Arts Advocate Seeks Government Advocate – w4mw

“…in a democracy, every ordinary citizen is effectively a king – but a king in a constitutional democracy, a monarch who decides only formally, whose function is merely to sign off on measures proposed by an executive administration.”

Slavoj Žižek

I was reading Žižek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce when #elxn41 was called, and these words struck me as all too poignant when watching coverage of the public’s negative reaction to the impending election. It speaks volumes to how impoverished our current model of democracy is when the act of voting (the only formal participation the average person is granted in this supposedly participatory system) is considered an inconvenient, ill-timed, and inefficient use of one’s time.

Žižek goes on to argue that representative democracy necessarily involves a passivization of the public, transferring our will onto a small group of agents who act it out for us. A crisis of democracy, therefore, is not “when people stop believing in their own power, but, on the contrary, when they stop trusting the elites, those who are supposed to know for them and provide the guidelines.”

It is in this context that I want to stress how necessary it is to embed the question of arts, arts funding, and government support of cultural development into the defining issues of every Canadian election (and at all moments between political milestones). Politics and arts are intimately linked: the institutions challenge and mirror one another, they feed each other, they make each other healthy – and, in turn, when one becomes neglectful, both suffer.

The challenge any writer faces on the issue of arts funding is to say something more than “the Conservative Party of Canada doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the issue.” Case in point: a survey by the Canadian Conference of the Arts polling the four major political parties on arts funding that yielded a pathetic 75% response rate. That the Conservatives wouldn’t deign to answer these questions is a slap in the face to the hundreds of thousands of Canadians in the industry, and to the millions whose businesses and personal well beings rely on a thriving arts and culture scene.

Is it possible that the Conservatives’ lack of response is justified? Look to the comment threads at the bottom of any CBC article referencing arts funding and you’ll get a diatribe full of colourful language and anti-pinko sentiment from people across the country who think that the arts are not only a massive drain on our economy but could potentially herald the apocalypse. Are they merely representing the “majority” who don’t think the questions should be asked? (This fervent anti-culture sentiment has always been a mystery to me, by the by. In the grand scheme of things, the money going to arts and culture is really a nominal figure when you consider the total number of government dollars being allocated to non-profit projects across the country.)

The Harper Government’s lack of response to the CCA survey should be all too familiar to Toronto voters. On September 29, then-mayoral hopeful Rob Ford gave a similarly dismissive response to the issue of arts funding in an all-candidates debate at the AGO. With a woeful lack of preparedness, a general disinterest toward the issue, no policy statements whatsoever beyond thisisaprivatesectorissueleavemealone, Rob Ford’s disrespectful display of apathy shocked me at the time. (but I can be pretty naive)

What we can see from these examples is that the challenge arts advocates face today is to effect a change of political culture. Both influencers and the electorate need to better understand the significance of a thriving Canadian culture. The issue of “arts funding,” therefore, is a potentially dangerous one, because the issue of dollars spent is secondary to the importance of what is being supported. We should not be forced to advocate for the arts on economic impact alone. To do so misrepresents what it is we’re advocating for. The opposition forces artists to endlessly repeat economic impact assessments that stress that the arts are sustainable, that they contribute to the tourism sector, that there is a measurable return on investment for public sector funders….none of these cold hard numbers come close to representing the power and potential of the arts industry.

I have always believed that the place of arts in a community is analogous to, and more effective than, religious institutions. The artist and the preacher both tell stories that give meaning to our lives, stories that help us understand one another and ourselves. The artist, however, goes further: s/he encourages dissent, begs for criticism, demands to be challenged and to be given an opportunity to respond to that challenge passionately, honestly, and (of course) entertainingly. Adversity is, after all, the most important stimulus for growth.

With this in mind, how can an arts advocate be asked to quantify quality of life? How can we be asked to put a dollar value on personal and societal growth? How do you measure an institution that is mandated to make our living conditions better, to give people an outlet to make themselves better, to be heard and challenged and connected with?

Is this not what our political institutions are also mandated to do? If artists are forced to advocate for their right to exist, shouldn’t we demand the same of our governments?

Any Canadian with a vested interest in the state of the nation must be informed and opinionated on the place of arts and culture in our society, and on the government’s role in supporting the sector and creating conditions wherein arts and culture can flourish. Perhaps I generalize too much, but in my observations of the topics of “Canadian Culture” and “Canadian Identity” I see questions, not statements. Who are we? Who do we want to be? As a nation, Canada is in a perpetual state of self-analysis. Our cultural products are questions. Sometimes they’re anxieties. At all times they are a state of flux, of constantly changing self-awareness. Canada is the epitome of postmodernism, and conditions are ripe for growth, for artistic exploration, for cultural accomplishment.

The arts, in other words, are perpetually active. Unlike Žižek’s political subjects, artists and audiences are always agents and are always participating in a passionate dialogue over who we are and what we can be.

I believe that individuals choose careers in politics because they believe they can change the world for the better. I believe the same of artists. Politics and arts have the same goals and the same driving force: a well-intentioned, curious, passionate social body. These two institutions are meant to work in tandem, to challenge and support one another, and to serve as a locus for incredible social upheavals and successes.

I hope that tomorrow the Canadian public does not identify as an electorate, does not identify as a mass with one opportunity every few years to say something. I hope they recognize that a dynamic avenue exists for them to speak and be heard, and that they deserve a government that will support it at whatever cost.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Not Your Parents’ Western (well, kind of actually)

Matt Damon with sideburns and a moustache? That's a cross-generational good time I'd go for.

I’m all for cross-generational good times, but if you plan on seeing True Grit and you’re under the age of 45, aim to see it with people your own age. Nothing makes a movie about a precocious child more annoying than an audience full of parents who are loving it because they imagine that the children they’re raising are also clever and adorable.

Downside to living in the Beaches: family types. And I’ve seen their kids out and about, by the way. “Clever” is not a word I would use.

Grumpily eating a popcorn dinner and watching a Western with my friendly neighbourhood property flippers did give me some food for thought, though. As I understand it, both as a setting and a genre, the Wild West depends upon a geographic dichotomy of East vs West. The American West is wild, free, and uncivilized, whereas the East (comparable to the unwelcoming homestead in war films) is rigid, oppressive, and often decidedly feminine. The lone ranger archetype isn’t a family man, he isn’t settled, and he doesn’t answer to any law but his own.

Despite my movie-going grumpiness, I was pretty amused to compare this dichotomy to a similar geography in Toronto. Cool, hip shit is in the west end, where you’re free to be as wacky and unlawful as you can be (until you get caught). Queen West is a hip place to have fun. Queen East, in contrast, is a hip place to have babies. And when you’ve given up on hip and bought into the idea of making real money…you can move to the Beaches to buy property and raise dogs and listen to soft rock disguised as a jazz festival!

In the narratives we craft for our lives, if you’re a young person in Toronto, and you want to live like a young person, is your genre necessarily the Western? Hipsters and Westerns both glorify the anti-hero…is there more to this theory than just an affinity for plaid?

For the answer to this and other of life’s important questions, I turn as always to the music of Will Smith and everyone’s favourite dichotomy: wise-cracking young black man paired with wise but eccentric older white man (a common trope among Mr. Smith’s popular action-adventure films of the 90s). Also, I turn to Sisqò, because the man who penned The Thong Song could never be wrong.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Year of the Bacon

The most novel thing I’ve done in 2011 to date: behind-the-stage seating at a Kevin Bacon concert to kick off the Year of the Rabbit.

“Kevin Bacon concert??? What the deuce???” you ask incredulously. Yes, Kevin Bacon and his brother, Michael Bacon, have a band. They are called The Bacon Brothers, not to be confused with the trio of alleged BC gangsters Jonathan, Jarrod and Jamie Bacon that Wikipedia tells me exist. I guess that goes to show that no good can come from giving your children alliterative names. I’ve never trusted families that pull crap like that. You just know that there’s something dark brewing underneath the matching holiday sweaters.

There’s nothing dark about the musical Bacon Brothers, though. Their music isn’t particularly good, but you can definitely listen to it. They can pretty much be summed up as a bunch of dads who like jamming together, and because one of them happens to be both a famous movie star and a cult icon they can sell records and book Koerner Hall. There was some vaguely interesting instrumentation, a song about a giant squid, and a quite decent James Taylor cover that, to their credit, was not Fire and Rain. I wouldn’t recommend buying a Bacon Brothers album, but if you can get free tickets through work, as I did, you should take advantage of it.

ESPECIALLY if your seats end up being DIRECTLY BEHIND THE STAGE!!! For your reference, Veronica and I were sitting here:

True, we didn’t get to see their faces as they performed to their adoring, white-haired fans. But we DID have front row seats for all the tight-panted dance breaks. I’ve never been particularly interested in Kevin Bacon, and a quick Google image search prior to the concert suggested that he hasn’t been aging gracefully. Well, Google has never been more wrong. Kevin Bacon is a skinny, skinny man who wears tight pants and has a freaking LUSCIOUS head of hair. Which is to say, he’s everything I’m looking for in a Saturday night. When did that happen? I’ve seen A Few Good Men more times than I care to admit. How did I miss the studliness?

Another thing you should know about Kevin Bacon: he plays the cowbell with a tambourine, and when he does, the act can only be described as lewd. For most men, the prop of choice for cock-rock is a guitar. Not for the Bacster. Novelty percussion instruments are the new electric guitar. And for all the Footloose fans, K-Bac can still move. And he does so liberally. Check out this tambourine tango:

Heyyyyyy Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for ME.

Sadly, I did not take advantage of the opportunity to high-five me some Bacon while my six degrees of separation was a mere 20 feet and a few amps. I did, however, enjoy a BLT before the show. And I think he would be into that.

I learned at my staff Christmas party that I am only one degree of separation away from Kevin Bacon through a professional connection. Here are some other things that I have connected to Kevin Bacon today:

Babe2Bacon (a Twitter challenge from Nikki Shaffeeullah) That pig from Babe co-starred with James Cromwell, who was on 24 with Kiefer Sutherland, who was in A Few Good Men with Kevin Bacon
Bacon2Veronica (my roommate is a twin, and like all twins, she has an acting resume from childhood) Veronica was on an episode of Seasons of Love with Peter Strauss, who co-starred on the show with Rip Torn, who was in Men In Black with Vincent D’Onofrio, who was in JFK with Kevin Bacon
Bacon2Luminato (I ran this idea by my boss. He was receptive (or at least pretended to be).
Bacon2Luminato2007 Eric Idle, co-creator of Not the Messiah, was a member of Monty Python with John Cleese, who was in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle with Cameron Diaz, who was in Vanilla Sky with Tom Cruise, who was in A Few Good Men with Kevin Bacon
Bacon2Luminato2008 Nitin Sawhney (A Throw of Dice with the TSO) produced the music for a couple of video games starring Andy Serkis, who was in Lord of the Rings: Two Towers with Bernard Hill, who was in Titanic with Leonardo DiCaprio, who was in the Departed with Jack Nicholson, who was in A Few Good Men with Kevin Bacon.
Bacon2Luminato2009 Andy Summers (Shadow Notes) was in The Police with Sting, who was on the fifth episode of Studio 60, which stars Matthew Perry, who was on Friends with Matt Leblanc, who was in Charlie’s Angels with Cameron Diaz…Tom Cruise…BACON
Bacon2Luminato2010 John Malkovich (Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer) was in Being John Malkovich with Cameron Diaz, who was also in Knight and Day with Tom Cruise, which brings us back to A Few Good Men with Kevin Bacon.
Bacon2Luminato2011 Lisa Ray (TAJ) was in something called Cooking With Stella with Don McKellar, who was in Trudeau with Colm Feore, who was in The Sum of All Fears with Ben Affleck, who loves Matt Damon, who was in The Departed with Jack Nicholson, who was in A Few Good Men with Kevin Bacon.
Bacon2Luminato2012 Philip Glass, composer of Einstein on the Beach, did the score for The Hours, which starred Meryl Streep, who was in River Wild with Kevin Bacon.

Bam.

Sadly, I could not find a connection between Kevin Bacon and his west coast gangster namesakes. To save me some serious digging, I thus propose that the Bacon Brothers start a pot-fueled musical collaboration with the Bacon Brothers. The combination of gang violence, music and celebrity is sure to have thrilling results. Or at the very least, spur a West Side Story revival. Either way, I would be entertained.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Two Stop Signs, One Blog

At Nikki‘s request, the following post is a deconstruction of a stop sign that I discovered on a September bike ride.

Discovered at Myrtle and Leslie, an unassuming intersection in the heart of Toronto’s east end. Nikki aptly points out that if it were in the west end it would say “Let’s Go to the (DM)eX!"

Thanks, Shaff, for challenging me to go way beyond my critical capacity.

First, besides my personal opinions about the politics of art and its definitions, I know nothing about street art beyond what Banksy and his friends told me in Exit Through the Gift Shop. Second, besides a few lectures from the impossibly cool Derek Nystrom and a 2Pac phase I went through in Grade 8, I know even less about hip hop or hip hop theory than I do about street art. And third, if I’m truly going to take Derrida and run with him, “deconstruction” goes well beyond the basic visual analysis and reading of potential metaphors, signs, ironies, etc. that I’d rather do on a lazy Sunday. Rather, it requires that we discover and explore the instabilities of the image, the potentially irreconcilable signifiers that make up the sign.

I don’t know if she meant to put that all on me, but I just ate a hearty dinner and it’s too cold to go for a run, so I’m going to exercise my mind instead. I can’t promise anything brilliant or insightful, but I guarantee you run-on sentences, sweeping generalizations, and at least one more photo.

[A few caveats: for lack of a better word/understanding, I’m going to use the term “hip hop” to denote what is, I’m sure, a wide variety of musical genres that I am misrepresenting. I’m going to do the same of “street art,” and I’m likely going to butcher a lot of history and critical theories in order to prove my point. You’ve been duly warned.]

For those who are unfamiliar with mainstream late-90s rap, the lyrics “stop, drop, shut ‘em down, open up shop” are from the DMX track “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” off the album It’s Dark and Hell is Hot. The music video, embedded below, provides a useful jumping-off point for this post.

You’ll notice that the video’s reoccurring motif is a violation of road rules by the Ruff Ryders. This is a more than significant coincidence, given our subject matter. The massive crew of loiterers, the bikes and ATVs on city streets, the vinyl Ruff Ryders banners draped over school buses, and especially the “DMX Stop Drop” billboard advertisement at 0:34 – all demonstrate an aggressive and defiant appropriation of urban space. The crew is claiming the street as their own, taking signs of the mainstream and the authority (advertising space, school buses) and repurposing them, turning space into turf.

The description I just gave of the Ruff Ryders’ presence in urban space is, I would argue, the very definition of street art. As such, hip hop and street art share a common philosophy: challenge ownership, challenge meaning.

In the early days of hip hop, when the genre wasn’t a genre so much as a craze (or perhaps, a revolution), critics refused to call it art or music. The arguments – that it didn’t require traditional instruments, for example, or that “sampling” is plagiarism – were of course complicated by the politics of race and economy. Hip hop is, after all, a very egalitarian art form. Anyone can scratch a record, or, in today’s technological vernacular, anyone can cut a mash-up on their laptop.

Quality, of course, varies as widely in DIY art forms like hip hop as it does in any style of music or art (Nicklebarf). But hip hop, like garage rock, like early rhythm and blues, challenged the notion that music belonged in concert halls. What makes hip hop unique is the complicated relationship of production, dissemination, and consumption: with sampling, the consumer becomes the producer, and dissemination of one song is also dissemination of the tracks that inspired it. The role of producer, which was Producer with a capital P in the early days of pop music, is suddenly conflated with the artist and the listener. Hip hop threatens the philosophy of the elitist who thinks art belongs in a gallery, or the academic who believes art can only be produced by an inspired Genius.

Hip hop, at its roots, is an art of the street, and for my purposes it does well to understand it as a form of street art. Like graffiti, stencilling, and postering, hip hop is a challenge to what the mainstream understands of its world. I like Wikipedia’s description of street art, defined as that which “question[s] the existing environment with its own language.” I like it because it implies that street art is a deconstruction of urban space. As sampling does to existing songs, as hip hop does to traditional understandings of music, street art changes what a space is saying by finding not only new meanings but meanings that are present but overlooked.

Consider, for instance, a bank building. Not any specific bank, but rather the notion of a bank. The bank can be representative of the elite: the faceless, educated, and wealthy who plot numbers in Excel sheets and, in doing so, cause great shifts in national economies. The bank can be representative of the authority: it is a garrison that protects, distributes, and has the power to manipulate not only sums of money but an individual’s identity.

What happens when you add some unwelcome paint to the wall of said bank building? What about that stencil of Bill Gates captioned “Post No Bills?” Suddenly, the meaning changes: someone flipped The Man the bird and got away with it. With a clever, well-placed message, a street artist can twist the bank building to signify any number of other things, almost always critical. Subversive paint on a building’s facade reveals that its power is merely that: a facade. Ultimately, the “notion of a bank” we are considering here is an image. What’s more, it can only ever be the image we allow it to be – the bank is defined by how we choose to see it. This, in my opinion, is the power of street art: it allows alternative, often subversive, meanings to take precedence in an act that forces us to move beyond viewer to engaged critic.

All this is to say that: when I roll up to a stop sign on my bike, it’s only a stop sign if I agree to abide by its rules. If I keep going it stops being a stop sign and becomes another incidental feature on a residential side street.

Signs are everywhere. They are an ever-present voice of authority telling us what we can and can’t do. They are the rules of space, the rules of social conduct. But, in and of themselves, the sign cannot force you to action, and therein lies the contradiction, the hidden fact that threatens to unravel the authority of the street sign (my deconstruction, if you will): the viewer chooses to obey. As such, does the sign control the situation or does the viewer? Is the sign an edict or a suggestion?

The following picture was taken at the corner of Rachel and de l’Esplanade in Montreal, winter of 08/09:

As deconstruction, the street artist’s contribution to this stop sign is a much more literal example of what the Leslieville stop sign suggests. The Toronto example adds content to an existing message, not only changing what the sign says but also, through parody, debasing what it represents. The Montreal example, in contrast, erases elements of the sign’s message to reveal the insidious, subversive content that already exists within the original. The ART sign shows that, even within the edict to stop (arrêt) there is a message that demands we ignore that authoritative command – to change, explore, discover; to embrace a life of perpetual motion such is art.

Street signs have a universal quality to them: they employ familiar icons so that, wherever you are in the world, you can generally figure out what a sign is saying. For what it’s worth, I think it bodes well for Canada that “art” is the same in English and in French. I think this example of street art is brilliant.

Such is the extent of my deconstruction of a Leslieville stop sign. However, the street-art-sign is a sign too, and can be influenced by the same critique. Refer back to the original image. Two messages compete here: the street message, and the street sign message – anti-establishment vs. authority. Importantly, both need the other in order to exist. The cops need something to police, just as the rebels need an authority against which to define themselves.

There is power in both messages, and it is power as (my personal hero) Foucault understands it: a constructive power, a “positive” power, a power that says “yes” rather than “no,” a power that earns its primacy by telling you what you are and can be. Thus, the street art/street sign dichotomy is an illusion: it is more accurate to understand the relationship as symbiotic. The question, of course, is whether those with “power” are willing (or capable) of understanding something as nuanced as reciprocation.

To close this off, I’d like to reference a song by Cypress Hill that Nystrom once lectured about.

You’ll notice that Hand on the Pump samples Gene Chandler’s Duke of Earl. While my memory of Nystrom’s lecture is spotty, I do remember him arguing that sampling can be understood as an attempt to create a utopic space within music. It takes our favourite elements of a song and repeats it: the looped lyrics could, theoretically, go on forever, so long as you keep listening. We can (nostalgically) select the best bits and pieces of the past, present, and future, and put them all in one place, for a conceivably infinite period of time.

Nystrom pointed out that, by the time Hand on the Pump was released in 1991, Duke of Earl was mainstream, grown-up music. Parents listened to it fondly, ignoring, of course, that when it came out in 1962 it was trashy doo-wop to the adults of the time. As such, I want to take Nystrom’s utopia further (remembering, of course, that I can’t actually remember what he argued). For me, the utopic quality of this song is that it brings two generations of music together. Street art and hip hop are progressive mediums because they allow meanings to coexist: rather than censor or erase the official meaning of a space or piece of art, they choose instead to nuance and complicate. The first message remains, but it is now of equal importance as the second, third, fourth, fiftieth meaning. My utopia celebrates these shades of grey.

But that’s enough of that. Talk is cheap, motherfuckers.

Oh, and here’s a picture of me running with Derrida, as mentioned above:

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Damn it! I’m not unique.

A sad thing happened this evening. It was made only marginally better by the brief conversation I had with a very attractive Englishman.

On Saturday, I finally read a book that my dad gave me for my birthday way back in October: Graham Greene’s The Third Man. The book was written for a film, which stars Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, and since I found it both interesting and enjoyable, I thought I’d rent the movie and see how they compared.

Turns out I’m not the only person interested in the mystery films of 1949. When I called The Film Buff to check if they had it in stock (thereby avoiding a fruitless walk to Leslieville in the cold) I was told that someone had rented it earlier this evening.

Dang! Why are other people like me??

So while I wallow in my own homogeneity, let me take a brief moment to write about the book, in anticipation of the movie viewing experience that is a necessary part of my experience of this narrative.

I say necessary because this book, in Greene’s words, “was never written to be read but only to be seen.” The Third Man is the end result of a screenplay commissioned to tell a story set in occupied Vienna. For Greene, the film needed to come from more than a screenplay:

“To me it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. Even a film depends on more than plot, on a certain measure of characterization, on mood and atmosphere; and these seem to me almost impossible to capture for the first time in the dull shorthand of a script. One can reproduce an effect caught in another medium, but one cannot make the first act of creation in script form. One must have the sense of more material than one needs to draw on.”

Arguments against Greene’s opinion aside (and it is an opinion, despite his matter-of-fact wording), when I read this in the preface to the novel it immediately put me in the mood to like this book. Greene goes on to describe, in brief, the process by which he and director Carol Reed worked through scenes and dialogue together. The final film product, he explains, differs in a number of instances from the book – some of these changes were made by the actors and the studio, some he made himself, and some elements of the book were never intended to be filmed.

I find this process, to write a novel that would inspire a film, refreshingly honest. The means of production are transparent. Two artistic works, while meant to inform one another, stand alone as authentic representations of their medium and of a shared story. In a cultural moment when films are hurriedly produced to capitalize on the success of a book, with artistic integrity or respect for the narrative merely afterthoughts; and when horrible novel versions of blockbusters are rushed to the printers so that movie-goers can feel that they’ve done something smart by picking up a poorly written book; the fact that an artist would take the time to write a good book in order to inform (what I imagine to be) a good movie is pretty incredible.

The novel version of The Third Man is definitely a cinematic novel. The setting itself is highly visual: the novel is set in post-war Vienna, divided into four sections by the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Russia. Each has its stereotypes, which informs the reader’s sense of characters and space, and creates a sense of constant discovery and adventure as we pass from one political and social climate to another. The book isn’t about occupied space or the post-war experience per say, but these elements inform and enrich the images and moods that the narrative elicits.

I’m particularly interested in seeing the film because my favourite element of the book won’t necessarily translate well. I found the leading man and his position relative to the narrative structure incredibly rich. The book is narrated by a police officer, but he’s telling the story as told to him by protagonist Rollo Martins (until the final chase sequence, which I believe is from the policeman’s perspective).

It’s a great case study for unreliable narrators (one of the most fascinating elements of film noir), and Rollo Martins is a multi-layered man. Here’s why:

  • Our first impression of Rollo Martins comes from the cop, who describes a split personality: the brash, hot-headed Rollo and the sturdy, calculating Martins. Both make appearances throughout the story.
  • Rollo writes cheap Westerns under the name of Buck Dexter. In fact, the first person to speak to Rollo in Vienna is a reporter, who identifies him as Buck: duality is established from the get-go.
  • In deciding to investigate his friend’s death, Rollo not only adopts a new profession (detective) but decides to do so knowing that his actions directly parallel one of the novels he has written. There’s a sense of machismo here, of narcissism, self-indulgence, and fantasy.
  • Rollo comes to Vienna penniless, but he’s able to pay his way because a hotel mistakes him for Benjamin Dexter, a pompous English novelist who they are putting up. He even ends up giving a lecture and signing copies of the man’s novel (under the justification that signing “B. Dexter” technically isn’t a lie…)

On top of all this, there’s the knowledge that this story is being retold, thus we’re forced to question the accuracy of what is said. In fact, the policeman starts the book by asserting that these are the facts exactly how they were told to him (and when that assertion is made, you are obligated to ask questions), except that he can’t attest to how accurately Rollo told the tale. So really, how can we trust anything the narrators say? I find this dilemma fascinating.

There’s more I could say on this, and since I have to wait up to five days to see the film, maybe I’ll focus on the book a little more….Until next time, feel free to read another film-related post that references Joseph Cotten.

And, for those who were wondering, the very attractive Englishman who I spoke to over the phone is a dude that Lauren, Veronica and I like to refer to as “studcrumpet.” This is because “studmuffin” isn’t ethnically specific enough for a ladykiller from across the pond. Studcrumpet works at The Film Buff and is really hot…aaaaaand by sheer chance (I swear to god) we know where he lives and what his name is. I swear it’s less creepy than it sounds…

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Steve McQueen: Lady Killing Machine

I learned on Monday from the CBC that Peter Yates, director of the Steve McQueen classic Bullitt, has died. In honour of this, here is a post about two Bullitts: the classic film, and the novel it’s based on, Mute Witness.

I recently read Mute Witness (1963) in about 2 non-consecutive hours (it doesn’t take much commitment to get through old timey crime dramas). From what I can tell, publishers have rebranded the novel as Bullitt since the movie came out in 1968, despite the fact that Frank Bullitt is a character exclusive to the film (although, if the object is to sell books, the switch makes total sense: I saw Steve was on the cover and immediately shelled out the $3.99).

Yes, you are a stud.

The plot of Mute Witness is a little more complicated than Bullitt, and thus slightly more interesting. In short: Lieutenant Clancy (no first name) is ordered by Assistant District Attorney Chalmers to guard Johnny Rossi, a notorious California mobster who has mysteriously decided to come to New York and testify against various other insidious wrongdoers. Chalmers, an educated bureaucrat who isn’t so much corrupt as ruthlessly ambitious, wants Clancy and his men to keep Rossi alive and hidden from Friday to Tuesday. Needless to say, that doesn’t work out so well.

Through a series of missteps by Clancy’s bumbling yet steadfast colleagues, Rossi winds up dead. Rather than announce this to the District Attorney’s office and risk losing the criminal in a pile of paperwork, Clancy and his fellows hide the body in a well air conditioned hospital basement and spend the next 24 hours hunting down the murderer. SPOILER ALERT: it wasn’t Rossi that was killed. He sent a patsy lookalike to New York under his name and killed him, faking his own death with the intention of fleeing to Europe, thereby escaping angry fellow mobsters that wanted him dead in California. Rossi and his brother end up arrested, Clancy finally gets a good night’s sleep, and the Assistant District Attorney looks like a bit of an idiot. The end.

Bullitt tells basically the same story but with some obvious Hollywood alterations. Gritty, dingy, rapidly-gentrifying New York is replaced with sunny, hilly, orange-skinned San Francisco (where Robert Duvall drives a cab for some reason). Californian mobster Johnny Rossi becomes Chicago gangster Johnny Ross (why they got rid of the wicked rhyming name, I couldn’t say). Tired, cynical, middle-aged, and perpetually single Lieutenant Clancy becomes Frank Bullitt/Steve McQueen: a hot man, with a hot architect girlfriend, and a hot car that he drives hotly.

Although seemingly aesthetic, these differences actually have a pretty sizable impact when dealing with this genre. The type of hero and the type of city he protects differ dramatically between the novel and the film, and these are two of the most important elements of any crime story. The relationship between the hero and his setting are an important sign of the story’s moral compass. This is especially true of the hardboiled stories that Mute Witness owes its heritage to (not sure I’d classify it as hardboiled, but there are a lot of similarities).

Mute Witness shows a drab hero falling out of love with a rapidly modernizing city and the educated, arty upper middle class whose profession is to complicate seemingly simple concepts like justice. In Steve’s version, the story is ultimately a vehicle to showcase how cool he is. And when I say vehicle, I mean that literally: Bullitt’s claim to fame is the dramatic car chase, generally considered one of the best ever filmed (this was before Vin Diesel got fast and furious, of course).

Let’s go on an uber-masculine tangent for a moment, shall we? HRRRRRR CARS!!!

This car chase obviously has a different feel than car chases today. The authenticity does just come from the fact that Steve McQueen was actually a very talented driver and did much of what you see in the film. Steve and the producers were insistent that the car chase be real, which is to say, the chase was actually filmed at breakneck speed. In today’s films, the camera creates the illusion of speed – in Bullitt, the camera captures it.

(For what it’s worth, this is my criticism of how dance is filmed these days. The cinematography is about rapid, close cutting to simulate movement, rather than the long shots typical of the Gene Kellys and Fred Astaires of yesteryear, which showcased choreography, movement, and space. It’s the difference between physical talent and video editing.)

Clancy and Bullitt are very different men. Where they and their stories come together, though, is in their approach to authority. Authority, of course, being synonymous with The Man: the white, educated bureaucrat who thinks but doesn’t feel, thereby mistaking justice for what is (to the hero) merely law and due process.

The Hollywood hero of the 60s and 70s, like the hardboiled detective before him, was ultimately a marginalized man. As the world got bigger and more complicated, it became harder to distinguish the heroic male lead from the fool or the criminal, save for his position at the centre of the narrative. He gets lost in shades of grey, unless the spotlight is on him.

So we get characters like Clancy, like Bullitt, like Dirty Harry and Rambo, whose ethics are questionable and whose understanding of right and wrong is at times naive, if not childishly simplistic. We love them for sticking it to the elite, for spitting in the face of lawyers and politicians, who aren’t satisfied by legal mumbo jumbo and seek instead for good honest reciprocal justice. The world fell in love with Steve McQueen because he was a rebel, on and off screen. We love him because he assures us that The Man can be pulled back to down to our level and outed as a crook.

Needless to say, things are a bit more complicated in today’s films. I can’t think of the last time I saw a “stick-it-in-your-eye” monologue like Bullitt’s or Dirty Harry’s (the speeches do exactly the same thing in both films: assert the individualist leading man as the moral compass distinct from the legal morality that he’s supposed to uphold).

It might be that I’m not watching the right films. But when I think of taking on The Man in contemporary cinema, I can’t help but think He isn’t quite so easy to topple anymore. We live in the digital age, where your identity can be stolen or wiped out in a couple of key strokes. Life and death isn’t the only binary: you can end someone’s life without killing them. We’ve swallowed the red pill, as it were: the bureaucratic state is so strong and well integrated that the nostalgic figure of the lone cop who knows best, while satisfying, doesn’t represent the reality of how our present era works, nor does it represent any of the cultural anxieties that film (and art more broadly) seek to understand and relieve. In the world of narrative, vigilante justice isn’t the easy answer it used to be.

I’ve lost my train of though, so I’ll close on something interesting I learned from Wikipedia while watching Bullitt. Did you know that Robert Duvall played Boo Radley in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird? I know!! Wacky.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Spaces Between Places (An Ode to the Bus Ride)

New Years in Montreal meant many things this past weekend: lots of eating, lots of drinking, and lots of lying in bed watching hockey and Discovery Channel marathons.

However, as with all trips to Montreal, I had to face the inevitable question of how I would get there, and what I was willing to endure for the good times. In my four years at McGill, I can remember taking a round-trip bus between Whitby and Montreal once. It was the fateful Thanksgiving of first year when, on the way back, we were forced to stand from Whitby to Kingston because Coach Canada didn’t have enough seats (and didn’t care much for fire safety or for preventing passenger nausea). It was awful. Every other time that I left la belle province I either took the train or, more often than not, my road trip-loving father would pick me up.

I once said it was worth investing in a plane ticket if it meant more time with friends. This year end, however, my bank account said otherwise. Besides, if you have friends on the bus with you, aren’t you investing in another kind of quality time? Suffering brings people together…saving money means more dollars to spend at BDP…right…?

Dreading the bus ride (estimated at 7 hours, not including the 45 minute streetcar ride from the Beaches to the bus station), Veronica and I packed ourselves full of Tim Matins (breakfast sandwiches to the Anglophones) and sardined our way onto the 9:30AM Mega Bus with a bunch of excited punky teenagers with bad taste in music and one kid who looked like the gay guy from Degrassi.

As expected, I had a pretty awesome weekend. But unexpectedly, and amazingly, the bus ride was one element that made it so great. While I’ve driven this stretch of highway dozens of times before, I’ve never been so aware or so fond of the familiar flat beigeness of eastern Ontario.

Listening to GAYNGS in a colourless landscape.

The industrialization of transportation and the evolution of urban environments have created a feeling of liminal space between cities. This environment is often considered a non-space, if it is considered at all. Car culture creates an interest in Point A and Point B, not in the line between these destinations. Expanses of farmland or uncultivated fields are images of emptiness. They’re spaces to be filled.

It is easy for urbanites (urbane-ites) to disregard the rural and the suburban, to look down on these spaces as inferior, or to paint a small town nostalgic while ignoring its lived reality. None of these strategies do these environments justice, nor do they represent anything honest or truthful. But these fantasies are a lot of fun to give into. I took pleasure by revelling in the romance of the colourless eastern Ontario countryside. It’s an easy thing for an outsider to do.

The places between places are independent of my life and lay no demands on me, making it easy to claim the space (or my experience of the space) as deeply personal, given there are so few restrictions on what I should be doing there. With a well-selected soundtrack and an easy disconnection from the routine I live, riding the MegaBus offered the opportunity to contemplate a new landscape while fully immersing myself in the heightened emotional aesthetic provided by my iTunes.

Even if what I experienced was a world entirely in my head, the countryside is not (and was not for me) a non-space. It’s so easy to look out the window and see an empty landscape. This apparent emptiness obscures diverse ecosystems, unique economies and industries, networks of people both living in and passing through. It may be a liminal experience but the spaces themselves are as concrete as the urban jungle.

To this end, I’m forced to reconsider my understanding of travelling. Typically, to travel is to visit a place, to see what it’s like to be elsewhere. It’s an act that implies a physical, tangible experience: streets, architecture, food, people. Yet the pleasure in travelling is incredibly intangible. It’s the pleasure of being without obligation: not simply the obligations you give up by setting your out-of-office replies and picking a house sitter, but the obligations that your living space puts on you each day. You don’t owe a foreign city your labour or taxes, you don’t have to follow social norms or customs that don’t belong to you (even if you have to respect them), you don’t even have to listen to your body’s demands (overindulgence is what holidays are all about).

Tourism is virtual reality, with all the narcissistic, self-indulgent implications that term carries. Going to a different place lets you leave work, family, and health behind while you create memories and feelings. You create the experience of a place. To look through a bus window or the lens of a camera is to frame a place and make what you want of it. The barren wasteland of eastern Ontario invites you to fill it with personal meaning. That’s why it’s so beige: you get to colour it with your own thoughts.

I think the idea of a place between places is very representative of my time in Montreal. That liminal quality is why I’ll always love the city (and why I should probably never give in to the temptation to move back). In Montreal I was both a tourist and a student, the two best things to be: the city asked nothing from me and everything of me.  It’s an incredible feeling. Montreal will always be my virtual reality.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments