Thursday, April 30, 2009

JJ Sucks Me In

Hey, I'm older than I look (I hope!) Somehow I can't handle a full week of Open Ears concerts while still holding down my 9-5 job. So tonight I decided to stay home, play with my cat, get some work done, and actually sleep.

But first I went to YouTube to check out the latest videos I've subscribed to, and...well, you know how it is. You see a "related video" that sounds intriguing, and twenty minutes later you're sucked into a collection of horribly addictive clips.


My grandmother watches court shows all day, every day. She told me this on Easter and I scoffed at her. I said she was rotting her brain. She agreed.

I just spent two hours watching clips from Judge Judy, because I'm just as susceptible to brain rot as anybody else. My only defense, your honour, is that I never INTENDED to watch them. At worst I am guilty of SECOND DEGREE consumption, so please go easy on me.

To try to get SOMETHING worthwhile out of this monumental waste of time, let me explain why Court TV is so addictive. It's because we spend all day feeling like we're the innocent ones and everybody else is guilty, but we're punished while the guilty people go free. We don't want to wallow in wishy-washy stuff like "points of view" and "selection bias" and "willful blindness of our own stupidity," we just want an omnipotent being to come down and say "You're right, they're wrong, you're better than they are, NEXT!"

Fictional television programs give us a bit of this thrill, but they throw in a bunch of other things and -- after all -- it's only fiction. Reality TV gets closer to home but we still sort of know it isn't real. Trashy talk shows fulfil our need to watch people who are stupider than us actually FIGHT, because sometimes we don't want JUSTICE, we just want some righteous inbred ass-kicking.

But Judge Judy...she is the authority figure we want to have on our side, the one who not only comes down and clearly draws the line between right and wrong, but also delivers the ass-kicking as a sort of frosty dessert. We see exaggerated cases where one person is clearly lying, or stupid, or evil, or all of the above, and then we see us on the other side -- the rightous one who is still fallible enough to get whupped by JJ now and then -- and then the holy fires of Judy come down and reward the right people and send the wrong people away to pay what they owe and make a final statement ("Don't trust JERKS, is all I have to say.")

There are a lot of other things going on as well. We respect Judge Judy's no-nonsense practicality and her ability to get straight to the point (in the editing room). We like to think that Judy would give us a break and approve of our behaviour. We also like the freakshow of people who are clearly stupider than we makes us feel superior in our intelligence, amazed at their incompetence, and furious at their attempted duplicity. If they happen to WIN a case we can get angry that those stupid people were taken ADVANTAGE of, and we can mentally pat them on the head and say "Thanks for being honest, stupid person."

This is all an extension of what we do every day...but it's a HUGE extension. It's narcissistic and polarizing and a gross distortion of what human disagreements are really about. I mean, sure, there ARE times when people go to court for indefensible reasons and get their butts kicked, but usually it's a matter of subtlety, perception, and who-said-what... know, all that stuff we hate thinking about every day because we know that WE are always RIGHT.

Judge Judy, you are fulfilling human needs that are, ultimately, anti-social and demented. But you're funny anyway.

Open Ears 2009: Wedesday April 29

Tonight was one of extreme contrasts. Open Ears is, at its best, capable of surprising you with a mix of contrasting styles and approaches...two hours and two blocks can span the corners of the globe and the moodiest of moodswings. Tonight was one of those nights.

But first, let me mention the common threads woven through this year's festival: the ubiquitous on-stage Macbook, the ever-present whispered spirit of R. Murray Schafer, and the venue-bracketing duo of mismatched photographers who -- for lack of an introduction -- I think of as "Yo-ho Jack" and "Bungie!"

Elevated with David Lang

The show started with a friendly, goofy-looking dog attempting to get a treat out of a glass mason jar. It pawed and chewed, knocking the jar around. The dog didn't have a plan, its approach showed no evidence of learning or consideration...instead, endearingly, he just worked at the problem with no sign of ever giving up.

Despite the sad piano accompaniment, this film was funny at the beginning. People in the audience laughed at the bumbling, innocent, silly and simple animal.

Then the glass jar broke, and the dog started chewing at the sharp edges, trying to reach the treat that was still inside. The piano's downbeat tone took on a totally new meaning. As the animal continued to chew on the broken glass, a palpable wave of disbelief, hostility, and betrayal rose up around us. We, the audience, were shocked to the core.

So, with the film "Treat Bottle" (by William Wegman) and a song called "Wed," the show began, and though the rest of the performance was somewhat less visceral, the mood continued to be one of futility. Then futility again. Then a darker, more oppressive futility than the futility that had come before, with an emphasis on "futility."

I loved it all.

The films were accompanied by professional musicians playing in total lock-step: not a note out of place, not a baffling beat dropped. For a totally miserable ten-minute adaptation of "Heroin," Nadine Medawar sang with perfect pitch, yet fragile and halting and emotionally devastating. They went about this performance like a business and it suited the mood perfectly.

The show ended with the film "Elevated" by Matt Mullican, consisting of slow fades of irregularly-cut 1935 New York scenes: Madison Square Garden, Central Park, burlesque shows, Christmas shoppers, Luna Park. Meanwhile the musicians performed "Men" for trombone, english horn, bass clarinet, baritone sax, two pianos, percussion, viola, cello, and double bass.

Most of the instruments played single extended notes, sometimes harmoniously, usually with a slight dissonance. The man at the bass drum kept time in an almost -- but not quite -- regular tempo, signalling the instruments to change their notes after an uncomfortably long span of time. This created a repetative and disturbing drone that might have been somewhat lulling...

...except for the constant staccato tinkling of single piano keys, and the endless scraping of a brake drum, going on and on and on against those scenes of long-ago people smiling and bustling and shopping...

...and after five minutes you began to get agitated...

...and after then minutes you didn't think you could take it anymore...

...but after twenty minutes you realized it could go on forever and there was nothing you could do to stop it, and it felt like the aftermath of a speed-drug high when time is dragging and you're unable to sleep and even the most pleasant things leave you with a feeling of terrible emptiness...

...and after thirty minutes you've stopped hoping for change and lost all track of time...

...and then forty-five minutes later it stops. And you feel so good.


So while the first show was a rigidly-constrained evocation of the most hopeless emotional depths, the second -- The Ellis Tanguay Cram E.T.C. Trio -- was a wild, joyful jazz improv. It was like finding out that the doctor was only kidding when she said you had cancer, and what's more you just won a car. YAY!

I used to hate free jazz, but over the years -- thanks mainly to exposure at past Open Ears festivals -- I've begun to learn how to relate to it. When the musicians start down a particular path I get a sense of the parameters they're setting themselves, and I can follow along with some degree of competence. When the drummer seems to be ripping the song into impossible and ever-unravelling shreds, I can find the beat makers that hide underneath. In short, I've learned to simply loosen up and have fun, and it helps when the musicians are having as much fun as E.T.C. were.

I'm exhausted after a day of work and shows so I can't give the guys their due, They brought me up and made me happy, and I certainly wasn't alone. I could have listened to them all night long.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Open Ears 2009: Tuesday April 28

Sunday was my mother's birthday and I had to work on Monday night, so I missed a few minor things...but Tuesday appeared to be the REAL beginning of OE'09.

Jesse Stewart, Improvisations for Solo Waterphone

You want to hear a waterphone in action? Jesse's your man!

But wait, what the heck is a waterphone? It's a very cool, extremely resonant instrument that looks like a cross between a footstool and a sexed-up porcupine. You can tap it, scrape it, pluck it, shake it, then fill it up with water and do it all over again!

Stewart's approach seemed a bit like "A Young Person's Guide to the Waterphone" -- trying every technique once, then moving on to the next one -- but I quickly realized that the effect was infinitely richer if I closed my eyes. With open eyes I found myself intellectualizing in an extremely mundane way ("Now he's rubbing it with something he's rubbing it the other way!"). But when I was unable to see what he was doing the sounds became rich and mysterious. They became an improvisational composition instead of a demonstration of technique.

I seriously think that Stewart should do this with his back to the audience.

Incidentally, if you've ever heard the soundtrack for "The Hunger," you may have wondered how they made all those wonderful atmospheric noises. Now I can tell you with absolute certainty that they were rubbing a violin bow across the waterphone's spikes. Tell your friends.


They're the winners of this year's "Stinky Ears" award! (unless something worse comes along, God forbid).

During the endless show -- which made me think of a warm glass of milk growing steadily more tepid beside a collection of videos by The Parachute Club -- I thought of two dozen vicious, evil, absolutely CRUEL things to say about their performance. But I want to be nice about this, because the tranSpectra people are human beings with families and feelings, and there was one exceptionally good moment (see below).

So instead of writing a snarky list of everything I thought was terrible about their show, let me briefly describe what it takes to win a Stinky Ears award. It's open season on whether or not tranSpectra were guilty of these don't have to do ALL of them to win, you lucky devils.
  1. Interesting, complex subjects applied in a pedestrian, "yearbook poetry" way.
  2. The subjects must have already been "done to death" -- and done much better -- at least ten years ago, preferably twenty. Bonus points for ecology, poverty, physics, mathematics, warfare, and thinly-veiled guilt at one's own social privilege.
  3. Total, single-minded pretention. Nobody can crack a smile. The sopranos -- if there be sopranos -- must look stern and sing in a verrrr-eeee seeee-reeee-ussss waaaaaay.
  4. Sloppiness. It looks and sounds like a rehearsal. The performers appear to be amazed they're getting away with it.
  5. Far too long. Awkward pauses.
  6. No empathy with the audience.
  7. Over-hyped techniques which fall far short of expectations.
  8. Musical instruments which fail to mesh together and simply sound ill-conceived or poorly executed. Granular synthesis is a plus, as are boopy keyboards.
  9. Dirty ears (not necessary).
Tonight's only exception was "Calypso," which rose above everything else with wit, style, skill, and -- for once -- tip-top execution. It had life, and not just in comparison to the totally bloodless pieces which surrounded positively BOUNDED!

At the end, after the hernia-inducing "Deaths of Children Update," I was just rising to leave when the tranSpectra creatures announced that they were GOING TO CONTINUE. This was like being told by an executioner that more children were scheduled for death, and I must watch until the end. I couldn't take it. I left.

So yeah, all-in-all a pretty grim night, but I DO feel the need to point out that the very capable dancer was Yvonne Ng, who I instantly recognized as the freaky baby from "Silent Hill." I almost stuck around to ask her about it but I wasn't sure if it's the way she'd want to be remembered. In the featurette she talked about how difficult it was to pee.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Set the Lady on Fire

Just when I'd thought the Murad folks had exhausted their list of "embarrassing moments," they present a new one.

Jeez, has anybody actually DONE this? And if they did, was it helpful to respond by standing there and smoking a cigarette? Why not throw the lighted cigarette at her as well?

Open Ears 2009: Saturday April 25

Yes, it was day two of the 2009 Open Ears Festival...and I was there. Sort of.

"Vexed," 16 hours, 840 repetitions, much fun

Remember when I said "I was there" in the first sentence of this post. Forget it. I didn't go to "Vexed"

Why not? I guess because I have a strong aversions to "happenings" of any kind. I'm not the type, and I'm generally not a huge fan of those who are. And even though -- in retrospect -- it looked like there were plenty of innovative ways of making it less than simply "840 repetitions," I still couldn't bring myself to take part in it.

Saturdays are good days for breakfast, underwear shopping, and catastrophic thunder storms. I enjoyed all three.

"Flying Bulgars"

Not a SINGLE ONE of them actually flew! But I'm getting ahead of myself.

This was held at St. John the Evangelist church. Do you know how many "St. Johns" there are? The taxi driver told me all about them...John the Baptist, John the apostle, John the Evangelist. Neither of us knew who this particular evangelist was...I don't believe he's ever had a TV show.

Anyway, what do you get when you have a concert in a church gymnasium? Tinny sound, unfortunately, The Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band sounded best when they were laid-back and quiet. When they pulled out the stops and really started romping around, the gymnasium became their Enemy of Treble Echoes.

Even so they were fantastic. I'm not a klezmer fan by any stretch of the imagination -- I find it awfully repetitive and just a tad goofy -- but the Flying Bulgars set consisted mostly of original compositions, and those compositions were AMAZING: original, complex, beautifully articulate, and sometimes political.

Two downsides, though: these new songs will only be available on their UPCOMING album. And they also played a few klezmer songs, surprisingly. I mean, songs that make me think of "The Chicken Dance." Done in a top-notch way, of course -- the arrangements were, I'm sure, absolutely the best -- but still an awful lot of "mazel tov." Which is a shame because, as evidenced by their original work, they can do SO MUCH MORE.

Flugelhorn. How is it differentiated from "a trumpet?" I'm not sure. David Buchbinder can sure play it. Deviating somewhat from the traditional sound of the set, Buchbinder coaxed his flugelhorn into doing some very unusual tricks, without ever -- EVER -- seeming stupid or gimmicky. And Dave Wall has a voice of unleashed power and beauty. Everybody else was great as well, and if their new album had been available I would have bought it in a second.

Oh yes, and the Evangelists served us alcohol and gave us cheese. That's always a good thing!

I leave you with Dana International. Everything I know about Yiddish* I learned from her, so here she is singing "Yesnan Banot." The Flying Bulgars were not particularly like this.

* As Gary pointed out in the comments, Dana International is singing in HEBREW, not Yiddish. So I guess it really IS true that "everything I know about Yiddish I learned from her," ie. "nothing."

Saturday, April 25, 2009

iMovie '09 Stabilizes Me

This "make a movie from scratch" thing is entirely new to me, but every project is a learning experience. I've learned a little bit about composition, and a bit about lighting, and a LOT about how to use iMovie for something it's not meant for.

iMovie is a video editing tool that is part of Apple's iLife, a suite of integrated multi-media products. You get iLife for free when you buy a Macintosh so a lot of people create their home video projects using iMovie. It's a hell of a lot cheaper than Apple's professional offering (Final Cut Pro).

But why should Apple bother to even SELL Final Cut Pro if people are happy to simply use iMovie? Well, Final Cut Pro is marketed to the professional video editor, and iMovie is marketed to hobbyists. And for that reason, before Apple releases a new version of iMovie, they usually go into it with a stick and beat everything useful out of it.

Even so, if you have a little bit of ingenuity (and an awful lot of patience) you can stretch iMovie beyond its limits and create -- say -- all the videos I've been putting online for the last two years.

This week, however, I ran up against something new: shaky video. In the past I have always filmed footage using a tripod, but now that I'm trying something radically different -- which you'll see soon if it works out halfway decent -- I actually had to take my teeny-tiny camera (a Canon PowerShot SD1000) outside and shoot things by hand...on a windy day.

Despite the wind, there's apparently a growing problem with cameras getting smaller and smaller: tiny, light cameras are hard to hold without shaking them. When I got my hard-filmed footage home and looked at it on my computer I absolutely freaked: it wobbled all over the place, rendering all my focus and detail into an incomprehensible stew!

Short of hiring a steadycam operator I had only one recourse: to upgrade to iMovie '09, which -- besides a whole whack of other new features -- allows you to stabilize shaky video. It analyzes your clip, tracks the motion, and then zooms in JUST ENOUGH to crop out the edges while moving in the opposite direction of the shake.

People are raving about this feature, and about iMovie '09 in general. The thing is, you can only buy iMovie '09 as an integrated iLife '09 package, and this costs (in Canada) $100.

That would be fine if I actually USED anything in iLife other than iMovie and iPhoto, or if there were an existing upgrade path from the relatively pathetic iMovie '08 (which is what I've been using for the past year)...but no. As the folks in our local Apple store said, "There's no upgrade path, but the suite is WAY cheaper than anything you'd get from another company."

Plus there is simply no other game in town. All the other video editors for the Mac are either crappy or vapourware.

So I bought iLife '09 yesterday and installed it late last night. It came to life instantly and worked perfectly. And when I instructed it to stabilize one of my shaky clips -- which it does at about half the speed of the clip itself -- it...holy wow, it WORKED! It looked PERFECT!

I've stabilized half the footage I shot yesterday and it has all come out clean: no shake, no weirdness, just a smoothly-flowing image. All my carefully-filmed details are visible again. iMovie '09 -- despite its slightly galling price -- did exactly what it promised to do.

How often can you say that about software these days? And I haven't even looked at all the OTHER features yet.

Apple, I quite often love ya.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Open Ears 2009: Friday April 24

It's time once again for Kitchener's "Open Ears" festival, one of the few events in town that I feel is targeted towards me. It's a time when local venues open their doors to quirky -- and sometimes very famous -- outsider musicians and composers, allowing us to experience new things and finally see those obscure acts we've always heard about. You big-city folk are probably used to this sort of thing, but here in the boonies it's a rare and wonderful treat.

I've been to the last two festivals (it happens every second year) and I've got my full 2009 pass. Tonight the Center in the Square hosted the first two events.

"In C" (Terry Riley), performed by the Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of Music Students

I've never seen "In C" before. It's something everybody talks about. Now I know why.

You can read about its structure at the Wikipedia page. In this case it was performed by about thirty musicians, and I think it lasted for 45 minutes. The most obvious thing about it were the constant, regular, never-ending C note played on some sort of small xylophone, while violinists, a cellist, an acoustic guitarist, two pianists, a guy with a discreet synthesizer, and a bunch of people with horns played the phrases in a semi-improvisational way.

Obviously the phrases have been picked to avoid any sort of discordance, but even so this sort of thing could be either a creative dogfight or a woefully flat bunch of boring. In this case, however, all the musicians were playing close attention to each other -- rising and falling in long swells throughout the piece -- and they were also allowing others to take the forefront. In short, everybody stuck together and everybody picked up their cues. It was hypnotic, beautiful, and a wee bit awesome.

I felt sorry for the xylophone woman (known as "the Metronome") and the single vocalist. Sore arms and a dry throat, no doubt.

"Sound Explorations" (various composers), performed by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, conducted by Edwin Outwater with Stephen Sitarski, violin

As usual for me, the ticketing procedure for Open Ears has been bizarre. After no end of confusion actually BUYING my festival pass, the fun continued at tonight's show...the usherettes didn't know what to do with the temporary ticket that was mailed to me ("I've never seen one of these. Should I rip it in half?"). The man at the box-office traded half of the temporary ticket for two (?) ACTUAL tickets to the symphony show, even though I was going alone and had only purchased one. The usherettes ripped ONE of the tickets, leaving me with the other that I suppose I could have hocked.

Once inside the venue I presented the other half of my temporary ticket to a guy at the Open Ears kiosk, and he gave it back to me and also gave me a lanyard, leaving me with one UNCLAIMED show ticket, one CLAIMED show ticket, one half of the TEMPORARY ticket ("You need to always keep this with you," he said), and the thing to hang around my neck.

Then, after watching "In C" (which was performed in the lobby), I entered the theater itself and was shown to my assigned seat. A woman sat on my left, and another woman sat two seats to my right, and they started to talk over my head. This totally confused me -- why hadn't they gotten seats together? -- and when I offered to trade seats so they could chat more comfortably they told me that a doctor and his wife always sat in my seats, "but maybe they're on vacation."

So there I was sitting in another person's reserved seat, beside an empty seat for that person's wife, upon which was taped a special invitation telling me to go to the theater office to claim a special gift I'd earned for donating $1250 to the Center in the Square.

Fortunately the concert itself made more sense.

Two of the numbers ("The Hebrides" by Felix Mendelssohn and "The Sea: Suite for Orchestra" by Frank Bridge) were quite conventional, presented as inspirations for the more experimental works that followed them. I was never taken to the symphony as a child and I haven't made it a practice as an adult, so I'm afraid I've never quite known how to LISTEN to orchestral music. How does it parse? Where does it lead? The only experience with classical music I've ever really had was listening to "Switched-on Bach" and watching "Allegro Non Troppo":

(For those who want to know how it ends, the second half is here and the finale is here).

So when I see a symphony performing a really nice piece of music I find myself unable to just soak it up and not think about it; my eyes are always darting from one person to the other...the percussionist who looks like Dawn French, the cadaver playing the cello, the young violinist who bobs her head with carefree abandon, the endearingly swishy conductor.

More my line was R. Murray Schafer's "The Darkly Splendid Earth: The Lonely Traveller," which was a tad more challenging. I tend to be unimpressed by daringly avant-garde symphonic pieces, but this one was short on discord and stayed close within its boundaries: ominous sonic landscape, lonely violin. It was both emotionally and intellectually stimulating.

NOTE: Mr. Schafer himself is coming to Cambridge this week to perform a "Harbingers of Spring" soundwalk which sounds terribly flaky. There are drummers.

After the encore we got John Cage's "4'33"" I was curious to see how the audience would respond to this piece...and I was totally surprised.

Now's a good time to mention that this show overlapped with KW Symphony's "Signature Series" which provides much more conventional fare. For this reason most of the people in the audience were dapper elderly couples, with a scattered collection of the middle-aged. I thought that "4'33"" would annoy them.

As I understand it the piece tends to invoke a lot of "audience noise," which is pretty much the entire point: allowing the theatre environment to express itself. But in this case the folks in the audience were so respectful that we all sat in total silence except for scattered coughs and giggles. A woman behind me even APOLOGIZED for giggling. But I suppose that was one of "the environments" that Cage anticipated.

The last piece was Benjamin Britten's "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra." It had very little relation to the Art of Noise-remixed Frankie Goes to Hollywood song, "Rage Hard (The Young Person's Guide to the 12-Inch Mix)," but was just as fabulous.

"Always note the sequencer. It will never let us down. Let it have its wicked way."

What can I say about "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra?" It's a showcase of every instrument's strengths without ever being TOO obvious. It deliberately contains every cliche in the book. All four percussionists -- Dawn French included -- got a thorough workout. It felt great, but the best part was the opportunity it gave the "resting" musicians to watch and appreciate those at work, something I think they rarely get to do in such a segmented way.

At the end of the show I started chatting with Wendy, the woman next to me. She holds a pass to the "Signature Series" and I hold a pass to "Open Ears," so we came from different but mutually-appreciative directions. We talked about the music we'd heard and what we liked, and it was VERY interesting to hear her impressions. She explained by the conductor kept shaking hands with ONLY two of the musicians on stage (they were the first and second violins). And then she drove me home! You rock, Wendy!

Anyway, the festival has begun and it's going to be a busy week. Stay tuned for trivial updates.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Dr. Couney's Babies at Coney Island

File this one under "Did you know...WHAT, he DID?"

From 1903 to 1943, Dr. Martin Arthur Couney had a very unusual show at Coney Island: an incubator full of human babies. Dr. Couney would take in premature babies, incubate them in public, and charge money for people to come and watch.

According to the July 6, 1929 issue of The New Yorker, here's how it all started. Previous to Couney's incubator, nobody had figured out how to keep premature babies warm while still providing them with clean air. In Breslau, Silesia, Couney built a tall chimney which could suck in dust-free air from above the rooftops. It worked!
An American exposition was travelling through Europe then...and the manager persuaded him to come to this country to exhibit his invention as a sideshow. He first set up in Omaha, Nebraska. Eventually Fred Thompson, the old showman who started Luna Park, brought him to Coney Island. That was in 1903. He has been there since and saved about six thousand lives.
This location had a surprising benefit.
One lady, expectant, took a ride on a roller-coaster, had her baby prematurely, and was not more than a block away from an incubator. Pretty handy!
How could Couney afford to do this? The way EVERY sideshow performer did.
The gate receipts have always been adequate, and the twenty-five cents which the public pays supports the institution, gives Dr. Couney a profit, and enables him to employ two physicians and eleven nurses and provide free board and lodging for his little red beginners.
I wonder if the nurses wore spangly outfits and, for an encore, juggled the babies.

Some final information that you may find interesting.
Every three hours the babies are taken out and fed. They get only human milk, from wet nurses, and occasionally a drop of whiskey...

The babies are always grateful, but sometimes the parents aren't. One father, seeing his tiny son attracting boardwalk crowds, demanded that he be given a percentage of the gate.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"Is Prohibition a Success?"

From the "Talk of the Town" section of the July 6, 1929 issue of The New Yorker, regarding "Fifty thousand dollars [being spent] for a publicity campaign to popularize prohibition."
One of the prohibition slogans for school use is "Is Prohibition a Success? Ask the Bankers, or Ask the Salvation Army, the Social Workers, the Mothers. Ask Everybody." In order that school children shouldn't be deceived about anything, we actually started out to ask some of these groups. We asked the bankers first. "Bankers," we said, "is prohibition a success?" There was no answer. All the bankers were out of town, attending the convention of the New York State Bankers' Association--in Toronto, Canada.

Monday, April 20, 2009

"A Big Gay Storm" Gets Some Big Gay Attention

I just noticed that a whole bunch of people were suddenly subscribing to my YouTube channel. That "Big Gay Storm" video I made last week was ratching up the hits, and by following the links I discovered -- wow! -- that I topped a Queerty "Top 10 Gathering Storm Parodies" list!
And our winner for the best NOM parody goes to Ms. Muffy St. Bernard. Leave it to the drag queens to come up with a wholly original take on the ad. This is everything that a good parody ad should be: It's a delightful send-up that is not only wildly entertaining, but also drives home its message by utilizing the comic power of leopard print and tiny, dirty pillows.
I mean holy cow, that's pretty cool, though maybe I should clean my pillows next time. Thanks, Queerty!

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Looking at this advertisement you might be excused for thinking that it was about shirts.

Silly you!

Starting sometime during 1928, various newspapers started advertising in The New Yorker, but they never said anything as direct or uncouth as "buy our paper." No, they'd engage in HUGE acts of misdirection, supposedly to prove the sophistication of their style and the class of their readership, before doing a 180 at the end and saying that if YOU want to be equally sophisticated and classy, you should read their periodical.

This "Shirts" advertisement is the epitome of this style, partly because of the lengths it goes to before delivering the pitch, but also because of the striking -- almost hypnotic -- prose. I'm sad that this sort of marketing copy has long since faded from our magazines, but in fond remembrance here is the advertisement in full.
Most of us, who casually glance at the slight bit of shirt-front which spreads itself across the modest open space of the average man's waistcoat, are not familiar with the fact that once upon a time the very, very meticulous dresser wore a delicate, full-bodied affair of silk or fine linen touched off with quite ladylike embroidered collar and cuffs. However, in those days, a shirt was a it is something very practical, to be owned by the dozen, with vast consideration accorded variety. Millions of New York men are constantly purchasing shirts...and the smarter the man the wider his collection. It includes everything from well-fitting white oxfords, broadcloths and linens to the refreshing single tones of blue, tan, green, oyster, and, quite naturally, the modest stripings with nicely tailored collars to match...and the dapper dicky bosom with dashing cross-stripes. Indeed, the great shirt makers, and their retail outlets, have left no stone unturned to the end that all shall be bountifully supplied, especially the type of man who reads The Sun...for he purchases freely, and perhaps extravagantly. He values the peaks and valleys of Style and reads The Sun for ripe and authentic news, whether it applies to shirts or ships, boots or baseball, society or shillings.

I'd Buy Anything By...Pan Sonic

In the barbaric PYT days ("Pre-YouTube") you could rarely watch a music video online. Only the more progressive record companies actually offered videos on their websites, and you generally had to go through a huge process of installing special players in order to watch them.

Back in the late '90s there was a European online service that would push videos to you, and through this service -- whose name I can't remember -- I learned about a lot of great music. It was also where I saw the "Endless" video by Vainio Väisänen Vega, a side project of Finland's Pan Sonic (then known as "Panasonic.")

Sadly that video has never resurfaced, but this one for the song "Urania" sums up the Pan Sonic sound: lockstep, mechanical, sharp, repetative, yet somehow danceable.

Their albums have never been easy to find or cheap, and what's more they all tend to be more-or-less the same. I'm also not a fan of the short experimental pieces they used to put in between their songs, usually consisting of an ear-piercing signal that seemed to go on forever. But whenever I DO see a Pan Sonic album I pick it up, and someday maybe I'll be lucky enough to seem them live.

Albums to buy: Even though there aren't very many of them, I confess that I've never collected them all. I really like "Kulma" and "A," both of which have some truly vicious songs on them. Albums to avoid: their Alan Vega collaborations, which are 5% amazing and 95% embarrassing.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Videodrome was one of those movies that I saw when I was far too young. It was, in fact, the basis of a memorable power struggle between my parents when I was twelve years old, my father forced to put his hands over my eyes during the disturbing parts, while my mother yelled "He's PEEKING! Even a BLIND man can see he's PEEKING!"

She was right, I was, and I probably shouldn't have been because "Videodrome" is a nasty piece of work. It's arguably David Cronenberg's most excessive movie, riding on the then-current wave of "snuff films" and media prophets and arguments about censorship and exploitation. What did I know about that stuff before I'd even reached puberty? How could I possibly understand the explicitly-filmed sexual sadism? And believe me, that's probably the MOST normal part of the movie.

I've mentioned before in this blog the way that certain things -- songs, books, movies -- seemed "magical" when I was a child, because I didn't understand their context and therefore I couldn't think critically about them. Nowhere is this more true than with "Videodrome," with which I was forced to draw connections and conclusions that were wildly off the mark. Now, when I watch the movie, I still get a whiff of those bizarre and inarticulate thoughts that I had as a child, and no doubt that's one reason I love the movie so much.

But more than that, it's just a really spectacular film. Not in a visually-impressive sort of way -- though seeing James Woods with a giant vaginal Betacam port in his stomach is pretty shocking thing -- but in the overall tone. It's detatched and alien. It LURKS. Everything about it is totally unexpected. It is, in many ways, the way that cities like Toronto must look to the lonely and the lost.

Then there's Howard Shore's music, often a droning analog synth without any accompaniment. And the dead-eyed looks in all the actor's faces. And beyond the frankly brilliant premise, the slow realization that evil technocratic horror does not originate in Malaysia...and not even Pittsburg...but rather in the little eyeglass shop next door.

Yesterday at Gen-X we were wondering why David Cronenberg stopped making good movies. We decided that he's just getting older. Thank goodness we still have this film to make us feel awful.

I'd Buy Anything By...Parliament / Funkadelic

It took me many years to finally understand "the funk." I think that my ideas about music were too rigid; I didn't think that a song should be "a party," or have any loose ends, or shun a strict verse/chorus structure.

When I started DJ'ing the '80s night at Club Renaissance in 2004 I bought a lot of "greatest hits" compilations, and when I listened to the one for Parliament I fell totally in love. The joy! The silliness! The virtuosity! The mythology! The songs that just repeated endlessly until the fade-out! Somehow the funk got into me and -- as we know -- "Funk gets stronger, just a silly millimeter longer."

It took me some time to get used to George Clinton's role in the band as sort of figurehead, MC, and center of gravity. Parliament was full of so many wonderful musicians but Clinton always stood in front of them, and his personality overshadowed their quiet contributions. The thing is, a band full of enthusiastic drugged-out geniuses probably NEEDED Clinton to keep them focused. But if you're looking to a man like Clinton for stability then you're probably in a lot of trouble, and they certainly were.

Eventually I branched out to all the Parliament side-projects and discovered that some of them are really awful. Drum machines and cheap keyboards seemed to really kill the funky sound during the '80s. Funkadelic remains my personal favourite spin-off, being the harder-edged and more experimental side of the group.

The videos on YouTube are mostly crappy and I'm still getting over my cold so I'm going to cut this entry short, but here's the usual ending:

Parliament albums you should buy: the classic three ("Up for the Down Stroke," "Chocolate City," and "Mothership Connection") are totally solid and avoid the excesses of the later albums. I also love "Osmium" but it's a mighty strange beast. Albums you should avoid: "Gloryhallastupid" is pretty bad in my opinion, though I'm sure there are worse out there in spin-off land. For fans only: any of a million live albums of dubious lineage, and the bizarre Ruth Copeland releases.

Funkadelic albums you should buy: They are ALL brilliant until "Uncle Jam Wants You," where they seem to lose their way and get tired.

Dr. Seuss and Flit: "Good Pilgrim Stock"

Here's the one from the June 22, 1929 issue of The New Yorker. Note the ubiquitous presence of "The Cat in the Capotain." I'm a bit confused about the pilgrim couple in the background...maybe a reference to the country being founded on "the gun and the bible?"

What's Inside That Girl? Oh Yeah, YEAST!

As usual, I continue to report on the olde time cult of yeast.

This advertisement is from our usual suspects at Fleischmann's, and asks
Glowing lovely skin, eyes that sparkle, a radiant compelling smile--what are these but the mirrors of clean internal health?
What indeed! Proving once again that people will believe anything if you couch it in scientific terms, the copy actually says "Doctors estimate that nine out of ten of our common ills come from constipation." Remember that next time you sprain your ankle.

"Step Inside and See the Strange People"

(From the June 22, 1929 New Yorker, by John Reynolds)

Books of the Last Few Weeks

One reason that I stop blogging is because there are lots of things I want to write about, but actually doing so seems too big a task. Eventually I need to either spend a few hours writing all those imagined entries, or just forget them all and start anew.

As a compromise, here are some capsule thoughts on the books I've been reading.

"Every Man for Himself" by Beryl Bainbridge

It's the story of one man aboard the Titanic, from the moment of departure to its eventual sinking. Being a Bainbridge novel, the story is more about the man and his relationships than it is about the actual boat, and the man himself is such an unreliable and odd character that you can't trust anything he says.

The book is wonderful and appears, primarily, to be a meditation on the modern aristocracy; those lucky folk on the upper decks who survived so much more reliably than those below. Bainbridge doesn't romanticize either of the classes on the ship, but she certainly draws a distinction between the witty game-playing amongst the rich, the invisible-ness of those in steerage, and the rough pride of the crew.

As much as I liked the book, though, I felt that it pretty much ignored what being on a ship is LIKE. Even during the capsizing of the Titanic -- a monumental situation -- Bainbridge is more concerned with the thoughts of the protagonist than describing the situation itself. So, to learn more about boats and sailing, I read a book I'd picked up at last year's Unitarian Church book sale:

"Two Years Before the Mast" by Richard Henry Dana Jr.

A highly detailed account of the author's two-year stint as a merchant seaman during the 1830s, it gives a complete blow-by-blow of the nature, traditions, problems, and hardships of such trips. He says at the beginning that he refuses to explain the nautical terms (because people read such books all the time without needing to understand those things), but I found myself swamped by repeated passages such as this:
From the fore top-gallant yard, the men slid down the stay to furl the jib, and from the mizen top-gallant yard, by the stay into the maintop, and thence to the yard; and the men on the topsail yards came down the lifts to the yard-arms of the courses. The sails were furled with great care, the bunts triced up by jiggers, and the jibs stowed in cloth.
A+ for accuracy, Dick, but does anybody really care? A fair proportion of the book is written like this, perhaps to support the central point that going to sea is not a romantic occupation full of breath-taking adventure and spectacular is primarily an endless series of watches, furling, unfurling, cleaning, staring at the horizon, and then more cleaning. Dana says often in the book that "a boat is like a woman's watch: always in need of repair." I didn't realize that until I read this and it's a point well-taken.

At one point in the book, Dana describes his joy when, in the middle of the voyage, he came across a copy of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel "Paul Clifford." I thought it would be interesting to seek out and read this book for myself, to better get the feel of what Dana was reading on that ship. I found copies on abebooks and ordered the cheapest and most local copy I could find...and imagine my surprise that it's an 1835 edition! This beautiful little book is very much like the one that Dana himself read...neat.

"Salt Water Taffy" by Corey Ford

Anyway, more on that later. Another impetus for this "nautical" theme was from a review of Corey Ford's "Salt Water Taffy" in the June 15, 1929 New Yorker magazine. Accompanying the glowing review was this beautiful for a larger version.

Once again I went to abebooks and found myself a copy, and it's absolutely hilarious. A parody of Joan Lowell's "The Cradle of the Deep" -- a tall-tale autobiography which turned out to be absolutely false -- it's the story of how "June Triplett" is born on a boat, captures a pet waterspout, learns about sex from a female shark, tries to become a virgin on the Virgin Islands, and eventually writes her autobiography while swimming back to New ridiculous as the book it's parodying, apparently.

The best thing about the book are the dozens of goofy pictures. Some of them are taken aboard a real boat, while others are crude cut-outs of the actors, pasted onto stock footage. These actors don't get any credit in the book itself but the advertisement above mentions that they are Heywood Broun, Reinald Werrenrath, Neysa McNein, Frank Crowninshield, Harold Ross, Donald Ogden Stewart, Frank Sullivan, "and other literati and the like." In short, a bunch of cynical and artsy New Yorker goofballs.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Big Gay Storm is Brewing

It's Easter, and the National Organization for Marriage is rolling out a hilarious anti-gay scary-boo advertisement.

While getting ready to go out last night, it was almost as though Jesus himself were tickling the parody center of my brain. I was COMPELLED to make a response.

Note: You need to have been following the issue pretty closely to get the final gag. Close on the heels of American conservatives adopting "teabagging" as a method of protest, the National Organization for Marriage decided to shorten their "Two Million for Marriage" campaign to "2M4M."

Like, they live in such a bubble that they don't even double-check their acronyms against popular knowledge. They have terrible quality control of their memes.

Friday, April 10, 2009

"Repo! The Genetic Opera"

I love an enthusiastic, genre-bending, over-the-top cult film as much as the next person, but perhaps I'm cynical when film studios deliberately TRY to create a cult. It's for these reasons that I flirted with renting "Repo! The Genetic Opera" for so many months, but only broke down and watched it this weekend.

Yeah, I like Nivek Ogre. I used to have a love of Sarah Brightman, but I'm a little sick of her now. I am obsessed with Poe, but she's on the soundtrack for about eight seconds. Anthony Stewart Head was one of the highpoints of the rejuvenated Doctor Who's second season. In short, I had a lot of good reasons to enjoy the film.

But here's a tip: if you're creating a musical, you need to actually have GOOD MUSIC. I know that sounds crazy but it's true. Lyrics which passed muster when you performed your little play in a nightclub do not necessarily work on the big screen, especially not when professional actors need to fumble their way through your awful highschool poetry.

I give you a sample.
Ashes, dust... (Ashes! Dust! )
My children were a bust.
They shall inherit nothing.
No... no...
My legacy is too great
To throw away on ingrates.
Nathan Wallace had potential,
Until he stole my Marni away!
In denial, Nathan blamed himself for Marni's sudden death,
But never once thought to suspects the man who wrote his checks!
I guess... I'll take it to my death! (Things you see in a graveyard)
I'll take it... to... my... death.
Besides the lyrics, I was trying to figure out why none of the music seemed to FIT together. There's nothing wrong with a musical soundtrack being full of a bunch of different styles -- often times it's almost expected -- but each song in "Repo!" sounded like it was produced and recorded by a different person...and in fact, each SEGMENT of each song sounded that way, as though three dozen musicians in ten different sudios had collaborated online to produce a final patchwork result.

Then I saw the list of musicians in the credits, and I realized the final, fundamental flaw of "Repo!" It's a fan project. Rather than form a solid core of talent and therefore give the film a uniform feel, they accepted the services of every actor and musician that they salivated about in their fanboy dreams, and let them ALL take part in the show.

Now, think back to the musicals that "Repo!" is so obviously inspired by: "Rocky Horror Picture Show" and -- perhaps by extension -- "Phantom of the Paradise." The music for those soundtracks was performed by a handful of session musicians who were used to working in any genre, while still retaining a distinctive sound.

In "Repo!" you have fifty-odd musicians who -- for the most part -- are members of established bands. These are people who, apparently, CANNOT set aside their distinctive styles and play with the rest of the musicians. Add to this a bunch of different producers and you have a mess of music that rarely ever gels. And THEN add actors who perform duets in entirely different ways -- Alexa Vega's "power pop" meets Anthony Stewart Head's mixture of opera and angst rock -- and you get songs that sound like a bunch of cats spinning around in an industrial dryer.

In short, you get "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band - THE MOVIE!", albeit admittedly more heartfelt.

But it's not all bad. The LOOK of the film is beautiful from beginning to end. Sarah Brightman's stage presence almost manages to save the day, and her eyes -- augmented by digital and makeup effects -- are absolutely spellbinding. It's also apparent that the film had a troubled history, involving last-minute changes and a whole ton of cut scenes.

So with all its glaring flaws, I can't bring myself to hate "Repo! The Genetic Opera." In fact, I find the whole project a little heartwarming, as a sign of how good intentions can sometimes ruin a film. If the premise appeals to you then I suspect you'll like it well enough, but you may shrink away whenever anybody sings...which, sadly, is through the entire film.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Horror Movie Cliches That I Simply Will Not Take Anymore

Next time you're watching a horror movie -- particularly one from the last ten years -- consider this a "cliche checklist" that will spoil your fun.
  1. The pre-teen in peril, the anguished parent.
  2. The spooky pre-teen, the frightened but loving parent.
  3. Flickery things -- usually heads -- that shake around in an unnaturally fast way (thanks, Jacob's Ladder).
  4. Montages of disturbing images and sounds with transitional cuts that look rusty, accidental, and degraded (thanks, The Ring).
  5. Heavily desaturated visuals, usually blue-grey or slightly yellowish (Jacob's Ladder again?)
  6. Death by ubiquitous technology (The Ring, ringing).
  7. Impending death which can only be averted by unravelling mysterious backstory (The Ring, The Ring, The Ring).
  8. Nonsensical, poorly-written script which exists solely to display a handful of visually-striking set-pieces (thanks, Dario Argento).
  9. Nonsensical, poorly-written script which exists solely to display people getting tortured (thanks, Saw).
  10. The collection of strangers who must kill each other in order to escape (Saw again).
  11. Sudden shocks accompanied by audio sting (since movies began, probably).

PreSonus Firebox Review

It doesn't matter how much wonderful audio-editing software you have in your computer...if you only use the computer's standard line and headphone jacks, you're severely restricted.

What that means is that you can only record a single stereo channel -- and play a single stereo channel -- at any one time. You can't record multiple instruments all at once. You can't output different tracks of your music to separate devices. And lord forbid you try to set up an effects send system (outputting one or more tracks on a separate channel, sending them through an external effects processor, then returning them on yet another channel for separate mixing).

Ever since I started working with computer editing systems I've restricted myself to this single input/single output setup. A few days ago I decided to change that.

You can buy a lot of external recording boxes to plug into your computer, but I had certain specifics in mind:
  1. Preferably firewire, because my USB ports are all used up.
  2. Preferably powered BY the firewire port, because my power bars are already dangerously overloaded.
  3. At least four inputs capable of accepting line-in cables. Most boxes only allow some combination of two line OR two mic inputs, which defeats the purpose for me. One reason I want this box is so I can digitize old cassette four-track masters, so I need four line-ins.
  4. Ability to do an effects send.
  5. Works with my Intel iMac.
  6. Works with Logic Studio.
I ended up calling Carbon Computing in Toronto and talking to the most knowledgeable guy in the world. He immediately told me what I needed: the PreSonus Firebox. And like a jerk I bought it from Long & McQuade down the street, because they had it in stock for $440.

The Presonus Firebox plugs into your firewire port, gives you six inputs (two of them S/PDIF only), two gain knobs (controlling the four non-S/PDIF inputs), four outputs, and separate phone/main outputs (each with its own volume knob). As an added bonus it serves as a MIDI in/out controller (so I can finally ditch my ancient and flaky M-Audio device) and comes with Cubase LE, which I'll never use (but I might be able to snag its free plug-ins).

NOTE: The Firebox's first and second inputs -- the ones on the front -- are "Neutrik Combo Connectors." This means that you can plug either XLR or 1/4" cables into them, though it isn't obvious at first. If you're wondering how you can get four 1/4" cables into a device that only appears to have two 1/4" inputs, that's plug the cables into what APPEARS to be an XLR but is really so much more. Whew!

Setting It Up

The Firebox is tiny -- 1 half-width RU -- so when you get everything plugged in it looks like Medusa. The firewire port seems a little weak, which could slow your workflow down a bit (see below).

I connected it to my iMac's firewire port and -- presto! -- it displayed a happy blue LED, which meant it was interacting properly (its drivers are already included in the OS X Core Audio, so there was no need to install anything).

I opened up the Mac Audio MIDI Setup application and...there it was! PreSonus FIREBOX! I could choose it for my default input and output and it instantly appeared as a MIDI device. Sweet. Once I chose it in the MIDI Setup application I was able to hijack it with Audio Hijack Pro. Even sweeter!

Since the instruction manual in the box states that the Firebox only works with Power PC Macs, I downloaded the latest Universal applications. Besides the expected control panel and mixer, they also came with a firmware updater. "Hmmm," I thought. "Obviously I should update the firmware first."

So I did. The operation completed successfully...and the light on the Firebox turned red, and it disappeared from the Audio Hijack drop-downs. This means badness. Re-inserting the fireware cable didn't help. There is also no way to turn the Firebox off and on, which is actually sort of annoying.

Convinced that I'd managed to scramble the inside of my device in only five minutes, I did a forum search for this problem and discovered that many people were reporting it: "I just updated my firmware and now my Firebox's LED is always red!" The answer from PreSonus technical support personnel? "If your Firebox stops working, bring it in and we'll repair it." BALLS TO THAT!

Rather than weeping I did the next best thing: I restarted my iMac. As it booted up the Firebox light went blue, then red,! It stayed blue! Life was good once again.

Next I opened Logic Studio and set my audio preferences to use the Firebox. I tried recording from inputs one and two: perfect. I hooked my speakers up to the Firebox main outs: perfect. I redirected my Logic audio tracks to different outputs: perfect. I set up an effects send situation and did a round-trip through my Lexicon MX300: PERFECT!

Other than the abnormally short MIDI cables connected to the Firebox breakout cable, and the fact that the device gets a little bit warm after a few minutes, the only problem I've noticed so far is that if you unplug the firewire cable -- which could be easy to do accidentatlly, since the port is so exposed -- Logic Audio immediately bitches and refuses to recognize the Firebox until you re-start Logic. So watch out.

I have yet to try the MIDI capabilities or do any serious recording with the Firebox, but I'm pretty sure I have a winner here. It's a great mid-range product, perfect for those who don't want a toy but also don't need to record a church choir. I'm thrilled that I can finally used my external effects processors again, and get some really killer reverb without draining my CPU. Bliss!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Mini Drag Show: "A Drag Queen and Her Seal"

Last week I realized that I'd temporarily lost my grip on my own destiny. I felt no sense of purpose and didn't know what to do. After a few days of moping around and staring out the window, I settled in and created this: an epic video starring Schnapps the Seal.

I think it stands pretty well on its own, but here's the whole background, if you're interested.

What Came Before

Last month I was tapped by my company to help create a "demo reel" for one of our products. I was given a script to read, and in addition I was asked to create the music to accompany the demo. It was a challenge I threw myself into.

I figured this would be a good chance to explore Logic Studio's huge collection of Apple Loops, and I discovered that they ARE useful. It still takes a lot of skill to mix and match the loops, but that's only the beginning...if you really want the project to sound good you need to do extensive editing of the loops themselves.

The result was a darn fine demo reel, and a song called "Buy Our Sexy G-7." My company has complete ownership of the reel so I can't post the material independently, but once they post it online I'll provide a sneaky link to it.

"A Drag Queen and Her Seal"

I scribbled down some simple dialog last Thursday, with a few basic ideas but no actual storyboards. I've realized that I HATE doing storyboards. In addition I wanted this project to be totally free of copyright infringement...all me, including the music.

Friday night -- before heading out to Club Abstract -- I spent an hour recording all the footage. It was incredibly hectic. I realized how hard it is to say lines to an impersonal plate of cotton balls, especially when you're a piss-poor actor. I switched a few things around at the last minute. I forgot to record one punchline entirely. I got awfully tired of having a seal puppet on my arm.


Really, iMovie is not such a terrible (free) movie editor, if you're willing to work in an entirely linear way (with no overlaps). I felt restricted by the choice of titles and transitions, but it's not like the rest of the video was particularly spiffy. Most annoying was the terrible hiss picked up by my Cannon SD1000 "Power Shot"'s apparently due to kamikaze electrons, but I just chalk it up to "cheap internal microphone."

During editing I realized how much I'd benefit from having a second person around during the filming. I pronounced Schnapps' name differently at the beginning and the end, and my "clever" substitution of a vodka bottle for a Moscow Pride weapon (as opposed to a flip-flop, the original choice), made it look like *I* had bludgeoned Schnapps in the preceding scene. Oh well, ambiguity and mysteries!


The hiss on the audio was really terrible. Once I'd "picture-locked" the edit I exported the audio and played with it in Logic Studio, but none of the plug-ins made a noticeable difference.

Then I discovered a denoising tutorial for Soundtrack Pro -- a utility which comes with Logic Studio -- explaining how to take a "noise pattern" snippet from your audio and use it to cancel the noise in the rest of your clip. I'd never used Soundtrack Pro before -- and I can't see myself using it for anything but this, particularly because its shortcut keys are totally different from Logic -- but its noise cancellation thingy did a pretty good job. There's still some hiss in the video but it isn't quite so bad.


So I exported the denoised audio from Soundtrack Pro and brought it into Logic Studio, along with the video clip, and I got to work on the music.

One problem with not having a professional video editing system -- or a bunch of people all working on the video together -- is that it's difficult to cue music to video AFTER it's been cut, especially when you're a non-musician working with a strict temp. Sometimes a video transition happens in the middle of a bar.

But that isn't really important, because I've realized -- both in this project and the demo reel project -- that soundtrack music is both subliminal and terribly important. You're not supposed to notice it -- though this "Schnapps" video is deliberately campy in that way -- but if it's not there then everything is flat and boring.

Anyway, about the loops and sound effects. Soundtrack Pro comes with two gigs of foley-type effects that I thought I'd never use...but just like the Apple loops, I've discovered how useful they are for quick and dirty (and low-expectation) projects. Want a crowd noise? Grab from the two dozen ones available on the DVD! They even have a collection of screams that are lots of fun and quite distinctive.

Since I was doing this video project for myself -- and was therefore unconcerned with an even remotely professional result -- I finally decided it was "good enough," even if it sounds a bit thin and unfinished (particularly near the end). Still, I think it worked out pretty well, and I'm amazed that an hour of filming and approximately ten hours of post-production have yielded a nifty little video.

Most important are the lessons I've learned. There's nothing like an enforced project to force you to learn your applications better. I'm ready for the NEXT video...but what will it be?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

"Slaves of New York" by Tama Janowitz

I absolutely love every single book by Tama Janowitz. They may have gotten darker and even more pessimistic over the years, but she's an author whose outlook I can certainly relate to. When I read a Janowitz novel, I read about myself.

You see, Janowitz only really has two types of characters in all of her books. One type -- always the protagonists -- are the "outsiders." They're obsessive, self-conscious people who seem to be missing some crucial social skill, and as a result they end up alienating themselves and others. They're anxious, and when they go out into the world they always end up doing the wrong thing, and then they agonize constantly about what they've done. These characters endure a long string of humiliations until -- finally -- the book simply ends.

The secondary characters, on the other hand, are "integrated people." They're just as flawed and ridiculous as the outsiders, but somehow they remain confident, usually because they're shallow and stupid.

In all of Janowitz's books, the outsiders try to gain status with a mass of powerful integrated people, believing that the only way to be happy is to be accepted. This never, ever works because the integrated peple always triumph, generally because they don't play by the same rules as the outsiders -- they honestly don't care what anybody thinks and they are usually of a privileged class. And if two outsiders ever get together, they instantly start to squabble...they can't be friends either.

My world view isn't as downbeat as Janowitz's is, but I still relate to her socially-awkward, anxious, bumbling protagonists. They say the wrong thing at parties and they never manage to learn the rules. They are often paralyzed by self-consciousness, worry, and critical analysis. When they express themselves, people think they're crazy...and they DO sound crazy, really. So it's comforting for me to realize that Janowitz -- who I respect immensely -- probably relates and thinks exactly the same way I do. That feels good.

Anyway, she has a new book coming out called "They Is Us," and I'm on fire waiting for it to arrive. In the meantime I decided to re-read "Slaves of New York," her breakthrough 1986 collection of short stories. It was the first Janowitz book I ever read, somewhere around 1991, and I haven't picked it up since.

It really is a funny collection, centered around a handful of successful -- and failed -- artists in New York City. They struggle to get their paintings showcased by meddling gallery owners, and then fight twice as hard to get those paintings bought by vicious, mercenary art collectors. They sleep around and go to lots of parties. They earn very little money. But, most importantly, they are constantly struggling to climb the social ladder...something that Janowitz's protagonists are notoriously bad at.

In "Slaves of New York" the outsider protagonist is Eleanor, an insecure hat designer who appears in half of the stories. She is one of the many "slaves of New York" in the book: people who can't afford to get their own New York apartments, so therefore have to be romantic slaves to people who DO have apartments.

Janowitz wrote (and had a small part in) the movie of the same name, which came out in 1989. I think it's a fabulous movie, though it suffers a bit from poor acting and Janowitz's episodic style. I just watched the movie again tonight and I realize that part of the problem is that much of it has been dubbed afterwards, probably because it's incredibly noisy to film in New York. Bernadette Peters -- who plays Eleanor -- is the only actress who can really dub convincingly.

If you compare the book with the film carefully enough, you notice that a few little touches have been added to make it more upbeat. Stash -- Eleanor's boyfriend -- has been made more volatile and childish in order to make her appear more socially normal. You get to see Eleanor's moments of success -- her breakup with Stash, her fashion show -- which, in the book, actually happened IN BETWEEN the stories and were mentioned in offhand flashbacks, as though Janowitz couldn't bring herself to write such things.

Most important is the final character, Jan, who is the ONLY normal person in the movie and who literally sweeps her off her feet. In the book he's just as unreliable and laughable as the rest of the "integrated" people, and the reader is left with both Jan and Eleanor concluding that a successful relationship is "impossible."

Throughout the movie, the characters end up seeing a few bands and performance artists, and here's the woman who upstages them all: Johann Carlo singing "Say Hi," her own composition. This song wasn't on the soundtrack and has never, ever been released anywhere, but a small group of people in the world are clamouring for a good copy. PS: The song ends halfway through the clip

And in case you think Johann Carlo looks familiar...yes indeed, she was Dixie the Cab Driver on Pee-Wee's Playhouse!