Friday, September 22, 2017

Leviathan in Context: An Interview with Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel

The following essay/ interview ran in a slightly different form in now-defunct Canadian film journal Cineaction, under the title The Aesthetics of Slaughter: Leviathan in Context. With at least one film in the 2017 VIFF calling into question the killing and eating of animals - Bong Joon Ho's remarkable Okja; a new, final film from Michael Glawogger, whose Workingman's Death is considered at length below, and a new film from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, Caniba - inquiring into the killing and eating of humans (!) - it seemed a good time to put this interview out into the world again.

I seem to have misplaced my footnotes, but I hope no one really cares.

The Aesthetics of Slaughter: Leviathan in Context
An Interview with Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel

By Allan MacInnis

One of the most remarkable recent films to show the workings of a slaughterhouse is Michael Glawogger’s 2005 film Workingman’s Death, the centerpiece of which is footage shot at a Nigerian open-air marketplace/ abattoir. There, workers and customers happily socialize and haggle whilst cows and goats, throats slit, bleed out into the dirt. Workers haul the heads, skins, and meat of slaughtered animals through crowds, over blood-soaked mud; no one reacts with horror. Nowhere is the western desire to deny or sanitize death and suffering in evidence; in fact, quite a different attitude towards animal death applies. As Glawogger explains on the commentary,
the slaughtering in the culture of Nigeria is something very normal and simple, and they wouldn’t even like to buy the meat when they didn’t see the cow. They wouldn’t like - they wouldn’t even do it - to buy the goat when they don’t see the lively goat, and when they don’t see the goat was healthy and the goat was worth buying.
These attitudes are remarkably different from the prevailing ones in North America, where, as animal liberation advocate Peter Singer puts it, meat is presented in “neat plastic packages,” as the “culmination of a long process, of which all but the end product is delicately screened from our eyes” (95). The unfamiliarity of Glawogger’s images, and the challenge they present to the viewer to honestly, openly embrace (or at least acknowledge) the suffering that goes into the production of meat, lend them a fascination that would likely be lacking in a film produced with more polemical intent. There is, as Glawogger puts it, “a strange mixture of brutality and beauty” to the footage, which makes it “watchable” and “gripping,” “because I’m never tired to see that… I always see something new in it. It opens my thoughts.”

This is a response quite different from the one engendered by the sort of films produced by animal rights activists to horrify the viewer into swearing off the eating of meat; such films do not seek to “open thoughts” but to produce a desired effect on the viewer (usually the swearing-off of animal products). While such films have generally not been received as cinema, there is a growing body of films like Glawogger’s, which are almost as bloody, in seeking to show the reality behind the “neat plastic packages” of the grocery store. While equally aimed at breaking down barriers of denial, such films often have a dispassionate or aestheticizing quality to them, which allows the viewer space to contemplate the realities at hand from some safe distance. Such is the case with the first classic of the form, Georges Franju’s 1949 documentary Blood of the Beasts - reportedly shot in black and white because Franju felt that showing such images in colour would be “too much to take” (   

Blood of the Beasts is available as an extra on the Criterion DVD of Franju's noirish horror film Eyes Without a Face. While a harrowing experience to anyone unaccustomed to images of slaughter, the film need not lead viewers to the conclusion that “meat is murder;” it simply refuses to allow them to lie to themselves about how meat is produced.

Often in these films - as is the case with Franju, with Frederick Wiseman’s Meat (1976), or with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1978 film In A Year of 13 Moons - social criticism is intended, but this criticism is aimed at targets larger than the abbatoir per se. Meat depicts both animals and workers as pawns in a relentless human institution that is indifferent to the feelings of both, connecting the film to Wiseman’s other documentaries on North American institutions. Writing on the Fassbinder film, Ronald Hayman notes that its slaughterhouse sequence “is both a piece of cruelty to the audience and a statement about human cruelty,” which will serve to call to mind concentration camps later in the film (78). Concentration camps were also seen as an unsubtle subtext to the Franju film, our inhumanity to animals standing as a cipher for our inhumanity to fellow humans. 


A more recent documentary, which takes in both meat production and contemporary agribusiness, Our Daily Bread (2005) strives to trouble the viewer with the alienated/ alienating conditions and technology that animals and workers face, but with more of an aesthetic than political motivation; one watches the film not in horror, but fascination, marveling at the bizarre tableaus presented, which seem more the stuff of science fiction than daily life.

Perhaps the most provocative film to deal with slaughterhouses is Zev Asher’s remarkable 2004 documentary Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat, sadly neglected when this article first saw print in Cineaction, and now, with Asher’s death, rendered quite difficult to see. The film, again, is not merely an act of advocacy for animal rights, but asks larger questions: is killing an animal in the pursuit of an artistic objective ever acceptable? (And, if not, given that we kill them routinely for food, why not?). What if killing that animal is part of a project designed to call into question the modern day consumption of meat? And what should be done with artists who do choose to engage in such a project? Are they actually threats to public safety (or simply to our state of daily denial)? 

The film centres on Jesse Power, a Toronto arts student, who was apparently sincerely disturbed by the ways the killing and consumption of animals is taken for granted in society, so much so that he had, at various points, filmed himself killing and eating a chicken, experimented with vegetarianism, and, ultimately, gotten a job in a slaughterhouse. He and two friends conceived of an art project where they killed a stray cat and filmed it, to try to understand what killing an animal meant; however, stoned and incompetent, they ended up torturing the cat slowly to death, while capturing the entire procedure on video. When the footage was discovered and called to the attention of authorities, it set off a lengthy and controversial animal cruelty trial (and very vocal displays of outrage on the part of animal rights activists, who dubbed the nameless cat Kensington, after the area where it had been caught. 

Asher’s documentary - which allows Power and one of his collaborators to speak for themselves, and explain what they had been thinking - also proved highly controversial when it screened, resulting in Asher - a self-described cat lover, who played none of the video footage of the cat’s death in his film - receiving death threats from people who had not seen the film, but presumed he was taking Power’s side. A Toronto screening of the film which Power attended drew protests and a near riot; the film was also selected for screening by the SPCA in New York for the insight it afforded into animal cruelty cases.

(My interview with Zev Asher about his work, including this film, is viewable online here.   

Leviathan, the newest major film to take on the suffering of animals and humans in the production of food, also has Glawogger’s “strange mixture of brutality and beauty,” which makes it compelling and repeatedly watchable despite the difficulty of some of its images. (It also has been likened, like Our Daily Bread, to science fiction and, indeed, horror cinema - what might be glibly dubbed torture porn for fish). Shot on and around a fishing trawler off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts - the former whaling town from which the Pequod departs, in Moby Dick - the aestheticizing element in the film has much to do with the innovative technology employed by directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Labs. Eschewing narration, and shot using miniature GoPro sports cameras, incorporating footage shot by the subjects - fishermen - themselves, and containing moments where the camera floats, apparently free of all control, among dead fish, the film has the excitement of the new to it; it is clearly an innovative and intimate approach to its subject matter. Almost all of the ample writing on the film to date features a pun on the term “immersive” - referring both to the amount of time the camera spends either on or beneath the surface of the water, and to the narration-free immediacy of the film’s images, which - comparable to the work of Stan Brakhage or to Werner Herzog’s Lessons In Darkness - transform a mundane, much-filmed activity, industrial fishing, into something apocalyptic and unfamiliar.

While animal suffering is very much in evidence in Leviathan - from the bulging, dead eyes of fish hauled from the depths to the gasping catch dying of suffocation on the ship’s deck - there is also a strange humour to the film, and a greater degree of compassion for the fishermen than one might expect. Both qualities are in evidence in a sequence where one of the fishermen nods off while watching a reality-TV show about fishing. The scene is presented in a lengthy, static shot which itself may lull viewers towards sleep, only to suddenly realize that they have become a mirror image for the blinking, nodding, exhausted fisherman slumped on the opposite side of the screen. Unsettling as Leviathan’s images may be, the film is no mere polemic - though it would be entirely reasonable to swear off eating fish after seeing it.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel spoke to CineAction from Boston, on a speakerphone hookup so both filmmakers could react to questions, prior to a Vancouver screening of Leviathan. Thanks to the Georgia Straight, who previously ran a greatly abbreviated version of this interview, and to Steve Chow and Jasmine Pauk, for facilitating it.

A: Congratulations on the reception that Leviathan has received. It seems to really be striking a chord with critics. I’m curious if it’s exceeded your expectations?

V: I don’t think we had any expectations.

L : We had no idea what to expect.

V: We were hoping that the fishermen would like the film, but -

L : - we didn’t know what anybody else would think.

A: Were the fishermen wary - thinking you might be making an activist-oriented eco-horror doc along the lines of The End of the Line?

L: I think so, before they got to know us. Fishermen feel marginalized and scapegoated and blamed for the lack of sustainability of fish stocks. The cause is really poor regulation, on the part of different governments, more than it is the fishermen themselves. But once they got to know us - they’re engaged in this really grueling activity out at sea, and I think they were happy to have a couple of greenhorns along to give them something different for a few voyages.

A: Did they enjoy your “greenness?” I gather both of you got sick, and that Véréna - you were sort of battered about and had to be hospitalized a couple of times?

V (laughs): Yeah!

A: How were they with that? Amused, supportive?

V : I don’t know. Not amused… I think when I was really in bad shape I was trying to be very discreet about it. But no, they were not amused. The captain didn’t seem really concerned, but he was helping - giving me some medication to sooth my pain… I was expecting them to be more amused by Lucien being seasick, but actually they were kind with that too, and completely understanding, because some of them, even after long years of being a fishermen, some of them are still seasick, and they know how hard it was and how painful it is, so they were very understanding with us.

A: Did you have any preconceptions of what the fishermen would be like, which were changed by being on the boat with them?

V: No, we discussed with them before, and we met them when the boat was at dock. So we didn’t know what to expect, but we had a couple of conversations with the captain, and we had some agreement that if something happened to us, he wouldn’t go back on land for us… so we knew that it was a rough environment, a labour-intensive environment. I think we were intellectually ready for that. I don’t know if physically we were that ready for that, but we went through with it.

A: Did you have ecological themes in mind when you began? I gather the film changed a lot, that you shot 50 hours of footage on land, and that it was radically transformed by the experience of going out to sea… I wonder how much of what we see emerged from ideas you had before you set out on the ship, and how much of what we see comes entirely from the experience…?

V: I think we didn’t have any preconceived idea! Maybe something more beyond the image… I think the whole film comes from our experience at sea. And the only conceptual criteria that we had before was to share the camera with the fishermen, or a very small idea about how we can film when we were on the boat. We were basically projecting things, but it was more like - we wanted to do a film where there was a real engagement with them and they’re also engaged in the film and in filming with us and in sharing ideas with us. It was more this kind of idea that we had rather than having a preconceived idea of the visuals, how it would look like… so the aesthetic came out of the experience, the fear, the engagement of being at sea in the middle of the Atlantic.

L: I would certainly agree with everything that Véréna just said, but - we had a negative preconception, we tried to work without preconceptions. We tried to do everything while we were doing the filming, rather than vetting a subject beforehand and knowing what we wanted to say about it. So we were discovering as we went along, and the most powerful experiences we had were indeed the ones we had on the boat, rather than on land. There’s no profession that has been more filmed and more photographed than fishing, since the beginning of photography, since the beginning of cinema, and if we were going to make yet another film about fishing, we didn’t want to do another romantic portrait of fishing, or a typical kind of liberal PBS TV-documentary portraying different constituencies as victims of X, Y, and Z. We wanted a different kind of experience and a different kind of film, but we didn’t know what that would be like until we were out on the boat filming.

A: Maybe it’s my own preconceptions that are at work here, but… I sort of imagine that two Harvard professors, and a group of fishermen, there was a class divide…?

L: We’re not trying to be defensive about this, but even the lowliest deckhand takes home more money at the end of the year than a salaried professor, at least at our level at Harvard does. So the class differences - there are differences of class and differences of culture and of nation, and certainly gender, for Véréna - but the class differences aren’t as pronounced as one might imagine, per se. Also, the fishermen are intellectuals - in different ways, and in different degrees, but they know more about their world and the political economy of fishing and how that’s changed over the last half-century than we will ever know, no matter how much research we do. We didn’t have much to teach them, they had a hell of a lot to teach us…!

A: Am I correct that your family background involved fishing…?

Lucien: Not really! My background was in shipping; my father was a boat-builder. I went fishing as a kid, but not industrial fishing. Véréna used to go diving with her father; he was a scuba-diver. So we both have different relationships with the ocean. We wanted to do something local, to do something close to Boston; we were fed up with having to travel great distances, and we were interested in doing something that related to our autobiographical experience, but not in any direct way.

A: Do you both eat meat and fish…?

V: Raw meat and raw fish! (Laughs).

A: Raw meat?

L: We eat more fish than the fishermen do, we can tell you that much!

A: I’m also a meat-eater [note: as of 2017, no longer], but I’ve always found slaughterhouse footage fascinating, in films like Blood of the Beasts or Workingman’s Death, because we’re looking at images that are suppressed, unseen, getting behind the denial of death in our culture… I found the images on the “killing floor” of the fishing boat quite remarkable for the reason, where we’re swirling about with the guts and the fish heads - I found that really exciting to see, cinematically. I don’t really understand my excitement at that - I feel like I should be horrified, but cinematically, it’s so new and fresh…    

L: I don’t know if anyone else has suggested Workingman’s Death as a connection before. Certainly we’ve read a few reviews that mention Franju’s Blood of the Beasts and Stan Brakhage’s films. But - it’s not that we’re trying to disavow any influences, but as we were filming, other than trying not to make a film like these ones we imagined, we weren’t thinking of abbatoir films, slaughterhouse films, we weren’t even thinking of Stan Brakhage or particular styles that we were either mimicking or avoiding in that regard. The references make sense to us after the fact, but none of them are conscious influences at all.

A: How much control did you have over the Go Pro cameras? I know you had them attached to things, but some sequences are really chaotic and seem to suggest the cameras are entirely set free, as when it streams behind the boat with the seagulls…

L: I would say that there are three or three and half different kinds of footage shot with those cameras. One is a series of four shots, spread throughout the film, that were attached to a tripod or to a stable part of the boat, such as the shot from the top of the mast that you get 2/3rds of the way through the film, looking down on the boat. There were only four shots that weren’t either hand held by us or attached to a body. So the first kind was four short shots; the other kind was the shots that were attached to the fishermen’s bodies. Mostly their heads, like miner’s lamps, but also their wrists or their chests. And in that we didn’t have any direct control. Obviously we attached them to their heads because we were interested in what that footage would look like, we had some idea as to what it might look like, but it wasn’t until we started looking at it that we realized how arresting and interesting we thought it was. And then we kept on giving them the cameras to get similar kinds of footage. And then, of the footage that was hand held by us, either we were holding the camera literally with our hands, or we put it on the end of a boom, which is just like a fancy word in our case just for a basic 2X2 - or else two pieces of wood strapped together so we could hold it, up to about sixteen feet away from our arms’ length. And that could either go underwater or above water, within the same shot. And with those shots - I would say there are differences of degree, not kind; we couldn’t look directly through the viewfinder, but it was also true, when we were hand-holding the shots, that these Go Pro cameras didn’t have an LCD screen on the back, so we were just imagining what we were filming. You could say that it’s a further stretch of the imagination when it’s at the end of a stick. But we were also downloading the footage and looking at the footage and realizing what was interesting to us, and so on. Véréna, you put it very well when you said that one films more with one’s body, in some literal sense, than merely with one’s eye.

A: Were you surprised at some of the footage you got? Was there anything you repeated - you looked at and thought it had promise and tried again, having a better idea what it might look like? Second takes?

L: I would say yes and no. We never asked anyone to do anything again - we don’t “direct” the people or script stuff in that way, but because we were looking at it and looking at it, we were constantly surprised about stuff, and bored by stuff, and fascinated by stuff, and anything that intrigued us, but we thought could be rendered more interesting yet, or made more peculiar or unfamiliar yet, we pushed, and we filmed it again.

V: Or we would look at our footage and, being surprised at how arresting the images were when the fishermen were wearing it at night, for instance, we would ask them - “could you pick up the camera when you next go out,” this kind of thing. But to go back to the topic of control, there is a degree of control, when you are directing, even being from your body - even if you don’t look through the viewfinder, you feel what you are doing, and you kind of direct it - if you want the camera being under water at that moment, and then above water the next - you have a kind of control, even if you don’t know exactly what will be on the image.   

A: So for example, the seagull sequence, you were turning the boards so that the camera would go under water, or above…? There’s actually a gestural component to those shots, it’s not just the board spinning free behind the boat?

V: Yeah, it’s controlled by us.

L: You can say that it’s directed in that way, in that we were trying to control it, but we were never able totally to control it. Even if we weren’t on a boat - even if the sea was flat and the boat wasn’t moving, you never can predict what happens precisely in front of the camera, and then with the boat lurching around as it was in high seas like that, even when we were filming on deck, close up to the fish, or close up to the fishermen, we never knew exactly what was going to happen. Often we never knew at all what was going to happen. And that was even more true when, in order to film on the stick with the seagulls, one of us would have to hold on to the other who would then be holding onto the stick, and you couldn’t anticipate when the waves were going to come, or how big they were, and we couldn’t always resist the power of the water slushing by… so we were trying to control it, but the resulting image is a combination of intent and accident.

A: Was there anything too chaotic, stuff that was unwatchable? The film seems to really push the borders, at times, of what the human mind can process as information. Some sequences are really alienating and shocking. Beautiful, but it’s surprising that they make as much sense as they do.

V: Hm. We never had this question…

L: There’s loads of stuff that we rejected, for various reasons, conscious and unconscious. Whether we rejected stuff because it was too chaotic, I’m not sure. In addition to putting a camera on the end of the stick, and attaching it to fishermen’s bodies, we did attach it to a string and have a weight below it, but we didn’t use any of that footage.

A (Laughs): You were fishing with a camera!

V: (Laughs).

L : Fishing with a camera. If we had caught a fish, we might have used it!

A: You attached the camera to a dead fish, did you not?

V: No. It’s not true - it’s one of us holding the camera.

L: That’s an error that’s been said in the press.

V: There are many errors.

L - it’s an old wives’ tale.

A: It’s a great one… If you don’t mind my asking - as someone who has some familiarity with psychedelics, it occurs to me, because the film is so immersive, that it would be an astonishingly good “trip” movie. And some of the filmmaking that Leviathan has been likened to - Brakhage, obviously - comes from a psychedelic perspective. Has anyone commented on that? Would you regard that as a sort of “misuse” of the film - a way of hijacking the purposes of the movie?

V: It’s very funny that you’re asking this question, because this morning I was telling Lucien, “it’s very strange that we always talked about doing this - suddenly being heavily drugged and watching the film, the whole thing.”

L: Even before we finished the film, we wanted to do it to see how it would feel.

V: We wanted to edit under acid, and we never did it, unfortunately. But I’m sure it would be great. We received an email a couple of days ago, a friend of ours say, “I want to tell you, I went to see your film at the IFC in New York under acid, and I want to tell you how it was." Apparently it was great!

A: The sound design seems like it would be a big part of that. But before we get to that, just quickly, what is the heavy metal music used in the film?

L: The shot of the captain -

V: Brian, listening to Mastodon.

L: A song called “I Am Ahab,” from an album called Leviathan.

A: Oh, really? That couldn’t have been an accident.

L: It was a very happy accident. It wasn’t the only kind of music they listened to - they listened to country/western and other kinds of music, too.

A: So did you supervise the sound design (by Ernst Karel and Jacob Ribicoff)? How did that work?

L: I would say “supervise” is a bit too generous; I’m tone-deaf, and Véréna is a bit more musical, but not terribly. Ernst is a collaborator at the Sensory Ethnograpy Lab, we’ve collaborated on lots of different things together. He has the most amazing ear either of us have ever heard. His own aesthetic is very minimalist. He came up with the initial 5.1 surround from all the sounds that we gave him; we were just editing with video software that isn’t that great for audio, and it had more of an unremittingly blaring, punk rock/ heavy metal kind of intensity. He modulated it a lot more and added a lot of really subtle overtones, that were almost inaudible in our mix, and then he gave the mix, once he was done with it, we went to New York and worked with Jacob Ribicoff, who is a cinema sound mixer. Ernst comes more from the art world. The final mix is more cinematic as a result.

A: Did they add anything to the sound - is all the sound we hear stuff that was recorded on the ship?

L: All of it is stuff we recorded, and most of it is in fact synch. Much of it, believe it or not, comes from these little GoPro cameras - a mono-microphone that is really compromised - the sound is super compressed and had lots of digital artifacts that we thought were really interesting. They bizarrely sounded, simultaneously or by turns, super-machinic, super-cyborgian, and then really organic, as if they themselves were gasping for air, as if they themselves were drowning. But we also recorded with a stereo recorder - we recorded, we’re guessing, maybe 50 hours of wild sound, and they laid a lot more of that into amplify and to round out and to specialize and open up the final mix in ways we wouldn’t have been able to do.

A: If I can ask, the one scene that seemed a slightly odd fit was the fisherman taking a shower, because it’s so static and so, well, human. Where did that sequence come from…?

L: Before I answer that, can I ask a question - did you see it at the Vancouver Film Festival?

A: I did.

L: We’ve remixed the sound radically since then. The shower scene is not different, but the four-to-five minute shot of the captain falling asleep in front of the television - he was watching television in the version you saw, but you probably couldn’t hear what he was listening to; he’s actually listening quite literally to The Deadliest Catch, which is this Discovery Channel reality TV show of Alaska king crab fishermen, which totally changes the feel of the scene, and the film as a whole. But how about the shower scene?

V: It’s at least one of the scenes we had long discussions about. There are two things - you use the words “human,” and the word “static,” and the shots with which we have been struggling with a lot are precisely the static shots, and the two human shots. The shower scene - one of the big questions between us when we were editing was how much of the human to use, and how, and when to use it - their weight overall in the film. And suddenly somehow being trapped in the shower with this fisherman sounded like a very intimate moment - a moment where we are really close to him. They have so few moments where they can - first of all, wash; they do that once a week, maybe. So it’s kind of a moment of respite; we don’t have a lot of respite in the film. And the fact that they are cleaning themselves - I don’t know how to answer, but the intimacy at that moment felt, not necessary to us… but good, to us.

L: Our typical struggle was how to introduce humans. We didn’t want to have “character development” or any kind of obvious plot, in the way that one would expect from a fiction film; and we didn’t want the film to be “about” fisherman themselves - we wanted to place the fishermen in this much larger ecological domain, where they were rubbing shoulders with the boat, the machines, with nature, with the elements, and everything, so their centrality would be relativised to an extent. And even to start off in darkness at the beginning, on the back of the boat, and even though much of that is shot from the head of a fisherman, it’s very unfamiliar, it’s very disconcerting, it’s almost uncanny. You don’t have your bearings; it doesn’t feel like a quintessential human-centric film. And gradually humans are introduced, very slowly, to a very limited kind of degree, and the two shots - of the captain in front of the television and the equally static shot of the fisherman taking a shower - are the most intimate moments. To be sure, when he’s taking the shower, it comes after the bow shot of the waves and the underwater sequence during the daytime with the seagulls; so there he is, in the hull, behind the bow, getting wet in order to clean himself. So there’s lots of affinities and differences from the rest of the natural world, that are implicitly being thematized in that shot.

A: Lucien, you’ve said the film resembles a science fiction film or a horror film. How much of that was by design?

L: To be honest, I may have said that, but Véréna has also said the same thing! Each of us repeats what the other has said.

V: (Laughs).

L: So you shouldn’t place too much credence in that! Neither of us were thinking about science fiction films or horror films when we were making it. We just find ourselves obliged to sound more coherent about these sort of genre distinctions after the fact. But we did have some references - they weren’t deliberate, in terms of our intentionality, while we were making the film, but while we were editing the film, we were thinking more painters, more than about other filmmakers. We were thinking about Bosch and Breughel and Escher and Turner - the history of painting began to emerge, and the representation of nature and humanity’s role in relation to nature began to emerge during post-production, during the editing. I don’t know if it influenced us, but it’s something we were aware of. But - we only knew we didn’t want this to be a canonical documentary.

V: What we wanted to do, is just when we were watching the image, is to feel what we were living, the experience we had. And most of this experience was bloody and dark and strange. And even surreal, so I think this is why the reference to sci-fi and horror, because it was also nightmarish.

L: It was simultaneously nightmarish and intimate. It wasn’t an unadulterated nightmare. But to the extent that there are nightmarish qualities, it’s a nightmare that’s lived and breathed by the fisherman, as much as it is by their prey.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's new film, Caniba - about Japanese celebrity cannibal Issei Sagawa - plays the VIFF September 29th and October 10th 

Millions of Dead Cops: a Dave Dictor interview apropos of tonight's Seattle show

Part of me really likes the idea of pulling up at the US border (I would, as a non-driver, be in the passenger seat, but nevermind that) and having the following conversation:

Customs officer: What's your business in the United States?

Us: We're going to a concert.

Customs officer: What band?

Us: MDC.

Customs officer: What's that stand for?

Us: Well, uh, usually, Millions of Dead Cops.

Even a cavity search would be kinda worth it, you know? And it would be fun to violate my "fuck Trump's Amerikkka" ban on cross-border travel - not that I cross the border that often ANYHOW - to see MDC perform.

If you don't know MDC, start here. (That link is to "John Wayne was a Nazi;" there's also their homepage, here).

Alas, there are health issues this weekend - I am newly missing a tooth and my girl has a hurt foot - and I have no $ for it, so... here's hoping SOMEONE ELSE gets to have that conversation tonight - that this interview makes it into the world in time to promote tonight's MDC concert in Seattle.

I talked to Dave Dictor last year, pre-Trump, about many things - from the homophobic outburst of the Bad Brains against the Big Boys and the Dicks to his vegetarianism, with one update from Dictor, which you will note below. It's only a partial interview, since I appear to have deleted a file I shouldn't have, so there are some missing pieces. Some reference is made to this interview with (the great) Mark Prindle, whose record review site, tho' mothballed, provides hours of fun reading...

I imagine you've told the story many times, but I've gotta ask you about "John Wayne was a Nazi," because that has got to be one of the top ten political punk songs of all time.

Well, he died in 1979, and I was right on campus at the University of Texas. And the University of Texas campus at the time was very collegian - we used to call them frat boys and sorority sisters, and they were very Reagan youth - not the band, but the true Reagan Youth. And they were all crying and everything. And I go, "What are you crying about?" (Faux-sobbing:) "John Wayne died!" People in Texas really take their hat off to John Wayne. And I'm like, "what are you talking about, that guy was a Nazi." I just went home and wrote the song. And I tried to give it a couple of other people, "why don't you sing this," because some other bands were more popular, we were just starting out. And for a long time we just played parties for 30 people, we weren't really a band that could draw 200 people. It's kinda funny, because in Austin, until we went to San Francisco and played that gig, we were a very minor-league band. They had some kind of poll, and we were like 30th in the poll, right there with bands that had broken up years before. Austin's kind of a close-knit town, and none of us were really true out-and-out Southerners. Franco [Mares] was from El Paso, but he was Chicano. And it's a bit of a Peyton Place kinda place. There's a pecking order, and I never looked all that skinny with a big mowhawk kinda thing... I did have a mowhawk at one point, but I just mean, we didn't get that much love in our hometown. It took the outside world, it took getting a call from Tim Yohannan and... I'd sent Mickey Creep from Creep Magazine our record, and actually Jello Biafra was his roommate. Jello started playing it on the radio, Tim Yohannan called us, and then I got Biafra's number, and that's how we got the gig out there. It really started picking up after 1981. But 1978, 1980, we were the nobodies. And I don't mean the band the Nobodys. Truly the nobodies. We were lucky that Gary [Floyd, then of the Dicks] liked us so much, because the only times we got gigs anywhere was when Gary said, "I want my friends the Stains to play with us."   

When did you first meet Gary, anyhow?

I picked him up hitchhiking, right around 1977. He was on his way to San Francisco to see the Sex Pistols.

Oh wow, you drove him to that?

No, I didn't drive him to that, he was just kinda chatting me up. I said, hey, what are you up to, and he said, "I'm on my way to San Francisco - if you knew what you were doing, you'd be coming to San Francisco!" And I said, "ahh, I've got lots of stuff going on in my life." Y'know, Austin Texas is 2200 miles from San Francisco. But wow... and I didn't really know who the Sex Pistols were. He was so ahead. He was the first real punk I ever met. We talked for about a half an hour, and then I think I saw him a few months later when he got back from San Francisco. "It was great, blahblahblah, I'm moving to San Francisco but I'm getting my band together first." Ah, a band! And we just started talking to each other. Because I lived right off the drag, at the University of Texas in Austin, and he worked somewhere around there. And then I found out, he had a pushcart on the University of Texas campus; it was one of those carts where, you sell sodas and pretzels and candy bars off of, and there he was. And every day of the week, in class, I could talk to him, and before you know it, I was skipping class and just hanging out with. I say in the book that he was one of the most interesting people I ever met in my life, he was so strong in his convictions that his view of the universe was way better than the worlds'. And he was an out person, this was way back in 1977, and he was talkin' political things, and way advanced. We were just making small talk, but it was so interesting - it was more interesting than my professors by a factor of ten or something.

He was a few years older than you?

Yeah, he was - I think he's about five years older than me. I'm 56 (a couple of years have passed since we talked, note). But I wasn't that young at the time, I was more like 21 or 22, he was maybe 24. Maybe only three years. But he was such an interesting person, and then he starts telling me he's doing a band called the Dicks. "Would you mind if I called my band the Stains?" He said, "nooo!" And then his band came out, and we followed suit about a half year or a year later. We started playing together, and eventually got a gig with the Dead Kennedys up in San Francisco, in the summer - July 2nd of 1981, and both our bands went out there together, and we just had a great, great time. We discovered the ocean. We decided we were both moving to San Francisco - and we did.

He was the guy who sort of turned you on to punk rock, then?

Yeah, you know... not in total, but I didn't really know what it was. This was in 1977, and I was into the New York Dolls and Roxy Music and Lou Reed, but not really about the British invasion kinda stuff, not really the Ramones... slowly but surely, stuff like Elvis Costello and Patti Smith and Talking Heads were part of my vocabulary, but he was the first punk I ever met, and just his attitude was punk: "I don't care what other people think, I don't care what other people say, this is my life and I'm doing it the way I want to do it." It was just so refreshing, it was just really wonderful. I was somewhat of a political person. It was so sad in that era - I don't know if you remember it, but they forced Nixon out of office in 1972 or 1973 and then the country just went totally downhill. The kids started doing cocaine, and disco came about... It became this - to me - anti-egalitarian (society). People were sneaking off to the backroom two or three at a time to snort cocaine, there's expensive drugs, and... I was so happy to meet Gary. I had heard the word punk, but there, he was one. I think I saw him a few months later, and he had a purple mowhawk. He was way ahead.

Were you at the first Dicks gig, May 16th at Armadillo World Headquarters?

Yes I was at that Dicks gig. I was at both nights - they played with the Big Boys, they recorded at Raoul's... We must have played six, eight, ten shows with the Dicks, we played backyard parties. We were their junior band, and we had a little more, y'know - all our amps were working, all our drums, all our cymbals weren't cracked. We shared a lot of stuff. And our politics very much gelled. We were very much against the authoritarian state, against what was happening to the farmworkers, they were getting murdered in Texas by the Klan, who were hanging out with the police. This was 35 years ago, it was a different world.       

(Gary Floyd with the Dicks)

Both MDC and the Dicks make comparisons between the KKK and the cops - were there actually a lot of connections?

Oh, that's documented. There are famous pictures, and not from the 30's or something, of the Klan hanging out with the cops. They had counties in Texas like King County - it's the home of Purina/ Raulston dog food - and all the judges, all the cops, all the everything were kinda from the same powerful family, and they truly ran the whole state. It's the kind of thing that Bo Diddley [editor: or did he mean to say Leadbelly?] was singing about in "The Midnight Special." You come to town, you say the wrong thing, next thing you know, you're prison bound.

I want to ask about why Austin was so queer, compared to the rest of Texas, but I gotta clear something up here. I had always heard and thought you were gay, and then I read the interview you did with Mark Prindle, and you said that you're not. So I'm a little confused...

I've had some gender issues. I'm think more of a transvestite - I was very friendly with female clothes, and donned drag and performed that way, and people just assumed, across the board, whether gay or homophobic, that I was gay. And I kinda refused to deny it. I was living in San Francisco, and I had a lot of gay friends, two gay roommates. Through the years I've had a half-dozen gay roommates, and I never denied it, I just let the rumour go to the point that I made it to the Homosexual Who's Who of America. And I never said anything about it, but, y'know, with Mark Prindle, the last three or four years, I set the record straight: I'm not really gay, haven't made love to a man in a long long long long long long time, fuckin' three decades. But I would dress in drag, and there was a fascination with all things female in me.

That pre-dated your getting on stage?

Oh yeah! I did drag, there'd be Halloween or this or that, but it was always inside me, waiting to bust out and give word to it. And that's where the song "My Family is a Little Weird" comes in, or [the lyric] "Why is America so straight, and me so bent?" I almost wish I hadn't given that interview, where I set the record straight, it was more fun having everyone think I'm gay. And gay, bisexual, straight... maybe say I'm bisexual, even though haven't been participating with males in 35 years; why not?

Update: the above conversation took place a couple of years ago, after which Dave elaborated on his answer by email. Things change!

I have crossed the threshold and ....come across to consider myself to be part of the Queer community because of trans fluid feelings... Not wanting to change my gender but being able to being fluid. In my thoughts and how I view myself sexually .... I think there is a lot of fluid folks who just didn't know where to stand ..... The new terminology finally caught up to me.... I would say that I felt like the queerest straight guy in the world. Because I wasn't having what the rest of the world considered true gay homoerotic sex. I was dreamscaping erotic sex in my mind of all sorts, acting on only a little, usually involving a female where I would totally feel attracted to the scent of that woman. I knew I was off and in my mind I saw myself in a feminine role and actually seeing and feeling myself to be and as a woman. In these subsequent years, the term "fluid" came about and it seemed almost made for me. Gay men and woman were getting together to gender fuck with each other as queers. I felt sort of ...the inside of out of that... But finally I found a true home in the queer community. And since I have found a woman ( probably many of you who identify as a woman but dreamscape as a male). And I feel that... I love my place in my queer community and actually in all loving communities. And I know there are just millions of you out there ready to take similar steps. All I can say is do it when you're ready and let me tell you the water is fine. I hope you make it soon. I am loving my life like never before and see you in the deep end of the pool.

Continue old interview!

It makes the whole Austin scene look unusual, when I thought you were gay: holy shit, there's the Big Boys, the Dicks, and MDC, and they're all fronted by gay men? What?

It really was a unique space and place. Because it wasn't Texas, it was Austin; and 700 miles in every direction, there was nothing but uptight Ameri-KKK. Especially in the 1970's, even moreso. And there was a small gay neighborhood in Houston named Montrose, but the rest of those people came to Austin, Texas. And even then there was only one or two gay bars. I actually used to hang out at a lesbian gay bar called the Hollywood, very disco-oriented - this is 1976, 77 - and I used to like playin' with those girls, hangin' out with all these gals. Most of them were University of Texas students, some of them just lived in the area, but sometimes I'd go into a lesbian disco, and there'd be maybe three males in a room of lesbian women. It was very cool. Having a certain amount of trans feelings, I felt right at home.

I know, Gary, when he used to dress, used to pin condoms filled with mayonnaise to his clothes and then throw them at the audience.

He certainly did!

Did you do anything like that?

No, he was more in that Divine, over-the-top kind of way. I was more shy about it.

I like hearing that you didn't shave, though, when in drag. Gary and I were actually talking about you, about how he would shave and present himself nicely, and you went out there with a face full of stubble...

I hate to say it's more like I was lazy than any deep seated political [thing]. If I'd had someone around me saying, "darling, please shave," I would have, but I didn't, and that's that.  

So if we could talk about the Bad Brains story... you revered the Bad Brains before that episode, right?

Totally, totally did. I bought their 1981 single "Pay to Cum," and we had just moved out to the Bay Area and played a gig with them. They loved our "no war/ no KKK" stance we were taking against the cops and it's effect on people of colour and people with less power, and they said, "why don't you join us on tour?" We go, "okay," and then next thing you know - literally, that night, we were driving to Houston Texas to play a gig. And like I say, I'm writing this for the book, and we got to Houston and they kinda came up to us after the show... "why is there a woman on tour with us," and this woman was our manager named Tammy Lundy (Cleveland?), she's our manager, and they're like, "women should be pregnant and barefoot at home." And I was like, "thanks for your opinion, but whatever..." And on the way, I was like, "y'know, I could probably get on the phone and set up a quick show in Austin," because I think everyone would love to support you, and they said sure. And we get there, and Randy Biscuit is in the show with the Big Boys, and Gary, and I think MDC. I'm not sure if the Offenders were on the bill. But all of a sudden there's this big scene where HR of the Bad Brains didn't want to sing into the same microphone as those gay guys, and then he yelled, those bloodclot faggots should die. It's one thing to say "I don't really like gay people," it's another thing to say, "bloodclot faggots should die." And it was just terrible and nasty and of course the tour was over. And that is the story. To this day - I'm writing this in the book - it was one of those sad things that really happened. But we went to San Francisco, got interviewed by Maximum Rock'n'Roll, and we felt it was our duty [to speak up]. Because everyone was hypnotized by the Bad Brains, they're still an incredible band. Their dogma and what their lead singer is thinking is warped, but their musicianship, and the influences in some of the songs - "Postive Mental Attitude" - were a cool message. But just what was going on under the surface - by Prophet Joseph, as HR also called himself over the years - was a hateful, "hope they die" - sentiment. I didn't want one more person to put on a show who might be gay or might happen to be a little different and then get taken advantage of by the Bad Brains and made to feel less than they were.


And this was back in the day when most of the punk kids were 16, 17 - it was just me and Gary and Randy who were like, four or five years older. It's one thing to tell an 18 year old "gays all deserve to die," but to us it was like, "what the fuck are you talking about, how about you screw your fuckin' selves?" And I realized it was going to take someone a little older, with - and obviously by that time MDC has some street cred and we were out there touring, and people were digging us, and people were listening. And that interview got out, and the word got out, and believe me, I play a tour somewhere, and every fifth night some kid will come up and say, "tell me the story about the Bad Brains." And American Hardcore did a fairly accurate depiction, I don't know if you read the book, Stephen Blush...

Tim Kerr (of the Big Boys) tells the story there, I think.

Tim likes to whitewash it a bit. Tim didn't like the controversy, "it wasn't so bad, y'know." It really was bad. If you ask Gary Floyd or ask other people that knew that era. It was that bad.

What the hell is a "bloodclot faggot," anyhow? {The Bad Brains had used the term in their hate speech directed at the Dicks and Big Boys]. What does that mean?

A bloodclot is something that causes a hemmhorage, so if you have a bloodclot in your veins, it will kill you, you'll have an aneurysm in your brain. So the gay population is like a bloodclot to the human race.


It's very Coptic-Christian-Rastafari kind of imagery. It wasn't familiar to me, obviously not to you, but it was there.

Do you still perform "Pay to Come Along?" (MDC's musical response to the episode, with lyrics in part that read, "Couldn't help us fight the fight/ Get together black and white/ Returned all support with abuse/ and intolerance beyond excuse.")

No, we don't. We really dropped it from the repertoire, it fell off our setlist in about 1990. I don't want to get up on stage and go, "let's talk about the Bad Brains." I'm not for extending this war, but the word is out. People want to go see the Bad Brains for their musicianship, and that, they know already. I've never said "boycott them" - I wanted to let people know that HR is kind of a hateful guy, don't put yourself in the same position as we did in bringing him to your hometown and finding out just how hateful they were... We played the Democratic National Convention in 1988 and so did the Bad Brains, and HR is looking at me hard. I'm just, like, "What EVER, dude. Have a great life - I'm not going to fight you." The sad thing about him - it really affected his brain with the amount of cocaine he smoked. I'm not going to say it's karma, but when you live in glass houses, and all that stuff...

It's always sickening to see someone who is part of an oppressed minority taking it out on someone who is even more oppressed.

Exactly. You kick the dog that's a little smaller than you, right on down the line.

Coming to the topic of touring... what was the biggest show you ever had?

There were big shows for different reasons. We played in front of 50,000 people, but that was opening for Agnostic Front and Motorhead. The 50,000 people weren't there to see us. That was in 2002, in Germany. So that was the biggest numbers I ever stood in front of and played for. But y'know, way back in the day, we were getting thousand-people crowds on our own, or then when we played with Kennedys or at the Lincoln Memorial with DRI and the Crucifucks, there was upwards of 6-8-10,000 people. Free outdoors, we played with the Dead Kennedys and the Contractions in San Francisco at Rock Against Reagan in the fall, and there were around 8-10,000 people. Those were the biggest shows. They were free shows - it's nice when it's free, because everyone can just come down - but we played the Olympic Auditorium sometimes, and it was four to six thousand people. It was a big boxing arena. We played there with the Dicks, once. The Subhumans, Discharge...

The Canadian Subhumans? 

The British Subhumans.

Ah. I'm friendly with the Canadian Subhumans.

No, not those guys, but they toured very early on, and we saw them in Austin Texas, and Joey Shithead and DOA - I don't know if Chuck was with them at that point... but we'd look at the van and go, "Wow, you're going 30 cities in this van?" Before then, you just played your hometown and hoped that there was a big enough crowd, that some record company was gonna send a rep out and sign you and put you on tour with the Ramones or somebody. It was a whole new way, and DOA and Black Flag and the Subhumans really led that charge, of bands saying, "We aren't going to sit around our hometown and wait for them to discover our kind of music, we'll be sitting here til hell freezes over. We're just going to take it on the road." And sure enough, [when we toured], there were a hundred, two hundred people in every major city, or a lot of major cities - Houston, Austin, of course LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, New York, of course DC, Boston, and a few places in the midwest like Minneapolis, Chicago, and believe it or not Akron Ohio, had a great little scene... I'm sure I'm missing a few little scenes, but there was really about twenty gigs in North America, and we just took it on the road. We got a van, realized we're going to have to be in close quarters with each other, there's no rich and fabulous contract that's going to get signed, that's going to make it feel like latter day rockstars. It was all very working class, do it yourself.

Final question - it's my impression you're a vegan?

I'm a vegetarian. And when we go on tour, we act as vegans, we ask for a vegan menu. I'm not perfect. I just had a vegan stay with me who read every label on everything and ended up throwing out a large amount of food in my kitchen! Y'know, I support veganism, but for whatever reason, my roommate and I - he's in the band with me, he's the bassist in the band - are both single guys, and we do a little cooking but not much. We eat out a lot. And that's exactly what we are. We're vegans on tour, and at home we're a little bit more relaxed. I've been a vegetarian for over 40 years. I go back and forth. What happened was, I was doing a very vegan, pure, wheat grass juice and green tea sprouts juicing diet. And then I had a staph infection. I almost died in the hospital, I lost 30 pounds. And the doctor, I was telling I was a vegan. He was like, "stop. Don't tell me this. Eat some salmon. Eat eggs - go get your free range eggs or cage-free eggs, but something, eat protein. And I took him to heart. I was down to 145 pounds, two years ago. I went purposefully out of my way to start eating eggs.

That's curious, though, it's kind of the opposite of what you'd expect, that you keep to a vegan diet on the road, and are more relaxed at home.

Well, you know... yeah, that is kinda funny, but in the rider, we ask for vegan food, and everywhere we go, generally, they provide a dinner and a breakfast. So you get a great well-paid for vegan diet when you're on the road. And then when you're at home, someone comes over with eggplant parmesan, and - just because there's some cheese in there, I don't make the exception. It's not a lot of cheese, mind you. I don't have a quart of milk in my refrigerator. I do have some eggs. I don't have any ice cream in my refrigerator, but I'm not going to say I haven't had ice cream in years. I can't think of when the last ice cream was, but, y'know... if there's a Ben and Jerry's quart of ice cream melting in front of me, I might just have some.

The rest of this interview appears to be temporarily lost... But there's lots more out there from Dave Dictor, including his book, Memoir of a Damaged Civilization: Stories of Punk, Fear, and Redemption. It can be ordered through the publishers, Manic D Press, among other venues...! 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Allan MacInnis, songwriter (and a new song, "Bald Man with a Hat")

Short version: my new song. (Dedicated to Doug Bennett). 

Long version: It's something that I don't talk about much but I have written a bunch of lyrics for songs in my day.

It started with a teenage friend, Greg Terry: we were fourteen, in his bedroom, him with an electric guitar. I couldn't play anything but I had a gift for words, sorta. So we began to write songs, for a band we were going to call Epicurean Nightmare.

Yep: Epicurean Nightmare. We had a logo and everything. We got the word "Epicurean" from a random flip through a dictionary, looking for ideas for band names. Both words have an E and an N, and nine letters, so our logo kinda intertwined them. We were thinking of both bad food and a sort of blow to high culture - a celebration of low culture, sorta, which is not a totally un-clever name for a punk/ metal band (Greg was a bit more metal than punk and ended up playing in some sorta Christian metal band called Brainstorm, if I recall; I have no idea what he's doing now). 

I remember a few of the songs I wrote lyrics for - "Rock Refugee," "I Want I Need I Cry I Bleed," and, maybe our favourite, "God of Shit," inspired by John Milton, which we were reading in high school English around that time. It was kinda our version of "Sympathy for the Devil." A lot of the verses are lost to time and fog, but the chorus kinda went,

Is there pain anymore?
How long have you been trapped?
Who labels you so pitiful
Oh lord of crap?

...which in a way I think was me commenting on growing up in Maple Ridge. A lot of my lyrics took in sex and drugs and alcohol in ridiculous, whiny, pretending ways: I mean, I had never smoked a joint or had much more than a sip of beer, but I still wrote lyrics like this: 

Far away on a bottle of booze
Thunder in my head and shit on my shoes
Sometimes I wonder why, 
Wonder why?

But I'm doin' my best to ignore it
Be as blind as all the rest
The TV blasts out bullshit
I ain't stupid but I'm doin' my best

Lyin' in the gutter at 3am
The cop says, "move along"
(Something something something)
Where the hell did I go wrong?

Anyhow, Greg banged out chords and would sing the lyrics in his bedroom. He had his own songs too - "Blowjob," "I Wanna," "I Gotta." They were a bit, shall we say, purer as an expression of early brute punk, and hornier. No idea if he ever did anything with'em - but I kinda remember them, too. He did some gender bending with "blowjob," inspired by "Jet Boy/ Jet Girl," and had a line about how "she didn't like my blowjob." I didn't think it made any sense at all, back then, but I guess I get it now. 

Anyhow, those songs with Epicurean Nightmare were my first lyrics. Greg and I kinda fell out while we were still in junior high, though I gave him a bunch of new lyrics I'd written sometime in the 1990's, when he came into a video store where I was working, which, again, I have no idea if he did anything with. 

That was about it for me as a lyricist for ten or so years, until I befriended a guy named Michael, whom I eventually once again collaborated with. That friendship eventually went south, too, and I have no idea what he's doing these days, but he DID play at least one local gig, some ten or so years ago, where he sang a few songs I'd co-written. One of them - the best thing he'd done, I thought, and MOSTLY written by him - was a song called "Choke," which I see has been removed from Youtube. I rearranged a couple of his own lyrics and subbed in maybe a verse and a half of my own, which referred to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," playing on the bit about visions, revisions, indecisions, and decisions which a minute will reverse (all of which can be worked into a pretty good song lyric, actually; too bad the video has been removed or made private or whatever has happened to it, it's actually a pretty great song). 

And yeah, yeah, I know - using Milton and Eliot in rock lyrics is just dorky, but none of these are songs that I am particularly proud of now. My favourite song I have ever written was "If I Was a Bat," which David M. wrote music for, and has performed three times now, including this recent performance at the Rickshaw, opening for Marshall Crenshaw (who was amused by it, he told both of us later, before he even realized that I'd had a hand in it - he said he didn't laugh very often at songs, but that one made him laugh, and that was a good thing). That song has some history: the lyrics were written in Japan, when I was riding my three wheeled bike through rice paddies, ducking as bats swooped by me, on the road between the high school I was teaching at and my apartment. It came to me during one such ride, and  it sat around for fifteen years before I had the idea of asking David to do something for it and sing it at my wedding, since it perfectly expressed, in a way, my anxiety that I was going to be deformed by upcoming cancer surgery and made into something my wife would not want to be married to - some speech-impaired or mute thing who maybe couldn't eat normally, etc. Being a bat was code for becoming some sort of a freak, though that hadn't been the initial intention of the lyric (which was just about being weird, maybe too weird to love). 

Since David M's version of it had music different from the music in my head, when I had first written it, I sang my version on Youtube, for posteriety, just before my operation, in case I would no longer be able to. That arrangement of it has in turn has been performed (only once, to my knowledge) by the great Pete Campbell at a David M. gig where Coach StrobCam guested; they whipped it out one night right after David's version of the song, much to the surprise and delight of myself and Erika (both in attendance). 

One song! Two versions! Covered once! That's a lot of traction for one of my lyrics, actually.  

I mention all the above because I have just now posted a new song on Youtube: "Bald Man with a Hat." I explain it amply on the Youtube vid, so I will leave it at that. It was inspired in part by the previous blog entry, and by a joke Doug Bennett used to make in bars. Hope y'all enjoy.  

Hey, I just noticed that "If I was a Bat" and "Bald Man with a Hat" have the same number of syllables in them, and rhyme. Sheer coincidence, I assure you.

Happy Anniversary Nardwuar! Plus Vicious Cycles, Giuda TONIGHT!

Happy to hear Nardwuar is celebrating his show's 30th Anniversary, starting tonight!

Hard to believe he's been around since 1987. That's only about five or six years short of my even learning what punk rock was (it wasn't high visibility in Maple Ridge circa 1981-1982, which was when a friend first hooked me with Never Mind the Bollocks).

A marathon of Nardwuar begins at 9pm tonight, on CiTR fM 101.9 ! 20 straight hours of Nardwuar interviews - "ranging from Jay-Z to Michael Gorbachev, from Destiny's Child to Wesley Willis to everything in between!"

Do you all know Wesley Willis? "Suck a Caribou's Ass," you know? I had a fun fifteen minutes sharing Wesley Willis with my wife. Speaking of which, I know a woman (knew her BIBLICALLY, you know - why the hell do we use THAT adverb for sex?) who got a Wesley Willis headbutt, which she was quite proud of. It's almost like having had sex with Wesley Willis himself!

And it reminds me of the time I sat on a toilet seat just departed by Doug Bennett of Doug and the Slugs, but I digress. A marathon of Nardwuar's CiTR interviews tonight and tomorrow, then on Saturday there's this gig!
I was delighted to be at the last Evaporators in-store with Nardwuar leading the band out as Thee Goblins (grunting and covered-up and satirizing machoness) and then breaking into a set of giddy, hilarious, high-energy power-pop. The image I will remember is Nardwuar pulling up his Evaporators' uniform to reveal his hairy man-teats for "I Can't Be Shaved," which is right up there, as an anthem for the hirsute, with the Eels' "Dog Faced Boy" (which also works a pun between being "saved" and "shaved," but is nowhere near as funny about it). If I were hairy, this is the anthem I would want. 

Funny that there is more than one song about being hairy but no songs at all about being bald. But what can one say about an absence of hair? (Doud Bennett used to observe onstage that men with hats in bars were always bald underneath, and has made me self-conscious for life about wearing hats into bars or clubs, which, let's face it, is a good place to wear a hat; I mean, you're not gonna wear your fancy new hat out in the RAIN, ferchrissake, so where ELSE are you supposed to wear it?). 

...Happy anniversary Nardwuar!

And speaking of gigs and gig posters, more people should be excited about another show tonight. Go look up Giuda on Youtube, these guys rock - a sort of heavy-glam-meets-Cock Sparrer pub rock - and they're coming all the way from Italy. And the Vicious Cycles MC open (and London ska punk outfit Buster Shuffle, touring with Giuda). Once again at the Rickshaw - another great gig there, one I will even try to peek in on, though tending to my wife's busted foot will also be a factor. Doors at 8pm. 

I think I might wear my hat, in defiance of Doug's rule. What the hell.  

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

VIFF blogging commences! (plus belated Harry Dean Stanton obit)

(Note: this article has been greatly augmented since it first ran)

I am presently between jobs - the teaching gig I had was incorporated into the union and re-posted, so now I have to fight for it all over again. But my wife has hurt her foot, requiring me to double-down on my household duties, and I've had a couple of weeks' very productive writing while she is at work... so I am going to allow myself a bit more "time off" before I start farming out resumes. (Anyone looking for my skillset, which also includes editing, proofreading, teaching and tutoring, is welcome to seek out the "Contact" button on this page... I would prefer a lifetime position with great benefits, flexible hours, and lotsa holiday time that started at $40/ hour minimum, but, you know, I will probably have to settle for less than that...).

Anyhow, what the hell. Some very exciting stuff coming up this VIFF, and I have the time to take in a few films.

Bong Joon Ho's terrific Okja - which I've already written about on this blog, in a piece unambiguously entitled "I Love Okja" - is making a big-screen appearance in Vancouver. I am under the impression from a controversial Cannes screening that the Netflix original is not going to actually get theatrical distribution beyond festivals - which caused some to balk that it should compete in Cannes - so this will be a rare chance to see it projected with an audience. I recommend doing so: it's a terrific film, and will appeal to vegans, vegetarians, animal rights activists, and people concerned about GMO's - as well as to people who just like good stories (or Tilda Swinton, or Jake Gyllenhaal, who truly broadens his parameters for this role).

Co-written by Adrian Mack’s old roommate, Jon “The Men Who Stare at Goats” Ronson and Bong, it’s a fable about a giant GMO superpig raised for meat, who becomes the best friend of a Korean farm girl (An Seo Hyun), who must travel to America to save Okja from a drunken, morally compromised TV personality (Jake Gyllenhall, channeling Sacha Baron Cohen) and evil twin CEOs of a Monsanto-esque corpororation (both played with grotesque verve by Tilda Swinton). The girl - out of her depths but defiant - ends up aided by incompetent, bickering, but well-meaning animal rights activists, led by Paul Dano and “dead Glen” Stephen Yeun.

The film is rollicking and funny and touching, but be warned: it does arrive, inexorably, at a slaughterhouse (though fear not: any giant superpigs carved up therein are entirely CGI).

I was on hand when Bong visited the VIFF to introduce his 2006 monster movie The Host, impressing the hell out of a largely Korean audience, for whom he is roughly of the stature of Steven Spielberg. I am not sure if he'll be in attendance in person at the VIFF this year, or if he'll be answering questions by Skype, but VIFF audiences will have a chance to interact with him after the screening - a very cool opportunity indeed.

I actually have never seen the other Bong Joon Ho film that's screening, his 2003 breakout feature, Memories of Murder, which plays the Vancity Theatre this Saturday. It's a film my Korean students have often praised over the years, dealing with a lengthy, complex, and frustrating investigation into the real-life Hwaseong serial murders. We used to do, every third term, a class presentation on movies and Memories of Murder was right up there with Silmido, My Sassy Girl, and Welcome to Dongmakgol as a consensus favourite. (I have heard the story explained to me several times, which may be why I've never sat down to watch it; I will spare you that particular disservice).

Another doubtlessly fascinating film in the VIFF this year is Caniba, about Japanese cannibal-killer Sagawa Issei. I have not been able to see it yet, but anticipate great things. The directors are associated with Harvard Sensory Ethnography Labs; over the next day or two, I'll post an old interview I did with them about their previous VIFF entry, the immersive Go-Pro-shot fishing trawler documentary Leviathan (no relation to that Russian film of the same name that came out a couple years ago).

Sagawa's story  has actually been told before, in books, graphic novels, and, an one singularly unlikely place: the Rolling Stones’ song “Too Much Blood.”  Sagawa killed and ate a young woman he was sexually attracted to when studying in Paris in 1981. Through various bureaucratic screwups and string-pullings, Sagawa ended up free in Japan shortly thereafter, where he has attracted a certain degree of celebrity, as cannibals do, writing memoirs and occasionally complaining of loneliness.

Japanese coworkers of mine during my time there told me that Sagawa would occasionally appear on crime-themed TV shows, asked his insights into murder cases. And the story was that he’d appeared in a commercial for a steakhouse, though if it's true, that sure seems in, um… bad taste.The knowledge that Sagawa was roaming free in the same country as I was in was a little unsettling. Since he's complained of his isolation, it did occur to me that maybe he could strike up a correspondence with Canada's own recently freed cannibal killer, Vince Weiguang Li? I mean - who do you socialize with when your claim to fame is having killed and eaten someone? (Has he seen the Henry Rollins vehicle He Never Died, one wonders?). And how will this subject matter be treated by people associated with the immersive approaches of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography lab...?  

Speaking of ambitious documentaries in this year's VIFF, there is also Austrian/ German filmmaker Michael Glawogger's last film, Untitled, which he died while making. Glawogger has made some very well-received documentaries: Megacities, Workingman’s Death, Whore’s Glory. There’s also a fictional feature of his, Slumming, which graced the screens at a past VIFF, asking questions about class and privilege among globetrotting youth, intent on consuming exotic locales.

The centerpiece of Glawogger’s cinema for me is the footage of a Nigerian open-air slaughterhouse, captured in Workingman’s Death (2005). The film shows hellish working conditions worldwide - from unemployed Ukrainian miners scavenging coal from collapsed mines, which could crush them at any moment, to Indonesian workers walking up and down active volcanoes to harvest sulfur, which they carry down by hand in baskets. But the scenes in Nigeria are, I think I can say without qualification, the most powerful documentary footage I’ve glimpsed, in any film, ever… Small animals bleed out, choking on their own blood. Workers drag the heads and cattle of skin through the mud. Villagers barter over animals that they are considering buying - since, contrary to the neat plastic packages of meat you see over here, for Nigerians, Glawogger explains on the DVD commentar, it seems strange to eat meat from an animal you haven’t seen in life, before it was killed (what if it wasn’t healthy?).

The most remarkable thing about the sequence is how happy everyone seems. Glawogger shoots footage of workers singing, joking, and laughing as they kill, skin, and chop up their animals. It’s incredibly jarring. If the sheer lack of denial over death on display in the film isn’t enough to produce culture shock in you, you’re probably from Nigeria. Glawogger observes, again in the commentary, that while the footage seems a vision of hell, the fact that the workers are so well-adjusted and happy as they go about their business also suggests that hell perhaps is not such a bad place to be. (He also recommends playing the Rolling Stones' "Salt of the Earth" over the end credits: he couldn't afford the rights to the film but had always imagined that as the closing song).

Workingman's Death is truly a remarkable film, but it’s even more remarkable that VIFF audiences will have a chance to see a new Michael Glawogger film. Untitled may seem an odd title for a feature film, but it's not called that because the filmmaker died before it could be completed (he contracted an aggressive strain of malaria while shooting in Liberia). The opening narration, from a recording Glawogger made of himself, explains that this was always going to be the title of the film (which was finished by his long time editor Monika Willi, using footage Glawogger shot).

True to his globetrotting aesthetic, the film was intended to "never come to rest," to move from image to image and place to place, ceaselessly.As usual with Glawogger's cinema, the images are jarring and poetic, finding relief and perhaps a sort of redemption in the unfamiliar, from a one-legged African soccer match to a recurring motif - it's much more fascinating to see than to read about - of animals in transport. A sheep in a cage on the back of a truck is a lot more interesting to look at than it may sound. A garbage dump becomes a place of great activity and cinematic promise. Much of the film appears to have been shot in Eastern Europe and Africa, with images shown out of sequence, and unexplained. The film, my wife tells me, invaded her dreams the night we previewed it, such that she found herself amidst the film's landscapes; I was unsurprised to hear this.

If Port Moresby of Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky had become a documentary filmmaker, the result would surely be something like Untitled. The VIFF catalogue describes the piece as “a valediction on film—a gesture of love towards a troubled world.” It's also a scopophile's paradise.

It's not all documentaries that I'm excited about, of course. There's also the new film from Yorgos Lanthimos, whose The Lobster I loved and whose Dogtooth disturbed me; this film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, again features Colin Farrell, but expect something dark and surreal, not one of Farrell's more "Hollywood" roles. I thought The Lobster was  the best neo-Bunuelian movie I'd ever seen, in the vein of films - since there is more than one Bunuel - like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, except as applied to dating and romance. Dunno what it says about our relationship (or past experiences with dating), but Erika liked it a lot too (her parents sure didn't). I am excited enough about Lanthimos' new film that I am reading nothing about it until after I see it, so you will have to research it yourself if you need more. What does the title refer to? What is Colin Farrell doing in this image? I don't want to know until I am watching the film.

Then there's a six hour miniseries from New Zealand auteur (and director of The Piano and An Angel at My Table, among others) Jane Campion, which I gather is a follow up to something I have not seen (and thus am unlikely to check in with, much as I admire Campion). And there's a new film by Michael Haneke (who terrifies me, rather, and whom I have stopped following, but you go right on ahead). All of these films look to be major cinematic excitements, which probably don't need my attention.

There's also what sounds like a must-see fictional feature called Lucky, which, fittingly enough, is a film about Harry Dean Stanton getting ready to die - starring, to be clear, Harry Dean Stanton. I didn't write an obit for Harry Dean Stanton when he passed last week, maybe because the last couple of years of cultural heroes dying have attuned people sufficiently to obituaries that it doesn't feel like a useful function for me to perform; you'll just read about it on Facebook anyhow (as we all did, though I didn't have much to say there either). But I loved his characters, respected his long career, and always enjoyed seeing him onscreen. One does gather from what other people say that he was a bit of a difficult guy to deal with at times (Alex Cox, in his memoir X Films, talks about Harry would go on about "the Jews;" and Bette Midler, in a featurette on The Rose, said that he was not pleasant to work with at all - and she was in the midst of giving one of those gushing "everyone is great" interviews that Hollywood people give, so for her to say that, there must have been pretty serious trouble between them). I was a subscriber to Roger Ebert's Stanton-Walsh rule, that "no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad," and though he later claimed that there were films that broke that rule, it has held for me, even in cases where the only thing I enjoy about a film is the presence of either Walsh or Stanton.
Anyhow, Lucky sounds like a surefire hit. But so far, besides Untitled - more on which later, I hope - and Okja, which I had already seen, I have only looked at one film, the somewhat Lovecraftian Nova Scotian thriller The Crescent, which I am going to heretofore think of as The Shadow Over Inverness (Inverness being the town in Nova Scotia where my father grew up; the beach house in the film isn't that different from the landscape of my father's childhood, though my reference to "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" above is a bit spurious; other than it taking place in a coastal town where old, menacing weirdness lingers, there's not much the film has in common with that story - no half-fish people with allegiances to Cthulhu or what-have-you).

It is maybe problematic to build this particular film up too high: the VIFF catalogue likens it to Beyond the Black Rainbow, which is pretty serious praise, and even The Crescent itself gets you totally salivating for next-level cinema with its gorgeous credits sequence, involving close-ups of paint marbling and abstract, drony, vaguely Celtic music (by no one whose name appears in the opening credits, but it's the director's own work, it turns out). This is, no hyperbole, the most inspired and visually compelling title sequence I've seen in years. So you're getting geared up for a trippy cinematic masterwork...

...and then you get a hard lesson in just how indy this film is, as soon as people start talking: the images and performances all let you know within seconds that you're in the territory of the microbudget, shot-on-video Canadian horror. Which is fine, of course: that probably also means you're watching a labor of love, which is almost always going to be an interesting experience, and Seth A. Smith definitely has resources as a filmmaker - if not financial, than for striking compositions, which this film has throughout.

But you have to adjust your expectations accordingly; going in expecting the East Coast equivalent of Panos Cosmatos will not serve you well. The biggest challenge of the film is that Smith's talent for striking compositions, like the title sequence or, say, an aerial shot of a house glimpsed from the ocean, or a great moment of a stripe of water disappearing into the sand, or some of the trippier hallucinations in the film - just doesn't mesh that well with the hand-held video technology he's using elsewhere, which gives much of the film a found-footage feel, complete with some glaringly imperfect edits. You can't have storyboarded composition shots AND a found footage immediacy, since the former owes to a very different kind of cinema than the latter. I'm not sure a tripod would have been a solution, either; there's something about shooting on video that is simply different from shooting on film, which requires - unless you can "fake" the look of film - a completely different approach. Smith seems somewhat stuck between aesthetics.

That disjunct aside,  I like the idea of a quasi-Lovecraftian Maritimes psychological thriller as much as anyone. After getting over the sugar crash that the film didn't quite live up to its point of comparison or the promise of its stunning titles, I (mostly) enjoyed it: a mother and child, mourning the death of the child's father, come to a sleepy beach town, to take brief respite and take stock. Things build slowly, from creepy encounters with neighbours - who may be ghosts or monsters or otherwise less than human - to a nicely weird moment with a hermit crab, complete with what seemed to be augmented, crablike sound effects (it's a brief moment but it made me smile; I would love to learn that they got the sound by putting a contact mike on an actual crab, but I doubt it). There are indeed some trippy visual moments, too, though you'll have to be patient to get to them. (Hopefully the dialogue is clearer when it is projected, too, since various key lines - especially spoken by children - were kind of indecipherable on my home video setup). The Globe and Mail review described The Crescent as "The Babadook goes to the beach;" esteemed colleague Adrian Mack mentioned Messiah of Evil and Night Tide (that Dennis Hopper-in-love-with-a-mermaid film that I've never seen, from the guy who directed How Awful About Allan, whose title I approve of deeply). Mack will have something on the film in the Straight, I believe. By me, The Crescent is a B minus movie (at best - I want to be nice, here) with a few A+ moments, from someone who will, with luck, get a bigger budget to work with, sometime soon...

I'll be looking at more films in the VIFF Altered States series - their cult / horror/ high weirdness section - over the next few days (and am especially looking forward to The Endless, the second film by the makers of the arthouse horror movie Spring, which I missed, but which got a lot of praise). I may have features of my own on some of the above films in the Georgia Straight. Stay tuned.