Monday, April 30, 2012

Recording: Man Made Hill

Artist: Man Made Hill

Song: unknown*

Recorded at The Garrison (Crosswires #10), April 29, 2012.

Man Made Hill - unknown

Full review to follow. An intense set from Randall Gagne's existential disco project. This song was described as "a new thing that's never been heard yet... part of this thing that I'm making — it's a post-apocalytic aerobics workout routine..."

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

Recording: Mimico

Artist: Mimico

Song: Astroblade pt. I

Recorded at 7 Dora, April 28, 2012.

Mimico - Astroblade pt. I

Full review to follow. I only made it out for a fraction of Planet Creature's all-day album release spectacular, but I was keen to get there in the early running to check out this group's kraut-y sounds. They did not disappoint, and I recommend that you check 'em out as soon as possible.

Hot Docs 2012: Reviews #2

Reviews of screenings from the 2012 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Toronto, Canada.

Dragan Wende - West Berlin (Dir: Lena Müller/Dragan von Petrovic, 90 minutes, Germany/Serbia)

Every historical change creates winners and losers. The collapse of the Iron Curtain is generally considered as a positive historical moment, but there are those who prefer things the way they used to be. Some people adjust to historical changes, and others semi-willingly become living anachronisms, to whom "West Berlin" is still a walled city and "Yugoslavia" an undivided country.

From his childhood home in Yugoslavia, Vuk Makismovič always thought that his uncle (the titular Dragan Wende) lived a life of romantic intrigue in the clubs and restaurants of West Berlin's famous Ku'damm. When, as an adult, Makismovič makes the trek to Berlin he finds things are more banal then he imagined. The nightlife has gone downhill since the wall collapsed, and Uncle Dragan now works as a hustler and security guard outside a bordello, living in a cramped apartment with a piano that Liza Minnelli might have played once. Still, Makismovič follows his uncle around, watches him work and meets his friends while trying to get to the core of all the stories of the glamourous (and occasionally shady) decades gone by.

The problem here is that Uncle Dragan isn't nearly as interesting as Makismovič wishes he was — and Makismovič himself, who spends a fair amount of time on camera, isn't particularly compelling either. Although there might be an interesting documentary to be made reflecting on the high times on Ku'damm during the Cold War, this isn't it.

Some occasional newsreel-style historical segments are intrusive (and a little cheesy) and don't help matters. There are a few moments where things come to life a bit, especially when Grandpa Mile (Uncle Dragan's father) comes to Berlin to collect a pension for building a city he feels no affection for. Another anachronism, he pines for the days of Tito and a united Yugoslavia while castigating the younger generations for being lazy. But overall, this drags along to the point it wears out its welcome. The film-makers commented that the cut being shown here was still something of a work-in-progress, so some trimming might improve things a bit. But as it stands, this one's not recommended.

Hunting Bobby Oatway (Dir: John Kastner, 45 minutes, Canada)

Part of the Festival's Focus On John Kastner series, this screening brought together two utterly dissimilar works that had been commissioned by the CBC's Witness series in the 90's. Hunting Bobby Oatway had the greater heft of the pair, going inside a Toronto halfway house to get face-to-face with Oatway as he began a program of controlled release as he ended a jail term for child abuse. Local residents were unsurprisingly angry at the prospect of having a pedophile in their neighbourhood, while some of his former victims vowed to ensure that he would never be able to slip anonymously into society.

That created a pressure-cooker environment with protesters making things uncomfortable for Oatway's fellow inmates — hardly a good scenario for calm and patient consideration of how the rights of the offender, his victims, and the community at large all balance out. Yet Kastner's camera follows the situation with patient reserve, revealing the tension behind the scenes of the correctional bureaucracy while putting us face-to-face with Oatway and allowing us to consider what would be a just resolution to this scenario. Did the simple act of allowing this observation aid in Oatway's rehabilitation? Given the terrible things that he did, does it even matter whether or not is is rehabilitated? Heavy stuff, but handled here with sincere restraint.

Ask a Silly Question (Dir: John Kastner, 45 minutes, Canada), its counterpart in this screening, showed no restraint at all, going joyfully over the top in its efforts to delve into the murky world of opinion polls and consumer reports. Kastner steps in front of the camera to act as a less-than-scrupulous interviewer, and in a sequence that was a clear forerunner to Rick Mercer's Talking to Americans segments, fielded a series of increasingly outrageous propositions to see whether or not people would agree with anything. (And, indeed, a strong majority of Americans interviewed would support military intervention to stop Canadian trawlers from poaching silverfish in US waters.) Meanwhile, interviews with political pollsters reveal how the wording of a poll question can be a tool to get desired results. Lighthearted in tone, this still made its points in an effective manner — even as it already looks like a product of a far more innocent time.

Given the huge variety of choices on offer in the festival, it might seem mildly misguided to spend some time watching a couple documentaries that aired on CBC a decade and a half ago, but I went to these to consider them as part of Kastner's whole oeuvre. And in the meantime, it was a strong reminder of how important it is that we have outlets like the CBC that funds investigative work like this and where Canadians can share our stories with each other — as I left, my strongest feeling was of how I wanted to write my MP and ask him if he would consider protecting and promoting our culture instead of undermining and defunding the CBC.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Hot Docs 2012: Reviews #1

Reviews of screenings from the 2012 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Toronto, Canada.

She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column (Dir: Kevin Hegge, 64 minutes, Canada)

An historical document with a strong and living pulse, Hegge's film tells the story of Toronto's Fifth Column, who were most active in the decade spanning 1985-1995. The doc tells the story of core members G.B. Jones, Caroline Azar and Beverly Breckenridge alongside the others who came and went during the group's lifespan, mixing contemporary interviews with copious period footage. Luckily, the band were also film buffs, linked in with the underground movie scene of the time — so there's a lot of awesome-looking Super-8 material, both from the band as well as film-maker friends, to put on the screen.

A vital link between Toronto musical eras that we might roughly label as Treat Me Like Dirt and Wavelength, Fifth Column took the punk/DIY ethos, but not the sound, inventing their own brand of psychedelic noise. Although standing alone musically (the early material here sounds excellently otherworldly), their uncompromising existence as strong woman musicians was an inspiration to the Riot Grrrl movement (Kathleen Hanna is interviewed, acting as an articulate advocate of their influence on her own work in Bikini Kill) as well as the foundation of queercore. Regarding the latter, the film also explores the overlapping world of zines and their importance in disseminating non-mainstream music in a pre-internet world. Film-maker Bruce La Bruce, who started as the band's go-go dancer, is interviewed in bringing those elements into focus.

It's also, of course, the story of strong personalities wresting art out of their many clashes — and those clashes stood at the nexus of a lot of things that read like a list of the best of Toronto's music culture today — from Will Munro's gay-straight alliances to the electro-queer sounds of Peaches and Kids on TV, to say nothing of the legion of strong, independent-minded women making music in this city today. Though hardly a household name, considering Fifth Column's legacy gives hope that this doc will fix them more firmly as groundbreakers. It deserves to be seen; their music deserves to be heard.

Screens with: The Man That Got Away (Dir: Trevor Anderson, 25 minutes, Canada), which asks, in its formal construction, "what makes a documentary?" Telling the life story of director Anderson's "black-sheep" uncle, this short takes the rather unique approach of rewriting his life as a musical. It's befitting to the subject, who ran away to join a male chorus on Broadway, and gives the film a fresh and ebullient vibe. A musical is only as good as its music, and the six original songs by Bryce Kulak, who also stars, generally carry the task. (The songs are streaming online at CBC3.) The film also makes excellent use of its location, a concentric parking ramp that follows Uncle Jimmy's sad, spiralling descent. Also: Judy Garland!

Meet the Fokkens (Dir: Rob Schröder and Gabriëlle Provaas, 70 minutes, Netherlands)

Ignore the terrible and gimmicky English-language title to this one, and think of it as the original Ouwehoeren. From the Dutch, the film-makers mentioned that renders as something like "to chatter like an old whore". No insult in this situation, as that's exactly what 70-year-old identical twins Louise and Martine Fokkens do. Prostitutes in Amsterdam's red-light district for over half a century, Louise and Martine have seen it all and discuss their lives and careers without shame. In fact, they're open-hearted and charmingly ribald throughout. Martine, in fact, is still at work, sitting in her window and calling out to passers-by who look like they might want a spanking.

Like any job, there are mixed feelings, with pride in one's work rubbing up against frustration at the circumstances that led one there in the first place. Both sisters have a few regrets but are never short of dignity and laughs as they swap stories and memories. They're wonderful characters, a two-headed army who frequently dress the same and share a deep bond. Warm and funny, this film also gives us a chance to look at a lot of important issues — not just at prostitution generally, but also at elder sexuality, the changing face of The Netherlands, family reconciliation and the value of art as therapy. Recommended.

Do note that in sharing the space with sex workers (and their clients!) this film gets a bit more explicit than you might have expected going in; but truth be told, the most prurient images to a Toronto audience might be the shots of a functioning modern LRT system.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Recording: Steamboat

Artist: Steamboat

Songs: Chains + Sea of Whisky

Recorded at Sneaky Dee's, April 27, 2012.

Steamboat - Chains

Steamboat - Sea of Whisky

Full review to follow. A celebratory evening and a full stage at Sneaks to celebrate the release of Steamboat's fab new Rules album.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Recording: Cheikh Lô

Artist: Cheikh Lô

Song: Ne Parti Pas*

Recorded at The Great Hall, April 25, 2012.

Cheikh Lô - Ne Parti Pas

Full review to follow. Cheikh Lô and his band brought a subtle but insistent groove that unfolded over a two hour set — the sort of thing that sneaks up on you and is suddenly seeping into your legs and arms, getting you moving a bit.

* Thanks again to James for digging out the title to this one.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Hot Docs 2012: Advance Reviews

Advance reviews of screenings from the 2012 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Toronto, Canada.

We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists (Dir: Brian Knappenberger, 93 minutes, USA)

A talking heads documentary about people in masks may not be a compelling recipe for an engaging feature. And, indeed, at the outset, I was dubious that I was going to enjoy — or learn anything — from this film. Static interviews alternating with a lot of fast-cutting montages, at first I thought this was going to just be like an extended Nightline feature. But it manages, in the end, to mostly transcend that as the momentum of its story builds.

Getting swept up in the moment it's capturing, We Are Legion is definitely sympathetic towards the hacktivists it portrays and the trade-off of close access to some key players in the story comes, to some extent, at the expense of asking some hard questions. (Though with respect to the latter, McGill professor Gabriella Coleman comes off as articulate and cogent while keeping an eye on the larger issues.)

The film-makers, meanwhile, seem content with D&D-esque explanations that the amorphous "movement" can be seen as more chaotic than inherently good or bad, while not calling to task the elements that are willing to cause all sorts of trouble (to individuals, and not the corporations they claim to detest) in the name of "lulz" (or, as we called them back in my day, "kicks"). And in the end, there's probably more to be said about how the Anonymous phenomenon is feeding into larger social uprisings (such as Occupy), and, ultimately, how this fits into the broader historical anti-capitalist struggle.

Zeitgeist-y and worth seeing, though this isn't the sort of thing I'd necessarily recommend going out of one's way to see on the big screen during Hot Docs. It would look better seen on TV — or, perhaps appropriately, in a window on one's computer screen nestled in amonsgt all the other data flowing through your life.

Screens: Tue, May 1 6:15 PM @ Bloor; Thu, May 3, 3:00 PM @ TIFF Lightbox 1; Sat, May 5, 7:00 PM @ TIFF Lightbox 1)

The Tundra Book. A Tale of Vukvukai, the Little Rock (Dir: Aleksei Vakhrushev, 105 minutes, Russia)

"Mother Nature, let the herd be ever well." It's no surprise that the Chukchi people's prayers might be reindeer-centric — in the blank, treeless tundra of northeastern Siberia, there's not a lot else to sustain life. Taking a largely hands-off observational approach, this film takes us into the world of an extended family of reindeer herders, eking out a living in the unforgiving arctic. It's certainly not all grim — the adorably ewok-like children have lots of time for play before falling into the busy life of their parents.

Cajoling, shouting and bringing in wayward individualists looking for some alone time, patriarch Vukvukai doesn't always come off as a likeable guy. He watches and treats his extended family just like his herd — as something needing to be ordered around and watched constantly. Vukvukai is our focal point, but by dwelling on him, we don't get any other sharply-drawn characters, which is one of the film's biggest flaws.

And it's interesting, of course, to consider what the film does and doesn't show us — just as there are no guns and no predators in sight threatening the herd, besides a tractor and a plane passing by overhead, there are very few signs of modernity, which makes me curious as to whether the director was trying to present a sort of airbrushed anthropological view of the Chukchi. The whimsical chapter titles feed into that a bit as well.

It's only at the end, when Vukvukai is fretting over the children being herded into a helicopter to be taken away to school that we feel any tension between modern Russian and ancient Chukchi ways. (And here in Canada, the sight of the words "residential school" tends to send a chill down the spine.)

That this isn't the most interesting documentary I've seen about nomadic herders probably says more about my film-watching habits than about this doc's intrinsic value. There's some nice — if intensely snow-bright — scenery to behold, and I don't mind the languid, observational pace. Those with short attention spans might want to give this a miss, however.

Screens: Sun, Apr 29, 6:00 PM @ TIFF Lightbox 4; Tue, May 1, 1:00 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 4)

China Heavyweight (Dir: Yung Chang, 89 minutes, Canada/China)

Director Yung Chang follows the top-notch Up the Yangtze with another look into the fast-changing world of contemporary China. Boxing — banned under Mao for being too violent and too Western — is now a fast-growing sport, and it brings to the foreground a lot of the tensions evident in China today, as the older Communist (and Confucian) values of meekness and collective identity are being pushed aside by a brash, hit-them-back individualism.

Boxing is perhaps the greatest of cinematic sports, and there's enough of a tradition of boxing flicks that they have a familiar cinematic grammar. The notions of the underdog, the coulda-bin-a-contender, and the Big Fight (to say nothing of run-up-the stairs training montages) are instantly familiar, and the ability to tap into these tropes is both a positive and negative for this film.

Here, Chang cuts between several storylines as different members of the Huili provincial boxing team struggle to push themselves as far as willpower will go. There's a nice sense of place and a feeling for the regimen the boxers go through, but the film struggles as Chang shows a bit of a heavy hand in trying to craft storylines for characters that sometimes blur together. Only Coach Qi, coming out of retirement for One Last Shot At The Title, really stands out.

I don't know what this was shot on, but this was not the sharpest movie visually. Although there were some fascinating vistas, both rural and urban, there was also too often a strange fisheye effect giving a queasy quality to the wide shots. Worth seeing for those interested in watching the rapid changes in China, but this isn't a work at the level of Up the Yangtze. And as a minor aside, I don't know a lot about boxing, but I'm pretty sure that none of the boxers that we follow are actually heavyweights. But now that China is intent on making an impact, there's no doubt that it will soon be a heavy-hitter in the boxing world.

Screens: Wed, May 2, 9:00 PM @ Bloor; Thu, May 3, 2:00 PM @ TIFF Lightbox 2; Fri, May 4, 9:30 PM @ Fox Theatre)

The Ambassador (Dir: Mads Brügger, 94 minutes, Denmark)

Mads Brügger, who brought the fabulous North Korea undercover exposé The Red Chapel to Hot Docs in 2009, returns with another work burrowing deeper into his "performative journalism" approach. Looking into the shadowy world of blood diamonds and dubious diplomats, Brügger takes us down a rabbit hole where half-truths thrive, even as danger lurks.

Finding the means to acquire some fairly dubious Liberian credentials, Brügger sets up shop in the hardly-more-functional Central African Republic, where a charge d'affairs dispensing envelopes of cash is quickly welcomed into ever-higher circles of power. Hundreds of diplomats have already been carrying out diamonds without being scrutinized by customs; why not him? There's a lot of smoke and mirrors, and certainly more insinuation than proof, but the glimpses that we get here of the seedy underbelly of business and government reveal deep corruption.

Brügger, in character as a cynical (and sometimes mildly racist) asshole, is rather entertaining, and there's no shortage of laughs here. There's also a lot of questions left unanswered — like what percentage of this film's budget was spent on bribes? Hopefully Brügger will be in attendance for what should be one of the festival's most fascinating Q&A sessions.

Screens: Fri, Apr 27, 4:00 PM @ Isabel Bader Theatre; Fri, May 4, 4:45 PM @ TIFF Lightbox 2; Sat, May 5, 9:00 PM @ The Regent)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Recording: Yo La Tengo

Artist: Yo La Tengo

Song: How Some Jellyfish Are Born

Recorded at Toronto Underground Cinema (Images Festival Closing Gala), April 21, 2012.

Yo La Tengo - How Some Jellyfish Are Born

Full review to follow. Beautiful images on the screen in the form of Painlevé's underwater explorations while the band stayed modestly in the dark below. A lovely + fitting close to an excellent Images festival.

Recording: Fresh Snow

Artist: Fresh Snow

Song: BMX Based Tactics

Recorded at Sonic Boom Records (Record Store Day 2012), April 21, 2012.

Fresh Snow - BMX Based Tactics

Recording: Bloodshot Bill

Artist: Bloodshot Bill

Song: Stop!

Recorded at Sonic Boom Records (Record Store Day 2012), April 21, 2012.

Bloodshot Bill - Stop!

Full review to follow.

Recording: The Darcys

Artist: The Darcys

Song: Deacon Blues [Steely Dan cover]

Recorded at Sonic Boom Records (Record Store Day 2012), April 21, 2012.

The Darcys - Deacon Blues

Full review to follow.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Recording: Owen Pallett

Artist: Owen Pallett

Song: Tryst With Mephistopheles

Recorded at Lee's Palace (The Newman Boys Benefit Concert), April 20, 2012.

Owen Pallett - Tryst With Mephistopheles

Full review to follow. This was part of a great evening at Lee's, which was a benefit for the Newman Boys' Trust Fund. You can read about how this show came together here — please consider helping this worthy cause if you are able. No disrespect to Owen Pallett, who capped off this night with a fine set, but the star of this particular track is drummer Rob Gordon, who invests it with a driving krautrock edge.

Recording: Basia Bulat

Artist: Basia Bulat

Song: In The Night

Recorded at Lee's Palace (The Newman Boys Benefit Concert), April 20, 2012.

Basia Bulat - In The Night

Full review to follow. This was part of a great evening at Lee's, which was a benefit for the Newman Boys' Trust Fund. You can read about how this show came together here — please consider helping this worthy cause if you are able. Special note to the lovelorn: someday, you will meet someone who will hug you in the way Basia Bulat hugs her autoharp, and you will be happy.

Recording: Andre Ethier

Artist: Andre Ethier

Song: Soldier On

Recorded at Lee's Palace (The Newman Boys Benefit Concert), April 20, 2012.

Andre Ethier - Soldier On

Full review to follow. This was part of a great evening at Lee's, which was a benefit for the Newman Boys' Trust Fund. You can read about how this show came together here — please consider helping this worthy cause if you are able. This song featured an interesting ad hoc backing band, with Sandro Perri (guitar) and Nathan Lawr (drums) joining Andre on stage

Friday, April 20, 2012

Images 2012: Tuesday + Wednesday

Reviews of screenings — and more! — from Images Festival 2012, Toronto, Canada.

Toronto's festival of "experimental and independent moving image culture" has now been at the cutting edge for twenty-five years. Screenings continue at Jackman Hall until April 21.

A Letter to the Living [shorts programme]

This selection of shorter works was united around themes of deaths and other endings, making it a less than cheery slog. And, interestingly, with the exception of the first couple films, the other obvious running theme was the un-citified outdoorsy-ness in the works. That could just be a coincidence, but it could also show a bit of urban bias on display, as you probably don't have to dig deep at, say, a big-city film festival to find a vein of thinking in the rural=desolate=death tradition.

Still, S.T.T.L. (Dir: Elisabeth Smolarz, 2011, 4 min, Video, USA) encapsulated the programme's morbidity, with a patron at a laundromat facing the camera while giving a chronicle of a banal death foretold, detailing the course of a typical cancer patient with dispassionate detail. Placing death on the same everyday level as getting the laundry done might serve as an attempt to make us face up to the inevitability of it all, but surely I ain't ready yet.

The Well of Representation (Dir: Evan Meaney, 2012, 7 min, Video, USA) was, after that, an effective mood-lightener. Choosing to emulate a Super NES-era RPG is bound to impart a certain levity to the proceedings — regardless of how heavy the narrative is, to see it unfold as speech balloons from blocky 16-bit avatars is amusing. Below that, however, this was also a re-framing of Gloria!, a 1979 film by noted avant-garde film-maker Hollis Frampton. That film's death-narrative was mirrored by the technological seizures of the videogame environment, with kludgy bursts of digital garble and occasional error messages flashing onto the screen. I can't say I absorbed all of the nuances of Meaney's paean to Hollis (though I did afterward find the film online here) but I certainly enjoyed this.

I found Algonquin (Dir: Travis Shilling, 2011, 4 min, Video, Canada) to be more interesting after the fact when Shilling talked about the work in the Q+A. A combination of a static-but-tense visual shot with the recitation of a hunter's reincarnation story was a stand-in for an image that Shilling couldn't capture in a painting. That retrospectively made the film's vibrating tableau resonate a bit more strongly with me.

Three shorter psychogeographical works seemed to go together within the programme. To Mark the Shape (Dir: JB Mabe, 2011, 3 min, 16mm, USA) gave a murky glimpse into a few moments unfolding in a farmyard, while Under The Shadow of Marcus Mountain (Dir: Robert Schaller, 2011, 6 min, 16mm, USA) transcended murk and headed into an impressionistic journey though a forest that felt seared in my mind's eye afterwards. Employing "manual processing, custom-made emulsions and chemicals and shoots with pinhole cameras and other handmade devices," this felt more like subconscious dream-flashes than cinema, almost as if someone's decaying, fragmentary — and possibly terrified — memories were being projected directly onto the screen. where she stood in the first place (Dir: Lindsay McIntyre, 2010, 10 min, Video, Canada) also went on a journey of fragmented images, exploring Baker Lake, once home to the film-maker's grandmother, and now the site of a search for lingering traces of her presence. Initially appearing harsh and abandoned, the landscape comes to life at the end as the community's children rambunctiously tear through the frame, chasing after the midnight sun.

The most intriguing of the programme's selections, Hoof, Tooth & Claw (Dir: Chu-Li Shewring, Adam Gutch, 2011, 17 min, Video, UK) could have been presented in a straightforward narrative package, but instead let its central drama unfold in its own slow way, just the same as 86-year-old Betty French goes about her days. Trying to keep up with the demands of running a farm, French certainly isn't alone, surrounded by a flock of elderly animals who seem to be fighting aching joints as much as she does. The sense of self that arises from having a place in the world is more than enough for most of us to want to cling to them as tightly as possible, but as we get the sense that it's getting harder for French to keep up, the film doesn't sensationalize or arrange things into a tidy package.

Señora con Flores (Woman with Flowers) (Dir: Chick Strand, 1995, 15 min, 16mm, USA) takes a similarly abstract approach as well — in fact, this newly-restored work reflects Strand's efforts to apply non-narrative methods to documentary film. Shot mostly with vivid, colourful closeups, the film is a sympathetic portrait of a Mexican flower vendor, struggling to make ends meet in the face of an abusive husband. In opposition to her demanding daily routine and seemingly limited opportunities, the vendor is given dignity simply by being given a voice, her words flowing as narration as we watch her at work. A powerful portrait.

Live Images - The Third Man by Erik Bünger [performance]

A fabulous night "off-screen" at the festival's pop-up venue, tucked into an austere basement on Spadina that was the former home to a modelling agency. With the smell of grilled cheese sandwiches wafting through the air, this programme combined a pair of monologues which both came across like idea-heavy one man shows.1

I have seen Steve Kado opine on some pretty diverse topics, ranging from arguing for Céline Dion's works as an extension of Nègres blancs d'Amérique-style Québec nationalism to advocating for amateurism over professionalism in the surgical field. And that's not even including musical sets that turned into audience-baiting non-performances. The once-and-again Torontonian seems to have mellowed a bit, though, even as his presentation upped the intellectual density.

With a bare incandescent bulb on a table in front of him, Kado was accompanied by an audio track that pinged every few seconds with an advance-the-filmstrip type noise. And at each ping, he'd grab a different coloured transparency to hold behind the lamp, enveloping both himself and the distorted shadow-Kado looming behind him in varying hues. There was also a subtle audio collage behind his voice, running water and passing planes occasionally audible and rising as he rushed into his points with increased vigour.

Titled "Turning Away Part of the Light: The Future of Cinema", perhaps the most structurally subversive element of Kado's presentation was the fact that he spent the bulk of its running time defining his ground before only belatedly making his modest proposal. Essentially — I think — this was a call for technical liberation beyond the 24-frames-per-second tyranny that has given cinema the "illusion of motion". Just as some folks lament that over a lifetime you will have spent decades sleeping, Kado was obsessed with the "dark movie", the fractional blank moments between the frames, and called for a transcendence beyond the elemental light/dark yin-ying dualities and toward a richer series of gradations.

As he plowed ahead with his proposal, the light bulb in front of him slowly grew dimmer and dimmer, leaving the the room in darkness by the time he concluded. And while it was an amusing and erudite discussion, the rush of ideas left me similarly de-illuminated by the end. But if this was meant as a call for more shades of grey, I can get on board with that.

The other day, I woke up with the echo of a song in my head. I sort of hummed it to myself in the shower as the melody suddenly unfolded itself, and by the time I was getting dressed, I was singing the refrain and a few lyrical fragments. And then I thought back to try and figure out how I knew this song. After some musing on it, I realized I had never actually heard it as a recording — it was one of the songs I sang in kindergarten. How did this thing lay dormant in my mind for over thirty years? Where had it been all along, and how did it survive?2

Erik Bünger has spent some time thinking about stuff like this. As a child, he was entranced by the theme music to The Third Man, as played by his father on the family's piano — a fascination deepened by the image of Harry Lime's looming, disembodied shadow on the music book's cover. The haunting pervasiveness of this music was the jumping-off point for Bünger's slideshow/monologue.

It's hardly a new idea to suggest that melodies and lyrics are amongst the most powerful memes. But Bünger ran with the idea, presenting — with deadpan humour — the notion of songs as malicious viruses. Or, in the case of one of many film clips that illustrated his lecture, a zombie parasite. Is the instinct to sing along (or to tap one's feet to the rhythm) a bright gift of our humanity or a trap? Are we being manipulated into structures of submission to assist in the replication of music-ideas? Are songs just an ancient (and powerful) mind-control technology?

With the driving insinuations of associational logic worthy of the most seductive conspiracy theorists, Bünger suggested a series of possibly-outrageous unities that seemed to make absolute sense in the flow of his arguments. And hence, it seemed as reasonable to see Kylie Minogue channelling Babylonian epistemological theories as it was to see the echoes of the Pied Piper of Hamelin in Fritz Lang's M.

Successful both as entertainment and intellectual provocation, Bünger's Third Man was so laden with ideas, just to sit back and unpack them after the fact feels like a graduate seminar. And then, when it all just gets to be too much, something clicks in the back of your head, and you're distracted, trying once again to figure out just what it is that you're humming.

1 The figurative gooey cheese between the monological slices of bread would come on this night from Jodie Mack's The Future is Bright, a handcrafted 16mm short which paired an old-timey song with a bright tissue paper-y montage that would have been cheerfully at home as an abstract background in a cheaply-produced Saturday Morning cartoon from the 60's.

2 In case you're curious, that song was "Hill and Gully Ride", which, as it turns out, is an old Jamaican folk song:

Looking this up, I should note, has turned a minor footnote into what should be a lavish essay all on its own. Besides acknowledging the awesomeness of Lord Composer's chosen name, this song fits quite perfectly into The Third Man train of thought, as it appears to be a rather successful musical meme. "Hill and Gully Ride" crops up again and again with regularity through mento, reggae, dancehall and beyond. I'm pretty partial to this version:

This is a song that I remember the teacher playing on the piano, students gathered around to sing. How did this particular song make it to a songbook in rural Manitoba? I would love to spend more time digging around to see how this tune has reverberated through space and time. Some of its lyrics got cribbed for "The Banana Boat Song" (dayyyyy-o!!), so maybe that helped. (And as a footnote-to-the-footnote, did you know that Alan Arkin — yeah, that Alan Arkin — kinda-wrote "The Banana Boat Song"? At least in the way that white American folk singers "wrote" the traditionals they recorded?) Was this just from a standard-issue songbook, or did I have a particularly cool teacher? And how was it that the small, rural kindergarten I went to had its own piano? Is/was that a common thing?

Recording: Forest City Lovers

Artist: Forest City Lovers

Songs: Don't Go + Orphans

Recorded at The Great Hall, April 19, 2012.

Forest City Lovers - Don't Go

Forest City Lovers - Orphans

Full review to follow. A bittersweet night, with Forest City Lovers acknowledging the reality of time and geography and life pulling people apart and playing their last show. Kat Burns has always expressed bittersweet yearning pretty well, and the optimist can look at this as being as much as the start of the next chapter as the ending of this one.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Images 2012: Monday

Reviews of screenings from Images Festival 2012, Toronto, Canada.

Toronto's festival of "experimental and independent moving image culture" has now been at the cutting edge for twenty-five years. Screenings continue at Jackman Hall until April 21.

A Place in the World [shorts programme]

Three short and one mid-length entries that all convey a sense of place. Portrait De La Place Ville Marie (Dir: Alexandre Larose, 2011, 3 min, 16mm, Canada) takes a building that's both a very specific landmark and a very general signifier of the architectural International Style and sends it into the sky, yawing and juddering like an Apollo rocket in flight. Third Law: N. Kedzie Blvd. (Dir: Mike Gibisser, 2011, 7 min, HDCAM, USA) is far more static, watching the seasons change through the windows of an empty apartment. Not as finely observed as Gibisser's Second Law (about which, more below) but the depopulated space and buzzing dread do lend the film a palpable sense of alienation and listless entropic creep. The Home and the World (Lucy Parker, 2011, 19 min, 16mm, UK) uses a not-dissimilar palette to create something much warmer and homey, a grainy series of vignettes tracking the routines and excursions of a group of residential students learning through art and encounters with nature. The pacing is as patient as the teachers who hover at the edges of the frame, and the film radiates a warm calmness. Bonus points for a cameo by some ducks in the garden.

But the main draw of the screening was East Hastings Pharmacy (Dir: Antoine Bourges, 2011, 46 min, HDCAM, Canada), a verité-style account of a methadone-dispensing pharmacy in Vancouver's downtown eastside. It is perhaps at this point that I should issue a *SPOILER WARNING* for anyone who wants to go into this film with a blank slate...

...although the very fact I'd consider doing so probably reveals that I'm coming at the movie from a specific set of assumptions. For although the movie presents as a fly-on-the-wall documentary, a title card at the end tells us that the pharmacist is, in fact, an actor and the clients are patients working through a process of guided improvisation. The attentive viewer might have been on the road to drawing that conclusion regardless (among other things, there were a couple reverse shots that seemed entirely unlikely from a documentary crew) but it's interesting to note that the very fact that Bourges chose to inform the audience at the end rather than the beginning shows an awareness of how the "realness" of what we see on screen shapes our perception of the material. I think it's mildly problematic inasmuch as saving it for a "reveal" at the end then becomes the last lens through which one sees the material — suddenly invoking a debate about cinematic quote-unquote authenticity (ugh).

All of which then detracts from the film itself, which is no less impactful for not being "real". By unobtrusively putting us face-to-face with the exchanges between the stoic pharmacist and her varied cohort of clients, we confront the whole range of these highly structured and encoded encounters, which can be read simultaneously as the pseudo-carceral power relationship between an observing authority figure and supplicant criminal/client but also as a portrait of the healer's infinite patience and the simple grace of human decency exposed in an unusually vulnerable and intimate relationship.

Bourges' aim in this film was to empower the real-life patients to become storytellers, and although watching them is undoubtedly in some measure voyeuristic, it's also a good chance to realize that methadone patients are probably funny and angry and self-damaging and thoughtful in the same ratios as everyone else. How this sort of exercise engages their agency is probably the most interesting debate to arise out of this, which is overall a rather enjoyable film — although I hope peoples' enjoyment of it doesn't get too caught up in debating aspects of verisimilitude.

Memorie di uno Smemorato [shorts programme]

Taking its title from the novel Memoirs of an Amnesiac, these shorts were all united around the idea of memory and self — and, in the possibility of forgetting, finding ways of overcoming the memories that can keep one bogged down. In between some shorter and less substantial works (Omokage (Remains) (Dir: Maki Satake, 2010, 6 min, Video, Japan), returning to significant personal locations to layer old photographs over current reality, was the best of these) three titles took the theme in interesting directions.

Insideout (Dir: Tonje Alice Madsen, 2010, 25 min, Video, Norway) takes a trip through the quiet corners of YouTube to weave together deeply personal images, laments and cris de cœur. Madsen has skilfully created an arc both temporal (beginning with sunrise and extended through a full day to the predawn darkness) and emotional — mostly of people at their darkest hours, looking not so much for comfort as a chance to transcend the burden of their pasts and be reborn, unfettered. Faceless confessions merge with other found imagery, feeling at times like the jumble of half-forgotten memories. A little bleak, even if it's structured to hint at the possibility of overcoming. (On a technical aside, I remain rather unsure whether films sourced from webcam-quality shaky youtube footage should be shown on the big screen, where they look terribly blocky and pixilated. This is one form of "new media" that should perhaps be presented in a more accommodating format.)

Second Law: S. Leh Street (Dir: Mike Gibisser, 2011, 14 min, 16mm, USA) had a similar feel to Gibisser's Third Law (screened in the previous programme) but felt more focused for having a subject (Gibisser's grandmother) to focus upon. Her home — a place heavily laden with memories and personal meanings — is now becoming a burden, and she is musing upon downsizing to something more manageable. The swimmy evening murk in many of the shots expresses the atmosphere the grandmother finds herself in, though we also get some welcome glances that she's still facing the world with some feisty pluck.

Agatha (Dir: Beatrice Gibson, 2012, 14 min, Video, UK) is also pregnant with memory and forgetting — possibly amongst other things. However, this one is so vibrant and delightful in its form that the content needs to be mulled over after the fact. Science-fiction in the cast, say, of Alphaville or Stalker, where suggestion is enough to convince that a world that looks rather like ours is indeed a distant planet. That disjunction between the banal visuals and uncanny events of the voiceover read as kitsch at the outset, but the movie's straight-facedness (and a boost from the Radiophonic Workshop-style soundtrack) slowly invest it with a sense of the uncanny. That opens a space to absorb a rather full plate of ideas bubbling underneath — of identity and forgetting as well as on gender identity and the very nature of communication. A fabulously inventive bit of work.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Images 2012: Saturday

Reviews of screenings from Images Festival 2012, Toronto, Canada.

Toronto's festival of "experimental and independent moving image culture" has now been at the cutting edge for twenty-five years. Screenings continue at Jackman Hall until April 21.

As Afterwards the Image Still Rings [shorts programme]

In a series of short films grouped together under the idea of looking, most of the entries brought forward the tensions with how we implicitly assume the objectivity and accuracy of what's in front of us. Turret (Dir: Björn Kämmerer, 2010, 10 min, 35mm, Austria) was the least concretely concerned with that, but its pure visual abstraction engaged at the level of trying to grasp at unlocking the patterns of the movements on the screen, followed by the viewer's attempt to think through what makes those patterns. Appearing at first as nothing more than a series of vertical lines moving back and forth across the screen, with time, one can grasp that it's a closeup of what appears to be a series of rotating windowpanes. Once it was clear that the movements are caused by a spinning object, it felt like a portrayal of the gentle side of the Master Control Program — and then after that, the need to "solve" the image receded and the pleasurable mesmerism of the whole thing took over.

Going into another kind of practical abstraction, 10Hz (Dir: Lucy Raven, 2012, 4 min, Audio, USA) has no visual element at all. Composed of film projector test tones, in the physical space of the dark theatre this was an interesting experience, with the sounds making long swoops from quiet to overwhelmingly loud. There was also one that didn't register much through the speakers, but sounded from the back of the hall like a projector about to seize up and implode.

The longest of the programme's selections, Printed Matter (Dir: Eitan Efrat, Sirah Foighel Brutmann, 2011, 28 min, 16mm, Belgium) used a unique method to investigate history and memory. The visual field consisted only of a light table with a series of photographic contact sheets being passed over it, while the unseen subject commented on the pictures, which were a cache from a photojournalist working in Israel. Pictures of the photographer's family were mixed in throughout, leading to a running commentary of both the personal and the political. Like memories, the soundtrack would sometimes get a bit untethered from the images on the screen. An interesting method of presenting the material, though the latter section (as the images shifted to negatives and the running commentary petered out) was less interesting. The silence and the procession of untethered images gave some cause to reflect on memories and history, but it could as easily have been trimmed down without losing any impact.

An inspired (and funny!) collaboration, Tape #158: Document 2B (Dir: Nahed Mansour, Kandis Friesen, 2010, 7 min, Video, Canada) presented footage from an unrealized documentary. An old woman spoke to an interviewer, surrounded by what appeared to be her mother and her son. As it progressed, there were increasing signs that something wasn't quite right with the translations provided by the subtitles. And indeed, as it turns out, Mansour fabricated them as a response to the found footage Friesen had provided. Obviously a comment on the unreliability of one of the "objective" elements on the screen, it also served as an indirect biography of the intervener, with Mansour drawing from her own experience of family dynamics to create a story for the figures on screen.

Another intervention into existing footage, Split Ends, I Feel Wonderful (Dir: Akosua Adoma Owusu, 2011, 4 min, Video, USA) was a success just for its redeployment of some shag carpet-era news footage and funky soundtrack. But instead of settling for pleasing kitsch, Owusu used this as a front in her personal investigation of the cultural politics of black hair styles, cutting and pasting some oppositional voices into the soundtrack with the same agility of the fragmented kaleidoscope visions on the screen.

The Observers (Dir: Jacqueline Goss, 2011, 67 min, Video, USA)

Using the patient observational techniques of a documentary crew, this feature delves into the "shrine of measurement" at the Mount Washington Observatory, perched atop the highest peak in the Northeastern United States. Though the "observers" that we follow on the screen are, in fact, actors, their naturalistic and affectless performances maintain the verité feel — and that's enhanced by the fact that the main characters here are the Observatory itself and the continuous gale-force wind that buffets it.

Following the trail of the seasons (and one slight, but unobtrusive intervention that comes as close as this film gets to "plot") we watch the solitary observers as work — measuring the weather, taking careful notes, and sometimes even observing the observations of their distant predecessors.

Besides plenty of time to enjoy the beauty of the mountain, the patient (and, ahem) observational style allows the viewer to reflect on the sheer hubris of facing up to the immensity of nature, of trying to reduce it through the act of measurement. And following the solitary workers (especially through the winter months) also creates a subtext playing off the long-running movie subgenre of "isolation-induced insanity".

The running time is just enough to let all of this unfold without ever feeling too indulgent. This is a film that falls through the cracks of easy categorization and demands patience from the viewer, but it is most definitely worth seeing.

Right Ascension [shorts programme]

I have no buzz radar for this festival, so as I emerged from the previous screening, I was somewhat surprised to find a sizable crowd of patrons already building up. This one didn't quite sell out Jackman Hall, but it was a robustly full house with more people than the previous two screenings combined. Re-igniting the festival's tradition of having a "Home Brew" screening dedicated to local talent, this programme put together nine selections loosely united around "considerations of the experience and representation of space". Of those, there were a couple that were oblique in a way that didn't register with me, but here's some comments on the ones that did.

If I were to say that Landscape Series #6, 10, 12 (Dir: Renee Lear, 2011, 3x3 min, Video, Canada) reminded me of screensavers, do understand that I mean that in the best possible way. Using footage from dying cameras, these visual fields are so abstracted that the only relationship to the landscapes they were footage of remains in their titles — #6 for example, is notated as "South-Facing Window View Between Long Branch and Exhibition Train Stations, Toronto (Enlarged 300%, Blurred 325%, Sharpened 1449% and Slowed Down to 10% of the Original Speed)". To my eye, that same clip registered as the random snow on the screen of an 8-bit arcade machine when it was first turned on. Which is to say there might be some conceptual points to be made in thinking about the links between the "real" and abstracted landscapes, but I dug it as groovy, fucked-up pixels. The silent visuals also cry out for a musical counterpoint, like the glitchy chip-bending tones I was imagining in my head. And as for the "utility" of these images, I reckon they'd look fantastic on a newfangled tablet — or as a screensaver, natch.

With quick abstracted cuts of flashing motion and ambiguous childish shouts, Wall of Death (Dir: John Creson, Adam Rosen, 2011, 3 min, Video, Canada) muses on the fine line between terror and glee. You can take your chances on the other rides, but this is the nearest to being alive.

Beginning with what appear to be shots of an alien landscape, it slowly becomes clear that Rock (Dir: Geoffrey Pugen, 2012, 8 min, Video, Canada) is actually just what its title says: a panoramic, closeup view of a mineral-flaked rock. Though ostensibly a commentary on representation in advertising, given that it was shot with the commercial tools and techniques, you rarely see advertising images dwell this sumptuously on anything. Ultimately, the fascinating textures and light patterns that emerge at this extremely micro-level examination are the piece's biggest reward.

Feeling like a well-matched pairing, Fresnel (Dir: Aubrey Reeves, 2011, 4 min, Super 8, Canada) and Temps Mort (Dir: Kyath Battie, 2011, 7 min, Video, Canada) both present architectural spaces in a manner evoking grim disquiet. The former, with its electroacoustic buzz and desaturated colours could be seen as an homage to 70's distopian sci-fi — the mirrored inverted pyramid and catwalks would be right at home in a Logan's Run-esque city. But knowing that the subject of the shot is the dome of the Reichstag building in Berlin adds layers of complexity. Battie's presentation of the beautiful brutalism of York University's campus is also drenched with a sense of dread, and its depopulated spaces could serve as establishing shots of a suspense flick. With a menacing soundtrack (lifted, it turns out, from Alien) the buzz of a flickering florescent bulb is enough to give a sense of unease. A well-done exercise in presenting mystery and atmosphere, this was the best piece of the programme.

While coming off as a bit of a lark, Connecting With Nature (Clint Enns, 2011, 2 min, Video, Canada) was also a roaring success, juxtaposing commercial footage of garden equipment with a televangelist's sermon to create an infomercial where rototilling to transcendence seemed like a viable product.

On the whole, an enjoyable assortment. What works for any particular viewer is going to vary, of course. One older gentleman seated in front of me sighed with loud exasperation through several of the pieces, and turned to his companion as the lights went up and said, "how many clichés did you catch?" Hopefully the mostly-younger cadre of film-makers represented in this selection (and it was very nice to see that all were in attendance) will yet find a way to shock and awe the fuddie-duddies in the paths before them.