Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Socalled Film

Montreal's Socalled has his very own documentary featuring a lotta familiar faces and some surprises screening at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto at the beginning of May. Check out the trailer above and keep your eyes on the Hot Docs site to get tickets.

Dépanneur Daycare

Mike Chui's a swell guy and a great photographer, but, outside of some extended Facebook wall posts of Youtube videos, the guy doesn't get out much on the internet. He hasn't updated his blog in almost 9 months, but if you go there, you can check out some of his photos and hear him wax poetic and nostalgic about Sperry Stripers. In his honour, I'm posting two versions, both bang-up, of The Style Council's My Ever Changing Moods, my favourite song from the group. Mike probably has other thoughts on the subject...

For my more entrepreneurial-minded readers out there with a surplus of chutzpah and a deficit of good ideas, might I suggest the Dépanneur Daycare? Quebec daycare is subsidized at $7 a day, so throw in 2 750ml cans of Molson Black Ice & a package of Peter Jackson's, for a daily rate of $20 and you can kill two birds with one stone: intoxicating the parents and educating the children.

Incidentally, it's that time of the month again. I'll be DJing classics and unfairly forgotten songs from the golden age of Bollywood tomorrow evening at Casa del Popolo for Thums Up! No cover, drink specials, and I'll project an early Amitabh movie or two.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Early Morning

Nomag is a bilingual online music & culture site (without issues) run by Evelyne Côté (a former music editor at ICI and culture editor at Nightlife) and Félix Dyotte of Chinatown. I contributed a review of Beach House's performance last night in Montreal, which you can read online here.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Make It Habit. Make It Happen.

Will Powers Adventures in Success

I was reading something on the Holy Ghost blog that mentioned Peter Gordon's Love of Life Orchestra the other day, which reminded me of photographer Lynn Goldsmith's Will Powers project in the early 80's. I mentally place this whole project on the same shelf as monologist Spalding Grey, certain projects David Byrne was involved with, Laurie Anderson and other downtown New York video types, and you can see why from the above video. Collaborators on this project include Carly Simon, Jacob Brackman (who wrote one of my favourite films, King of Marvin Gardens), Nile Rodgers (of Chic), Steve Winwood, Todd Rundgren and Sting. (Uh...)

This is just me talking about a world I really have no idea about, but it seems that in Reaganite America, there was an actual skepticism towards self-help that seems conspicuously missing when artists at a similar level in their career (as the people involved with Will Powers) and beyond, like Beck, are now all knee-deep in the management theory mysticism of Scientology. As for projects like Will Powers, sure, there's Yacht, but while I can't deny certain sonic similarities, the conceptual art and theoretical elements of Yacht are the least appealing to me and feel strikingly dated.

It's you. only you.
It's you. only you.
It's you. only you.

You are an important person. A rare individual. A unique creature. There has never been anyone just like you and never will be. You have talents and abilities no one else has. In some ways you're superior to any other living person. The power to do anything you can imagine is within you when you discover your real self by practicing a few simple laws of success.

First law of success. Take inventory of your assets. Don't be modest or critical. Be open and objective. Get a pencil and paper. Write down every good thing about yourself you can think of.

It's you. make it habit. make it happen. only you.
It's you. make it habit. make it happen. only you.
It's you. make it habit. make it happen. only you.

Second law of success. Write a description of the person you'd like to be. Describe your personal dress, your home, your automobile, your desired occupation and income. Be honest. Now, go even deeper. Describe the inner person you'd like to be. Let your mind run wild. Assume you can become anything that you desire. The fact is, you will become the person you honestly describe. You can't avoid it.

It's you. make it habit. make it happen. only you.
It's you. make it habit. make it happen. only you.
It's you. make it habit. make it happen. only you.

Third law of success. Concentrate on a mental image of the person you'd like to be. Paint a picture in your imagination of who you want to become. Constantly hold this visual in your mind's eye. See yourself performing and responding like a champion. Feel the confidence and courage that radiate from this type of person.

It's you. only you.
It's you. only you.
It's you. only you.

These three laws are powerful and effective in changing lives. They'll work for you without fail if you're persistent in applying them.

Make it habit. make it happen. make it habit.
Make it happen. make it habit. make it happen.
Make it habit. make it happen.

It's you. make it habit. make it happen. only you.
It's you. make it habit. make it happen. only you.
It's you. make it habit. make it happen. only you.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Dillard & Clark Out on the Side
The Left Banke Foggy Waterfall

I like the Band, I like the Byrds, I like Blue Rodeo, and if I'm hungover, I even like the Eagles, but really, there's not much of the nudie-suit cactus rock genre I can take. You take a step in one direction, it's Gram Parsons (okay); you take another step, and all of the sudden you're listening to Country Joe & The Fish play jug-band music. No thanks. Between the world of Hollywood and the music of the 1960's, I've had about as much of the desert as I can take.

So colour me surprised when I came across this song by Dillard & Clark (Gene Clark & Doug Dillard, respectively), the first cut from their 1968 debut album. Like all sepia-toned country music, the voices sound a little too yokel-y and flat, but the pacing and guitar-work at the end makes up for it. And in a similar vein, on a different coast, a year later, the Left Banke recorded Foggy Waterfall, which never made it to the light of day until a Rhino compilation many decades later. Both of these songs end better than they begin.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Evie Sands

Spiritualized Any Way That You Want Me

From Evie Sands' original to a mannered, Shatner-esque cover to the Liverpool Five's Burden-like interpretation to Spiritualized's version (the one I'm most familiar with). British musicians tend to be such fanboys - Morrissey & Johnny Marr sought Sandie Shaw out to work with when the Smiths were still together, and Belle & Sebastien, the BMX Bandits and Spiritualized all proclaimed great love & adoration for Ms. Sands, also covering her. Animal Collective, though not British, had Vashti Bunyan, who is British, as a muse and collaborator.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Waterfront Property (Adam Wilcox)

photo by Richmond Lam

I guess it's a function of my updating this blog during the day that the music I DJ and listen to while going out is so poorly represented here. Consequentially, I think I'm giving short-shrift to fine and talented local musicians (as well as friends) like CFCF, the Night Trackin' kids, William Saman and Heidy Pinet at Movement, and other young Turks who are rescuing house music from fluo-brimmers types (or maybe they've already rescued it and that phrasing dates me) for the benefit of us all.

Case in point, the subject of today's post - Adam Wilcox, the Pride of Pointe Claire, a Leo, and as sociable and clubbable a fellow as one could home to come across, brings one of my favourite new developments in local music in recent months, Waterfront Property. At only 2:20, Vacances Tragique hints at Wilcox's prowess in the studio, his ability to craft a pitch-perfect homage to those strangely compelling New Order album instrumentals. Gaywave is a darker, crispier and brassier gift to genre-naming with swashes of Italo and Lindstrom-esque tempos. Obviously, Wilcox is equally at home plotting for the dance-floor as he is for the very distinct pleasures of home-listening. And finally, with his re-working of It's Too Late, Latin freestyle also-ran Nayobe has never had it as good. And all that from a chance meeting in a dollar bin.

All that said, I'm sure that you'll hear a lot from Waterfront Property in the coming weeks and months, and from sources larger and more reliable than me. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Casque D'Or

I know it's spring. I know it's spring because this weekend I accidentally broke the glass top of a lamp in an antique store and shelled out $100 for it, somebody stole my DJ bag with all of my CDs in it from behind the DJ booth at an afterparty, and I've been sick for the past two and a half days and I'm still in a relatively good mood. I think I might have lost my DVD player, too. Now, my weekend wasn't entirely bad apples and sour grapes - I saw Scorsese's Shutter Island (which I have to say, was a classic example of cinematic noir gone garishly right, especially the music), celebrated Richmond Lam's birthday and the 10th issue of Snap Magazine, and saw a lot of people I liked and love.

UPDATE: To all concerned citizens, my bag has been found, my faith in humanity: restored.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Rodney Graham, Freud and Nietzsche's Concept of Eternal Return


I ghostwrote this essay for a Concordia student 5 years ago.


Rodney Graham is one of the most important and exciting contemporary media artists, not only in Canada, but internationally, and his work has proved consistently playful and demanding, asking the viewer or observer to sort through a variety of historical allusions, games of meaning and visual puns to arrive at a suitable conclusion, the nature of which may or may not have been intended by Graham. As I intend to reveal in this paper, Rodney Graham’s looped film and video pieces, his“unending fictional narratives” (or “cyclical narratives”) have their roots in the works of Friedriche Nietzsche’s concept of “Eternal Return” (or “Eternal Recurrence[1]”), as well as the psychoanalytical work of Sigmund Freud.


Mustachioed philosopher and horse-rights activist Friedrich Nietzsche derived the idea of Eternal Recurrence from German philosopher Heinrich Heine, and presented the idea in a parable in The Gay Science:

“What if, some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you.”[2]

Nietzsche’s insistence on this concept marked one of the beginnings of the modern era (and with it, of course foreshadowed certain descriptions of the post-modern condition), breaking as it did with the Judeo-Christian/Aristotlean conception of linear time that had so dominated Western thought

That is, as in Graham’s loops, a moment (such as in Vexation Island (this film is described in greater detail further on in this paper) when Graham’s character, “Robinson Crusoe” shakes the tree, producing the coconut which knocks him back to the sand) leads to another moment, which leads to another one, and so forth, repeating and repeating. There is no end, only the circular path, what Christopher Miles rather artlessly calls “circular behavioral inevitability.”[3] The very moment that the coconut falls upon Robinson Crusoe’s head determines that it will be repeated again and again, ad nauseum.

Nietzsche, frightened and petrified at the ramifications of his nighttime demon’s visit (Eternal Return), writes in The Will To Power that one will be able to endure it through “freedom from morality, new means against the fact of pain(…); the enjoyrment of all kinds of uncertainty, experimentalism, as a counterweight to this extreme fatalism; abolition of the concept of necessity; abolition of the ‘will’; abolition of the concept of necessity”[4] – describing the exact methods that Graham uses to deal with the loops, his own constructed models of eternal return. This “counterweight to this extreme fatalism” is often mistaken as dilettantism on Graham’s part, an unwillingness to engage himself, but I contend that Graham is instead participating in Nietzsche’s “mystery world of the two-fold voluptuous delight, my ‘beyond good and evil,’ without goal, unless the joy of the circle is the goal.”[5] As we will see later, Graham finds parallels between his own “dilettantism”, his Eno-esque[6] nature (from sculpture to film to photography to pop music) and Freud’s ‘hobbies’, which caused him no small amount of criticism, too.

In Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the author articulates the concept of Eternal Return as not so much a description of reality as an idea to contrast with the “unbearable lightness of being”[7] – the fleeting and novel occurrences that make up our existence. For Kundera, eternal return is an existential parlour game of sorts – the familiar multiple universe theme of comic book and science fiction. Taking this into account, Graham’s looped films offer the viewer an opportunity to take the challenge, entering a world of Graham’s creation that through repetition, embeds every detail with gravity and meaning, and impacts how she or he may come to view the minutia of daily life after.

In another looped work Verwandlungsmusik, similar to Cage’s performance of Erik Satie’s Vexation piece, Graham re-writes a piece of looped music used at the end of Wagner’s Parsifal opera[8] to allow for the scene transition (not composed by Wagner), and tears it apart, re-looping the components of the piece so that by the time they return to their original form, close to 40 billion years will have passed. 40 billion years is as about as close to eternity as I can conceive.[9]


Lenz, 1983 is a work of looped text, extracts from an untitled 1835 novella by Georg Buchner, Edgar Allen Poe’s The System of Landor’s Cottage and Freud’s landmark psychological book Interpretation of Dreams.

Rodney Graham’s first cinematic looped work was Dr. No (1991-94), a repeating and painfully recreated segment from the 1962 James Bond spy thriller Dr. No (the set design by Ken Adam, Hollywood’s modernist par excellence[10]) which featured Rodney Graham, in the role of Bond, returning to his hotel room, post-night cap, and preparing for bed. After this, his looped films became more intricate and allusive, beginning with the four film series, comprised of Vexation Island, How I Became A Ramblin’ Man, City Self/Country Self, and A Reverie Interrupted By the Police.

1997’s 35mm short film “Vexation Island” (which premiered at the 1997 Venice Biennale and set the stage for international recognition), alludes to Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. The loop begins – we find Graham done up in 18th century finery, unconscious on a deserted beach, a parrot nearby. Graham is awoken, startled by the parrot, throttles a palm tree in front of him, shaking it to retrieve a coconut which promptly falls on his head, knocking him out, the coconut ending up in the sea. As the sequence repeats, we notice that Graham’s head already has a wound on it, prior to the coconut making contact with his head, Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence already richening the experience. More than simply sloppy film-making, the wound’s ahistorical presence reveals the cyclical nature of the film, the repetitive process that weighs down every act throughout the film as it runs on. It goes without saying that Graham’s masturbatory throttling of the tree and deadly coconut ejaculation carry with them the imprint of the Freudian sex and death drive[11].

1999’s How I Became A Ramblin’ Man was an experiment in the drastically commercial form of the music video, with Graham cast as a cowboy minstrel, in the vein of Lee Hazlewood, riding from the horizon, dismounting, singing of his life’s journeys, mounting, riding back and returning again, eliminating the expanse of space and freedom of the Wild West that he alludes to, through this mechanical repetition.

His 2000 4 minute long film, entitled City Self/Country Self relies on the repetition of an action to at once add gravity and to take it away, evoking the life and death cycle. In City Self/Country Self we are introduced to a particular Grahamian technique in his loops, possibly alluding to eternal return. The film is a loop of a fairly pedestrian gag – a country bumpkin (played by Graham) is booted in the buttocks by an urban noble (also played by Graham), both decked in appropriate nineteenth century clothing. As the film repeats, one begins to notice certain details that add the gravity and depth to the situation – we notice that the dandified noble is wearing a shoe on one foot which appears to be either specifically designed to accommodate a rather lengthy and pointy foot (is a mark of blue blood an extended foot, specifically designed for kicking ass?), or fashioned to extend his foot, to be used in kicking the posterior of the peasant, who is either genetically predetermined to have a rather large posterior, or, in anticipation of feeling the brunt of the nobleman’s boot, padded his pants. Regardless of ass or foot enhancements, as the film loops, the viewer soon becomes aware that this event is not an anomalous occurrence, but one that both noble and bumpkin are prepared for, and have been engaged in for time eternal.

A Reverie Interrupted by The Police (2003), the final film of four, sees Graham cast as an old-time convict, being led onto a stage by a grim-looking policeman, who allows Graham to play a piano set on a stage, in handcuffs. Graham, in prisoner’s stripes, opts for a half-hearted rendition of a wretched pseudo-Schoenbergian piece. His heart’s not in it, obviously, and four times the piano cover is depressed, producing a sonic effect mimicking that of the gavel that sent the wretch to his fate. Soon enough, the policeman gathers Graham up and drags him back. And soon enough, Graham appears on stage again, to play the sloppy Schoenberg, which incrementally attracts the viewers’ interest as the sequence repeats itself.


Freud’s concept of visual defamiliarization “entfremdungsgefuhl” – which he believed indicated repression and affected constructions of reality. In 1996, Graham published an essay called “Oeuvres Freudiennes” – writings on the works of Freud resulting from indepth research on Freud. In an essay entitled Siting Vexation Island, (published in a book of essays on his work entitled Island Thought), Graham discusses how his earlier experiences of the cinema (his father doubled as a projectionist for a logging camp in the interior of British Columbia) were experienced in “close proximity not only to the patriarchal authority but also to the cinematic apparatus itself.”[12] One can also see in Graham’s work an engaging with Freud’s concept of visual defamiliarization – the tongue-twister “entfremdungsgefuhl” – the presence of which indicated repression and affected constructions of reality.

“Freud treated them as clever fictions created later by the unconscious to veil other, real, memories – often of a traumatic nature. In his own analysis of his own so-called “Botanical Monograph Dream” in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud alludes to this concept in a footnote that research has show is not really a footnote at all, but an association – for Freud’s essay entitled Screen Memories cites a personal recollection, Freud’s snatching of a bouquet of yellow flowers from the hands of a little girl in an Alpine setting and the theme of the forgetting and violent misappropriation of flowers plays an important part in the dream where another memory is evoked: the four year old Freud’s gleeful destruction of an illustrated feuilleton on Persia (ripped apart leaf by leaf like an artichoke, Freud recalls) in the presence of his younger sister and under the (oddly) approving gaze of his father. Whenever I envision these scenes I see them in garish Technicolor.”[13]

As Graham alluded to in the quote above, he was involved in an earlier work, a 4 page insert into Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, an analysis of one of Freud’s dreams, entitled “Dream of the Botanical Monograph”, rendered in the same typeface and paper as the book itself and written in Freud’s style, meant to be seamlessly integrated into the book and expanding on Freud’s work as a result of Graham’s research into Freud.

As a result of his many diversions into a variety of mediums (photography, music, sculpture, installation works, drawing), Graham has often struggled with, and been criticized for, not applying himself in one area, and consequentially some feel that his work has suffered from a lack of focus.

“I’ve always identified with Freud in this respect because Freud had this problem. I did some research on Freud for part of my work a few years ago. During the period he was making most of his important discoveries, he was being criticized at the time for spending too much time on his hobbies – he had all these other interests. But these interests informed the transformation of his ideas. This was something that plagued him for years, this criticism of being too absorbed.”[14]

The criticism may be mostly the result of Graham’s willingness to present his pop music works (such as his double LP Rock Is Hard) in gallery and artistic settings, not cowtowing to the high art/low art dichotomy that even throughout the past 15 years or so, in the age of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, still irks critics every now and then.[15]

Freudian Inner States: Dreams and Psychoanalysis

Halcion Sleep and Photokinetoscope both explore and poke fun at the Freudian idea that the unconscious can be navigated by voyeuristic observation, tying it to the suspect idea that film is a medium that reveals meaning. The 26 minute long video Halcion Sleep features a double dosed-up Rodney Graham (the brand name of the sleeping pills is Halcion) chauffeured from a suburban Vancouver area to his downtown apartment, sleeping and dreaming, we assume. The prostrate Graham, spread out across the back seats in a vehicle, mimics the physical state of the patient on the analyst’s couch. This is surely a non-traditional approach to the “interpretation of dreams.”

The riveting and beautifully conceived 2002 piece Photokinetoscope is a nod to Albert Hoffman’s accidental discovery of the hallucinogenic properties of LSD, with a few cinematic and musical nods to cultural touchstones like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barret. Comprised of a film five minutes in duration, shot in 16mm, and a 15 minute long 12” LP, the film is activated by placing the needle on the groove of the record (mimicking Thomas Edison’s photokinetoscope, but differing in that the film will start no matter where the needle is place on the record, thus producing a more random effect, a de-synchronization). In the film, Graham, sitting in Berlin’s Tiergarten park, ingests a quantity of lysergic acid diethylamide from a blotter, and bicycles about on an older style “cruiser” bicycle. The viewer scours the face and actions of Graham, looking for the effects of the very hallucinogenic substance, but though his inner state may be in flux and turmoil, he remains relatively placid throughout, confounding the armchair psychoanalysis of the viewer of the piece. At the end of the film, Graham playfully rides his bike backwards (that nod to Newman’s gag in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), a patient’s playful gag on an over-eager Freudian observer. “My point is, the trip is the thing.”[16]

It could be that the shadows cast by Nietzsche and Freud over the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly in the Westernized world of contemporary art, are unavoidable, but I am aware of very few artists who are willing to engage these two thinkers on the same level as Graham – directly and indirectly. The majority of Graham’s works are deft combinations of Nietzschean loop trickery and identity games cast within Freudian dream states. Like Nietzsche’s ubermensch ideal, his playful Dionysian, Graham has no interest in uniting the fragments of modernism, but derives value and pleasure from taking up. The paranoia that Kafka beheld in modernism and the schizophrenia that characterize the post-modern condition are fields of play, to be navigated with the intellectual tools left behind by the two Germanic intellectuals who so perfectly defined the neuroses of the 20th century, and in the end, Graham creates something more cerebral and intellectually invigorating than his pieces may first seem to be.

[1] In the interest of full disclosure, in the process of researching for this essay, I came along an article in Cinemascope #19 by Jason McBride, that made a conjunctive leap from Graham’s loops to another fashionable existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, but where McBride uses Kierkegaard to affix an idea of blissful security to Graham’s loops, I see a shade more critical process at work.

[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science New York: Oxford Press, 1988: p. 341

[3] Miles, Christoper. “Lost In The Moment.” Art in America, March 2005: p.?

[4] Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will To Power NY: Oxford Press, 1988: p. 1060

[5] Ibid, p. 1067

[6] In reference to musician, producer, artist and author Brian Eno.

[7] Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York,1988. p.3

[8] It behooves one to mention Nietzsche’s somewhat difficult friendship with the composer Richard Wagner.

[9] Lubbock, Tom “Out Of The Loop”, Independent (London), The October 2002, p. 35

[10] Adam designed the sets for another deceptively titled film that may have been initially regarded as a medical thriller: Dr. Strangelove.

[11] Freud, Sigmund Beyond The Pleasure Principle. New York: Norton Press, 1961: p.42-43

[12] Graham, Rodney “Siting Vexation Island”, Island Thought, Toronto, C. Pavilion, 48th Venice Biennale, 1997, p. 27

[13] Ibid.

[14] Cranfield, Brody “Relaxing With Rodney Graham” Discorder Magazine, March 2002, p. 12

[15] I’ll speculate that critics might feel that his albums lack the ironic (Brechtian?) distancing that constitutes the secret passkey into the art world for elements of low and middlebrow culture.

[16] Graham, Rodney “A Thousand Words: Rodney Graham Talks About the Phonokinetoscope” ArtForum, November, 2001, p. 33

* Many thanks to Brett Stabler for this.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Golden Man & College Girls

It always happens that the day after I need it, I finally come across an amazing song or couple of songs that I really could have made use of the night before. Case in point, I DJed at Casa del Popolo last night for Thums Up!, playing a selection of Bollywood hits and also-rans. People came out, I screened the Amitabh Bachchan film Bombay to Goa and fun was had. But had I played the above song, I think it would have lifted the bar just that extra special bit...

Bappi Lahiri is the hefty gold-loving disco king of Bollywood, known as The Golden Man. His most recognizable work in the West is his soundtrack to Disco Dancer, Jimmy being sampled by MIA, but yadda yadda yadda, our concern here is the narcissistic go-go freakout Everybody Dance With Me. This song obviously owes a gigantic debt/royalty cheque to Iron Butterfly's In-A-Gadda-Da-Vidda, but pushes it one step further with a Morricone-esque trumpet intro and some guest vamping from an unidentified female playback singer. And just to make it all the better, the movie's called College Girl.

Thursday, March 04, 2010


Stolen from Emmanuel's Facebook for its dramatic qualities,
and good composition.

Emmanuel Ethier, of Coeur de Pirate, is a talented multi-instrumentalist and (get this) all around nice guy to boot. When he's not traipsing around foreign lands playing with Beatrice & co, snapping photos, and running into Alicia Keys, he's honing and perfecting this sort of stuff along with a couple of other folks under the name PASSWORDS. It's a great song, and there are strong progressive elements here (not unlike Mew), along with steel drums lifted from calypso and a rolling sea-shanty rhythm, all culminating in a delightful finale with guitar theatrics reminiscent of Built to Spill.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Down in the Basement

That Europe is nothing
but a great big auction.
Bunch of old worn-out places.
It's just a big fire sale.

I watched Cat On A Hot Tin Roof the other night, finding myself in need of some mid-century melodrama to wash down the remnants of my 21st century weekend. The garish and grotesque children of Gooper and Sister Woman, costumed and done up provided a nice humorous counterpoint to the sniping of Maggie and Brick, young lovers turned wounded harpie and unresponsive alcoholic (respectively, if not respectfully). But more than the great dialogue and resonant themes of filial crisis and personal anxiety, personal disappointment and scarred relationships finally redeemed, I was struck by the cobwebbed bric-a-brac and crated goods in an old plantation basement. It was the similarities between the cellar in Big Daddy Pollitt's mansion stuffed with Old World antiques and the hoarding impulses exhibited by another cinematic self-made man: Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Like Kane, Big Daddy also looted the Old World and raged against the shabby, decaying continent, although instead of a sled named Rosebud, Big Daddy, near the end of his life, ruminated ambivalently about an old suitcase left to him by his hobo father - containing his father's uniform from the Spanish American Civil War.

I find it difficult to believe that Tennessee Williams saw antiquing as a decadent affection of a moribund society: by virtue of him being a southern homosexual in that particular era he would (stereotypically) have a fine appreciation of it... But rather, it was the desperate conquering mindset behind it all. Big Daddy, patriarch of the Pollitt family, traipsed through Europe with his wife, buying up culture - a Philistine's desire to own what he could never truly have, mirroring his own attempts to buy his family:
The human animal is a beast that eventually has to die. If he's got money, he buys and he buys. The reason why he buys everything he can, is because... of a crazy hope that one of the things he buys will be life everlasting...
Big Daddy's son Brick, played by Paul Newman, twice speaks to just how futile it was: "You gave her things, not love," and "You own us, but you don't love us." Unlike Kane, Big Daddy eventually reconciles with his family, and the film (and play) is less of an epic than a family drama which ends on a note of reconciliation and hope, even if Big Daddy's spastic colon (of all things) will soon bury him beneath the rich pasture he saved from the swampland.

So: clutter, acquisition, old basements. Some of my fondest memories of my great grandparents are of summer afternoons spent climbing up cherry trees, gorging myself and retiring to their musty basement to root through old boxes for toys, watches or comic book adaptations of the Count of Monte Cristo: typically pastoral and nostalgic, just like all memories of elderly relatives should be. (At the height of my teenage pretensions, when I'd talk for hours about Godard to anyone who'd listen (no one did), I still nurtured a sweet tooth for Euro schmaltz films about children in rural France or Italy after World War II.)

Later on, I'd try to feign an interest in high modernism, the chic minimalism of Wallpaper* magazine, but it never really rang true. And when I worked for a season on a reality television series about design, the trend at that time was to declare war on clutter. A declaration made by the tightly-coiffed hostesses, targeting these rank and unsophisticated amateurs. That, no joke, struck me as a remnant of the minimalist mid=century impulse - fervently ahistorical, utopian, without the messy complications of history and emotion, although enacted in the lowbrow masquerading as highbrow but at best middlebrow arena of reality TV. Not entirely future-obsessed, there was the occasional a nod to times past: Philippe Starck's grotesque Louis Ghost Chair for Kartell or a damask on some throw pillows. (The at once clever and meaningless presence of a Samuel Beckett photograph in a gilded frame on the set of France's Tout le Monde en Parle always baffled me, for example.) Reality television now has a new enemy - hoarders. Poor sods.

All of my discomfort with a nice modernist line, cubes and 90 degree angles is almost certainly owing to growing up in western North America. Aesthetic self-loathing is a powerful force: Germans, sick of the burden of their own history, gobble up Karl May's cowboy & Indian books and come to North America wearing feather head-dresses or Stetsons and spurs; and Japanese fans of Road to Avonlea invading the east coast of Canada... Closer to home, many of our parents' generation decided that gravitas, authenticity and enlightenment was left somewhere along the side of the Silk Road when Marco Polo was returning to Europe from China, (he figured that pasta was lighter and the carbohydrates more filling) so made pilgrimages to ashrams in India, monasteries in China and Tibet, and (more frequently), hash dens in Afghanistan.

The problem with blank canvases in history, is that so often the . Okay, sorry, I'm joking about that...

The compulsion to hoard items, to maintain, but at the same time, I don't see. In many ways, hoarding and collecting are pre-moden impulse: vestigial remnants of a time when icons and charms had intrinsic animistic properties. It's not like the most tech-savvy amongst us are entirely immune to it: a Blackberry or iPhone or Smartphone must have some talismanic properties, given the way we compulsively clutch at them, beyond the boundaries of good sense. (I do it myself.)

I didn't think of myself as a particularly superstitious person, and there's a lot about an animistic view of life that I find reprehensible and preposterous, but when it comes down to how I actually live my life, I'm a pre-modern - I assign emotional value to ludicrous items, and I tend to obey arcane rules in modern life that don't stand up to close scrutiny. For the longest time I wouldn't step on cracks in sidewalks for the fear that I might harm my mother's back. From the earliest I can remember, I was obsessed with doing things (like, God, of all things, cracking my fingers and toes) in a repeating pattern of fours.

Humanity is not a rational animal - motivated as we are by passions, superstitions, and a lust for shiny baubles. For the majority of the 20th century, one of the most barbarous and unsettling on earth, the neuroses of civilization's leading nations were taken care of by adherents to a doctrine created out of the mind of a Viennese cocaine fiend (who thought that parental empthy was misplaced narcissism) and who could, at times, seem like nothing more than sophisticated witchdoctors. Noted sociologist (also ex-husband of Susan Sontag and father of David Rieff) Philip Rieff believed that modern culture amounted to a "mourning for the Christian past,*" which may be true, I guess. But to me, it seems that if it is Christian, it's far more Catholic than Protestant. That we all have our icons and remnants of the cross, and that we are all more like Big Daddy Pollitt, coming to terms with our own mortality and failures in a cellar filled with junk we've acquired in order to avoid Death. Not very profound, I know, but when I started writing this earlier this morning I promised myself I'd finish it. Enjoy the songs.

* (I'm paraphrasing Peter Homans here. Homans goes on to describe Rieff's writings on Freud as being drenched "in irony, display bitterness, sadness, and not a little despair. But irony is the trope of mourning or, rather, of the inability to mourn.") Peter Homans, The Ability to Mourn: Disillusionment and the Social Origins of Psychoanalysis

Monday, March 01, 2010

10% Inspiration, 90% Irritation

NPR contributor and self-loathing copywriter Shalom Auslander takes rightful aim at the overwhelming paucity of sense, intelligence and shame in the Meet the Happy New Me, Same as The Crappy Old Me piece in March's issue of GQ (it's not yet available online, sorry). Once again, overzealous ad execs are caught praising the strength of the Nazi brand (and what great synergy - Hugo Boss & Volkswagen!). Of course, recently Montreal's own Mitch Joel was making a big hullaboo about the dearth of authenticity in personal branding, which makes about much sense as complaining that prostitution has lost its focus and become too commercial. I realize that at some point everyone in any job must do some serious psychic maintenance in order to maintain a sense of purpose, but let's be serious 2.0 marketing gurus: clever viral videos are fun, but you're not creating new experiential paradigms that challenge people to create, feel, live better or love with passion and inspiration. A little honesty and humility, please. Maybe you can profit from honesty - just think of Dudley Moore's ad agency stacked with idiot savants in Crazy People.

There's a certain breed of marketing manager/employee/guru/whatever that drives me absolutely crazy, and not just because of the constant strip-mining of culture and history for teachable moments (or quotes that will look good as signatures on their e-mails), but also because of their conviction that advertising and marketing is a great creative wellspring which changes lives and create monuments to the human spirit that will, if not dwarf, at least equal the great achievements of civilization. That this conviction exists in an environment devoid of any moral component makes for such stupefyingly moronic moments as the one described in Auslander's piece, when an ad exec quips, "Say what you want about the Nazis, but they knew branding."

A couple of other bracing tonics that I'd recommend, along the same line, are George W.S. Trow's 1980 New Yorker essay Within the Context of No Context (excerpt here) and Thomas Frank's amazing book The Conquest of Cool (excerpt here) about just how much of the 60's counterculture was manufactured by advertising gurus and lifestyle marketing an impetus for, rather than a response to, actual changing demographics. Frank is probably best known to most for What's the Matter With Kansas or his writing for Harper's, but before all of that, he edited the Baffler and wrote in a marvelous Menckian mode that avoids the imperial tone of Lewis Lapham. (As much as I love him, part of the reason I stopped reading Harper's were the incessant harping about the Decline & Fall of the American Empire.)