Friday, May 31, 2013

Inside Out 2013: Reviews #3

Reviews of screenings from the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.

C.O.G. (Dir: Kyle Patrick Alvarez, 88 minutes, USA)

When handed a religious tract reading "Are you a C.O.G.?", David laughs it off and makes a joke, and yet it somehow resonates with him, and he keeps it like a talisman. This would figure into his subsequent deeper encounter with faith ("Are you a Child of God?" is what it's asking), but it's quite evident that David is also worried about becoming merely a cog in society's machine.

That would be one reason why that after finishing his M.A. at Yale he's hopped on a bus and headed west to Oregon to join in with the apple harvest. (There's shades here of know-it-all Leland Stamper making a similar trip west in Sometimes a Great Notion, not in the least in a pre-credit sequence detailing the waking nightmare of a cross-country Greyhound trip.) Sure, originally there was a romantic plan, hatched up by his girlfriend, to slum it with the proles — but once she stops by only long enough to introduce her new boyfriend and ride off into the sunset, David seems even more determined to stick it out. It becomes clear pretty quickly that he's not just out for an adventure — he's running away from himself.

Of course, there are parts of you that are going to be there if you want them or not. You can find a new town, a new life, and new ways to tamp your desires down but they're just not going anywhere. As we follow David's episodic adventures (from the apple grove to the packing plant to an artist's workshop) we see this struggle play out. Along the way, his vulnerabilities leave some chips in his smug and superior veneer.

Jonathan Groff does good work here in the lead role, never going too "big", and thus letting each small payoff register. The supporting actors — and this is largely a film of and about men — evoke some solid characterizations as well, from Dean Stockwell's taciturn farmer to Corey Stoll's rambunctious co-worker to Denis O'Hare's evangelical artist. Director Alvarez maintains a solid balance here as well, keeping the story moving along without things ever feeling rushed. Some of his counter-intuitive choices, such as a score filled with a lot of Steve Reich music, also work out rather nicely.

Adapted from a David Sedaris essay, this film shines as a quote-unquote modest story about the slow accretion of experiences that can sometimes lead to growing up. It's silly and affecting just like lives lived tend to be, and the biggest changes are internal — represented by seeing David's eyes looking on the world in a slightly different way. That welcome modesty can be a hard sell in the marketplace, but this film certainly deserves to find an audience.

Continental (Dir: Malcom Ingram, 96 minutes, UK)

Everybody knows that Bette Midler got her start in the gay bathhouses of New York City. That tidbit might be the hook for this story about The Continental Baths, where that breakthrough happened, but this film's ambitions keep it interested in something more than salacious nostalgia. Indeed, amongst a panoply of celebrities such as Frankie Knuckles, Holly Woodlawn and Labelle's Sarah Dash, Midler is one of the few who doesn't show up to offer a remembrance. But given the various strands contained in this film, her presence is hardly missed.

Tracking a "high point of hedonism" in that moment of sexual freedom between the discovery of The Pill and the advent of AIDS, The Continental was both a product of a period of increasing liberality ("the 60's") as well as a force to push the gay liberation agenda even further. By serving as a hub for community organizing, it managed to transform the context (beholden to the mob and dependent on graft to be left alone by the police) that bathhouses operated in.

All of which also makes this the story of Steve Ostrow, The Continental's owner, whose commitment extended well past dollars and cents and into the realm of social transformation. Copious interviews with him flesh out both his life story and the saga of The Continental (as well as plenty of outlandish-but-true tales along the way), and that gives this documentary its heart and soul. By the end, you'll feel honoured to have made his acquaintance.

And along the way, there's also a chance to re-live the joyful excess and opulence of The Continental. Located in the gorgeous Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side, the baths operated 24/7, with both the disco floor out front and the private rooms in the back serving thousands of patrons daily. Over time, growing bolder and more ambitious, it became a chic nightspot, a place-to-be-seen where straight couples on a night out would mingle with the towel-clad clientele to see the biggest cabaret stars of the day. In a monumental coup for the opera-loving Ostrow, Eleanor Steber, diva of The Met, would record a live album there during a "black towel" event. Over time, the baths would serve as a precursor to disco-era hotspots such as Studio 54.

The film gives us plenty of colourful stories to bring the Continental's heyday to life — and it doesn't stint on reminding us that this was a sexually-charged space for men to fuck (a point that Michael Musto gets across with great relish.) And yet, it's the attachment to the broader social context — and the people who made it possible — that make this memorable. (The screening was also elevated by a lively Q&A with gregariously argumentative director Ingram, who came across as the sort of person you'd want to hang out and have a beer with.)

The film screened with the short Death of a Bathhouse (Dir: Rolyn Chambers, 11 minutes, Canada), which put a local spin on some of the same issues. Tracking the last days of the St. Marc's Spa, the film includes some musings on the changes in bathhouse culture, as well as a look at the commitment to art (with "curated" rooms similar to those at the Gladstone) that made this spot unique. Slightly shaky source images ("I'd been up for about thirty hours straight at the time," Chambers commented of the Spa's hectic last weekend, when he'd shot the footage) is fleshed out with interviews from a who's-who of local queer artists, including Sky Gilbert, Keith Cole (interviewed in his bubble bath!), Drasko Bogdanovic and Shane MacKinnon. A nice remembrance of some local history.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Inside Out 2013: Reviews #2

Reviews of screenings from the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.

Mixed Shorts: Local Heroes [shorts programme]

Genre, mood, and orientation are all rubbing elbows together in this program that is unified by its local content. There's also a mix of fully-realized ideas, quick hits, and pieces that we might optimistically say show promise. But it's always rewarding to see familiar sights and sounds up on the big screen. In roughly descending order, here's how the programme shook out for me.

The gem of the bunch is definitely For Dorian (Dir: Rodrigo Barriuso, 16 minutes, Australia/Canada), the story of a bourgeois father who has good reason to be protective of his son Dorian. But as he's growing older and learning to conceal things, there are a few signs — a new "friend", a possibly non-meteorological interest in the TV weatherman — that Dorian needs space and independence. Sweet in tone and nicely-observed, Dylan Harman gives a nice turn in the title role with a shy smile and a glint in his eye.

Also quite excellent is Dependent (Dir: Stephanie Markowitz, 4 minutes, Canada), a new music video from Reg Vermue's Light Fires project. (Attendees will also have been grooving to some Light Fires in the festival's trailer.) I've heard this number in live performance for a little while now, but the studio version — performed as a duet with Owen Pallett — ups the ante considerably. Markowitz matches that with a stylish concept that puts us in the middle of the first-we-break-up/then-we-make-up-dynamic. After its première at Inside Out, expect to catch this on a small screen near you.

How would you fare if you had to look in a camera and give an honest account of your choices? I'm Yours (Dir: Chase Joynt, 5 minutes, Canada) puts us face-to-face with two individuals who have both experienced a transition, albeit in opposite directions. Shot against identical white backgrounds, the film cuts between multimedia artist Nina Arsenault and her unnamed counterpart as they have an open conversation about their identities and their changes. Their responses humanize them while giving us a hint of the variety within the trans experience. Brave, forthright, and admirably concise.

Also admirably concise is Shawn (Dir: Mark Zanin, 4 minutes, Canada), where a pair of guests at a funeral each make some surprising discoveries about their dead lover. This gets its laughs from its premise and ducks out without lingering too long.

Knowing how far to stretch out a concept is a bit of a problem for a couple films here. Happy 16th Birthday Kevin (Dir: Jen Markowitz, 11 minutes, Canada) dives head-first into the dark, dark world of its tormented goth protagonist with over-the-top glee, but the deadpan tone is hard to sustain without drying into dust. Still, while hanging out at a particularly awkward birthday celebration, it gives a nice portrait of loving/oblivious parents and the circles of social exclusion — and the chance that there might be someone out there to take us away from all of this.

Stormcloud (Dir: Kate Johnston, 14 minutes, Canada) feels a bit too much like two films jammed together. Its comedic centrepiece, with Vi, a heartbroken artist, inviting a pair of door-to-door bible-thumpers to come in off the porch and say their piece gets some laughs, especially from Mandy May Cheetham whose barely-repressed desires make it unclear who's going to convert whom. But the dramatic wraparound structure doesn't work as well and its metaphors of storm clouds and silver linings are rather too obvious.

It might be my general lack of interest in celebrity culture that kept me from feeling too engaged by Her With Me (Dir: Alyssa Pankiw, 13 minutes, Canada), where a local-girl-made good takes up with a townie while trying to conceal the nature of her tryst from the paparazzi. We have paparazzi in Toronto? Best element here is some well-deployed Army Girls tunes in the soundtrack.

Breaking and Entering (Dir: Andrew Hull, 6 minutes, Canada) feels more like an extended trailer for an impressionistic arthouse feature than a compelling story on its own merit, but might engage those satisfied with a more symbolic cinematic style.

Jason's Dad (Dir: Matthew Campea, 13 minutes, Canada) has died with a secret in this short that could be subtitled "Every Melodramatic Canadian Film Ever". The grim, repressed melancholy is so thick here that the film verges on self-parody, while the plot turns on a smartphone without a password and monumental surprise at someone having a queer bit on the side, both of which seem a little implausible in 2013. Meanwhile, bask in the muted, muddy palette and simmering, brooding expressions.

Screens: Thursday, May 30, 7:00 p.m. @ TIFF Lightbox 1

Hot Guys With Guns (Dir: Doug Spearman, 110 minutes, UK)

Pitching itself as "Boystown meets Chinatown", one might have guessed that this film would be some campy fun in the vein of Lethal Weapon-esque 80's action flicks. But don't expect a parody. The film takes itself much more seriously, and has ambitions of being a bona fide comedy-thriller. Sadly, however, it just doesn't pull it off.

Someone is on a crime spree, knocking out and robbing the participants at Hollywood's upscale gay sex parties. The discreet nature of these events is enough to keep anyone from calling the police, and it's not until rich, unlikable Pip (Brian McArdle) loses the watch he inherited from his father that anyone seems inclined to investigate. His former flame Danny Lohman (Marc Anthony Samuel) is taking a PI course to prepare for an acting role, and despite himself he gets pulled in to untangle the caper. Along the way, there's a romance angle as we find that the pair still-kinda-maybe have feelings for each other.

The plot elements hold together, but at nearly two hours things feel generally bloated, especially with all the hammy acting along the way. Samuel brings an easy, natural affability to Danny, but the rest of the cast generally bogs things down. That makes it hard to care too much as things unwind. The secondary characters generally fail to engage, except for Pip's shrill, presumably-meant-for-comic-relief lush of a mother who leaves a negative, we-couldn't-afford-Jessica-Walter impression.

Most of the other elements are unsatisfying as well. In the style of PG-13 action movies, don't expect any nudity besides a few bums and don't be surprised at the rather chaste bondage party. There are some undertones of racism and class conflict in the dynamic between Pip and Danny, but they don't really go anywhere interesting. In the end, this is neither good enough to be good nor bad enough to be entertaining, and the film's made-for-cable aesthetic will ultimately see it consigned to the status of bland product, gay twist or no. Not recommended.

Screens: Friday, May 31, 7:30 p.m. @ TIFF Lightbox 1

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Recording: junctQín keyboard collective

Artist: junctQín keyboard collective

Song: "Bullbats" + "Writing on Stone" [from Grasslands, Badlands and Spirit Sands; composer: Alex Eddington]

Recorded at Gallery 345, May 27, 2013.

junctQín keyboard collective - Bullbats + Writing on Stone

Full review to follow. As I was walking down Dundas and about to turn down Sorauren to head to this gig, I was struck by an Anser mural that has appeared since the last time I was down this way. The new triptych perhaps helped prime my mind for an evening of "firsts", mostly of new compositions receiving their debuts — and mostly of works exploring ways to get three musicians working together on a single piano. That three-in-one unity is part of the stock-in-trade for Elaine Lau, Joseph Ferretti, and Stephanie Chua, who have been playing together as junctQín (pronounced "junction") for a few years now.

The night closed with this Alex Eddington work, which was a sort of première-in-progess, as he expects this travelogue to at least double in size from the twenty-ish minutes now extant. A meditation on some personally-resonant prairie landmarks, this eschews the typical "seas of wheat" for some of the geological outcrops that offer relief, with some animal field recordings providing the interludes in between.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Inside Out 2013: Reviews #1

Reviews of screenings from the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.

I Am Divine (Dir: Jeffery Schwarz, 86 minutes, USA)

Harris "Glenn" Milstead — better known under the name of his drag persona Divine — receives a feature-length biographical treatment. A product (narrowly) of the weird cultural ferment in Baltimore that produced John Waters as well as (more widely) the pre-AIDS gay-lib awakening, this touches on a wide number of themes, including the entertainment industry and the "underground", queers as outsiders, drag, and body image. But at its heart, it's a rags-to-riches style celebration of an artist following their own vision. With lots of archival footage and access to the story's key players, this is likely the definitive version of Divine's story.

John Waters is on hand (and as charming as ever), commenting on the intersection of Bergman and LSD that led to his film career, and the creation of his Dreamlanders, where David Lochary helped to craft Divine's look into a "walking work of art" that quickly led to him becoming the lead in such films as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Polyester — performances that still crackle with delightfully trashy intensity today.

This doc is also a reminder that there was far more to Divine's career than those films. Divine was, in fact, a bona fide underground superstar, moving to San Fransisco to join drag troupe The Cockettes (and appearing as the star in a number of revues) and performing off-Broadway (in Women Behind Bars and more). And, of course, there was also Divine's successful musical career, appearing not only as one of the largest draws in the the still-underground disco scene, but even crossing over to some mainstream success (including an appearance on Top of the Pops in the UK). This is still fab music, by the way, electro before there was such a thing, and definitely with a raw, punk edge.

Beyond that, we get a sense of the person behind the persona, although they certainly blurred into each other. Divine was a perpetual outsider, not only to the straight life, but even within the drag scene, pushing the boundaries of the acceptable with his hyper-exaggerated get-up. Struggling with obesity throughout his life, Milstead was vulnerable and sensitive about his appearance (though he learn that he never lacked for lovers and admirers throughout his life), as well as a generous spendthrift, lavishing gifts upon friends without worrying about whether they were affordable.

We also learn of Milstead's winding relationship with his family through insightful interviews with his mother Frances Milstead. Rejected by his family for his lifestyle, their later reconciliation was one factor leading to Milstead's late-life happiness. In the wake of Hairspray's success, it looked like a mainstream breakthrough was imminent, with Milstead winning a recurring role on sitcom Married... with Children. How that might have unfolded will never be known in the aftermath of his death on the eve of joining the cast.

There's also a lot of intriguing cultural history and food for thought, especially around the idea of gender (as expressed through drag) as a construct — the female attributes for which he was famous were considered as Milstead's "work clothes" that came off at the end of the day. That led to a very specific typecasting as Milstead struggled to gain acceptance as a character actor out of drag. But those larger questions, as well as the sadness at all the what-might-have-beens, can't keep this from being a joyful ride through a "filthy" outsider's ascent, and the film manages to pass Divine's manic energy along.

Screens: Saturday, June 1, 7:15 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox 1

Gay Shorts: Teenage Dream [shorts programme]

A strong selections of shorts here, this one is recommended — who can't relate to the memories of those awkward years?

Best of the bunch is the short documentary Straight With You (Niet Op Meisjes) (Dir: Daan Bol, 19 minutes, The Netherlands) which introduces us to Dutch eleven-year-old Melvin. He knows what he is, but is still keeping it secret from most of his friends. When a classmate asks to be his girlfriend, he struggles to find a way to tell her why he can't be. Afraid of bullying — and of just being "different" — this is a fascinating reminder of how quickly kids pick up what is supposed to be "normal" behaviour, and how hard it is to step outside those constraints. Even in an accepting family and social environment, coming out is still a struggle — but we get the idea that this articulate young charmer will do okay. Hopeful and empathetic, this film deserves a prize.

Fans of the Hidden Cameras will want to keep an eye out for Gay Goth Scene (Dir: Kai Stäenicke, 5 minutes, Germany) which sets this new tune from Joel Gibb to striking and moody images, in a brief tale of of high-school peer pressure and bullying as well as its aftermath.

Mapping those who really "get" the rather likeable Jackpot (Dir: Adam Baran, 10 minutes, USA) might point out that this tale appeals as much to a certain age bracket as to any specific orientation. This tale of a dumpster-hunt for porn mags will evoke a sympathetic response in many who grew up before the internet's ubiquity. But it's the fact that Jack is looking for pictures of men that gets him in hot water. Will his new fantasies give him the strength to step up and fight for himself?

There's a sense of verisimilitude in watching two sets of teens talk about the previous night's broadcast of Brokeback Mountain in It's Not a Cowboy Movie (Ce n'est pas un film de cow-boys) (Dir: Benjamin Parent, 12 minutes, France). Pushing back the mysteries of sex happens piecemeal in realtime excursions like these, as two boys skirt around the hidden desires the film explores. Meanwhile, the limits of tolerance slowly get nudged in the same way as one girl teases her friend about her gay father, only to feel a sting of regret.

Bright and comedic, Yeah Kowalski! (Dir: Evan Roberts, 10 minutes, USA) is noteworthy in how much it takes its hero's queerness as a matter of fact, just one more element in its joyfully colourful world. Not that life for Gabe is without problems: when everyone's bodies start changing around him, he's impatient to "catch up" and be able to subtly show off his own development to impress a crush. Trying to short-circuit the process leads to awkward results — and the amusing pain of recognition for the audience.

Rounding out the programme, Kiss Me Softly (Kus me zachtjes) (Dir: Anthony Schatteman, 16 minutes, Belgium) is a moody, pensive sort of character piece. Nicely shot, but a bit too static to really engage. Coming Out (Komma Ut) (Dir: Jerry Carlsson, 5 minutes, Sweden) focuses on those moments where the desire to just say it out loud are just so overpowering — but never quite as insistent as the fearful desire to stay silent. Even the quietest, most typical day before supper can feel like an internal battleground. And The First Time (Fšrsta gœngen) (Dir: Anders Hazelius, 9 minutes, Sweden) gives us a sympathetic beach encounter between a teenage girl and a boy who's not quite prepared to go through with an amorous encounter. It's apparently shot in murk-o-vision, presumably to replicate night-time fumblings as much as symbolize the characters' conceptual lack of clarity, but it also mars the enjoyment of the piece somewhat.

Screens: Tuesday, May 28, 5:30 p.m. # TIFF Lightbox 2.

Recording: Joe Sorbara and Friends

Artist: Joe Sorbara and Friends

Song: Abakos [excerpt]

Recorded at Array Space ("Somewhere There Summer Series #1"), May 26, 2013.

Joe Sorbara and Friends - Abakos [excerpt]

Full review to follow. Still in its desert-wandering phase, Somewhere There remains without a home. But for ten Sundays over the next couple months, it will be figuratively crashing on the couch at Array's cozy performance space. Starting at eight and done at ten, these will serve as sweet PWYC outros to your weekends, so keep an eye on their calendar for more info on the upcoming shows.

To close out the night, percussionist Joe Sobara brought together all the night's performers and more for a run through this new-ish composition. After a series of solos and duos from the ensemble, I was keeping half an eye on the score, and I suspected something inneresting was coming when a page was flipped and the next one was filled mostly with text. The stretch reproduced here is what happened next. If you get lost in the definition, just grab onto that bassline, intoning "Ab-a-cus, ab-a-cus" over and over like a koan.

Recording: Paul Newman

Artist: Paul Newman

Song: [excerpt from an improvisation]

Recorded at Array Space ("Somewhere There Summer Series #1"), May 26, 2013.

Paul Newman - [excerpt from an improvisation]

Full review to follow. Still in its desert-wandering phase, Somewhere There remains without a home. But for ten Sundays over the next couple months, it will be figuratively crashing on the couch at Array's cozy performance space. Starting at eight and done at ten, these will serve as sweet PWYC outros to your weekends, so keep an eye on their calendar for more info on the upcoming shows.

This first night of the series served as a release party for a new disc of solo saxophone stylings from ST collective member Paul Newman, and he led off with a set that showed his wide range, from carefully crafted tuneful stretches, to this more abstract section, which sounds like an audiobook version of a topographical map of some distant + barren desert planet.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Recording: Cell Memory

Artist: Cell Memory

Song: unknown*

Recorded at Double Double Land ("Silent Shout"), May 25, 2013.

Cell Memory - unknown

Full review to follow. You don't see a full-on guitar-bass-drums rockband all that often at Silent Shout, but the textures (e-bow, vocals reverbed into wordlessness) from Adam Terejko's band configuration fit in pretty well.

* Does anyone know the title to this one? Please leave a comment!

Recording: ∆TENT

Artist: ∆TENT

Song: Espantajo de resaca [composed by José Manuel Serrano]

Recorded at The Music Gallery ("Emergents V"), May 25, 2013.

∆TENT - Espantajo de resaca

Full review to follow. Closing out this year's Emergents series, the night saw a set from marimba duo (insert TITLE) as well as this chamber trio (whose name is pronounced "latent"), who brought a lot of variety in their selections for clarinet, flute and piano. This piece involved some prepared piano (via pencils in the strings) plus some whistles and wordless vocalizations to evoke a few ghosts.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Recording: Hussy

Artist: Hussy [a/k/a HSY1]

Songs: Ladies Nite + Dr. Deth*

Recorded at Steam Whistle Brewery ("Steam Whistle UNSIGNED"), May 24, 2013.

Hussy - Ladies Nite

Hussy - Dr. Deth

Full review to follow. From the get-go, Hussy have had a good line in misanthropic slugsludge — but at some point since I'd last seen 'em, the band has quite evidently levelled up into something forceful that throbs like a mofo.


* Thanks to a commenter for passing the titles to these along.

1 Not long after this, the band contracted its moniker to HSY, but they were still Hussy at this show.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Inside Out 2013: Preview

Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival

May 23 – June 2, 2013

Now in its twenty-third year, Inside Out brings the entirety of the queer spectrum to the big screen — joy and sorrow, sex and love, youth and old age. Although over its lifetime our wider society has moved the experiences of lesbians and gays further from the isolated margins, stories by and for the community still need to be told.

Inside Out brings a very inclusive atmosphere, welcoming to all and worthy for anyone to attend. It's also one of the most fun festivals in town, and you're guaranteed to make new friends in line while waiting for screenings in the comfortable and classy TIFF Lightbox. I've already seen a few things and will have reviews online starting tomorrow (advance hint: you'll want to see the Divine bio-doc!), but here's a few comments just as a general overview.

It looks like a bumper crop of documentaries at this year's festival. I saw Valentine Road and God Loves Uganda at Hot Docs and recommend both (check out my full reviews for them here and here). Valentine Road is especially tragic and anger-inducing — bring your tissues — but an excellent, must-see film. I missed Continental at Hot Docs, but I heard uniformly good things about it, and expect to catch it here. Otherwise, Inside Out brings us dispatches from Jamaica and Cameroon to remind us there are places where the struggles for safety and respect are less advanced than in Canada, while Before You Know It examines issues of elder care in the LGBT community.

Looking beyond docs, the shorts programmes are always a good place to head for those who can't settle on a single movie. You'll usually find a surprising new fave or two, even if you go in expecting to like a specific short. Besides various boy-boy and girl-girl themed programmes, look for curated selections on the black and trans experience, as well as art and horror, plus an international showcase.

As for the slate of features, the best advice I can give is that you head over to this youtube playlist, where you can check out trailers for a whole lot of the festival's films.

TICKETS + MORE INFO

Most screenings (except galas) are $13, with some $10 matinees and discounts for youth and seniors. If you're seeing a bunch, 8-Ticket Vouchers are available for $91. Members help support the festival year-round and get deals on tickets, too.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Recording: the beverleys

Artist: the beverleys

Song: Anyway

Recorded at Clinton's Tavern, May 22, 2013.

the beverleys - Anyway

Full review to follow. I can't believe I waited so long to check out this local grunge-punk trio again, because holy hells they're pretty good. A two-guitars-no-bass lineup might bring Sleater-Kinney to mind, but they have their own angle on distortion/momentum pop. They've been patiently playing piles of shows and it's time that more folks know about 'em. There's an EP coming up, but right now, the best place to catch them is on stage (or maybe on youtube). They've got a couple NXNE shows lined up, so that makes it easy for me to make my first enthusiastic recommendation for this year's festival.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Recording: Colin Stetson

Artist: Colin Stetson

Song: High Above A Grey Green Sea

Recorded at The Great Hall, May 19, 2013.

Colin Stetson - High Above A Grey Green Sea

A dedication: "So right there, there's a whale in the Atlantic whose song is wrong by a few hertz. And this, from what we've observed, is rendering it unintelligible to all other whales. And so for whatever reason... that whale is alone in that large body of water out there. And has been out there, we've been documenting it for over a decade. So it's been swimming, calling out this song, looking for another, for its likeness, out there in the deep and coming up with nothin'. And from what we understand, it's destined to do this throughout the rest of its days. This song is not about that story. But when I played it for the first time, a friend of mine told me that it reminded her of that story. And then I heard that story and I got terribly sad, right in the middle of my heart, because it's the saddest story that we've ever heard. And it really kinda was the idea behind this piece of music made flesh and put into reality for me, and now when I play this song, I can't really help but not think about this whale. So, yeah, this is a song called High Above a Grey Green Sea, and it's for a whale, who, right at this minute is singing. Alone." Full review to follow.

Recording: Bernice

Artist: Bernice

Song: Body Motivation

Recorded at The Great Hall, May 19, 2013.

Bernice - Body Motivation

Full review to follow. The last time I saw Bernice, winter's treachery kept me from getting to the venue on time, and I missed more than half the set. I wasn't going to let that happen twice. With her gorgeous voice backed by some of the city's best musicians, Robin Dann can close her eyes, let the hint of a smile cross her face and pull the crowd in to the band's smooth grooves. There's a new EP to grab now, but they also played some new arrangements of older songs like this one.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Recording: HotKid

Artist: HotKid

Song: unknown*

Recorded at Soybomb HQ ("Wavelength 560"), May 18, 2013.

HotKid - unknown

Full review to follow. With founding member Peter McIntosh back in the fold (now on bass guitar), the band reached back to their old days for this one, which included an extended opportunity for Shiloh Harrison to undertake what is technically known as a "wicked solo".

* Does anyone know the title to this one? Please leave a comment!

Recording: Thick Shakes

Artist: Thick Shakes

Song: Go Back to New York

Recorded at Soybomb HQ ("Wavelength 560"), May 18, 2013.

Thick Shakes - Go Back to New York

Full review to follow. Boston's Thick Shakes made their Canadian debut a member short, with a drummer on sick leave. Local ringer Kurtis Marcoux was an enthusiastic + able fill-in, pushing the songs along with grinning abandon. As for the band, it seems that they have tasted of that dirty water, pumping out a fun set of frills-free garage stompers.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Recording: METZ

Artist: METZ

Songs: Wasted + [new song #2]*

Recorded at Lee's Palace, May 17, 2013.

METZ - Wasted

METZ - [new song #2]

Full review to follow. Returning home after a long stretch on tour, it was truly exciting to see METZ anchoring a sold-out night of grassroots T.O. talent. Moving up to a bigger room, it's striking to see that the bands haven't changed — well, they've gotten better — but to see local DIY culture on a scale like this is meaningful, dammit.

* Does anyone know the title to this one? Please leave a comment!

Recording: Odonis Odonis

Artist: Odonis Odonis

Song: Seedgazer

Recorded at Lee's Palace, May 17, 2013.

Odonis Odonis - Seedgazer

Full review to follow. After all the shows in all the tiny rooms — at The Garage, at The Academy, at Parts + Labour — not only was it exciting to see OO up on the big stage at Lee's, but they also sounded quite excellent in doing so.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Recording: The Thing

Artist: The Thing

Songs: Hidegen Fújnak a Szelek [trad. arr. The Ex] + Dream Baby Dream [Suicide cover]

Recorded at The Rex Hotel, May 16, 2013.

The Thing - Hidegen Fújnak a Szelek

The Thing - Dream Baby Dream

Full review to follow. Mats Gustafsson might have modestly referred to the trio's songs as "electric ballad action", but The Things destroyed the songs they love in a manner more like a neutron bomb, leaving the structures intact, but totally wiping out the population of The Rex.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Play: The Charge of the Expormidable Moose

The Charge of the Expormidable Moose (One Little Goat Theatre Company. Dir: Adam Seelig. Written by Claude Gauvreau. Translated by Ray Ellenwood.)

Tarragon Theatre Extra Space. May 10 - 26, 2013.

[Consumerist summary for the tl;dr crowd]

Inventively staged and well-acted, The Charge of the Expormidable Moose could be the Québécois One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, introducing English-speaking Canadians to the work of Claude Gauvreau. This is a poetic journey into institutionalization and group dynamics, designed to provoke emotions rather than answer questions. Yes, the title means something, and no, it's not literal. Running at the Tarragon Extra Space until May 26, this is well-worth investigating.

[Longer, rambling review — Spoiler alert! This discussion freely throws in a lot of details of developments in the play, etc. Be warned if you'd like to head into the show with an unfettered mind.]

Mycroft Mixeudeim1 is the sort of guy who wears his heart on his sleeve — "guileless", if you will, but ever willing to come running to help on hearing someone scream. A sensitive poet, he's a broken man due to a great sadness and loss in his past. Now he resides in an ambiguous, vaguely institutional setting, and it's unclear if his tormenting co-habitants are attending doctors, cruel fellow inmates, or even externalized aspects of his own personality.

Such a lack of literal clarity in the pursuit of a higher truth is probably to be expected when heading to a show by Toronto's One Little Goat Theatre Company. Billed as "North America’s only theatre company devoted to contemporary poetic theatre," the deliberate sense of ambiguity and dislocation here allow layers of potential interpretations without being too directly concerned with suggesting a resolution.

Helping to encourage that suggestive inspecificity, the set was executed with fairly simple elements.2 "Windows" on the sides and wings of the stage were backed by thick vegetation (hinting at the location's remoteness) while five doors, ranging in size from a small hatch to a grand portal in the centre, lined the back wall. But most striking was that all of the doorknobs were replaced with mannequin hands, giving each door the look of a suggestively-inviting portal. At the outset, they'd be removed and subsequently used as keys. Hands, reaching out for succour or to offer rescue — but removed by a capricious overseer; doors — portals into a different place — weighted with all sorts of symbolism, especially here with the handles removed and turned into constricting barricades...

...but not to Mycroft Mixeudeim (played by Ben Irvine), whose brute strength allows him to fling himself through the closed doors, running head-first into them to jar them open. We witness this at the outset as possible romantic interest Laura Pa (Lindsey Clark) feigns a scream of terror to bring him crashing through the door. This would be the first of a series of tormenting "tests" that the other characters would subject him to, each promoting their own diagnoses of Mycroft's condition. It is through these experiments that we learn of his work as a poet and his doomed love, as well as the shades of contempt, jealously and possible sympathy that the others hold him in. Dressed as if they were spending a weekend at the country club, ready to dash off for a round of tennis, their behaviour falls somewhere between clinical observation, voyeuristic thrill-seeking, and cruel sport.

This reaches its peak in the second act's "dinner party" where the dominant Lontil-Déparey (David Christo) supplies a series of potions that send Mycroft into various emotional states, each of which come with a new diagnosis. The allusions to psychopharmacology's chemical cosh are clearest here, and the sequence is probably the play's high point, especially for the turn-on-a-dime range in Irvine's performance as he is transformed from elation to manic babbling to a non-verbal state where he can only mime his responses to the questions aimed at him. The tone throughout had previously surfed a tension where the audience was never quite sure if they should laugh at or empathize with Mycroft, but here director Adam Seelig reaches for overt humour, emphasizing the absurdity of the observers evaluating Mycroft's emotional responses to the chemical states they have induced in him.

The second half of the play doesn't quite maintain the momentum. A deus ex machina (in the form of a helicopter crash) introduces Dydrame Daduve (Sochi Fried) which creates a new dynamic, giving Mycroft a confidant, but also providing his observers with new levers with which to test him. After finding that their manipulations aren't powerful enough (or their own wills strong enough) to induce a suicidal state in Mycroft, the final act sees Lontil-Déparey calling upon the services of Letasse Cromagnon (Hume Baugh), an avowed sadist. Appearing on the scene with a coach's whistle and loud bluster (shades, perhaps, of Rob Ford?), the mystery and ambiguity that the play had cultivated was suddenly set upon by a perverse (and perversely articulate) shouty voice, sucking all of the air out of the room.

Cromagnon serves the purpose, though, of exposing the hypocrisy of the other characters, who prefer to cloak their sadism in clinical mumbo-jumbo, pronouncing they are tormenting Mycroft for scientific discovery rather than for their own pleasure. Convincing Dydrame, who has fallen in love with Mycroft, to take part in an experiment to complete his cure, Cromagnon manages to impart to Mycroft the lesson that he must build up an internal callousness so as not to be aroused to respond to "impertinent calls for help", which leads, step-by-step, to the tragic resolution — "tragic" in that classic sense where there's a pile of bodies left behind. It also leads to the play's final climax, wherein Mycroft is dispatched by being impaled with a hockey stick — a most particularly Canadian martyrdom.3 The play's final resolution leaves us with a world steeped in sadism and absurdity.

It's partially from that deflating conclusion that the play's second half doesn't land with as much impact as the first. The last act moves with the assurance of pieces being moved in sort of perverse chess game — absurd, but inexorable — and somewhere in the clockwork movements, our emotional investment in Mycroft is stripped away, and ultimately, his murder (or sacrifice?) was neither shocking nor discomfiting. That lack of catharsis might be a deliberate final sort of alienation effect, but it also left a somewhat unpleasant aftertaste as I left the theatre.

Still, there's a lot to chew on here, which is what made this a worthwhile experience. It doesn't take much knowledge of Gauvreau's life to give this a strongly autobiographical reading — he was an unappreciated poet, suffered the loss of a great love, and was in and out of institutional care for much of his later years.

It's also an interesting document of how artists in the avant garde can be ahead of their times. Just as the Situationists, with whom Gauvreau was affiliated, issued their manifesto Refus Global, presupposing the Quiet Revolution in 1948, this play (originally written in 1956) exposes fault lines that would be part of the cultural battles of "the 60's" a decade later. Although this would have been written against the backdrop of Québec's battles with secularization, God is strikingly absent from this work,4 a non-concern compared to the problemization of power dynamics and the instrumentalization of rationality that would allow "experts" to exert power over inmates (and, by proxy, over members of society at large). Those themes tie this in with a number of other key works, and both Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Foucault's Folie et déraison both feel like they emerged from a similar social ferment. But it's striking to note that Gauvreau was there first.

Photos by Yuri Dojc.


1 Two notes on the use of names in the play: First, they are, as translator Ray Ellenwood notes, "rather cumbersome mouthfuls", some of which are nebulously suggestive in French, but still generally abstract. Second, they are here employed in that literary way where the characters often call each other by name in a way that never happens in normal conversation, especially in the frequent use of both first and last names. It's an affectation that simply has to be adjusted to.

2 Special praise should be given to Thomas Ryder Payne's sound design. The pre-show mixture of birdcalls and echo-y electroacoustic noise (the type that is generally used to signify madness) established both the tone and the location's remoteness. And throughout the play, microphones were used in interesting ways — adding some reverb-y echo at key moments, but also sometimes physically handled by the cast, subtly breaking the fourth wall.

3 The hockey stick is one of several innovations not in the original script added by director Seelig. A mirror that Mycroft originally employed in self-directed monologues has also been replaced here by a final miniature door, lowered from the ceiling, through which he now speaks as if peeking through a window to his own soul. All of these modifications are well-employed in the play's dynamic staging.

4 Though, obviously, you could give a Jesus-y reading to Mycroft's death. But that just doesn't seem to be the battle Gauvreau is fighting.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Recording: Mimico

Artist: Mimico

Song: Making Love in the Ruins

Recorded at Izakaya Sushi House, May 11, 2013.

Mimico - Making Love in the Ruins

Full review to follow. In the dark back room at Izakaya, the trio celebrated the cassette release of their first album (also available on their bandcamp), by playing the whole thing in order. There's a nice range in the band's apocalyptic psych-fi, and in this room Nick Kervin's drumming sounded especially nice in tying everything together.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Recording: Jennifer Castle + Wyrd Visions

Artist: Jennifer Castle + Wyrd Visions (feat. Owen Pallett)

Song: You Don't Have To Be

Recorded at The Music Gallery ("Weird Canada Showcase" a.k.a. Wyrd IV), May 11, 2013.

Jennifer Castle + Wyrd Visions - You Don't Have To Be

Full review to follow. After an afternoon listening salon devoted to digging through some of the albums the Music Gallery released on its record label, Weird Canada showed its "genre agnosticism" in practice with a night featuring three rather different acts. These two soloists have collaborated before (on the "My Boat/Voice of God" 12") but here took it to another level. Besides some a capella numbers to start and close the set, the bulk of it involved Castle and Colin Bergh taking turns singing each other's songs. Unannounced guest Owen Pallet sat in for most of the set, adding flourishes on violin and piano.

Recording: Zachary Fairbrother Feedback Guitar Orchestra

Artist: Zachary Fairbrother Feedback Guitar Orchestra

Song: Buddha Box 2.1 [excerpt]

Recorded at The Music Gallery ("Weird Canada Showcase" a.k.a. Wyrd IV), May 11, 2013.

Zachary Fairbrother Feedback Guitar Orchestra - Buddha Box 2.1 [excerpt]

Full review to follow. After an afternoon listening salon devoted to digging through some of the albums the Music Gallery released on its record label, Weird Canada showed its "genre agnosticism" in practice with a night featuring three rather different acts. The night got loud in the middle set, with an orchestra that consisted of only one member, but whose numbers were bolstered by multiple guitars and amps. The heavy drones felt reverentially-appropriate, somehow, for the church-y space of the Music Gallery.

Recording: Soul Sisters Supreme Redux 2.0

Artist: Soul Sisters Supreme Redux 2.0

Song: Hares on the Mountain [trad. arr. Shirley Collins]

Recorded at The Music Gallery ("Weird Canada Showcase" a.k.a. Wyrd IV), May 11, 2013.

Soul Sisters Supreme Redux 2.0 - Hares on the Mountain

Full review to follow. After an afternoon listening salon devoted to digging through some of the albums the Music Gallery released on its record label, Weird Canada showed its "genre agnosticism" in practice with a night featuring three rather different acts. Starting the night, Isla Craig's superstar a capella quintet dazzled as much as they did last time I saw 'em at their tape release. With everyone having various projects on the go, it's hard to get everyone together too often, so it's a real event when it happens. Broadening their collaborative scope, there were some new songs in here as well — Daniela Gesundheit led off with a Jewish wedding invocation, and Ivy Mairi presented this folk song.

Bonus! Flipzoso used my audio for this video he shot for "Messenger".

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Recording: Ostrich Tuning

Artist: Ostrich Tuning

Song: unknown*

Recorded at Plan B Café ("Feast In The East Two-Year Anniversary"), May 10, 2013.

Ostrich Tuning - unknown

Full review to follow. Through some masterstroke of irony, when the show's venue fell through, last-minute scrambling kept things going at a space known as "Plan B". That a venue could be found and that the show went on is a testament to the community spirit fostered by Feast in the East. Here's hoping for more anniversary celebrations to come!

* Does anyone know the title to this one? Please leave a comment!

Recording: Black Walls

Artist: Black Walls

Song: Pines

Recorded at Plan B Café ("Feast In The East Two-Year Anniversary"), May 10, 2013.

Black Walls - Pines

Full review to follow. Through some masterstroke of irony, when the show's venue fell through, last-minute scrambling kept things going at a space known as "Plan B". That a venue could be found and that the show went on is a testament to the community spirit fostered by Feast in the East. Here's hoping for more anniversary celebrations to come!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Recording: The Good Family

Artist: The Good Family

Songs: Outside Of Saskatoon + Same Old Song

Recorded at The Dakota Tavern, May 9, 2013.

The Good Family - Outside Of Saskatoon

The Good Family - Same Old Song

Full review to follow. Travis and Dallas Good of The Sadies have been celebrating their talented kin for quite awhile now. They started by bringing them on stage when playing their own headlining sets, but for a couple years, they've also been playing occasional shows as The Good Family, often without too much hype at the bottom of a bill. But now they've formalized the project with an album, and they decided to celebrate it with a two-night stand at The Dakota. Excellent musicians all, with eight members fitting onto the small stage, there were chances for everyone to take a turn singing a tune or two. In this pair of songs we get leads from Margaret and Bruce Good, Travis and Dallas' mom and dad. It was a knock-yer-socks-off hoedown, so hopefully as summer arises, we'll get some more chances to hear this family celebration.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hot Docs 2013: Wrap-up

Wrap-up from from the 2013 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Toronto, Canada.

I don't have too much in the way of commentary. Celebrating its twentieth anniversary, this was another highly successful year for the festival. Screenings were often full-to-packed, and by my luck or the festival's curation, I think I saw a bit more good stuff this year than last. Having the bulk of the screenings at the Lightbox and Paramount generally makes for an enjoyable experience, making the ROM and Innis feel even shoddier by comparison. (Line-up gossip has hinted that the latter is now slated for a make-over, so here's hoping for some more comfortable seats!)

I saw fifty titles at this year's Hot Docs, putting everything in the pot. That includes features, mid-lengths and shorts; new films and old. (For bragging/comparative purposes, that works out to thirty-nine screenings.) Before the memories fade, here's a quick + rough ranking of everything I saw, with the first-listed getting the almost entirely uncoveted "Prix de Joe". As usual, my rankings don't overlap too much with the juried or populist award winners. (And note, of course, that I did write-ups for all of these, which you can find if you dig through the Hot Docs tag.)


Excellent

Let the Fire Burn
Valentine Road
This Ain't No Mouse Music!

Very Good

Salma
Julie: Old Time Tales of the Blue Ridge
The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins
Always for Pleasure
NCR: Not Criminally Responsible
Marc & Ann
The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists
Big Men
Caucus

Good

God Loves Uganda
15 Reasons to Live
A Well Spent Life
Gap-Toothed Women
Here One Day
Dry Wood
Seventeen
Petropolis
Leonardo
Hill of Pleasures
William and the Windmill
The Auctioneer
The Women and the Passenger
Vegas
River
Remote Area Medical
Picture of Light
Blood Relative
The Last Station
Bà nôi
12 O'Clock Boys
Searching for Bill
Anita
Live Cinema
Dear Valued Guests
Dizzy Gillespie
Cloudy Mountains
Unplugged

Decent

The Unbelievers
I Will Be Murdered
Eastern Avenue
The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne
Rent a Family Inc.
The Defector: Escape from North Korea
Terms And Conditions May Apply
Packing Up the Wagon

Duds

The Devil's Lair
Finding the Funk