz. Jeremy's more raucous rock band, Shearing Pinx, plays Saturday at the Biltmore with AIDS Wolf and Twin Crystals. I assume that my readers all have seen Shearing Pinx more than once - jagged straddling of No Wave and improv/noise that sorta reminds me of amped-up Confusion is Sex/ Kill Yr. Idols era Sonic Youth (as one easy reference point, if'n you don't know them). They're one of the best rocks bands in Vancouver right now, a must-see if you're (say) a punk yearnin' for somethin' a bit more creative, without wanting to lose any of punk's energy...

Then there's the Acid Mothers Temple, April 7.

A great show for those interested in out-there Japanese stuff or just fond of heavy psychedelic rock. My big interview with Kawabata is here, if you've missed it previously (and once again we thank Alan Cummings for his help with this piece). I like these guys, but as I've said elsewhere, I prefer their records (which tend more to musical experimentation) to their shows (which tend to see them rocking out). But were it not for other obligations, I would go see'em again. They usually have really cool rare stuff on their merch table, too, and y'all know how expensive Japanese imports can get...

Anyhow, those are a few gigs this week that seemed noteworthy... There's lots else, though. Check out Live Music Vancouver for even more options. It's amazing, given how determined the city seems to shut down venues, just how vital the Vancouver scene is...

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Art Bergmann week at Alienated in Vancouver: trolling Youtube

I'll try to post something every day on Art for the next little while. Today just a brief note that someone has put a few clips on Youtube with damn good sound quality, relatively speaking (but awful video) - of "Dirge No. 1," which opened the show last Thursday; "My Empty House," which was more than halfway through, as I recall; and "Our Little Secret," which came damn near the end. Singing along to the "la la las" - which half the club was doing - was chilling, but this was one of the songs that the band didn't quite make it through unscathed...

Speaking of "Dirge No. 1," though, here's an alternate video of it that doesn't sound as good but shows us what Art was up to behind his lectern at the start, and has some great closeups of him and the band. You'll be able to spot the moment, I think, when Bev Davies took the photo you'll soon be seein'... in the next few days, I swear. For those who like "Dirge No. 1," here's another version, also with pretty good sound. Oh: did I already post a link to this "Junkie Don't Care?" (It's hard to believe Art is sick when you see the energy he puts out during this song - it's amazing. Is this the same clip as the one on the excellent Art Bergmann fansite? It seems somehow better there, if so).

Then there's a "Gambol," but the sound is horrifying.

While we're on Youtube, people looking for more Poisoned stuff should also check out Art's video for "Yeah I Guess," which we'll have Ray Fulber talkin' about soon (it's an earlier version of Poisoned, note). I'll leave you to search out your own Young Canadians/K-Tels stuff.

Would someone please post a live clip of "Bound For Vegas?"

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Re: Art Bergmann, etc

More Art by Femke van Delft
(with the Pointed Sticks at Summer of Love '08)

...See a couple o' posts below for my "review" of the Art Bergmann show. I should add that some of what I took for inebriation on Art's part appears to have been simply that he's very sick. Like the Lost Art Bergmann CD, the show, I think, will continue to grow in my estimation - too bad that, unlike the CD, I can't relive it again and again (tho' I gather there's more footage surfacing on Youtube). I've just talked with Ray Fulber at some length - the man behind the CD release and the bass player at the concert - and will have an interview with him up sometime in the next week, as well as comments from people who were at the show.

However, this is going to take some time for me to get to. I've got lots else going on in my life right now, so it may take a week or so. Art Bergmann fans should WATCH THIS SPACE or sumfin'.
Looks like I won't be at Mecca Normal tonight. (How like me: plug a show and then not go). Hope y'all have fun.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Political Suicide: Malachi Ritscher, Andrew Veal, and Mecca Normal

Okay, so... there's a Mecca Normal show Saturday night at the Vinegar Factory - and if you're smart, if you're feministically-inclined, if you're interested in local music, and/or if you've never seen them before, as I suspect will be the case with at least some people reading this, you should go. But I'd like to suggest some homework first, pertaining to one of their newer songs, "Malachi." Jean Smith will no doubt preface the song with an explanation or mention it in her talk on "How Art and Music Can Change the World;" it deals with the self-immolation of an American artist and Chicago scene chronicler, Malachi Ritscher (pronounced "Richter"), whom the band got to know in their travels in America. It's a pretty interesting story, which I had no awareness of prior to hearing Mecca Normal's song; I've wanted an excuse to acquaint myself with the backstory, and writing this made a good one. I think readers of my blog will find my researches interesting...

Throughout his life, Ritscher had done much to document (through photographs and recordings) improvised and experimental music in Chicago; a list of some of the avant-gardists to whose recordings he contributed is here (and includes many projects by Ken Vandermark, who plays the Ironworks April 2nd with Ab Baars). Punks may better remember him for his bass playing (with a misspelled name) on the first Arsenal EP (led by Santiago Durango of Big Black - we assume that Ritscher knew the song "Kerosene," about self-immolation as a cure to smalltown boredom). Less Than Jake did a song about his suicide, which you can hear here. Ritscher burned himself to death in 2002, near a highway offramp during rush hour, to protest the US government's direction at that time (the War On Terror, the invasion of Iraq, etc); his "mission statement" for the act can be viewed here, in the form of an internet broadcast he issued prior to his death, and if you're going to click on only one link in this article, let me recommend that one. His self-written obit is here; reactions in Chicago can be read about here; a Pitchfork article detailing his contributions to the Chicago scene can be read here; and a blogger's article about Mecca Normal's song can be read here (also featuring video of the band performing it).

Hearing of Ritscher's death (at Mecca Normal's previous show in Vancouver) reminded me of a suicide that I'd read about a few years ago: a 25-year old Georgia man named Andrew Veal drove across America in 2004, two years after Ritscher killed himself, and after George W. Bush had won over John Kerry in the election that Ritscher refers to in his mission statement, to blow his head off at the site of the former World Trade Center. Leaving no note, Veal's was a less-focused but still apparently politically motivated action that, perhaps, in his choice of location, he figured would speak for itself. He and Ritscher are two recent examples of Americans that have killed themselves in acts of political protest; there's even a small handful of others who chose to die by self-immolation (a horrible, horrible way to go, and a striking contrast to the comfort-centered way most North Americans live). Alice Herz, described on Wikipedia as an "82 year old peace activist," self-immolated in 1965 to protest the war in Vietnam, as did Norman Morrison, apparently her "colleague" (according to Wikipedia, anyhow - a dubious source of information at times, but a useful starting place for reading). Other self-immolations in America - mostly during the Vietnam war - include George Winne Jr, Florence Beaumont, and Catholic Worker Roger Allen LaPorte. A later US self-immolation was conducted in 1996 by a Chinese-American artist/activist who called herself Kathy Change, an act that was apparently a protest against the way things were in America in general, rather than a reaction to any particular conflict or issue. The template for all of these self-immolations was probably the famous self-immolation of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức, who set himself aflame to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the Diem regime in Vietnam. (Rage Against The Machine used a famous photograph of this action as an album cover). There are, in fact, enough political activists who have committed suicide in history worldwide to merit an index for that method of death on Wikipedia; not all of these deaths were intended as acts of protest, however. The line gets blurry in some cases: folksinger Phil Ochs, who hanged himself in 1974 (but somehow doesn't make the Wikipedia list!), was very much an activist and idealist, but his suicide was motivated by despair and depression, rather than any belief that he could bring any good about by killing himself (the poster shown here is part of Mecca Normal guitarist David Lester's "Inspired Agitator" series). Abbie Hoffman, too, was likely a suicide, which no doubt had something to do with despair at the direction his country was moving in, but there's no reason to think he meant his death to change anything on a social level.

There are, in fact, probably millions of other examples, throughout human history, of people killing themselves in political protests that Wikipedia is overlooking; and if we broaden the net to include suicides that are motivated by protests against more local, personal injustices, there are millions more names that can be added to the list. Maybe every suicide contains an element of protest? A. Alvarez, in his study of suicide, The Savage God, writes that in "primitive societies," suicide was a rather complicated form of revenge, undertaken by the wronged party on those who have wronged him or her: "either the suicide's ghost will destroy his persecutor for him, or his act will force his relatives to carry out the task, or the iron laws of the tribe will force the suicide's enemy to kill himself in the same manner. ...Suicide under these conditions is curiously unreal; it is as though it were committed in the certain belief that the suicide himself would not really die. Instead, he is performing a magical act which will initiate a complex but equally magical ritual ending in the death of his enemy."
Malachi Ritscher apparently was, as that video suggests, a man of considerable sincerity and intelligence, who likely was in full possession of his wits at the time of his death; still, hearing about his self-immolation raises a pretty significant question: does it mean anything - is it of any lasting value - that he chose to die in this terrible and terrifying way, or was he deeply misguided or confused about what he was doing? Not only did Ritscher's self-immolation not provoke "the death of his enemy" - Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld are all very much alive, and comfortably rich, to boot, having evaded all prosecution for their crimes - it didn't even do anything to directly lead to Bush's removal from office; even if the US media had rallied around Ritscher's protest - which they didn't - it's likely Kerry would still have lost that election, and it's equally likely that Barack Obama would have won the subsequent one, based on the growing realization even in the United States of Apathy that the Bush regime was monstrous and criminal. So what point could choosing such a painful death actually have?
While the accidental self-immolation of a homeless Vancouverite (known as Tracey) during our cold spell this winter - and media attention to the same - probably had some impact on the creation of new shelters in the city, this doesn't seem to be an argument for other people trying this method to provoke policy changes; to accidentally burn yourself to death because you're trying to keep warm (and happen to live in a cardboard box) is one thing, but to march down to city hall and douse yourself with kerosene is another. You're likely to be written off as a nut, for one (as was Ritscher, by some); unlike the case with Tracey, the very fact that the act was deliberate gives your enemies a defense against it ("surely no sane person would deliberately do such a thing"). And you're more likely to make people less inclined towards activism, rather than more, by such extremities. Sure, Christ instructs his followers, when speaking out against injustices, to "be not afraid of the cross" (or somethin' like that - I can never find the exact Biblical reference for it, but I think it's in there somewhere - sort of in the spirit of Luke 12); but I am afraid of the cross, thanks, and will dodge it as best I can for as long as I can. I might be prepared to give up meat or join the odd protest march or such, and can admire people (like, say, Daniel and Philip Berrigan) who are willing to endure jail time for their beliefs (which I hope I never feel I have to do), but if being politically active means setting yourself on fire, you can count me out, Jack, regardless of the cause you're selling. I don't think that's an unusual or unreasonable response: certain actions are so extreme that they're more likely to alienate people than win them over, no matter how sincerely they are intended. If Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and co. think next to nothing of the deaths of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis in pursuing their political objectives, and the mainstream media and American populus in general are too sluggish and bought off to raise much of a cry against them, what is one more death on American soil of someone who they can always claim is "clearly mentally ill?"

I'm grateful to Jean Smith and David Lester for making me aware of Malachi Ritscher, even if I consider his action tragically wrong-headed. To some extent, I respect Ritscher's choice: to deprive oneself of the many comforts that we are afforded in the west, because one believes it is right to do so, is an admirable and courageous thing, and it takes a lot of guts to set yourself on fire, as an extreme example of comfort-deprivation. All the same, I think one should expect a greater return on the investment than Malachi got; and I wonder if killing yourself as an act of political protest isn't ultimately just a sneaky way of passing the buck: "Someone else do something about this - I'm outa here."

I suppose I should note that a lot of Mecca Normal's recent songs are nowhere near as serious as this one, dealing with considerable wit with Jean Smith's experiences of internet dating. Here's an example, Smith's video for the song "Attraction Is Ephemeral." Actually, I prefer Mecca Normal's internet dating stuff to the "Malachi" song, myself - but the backstory is far less interesting.

By the way, Dave Chokroun's project for the Vinegar Factory show is called The Real feat. The Unreal, featuring Dave on bass (not drums, ala The Sorrow and the Pity) and Jonathon Wilcke on sax. Dave tells me it'll be "mostly free improv, couple of Ornette Coleman tunes, and some highly effective movie themes, which may be presented in a suite called something like, 'Seven Habits of Magnificently Effective Samurai.'" He thinks they go on last...

Post 1000 on Alienated In Vancouver, plus Art Bergmann last night

Art Bergmann with Jon Card at the Summer of Love festivities in Kits, 2008
Photo by Femke van Delft

Damn, man... this is my 1000th posting on this site. I should throw a party for myself.

Upcoming - I hope to speak to Ray Fulber, if he still is keen to talk, about the Lost Art Bergmann CD (see my review in the Straight, and, if you care about Vancouver music, buy this CD as soon as possible; I wrote that review based on three or four spins of the CD, having received it the day before my deadline, but the more I hear it, the more awe-inspiring it becomes). I also hope he'll be willing to comment on last night's concert, which must have been stressful as hell for the guy. For all its brilliant moments - and there were many - the show was a bit more of a car wreck than I expected, though a (voyeuristically) fascinating and perhaps even oddly inspiring carwreck, if such a thing may be tastefully said. (There is also the question of whether it was a contrived carwreck - if Art deliberately decided to push things past a certain safe limit, which is not outside the realm of possibility, though a dangerous way to go about bein' a performer). I somehow had been under the impression prior to the show that Art had stopped drinking; can't say where I got that idea. Performances veered between being chillingly effective and spot-on - Art can still scream like a motherfucker - and embarrassingly ramshackle and halting, often within the same song, with a seething, frustrated Bergmann harrassing poor "ringer" guitarist Tony Baloney (or does he spell that Balony?) or wrestling with the mike stand, occasionally chucking it on the stage in a petulant/ drunken fit. Though at other times he danced, smiled, and definitely seemed to get "into" it, Art often seemed pissed that the band wasn't able to do things quite up to the level he wanted (also throwing a barb at Taylor Little, calling him "John Bonham" at one point); but then neither could Art, who seemed in particular to be having a hard time with the fact that he was unable to play guitar, and given to abusively micromanaging Balony (who should receive an "I Survived the March 26th 2009 Art Bergmann gig" t-shirt for his efforts last night). All of this gave a raw, electric, slightly scary energy to the performances, so that when they veered out of the abyss back towards the realm of showmanship, they were amazing - blood-chillingly powerful, raw stuff. I predict that some reviewers will compare Art to a caged tiger (tho' I've never seen a tiger lie on top of a bar before. I'm told he used to do that now and then when he was playing guitar, too). There was a certain amount of suspense hovering over the question of whether the band would actually make it to the end of the show in one piece, such that it was kind of a relief when it was over... though if Art were playing again tonight, I'd definitely go.

A one-off, eh? (Or so Bergmann and Fulber suggested to Varty). It's a shame: there's a lot of fire left in this guy (and piss and blood and bile, too).

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Vancity Noir: Jerichow, The Postman Always Rings Twice

Jerichow, which starts its run tomorrow at the Vancity Theatre, is a chilly European adaptation of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. It's been some 20 years since I've read that book, but I have it filed in my mind as an intense bit of hard-boiled crime that you're almost compelled to burn through in one sitting, as it feeds the thrill of transgression like nothing short of Bataille has done for me, otherwise; even Jim Thompson's creepy, misanthropic novels don't make being bad so appealing as this slim book, which works the Oedipal angle much more effectively than anything I've seen Thompson do (...and God knows he tried to work the Oedipal angle into his stories whenever he could; but always, it seemed, as an outsider, looking in on his bad men and theorizing about where they went wrong, judging them slightly and inviting you to do the same; he constructs their dilemmas like he's been consulting a textbook on psychoanalysis down in Lou Ford's basement. Cain strives in a much more straightforward way to invoke the desire of the male reader to fuck his mother and kill and replace his father - simple as that. It works so much better when the comfort of perspective is not granted). The story: you are an ambitious, broke younger man, with a controlling older "boss," who trusts you; but you're very aware of your boss' sexy, unhappy wife. He beats her sometimes, and you can see her making eyes at you. Your mission: seduce the wife, fuck her, take on her problems, "rescue" her from your boss by killing him, and replace him; you and his wife can live off his life insurance (or run his diner or snack food distribution business or whatever - the payday varies from adaptation to adaptation, I believe). Sin, crime, sex, murder: transgression. But will you get away with it? (I make it sound like a subplot to Grand Theft Auto).

The book has been adapted several times before, and I've seen, I believe, both American versions; the first, though a classic noir, has completely faded from my memory, while Jack Nicholson's enthusiastic muff-dive onto sultry Jessica Lange in the 1980 Bob Rafelson film dominates my memory of the remake, almost to the exclusion of all else. It's one of the most shockingly sexy moments in a mainstream American film, and bits of it even appear on celebrity porn sites. Having viewed it, I think, during its theatrical run as a boy - because by age 12, I was going to the movie theatre in Maple Ridge to see films like this, having decided that I liked dramas - I was curious to see if it would seem as shocking when I revisited the film some 20 years later (during my brief "Rafelson period," you understand), when the idea of cunnilingus (let alone star-on-star big-screen cunnilingus, however briefly depicted) wasn't quite so new to me (because at 12, I was completely stunned that such things even happened: the man puts his mouth where?). To my surprise, the scene still packed a punch in my 30's: maybe I just have a thing - okay, I do have a thing - for Jessica Lange... I don't know how well the film holds up, otherwise; Nicholson aside, it doesn't have much in common with the Rafelson that made Five Easy Pieces (or The King of Marvin Gardens or even the Nicholson-less Stay Hungry), seeming, as I recall, more like an exercise in nostalgia for films noir than a treatise on alienated upper class young men, but it might just bear looking at again, and I might just go see it tomorrow at the Vancity Theatre, depending on my mood. (Audience reactions to the mufffdive will be fun to observe, at the very least). Starting at 6:30, it should finish just in time for people to make it over to Richards on Richards for the Art Bergmann show. The film is a late addition to the Vancity's schedule, added to the bill with the initial screening of Christian Petzold's Jerichow, the new German adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice .

Whatever else one might say about Jerichow, it certainly isn't an exercise in nostalgia for classic American noir. For one, it's shot mostly outdoors, in bright sunlight, in semi-rural Germany, with none of the visual markings of the genre (strong black and white contrasts, urban landscapes, dark shadows, etc). The hero/antihero, too (Benno Fürmann) is hardly the archetypal noir transgressor, seeming, with his fit physique and close-cropped hair, more like some Euro soccer star than a man scheming on murder. He's almost too good-looking, in a very mainstream, "beefcake" kind of way, for me to quite buy into him being desperate for money, let alone being able to harbour sinful desires; "attractive" signfies "virtuous" in so many films that it's a hard thing to shake. These are not faults, though - a noir doesn't have to look any particular way, subverting genre constraints is always welcome, and the fact that Cain's text can survive transposition from 1930's America to 21st century Germany is a testament to its archetypal power. Thomas, our "drifter," is here a down-on-his luck soldier, returned from Afghanistan (where he learned skills that come in handy at various points in the film, but also earned a dishonorable discharge). Ali (Hilmi Sözer), the concession stand distributor who hires him to drive, is a Turkish immigrant, and simultaneously likable and somewhat pathetic; you sympathize with him, as a basically decent outsider who really is being screwed over by everyone, and at the same time feel a certain contempt for him, as he uses money, force, and cunning to control the people around him. Ali's wife, Laura, played by (I'm told) Petzold regular Nina Hoss, has a certain pale wounded fury to her, mostly restrained; she exudes a vague Lange-ishness, though there is little of the heat beween Hoss and Fürmann that Nicholson and Lange generated in the 1980's film. Your sympathies shift in interesting ways between characters; probably the most interesting moments are between Ali and Thomas, as they befriend each other even while the younger man is betraying his employer.

Don't want to say much more about Jerichow - it's an interesting variant on the story, and I greatly admired the ending, which, despite my familiarity with the book and having seen two other film adaptations (one twice), still managed to surprise me. Noir fans, first year psych students, and those familiar with Cain's novel will find more than enough to hold their interest here.
Of course, you can't really go see it tomorrow without running the risk of missing some of Art's performance, but it runs til April 2nd.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Gigs of the week: Art Bergmann, Mecca Normal

I suppose if you haven't gotten your ticket when the Art Bergmann show finally sells out, you can all make your way to see Rich Hope and his Blue Rich Rangers at the Railway on Thursday and cry in your beers with the band about missin' the historic gig (maybe they could do a country version of "The Hospital Song" or such as a consolation; I could hear Rich doin' that...). As of now, tho', I believe, there are still a few tickets for Art's gig on Thursday available via Ticketmaster and such. Art has a very brief interview with Black Lips guy Billy Hopeless in The Skinny (not online as I write, but look here tomorrow and maybe it'll be there, who knows?). I've waited a long time to see Mr. Bergmann perform - tho' I've met him on a couple of occasions, I've never actually seen him live, which I hear is the way to experience him, so I'm stoked about the show.

Mecca Normal, meanwhile - an underappreciated but long-lived, quirky, whip-smart female-fronted duo, consisting of Jean Smith and David Lester, will have a show themed around "How Art and Music Can Change the World" at The Vinegar Factory (1009 E. Cordova St) on the 28th (Saturday), kicking off their 25th anniversary tour. The band's at times wince-inducingly truthful (but very funny and listenable) The Observer, about the horrors of online dating, is a must-spin if you like large doses of intelligence with your rock; I was very pleasantly surprised by how much fun I had seeing them live a couple of months ago, and am lookin' forward to the gig (more on which a tad later). Opening, too, will be a project featuring another one of my fave local musicians, Dave Chokroun, doin' something with Robots on Fire's Jonathon Wilcke. I kinda forget what they're callin' themselves but I sort of expect it to be basically The Sorrow and The Pity with a different sax player.

Meantime, another long-lived local favourite, Nomeansno (who play the Anza on April 3rd) are currently in Japan, maybe tourin' a whiskey distillery. Hope they're havin' fun... Me, I gotta sort my fuckin' tax receipts, mark my student papers, and square away report cards for next month...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

What constitutes hipsterdom, anyhow?

I dunno if anyone cares to enlighten me, but there's a certain term of abuse in heavy rotation these days - hipster - the exact meaning of which somewhat eludes me. The people who use it are invariably "cool" people - people who are, in fact, according to past non-pejorative uses of the term, "hip;" they seem to mean the term to refer to people who are "trying" to be cool, but really aren't. Indubitably there are people like this out there, but I'm never exactly sure who they are, so I can't really comfortably use the term. Do people who use the term actually have a sense unknown to me - akin to gaydar, perhaps- where they can scan the crowd at a gig and pick out the hipsters versus the hip? How do they differentiate? Are they ever fooled? Most troubling: does one need to partake of hipster-like values in order to recognize them in others? Could "hipster" mean, really, people like us?

Or, well... I guess it can't mean me, since I have no idea what the term means...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Examined Life, examined at some length (with commentary from Sunaura Taylor)

Movies seldom have moral impact. For all their potential to do so, it is rare that you see a film that alters the way you think about yourself or life, or changes your relationship with the universe in any noteworthy way. Relatively few filmmakers set out with such ambitions, and those that do often fall short of their goal. Not a single life-change was brought about, for me personally, for instance, as a result of watching An Inconvenient Truth, which would be an example of a documentary that strives very much to make an impact; perhaps I've been more aware of the effects of climate change around me, but I'm living exactly the same life as I ever did, have voted for the same people I would have, have bought the same products, persisted in my stubborn habit of walking to work, and so forth. I would be rather surprised to hear that the case was different for many other people (though one would hope it had some impact on policy-makers); such films may be informative, may assure the converted among the audience that they are righteous, or provoke satisfying feelings of fear or outrage, but they don't place much burden on you, the individual; they would probably not be so successful if they did. Similar politically-engaged documentaries on food production, water scarcity, and various unfortunate political and economic situations throughout the world that I've seen over the last few years have also failed to move me to action, despite at times feverish attempts to impress upon me the urgency of their causes; few remain vividly in my memory, and those that do, like Our Daily Bread or Workingman's Death (the DVD releases of both of which I write about here), do so because they are aesthetically remarkable, not because of any radical changes they have wrought upon my lifestyle or consciousness. I watched the mechanical handling and slaughter of animals in Our Daily Bread with fascination - and quite possibly went for a burger afterwards; if the filmmakers intended to move me to change my life, they failed.

Peter Singer in affluent New York

The new documentary on philosophy, Examined Life, opening Friday at the Cinematheque, has provoked at least one noteworthy and demonstrable change in me. Though it does not set out to proselytize about vegetarianism, or any specific cause, and spends very little time, in fact, on the question of food, which comes up only briefly in an interview with the controversial Peter Singer, pictured above, I have eaten very little meat since I saw it this weekend, and none at all since Sunday afternoon (I am not counting fish as meat, note). I normally would have; in the span of time between Sunday and Wednesday, I would have likely partaken of the deaths of at least four chickens, a cow, and a pig. I had no plans prior to seeing the film of switching to vegetarianism; in the last few years, I've dined with vegans and vegetarians, interviewed one passionate raw food vegan (Nathan Holiday of Tunnel Canary - a much longer version of that interview ran in Bixobal #5, which explored his feelings about eating meat in some depth), and at times contemplated the moral superiority of the choice to abandon flesh food; but I know from past attempts to "go vegetarian" that it requires a certain amount of work to switch over, and a certain inconvenience (most restaurant menus have 75-90% fewer food options, and one must think more about what one eats, at least until the choice becomes habitual). Watching the film and reflecting on it (and doing some follow up reading) have convinced me that I have been ethically lax, and that the only proper thing to do was to try again to eliminate meat from my diet. So far, it's working - I feel energetic, alert, and healthy - though I also feel a tad euphoric and strangely "light."

The reason for Examined Life's impact is very simple: instead of trying to engage the viewer emotionally - to scare and threaten him or her to action or outrage - it appeals to the mind, presenting audiences with the thoughts and reflections of nine very different thinkers, most of whom are shown walking through different environments, in keeping with Nietzsche's aphorism that "The sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value." (Maxims and Arrows 34; thanks to The Nietzsche Channel for making it so abundantly easy to search out favourite Nietzsche quotes). True, one person, Cornel West, rides in a car in several segments of the film, but the film achieves a pleasing closure when he finally gets out and walks away. There is some discussion about what constitutes a walk, too - the filmmaker's sister, Sunaura Taylor, is a disabled rights activist who "walks" with the aid of a wheelchair; she discusses walking, help, and individuality with lesbian feminist post-structuralist Judith Butler, as they stroll about San Francisco. The motility of all these thinkers is infectious; one "walks with them," considering their views, and this may well contribute to the film's overall effect.
Slavoj Žižek talks garbage

There are many things to be said about this provocative film. For those who associate philosophy with the painfully pompous or abstruse speech of elitists jockeying for academic position or seeking to mystify themselves - to the ends of creating a cult following or making their arguments unassailable due to the sheer difficulty of figuring out what the fuck they're talking about - rest assured that many of the speakers featured in Examined Life talk in the plainest of English; only one, Alvital Ronell, comes across as being at all aloof and (as some unkind critic has said) "gaseous" in her word choices - which is quite unfortunate, because her comments about the need to resist the easy recourse to fast and soothing "meaning," and to be willing to accept the anxiety of uncertainty as a precursor to actual thinking, are extremely well-placed and valuable. (Slavoj Žižek, the subject of Examined Life director Astra Taylor's previous film Zizek!, is of course also a little difficult to follow, given as he is to odd and sometimes shocking formulations that sometimes sit ill at ease with the viewer, but he speaks with such irrepressible passion and enthusiasm that he comes across as a highly intelligent eccentric rather than a snob). It is remarkable, too, that Astra Taylor manages to weave such a coherent film out of her interviews with nine different thinkers; various themes - the need to resist easy meaning, to avoid romanticized views of life or nature, to behave in an ethical and socially conscious way - emerge again and again in the interviews, with certain words one does not expect to hear more than once in a film of this nature (like "catastrophe," say) occurring repeatedly, creating a sense of interior resonances and cross-references that would lead someone less familiar with the discipline of philosophy shocked at how much consensus there is among thinkers (anyone who has actually spent time in a philosophy department would likely not be deluded thus). The sense of having taken in a cohesive, almost systematic argument, woven together out of the statements of nine unconnected individuals, is so strong and striking it leaves one wondering just how Taylor achieves it. Did she select philosophers whose work she knew could be easily reconciled, to get at areas she was interested in exploring? Did she cue them in certain ways to elicit the sort of statements she wanted? Did she just let them talk and then seek out quotes when editing that could be productively played off one another? Or - least likely at all - did she assemble the film intuitively with no sense that it would all seem, in the end, "of a piece?" I would be most curious to find out (Astra Taylor was unavailable for an interview before the film's release, but she's invited to comment at her leisure if she chooses).

The most interesting question raised by the cohesiveness of Examined Life is whether anything significant has been omitted to achieve it; Nietzsche has also said "the will to a system is a lack of integrity," I believe in the section of Beyond Good and Evil entitled "On the Prejudices of Philosophers" (go look it up on the Nietzsche Channel if you like; I might be wrong). At least one thinker, Peter Singer, mentioned above, is highly selectively represented in the film. Singer is an Australian who divides his time between Princeton and the University of Melbourne. He is most famous for his book Animal Liberation, in which he coined the term "speciesism" - a term I am pleased to see he admits is somewhat inelegant (I am currently reading the book, just distributed in a nice new edition; the film prompted me to do so). Singer's current work, The Life You Can Save, deals with the duty to help the world's poor; Singer has said he gives 25% of his income to help developing countries. You can read his arguments as to why he feels people should give much, much more to the poor on his site, at the top of his FAQ; you will get a sense of his impressive clarity of language and seriousness by so doing, two qualities of his which are very much visible in the film and make his books a pleasure to read.

If you scroll down that page, however, you will also encounter a view he holds that has attracted considerable controversy, on infanticide; Singer believes that "killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all," a view he elaborates at some length in his works Practical Ethics and Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse Of Our Traditional Ethics. It is one thing to support abortion and euthanasia, but quite another to advocate killing handicapped babies; Singer suggests in Practical Ethics that parents, perhaps, should be given a one month window after birth to see if a baby should be allowed to live, a proposal that - however solid his argument may seem - intuitively strikes me (and I suspect most people) as a tad grotesque in all but the most extreme cases. Lest you think he means only brain dead infants - which in some statements of his position seems to be the case - in Practical Ethics, he appears to consider spina bifida babies, Downs Syndrome babies, and even haemophiliacs as leading lives that might be best ended, so that parents can get on with the business of having healthier, happier babies that they can better care for.

I won't try to replicate Singer's arguments at length here, let alone engage with them. Suffice it to say, Christians and anti-abortionists have not taken kindly to his views; nor have Germans ill at ease with the awareness of Nazi eugenics programs (that link is to an article, "On Being Silenced in Germany," that you must pay to read; you can also find it as an appendix to current editions of Practical Ethics, which provides perhaps the broadest introduction to the main facets of Singer's work). As you might expect, Singer's statements have also attacted the wrath of many disabled rights activists... disabled rights activists like, say, Sunaura Taylor.

Sunaura Taylor with Judith Butler

Perhaps you begin to sense how curious an omission the film makes. It does not deal with Singer's statments about killing handicapped babies; and it features a substantial interview with a woman born with arthrogryposis - a condition that Singer might well include on his short list of "possible reasons for infanticide" - whose work revolves in part around greater rights for the disabled. Though this woman is herself the filmmaker's sister (which the film doesn't mention, note), she is not asked to comment on Singer's more controversial statements; nor are these statements represented in any way. While these choices on the filmmaker's part admirably set her apart from cheap trends toward controversy-mongering, and are not in themselves problematic - I don't presume to lecture Astra Taylor about being insufficiently intellectually honest, in noting her choices or even querying them; I expect documentary filmmakers to shape their work with craft and care, and appreciate that she has done such a good job here - they leave you wondering at what price the film's cohesiveness has been attained: "What else am I not being told about what these people think?"

Though Astra Taylor was not able to engage with me on this matter, Sunaura Taylor has taken up some of my questions in an email to me (thanks!). Note that she too is an animal rights activist - a facet of her work not represented in the film. Readers are directed to her website to learn more about her - I find her watercolours and paintings of chickens particularly delightful, especially "Self-Portrait Marching With Chickens." She has explained in regards to her paintings that "I am not making metaphors between the life of a disabled person and the lives of farm animals. The connections between the two areas are really in the concept of value- who has value and why? My animal industry paintings are really about exposing the fact that these are individual sentient beings that we treat as commodities in brutal ways. The more ridiculous images of myself with chickens are really just strange stream of consciousness drawings of the things that occupy my thinking."

What follows is from Sunaura Taylor, on Peter Singer and Examined Life.

So, you've asked one of my favorite question regarding my participation in the movie... the Peter Singer question. We actually just screened the film in Berkeley to a large number of my disability studies colleagues and had a great discussion/debate afterwards.

So firstly, it is important to understand that Astra and I are both vegan for ethical reasons. Peter Singer was virtually our hero as child animal rights activists, because of his book Animal Liberation. I became vegetarian at 6. Astra, my brother and I all demanded the family stop eating meat. My parents agreed and my family has been vegan and vegetarian ever since.

So obviously when I got older I was disheartened to hear the things Singer was saying about disabled babies and euthanasia. I DISAGREE WITH A LOT OF WHAT SINGER SAYS. He makes ridiculous quality of life assumptions about disabled people and does not take culture into account enough. Singer is concerned with reducing unnecessary suffering, but he doesn't seem to recognize that much of the suffering physically and mentally disabled people experience is the result not of bodily pain (that is, medical conditions), but discrimination, social stigma, a lack of cultural inclusion, and able-bodied people's often-ignorant assumptions about what it must be like to be disabled and what disabled people are capable and incapable of.

HOWEVER, I also think the disability community has been too quick in criticizing everything he says, often without really reading it and/or taking into account his utilitarian philosophy. He's actually arguing for something very nuanced - he's not just saying all disabled babies should be killed. And I agree with some of what he says - again, what I really find frustrating and offensive are his quality of life assumptions.

Personally I also feel that the disabled community has weakened their position by not grappling with the animal rights issue. You can't just ignore one ethical question, while demanding another be examined... especially when they are so connected philosophically. I agree with Singer that if we are going to give certain right to life rights to severely developmentally disabled people and infants, than it follows that there is no reason not to give them to the animals that we consume in various ways, given their sentience is not in doubt. In my opinion the disability community would get much farther with Singer if they looked at there own biases against other sentient beings. That said, many disabled people are doing this - there is growing emphasis on animal rights thought within the disability community.

Basically I really agree with Singer and like him, and I also really disagree with him. If Astra had only put people in the movie who had never said something she'd disagree with, most likely no one would be in the film. Also many of the people in the film eat meat, but we didn't censor them because they participate in oppressing and murdering animals.

I think Astra didn't have Singer talk about disability for many reasons. Most importantly being the flow and themes of the film. Plus Singer's current work is on the issues he discusses in Examined Life and that work made more sense within the film as a larger whole.

It is complex... A good disabled (and vegetarian) friend said that she felt the scene was troubling because he comes off as being this compassionate and empathetic person. And it is confusing - I think he is compassionate. But I think he also just doesn't understand disability. But certainly I think someone who argues with Peter Singer about protecting the life of an un-sentient human, while eating chicken, has no real argument to base their ideas on.

This is a ramble, but I hope it helps clarify. There is no easy answer.... maybe just to say that all of the most beloved thinkers through history have said some things that many people would disagree with. No one's philosophy is perfect.

I think both Astra and I hope to use this as a way to open up a more nuanced discussion with Peter Singer about disability and in the disability community about animal rights.

(End quote!).

Anyhow, as you can see, Examined Life has proven a thought-provoking film for me. It's a good film to see with people whom you can talk with afterwards, so bring a friend, if possible. I've only touched on a small fragment of themes referenced in the film; there's a lot else going on, which will keep your mind quite happily alert. A bit of background on the concept of the "state of nature," which comes up in the Martha Nussbaum segment, might be useful, if you feel like doing a bit more homework. If my article actually prompts you to see the film, do revisit the site and comment!

Examined Life plays at the Cinematheque (1066 Howe) starting Friday, in alteration with Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived. Examined Life's showtimes are as follows:

Friday, March 20, 2009 - 9:10pm
Saturday, March 21, 2009 - 7:30pm
Monday, March 23, 2009 - 9:10pm
Wednesday, March 25, 2009 - 7:30pm