Friday, November 17, 2017

"Your 'Assignment,' should you choose to accept it..."

I pay visits to our Blue-and-White Panopticon -- several times a day, usually. There is plenty to protest and eschew in its matrix, but the one element a user cannot avoid is probably its most insidious evil -- the "Like" button.
I don't "like" where this is going...
It initially seemed innocuous. C'mon, you approve this message, or at least acknowledge that you've absorbed some measure of its significance to the person proclaiming it -- go ahead and "like" it, why doncha?
From 'Aleister & Adolf' - check it out.
Posting or reading/watching anything behind the blue-and-white velvet rope is a pressing invitation to signal your "Like." This simple, single click adds up. All these "little" signals get fed into the algorithm, and your existence on the internet becomes ever more tailored to your particular . . . what? "Tastes"? "Passions"? "Cravings"? "Yearnings"? "Mortal fears"? "Obsessions"?

"Likes."

This isn't just what passes for public discourse, it is what passes for your lived reality.

It's too easy, I don't trust it. I don't trust what others "like." And I think I've reached the point where I no longer even trust what I "like." I want -- I daresay I need -- to give consideration to things I might at first blush "dislike."

Hey, have you seen that new, critically reviled Walter Hill flick -- the one Scout Tafoya is absolutely gaga over?
"Wouldn't even if you held a gun to my head..."
Not me -- not yet, at least. But I plan to. I expect when it's over the experience will be akin to the last half-dozen Hill films I've sat through -- largely underwhelming, but just clumsy enough with its provocations to get me cogitating in unexpected directions. A worthy investment of time, no?

Getting back to Tafoya's terrific shout-out, I particularly dug this quote:
"Any film that has a conversation about other films and why it's better than those movies doesn't need you. 'The Assignment' does. Hill has filled it with questions he hopes an audience can answer because he seems genuinely curious, and knows that at his age some things will escape him. It needs us."
Reading that evoked memories of late-night conversations in hippie* kitchens, where so long as you spoke sincerely absolutely no question was considered beyond the pale of consideration. And couldn't we use more of that?

Alright: until next week, the balcony is closed.
*And really, what was "Grunge" but our desperate shot at a scene we'd heard the babysitter describe to us?

Friday, November 10, 2017

Thor Ragnarok

Funniest Marvel movie yet? Mm . . . it got a few chuckles out of me, but I would have put Deadpool and Dr. Strange -- two movies Jesse David Fox doesn't even mention -- ahead of TR.
"Deadpool? Seriously?"
Genuine laughter erupts from the element of surprise, and there wasn't much of that to be had in this movie -- Oh (channeling inner-Jeff-Goldblum:), and HUGE thanks, trailer-people, for rolling out the movie's single biggest laugh to get people into the tent. Good work, give yourselves all a big pat on the back. (Jerks.)

MZS hits all the right notes with his review ("A close-but-no-cigar movie"), so I'll send you there and kvetch instead on an element of the aesthetic that (predictably) gets me cogitating: Marvel's use of 3D CGI. I'm working with stills from the various trailers, i.e. visuals selected to quickly capture and keep viewer attention, so I can't zero in on the particular scenes that struck me. But see if you can't spot where I'm going, regardless:
The gathered masses, a flotilla of sky-boats above a fortress city of spires -- one could argue this tableau is Kirby-esque. There is a particularity of detail, however, that . . . well, I don't know whether it would have caused Kirby to blush or turn green with envy. But for this viewer, that much "too much" nudges me into boredom.

Here's what I got when I Googled "Jack Kirby gathered masses":
Not quite Valhalla, but unmistakably Kirby.
In contrast to movies, comic books are an immeasurably more interactive medium. A kid can glance at that spread, flip to the exciting part of the story -- then flip back again, to catch what he missed, or just savour the artist's mastery of form, etc. A film's gotta keep moving forward til the end credits roll.

To be fair to the filmmakers, Marvel's animators seem to recognize this impediment. While other scenes and set-pieces buzz with Lucasian clutter, the battle scenes invariably resort to slow-motion -- the better for hapless movie goers to admire the CGI goods.

Here's a typical battle scene:
A veritable mudslide of detail, it nevertheless has visual narrative cogency, albeit of a rudimentary Raphaelite variety.
While regarding Raphael's Transfiguration the eye moves from up-to-down and back again, or vice versa, depending on the viewer. The Marvel animators stick with upper-left-corner-to-lower-right, or vice versa -- depending on the necessary visual cues (preceding scene/next scene).

These battle scenes are visually impressive, employing an effect that, although akin to what we've already seen in the Jackson-Tolkien movies or 300, has a brocaded intricacy unique to Marvel 3D. Sitting in the middle row of a darkened theatre and watching a Marvel 3D Slo-Mo Battle Crescendo is a surprisingly miniature affair. Paradoxically, it's like watching a time-lapse video of someone engraving Dürer's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse onto a grain of rice.

Alright, one final scene for your consideration -- take a look:
Ah, Cate Blanchett! Could anything distract from those fabulous shoulders?

'nuff said.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

500 years of protesting and reforming ... something-or-other

Hmf, somehow I missed the Quincentenary Celebration of the Protestant Reformation. Unlike my HRC friends, I can't pretend it didn't happen for good reasons. Still, I can't quite whip up a celebratory attitude, either. Perhaps it's because I gave the matter some thought earlier this year.
"All I need is one good story..."

Hey, if it worked for Adam...

"Ow! Hey, are you trying to silence me?"
So many conspiracies -- how's a guy to keep track? F'rinstance, just this morning I read there might be a conspiracy to silence Rose McGowan:
"Are they trying to silence me?"
The state of Virginia issues an arrest warrant for a California resident -- a celebrity, whose current fame is for exposing Harvey Weinstein as a sexual predator -- in relation to a Felony Drug Possession charge . . . I mean, it might be a conspiracy. On the other hand, what is to be gained by her silence? As far as Weinstein is concerned, the secret (such as it was) is out. So could this not also be a matter of the state's Prosecution receiving a preponderance of evidence to bring an indictable offense to court, as they are required by law to do?

These are troubled times, admittedly, so the one scenario does not necessarily rule out the other, alas. Still, for some reason I can't quite put my finger on, I get a little suspicious when a public figure's first claim, when facing potentially damning exposure, is of conspiracy and calumny. Let's see, who else "swings for the fences" like that? Oh, right:
"Are they trying to silence me?"
We are (yet again) assured that 45 is a man of unimpeachable innocence -- because SOMEONE ELSE is out there capable of far greater, more insidious malfeasance and manipulation of The System! Wherever did he pick up a tactic like that, I wonder?
"Are they ...? Never mind."

All this turtle-posting took place in 1998, when a "vast, right-wing conspiracy" attempted to undo the results of two elections -- via impeaching a President for taking advantage of and enjoying inappropriate sexual relations with a 22-year-old intern, whom husband and wife promptly threw to the sharks, the better to keep the ship of state on course.

Claims of conspiracy -- valid or otherwise -- are currently the preferred means of deflection from potential public grievance (valid or otherwise). That's just the way it is. I kinda wish we'd all go back to Sunday school, because at least Adam and Eve followed their shabby attempts at deflection with admitting their transgression. Better yet, they were banished! -- suggesting to me, at least, that often the best way to move forward is to be forcibly moved out.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Take the Prize (Please)

My sour grapes personality comes out when literary prizes are announced. To my mind, Paul Auster should have been nominated for (and received) the Man Booker Award for Moon Palace. Rules didn't allow for this, of course, but now they've been changed he gets nominated for a work I regard with suspicion. That ain't right. In fact, I think it delivers a message aspiring writers ought not to hear.

Yet George Saunders gets the prize for a book I've not yet read, and . . . I'm happy for him. I'm even happy for the prize. I like Saunders' writing, I like Saunders -- I'm looking forward to reading the novel (or, perhaps better yet, hearing it performed).

In the meantime check out Eleanor Wachtel's funny, moving interview with Saunders. And while you're at it, check out this revisit of a funny, moving interview with Linda Barry.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Other places, other words

The allusion to Joseph K I got; the JOKE ("Joe K") I missed.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Blade Runner: Dare To Compare, Part 2

**Spoilers Galore, people.**

Scott's version of the Pinocchio Story is by now very familiar.
"Run it by me one more time..."
Whether or not Deckard is a Replicant (an open, and to my mind pointless, question) he very much is: 1) a dim-wit, low on charisma; 2) an inept killer; 3) a rapist. He is thoroughly pathetic, if not repugnant -- reviewers who coo over what a welcome sight Deckard is in the new movie have completely lost touch with what a shit-heel he was in the earlier one.
"Stop! There's a sequel!"
It is the "villain" Roy Batty who brings life abundant to the characters he encounters -- just before he kills them, more often than not.
Batty meets his Maker.
Batty is the Angel of Death, or Flannery O'Connor's "The Misfit," bringing the heightened recognition that comes to those on the cusp of shedding their mortal coil.
I once was blind, but now I see...
Scott breaks script, however, in the final act, when Batty brings physical salvation and enlightened self-awareness to the hapless and undeserving Deckard -- then gives up the ghost. Deckard returns to Rachel, a Replicant whose life he is now determined to protect. If there is a hero in Blade Runner, it is Batty -- a tragic figure.
Rescuing with nail-pierced hand.
Blade Runner 2049 is also a Pinocchio Story, but it takes its time getting there.

The first two-thirds of the film masquerades as an Annointing Of The Chosen One story, and devotes the time to fleshing out exactly what the Chosen One will need to rescue humanity from -- a stratified and misery-inducing caste system, basically.

This time there is no doubt whatsoever about whether or not this story's Blade Runner is a Replicant -- his name is KD9-3.7, or "K" for short.
That's "K" for Kafka, or PKD, etc.
K's human boss (he calls her "Madam") assigns him to find and eliminate the Chosen One. While K sniffs out the trail, the audience takes in a grocery list of what the caste system has wrought -- a defoliated Earth, the universal acceptance of child labour, cramped living conditions, festering resentment among all classes, materialist discontent ramped up to a cosmic scale. The Chosen One has a lot of work to do.

It becomes increasingly apparent to the viewer that K has internalized and accommodated himself to this class-structure to a degree he is not aware of. He behaves imperiously toward technology designed to serve him, including not just his faithful drone but fellow Replicants offering sexual favours. When his human boss pointedly suggests she too might be up for a shag, he politely declines and returns to his job. In what passes for his private life, he's managed to do one better than Madam -- he has a compliant virtual helpmate and intimate he has purchased, to whom he slowly grants an incremental form of agency.
As events unfurl, K is persuaded that he is the Chosen One, and his carefully ordered world falls to pieces.
An unhappy moment: the Blue Fairy revealed as hoax.
He tracks down and confronts his Maker -- in the reality-frame K has come to accept, that would be Deckard.
Fortunately for K, Deckard is still crap at killing Replicants.
In the 30 years that have taken place in the Blade Runner universe, Deckard has come to look and behave a great deal like Harrison Ford does in this universe -- taking a breather from grumpily punching Replicants in the face to savour the pleasures of Elvis singing "Can't Help Falling In Love." Over a post-beating cocktail, Deckard sets K straight -- K is just another Replicant, albeit one who has in fact met the actual Chosen One, but was too thick to recognize it.

The scales fall from K's eyes, and he willingly sacrifices himself in the cause of reuniting the Creator with the Created Chosen One. If Batty was Milton's Lucifer, K is the ode-writer who reassures, "They also serve who stand and wait."
Or shoot, depending.
2049's final act is laudable in construction but lamentable in execution, as it relies on Villains Who Are Villainous And Nothing But. The final confrontation is a scene that does not penetrate nearly as deeply as Batty murdering his Creator, never mind Batty's final confrontation with Deckard.
"I'm so glad we had this time together."
Most would suggest this is due to the absence of Rutger Hauer, but I thought Sylvia Hoeks (Replicant "Luv") showed considerable promise as the new Unhinged Super-Athletic Dutch Heavy. She did an admirable job of flexing what she could, but the script kept her hamstrung, alas.
Luv, in action.
Hopefully this is not my final word on the film, as there are other subtleties and complexities to mull over. But I would perhaps assert what Roger Ebert* did about the earlier film2049 fails on a fundamental level, while delivering on levels this viewer did not anticipate -- surely a fitting achievement for a sequel to a 35-year-old oddity that wound up changing everything.

*Mistakenly, to my mind.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Blade Runner: Dare To Compare, Part 1

This weekend I joined the stalwart few and went to see Blade Runner 2049.
"Let me show you to your seat."
Some stats indicate the audience tilted toward older males, by up to 71%. In our theatre, the women outnumbered the men by a ratio of two-to-one. Mind you, my wife, daughter and I were the only ones there. (I jest, but only just.)

Denis Villeneuve's movie was, as I expected, very much its own thing -- focused on his particular concerns and obsessions, utilizing and subverting stock-and-trade narratives in a manner that has become peculiar to Villeneuve, and recognizably so. While watching I thought it somewhat unfair to compare and contrast his film with Ridley Scott's from 35 years ago -- a film that subsequently dictated the visual grammar of Western cinema and became, for many, passionately loved not just despite its narrative flaws but because of them.

Still, Scott's is the property Villeneuve agreed to work with, so comparisons aren't just inevitable, I think they are called for. Here are a few of my own -- with NO SPOILERS (yet).

The aesthetic: Scott's Blade Runner aesthetic is arguably the tipping-point for the hesitant fan.
You know it. You LOVE it. Los Angeles, 2019!!
So visually saturated was Scott's Los Angeles of 2019 that cyberpunk godfather William Gibson reportedly fled the theatre within the first ten minutes of the movie.

The rest of us stayed put. Scott's future was vibrant . . .
. . . exotic . . .
. . . recognizable . . .
. . . off-putting . . .
Mezcal, with extra worms.
. . . but comfy. Sure, it never stops raining in Scott's LA, but who didn't want to live in Deckard's bachelor pad?
"Help me with the dishes, will ya?"
Villeneuve's LA some 30 years later is decidedly less shiny and more Brutalist.
At times I felt like I had returned to the halls of the University of Winnipeg.
"Walmart says they need my student transcript..."
The blue/yellow hue imbalance that Scott brought to the screen is turned beyond "11" by Villeneuve, heightening viewer discomfort. Will anybody but the perverse ever get sentimental over this aesthetic? For the rest of us this is a decidedly cold and unwelcoming visual palette -- considering how it serves the narrative, this comparison is a "win" for Villeneuve.

Film score: Vangelis' original score was the stuff of legend, in large part because it was decades before anybody could get a copy to play on the home stereo. 2049's score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfinch can be streamed at your immediate convenience. Odds are you won't play it at the eardrum-shredding volumes we endured in the theatre -- even so, none of the tracks are likely to become ubiquitous at Manhattan Ayahuasca ceremonies. This, too, serves Villeneuve's story well, as Vangelis' did Scott's, so I will declare this comparison a "tie."

Story: both films retell the Pinocchio story. But there are twists, which I hope to get to in the next day or two.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Guillermo del Toro, "At Home With Monsters" at the AGO

Friday we drove downtown, picked up the younger college student at Union Station and checked out the Guillermo del Toro exhibit at the AGO.
It was heaps of fun, needless to say. The exhibit is built as a mini-mock-up of del Toro's actual house (or houses, more like, as I gather he divides his time between Toronto and LA) which he has modelled after Forrest J. Ackerman's. From the '70s to the '90s, the "Ackermansion" was something of a tourist destination for (ahem) sentimental nerdy types, chock full of Universal Monsters memorabilia he'd collected over several decades -- gone to the four winds since his passing, alas.
The Ackermansion, before the clutter.
Here we have "Bleak House."
There is indeed an abundance of STUFF: film props . . .
. . . comic book ephemera . . .
. . . wax figures galore . . .
"Tussaud can bite my shiny wax..."
. . . Freaks sits close to the director's heart, as can be expected . . .
. . . plus bundles of weird tchotchkes that have captured del Toro's eye and earned a place in Bleak House.

If you've seen Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone you already know del Toro's taste for the macabre runs a tad deeper than Ackerman's likely did. Many of the pieces on display are unsettling, quite moving, or both. The prime example to my eyes is this Boris Karloff-Frankenstein's Monster bust.
"That's right: Toronto."
Photos don't do it justice, but the size and the articulation are surprisingly affecting -- the eyes are displaced, giving you the impression he is avoiding your gaze.
You feel sorry for the brute -- and so you should!

It's an experience, in other words -- not to be missed. In Toronto until January 7, 2018.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Tom Petty

I wasn't a fan -- not really. I liked his music well enough, rarely changing the station when one or the other of his 50-or-so hits came on. When I finally took a knee to the Infernal Device and the bloatware that would own it I even shelled out for a few Tom Petty songs. And I've attended to a few of his albums, but never had one in my collection.

I see no reason to get into specifics as to why this is so -- it's not an interesting line of inquiry, and it distracts from the man's remarkable capacity to craft a song that climbs into the deepest caverns of a person's lonely heart. He knew his voice, he knew exactly what he wanted to hear from it -- that's what he brought to the stage and the platter, and that's why people loved him.

Three things, however:

1) Listen to the kids. My takeaway quote from Bill (not the Rolling Stone) Wyman's excellent memorial of Petty:
While Petty’s image was laid-back, almost hippielike, you don’t get to be a star and stay one without some grit. His kids, he told Zollo, know the truth: “They said, ‘The world pictures you as this laid-back laconic person, but you’re really the most intense, neurotic person we’ve ever met!’”
2) Further to 'Point #1 (above): watch Peter Bogdanovitch's Tom Petty doc Runnin' Down A Dream. Think four hours is too much time to devote to the subject matter? Think again. I've watched this doc twice and am queuing it up for a third viewing. And I'm not a fan.

3) This picture, circa Damn The Torpedoes:
Something about this picture -- the public-school slouch who pulled it all together and finally became a force everyone had to acknowledge -- typifies what Petty and his music embodied for me. Summers in my small town, listening to the sort of music he loved and made. Summer. Cigarette smoke and motor oil. Bruises. Childhood, really -- the good, the bad, the ugly of it -- and the fact that one can endure and eventually reflect upon it with some tenderness.

Quite the achievement. Godspeed and God rest, sir.

"Looking for adventure/And whatever comes our way..."

So long as I'm recalling Zen and the artlessness of youthful errors in judgement and enthusiasms, here's a shot from my motorcycle trip in '86, taken just as we've exited the northern perimeter of Yellowstone National Park. To my mind it almost perfectly encapsulates the trip as well as the pleasures and displeasures of riding a motorcycle.
If you meet the adventure on the road ... whatever.
That's my travelling buddy. We'd come from Salt Lake City that morning, and had a late lunch in the Old Faithful Dining Room. After lunch we moseyed over to the legendary geyser. While we waited we speculated what it might look like if you dumped a bunch of garbage into the hole. It spouted at roughly the appointed hour. Then we consulted the Yellowstone brochure.

"Any other geysers you want to see?"

Rhetorical question.

Back to Robert Pirsig, and Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
“In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. 
On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
What a load.

Take a look at that picture again.

Motorcycles.

Nobody talks about what an annoyance it is to get in and out of your rain gear, or to clear bugs off your helmet visor, or how a helmet visor makes you feel like your head is trapped inside a really small car -- thus removing the "thrill" of being out in the elements, "in contact with it all." Even if you take the staggeringly-less-safe option and wear a mixing-bowl with goggles, you're still getting bugs smeared across your visual plane and you're still looking through a screen.

You're still sitting -- passively consuming.

You're just doing it on a slightly less-comfortable, and more vulnerable perch.

What a feeling.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Zen & The Art of Letting a $#@%ing PROFESSIONAL Do The Job

In 1986 I read Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

It changed my life.
"Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven’t got it there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it there’s absolutely no way in this whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed. It’s bound to happen. Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption."

It's overstatement to say I wish I'd never read that passage -- but only just.

Replacing tires and rear sprocket, with the help of a friend
and a piece of firewood. Note next victim, just off to the right.

I was smart enough to know I hadn't the "gumption" to fix a motorcycle. But, c'mon -- everyone should be able to fix a bicycle. No?

No.

A short, and not-at-all-comprehensive, list of bicycle repair and maintenance jobs I have botched over the years:

  • Replacing brake cables
  • Replacing brake pads
  • Replacing derailleur cables
  • Replacing chain
  • Adjusting rear derailleur
  • Wheel truing

But the real pièce de résistance -- the King Of All Botched Repairs -- was disassembling and repacking of the bottom bracket.
How difficult could this be?
This was a personal "fail" on so many levels, I hardly know where to start. Perhaps most significantly, it was a job that didn't even need doing to begin with. Note to erstwhile bicycle mechanics -- George Mallory's motivation for climbing Everest does not apply to plumbing the bottom bracket mysteries of your $2,000 bicycle.

Long story short: for the next two decades the bottom bracket of my expensive bicycle was indeed a legitimate focus for the pros, because I had forced the bearing cups into the wrong mounts. "Huh. The bottom bracket is . . . well, it's not quite stripped, but it's pretty close," was a refrain I heard again and again.

Leave the bottom bracket alone, rookie -- I learned that lesson, alright. And beyond patching a flat and cleaning the chain, I pretty much left all the other adjustments to the pros. But then YouTube came along and made little jobs like adjusting the rear derailleur look so easy. Surely anyone can do that -- no?

No.

Alright, let's (gurgle) shift gears, shall we?
Bike, meet Mike.
I met Mike Gorman last Easter at choir practise. He has a bike shop just a few miles down the road from me. When I first visited it, the experience was . . . I'm tempted to say "a gentle rebuke," but that's not quite right. Let's go with: a gentle reassurance that it can all be done the way it ought to be done.

Yesterday I took my rear wheel to him. He trued it in less than a minute. Then he pointed out where it was falling apart. "It should stay true for another week. Bring it back then and I'll use the spokes on a new rim."

I try not to indulge in "If I could go back in time" thinking, but I do wish I'd known of Spokes For Folks back when I made this purchase. Or, if I'm going to be that fanciful anyway, back when I made this purchase and proceeded to Zen-it-up with one ruinous "repair" after the next. Gorman's shop -- and his version of customer service -- is as close the Platonic Ideal as it gets on this plain.