Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Unearthing Forgotten Bits of Culture: William Lyon Phelps

Reading old issues of The New Yorker clarifies a lot of things about life in the '20s and '30s, but it also raises new mysteries. It was written -- obviously -- for people who knew the current events of the day, so things can be a bit muddy for the 21st century reader, especially when the writers neglect to provide Googleable clues.

Several months ago I solved The Mystery of Mitzi Hajos. This afternoon I solved The Mystery of Nothing Like It.

Written by Christopher Ward* in the March 8, 1930 issue, "Nothing Like It By W-M L-N PH-L-S" is obviously a spoof of a particular book reviewer. This reviewer is obsessed with his airtight Christian morality, and even more obsessed with his social connections; each review degenerates into a long-winded story about how he is on friendly terms with the author. He also makes some really terrible puns.

Most enjoyable is his "Faery Queene Club," which he offers membership to anybody who has read the poem, including a nine-year-old named Abram Goody who wants "a badge or something" ("No, Master Goody, the only reward is a consciousness of superiority to your parents and friends, and your name in this magazine"). He also gets a letter from a chorus girl:
I have read quite a lot of the book you give me. Its certainly wrote swell. Its away over poor little me. Anyhow I want to join your Fairy Queen Club. I suppose its like the others sos I can go there when the shows over and get a drink and see a little life. Ime getting along fine they have gave me a better part. Ime in the front row now. Let me know about the Club where its address is and everything.
Besides proving that people haven't changed much in the last eighty years, the spoof posed a mystery...who was W-M L-N PH-L-S? Obviously a '30s reader would know, but what about me?

I tried inserting letters into the blanks...obviously "Phelps," but what about "W-M" and "L-N?" "Wim Lon Phelps?" Nothing was working, so I tried reverting the spoof column name ("Nothing Like It") to what I assumed was the original ("Something Like It" or "As You Like It"). Nope, no luck.

Then I tried "The Faery Queene Club," and really existed, and was run by William Lyon Phelps, who wrote a regular column called "As I Like It" for Scribner's Magazine! More importantly, every mention of Phelps online waxes eloquent about his intelligence and fame, but they never ONCE mention his supposed pomposity.

So by writing this post I am not just crowing about my internet sleuthing...I'm also pointing out that William Lyon Phelps was once considered annoying enough to inspire a spoof column, and a very funny one indeed.

* Bonus Mystery: I assume that "Christopher Ward" was Christopher Lewis Ward, who was known for writing burlesques around that time.

Monday, December 28, 2009

"Seals in the Workforce"

Here's an excerpt from a documentary that Schnapps and I were in many years ago!

Behind the Scenes Featurette

I usually take a short nap before going out to a club, because I'm old. Sometimes I'll wake up early because my blood sugar is low, and the combination of pseudo dream-state and nutrient-starved brain is the usual inspiration for a Schnapps video.

On Saturday it was the "seal song" idea (including the complete lyrics, which I woke up with), and as I stumbled around eating raw sugar I came up with a few scenes in a potential Schnapps documentary.*

As usual, these things must be simple and easy to film. I shot everything that night except for the "They don't hire seals" thing, which I realized was necessary when I began editing the footage. You can tell I wasn't drunk when I shot that scene because the Schnapps voice is all wrong.

Anyway, a combination of voiceover and footage filmed in various rooms -- including an unexpected refrigerator hum in the kitchen -- meant that I had to apply all sorts of denoisers, noise gates, and selective EQ to everything. What's the best way to disguise imperfect audio? Other than music -- which seemed inappropriate for such a stark subject -- the best solution is to make the audio sound even MORE imperfect!

So I added a wonderful "crackle" loop courtesy of the Soundtrack Pro library, as well as intermittent "pops" (a click sample pitched downward) and an occasional rustling noise similar to a dirty audio track on a piece of old film, produced by gently rubbing a sock over a microphone.

As usual, I'm amazed at the difference between raw footage and finished material. Each clip viewed in isolation is total crap -- leading to a lot of discouragement yesterday when I began pulling everything together -- but when I trimmed it and assembled it in the right order, it began to be funny...even WITHOUT the voiceover.

The lesson, as though you didn't know: editing is half the final product.

* This is not the first Schnapps documentary ever, but it's the first one that didn't turn out so bad that it was thrown away.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

I'd Buy Anything By...Jane Siberry (at One Time)

You couldn't be a child of the '80s in Canada without being exposed to Jane Siberry. Our radio and television stations, hungry to fill their CANCON requirements, instantly seized upon any halfway-decent Canadian artist and flogged them to death, often resulting in a cynical fatigue on the part of the populace.

But the Canadian music scene was one of boundless talent and innovation, and sometimes it takes a backward glance to recognize this. Now that Jane Siberry's songs have been relegated to occasional "classic" playlists and retro video shows, I can look back and say: wow, she was brilliant. And it's doubly shocking that she went to University in Guelph, only twenty minutes from here.

Some of her precious avant-gardism was typical of mid-80s semi-independent music -- those hats, that makeup, those tights! -- but there's just no denying that Siberry was a tad flaky. Neither she nor her promoters could decide if she was a folkie, a new wave goddess, or a genre-transcendent artiste. One minute she was a northern Laurie Anderson and the next she was quietly strumming an acoustic guitar.

Then, suddenly, she released "One More Colour," and we realized that Jane Siberry had a special knack of poetry, voice, and instrumentation, as well as a close-knit group of brilliant musicians behind her. Remove some of the twee '80s production and you have a joyous, expressive, TIMELESS song. It makes me cry, it's so good.

Speak a little softer,
work a little louder,
shoot less with more care.
Sing a little sweeter,
and love a little longer,
and soon you will be there.
It was her big hit, and she retreated to the recording studio and spent two years on "The Walking," an epic album that could only have been realized with (as then) cutting-edge digital editing techniques. It's one of my favourite albums ever: perfect, bizarre, beautiful. It is similar in many ways to Kate Bush's "The Dreaming," including the way that critics praised it...but audiences HATED it.

The only single they could wrench out of it was a dramatically edited "Ingrid and the Footman." It came out when I was fifteen and I simply could NOT understand it. I remember my father becoming visibly angry whenever it was played, he so disdained its goofiness. Now I hear it and I simply melt. It's also a perfect distillation of the album's complex vocals, meticulously-tweaked instruments, and constantly-shifting structures.

The commercial failure of "The Walking" seemed to send Siberry into a tailspin. She began stripping down her music. It was like she was running away from the excesses of that one, amazing, inscrutable album.

Like I said, I didn't like Jane Siberry at the time, and it wasn't until ten years ago that I rediscovered her. I started "buying everything," but I was forced to admit that after "The Walking" I enjoyed her albums less and less. By the time she'd changed her name to "Issa" I'd stopped listening, and I haven't listened since. Maybe someday I'll check her new albums out.

I leave you with the most beautiful Siberry song of all time: "The Walking (and Constantly)." To prove how wonderful it is, here's fan Michael Thorner singing it solo in his living room. When Jane Siberry had an emotional connection to her subject matter she could write exquisite poetry, and this is the perfect example.

Albums to buy: "The Speckless Sky" is possibly her most accessible, as is "Bound by the Beauty" with its country-tinged sounds, but "The Walking" is the best if you like a challenge, and her self-titled debut is wonderful folk. Albums to avoid: "When I Was a Boy" and "Maria" are just dull nothingness. For fans only: "Teenager," a collection of songs she wrote as a teenager, proving once and for all that most precocious teens need a few more years to hone their songwriting skills.

Boxing Day Miracle

Walking home from breakfast this morning, I passed a small boy on a crazy carpet trying to slide UP the bare sidewalk of Bluevale hill. He'd lie on the carpet, push himself a few inches, and moan as the pebbles on the sidewalk scraped and grated against the plastic.

His father stood quietly near the top of the hill, but finally he lost his patience. He shouted at the child -- and I quote -- "Hey, Jesus! Let's rock and roll kiddo!"

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cock-Crow of the Bantam Car

I understand that '30s periodicals were not particularly sensitive -- offenses against God and Country excluded -- but I'm a bit surprised by the pictures in this March 1st, 1930 advertisement from The New Yorker. They represent the "American Austin" car as the victorious rooster in a bloody cockfight.

The rest of the advertisement is simply a list of statistics and celebrity endorsements. The cockfight metaphor is only addressed in the pictures. It's SO BLASE.

This is particularly strange because cockfighting was illegal in New York state in the 1930s, and I only know this because Morris Markey wrote a great piece about it ("Feathered Warriors") in an issue of The New Yorker just one month before. And while the magazine itself made lots of explicit (and complicit) mentions of the illegal liquor trade, the ADVERTISEMENTS never did so (though they did sell cocktail shakers and such).

In short, showing this cockfight imagery would have been akin to saying something like: "The American Austin: The best bootleg gin around!" They couldn't do it for booze...why could they do it for a bloodsport?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Eena, Deina, Pitera, Pimp

I'm reading "Lost Country Life" by Dorothy Hartley, based around Thomas Tusser's famous 16th century farming calendar.

Being totally unsourced and written in a know-it-all tone, some of the book seems a tad dubious; you wonder if, being 87 herself when the book was written, she held more stock than she should have in her own intuition, memories, and the homey parables of her mysterious gardener.

But at the very least the book is full of beefy (if scattered) information about the smallest tasks of the medieval farmers. If this isn't really how it was, then it is how it SHOULD have been.

Many of her insights provoke interesting questions, even if you don't exactly believe her answers. For instance: how did people with no education manage to separate a specific number of animals -- say twenty -- from a herd? With "shepherd counts," apparently, regionally-specific "four-finger" counts that used words instead of numbers. "Eena, deena, dina, das; catiler, weena, winer, was," you'd say in the West Riding, or -- if you were in Rochdale -- "Eena, deina, pitera, pimp."

She also explains how all those beautiful British hedgerows were built, and the crazy methods for making rennet, and the various uses of both cows and oxen.

It's taken me a week to actually start enjoying this book (due to its informal and poorly-organized preface), but now I'm learning all sorts of things I've always wondered. I'll never USE these tips for plowing a strip of land or washing a sheep, but it's fascinating to learn how medieval mind explained the mysteries of land and animal, and how they slowly began to innovate.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Word to the Fellas Who Wear Trackpants

You're always proud of her.

Good cause you have too. Sitting beside her in the car...strolling down-town...stepping out know you have a perfect right to take pride in her appearance. But how does she really feel about you? Very little gets by that appraising glance... How do you suppose you would look to yourself, as well as others, say, on fifty feet of film?

Your tailoring is good, unquestionably. Your feet are well shod. And the Stetson emphatically lends an air of distinction. Yes, you'll pass inspection. And down deep, there's a little, sneaking feeling that you may have caught a gleam of pride in her glance, too, when it happens your way. There's really nothing like a smartly proportioned Stetson to finish off any turnout.
(From the February 22, 1930 issue of The New Yorker, when women reclaimed their waists, regular folks had stopped investing money, and men STILL wore hats).

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tama Janowitz, "They Is Us"

Too often when I review a book I say "It wouldn't qualify for the Oprah Book Club!" Besides making a backhanded swipe at Oprah -- that'll teach her! -- I suppose my point is that there are books that sell and there are books that don't. One group is not necessarily any better than the other, but I think that Oprah's picks -- and the books displayed at the front of the book store -- are homogenized, straightforward, uncomplicated, safe, and somehow "established." Other than political screeds, olde-timey classics, get-rich-quick books, or that new brand of "blink and you'll miss it" sociology, those are the Books That Sell.

"They Is Us" by Tama Janowitz is NOT an Oprah pick. Like many of my favourite books it lacks the basic qualifications, alienating the reader almost from the first page. It's nasty and messy and horrific and strange, and no matter how big the "By the Author of Slaves of New York" sticker is on the cover I still don't think it's a "Book That Sells."

That isn't a bad thing but I think it's a shame.

I really wonder who Tama Janowitz's readership is. Who are her fans, and why do they like her books so much? I can only state why *I* do: I can relate to her characters, I never know what's going to happen in the next chapter, I appreciate the unconventional structure of the plots, I love her dialog, and -- most significantly -- even though her novels rarely have "a point" they leave a nebulous impression of "truth" that could not survive point-form distillation into a "Blink"-style sociology splurge. Her novels tell me something about people and the world and the way that we feel about each other, and those are very important topics indeed.

By writing about the world as it really is, through the eyes of people as they really are, the resulting "reality" seems -- paradoxically -- like utter fantasy. George Saunders takes this approach as well, though he usually ramps up the absurd satire by setting his stories in a future where things are even MORE like they are today.

Does Janowitz's readership enjoy the writing of George Saunders? If so, then I think they'll naturally embrace "They Is Us," as it takes a similar approach. The book is set sometime in the American future when all food is grown from the same handful of cell cultures, hologrammatic televisions permit infomercial hosts to step into your house and jump on your bed, and the dying people in the old folks home Tattooed, pierced, forced into activity by a condescending instructor who shrieks the lyrics of "Hollaback Girl" at them.

These "in the future" elements of the book are ingenious but I wonder if they are entirely necessary for any writer. As I said, Janowitz's presentation of everyday life in the CURRENT era is satire enough; the politics of consumption, patriotism, entertainment, and war are so NATURALLY surreal that there is little need to jump forward in time to show us where we're going. The astute reader, tragically, already suspects.

But many "future" elements of "They Is Us" work perfectly, especially in service of the humour and horror. Everybody is suffering from bizarre diseases and parasites, with enormous worms coming out of their noses and "stickers" burrowing through their internal organs. Science has taught everybody to worship "The Intelligent Designer." A genetic engineering company called "Bermese Pythion" has developed a series of tragic hybrids, including cockroaches that glow in the dark and sway gently to music in the dirty kitchen corners.

My favourite character is "Breakfast," a constipated talking dog who shuffles occasionally through the plot, saying things that perfectly epitomize the novel's horror-humour:
The dog keeps talking about sex, muttering, "Let's fock."

It always seems to happen just as Julie is dozing off, or is having a nice dream... It drives her nuts, that little weird voice, "Come on, leetle mommy, let's fock --" She grabs him by the scruff of his neck and says, "Breakfast, you've got to cut it out! What's wrong with you, you never used to be like this."

"I sorry," he says. "I sorry. I can't help..."
The horror-humour of "They Is Us" is pure Janowitz in many ways. The protagonists are -- in my eyes -- a riff on the family from "By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee," transposed into America's doomed future. But instead of finding eventual success and happiness -- or at least not failing too terribly at any given moment -- they fall prey to the increasing darkness of Janowitz's writing.

While her books have always had some element of grotesque and tragic horror in them, before "A Certain Age" this tendency was tempered with humour. "They Is Us" is still very funny, but sometimes the author stops grinning, and the contrast is a terrible shock. There is nothing funny about the fates of Tahnee and Dyllis, and it's at these moments -- I fear -- when some of Janowitz's readership might feel betrayed.

The other potential pitfall in the book is its curious presentation of time. Reading a Janowitz novel has always been like riding a ramshackle bulldozer through a blasted landscape, driven by an authoress who you don't entirely trust. There is very little "rising action - climax - denouement" going on; instead, things happen episodically to the protagonist, they gradually accumulate until something HAS to happen, and then...well, maybe something DOES happen, or maybe it just doesn't. This is a bit disorienting and it makes it difficult to construct a timeline in your head; you're often wondering "How long ago did that last thing happen in the book?"

"They Is Us" goes further. It's written in present tense, which gives a strange timelessness to the events. It also follows several different protagonists who do things independently in different places. And -- most importantly, though it isn't obvious at first -- the characters have serious issues with time perception themselves due to any number of "future America" problems, including mysterious diseases and an ominously underplayed "hole through the earth."

In "They Is Us" this is a plot point -- and it certainly pays off in the end -- but it can get a bit frustrating in the middle. I was frequently distracted, wondering if certain events had really happened and -- if not -- whether *I* had missed something, or if one or more of the narrators were unreliable, or if Janowitz had done some sloppy editing, or if -- as I suspect is the case -- the "future America" is simply disconnected from time perception altogether.

It is, after all, a world where traffic jams last forever, every day is a different season, clothes go instantly out of style, and depression-era hobos appear (without explanation) in the late 21st century. In this world, the only sure indication that time is passing is the President giving us another update about his approaching wedding (meanwhile hawking cheap junk on the shopping channel).

The beautiful, unexpected ending of the book has "time" as its central yes, this can only be intentional. But it IS difficult to follow if you worry too much about it.

This is an awkward book. Sometimes it's repetitive, and some of the characters -- Bocar for instance -- didn't interest me at all, so their moments of exposition left me cold and a little bored. "They Is Us" can also get buried under its own ideas, slowing down to a crawl to explain something that would be better only hinted at. This is a potential problem in any book that deals with an unfamiliar reality.

But despite (or maybe because of) all this messiness, it may in fact be the most complete and meaningful Janowitz novel that I have ever read. I mentioned earlier that her books make me feel like I've learned something about the world and the people in it. After all the goofy set-pieces, clever ideas, apparent filler, and general confusion of "They Is Us," the final chapters slam down with a sense of truth that reverberates backwards through the pages, giving purpose to everything that came before.

That might be "too little too late" for some, but not for me. It's not my favourite Tama Janowitz novel but it's probably the one that deserves the closest reading, and I think she's on to something here. I'm not talking about the politics of the book, I'm just talking about the mood: it's correct. It's beautiful and ugly and funny and tragic. It's awkward. That's life, then, now, and always.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sung by Libby Holman

Awww, I just love these slang-filled, over-alliterative '30s record advertisements from Brunswick.
Happy Because I'm in Love -- What a kiss can do to this mean, moanin' mamma! Lurid Libby admits a loss of reason in this--the confession of a conquered coquette.

More Than You Know -- Here's Libby giving some gent a break and some thousands of Holmanites the thrill of a life-time--on Brunswick Record No. 4613.
They're talking about the infamous Libby Holman, who you can hear sing "Primitive Man" here. It's such a cool song.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

I'd Buy Anything By...Les Rita Mitsouko

Sometimes it's hard to enjoy a band if you can't understand their lyrics. Language barriers can prevent an awful lot of a song from getting through.

But then there's France's "Les Rita Mitsouko," a cult group consisting of Catherine Ringer and Fred Chichin. They've gone through a dozen different styles -- sometimes in the same album -- and their output has occasionally been spotty, but there's an undeniable art-rock creativity and "hookiness" in everything they do.

I firmly believe that the funkiest song ever written is "Andy," the song that introduced me to the band. Musique Plus, the Quebecois branch of Much Music, had it on constant rotation for a while, and to this day it still baffles and delights me...and I simply CANNOT sit still while listening to it. Here's the original French version, which unfortunately is missing some of the flourishes of the later English remix, but...the bass! The BASS!

The band made more headway into the English market when they collaborated on an album with Sparks, but I think their weirdness has been destined to keep them more-or-less underground.

In 2007 they released an album which has been somewhat derided for its conventionalism. I have yet to hear it, but here's a live performance of "Ding Dang Dong," one of the singles. It proves that they're still spectacular 25 years later.

There's a sad ending to this story. Fred Chichin died in 2007 after a sudden bout with cancer. He was no doubt one half of the band, and it's hard to picture Ringer continuing much farther without him. Maybe she will, but I miss Chichin, his passing is truly tragic.

Albums to buy: "The No Comprendo" was their first and -- I think -- their best. It has a raw post-punk sound with unique influences. Albums to avoid: "Systeme D" saw the band overwhelmed by technology and's not terrible, but don't buy it first. For fans only: I don't know. I live too far away from their fan base.

Poor Fred.

"Stinkin' at the Club Savoy"

Since I didn't do anything last night except schlump around the house, I am not currently dealing with a hangover or the inevitable post-party regrets. But for all those who are I present Virginia O'Brien singing "Stinkin' at the Club Savoy." It proves the timelessness of certain things.

PS: O'Brien was known as "Ol' Stone-Face," because her schtick was to sing with virtually no expression whatsoever. This strikes the 21st century viewer as totally bizarre, but I'm sure in the '40s it was easier to deal with.


Last week a Grade 12 student asked me to write a mini-essay about "homophobia," so she could read it to her class as part of a project. Here's what I came up with:

I'm wary about telling homophobia-related anecdotes because I don't want to become negative and sensationalistic; my days of sulky victimization are over! We all know that terrible things can happen, but over the years I've become more interested in solutions than retelling my rare moments of drag-related misery.

But even though I feel more at peace with the world than I used to, I don't think it's easy for other people to understand WHY I feel that way. And you can't tackle the roots of homophobia -- let alone discover the ways of combating it -- without looking at specific incidents and coming to some basic conclusions.

So I'll tell you two of my more interesting horror stories, and then I'll share the lessons that those situations taught me.

One way that homophobia manifests itself is a simple "group versus outsider" dynamic. There is something about humanity that feels most confident and secure when it's part of a group, and the simplest way to assert "groupness" is to exclude everybody else. This doesn't always come down to violence -- you can see it happen everywhere, in workplaces or book clubs or patriotic speeches -- but when it involves violence it becomes much more noticeable.

Usually I only have "outsider" dealings with three or four drunk men at a time, but in 2003 I actually faced a mob. It was during the midnight show of the Waterloo Busker Festival. I was wearing a flashy showgirl outfit and watching the buskers with some friends, and about fifteen people in the crowd started to toss pennies at us. When they realized that nobody was going to defend us they got increasingly bold, throwing the coins with full force and finally starting to chant: "Get the fag!" No kidding.

This happened at the edge of a huge crowd of able-bodied, reasonable, and intelligent people. It should never have reached the level that it did, but the reason that we had to run away from a handful of chanting, violent strangers in uptown Waterloo was because NOBODY IN THE CROWD HELPED US. They SAW us and they understood what was happening, but they all looked away, probably frightened.

Here's the first lesson I've learned about homophobia: it only happens if bystanders allow it to. I have been in many other situations where a small group of people have started to get violent with me, but it always stops when a single stranger steps up to defend me. This reverses the "us versus them" belief that is the root of this form of homophobia; when the aggressors suddenly realize that THEY are the outsiders and not ME, it's like popping a big ugly balloon. They retreat and go home and complain to each other and then they throw up.

But if the balloon doesn't pop in the face of public disapproval then something more complicated is at work. I'm talking about the men who hate homosexuality but are simultaneously attracted to me, even though they know I'm a man.

This happens in bars near the end of the night. I suppose that these people can deny their attraction to men in most situations, but they can't deny their attraction to a man in a dress, and this gives them a glimpse of themselves that they don't like at all.

Usually they try to take this anger and confusion out on me in an over-the-top, ironically sexual way, trying to "mock molest" me in front of their friends. This is meant to prove that they're "straight," but their obsessive and bizarre behaviour makes them look even gayer than they're pretending NOT to be.

One extreme incident incident sticks in my mind, though; it was a whole new level. I was sitting on a stool and minding my own business when a huge, hulking guy sat down next to me. He leaned close and said quietly and calmly into my ear: "Watching you looking so good and turning me on like that makes me want to pick up a hammer and kill you."

Then he got right up and left the bar. He was so sober and matter-of-fact that I totally believed what he'd said...and I realized the deep, burning, loathing and hatred that a person can feel for themselves, and how often that loathing can be directed at something or somebody else.

It's a common tactic to enrage homophobes by saying they are secretly homosexual themselves, but in some cases I know this is true, especially when their derision is sexualized. Their feelings are composed of some terrible combination of self-loathing, panic, public shame, and thwarted affection. Society and the sick people in it must work REALLY HARD to instill those sorts of feelings in a doesn't "just happen." Fortunately I think it happens less and less, and that can only be a good thing for everybody.

One final point I'd like to make is that there is a difference between "homophobia" and "confusion." The vast majority of encounters that I have are with people who simply don't "get it," not because they HATE me, but because they've never MET somebody like me...they want to know "why," and they ask blunt questions, and they giggle a bit. If I were to label their attitude as "homophobia" then I would approach them differently, but as it is I try to be friendly and honest. I never JUSTIFY what I do, but I'll still EXPLAIN it.

Granted, the way people confront crossdressers is different from the way they confront lesbians or gay men who aren't in drag, but by learning to tell the difference between confusion and homophobia, between curiosity and cruelty, I have made friends and allies instead of enemies. Maybe I can do this now because I'm comfortable enough about myself that I can make other people comfortable too, as long as their intentions are even remotely good.

That's why I'm wary of sharing sensationalistic anecdotes: because even though it's important to know how bad things can be out there, it is equally important for me to remember that the vast majority of people really DON'T want to hurt me. Most of them are simply INTERESTED in me. That says something good about people, and I try to always keep it in mind when I'm out in the world.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Burlesque, Then and Before Then

The state of burlesque occasionally appears in the pages of the old New Yorker, and every few years the reporters mention Minsky's. The Minsky Brothers kept a high-profile burlesque show going at the National Winter Garden, even through the late '20s and early '30s when the artform was unappreciated.

In the February 1st, 1930 issue of The New Yorker, theatre reporter Robert Benchley compared the cleaner Minsky style of burlesque with the "old Fourteenth Street or Old Howard days." Besides the somewhat "cleaner" costumes and a greater reliance on "effects," Benchley makes a (perhaps backhanded) compliment to the fuller figure:
The most noticeable change in in the structure of the ladies of the chorus. Gone are the leviathans of an earlier day, when women were women and gold teeth flashed like beacons above Scyllas and Charybdises which could sink a ship if given half a chance. The burlesque girls of today are agile wisps for the most part, although here and there one detects a form which, if given its quota of starches for a year or two, might approximate those which used to ply back and forth in irregular array behind Clark and McCullough, Tom Howard, and Jim Barton.
I love Robert Benchley's theatre reviews. "Scyllas and Charybdises?" Holy cow!

Anyway, Benchley goes on to say that what sets Minsky's burlesque apart from regular Broadway shows is the "informality in chorus dance routines." Each dancer can do whatever she wants "so long as they all get on and off the stage at the same time," though he bemoans their attempts at synchronized arm-raising.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Official Spam Zone!

Over the years this blog has been spammed occasionally, but during the last month it's really picked up. Each morning I'm informed of new spam comments linking to viagra, computer software, and all the rest of the usual stuff.

Turning on word verification appears to have stumped the spambots, but I'm happy to announce that both "Clerk" (Learn dance online!) and "Rash" (Getcher mobile phone accessories!) have persevered, manually tailoring their messages to the blog subjects. I particularly like Rash's approach.

If it gets any worse I'll need to turn on comment moderation (or briefly disable comments until the flurry dies down), but in order to give ALL visitors a chance to enjoy my blog, I'm designating this particular post a SPAM-SAFE ZONE! I won't delete spam comments attached to this message! Go ahead and promote fly-fishing, Russian brides, and fraudulent insurance scams...maybe somebody will actually click on your links!

The policy for the rest of the blog remains unchanged, but please let THIS post be your happy playground!

Dr. Seuss and Flit: "Whoopee!"

Who ever said Dr. Seuss wasn't a horndog?

From the January 25, 1930 issue of The New Yorker. And, errr, "of its time."

Monday, December 07, 2009

"The Golden Age of Wireless"

I've already mentioned -- too many times, probably --my great love of Thomas Dolby's debut album "The Golden Age of Wireless." Its recent remastering has given me a new outlook on why I love it so much, and why it "works" so well. I can finally view it as a critical adult instead of a mystified child.

I still love it. In fact, I love it even more.

I started writing a huge critique of the album, but I realized only a serious fan would be even remotely interested in my opinions. Instead I'll just mention the beautiful WARMTH of the sound -- a rare feat for synthpop, especially in 1982 -- and my favourite "production" touches throughout: the breathy "ahhh" that precedes every chorus in "Weightless," the lonely bass-guitar "ping" spaced throughout "Airwaves," the occasional subtle swing of a bonus snare hit that sneaks into the otherwise rigid "Windpower."

Everybody should own "The Golden Age of Wireless."

"I Am Not Dumb Now"

I'm reading a biography of Helen Keller in the January 25, 1930 issue of The New Yorker, and it lead me to this contemporary newsreel film.

Stunning, baffling, and beautiful.

The Unsolved Mysteries of Williamson and Voynich

As annoying as Penn and Teller's "Bullshit!" program can be, one of their comments has really stuck with me. During a program about cryptozoology, Penn said that there are enough real and established unsolved mysteries in the world that we shouldn't become obsessed with ones that are merely tenuous.

The obvious examples involve both the huge and the tiny things that science is actively probing: cosmology, subatomic particles, and genetic material. But I'm equally (if not more) fascinated by the little, somewhat mundane oddities that pop up now and then.

Just in case you are too, here's an example: Williamson's tunnels. In the early 1800s, a rich and somewhat eccentric Liverpudlian named Joseph Williamson started constructing huge, elaborate tunnels under his property.

Instead of being objects of curiosity after his death, they were mostly viewed with annoyance; they'd get in the way of new building projects, and housing developers would simply fill them up with rubble -- usually without telling anybody -- so that their new apartment buildings wouldn't fall into them.

Now a small group of volunteers is slowly and methodically uncovering the tunnels, and they're discovering that they're much deeper -- and they travel much farther -- than credible sources would have indicated. It's incredibly difficult for an underfunded handful of people to clear out uncounted tonnes of compressed rubble, but they're slowly making their way through the tunnel network, finding new things all the time.

The mystery isn't just the EXTENT of the tunnels, it's also "Why were they built in the first place?" Nobody really knows yet, but maybe if they travel far enough they'll eventually get some clue. Until then: unsolved and really cool.

A second mystery is one I just learned about tonight, thanks to a brief article in the January 25, 1930 issue of The New Yorker. In 1912, book-dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich publicized the existence of a book that has become known as the Voynich Manuscript.

People have been trying to decipher the manuscript for almost 100 years, but they still can't crack its bizarre cypher. If the book isn't simply an elaborate hoax -- which it doesn't seem to be -- then it was written in the 15th or 16th century. It appears to be a biological, astrological, and alchemical treatise and is full of bizarre illustrations, including chimerical plants and naked women bathing in funnels and tubes.

Want to read it? Think you can solve the mystery? Check it out here. And I don't know about you, but I find this sort of thing FAR more fascinating than bigfoot or The Ghost of Henry VIII.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Impromptu Caption Contest for Cynical People Who Believe That Nastiness Is It's Own Reward!

Schnapps in "The Pooper"

Whenever I try to make an elaborate Schnapps video, it has a high chance of total failure. This is because the logistics of multi-angle seal-puppet filming result in a lot of compromises, mistakes, and unfunniness. The end product is garbage whenever Schnapps appears.

But last night I decided it was time for him to come out of retirement, and the only way to do it was to revert to the tried-and-true single take. Conceived and performed in half an hour, I give you "The Pooper."

Behind the Scenes Featurette!

There isn't much to say about this, except that the hardest part is always "how to begin" and "how to end." The beginning ultimately evolves somewhat naturally, but the ending is ALWAYS annoying, especially considering it gets the least rehearsal in a single take (at least the way I do it, which is to just try again and again until it finally finishes in a satisfactory way).

After I'd decided to make a video about Schnapps being locked in a box, I realized that I really DIDN'T know how I'd packed him. I must have hunted through a dozen boxes before I discovered him in a garbage bag full of purses, which is even MORE disturbing than being locked in a box, albeit less photogenic.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The New Yorker's Shy Date with Modern Dance, 1930

Unless in reference to the latest hotcha dancefloor moves or the hottest entertainers at nightclubs, The New Yorker didn't say anything about dance. The closest they ever got was a somewhat irreverent look at Isadora Duncan's achievements...after she'd died.

So imagine my surprise to find, after all my recent modern dance bloviating, a tiny article called "On With the Dancers" tucked into the January 18, 1930 issue.
Our dancers of today are notable for the minimum of dancing in which they indulge. Their performances have become attempts at drama-in-petto, with almost no display of terpsichorean virtuosity. Dancing that is dancing does not really exist on the stage that devotes itself to the incohate form known as "the dance." (This is to be pronounced as if it were a sacred matter, or at least one not totally intelligible to the laity.)
It's sort of amusing to have The New Yorker accuse somebody ELSE of being snooty, especially in the same paragraph as the word "terpsichorean," but it's interesting (if not surprising) to read somebody from almost eighty years ago saying the same sort of thing that I've been saying all month, only shorter and with even less tolerance for the art.

The pseudonymous author divides 1930s dance performances into four categories. The first are the people who star in musical shows (Jack Donahue, Bill Robinson, the Astaires), "and consequently have no aesthetic status whatsoever." The second is exemplified by Anga Enters, who apparently acted out musical scenes in a form of pantomime.

The final categories are the type of modern dance we're accustomed to. The third is allegorical, modernistic, and intended to evoke a state of mind using "poses, of which there is not, apparently, an unlimited variety." The author is particularly critical of Martha Graham's use of "uplifted eyes to complete her pictures." Today's equivalent, I suspect, is the yearning reach-and-grasp.

The fourth category is the athletic "neo-ballet" school, which uses some traditional "moves" but still tries to escape convention. The author mentions Helen Tamiris (simply "Tamiris" back then).

And what was the author's conclusion, way back then?
If you happen not to be in sympathy with the bodily expression of moods, music, or dramatic concepts, it all will seem like a lot of fussiness in which music is supplemented by something extraneous and dancing is reduced to posturing. If the form interests you, you will discover in the activities of the Dance Repertory Theatre, and those who are going in the same direction, a sincere endeavor to make of "the dance" an entity capable of standing on its own legs--and what legs some of them are!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Girls Want to Be With the Metaphorically-Antlered Girls, or, My Second Shy Date with Modern Dance

After last month's soul-searching experience with Dancemakers, I was curious about tonight's performance by Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers. I was especially curious when Brent Lott -- WCD's artistic director -- candidly stated that it wouldn't be the sort of program that people make fun of when they think of contemporary dance.

As much as I enjoyed the show, I beg to differ. Honestly, realistically, it WAS the sort of program that people (me?) make fun of. I'm thinking mainly of the piece called "In Silence," which had all the sorts of thrashing, reaching, rolling, hair-in-the-face, shouting, and Standard Drag Queen acting-out of old timey poetry (including fingers-down-cheeks for "tears" and pointing-at-audience for "thee," and I really mean "thee"). Plus more reaching.

I'm not mocking "In Silence." Okay, I admit it, I AM mocking "In Silence," because it reminded me of a version of The Go! Team without the fun. Watch this video and imagine that, instead of saying "We came here to rock the microphone," they're saying "In secret we met / in silence I grieve / that thy heart could forget / thy spirit deceive."

Before I tell you what I LOVED about the Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers, let me tell you one reason why I think modern dance sometimes comes across as more-pretentious-even-than-Lord-bloody-Byron. Perhaps through no fault of its own, contemporary dance seems (to me, in my limited experience) to be best suited to extreme emotions: unrequited love unto death, crushing agony unto death, the joy of REQUITED love unto joyous eventual off-stage death.

Maybe a primarily nonverbal, physical representation of a theme must forsake the lesser, everyday experiences and simply dive into the furthest swings of the emotional pendulum. Maybe choreographers and dancers find it more suitable to tackle "the agony of the claw-rent soul" than "the long day at work followed by an unsatisfying meal and the broken water heater...again."

This, perhaps, is where contemporary dance tends to leave me cold...I prefer more emotional subtlety to my experiences. When I start to read a Lord Byron poem, my eyes start at the top line and then suddenly hit the last line, without anything between making any sort of impression. I don't like a strong diet of extreme emotion.

Tonight's show was a pretty strong diet: pure love, pure lust, pure joy, pure anguish. Eyes by turns enraptured-wide and agony-squinted. The slow, burning glance over the shoulder. The yearning, the yearning, the yearning.

I loved the premiere of "First Walk to Available Sky," which I would subtitle "Sex-Bombs of the Pantomime Horse." I was even more in love with "Between the Sycamore," which exuded such a palpable energy and simple joy that it transcended everything: the space, the audience, the was absolutely, beautifully superb.

All four dancers were in unbelievable sync, seemingly without need of any cues or external stimulus. Grace and strength, clearly-telegraphed emotion, flawless in every way. If there had been a "Music From Sex-Bombs of the Pantomime Horse and Other Pieces" for sale in the lobby, I would have bought it in a second: the music, particularly in the first half of the show, was striking and perfectly suited to the performances.

But oh, the yearning, the reaching! "Reaching-out-but-not-grasping" does seem to be a ubiquitous element of modern dance, one akin to the villain-with-the-black-moustache in silent pictures: perhaps an effective (even essential) storytelling technique, but everytime I see it I go "Oh, yearning, villain, black moustache."

Remember, I'm the endless rationalizer, the constant analyzer. Other people can lose themselves in moments that I simply cannot. Maybe this is why I'm such a cold fish in relationships, because when I need to express "yearning" I simply do not, for fear of committing a fiendish cliche.

Even so, I DID enjoy the performance. I'm sure that it's expected, in a repertory selection, that you'll sometimes say "Huh," sometimes say "Bah," and sometimes scream "LOVE!" I said all three things during the show and I say now unto the world: tonight I saw some of the most wonderful dance I've ever seen.


The fourth piece -- "Mouvement" -- featured dancer Kristin Haight doing a great deal of running and thrashing. At first the point escaped me, but gradually I formed the image of a Doberman Pinscher being euthanized at the vet's office. I am not being facetious, this was actually a very powerful impression of a creature in pain...but somehow a dog. Being put down. By a veterinarian.

When the piece was over and the lights came up I felt a little guilty, thinking surely that was not the impression that the choreographer wanted to make.

Then the woman in front of me turned to her friends and said "Did you hear about that dog, that wild dog, that was running around?"

"Ooooh," said her friends.

"They caught it and they TAZED it," said the woman with some satisfaction, and they all stared intently at each other.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Imikimi Makes Me Slightly More Ill

I don't go LOOKING for online kitsch, it just comes along and hits me. Similar to the terrifying Dance Heads gimmick, I've just noticed an even more bizarre phenomenon: Imikimi.

The Imikimi idea seems to be that online artists create thematic images, and then leave a spot in the frame for you to place your picture. This is like those fairground "stick your face in the hole and look like the fat lady" displays, except it's instantly customizable and therefore totally disposable.

Most of what you see on Imikimi is unbearably cute in that "angels and hearts and babies" sort of way. Tellingly, in their "Editor Tips" FAQ, topic four of six is "How to make a heart" (or rather "Hot to make a heart," since the Imikimi instructions are rife with typos).

The great thing about Imikimi is that most of the content is user-generated, so you get all sorts of crazy stuff that you'd think nobody would ever want, and then you find out that those things are extremely popular and people really do want them. Here are some of my favourite discoveries:

The Cabanting family, pill-shaped...but something's wrong with Lebrado!

Sweet baby with horn in ear!

To appreciate this one you must understand that the kitten's eyes blink and its paw waggles up and down. And it sparkles.

There's lots of Twilight on Ikimimi.

Cthulhu fhtagn!

If you've got a minute or two and you feel a bit insecure about your sense of style and taste, check out Imikimi. You will learn SO MUCH MORE about the world.

"The Call of Cthulhu"

Because I'm reading a big chunk of H. P. Lovecraft at the moment, I've been breaking the monotony by watching some of the adaptations of his work.

There are two good reasons for why most Lovecraft movies miss the mark. Since his stories are effective mostly because of their tone and their gradual accumulation of facts, it must be difficult to make a straightforward movie out of them, so the script writers tend to fall back on spectacle and totally new sex-and-slimy-monster subplots, all of which make the resulting film decidedly NON-Lovecraftian.

Secondly, as a result of this reliance on spectacle, these invariably low-budget movies tend to fail because they can't live up to their special effects requirements.

When the special effects DO succeed, you get movies like "Re-Animator" which have only a tenuous plot connection (and absolutely no thematic connection) to the stories they're adapted from. And when the effects DON'T succeed, you get total flops like The Curse or Dagon, which are basically eighty minutes of boring Hollywood-style subplot and ten minutes of cheap schlock at the end.

I haven't seen many movies which manage to REALLY capture the "Lovecraft mood," but oddly enough the ones I HAVE seen are the ones I've most recently viewed. I mentioned the wonderful-but-flawed "Cthulhu" back in May...

...but today I saw the HP Lovecraft Historical Society's version of "The Call of Cthulhu," and thanks to devotion, smarts, and a whole lot of luck, it's the most faithful adaptation yet.

I'd assumed that anything produced by such a society would be a half-baked, crappy mess of fan-splooge, featuring a bunch of doughy part-time Little Theatre types doing their level best to upstage each other. What I saw, however, was a totally effective no-budget film that succeeded in almost every way.

By shooting it as a '20s-era silent picture they avoided many of the problems that cheapo home productions face: no need to worry about dialog or sound recording, an easier time integrating effects, and probably fewer problems with set design and lighting. But what REALLY worked was that it managed to capture that elusive Lovecraftian mood in a way that a "talkie" never could.

How the HECK did they pull this off? A model boat pulled across sparkle-covered fabric becomes the perfect image to complement the story, in a way that REAL location footage NEVER would. Lovecraft didn't write about realistic images, he wrote about impossible angles and indescribable landscapes; a REAL cliff-face representing the lost city of R'lyeh would have appeared pedestrian and narrow-minded, but a cardboard-and-scaffold set built in one of the crew member's backyard is FAR more "right."

The acting, too, is brilliant. Nobody is being funny, and everybody manages to walk the fine line between "silent movie overacting" and "just plain camp." Here again the movie benefited from its silent-film conceit: no bad accents, no awkward dialog, no Little Theatre emoting-stereotypes.

All these things -- fantasy-sets, terrific lighting, dedicated acting -- combine with an AMAZING music score to make the best 45 minutes of film I've seen in a long time. Really, it's that good. I don't just mean "a good independent film" or "a good silent movie," I mean a legitimate mini-masterpiece.

And you know what? I think H. P. Lovecraft would have loved it.

PS: During the newspaper clipping montage, guess which city shows up amongst all the bylines? You're right: Kitchener, Ontario. How did that slip in there?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Korg Nanos, Two Months Later

In September I bought the three "Korg Nano" MIDI controllers -- the NanoPAD, NanoKEY, and NanoKONTROL -- and I wrote about my attempts to integrate them with my Logic Studio software. Some of the annoying problems I was having -- in particular the loss of configured settings when changing the order of my MIDI devices -- I placed squarely on the shoulders of Logic's annoying Controller Assignments dialog.

How do I feel two months later?

First, I still love the Nanos. I use the NanoKEY the most; it's an extremely convenient way to work out a melody or a chord without messing around with a bulky synthesizer. The two-octave range IS limiting, and the lack of a true pitch bend IS annoying, but as an exploratory tool the NanoKEY is phenomenal.

To be honest I haven't used the NanoPAD much. The X-Y surface is great for glitching up your stuff (and your drums, which is what you're supposed to use it for), but as a replacement pitch bend/modulator for the NanoKEY it fails simply due to a lack of an identifiable "center position." It's a small quibble, though, because that's not what it's for.

Oddly, the controller I was most excited about -- the NanoKONTROL -- is the one I use the least. This is partly because I haven't gotten around to any real mastering lately, but mainly because of its obvious limitations: no shuttle/jog, no LCD information about control assignments, and no motorized controls. Even the transport controls remain unused these days; it's easier to just use the keyboard.

I'm sure I'll find more uses for both the NanoPAD and NanoKONTROL, but for now they're gathering a bit of dust.

That's my impression of the devices themselves. How about their integration with Logic Studio? Well, the real question is: how often do they actual WORK with Logic Studio?

The Nanos are totally unpredictable whenever you wake your computer up from sleep; sometimes they get recognized, sometimes they don't. Here's what happens:

I have the following devices attached to my iMac:
  • A PreSonus FIREBOX, attached via Firewire, which is always on.
  • A Lexicon MX300 effects processor, attached via USB, which I only turn on before I launch Logic Studio.
  • The three Korg Nanos, all attached to an unpowered USB hub that is dedicated only to them.
When I wake up my iMac, the Lexicon is never recognized (because it's off)...but neither are the Nanos, though their lights go on. When I turn on the Lexicon it is automatically recognized, but the Nanos stay unavailable.

When I then unplug the USB hub and plug it back in, two out of the three Nanos are suddenly recognized...but one random Nano never is. I need to unplug the stubborn Nano and plug it back in again, and USUALLY that works...I've never had to do it twice in one sitting.

Once all three Nanos are online they stay that way until I shut down my iMac or put it to sleep...then I have to go through the whole process again. I keep the Audio MIDI Setup application in my dock these days to make everything a little less painful.

Now, due to the way Logic Studio stores its controller assignments, ANY shuffling of MIDI devices is bound to invalidate your carefully-crafted assignments. This whole "unplug hub, unplug recalcitrant Nano" procedure turns the assignments into digital stew. So even if I were using my NanoKONTROLLER, I'd probably need to reconfigure it almost every time I wanted to use it.

Logic Studio deserves a bit of blame here, but as far as I can tell the REAL culprit is Korg's custom USB driver. The Lexicon switches on and off like a charm...why not the Nanos?

So with all that in mind, are they still worth it? Yes, absolutely, as long as you don't need rock-solid stability as soon as you turn on your computer, and as long as you don't need to retain your Logic Studio assignments. I don't need either of those things and the NanoKEY alone is a charmer.

If you have any Nano experiences, post a comment! Heck, maybe somebody knows a fix or a workaround. It would make my life a bit easier...

Talkies and Continuous Showings

In 1930 -- several years after the arrival of the talkies -- The New Yorker continued to make references to the phenomenon, indicating that talking pictures were still a bit of a novelty. Here's a cute story from the January 11, 1930 issue:
No doubt about it, the talkies do complicate life. A talkie-goer has made this complaint: The other day she arrived in a theatre just before the conclusion of the feature picture. In the old days, to remain in pleasant ignorance of the outcome, she would have had merely to lean back and shut her eyes. Now, in addition to doing this, she has to put her fingers in her ears.
To understand this you need to recognize that movie theatres at the time showed "continuous showings." Unlike today -- when your ticket only buys you admission to a single showing of a film -- the early theatres repeated the same program all day: for example a newsreel, then a cartoon, then a short subject, then the feature film...and then right back to the newsreel again. You could watch the film multiple times if you wanted, though I imagine the ushers -- another bygone aspect of movie theatre culture -- would kick out loiterers, snoozers, and groping flappers eventually.

I mention this because I don't know if many people are aware that the continuous showing method ever existed. What's more, I can't even find out when it was certainly happening in the '50s (I'm sure that Wally and Theodore alluded to it in "Leave It To Beaver," which is probably where I first heard about it), and it certainly ended before I was a child (in the early '70s).

So I wonder: when did theatres switch to the current method? And why?

Incidentally I AM old enough to remember when theatre seats had ashtrays build into their arms. I can also remember the playing of the national anthem before the feature began: after the coming attractions, the curtain would lower, and then as it rose the anthem would begin to play. We'd all stand up and sing. The curtain would come down at the end, then finally rise at the beginning of the feature.

Hard to imagine that today, somehow.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Eldritch, Stygian, Cyclopean Horrors of H. P. Lovecraft

I have been slogging my way through a giant 1000-page collection of H.P. Lovecraft's better (or at least "more significant") stories. This is the first time I've read his work in many, many years.

I realize now that I actually didn't read as many Lovecraft stories as I thought I did, and that the ones I DID read I tended to skim. Patience, experience, context, and age are allowing me to better enjoy his strengths and tolerate his weaknesses...but I still have to restrain that skimming urge.

What have I learned so far? Lovecraft was far more creative than I ever gave him credit for. While he tended to use the same techniques over and over again, his actual IDEAS -- the "hooks" in the stories -- show a lot of variety.

I'm also surprised at how GRUESOME his work was. The stereotype of Lovecraft is that his protagonists always faint before they can fully describe the final horror (he even manages to turn Harry Houdini into a shrieking wimp in "Under the Pyramids"), but for the most part this isn't the case. Stories like "The Outsider," "The Shunned House," and "Cool Air" pull no punches when it comes to the climax, and "In the Vault" is one of the few stories I've ever read that has managed to shock me.

He was extremely creative, yes, and he doesn't entirely deserve the "tease" label he's been saddled why is this compendium of stories so often infuriating?

A few reasons. Lovecraft's racism is well documented, and though his eugenic beliefs were more-or-less of his time, it's still maddening to read about the evolutionary and cultural "degeneracy" that his characters keep harping about.

Something else his characters harp about is the oh-so-scary "cyclopean masonry" in virtually every story. It comes up so often -- and is presented as so disturbing -- that I wonder if Lovecraft was confused as to what it actually WAS: big hunks of rough limestone built into a wall. Disregarding the fact that there is nothing intrinsically sanity-blasting about that sort of architecture, you really have to wonder how all his characters knew what the style was CALLED. Did YOU know what "cyclopean" meant? Did more people in the 1920s know what it meant? Somehow I doubt it.

Anyway, this ties into the prevalence of Lovecraft's lasting legacy: the ubiquitous Necronomicon, the supposedly-rare arcane book of evil and forgotten knowledge...which at least one character in each of his later stories has managed to read at some point. And we're not just talking about occultists and folklorists, we're talking about ORDINARY people. In "At the Mountains of Madness," both the geologist and the BIOLOGIST in the doomed Antarctic expedition have read the book cover-to-cover. Rather than provide atmosphere and depth, the constant citing of the Necronomicon just makes it seem increasingly pedestrian; who can be intrigued by a Book Of Forbidden Knowledge that everybody has read?

My final criticism only applies to two stories so far: "At the Mountains of Madness" and "The Shadow Out of Time." While most of Lovecraft's stories contain a fair amount of movement and action ("The Shadow Over Innsmouth" in particular), those two stories appear to be flimsy excuses for Lovecraft to say "Look at this detailed biological and cultural description of these monsters I made up!" They're dull expository sandwiches: two thin slices of plot surrounding thick, fifty-page examinations of the life and times of creepy pseudo-vegetables. Somebody should have just given Lovecraft a sketchbook for his birthday.

I started reading this collection with low expectations, so despite some extremely long and dry sections I am pleasantly surprised by Lovecraft's work. I am particularly in love with "The Colour Out of Space," which I think is the perfect collection of all of Lovecraft's strengths.

But for your own sake I recommend -- as always -- that you do NOT read all of his work in a row. You may find yourself turning into a fish-monster, losing your sanity, and screaming "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!" in the night, which would be too much for even fearless Harry Houdini to bear.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Yaaaaaaarrrr, Night Moves!

You're a student in southern Ontario during the early '90s, and you haven't yet learned moderation. After a crazy night out with friends, you come home at 3am, and you feel like you're going a bit insane: the room is spinning, you feel spectacularly ill, you're exhausted, but your brain is running laps around your spectacularly-abused body. There's nobody you can talk to, there's no way to distract yourself...where do you turn?

Global TV's "Night Moves."

Somewhere in Toronto, a cameraman with a steadycam walked slowly through streets, subways, and deserted buildings. Sometimes you'd be in a car driving through the main streets and back roads of the city. No narrative, no structure, just some smooth jazz and a vicarious trip through the deserted city.

WHAT A GREAT IDEA. I'm sure it was conceived primarily as a cheap way to fill the early hours with Canadian content, but I (and many, many others) viewed "Night Moves" as a life-saver.

It's still fabulous, and has the added bonus of being a time capsule for the ever-changing city. I'm thrilled that I've finally found it again. Thank you, Global!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Roadbird (Metal Mix)

Awhile back I started working on a remix of one of the songs on Roade, but I got stuck halfway through. I lost my inspiration! I got sick of it!

Meanwhile I'd discovered that Chad Faragher, a fellow workmate, was interested in musical collaboration. I gave him an early mix-down of "Roadbird" and then we got back to work (you know the REAL jobs which allow us to afford these musical gadgets).

Eventually I finished my own version of "Roadbird" and put the audio up for download. I'd forgotten all about the collaboration when suddenly -- on September 7th -- Chad produced his version!

It was hard for him because he didn't have my original tracks to work with, just a messy mix-down that he was forced to record over. He added cello, guitar, additional keys, and even some voices...

...and the result had promise! But it desperately cried for a remix using both MY sources and HIS.

You know where this is going. I mixed and tweaked "Roadbird," and it was good, and I wanted people to hear it. But since people will rarely download audio files but they WILL view embedded videos, it seemed the only way for people to find out about the song was to make a video.

So I gathered together all the footage I haven't used anywhere else, and I tried to film some musically-representative things, and I finally came up with "Roadbird (Metal Mix)."

This is not my finest video moment. While I have no problems making ominous-sounding MUSIC, I find it's very difficult to make an ominous-looking FILM. So I tried a tongue-in-cheek approach. The "musical milk crate" is a lowpoint.

People ARE enjoying the song, but this might be a lesson in itself: a bare (but good) audio file could be better than one coupled with a busy (but not-so-good) video. The video might distract from the song and actually ruin the impression. I'm not saying that's the case, but it's been something that's been going through my mind.

In any case, my recommendation is to put an opaque sheet of black paper over your monitor, turn up the speakers, and enjoy!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dr. Seuss and Flit: "An Optimist"

On January 4, 1930, Dr. Seuss gives us two tragically mutated Lovecraftian nightmares...AND a well-worn vaudeville joke!

This "What is an Optimist?" schtick was a big thing at one time, but it's hard to know whether it was passe by 1930.

I bring this up because throughout its first year of publication the fledgling New Yorker magazine peppered its pages with the same joke, over and over again:
Pa, what's an optimist?

A man who thinks he can do it in par.*
Sometimes, for variety, they'd reverse it.
A man who thinks he can do it in par.

Pa, what's an optimist?
This was obviously some New Yorker editor's 1925 idea of a joke, and the repetition was also supposed to be funny, but...well, I hereby admit that I didn't get it. Eventually it seemed like something they were doing just to fill the occasional half-inch of blank column.

* (I'm paraphrasing a bit because I haven't read those issues in several years, but the joke appeared so often that I think it's permanently engraved in my mind).

Saturday, November 07, 2009

My New Neighbourhood

Up a hill! Down a hill! I never realized there was such a big hill on the edge of Uptown Waterloo. All sides of it are fantastically steep, and there's even a bit of a valley nestled right in the middle, so I get lots of exercise to and from work.

While coming down the hill towards Weber street there's a BEAUTIFUL view to the north, overlooking Moses Springer park and then -- far off -- the student slums of University and Columbia. I'm intrigued by a huge microwave tower out there.

There is always a lone dove sitting on a powerline near Lincoln and Weber, which is also where the few pedestrians diverge to various buses. Even though there is a bus which goes very close to my house, its route is circuitous and seems to almost willfully avoid the main line. Transfers and waiting at University and King is the only way.

The most beautiful homes are up on the hill. Affluence, in this area, means being set so far away from the road that you are completely surrounded by forest. One house appears only accessible up a long, winding wooden staircase with a mailbox at the bottom. I want to live in that house!

All the homes were built in the '60s and look distinctly "Brady Bunch": A-Frame angles, tall narrow windows, ridiculously high ceilings. The people who live in those houses walk their children to work every day; one father piggybacks his daughter all the way down the hill.

My own neighbourhood is not affluent, it would probably be classified as lower-middle class. They're mostly new families and first-time homebuyers. Most of them seem capable of proper recycling and garbage disposal, but a few think that a bin marked "cardboard" is the place where you throw your old Javex bottles.

The supermarket nearby is exceptionally good. The Blockbuster store is badly in need of cleaning and renovation. The Canadian Pizza place makes great pizza, and it's cheap.

I live near a water treatment plant and I am surrounded on three sides by enormous parks. I have done very little exploring but I'm amazed to discover that I live at the very end of Margaret Street, a long city-spanning thoroughfare which runs through every type of possible neighbourhood. This week I walked from the one end -- near my house -- all the way to the other end, which terminates conveniently at the Registry Theatre. It took about 45 minutes.

On my way to work I pass the cheerful, elderly school crossing guard. On the way home I used to greet the cheerful, elderly golden retriever who ran loosely up and down the immaculately-manicured lawns. But a few weeks ago his owners tied him up in the driveway, put down a blue tarp for him, and left his food and water out. I don't believe he is abused but he's certainly sad, sitting there, unable to greet people on the sidewalk. It makes me sad too.

Two days ago I finally realized that I really do live here. It hasn't sunk in yet that I OWN the place, but it's a start at least.

Friday, November 06, 2009

A Valuable Comédienne

From the January 4, 1930 issue of The New Yorker, I read this in Robert Benchley's theatre column regarding a new play called "Top Speed":
The chorus is smart; Irène Delroy dances nicely; Lester Allen has an imaginative sweater-tailor and puts the one new gag over with excellent effect, and a novitiate named, believe it or not, Ginger Rogers seems to be a valuable comédienne in the making.
Yeah, maybe that lady with the strange name will go on to better things?

Better than the play at least. According to Benchley the 1929/1930 season was crammed with mediocre plays about sports. "Top Speed" -- featuring a speedboat race -- was one of a long line, and released at the same time as "Woof Woof" (about whippet racing).

"Top Speed" remains obscure as a play. It's somewhat better known as a subsequent movie adaptation, partly because of Rogers' involvement, but mostly because a "musical backlash" caused First National Pictures to cut out all the film's musical numbers before its American release. Talk about extremes...

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Newsreel Theatres

During late 1929, the Embassy Theatre in New York started a phenomenon: "The Newsreel Theatre." It was a massive hit, other theatres followed suit, and The New Yorker reporters -- though writing in their usual cynical way -- were obviously quite enchanted.

Whereas other theatres only played newsreels in between films, The Newsreel Theatre played them ALL DAY. They collected newsreels from all available sources and just kept playing them, morning and night, in ever-updated one-hour loops.

Radio had already been providing up-to-date news to listeners for several years, but this somehow struck a chord. Maybe it was the visual aspect, or the community feeling, or maybe it was the fact that it was the ONLY venue devoted entirely to news. The New Yorker, however, often mentions the simple joy of just dropping in at any time and never knowing what will come next: adventure stories, politics, opinion, debate, all put together without any logic whatsoever.

Interestingly, it wasn't long before smaller companies began shooting newsreels SPECIFICALLY for the theatres.

Anyway, in the December 28, 1929 issue of The New Yorker, here's a wonderful poem called "Recommendation" by Parke Cummings.
Shots of Mr. Hoover trouting,
Shots of weasels on an outing,
Speech by Czar of cruller-bakers,
Tricks employed by corset-makers,
Sounds of Bossy Gillis talking,
Sounds of albatrosses squawking,
Butterfly weighs sixty ounces,
Men in Denver take to flounces,
Crooning chants by Rudy Vallée,
Felines battle in an alley,
Clerk consumes, in South Dakota,
Twenty pies--his daily quota--
Kafir belles go in for blouses--
Here's to better newsreel houses.
If you're interested in learning more, Time Magazine wrote up The Newsreel Theatre here.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

My Shy Date With Modern Dance

On Thursday night I watched the rehearsal for "60 Dances in 60 Minutes," which will be performed at The Registry Theatre on November 4th. I'd hoped to learn what contemporary dance is all about and -- more importantly -- what makes it entertaining, enlightening, or (God forbid) insufferable to the modern layperson audience-member.

Can I explain the secrets of dance after a mere four hours of exposure? I only saw one single company performing one single piece and I didn't even get to see the end. There are many different approaches to dance, and every audience member is an individual, so I can't just say "This is what it's all about" (as much as that would save me some heavy pondering and how-do-I-express-this anxiety).

Seeing the rehearsal -- and enjoying some whispered chats with Jacob Zimmer, the dramaturge -- hasn't left me with many answers and it hasn't turned me into an instant fan. I learned a few more things about my personal hangups and how they relate to my entertainment the very least it was a good private therapy session.

But I'm not here to tell you about my childhood trauma; that's what the REST of this blog is about. I'm assuming instead that some of my insights may be interesting to you, whether you loathe modern dance or you think it's the absolute cat's meow.


"60 Dances in 60 Minutes" was first performed in February by the five principle dancers of the Dancemakers company. For the show in Kitchener they'd chosen to add five local dancers to the performance, and they thought it would be interesting to have me -- the clueless, curious, neurotic-but-eloquent spectator -- sit in during one of their rehearsals.

I was nervous. As is always the case with events where audience-appreciation is not tied to long-standing rules of etiquette and judgment, my first concern was how much reverence I was expected to have for their work. How serious must I be? Dost I dare to make jokes about thee art, especially being the only person in the audience and surrounded by its performers and creators, all of whom are extremely fit? I can't speak for other shows, but I can say this for sure: if you don't laugh a bit during "60 Dances in 60 Minutes" then you probably have a really crappy sense of humour.

But the question remains: what should the audience get out of this particular performance? The more abstract a piece of entertainment is -- the more distant it is from convention, the fewer obvious cues transmitted by the performers, the more flexible its parameters -- the greater the potential for hostility, boredom, confusion, or feelings of boorish inadequacy. Nobody likes to feel stupid, especially not those of us who consider ourselves open-minded and experienced enough to be able to "get it."

Most forms of contemporary dance do not, in my experience, present themselves in traditional or unambiguous ways. If the audience doesn't "get" the performance, is that a failure of us or the dance company? Is that even a failure at all?


The title "60 Dances in 60 Minutes" gives you an idea of what this performance is about, but here's a more explicit precis: the dancers, singly or in groups, will perform various tasks during a certain time period. How will ten dancers (and the audience) perceive the performance of these tasks in relation to the passage of time?

We have all benefited from (and been victimized by) time's subjectivity. Two hours spent at a good party can feel like ten fleeting minutes, while a ten-minute drive home with a full bladder simply never ends.

"60 Dances in 60 Minutes" is -- in its most obvious interpretation -- about the subjectivity of time. Even if you miss the somewhat hasty and informal explanation at the beginning of the performance, you will eventually notice that the dancers are attempting to synchronize their tasks -- like counting silently in their heads -- but they never finish together despite all their highly-polished dancerly-discipline.

Why can't they sync with each other? Because the passage of time, in the absence of coordinated cues like the a visible clock, is a subjective and ever-changing thing. None of us have quartz crystals in our heads. We rely on metabolism and breathing, stride-length and thought-passage to inform us of how quickly the rest of the world is moving in relation to us. When all the dancers close their eyes simultaneously and start counting silently, and then each of them raises a hand when they have reached the agreed-upon number, the dancer who ate a cheeseburger may finish faster than the one with a painful blister on her heel. This is a bizarre and entertaining way of expressing what we deal with every day: there is no way for people to synchronize with each other without external time cues.

To look at it in one way, "60 Dances in 60 Minutes" is a series of experiments to demonstrate how individual people perceive time. Sometimes the time intervals are short and sometimes they're excruciatingly long, and due to this occasional excruciating nature, the AUDIENCE is ALSO confronted with their individual time-perceptions: three minutes staring at a motionless line of dancers evokes all sorts of feelings, but one of them is how long three minutes can be when not a heck of a lot is going on.


Back to the rehearsal and my impressions of it. Early on I noticed that the director and the performers were using evocative words to describe the sixty different sections of the performance.

One section was called "witnessing," for example, and another was "the how-to's." There were movements called "abbreviations" and "acronyms," and there were also "koala" and "suicide."

These words were a convenient shorthand for the dancers, of course, but I was fascinated by the fact that the audience would never hear those words (unless they looked at the rundown which was provided at the end of the show). When I saw one dancer carrying another, belly-to-belly, in a tight and motionless embrace, my perception of the act changed as soon as I found out -- thanks to my privileged position as silent rehearsal voyeur -- that they referred to this action as "koala." If they'd called it "frog" or "Kali" then I probably would have viewed it differently.

Why do I bring this up? Because our perception of PLOT is just as subjective as our perception of TIME. "Hamlet" would give a very different impression to a 17th century barmaid, a bored highschool student, and a queer theorist respectively. No plot can contain one single, universal impression for everybody. You can say this about books or movies or any other type of public art you can think of.

Contemporary dance rarely telegraphs its narrative as clearly as a Hemmingway novel, and even if it DID there'd be the same issues of interpretation. When we see one woman suspending and holding another woman closely, what does that mean to us? Is it love? Is it trust? Is it fear or hope or disability? Hemmingway would tell us which it was -- and he'd probably wrestle both dancers to the ground as well -- but would we agree with his assertion? And would our perception of the act be richened -- or cheapened -- if we found it was called "koala?"

Contemporary dance, to me, seems largely ambiguous. The thematic clues given to the audience in "60 Dances in 60 Minutes" are not presented like they would be in an Agatha Christie novel...

...but the point of "60 Dances" is not to discover whodunnit before the pompous detective does. I suspect that the dance company would agree with me that they do not expect everybody in the audience to absorb the information provided in exactly the same way; in fact, the company might HATE that possibility. I suspect that they -- and perhaps most artists who work in relatively non-traditional ways -- want the audience members to make up their own minds.

But here's the thing: I'm not part of the dance company, I'm an audience member, so how many clues to the narrative should I be given? How much of it should be explained, and how clearly? Should there be identifiable characters in the performance with individual motivations, or are they all just "dancers," lab rats in a time experiment...a time experiment which I may not even understand is going on? While watching the rehearsal I found myself fixating on the words "koala" and "the how-to's" and "witnessing" because I CRAVED a plot. I clung to one reoccurring figure -- a girl in a parka with a subtly funny walk -- because she provided me with a sense of character that I find satisfying and fulfilling.

"What is the narrative of a symphony?" Jacob asked when we talked about this, and he's correct. And keep in mind that I was also watching the rehearsal of a performance that was yet to be completed, and watching it in the artificial environment of a closed theatre, without an audience, under bright lights, with a full bladder.

But I think this comes to the root of my general wariness about contemporary dance. I am not familiar with the concepts and history of the artform so I can't construct even a tenuous narrative like "I don't understand the literal soup cans but at least I understand pop art." I am also not privy to the thoughts of the dramaturge or the director or the performers, because they choose to remain silent or (more likely) because I hate reading the tiny print on theatre brochures.

Without knowing the concepts that the company is trying to express, I can't compare them with my own impressions. I don't know whether they've succeeded in getting their ideas across. And if my impression is the opposite of what they intended to convey, has the performance been a failure? Is there such a thing as failure in contemporary dance? Or in an abstract painting? In a symphony?

PS: I am generally confused by the symphonies as well. Sorry.


Back to the rehearsal. "60 Dances in 60 Minutes" is not just an experiment in subjective time; if it were then it would be best inflicted on a bunch of undergrads in a controlled manner (hopefully with electric shocks), and not performed on a stage.

No, the AESTHETICS of this performance are important as well. It's as though the success of the aforementioned experiment depends partly on whether the experimenter is wearing footwear which compliments the style of the electroencephalogram.

During the rehearsal there were constant negotiations between the artistic director, the associate director, and all ten dancers about the smallest details of the piece. This process was collaborative and everybody offered suggestions, and while some were practical -- dealing with safety, for instance -- and some related to theme, most of them were based on simple aesthetic considerations.

The discussions about the look and feel of the piece were the only extended and difficult ones I witnessed; should the dancers who perform the "knee burn" be hesitating before they slide, or should they dive right in? When two dancers do an impromptu translation from French to English, should they do it cautiously or should they just shout over each other? And how noisy should each of them be when they all count out loud?

A lot of discussion went into what one particular dancer should do during a three-minute segment. When somebody suggested that she should run to the back wall and press herself against it, associate director Bonnie Kim said "That's great. I love the wall." And everybody agreed.

"Loving the wall" has nothing to do with the theme of "60 Dances in 60 Minutes." There is no thematic reason why that dancer, at that time, should do that particular action. It's not a plot thing, it's not a character thing. It just seemed good.

In another one of our whispered conferences, Jacob agreeed that aesthetic decisions are pervasive and important to him, and they provide another aspect of what the audience may take away from the show: does it feel right? Is it well-paced? Is there enough variety?

Some modern works are composed entirely within rigid initial constraints, which is why they may come across as dry, pedantic, and mechanical. There must always be the consideration of how much one should deviate from (or add to) the central conceit in order to appeal to form and feeling, those most subjective of audience impressions. Does it look or sound good? Does it resonate nicely? Does it move so far from the theme that the point is lost and the audience is distracted?

Sometimes yes, if you're as literal-minded as I am. When the dancers jog or slide or tickle each other, a somewhat grumpy part of my brain wants to know "why are they sliding?" because I can't relate those things to my everyday life. When a stranger walks up to me on the street and spends three minutes explaining to me how to bake a Shepherd's pie, I think he's insane and he probably wants to put me IN the pie, which is not pleasing at all. It's kooky.

Jacob whispers to me about furnishing a room: there are basic rules regarding size and clearance, but there are also aesthetic considerations. It's not generally desirable to eliminate either consideration: you end up with a fully rule-based composition (like a boiler room) or one that looks great but your friends avoid, because the couch is too far away from the coffee table, and you can't see the TV properly, and when you touch the wall it collapses.

If modern dance doesn't appeal to the eye, has it failed? Conversely, if it ONLY appeals to the eye, is it nothing more than an awkward Hokey-Pokey that you're not allowed to join?


Why all this speculation? Why didn't I ask Jacob or director Michael Trent what THEY felt the audience would perceive?

I'm not lazy, honest! I wanted to develop my own ideas about the piece, and I also wanted to glean -- non-verbally, instinctively -- what they subconsciously hoped for and expected. What would be a success for them? What would failure be? Did success or failure even matter?

The primary impression I got was that they enjoy what they do, they are intensely interested in their audience, and they are confident that people WILL appreciate and understand it. During the four hours I was there I didn't actually see them debate their methods of communicating their ideas, but those discussions probably happened long ago, during the initial planning stages, before the February shows ever happened.

And me? My original plan was to go to several rehearsals and try to see the process from different angles, but I don't think I would have learned anything more than I already did, and besides I'd need a lot more exposure in order to make this really be about THEM or YOU instead of ME.

All I REALLY know is that, despite all of my kvetching and analyzing and quizzing, I'm impressed with what they're doing and I can't wait to see the show. I'm sure I'll enjoy it. I won't know why, thank goodness. I think I just will.

But I'll have to take all other performances as they come, much as I would a book, or a film...or even a symphony.