Monday, December 21, 2009


It's very likely that the last thing anyone wants to read at the moment is another "Best of the Decade" list, but I've been itching to write one. There's no way in hell I could do a decade list for music, but I think I can do it for films, so I'm going to take a crack at it. Like I said, for many, list fatigue is setting in, and so I forgive you if you entirely skip over this. We're still friends, for realsies. Anyhow, here are my Top 10 (potentially 11) films from the past 10 years. I might even try to rank them. I'm feeling gutsy.

10. The Constant Gardener, Fernando Meirelles, 2005

I feel that this is one of the more overlooked films of the past decade. It really is a tremendous piece of work, with leads Ralph Fiennes and Rachael Weisz delivering powerful, and oftentimes heartstopping performances throughout. Meirelles treats the sweeping, overwhelming vistas of Africa simultaneously with respect, refusing to give into tropes of slum representation, while still making every frame read as something of an abstract composition. I'm still haunted by the image of the overturned jeep on a muddy, salt-crusted lake shore. The story itself is urgent, and unabashedly engages with some of the most pressing issues we face today regarding first world treatment, and oftentimes, devastating abuse, of third world resources, both material and human. Yet at the same time, the details of the mystery are left vague enough that the script dodges the bullet of becoming moralistic didacticism, and echoes in a deeply unsettling way how little we actually know about how money, power, and wellbeing are traded in a globalized economy. I really do love this film, and maybe it's because it seems so effortlessly excellent that it doesn't stick out as particularly challenging, or something like that, but the script, the images, and the performances, taken together, create a pulsating, disturbing, and emotionally engaging brew that shouldn't be missed.

9. Divine Intervention, Elia Suleiman, 2002

On the poster pictured above, this film by Palestinian director Elia Suleiman is described as both hysterical and devastating, and I'm inclined to agree, but perhaps not at the most obvious level. It's hysterical because it's devastating; it makes us laugh out of self defense. And it is devastating because it is hysterical; when we laugh, we realize how staggeringly flawed our perceptions (as Westerners) of the Middle East truly are. Divine Intervention is sort of like American Beauty set within a Palestinian encampment in Israel. Suleiman constant plays with mediatized images of Palestinians as violent, destructive, and dangerous, and then turns them on their heads, swinging us wildly between horror and humor, and in the wake of the transition, a bit of shame and embarassment for having been mislead. Suleiman himself plays the film's central figure, a silent, almost Buster Keaton-type figure who somewhat listlessly shuffles about, never seeming any real threat, yet he constantly opens doors, through hilarious and surrealist slapstick, to legitimate discussions of who defines whom in the Middle East, and to what effect.

8. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, Joel and Ethan Coen, 2000*

I love the Coen Brothers. They could make almost any movie as well or as poorly as they wanted, and I'd probably love it, but this one holds a particularly special place in my heart as it was my introduction to their work. George Clooney has never been funnier or more bearable than he is as the fast-talking Ulysses Everett McGill, and his superb comedic timing throughout literally always leaves me laughing out loud in a pretty embarassing manner. The barn sequence, coupled with the repeated line "Damn, we're in a tight spot!" is one of my favorite comedy moments of the decade. The film, further, looks absolutely stunning. The Coens capture, in vibrant, vivid strokes, everything from pastoral beauty and picturesque agrarian vistas, to almost operatic and theatrical images of depression-era devastation and poverty, and press them all through a warm, dusty colour palate that makes the whole thing at once stunning and gritty. Many of my favorite scenes and shots of the decade come from this film, such as the Siren Song/River sequence, the Baptism sequence, and an early scene in which a blind, railcar-hopping soothsayer foretells the troubles in Everett's future. If you haven't seen Oh Brother, I really suggest that you do, and if you have, watch it again. I'm almost sure you'll be surprised how hard you fall in love with it all over again.

*Tied for this spot is Guillermo del Toro's amazing fascist fairy tale Pan's Labyrinth from 2006. Dark but lush, terrifying but still heartfelt, this film is easily one of the most ambitious and successful experiments in genre, style, and representation in recent memory, and refuses to leave you for a long while after leaving the theatre, if it ever does leave you. Also, can you recall a more terrifying image in the past 10 years than the eyeless Pale Man sitting at his sumptuous banquet, deathly still? I think not.

7. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel, 2007

Anyone's who's seen this film knows why it's on this list. Stunningly acted by all parties, even Mathieu Almaric who, for the vast majority of the film has mobility only in his left eyelid; Poetically and elegantly photographed by Schnabel; and absolutely beautifully scripted in a way that captures both the frustration of paralysis, and the faint glimmers of hope we find within despair. Diving Bell is just beautiful. I don't have much to say about this film in an academic or analytical mode, because I just love it as it is. Really, it's a classic trope about excess, suffering, and redemption, but Schnabel executes this narrative with such subtelty, honesty, and emotive power, that it's hard to do anything but love it.

6. Waltz With Bashir, Ari Folman, 2008

Even if this film weren't emotionally engaging, socially relevant, and superbly voiced (which it is), it would deserve at least honorable mention on this list for its absolutely stunning animation style and genre-bending approach to documentary convention. Ostensibly a documentary, but framed through fantasy, memory, and surrealist dream sequences, Folman brings to the screen, through his incredible non-rotoscope animation style (that is somehow 3D and 2D at once), an intensely personal, idiosyncratic, subjective examination of his own role in facilitating the devastating Sabra and Shatila massacres of the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war. Folman has been criticized by a number of people for refusing to engage with the lager trauma of the war as a whole by languishing in his own fantasies and memories, and some have even claimed that the film operates as an attempt to absolve Israel of its brutality in the conflict. To be certain, there's problematic elements here, such as the curious choice to not subtitle the Palestinian figures in the film, yet I can't help but think that these critiques expect something of Folman that he never attempts to explore, in the first place- after all, what authority does he really have to act as the voice of a suffering Palestinian refugee? He has his own voice, and explores it as his own truth, and never makes an attempt to extrapolate it out into some broad assertion of Israeli innocence. I see Waltz With Bashir as an emphatically personal story, and an innovative, arresting one, at that.

5. Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004 (German Release)/2005 (American Release)

For very obvious reasons, the centrepiece of this film is Bruno Ganz's heart stopping performance as Adolph Hitler in the final 12 days of the Third Reich, as his paranoia, physical health, and mental stability collapse upon him within his Berlin bunker. It really is one of the best performances ever put to film, in my opinion. But in a broader sense, Downfall takes a defiantly innovative approach to the WWII film, shirking sweeping vistas, exploding forests, and tales of individual heroism. Rather, we find a focus upon cramped spaces, the devastation of insularity, and the transformation of the war from something deeply disturbing and visceral into something totally abstracted and distant. Near the end of the film, as the Red Army marches on Berlin, we catch our first glimpses of actual combat. For the vast majority of the running time, however, the war is nothing but distant explosions, the drone of airplane engines, and flickering lights. Nonetheless, the tension within the bunker is almost unbearable, with every character caught between their unwavering faith in Hitler, and a complete awareness that their project has failed, and that they now stare death in face for their crimes. The brutality of this circumstance is fleshed out in exquisite detail by Hirschbiegel, particularly in the heartbreaking sequence in which the wife of Himmler chooses death for her children, as opposed to life in a world without Naziism. A staggering, haunting portrait of self-conscious guilt, and the impossibility of delusion in the moments before the collapse, Downfall is truly one of the most memorable films of the decade, and likely one of the best war films of all time.

4. No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007

Those rascally Coen brothers, taking up two spots on my list. No Country seems to be pretty divisive, with audiences split between abject hatred and boredom, and visceral adoration. I place myself in the latter category, quite obviously. Without being too crass, yes, this film does indeed make a haunting assertion about the omnipotence of terror and the reproduction of oppression over time in contemporary society, but mostly, I felt No Country in my bones. I was literally white-knuckling my armrest throughout the movie, particularly in the scene where Josh Brolin sits alone in a dark hotel room, staring at the sliver of light sliding under his door, knowing that Javier Bardem's terrifying (if slightly unfashionable) villain is only steps behind. This sequence, alongside the gas station/coin flip scene earlier in the film, at once acts as a philosophical fulcrum around which the whole message of the film pivots, as well as a breathless, haunting atmospheric piece that functions almost as a stripped down and terrifying ballet. I find it hard to re-watch this movie, because it affected me at such a gut, base level on first viewing, but one viewing is really all it took for No Country For Old Men to become etched into my memory for what will hopefully be decades to come.

3. Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron, 2006

I love dystopia films. I'm obsessed with possible futures and apocalyptic finales to life as we know it, and Cuaron, in his 2006 film, Children of Men takes a unique approach to the dystopia trope that realigns the conventions of the genre to respond to more contemporary anxieties rooted in the body and the natural world. Bladerunner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and other classics of the genre are obsessed with the breakdown in the boundary between man and machine, yet in Children of Men, the body itself is the enemy, with the film set in 2027, 18 years after all women on earth mysteriously became sterile. Cuaron depicts a rapidly decaying urban London, marked sporadically by new, but conceivable technologies such as video billboards and animated bus ads. Outside of these advertising-based technologies, the only new innovations we see in the film are highly sophisticated, but still cubicle-bound computers, and the slightly more fantastic video newspaper. However, these flashy technologies are hardly the norm in Cuaron’s world. He portrays them as superfluous and mundane decorations amid the anonymous, concrete housing projects, the dreary filth of urban waste, and caged hordes of “illegal immigrants” on street corners. Against this stark and hopeless visual world, though, is a tiny glimmer of hope in the form of a young, pregnant immigrant, Ki, who must be smuggled to the coast to keep her out of the hands of a corrupt government. The ending of the film is often criticized for being vague and unsatisfying, but I really like it. It asks a question of the audience, instead of slipping into the precautionary finger-wagging so common in science fiction. It gives us hope by asserting that the capacity for change and progress lies within our own bodies, but leaves it up to us to make the leap to actually use that capacity.

2. The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006

At its core, this film is really about isolation, and the pain of sacrificing pity, love, emotion, and care to the demands of a rationalized, heavily policed state- both for those it polices, and those who do the policing. But just as many of the films on this list do, The Lives of Others resists schmaltz or hamfisted moralizing. Ulrich Muhe steals the film in the role of Gerd Wiesler, a cold, calculating, expert interrogator for the Stasi, the East German state police. However, when he is assigned to monitor and observe the actions of stage actress Christa-Maria Sieland and her party-friendly playwright boyfriend, Georg Dreyman, he finds himself drawn to their intoxicating passion, artistic vigor, and honest love for one another, and so is suddenly caught between the relentlessly pragmatic and brutal authority of the East German state, and his own crippling isolation from all meaningful human contact. Muhe performs the role to perfection, displaying at all times microscopic suggestions of doubt and guilt, making the audience feel deeply for his personal circumstance, but never leaving us to languish in the idiosyncratic realm. Our pity for Wiesler is quickly expanded into a sweeping condemnation of the brutality of the East German state, and totalitarian governments, in general. Above all, though, I think I like the scripting best in this film. Tiny suggestions established early in the film (which, despite being quite personal and intimate, really does feel sprawling and powerful) are quietly built up over the course of the running time, and then elegantly tied back together in the conclusion with tremendous emotional power. The dialogue is expertly crafted, and every nuance of the story seems to have been considered in detail, giving powerful insight into the personal experience of isolation, love, and life under a totalitarian regime. This is an excellent film that, in every way, deserved its Academy Award in 2007.

1. Caché, Michael Haneke, 2005

For lack of a better term, Austrian director Michael Haneke has long been known as something of a shit disturber. Films such as Benny's Video and The Piano Teacher earned Haneke, early in his career, a reputation for subjecting his characters to staggering brutality, denying his audience any sense of narrative satisfaction, and exposing violence in film for what it really is- horrifying. Haneke has commented extensively upon this habit, calling it a negative aesthetic, a cinema of insistent questions as opposed to a cinema of easy answers (read Hollywood), a cinema that forces us to witness the horror of death and violence rather than making it exciting, thrilling, and consumable. Haneke's films, then, are deeply politicized from the outset, especially when it comes to violence. His negative aesthetic reached its apex with the release of Funny Games in 1997 (which he followed in 2007 with a shot-for-shot English remake starring Naomi Watts), which is all but unwatchable. With Caché, however, and his recent follow-up, The White Ribbon, Haneke seems to have turned a bit of a corner, still focusing upon violence, brutality, and horror, but in a much more subtle manner, exploring how the subjects of surveillance and ideological oppression internalize the forces that control them, and become themselves objects of symbolic, historical, and ideological violence. Caché mobilizes these themes in a manner that makes the film seem absolutely urgent, even five years after its release.

The film’s ostensible “subject” is a contemporary French bourgeois family made up of Georges Laurent, his wife Anne, and their young son, Pierrot. The family lives in a stylish, well-designed Paris flat. Georges hosts a popular television program about literature while Anne works at a publishing house and Pierrot assumes the role of the media-savvy but emotionally-disengaged teenager. The pleasant mundanity of this life is rocked when a tape of the family’s home appears, unmarked and apparently unmotivated, on the Laurent’s doorstep. Anne and Georges initially approach the tape with a sense of bewilderment; venturing guesses that it may be an innocuous prank pulled by one of Pierrot’s friends. As more tapes appear, though, they become increasingly invasive and unsettling. Eventually, frightening drawings of disturbing scenes begin to accompany the tapes; among them, crude renderings of a young boy vomiting blood, and a decapitated bird. As the tapes delve deeper into Georges' history, Haneke expertly draws out and re-inscribes within out contemporary culture of digital images (where the line between private and public has become increasingly fluid), a hidden French history of colonial rule and oppression.

One of the cornerstone events of French-Algerian history and Georges’ own narrative is the Paris Massacre of 1961. Despite the estimated 200 Algerians this event left dead, in the decades following, it received almost no attention in the mainstream French media, and remains a largely ignored part of French history. To finally fix this buried legacy of Algerian oppression to video, then, to draw it into a public and transnational media culture and out of the repressive realm of personal memory is, in some ways, the fundamental crux of Caché as a whole. In Haneke’s imagining, the culture of digital images has the capacity to confront those parts of history and ourselves that have been packaged and restructured by historical media discourses as innocuous or insignificant. Caché confronts the hidden legacy of French colonialism by turning repressed personal memories inside out, and exposing them through cinema as embodiments of an entire history ignored and forgotten through silent negotiation.

Political, thrilling, challenging, and tense beyond measure, Caché is a marvel of contemporary cinema, and gives me a deep sense of hope that the grand artistic gesture isn't dead; that there's someone out there making film that they think will matter, films they think can change the world.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Top Albums and Songs of 2009

I am the least hip of all hipsters. As much as I love publications like Paste Magazine, I'm pretty damn out of the loop when it comes to the NPR indie scene. I was a year behind the hype on almost all of 2008's big releases, including Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. But nonetheless, I soldier on, compiling lists of albums and tracks that have seemed particularly excellent to me over the past 12 months. I'd love to hear feedback and comments and additions you would have made, so never be afraid of the comment button! Also, note that these albums in are no ranked order, seeing as how that's almost impossible. So this isn't really a "top" list in the strictest sense, but just nine really excellent records.

Favorite Albums:

1. Dark Was The Night, Various Artists: This tremendous, all-star collection of songs was released nearly a year ago by RedHot, an organization that, since the 1980s, has been putting out compilation albums in support of HIV/AIDS research and awareness programs. So right off the bat, there's really no way to go wrong, just based on the project of the album as a whole. It certainly doesn't hurt that it's packed to the rafters with amazing one-offs and B-sides from some of today's top indie acts, including Yeasayer, Bon Iver, The National, Andrew Bird, Grizzly Bear, Connor Oberst, and The Decembrists. It's a pretty tough chore picking out the strongest tracks from this collection, but I'd certainly fix Yeasayer's shimmering "Tightrope," Bon Iver's understated "Brackett, WI," My Brightest Diamond's cover of the Nina Simone classic, "Feelin' Good" and Connor Oberst and Gillian Welch's re-imagination of Oberst's "Lua" around the top of the heap. DWTN is an arresting compilation that never simply relies upon the clout of its contributors to carry its weight. This is a powerful, well-arranged set of songs for an excellent cause.


2. Horehound, The Dead Weather: Jack White's newest supergroup truly lives up to its expectations. Made up of vocalist Alison Mosshart (of The Kills), Jack White on drums, vocals, and occasionally guitar, Dean Fertita (of Queens of the Stone Age) on keys and guitar, and Jack Lawrence (of The Raconteurs) on bass and guitar, The Dead Weather convened somewhat by accident for a period of not much more than two weeks in 2009 to record their debut album Horehoud, with pretty excellent results. Part southern-fried rock, part Led Zeppelin, part soundtrack to your sexiest encounters, Horehound is a gritty, seductive, ballsy set of songs that makes you want to smash vintage guitars, grow your hair out, toss liquor bottles at your needy groupies, and gyrate your hips with all the energy you can muster. Standouts include the lead single "Treat Me Like Your Mother," and the unbelievably sexy, slow-burning album opener, "60 Feet Tall." One listen and I was totally hooked. Excellent album.


3. Noble Beast, Andrew Bird. Andrew Bird has a long, somewhat tortured and inconsistent relationship with the recording process, having been variably lumped in, over the course of his career, with a number of now-reviled trends, such as the ill-fated swing revival of the early 1990s. With Noble Beast, though, Bird seems to have finally hit his stride. By combining achingly beautiful violin arrangements and his incredibly erudite and verbose lyrics with just enough electronic instrumentation to keep it on the leading edge of the alt-folk scene, Noble Beast achieves that always challenging balance between pastoral beauty and avant garde poking and prodding. Perhaps the strongest songs on the album are the rollicking tongue-twister "Tenuousness," the lovely folk ballad "Effigy," the seven-minute instrumental piece "Carrion Suite," and my personal favorite, "Anonanimal." Sometimes stunningly crisp and precise, other times satisfyingly hearty and throaty, Noble Beast is an excellent album, especially for those quiet nights with a book and a mug of something warm.


4. New Moon Original Soundtrack, Various Artists. Let's just address the obvious elephant in the room right away. This is the soundtrack to New Moon. That movie about sparkling vampires who can't get laid, Native American werewolves, and awkward teen girl angst. I was in a meeting with a professor this term and he made direct reference to this album as an example of why he would hate to be a 20-something music snob in 2009. This disc is filled, top to bottom, with tracks from some of today's most important and influential independent acts, but is nonetheless stapled onto the back of the Twilight morass- what's a hipster to do? I've chosen the option of simply not caring. I'll never see the movie. I'll never have to hear Lykke Li (on the stunning track "Possibility") provide the background track to some vampire heartbreak montage. Problem solved. Let's just look at the music. Fielding tracks by artists such as Grizzly Bear, Anya Maria, Death Cab for Cutie, The Killers, and Thom Yorke, the New Moon OST is full, like DWTN, of tasty indie tidbits and elegant, lush tracks, such as the Bon Iver+St. Vincent collaboration "Roslyn," which, despite being next to incomprehensible, is stunningly beautiful. We even get some unexpected contributions from Lupe Fiasco (with the actually pretty wicked "Solar Midnight") and Australia's answer to Meatloaf, Eskimo Joe ("Thunderclap"). Despite their diversity and occasional weirdness, every song on this album is arresting in its own right, and they all deserve lots of attention, regardless of their unfortunate coupling to the Twilight vehicle. The vampires that this album promotes may suck, but the tracks it offer certainly don't (PUN).


5. Torches/ Torches (The Ward, Colorado Demos), Brian Borcherdt. Borcherdt is something of a quiet deity in the Canadian music industry. He's spent most of his career starting independent artist development organizations and labels, such as Hand Drawn Dracula Records, and has helped launch the careers of such Canadian success stories as Jill Barber. While he's not working on the institutional side, he's busy touring with his critically-acclaimed noise/electro troupe, Holy Fuck. Borcherdt's moody, atmospheric, and decidedly dark solo work, however, belies this frantic persona. Torches is the follow up to Borcherdt's 2008 release, Coyotes, which rendered, in haunting, ethereal shades, the darkest, most idiosyncratic parts of the isolated imagination. After having almost lost every last bit of Torches to the trunk of a cab, Borcherdt released the whole album, along with the original demos, free of charge in late November, and building off of the aesthetic established by Coyotes, tracks like "Preserver" and "Crime Scenes," while a bit fuller and more fleshed out, provide stunningly honest, powerfully moody glimpses into the snowiest corners of memory.


6. Nice, Nice, Very Nice, Dan Mangan. I don’t think that there was ever any doubt that this album would end up on my year-end list. Any regular reader (or casual acquaintance) will know that, to borrow a friend’s term, I have a pretty serious “Mang-on,” though I prefer the term “Fangan.” Biases aside, however, this is a truly excellent album that deserves all the glowing press it had received since its release in August. Nice, Nice, Very Nice makes no bones about it- it aims for the heart strings. From the saccharine pizzicato strings in “You Silly Git,” to the roaring passion of “Basket,” to the stunning swell of “Fair Verona,” every song strikes at the emotions at a startlingly honest level. The album has received scattered criticism for being a bit schizophrenic in its programming. Granted, “Some People,” while a pretty great track, seems to be a bit out of place here. But nevertheless, the album doesn’t really need to adhere to a single aesthetic to be unified, as such. What holds the whole operation together is Mangan’s amazing ability to speak directly and without pretension to our most impassioned moments, be they silent and reflective, or soaring and heroic. Of course, a good sing along about robot love doesn’t hurt, either.


7. Timber Timbre, Timber Timbre. The band’s name gives probably the best summary of what to expect from their eponymous album- a kind of organic, echoey, spare, but still lush hike through the dark, seductive bits of our experiences; what one might hear if Grizzly Bear played a concert in the middle of a forest. The instrumentation throughout the album, heavy on organs, filtered guitars, muffled percussion, and sometimes barely-audible screeching violins, provides the perfect complement to Taylor Kirk's sultry, defiantly unique vocals. Nowhere on this album, does this combination work better than on the eerie blues track “Trouble Comes Knocking,” which wades through sticky guitar riffs and juke-bar piano lines to make everything around you seem a bit hazy and blue. Similarly, on the pared back “No Bold Villain,” we feel somehow caught between the crisp, shivering woods of Canada, and the claustrophobic humidity of the bayou- an oddly intoxicating balancing act. An album to wrap yourself in, and happily so.


8. Fantasies, Metric: The smashing Canadian success of the year, Metric’s follow up to Live It Out proved to be the album of the summer for many of my closest friends and compatriots. When Live It Out was released, Metric took some flak for moving into a more decidedly rock vein, with tracks like “Empty” defying the hooky pop sensibility of classics like “Combat Baby.” With Fantasies, Metric seems to have found some pretty excellent middle ground. Big, shimmery, full of distortion, loud, catchy, sometimes contemplative, and full of the melodic loveliness that made them the darlings of Canadian indie music nearly 10 years ago, Fantasies has proven both eminently listenable, effectively popular (without being populist), and irresistibly fun. My favorites include the album’s lead single “Help, I’m Alive,” the ridiculously catchy “Sick Muse,” and the big finale, “Stadium Love,” which all but demands open windows, a sunny day, and your foot to the floor.


9. Echoes, Jenn Grant: Jenn Grant makes me smile like a damn fool. I had the pleasure of seeing Jenn perform live with Dan Mangan this summer, before I’d ever had a chance to delve into her music. She was endearingly crazy, intimate, and always charming, and bounced between her lovely dream-pop ballads with ease. After the show, I took it upon myself to take a harder look at her 2009 release, Echoes, and was not disappointed. Grant’s vocals flutter elegantly atop every track, providing an arresting focal point amid quaint bass clarinet lines, simple, bright guitar parts, the pleasant white noise of brushes on a snare, and the delicate ringing of bells. Tracks such as “You’ll go Far,” the tender “Where Are You Now,” and the hypnotic “Sailing By Silverships,” epitomize this elegant mixing, and showcase Grant’s truly unique voice, which effortlessly swings between idiosyncratic and assured, elegant and tenuous. I just love this album. It’s so pretty, from top to bottom, and reflects the personality of its creator with photographic accuracy.

I promise, to keep this short, I'll only write commentary for those songs that I haven't already mentioned above. Same rules apply: no particular order, and all that jazz.

1. "My Girls," Animal Collective: Big, sweeping, shimmery, hooky; one of a few songs that become the soundtrack to the best nights of the summer.

2. "Anonanimal," Andrew Bird.

3. "Ambling Alp," Yeasayer. This track was actually just released near the end of November as a free download, and has quickly become a favorite. Characteristically Yeasayer (filled with organs and elaborate falsetto choral passages), but still all its own, "Ampling Alp" rollicks through driving percussion and electronic elements to make for a wicked good time.

4. "So Far Around the Bend," The National. One of many great tracks from Dark Was The Night, this song is just lovely. The unaffected vocal delivery grounds the almost whimsical instrumentation, complete with dueling clarinets and rich piano. Always a pleasure, even if a pretty devastatingly sad one.

5. "You'll Go Far," Jenn Grant. I'm gonna break my own rule briefly just to express again how much I love this song. So pretty.

6. "Fair Verona," Dan Mangan.

7. "60 Feet Tall," The Dead Weather.

8. "Tightrope," Yeasayer.

9. "Deep Blue Sea," Grizzly Bear. Another track from Dark Was the Night that still impresses me almost a year later. "Deep Blue Sea" has Grizzly Bear written all over it, steeped in lush instrumentation, but what really sets this track apart is its swirling, hypnotic rhythm that mirrors the ebb and flow of its titular character.

10. "You're Too Cool," The Zolas. It's been a huge year for Vancouver artists, and this duo are a big part of the reason why. Their latest album Tic Toc Tic is a soulful, psychadelic, piano-driven romp that walks a fine line between quirky and certifiably crazy. But it's also excellent, and this spunky track captures its essence perfectly.

11. "Roslyn," Bon Iver and St. Vincent. (From the New Moon Original Soundtrack)

12. "Treat Me Like Your Mother," The Dead Weather

13. "Crime Scenes," Brian Borcherdt

14. "Big Bird in a Small Cage," Patrick Watson. Watson's latest album, Wooden Arms was shortlisted for Polaris this year, and deservedly so. His unique and always unexpected instrumentation constantly leaves me dizzy and wanting more. "Big Bird in a Small Cage" is just lovely- distinctly Watson, but uplifting and whimsical on an album that often takes a darker, more atmospheric approach.

15. "The Beat Stuff," Hannah Georgas. Hannah Georgas, another Vancouver artist, has had a tremendous year, having just recently snagged the CBC Radio 3 Bucky Award for Best New Artist, and this track is ample proof of why it was so deserved. So cute, so fun, spunky, and unique, "The Beat Stuff" is just great. Plain and simple.

16. "Goodnight Moon," Said the Whale. Consider this a bonus track? Said The Whale's newest release, Islands Disappear is a great time throughout, but this explosive, sweeping finale is really the tops from the disc, in my books. Starting innocently enough, with a tenderly finger-picked ukulele, "Goodnight Moon," gradually winds up into a big ole' dance/clap/shout-along, and couldn't be more fun if it tried.

And that's all she wrote! Sorry it's so distressingly long, I tend to ramble. As mentioned, feel free to provide feedback in a comment; I'd love to hear your thoughts. Hope the early days of the holidays are treating you and yours well.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Merry Early Christmas

St. Vincent and Andrew Bird. Too much beautiful music in one spot. The violin looping that Bird does in "Natural Disaster" is insanely beautiful.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Home Stretch Motivation

You know what? There's a whole lot of shitty things about Fall/Early Winter in Vancouver and the end of the semester. You're worn out from 13 long weeks of classes and assignments, yet have to somehow buckle down harder than ever to get prepped for exams and finish term papers. As was the case this year, you get locked under 2 weeks of record breaking downpours and forget that the sun even exists. You always seem a bit wetter and colder than you logically should. The prospect of Christmas with the family is tempting, but seems impossibly far away.

But you know what else? It doesn't take much more than a walk downtown when the sun is bouncing off the snow-capped mountains across the Strait and resting warm on your face, taking the edge off the cool air, to make all those things disappear. The city is magic at times like these. Everything glows silver and cracks with a sharp certitude. What a way to recharge the batteries.

Also, Jenn Grant helps a lot, too:

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Hello, friends

I've been busy fluttering around the social networking circles, getting myself involved in all sorts of things. Probably most exciting or all my new projects is that I now write for an excellent Canadian music blog, North by East West (possibly my favorite blog name ever, explained as "A geographically impossible blog for a geographically impossible country." Cleverness for days). Between now and the end of the semester, my posting might be pretty scattered, as my actual life is getting unreasonably chaotic, but once Christmas holidays hits (15 days!), I hope to have lots of time to sit down, come up with my Favorite Things and year-end music lists on Man Descending and get some posts up to NxEW.

Also, you should watch these videos:

Ashleigh of Hey Ocean playing "If I Were a Ship" on kalimba

The Zolas playing "The Great Collapse"

THE ZOLAS - The Great Collapse from Mitch Fillion on Vimeo.

If you're interested (you should be), you can check out NxEW

Monday, November 23, 2009

Activating the Tweet: A Manifesto in 128 Characters

Building, sharing, and celebrating collaborative, participatory dialogues and social action. In real time. One voice at a time.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Last February, I wrote a fairly long, but perhaps not-so-coherent post on La Blogotheque, a French website that posts "take-away shows," which are essentially re-imagined music videos fascinated with embedding performance within a shared public space. Since that ill-fated late night attempt at profundity, I've had a number of opportunities to explore the idea of public space in a bit more depth, and based on some rather stunning information I've come across, I want to take another crack at this. Unfortunately, I'm again taking this project on late at night when many, many things should be taking priority, but this somehow seems more pressing.

The notion of a "public space" seems natural in the West, but every discussion of this issue demands that we see the idea of public space as something relatively new and socially constructed, growing largely out of the late 1800s and the force of the Industrial Revolution. . In pre-industrial European society, work and leisure occured in the same spaces. The family, in the era before waged labour and factory-style production, was a productive unit, turning the home into at once a space of work and a space of rest, a space where the family would eat, learn, pray, assemble, craft, carve, and celebrate. Work was carried out not in the interest of exchange, but largely in pursuit of a subsistence lifestyle, and thus there was rarely an impulse to produce beyond what was necessary for survival. The crop that a family worked to maintain was not meant to be gathered and exported for profit, but consumed within the home, and perhaps shared with neighbours during annual celebrations. In this society, ritual, work, play, and survival were inextricably combined, and so were the spaces in which each took place.

With the Enclosure Acts of the early Industrial Revolution, however, this arrangement was dramatically undercut. The Enclosure Acts allowed feudal lords to conglomerate and fence their land, and crucially gave them clearance to remove from these lands the subsistence-level tenant farmers who for centuries had lived a life based on communal use of shared resources. As a result, many farmers found themselves cleaved from their rural existence, and had little choice but to immigrate to cities and accept waged work in the factory system. Suddenly, instead of tending crops on the family plot that would eventually be utilized and consumed within the home, workers travelled from spaces reserved exclusively for sleep and rest, to spaces reserved exclusively for work and production, and created objects that they themselves would rarely consume, as wages for early industrial factory workers were stunningly, inhumanely low. It is in this divide that we find the roots of the idea of public and private spaces. Spaces such as the home and the factory were decidedly private, reserved for particular activities that were radically dissociated from one another. The city, despite being overwhelmingly dense, disaggregated the elements of daily life for the new working class. Outside the factory and the home was a network of spaces reserved exclusively for leisure: pubs, taverns, parks, and eventually music halls and theatres. However, as the dominion of the market over daily life increased throughout the period, even these spaces came to be roped off to all but those who could pay to enter, ultimately serving to privatize leisure.

Out of this history comes a sense that privately owned property is fenced off from the general public, and everything outside these areas falls into the public domain, an amorphous and ill-defined sphere where space, resources, and experience are shared. In urban studies rhetoric, this public space is one that encourages mingling and discussion between people of all ages, religions, races, income levels, and backgrounds, allegedly promoting the growth of values such as pluralism, openness, and social learning. Unfortunately, as anyone living in a city is well aware, this optimistic vision of the street is far cry from urban realities. The public space is rigorously policed not just by official institutions such as municipal governments, but also by the forces of capital. We live in a profoundly branded physical world. Everything is sponsored by, made possible by, facilitated by, founded in partnership with (ad nauseam) some corporate body. Every street is lined with billboards and storefronts emblazoned with colourful logos. Even spaces such as universities are deeply commercialized, with campuses accepting into their walls international chain retailers and food outlets. As a result, just as common as the vision of public space as pluralist and socially vibrant, is a vision of public space constantly under attack by corporate colonization and, in many areas, gentrification.

This process of colonization has reached almost comical levels. Well, I suppose it would be more funny if it weren't actually happening, but nonetheless. For example, it was recently brought to my attention by a filmmaking friend that it is now possible (and apparently quite common) to copyright a building. Iconic designs the world over such as New York's Empire State Building, Paris' Eiffel Tower, and Vancouver's Canada Place have all been copyrighted, and, as a result, it is technically illegal to photograph, film, or represent these buildings in any way, without either obtaining express permission from the copyright holder, or simply biting the bullet and forking over exorbitant amounts of money to cover rights clearance. I should point out that the Eiffel Tower copyright issue is a bit more contentious than I make it out to be. Technically, the Tower itself is not copyrighted, but the constantly rotating and changing installations that adorn it are subject to the protection of copyright. For example, the tower is currently covered with thousands of lights that periodically twinkle throughout the evening. It has been argued that this installation is a non-trivial artistic expression, and thus can be protected by copyright, making it illegal to photograph or film the tower after dark. Based on that detail alone, it's not hard to pick up the overwhelming scent of lunacy that lingers around such practices.

Vancouver's Canada Place

The Eiffel Tower after dark (subject to copyright, apparently)

I can detect two main faults (of many more possible ones) with this practice. Firstly, there is perhaps no better illustration of the spectacular failure of nations around the world to protect the founding principles of copyright law from exploitation by commercial interests. Copyrighting is a practice that was developed as a way of protecting the creators of non-trivial expressions of an original thought. The practice of copyrighting a building, vista or public view, however, all but ignores this definition of the term. Rather than protecting the interests of creators, it pads the pockets of copyright holders: in a situation where someone creates something while employed by another person, the copyright on that something they created is immediately owned by their employer. In the case of an architect on commission, the copyright on their design goes to the person funding their work, not to the architect him or herself. To claim copyright on a building, then, only makes sense if you're copyrighting the nuts and bolts of the design. If someone were to steal the blueprints that the architect created and build their own Empire State Building or Eiffel Tower, then there should be legal grounds to take action. This protects creators. This allows an architect to defend their work from theft and compromise. When the owner of the copyright on a building, however, bars students from filming their first- and second-year projects in certain spaces that are ostensibly and functionally of the public domain by citing copyright infringement, they are simply exploiting their legal ownership of that space as a way to shake every last dime from the pockets of citizens.

Secondly (or rather, an extension of firstly), such a practice moronically and unjustly attempts to reorient the very notion of public space by blanking out certain portions of the urban map. It is my belief that once a building is created, it exists within a larger urban fabric that people move through, around, wrap themselves in, and occasionally tear to shreds. In other words, it becomes something larger than itself, it contributes to a shared cityscape where it can be interpreted variably and unpredictably by any citizen walking by. It exists as part of a skyline, as part of the pulsing urban organism, as part of a shared material world. Narratives are negotiated around it. Life happens outside of it. Life happens inside of it. And the life that happens on the inside bleeds into, informs, and is itself structured by the life outside of it. In essence, it is public space. How is it then possible to simply, with the stroke of a pen, make it invisible? How do we photograph downtown Vancouver without capturing the billowing sails of Canada Place? It's outright impossible. Copyright holders have attempted, through legal rhetoric, to assert that their properties vanish when confronted with the unlicensed camera, but the eye doesn't lie. We see that Canada Place exists. We see that it belongs to our city. We see it as an instrumental part of our shared urban experience. No exploitation of copyright law can undo that integral combination of the material and the social that gives rise to the organismic city. To copyright spaces or buildings is like copyrighting air or conversation or bus noise or the garbage on the streets. Every single one of these things is part of public space, and deserves to be treated as such, and cannot be artificially blanked out by commercial interests.

Cities only exist because people live in them. Because we allow them to. Because we will them to. Without people, cities are just buildings. This is a fact that colonizers of public space seem to forget. Their buildings only have such profound meanings and strong reputations because of the people that they now attempt to push away with legal wheelings and dealings.

The city that you live in belongs to you, and vice-versa.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Finding Ways Out

A little while back, I had a break between classes, and so took to the Internet to fritter away my time, as opposed to tackling yet another paper. I came upon a link to this tremendous and powerful article by Mark Slouka for Harper's Magazine, detailing the ways in which the humanities have been systematically marginalized in the contemporary university; reduced to a romantic novelty in a space now geared less toward the cultivation of effective citizens and more toward the production of hirable employees. The article is long, detailed, and demands your full attention, but if you have the time, I'd highly suggest reading it not only because it articulates a position close to my own heart, but because I feel that it touches on a characteristic of the postmodern humanities ghetto that frequently goes unnoticed (willfully or otherwise) in much of the critical literature on the subject.

Slouka disparages the ways in which the university has become a kind of corporate incubators that places quantitative and "practical" fields of study at the top of their funding lists. After all, how does a university bolster their reputation in the popular press? By citing the success of their alumni. How does the university gauge the success of its alumni? Salary and job title. These arguments are important, and are hard to understate, but perhaps predictable. We've come to expect those in the humanities to scorn their counterparts in business administration, mathematics and the applied sciences. In many ways, people have grown weary of the dusty philosopher, tangled up in complex discursive webs, thrashing through the overgrown jungle of academic erudition. The student or expert of humanities is often thought of as deliberately obscure, offended by the corporate, pragmatic world, forcibly pressed into a subordinate position within the academy and in the workforce at large; losing him or herself in the thrill of academic inquiry by night, silently loathing the business people he or she serves during the lunch rush. And out of this resentment arises an attitude more-or-less unique to the humanities: an embrace of obscurity. If the big kids won't let us play on the jungle gym, we'll take recess in the library, speak in code, baffle them with our obscurity, accept and celebrate our subordinate position out of spite.

This attitude is what Slouka finds reprehensible. How can the humanities resent their position in the university if they actively create it? What right does the expert on shrubbery in Shakespeare have to lament her position within the confines of the humanities department if she deliberately makes her work next to impossible to understand? How can we expect the world to take the humanities seriously if its most devoted practitioners continually reduce it to a derelict heap of jargon and good intentions?

To answer these questions, we have to first ask a bigger, perhaps more metaphysical one: When did art stop believing in itself?

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, as the Modernist avant-garde was flourishing, the art world was brimful of hope for a better future. Architects like Le Corbusier and Erickson truly thought that, by changing the ways that we built, we could change the way we exist within the world. Picasso tried to re-invent vision one canvas at a time. Vertov tried to create a new, universal, egalitarian language with the movie camera. This is art that would change the world. This is art that had faith in its ability to rethink the inequalities, injustices, and limitations of the modern world. Not just rethink, but reconfigure. This is art that acted. With the Second World War, however, came a sense, that modernism had collapsed on itself. The machine that Le Corbusier and Vertov had envisioned as the road to a more equitable and effective future had been transformed into a force of destruction. Death had become efficient and mechanical. Politics had become a game of aesthetic posturing. History obliterated in the pursuit of the new. Later strains of Modernism attempted to reinvigorate the project of Modernity, but are widely considered to have failed. By the end of the 1960s, Modernism was dead. Postmodernism, that invisible catch-all of 21st century Cultural Studies, seemingly filled the void. Where modern art collapsed upon itself as the result of political manipulation to nefarious ends, postmodern art collapses on itself simply because it can. It cannibalizes itself because it has nothing better to do. Modernism failed to create change, and it had piles of manifestoes, blueprints and road maps specifically designed to meet its own goals. Postmodernism is predicated on hopelessness and nihilism. If there's no hope for change, why develop plans? If you don't have plans, how and what do you create, and for what purpose? Aesthetics cease to be political tools, and become ends in themselves. Art is simply there. On place mats in cheap restaurants. In magazines. On CD covers. In museums. Airports. Bathroom stalls. Art is. And that's all it is.

Don't confuse this for formalism, which assumes that art exists in a vacuum, because even formalism presupposes that there is something beyond art. For art to exist in isolation, it has to exist in isolation from something. Even in a school of thought that seems to thrive on art as neutral and distinct from culture, there is a political dimension- art is seen as different and distinct from the world around it. Difference and exclusion are always, without exception, political issues. Postmodernism does not assume continuity with, or isolation from the world. It just is.

I feel that this is an attitude that needs to be, if not reversed, re-imagined. Art simply can't be taken seriously if it sees itself as silliness, as something that exists because it can. Art must see itself as necessary to be seen as necessary. To tear down the walls of the postmodern ghetto and upset taken-for-granted models of ideological production, the humanities have to regain their humanity. They have to strive for change, not erudition; accessibility, not mystification.

Perhaps this is why many people now consider the vast majority of music, film, television, and literature to be so intolerably boring. If music has no goal but to exist, how can it rouse its listener? Even in art forms generally acknowledged to have a social concern or political agenda, like documentary film, hopelessness reigns. Michael Moore makes controversial films about gun control, capitalist hegemony, and the violence of corporate health care, and yet somehow, his films seem stunningly uninteresting. This is because there is no hope in his films. At the end of Sicko, Moore doesn't propose possible solutions, nor does he provide a set of terms on which health care should operate. Sicko concludes with Moore's own voiceover telling us of how he personally paid for a surgery needed by the wife of a former online enemy. Any hope for broad institutional change is obliderated. The only solution we see manifests at the level of private exchange, a kind of capitulation to the impossibility of reformatting entrenched models of health care funding in the United States. Moore deeply betrays his own goal. He resigns himself to the all-too common position of grudgingly accepting the terms of the world around him, but always seething and sneering at it, feeling always intellectually superior, but institutionally subordinate to those around him. Moore's films are boring because they are all the same, and they are all the same because they are hopeless.

Hopelessness is always the same. Hopelessness is unchanging, stoic. Hope, however, is necessarily dynamic. Hope is always evolving, always adapting to new circumstances, always creating new ways of doing things in the interest of keeping itself alive on uneven ground. Hope is motion and progress.

Hope is what the arts and humanities need. The humanities need to understand that their subordination in a corporate world is not a given, but an imposition that they themselves were complicit in constructing. If we got ourselves into this mess, as the saying goes, we can get ourselves out. All we need is to believe that it's worth it. All we need is to believe that art can change the world. All we need is hope, and the motion, change, and future-focused optimism that it carries with it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sad Realization

So I was just sifting through some of my old YouTube favorites to find some forgotten gems, and I realized that I have become the WASP-iest, douche-baggiest, spoiled-est jackass on the planet. I actually found myself scoffing and the quality of videos from before when YouTube went Hi-Def.

Old Yeller me. Kthx.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Long Time

No see! I have been wicked busy lately. I'm attempting to balance some rather hefty upper-division classes that tend to run about 4 hours a piece with some new, really exciting volunteer work that I'm doing (deetz later). I'm currently home for the Thanksgiving weekend, and have been indulging in treats in a manner befitting a French monarch, and most importantly, shirking all forms of responsibility (including my as-of-yet incomplete set of essays). I just wanted to take a moment to wish all my fellow Canucks a very warm wish for a happy Thanksgiving and safe travels, if you are embarking on any.

Also (shameless promotion time): if you live in Vancouver or in the GVA, please take a look at these upcoming events put on by, a non-profit media democracy advocacy organization. They're going to be super exciting, and focus on some amazingly important issues and opportunities in the contemporary Canadian media system (Like CanWest filing for bankruptcy protection!).

1. Media Democracy Day Fundraiser at The Railway: Featuring Wintermitts, Greenbelt Collective, Francis Mantis, Pawnshop Diamond and burlesque performances! October 15, 9pm, $10 at the door.

2. FreshMedia Festival: A one-day showcase of the future of media production in Canada, innovative workshops and collaborative art and media projects taking place October 24, at the W2 Gallery space at 112 W. Hastings, beginning at 12 pm. Tickets available for $10 through EventBrite: Followed by the Hot Type after party, also at W2 (access by an additional $5 on your ticket). More information available on Twitter at FreshMediaMe, and through our Tumblr at .

3. Media Democracy Day: Another full day of forums, panel discussions and debates about the ways in which politics and media intersect- both positive and troubling. Takes place November 7, at the downtown Vancouver Public Library, 350 W. Georgia. Information on access and times to follow! For more information, check out the MDD Twitter stream at MediaDemocDay or our website.

THANKS! Enjoy turkey, folks.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Coastal Pride

Dan Mangan and Hey Ocean perform Wintersleep's song "Weighty Ghost" at the Western Canadian Music Awards.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Freshly Squeezed

Hello friends! I have had a long, but very interesting and rewarding week, complete with one thing I feel is worth reflecting on- the value of a democratic system of media production in this country (and everywhere...but I'll try to narrow my focus for the time being). Last year, I had the supreme pleasure of working with an organization called the Pacific Cinematheque in Vancouver, a not-for-profit cinema appreciation and education group that screens "essential cinema," hosts vibrant discussion groups and allows young people access to the world of filmmaking through numerous education and outreach programs. A few classmates and myself were put in touch with the head of the education department at the Cinematheque as part of a project that worked to increase media exposure of the organization among primary-school aged children, elementary teachers, parent organizations and community institutions such as the Vancouver Public Library. Being quite new to the world of not-for-profit business and grant funding, I jumped into the project with big ambitions and even bigger britches. Quickly, I realized that this was no easy world to operate within. Budget constraints are a constant battle, and where money is available, it is subject to the whims of grant requirements, private donors and governmental restrictions. The upside of this challenging structure is that, wherever struggle is present, innovation flourishes. The Cinematheque relies on unorthodox labour and promotion solutions such as heavy use of new social media like Twitter and Facebook, and volunteer staffing. Nonetheless, working with a non-profit arts organization is an exercise in perseverance and optimism, constantly striving for more in the presence of less and less.

I feel that there is a sense among many, many people in this country that cinema is "just cinema," that music is "just music," that the publishing industry is "just magazines." So when push comes to shove in the production of cultural artifacts in this country, the people and organizations invested in them, always seem just shy of total success. This is, of course, excepting the large, powerful corporations such as CanWest, that can afford to produce media and enter into acquisition deals with American and international firms. Independent media production in Canada, while vibrant, diverse, and absolutely worth cherishing not only for it's beautifying properties, but for it's economic benefits (I won't go into them here, but they are many, to be sure). As a result, we end up in a situation where media selection becomes less and less democratic. That is, the principle of 'voting' with one's dollars on which media products to consume and which to pass by, becomes baseless. What does dollar voting matter when we are ultimately voting for the same party, over and over again, regardless of what ballots we cast? In a 500-channel universe, we are presented with a multiplicity of media products, not a true diversity. How many reality television programs are continually among the most popular shows on the tube? How many of them are ostensibly and functionally the same?

This is where the concept of media democracy becomes crucial to maintaining a vibrant cultural community in Canada. Media democracy is a vision of cultural production that looks to redirect it toward diversity, and away from homogenized multiplicity that has become tied to large-scale, industrialized chains of media manufacturing. It is a vision fought for and promoted, in large part, by the very non-profits and volunteer-based organizations that struggle so consistently with funding and the structural biases of a marketized cultural industry. In many places in Canada, this vision has come to fruition. The Polaris Music Prize, for example, an annual music prize given out to one Canadian album (based solely on artistic merit and the opinions of a massive panel of music journalists and cultural figures), selects its nominees from the enormous and diverse cultural landscape that this nation has to offer. One need simply look at this year's shortlist of nominees to discover the value of cultural products from beyond the bastions of the corporate multitudes. The list celebrated art-punks Fucked Up (winner), hardcore bluegrass trio Elliot Brood, Francophone dream poppers Malajube, Somalian-born rapper K'Naan, avant-garde multi-instrumentalist Chad VanGaalen, and folk singer Joel Plaskett's brave, high-concept triple-disc tribute to the open road, Three, among others. By contrast, this summer, I switched between four radio stations and heard nothing but Lady Gaga. Regardless of whether or not you enjoy this music on an aesthetic or artistic level, there is something important in the divergence between industrially produced music, and that music made by amateurs and self-producers. They are two aesthetically and functionally different spaces, and speaking as a musician of sorts myself, I can attest to the sense of support and community, and the explosive creative energy that exists within the realm of the amateur. There is something to be said for true choice, not just mutiplicity, for energy as opposed to forumla, and it must be said.

Luckily, there are many people in this country devoted to screaming it from the rooftops, despite funding and staffing challenges. Celebrate them and help them out which ever way you can.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Internet is Great

Because, despite being filled with lots and lots of crap, it allows me to receive wonderful messages from wonderful people, such as this one, from a friend:

"Distance is the worst, but time knows best."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Is supposed to make the heart grow fonder. And I guess it kind of does, occasionally. Mostly, though, it's just kind of rains on my parade.

Self-Pity ftw!

Sunday, September 13, 2009


So I was just going through my photos from France and came upon this one that I took just outside Versailles, and have a question to pose to you about it.

Was anybody, anywhere, aware that this is how sheep eat?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Departures and Recoveries

I return triumphant! I write this entry not from the Starbucks down the street, nor the campus library, but from the comfort of my very own bedroom in my new home. Our cable has been successfully hooked up, and I am now full of food after a weekend away with the family, grinning after watching Burn After Reading with the roommates, and looking forward to the next couple of weeks as classes reconvene and the fall tours pile up. Speaking of tours, I promised I'd give some thoughts on the Dan Mangan CD release party at The Cultch which rocked my world on the 29th of August.

Its no secret that I love Dan to the ends of the earth- both as a musician and a genuinely nice, endearing and heartfelt kinda dude. But driving to the venue this particular night, I was flush with pride and excitement for him. Postcards and Daydreaming, Mangan's first full-length release, while darkly pretty and commendable for a spectacular sense of honesty, was on its last legs, having been released more than four years ago. The follow-up to that album, Nice, Nice, Very Nice has been received with critical acclaim and dump trucks of love and praise heaped upon the demure performer by his devoted fans. The CD release event was spread over two nights- Friday the 28th, opened by an excellent singer-songwriter, Aidan Knight, and Saturday the 29th, opened by experimental pop orchestra, Meatdraw. Both nights sold out in an awful hurry, and from experience, the will call line at the box office was a race for first place. It's nothing short of astounding to see how quickly Mangan's career and momentum have increased from a slow burn to raging inferno, seemingly overnight.

The excitement at the venue was obvious. Many in attendance were friends of Dan or of his family, and that electricity made the already excellent hall feel that much more inviting and intimate. The show began when Meatdraw (or rather part of Meatdraw) took the stage. A shy-looking woman, dressed in a rather va-va-voomy red dress took to the empty stage entirely alone, ukulele in hand, and stood in silence, occasionally indicating that she was waiting to hear something from off in the distance. After a good while, the quiet and wheezy sound of an accordion began to rise out of the audience, followed by woodblock, stomping feet, chains clanged on ketchup tins and tambourines. The remaining members of Meatdraw emerged from the house and made their way to the stage where they launched into an astoundingly energetic set that successfully merged Decembrists The, The White Stripes and Neil Young into pure entertainment. Loosely costumed and shredding instruments as diverse as a saw, a ukulele and a chain and bucket, the 6-piece rollicked through southern soul, Appalachian hymnals, pure indie pop, and dreamy, wide-eyed shoegaze. I was supremely entertained, as was the whole room. Every foot was stomping and every head was pounding out the beat of the kick drum. There probably couldn't have been a better way to capitalize on the excitement in the room, and no better way to prime a jazzed audience for something they've all been waiting for.

After a (mercifully) brief intermission between sets, the house lights were dimmed, and applause spread out over the audience like swine flu. Only awesome. And without the unfortunate smell of Purell that accompanies it. And not flu, but happiness. So, in the end, applause spread out over the audience in a way not at all similar to swine flu. I'm so sleepy. Anyhow, amid the cheers, Dan Mangan and his immensely talented backing band took to the stage and warmly greeted the room with smiles and a sense of giddy excitement as genuine and honest as I've ever seen. You could tell immediately upon seeing Dan that this was, as he continually mentioned throughout the night, the true realization of his dreams. He was energetic and endearing and loved every single second of celebrating the dedication he's shown to his craft. After the formalities had been exchanged, the band opened their set with the foot-stomping, fist-pumping anthem to change, "Road Regrets." All around me, feet were stomping, hands were in the air, and as the song ramped up toward its climax, hollers and hoots burst out of the audience. Soon after, Dan's set wound down a bit, I suppose one could say, into performances of the more contemplative, introspective and, at times, somber, songs that form the real heart of NNVN. Tunes like "Pine for Cedars," "Tina's Glorious Comeback," "Fair Verona," and "You Silly Git" swelled with a spectacular kind of passion that left the room absolutely silent in moments of retreat. I've always found that one thing that Dan can do as easily as breathing is silence a room, and fix every bit of attention on the heave-hoes of his emotional tug-of-wars, and when backed by a swirling string section and a three-piece brass ensemble, that power is only magnified. "Pine for Cedars," in particular, left me quite astonished. Granted, it happens to be my favorite track from the album, but there's something about hearing the build and feeling the the foot stomps shake up through the legs of your seat that make this piece of mournful nostalgia a massive pleasure to experience.

Dan's set concluded with a stirring and (as always) devastating performance of "Basket," accompanied by the throaty bass of a cello and the sharp delicacy of a violin, and with the always memorable and lovely "Robots." The latter once again found Dan atop a chair in the audience, unplugged, and singing his lungs out to the smiles of a packed house. As is to be expected, though, this was far from the end. This room was let letting Mangan go without a fight. He was quickly cheered back onto the stage and invited, for the second time in the evening, Vancouver beat poet Shane Koyczan to the mic to help him perform the arresting "Tragic Turn of Events/Move Pen Move" from the Roboteering EP, released early this summer. Just as a note to anyone who knows Dan's music (speaking to BunkleLife, in particular), if you think 'Basket' is a toughie to get through with dry eyes, just you wait until you get the chance to experience this- a nearly 8-minute spoken word/sung tribute to those people taken from us too soon by forces beyond our control. This heart-felt performance was followed up by a sing-along party on stage to "So Much For Everyone" which found Dan accompanied by Meatdraw, members of many other Vancouver bands, and the whole audience. Another wonderful moment.

Yet again, the evening happily refused to end, with Dan (clearly overhwelmed) being cheered out to centre stage once more for a performance of a tiny little song called "Petunia" which goes like this: "Petunia, my daffodil/Petunia, my rose/Please find my 'tulips' in the dark/And let yours be my home." Nuff said. I left overjoyed, proud and massively excited for this young musician's future. It was a bit of a sad show, knowing that he will likely never have to play small rooms again, but also thrilling in that we were all witness to the first step towards very, very big things for someone very, very deserving. A perfect show, in my eyes.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Moving In: An Itinerary

Step 1: Pack up all belongings in a frantic rush in between shows, work, and tying up loose ends at home.

Step 2: Depart

Step 3: Get stuck in construction traffic in such a way that you add over two hours to the first leg of your trip. Don't forget to make sure the sun is blazing and the air is still.

Step 4: Arrive at overnight pit-stop

Step 5: Attempt to contact landlord (unsuccessfully) regarding key transfer so that you have access to your home and can avoid dumping all the furniture on your front lawn

Step 6: Depart half-way stop over.

Step 7: Continue to make feeble attempts at contacting landlord as you speed through the mountains in a vain effort to beat the movers to your front door.

Step 8: Drive faster than the speed of sound out of stress

Step 9: Arrive at your house without keys, make numerous phone calls to what appears to be an absentee landlord and become convinced that you have been scammed. Learn later that the keys were hidden on the exterior of the house all along, and you simply didn't get the email informing you of this fun fact.

Step 10: Drink

Step 11: Cancel movers, intercept mattress in transit from another part of the province. Drink.

Step 12: After locating keys, attempt to move in what you have in your car. Return to hotel. Drink.

Step 13: Reschedule movers for the next day, sit around the house most of the day waiting for everything to arrive. Make multiple trips to IKEA and find yourself hunched over a half-built desk, drowning in a sea of alan wrenches, bamboo pegs and ramshackle tools. Weep.

Step 14: Welcome roommates with vigor. Snuggle. Hug. Make more trips to IKEA

Step 15: Wait for four days for your internet provider to arrive to hook up your modem only to realize the cable connecting your house to the city's cable service has been severed and left in a coil on your deck.

Step 16: Walk to Starbucks because it has free Wi-Fi for two hours a day. Blog, lose yourself in fussiness and caffeine. Hopefully do not repeat.

Step 17: Hope for better luck tomorrow.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Dan Mangan CD Release Party

Makes moving seem less sucky.

Full review soon.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Summer Songs Pt. 3: The Final Edition

Okay. So. Summer is this close to being officially over. Classes start again in a couple of weeks, and in those couple of weeks, I am going to be doing massively unpleasant things like moving and attempting to build IKEA furniture. But, hopefully, armed with this arsenal of tasty, tasty tunes, I'll get through it with a bit less fussiness than I otherwise would.

5. "Miss You Now" by Elliot Brood

(I couldn't find a YouTube video with this song on it, but click on the photo above to link to a blog where you can stream it for freeeeeeeeee. I suggest that you do so. Also, the album that this song is on, Mountain Meadows is nominated for Polaris this year and totally deserves it. It's wicked.

4. "Pine for Cedars" by Dan Mangan

(Same deal as above- I couldn't find a YouTube'd version of this song as it's just been released, but click on the photo to link to a page with a free stream of this tune, which reminds me of all the things I'm moving for.)

3. "60 Feet Tall" by The Dead Weather
(Kicking song from a wicked album. For me and Jack White, the third time was the charm)

2. "Hang Me Out to Dry" by Cold War Kids
(Please ignore stupid video. The official video has embedding disabled. Weak.)

1. "House of Cards" by Radiohead
(Ultimate song for patio chill time).

And that's it for this summer. That's probably a lie, but whatever. Enjoy! Happy impending-autumn, I guess?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Trading on Health: The Problem of Marketising the Body

**Possible Spoiler Warning

Last night, a friend and I went to see the new Neill Blomkamp film, District 9, a sci-fi thriller ostensibly about the interaction of humans and aliens in near-future Johannesburg. The film opens by giving a brief background of how the extra-terrestrials that become the focus of the film's two-hour running time found themselves in the slummy shanty town of "District 9" in the middle of the South African city. Twenty eight years before the film begins, an alien spacecraft arrives above Johannesburg. Following the expectations created by decades of invasion movies and fantasies, the humans on the ground formulate two possible outcomes of this strange floating residency. First, the aliens are here to declare war, and will soon annihilate the city below them. Secondly, they are here on friendly terms and our interaction with them will herald a new dawn in technological advancement as we gain access to their weapons and advanced computer systems. Neither of these scenarios materializes. The aliens do not attack, or make any gesture as to their demands. Their weapons cannot be operated by humans, as they require a genetic match with their user. Only aliens can operate alien machinery. The aliens, pejoratively referred to by the citizens of South Africa as "Prawns," become refugees. They are given shelter in a tent city below their hovering mothership, and quickly settle into a long residency as the tents rapidly give way to clusters of clap-board shacks and improvised economies built on theft, murder and exploitation.

The film, outside of being remarkable and very fun, clearly treads on some very thin ice and allegorically addresses a number of social issues, perhaps most notably, the legacy of apartheid and segregation that haunts South African political and racial relations. However, the theme that kept rearing its head most clearly to me, was that of the marketised body- the transformation of health, blood, flesh, and bone into commodified business objects. Wikus van der Merwe, the film's unlikely and highly conflicted protagonist, is an agent with Multi-National United, a private company established to monitor and administer the many complex operations that take place in District 9, including handing out eviction notices to the Prawns, and organizing the efforts of mercenary troops and personnel during such eviction episodes. On one such occasion, Wikus accidentally comes to be a carrier of certain alien genetic sequences, and thus becomes capable of operating all the weapons and machinery that the international arms market is desperate to obtain for its own use (including MNU, itself- it's one of the world's largest arms manufacturers and distributors). As one of the characters in the film notes, Wikus instantly becomes the most "sought-after business object" on the planet.

Perhaps it's simply my own busy mind churning too hard, or perhaps its the furor developing in the United States currently over the issue of healthcare reform, but this issue of health and physical state as potential capital struck the deepest nerve with our current reality. Being Canadian, I struggle to comprehend the debate raging in the United States at the moment over President Obama's attempts to reform and nationalize certain elements of healthcare. Millions of Americans struggle daily with meeting their basic medical needs. A close friend recently moved to California, and still travels back to Canada for medical procedures. The travel expenses are less than simply being treated in the United States. And yet, any attempt that the White House makes at reforming the health care system is immediately lashed and struck down by moronic complaints of communism, socialism, totalitarianism, and occasionally, Canadianism. And so the status quo is maintained: Private insurance companies extending tenuous coverage to those who are most healthy, and denying care to those who need it most because they are liabilities in a system that demands maximization of profits, low-risk investing, and cutting your losses before they materialize. Charging citizens "market price" for medical services, giving monetary, discrete value to abstract, amorphous concepts such as the body, health, well-being, and survival.

There is a violence in marketised health care. It's not a literal, visceral, bodily violence (although in some cases, it may well be), but it is a symbolic violence. Unregulated capitalist industries place value on certain practices and behaviours. The tend to 'rationalize' their actions and duties. That is, they break whole entities or concepts down into manageable and quantifiable stages, then arrange those stages in such a way as to maximize production, minimize inefficiencies, save money, and make everything understandable and manageable at the most micro-level. This is what the car industry does. This is what the consumer goods industry does. This is what the garment and clothing industry does. And unfortunately, this is what the health care industry does. It extends the rationalize-quantify-maximize logic of the market (a decidedly violent, dissociative logic) to those spaces and concepts which are not easily quantifiable, things like the body and health. The body becomes systematically dismembered by the market forces that run American health care. Insurance companies put a price on your immune system by refusing to pay for certain prescription drugs. Hospitals put a price on your organs, on the help you need to stay healthy. Ultimately, your body becomes priced, and traded as a commodity. Your kidneys have a certain price and risk. Your eyes. Your skin. Your heart. All things that can be evaluated, understood, and risk-managed by an economy based not on well-being, but on the exchange and accumulation of capital. Those who represent the lowest risk to insurance companies and care-givers (that is, the healthiest and wealthiest of all citizens) are most likely to receive insurance plans, and most likely to be able to obtain care, should they ever need it. Those who are most sick, those who need the help of prescriptions and hospitals, though, are too much of a liability. They are a bad investment, and are left to fend for themselves.

Wikus van der Merwe in District 9 is this marketised body incarnate. MNU pays no attention to the physiological, emotional, social, or psychological trauma that Wikus becomes burdened with upon being exposed to the alien genetic material. He begins (literally, in some cases) to fall to pieces as he is pursued by war-lords, underground arms dealers, government agents and private mercenary soldiers. His suffering body, and the suffering mind that accompanies it, represent capital, and nothing more. The film is gory and at times very unpleasant to watch, and I can't help but feel this is something more than Peter Jackson (producer) having a real penchant for making viewers squirm in their seats. The violence carried out by marketised and private health care systems in the West is highly symbolic- it exists in the realm of rhetoric, economic jargon and the sly actions taken by those behind desks. It is, nonetheless, tangible. However, when we hear stories of things like underground organ trades in other (mostly third-world) countries, we cringe. We simply can't stomach the fact that something as sacred as the body can be literally carved up, doled out, and sold for passports, work visas, and the like. We judge the people who commit such acts as less-than-human, as violent, as criminals of the worst kind, all the while ignoring the fact that these organ traders are simply making physical the symbolic crimes and injustices that our insurance and health companies commit every day. Wikus' failing body, and the attempts to harvest its secrets for monetary gain, represent both the symbolic violence of marketised health and the physical violence of the commodified body. He is at once a representative of the private sector impinging upon abstractions such as "home" and "self," and a victim of this very system- a manifestation of the body disrupted by a relentless drive for capital and competitive advantage.

It may seem silly to discuss such important issues through something as apparently menial as a sci-fi thriller, but District 9 is a remarkable film, and one that pushes the boundaries of its own genre, and could not have been released at a more timely juncture. It makes visible the problems of bodily valuation and disrobes the problematic and disturbing truth of the violence of the marketised body