Sunday, April 15, 2012

Hard Core Logo II: If anybody else says “Meta” I’m gonna fuckin’ lose it.

 The only movie I've seen at the LightBox in Toronto was the premier of Bruce MacDonald’s latest, HCL2, and it was the kind of good that sits in your stomach long after you’d left the theatre on unsure legs.

The sequel doles out a wealth of fare for the intellectuals charged with writing essays about Canadian film. He tackles, wrestles and alternately pins and is pinned by the grand themes of film theory, the role of documentarian, the weight of success, desire, gender, and authenticity.  But he does it with nakedness, humour and simplicity unseen outside of Calvin and Hobbes.  There’s no spoon-feeding of ascetic, and no snobbery that goes unpunished.

MacDonald has finally embraced and wrought joy out of the juxtaposition of his work. His eye is a gentle one, even if it’s clumsy, and he’s made a career casting it upon the scrappy, broken, angry subjects of his work exemplified in Care Failure, the lead singer of Die Mannequin and the subject of the fictionalized filmmaker’s obsession.  She is the chain-smoking Mona Lisa muse who treats the camera like it’s a talking rattlesnake even as it tries at every turn to treat her like a heavy metal fembot.

This is rock n’ roll outrage clanging around between the poles of contrived and chaos as seen through a gentrified eye that manages to respect, mock and love both soft, lazy middle-age and angry, and ultimately dumb, youth.

It’s a hell of a thing but above all it’s beautiful.  Duff Smith has turned in a genuine masterpiece via the editing suite and if decades from now they aren’t naming high schools after him or handing him the Order of Canada it’ll be a crying shame.  It’s a movie that has perfected its cadence even as it borrows from Michael Moore, the Trailer Park Boys, and the Rob Zombie Art house in equal measure.

This movie really is special, the sort of flick that in ages past you’d find on the final third of a VHS tape and wish that you’d had the chance to see in the theatres.  THIS IS YOUR CHANCE, it’ll be playing now everywhere, go check it out on the good screen and see the perfect example why our Canadian movies can do things nobody else can.  

Friday, June 10, 2011

Man-Strength and other surprising things I like about my thirties

I had one Guiness and one Coke sloshing in my belly, a full day and some interesting company, ready to call it a night, I was boasting in a 40% ironic way that I could lick anybody in the house.  No sooner had I said the words and believed them then a young fella called me on it.

"You think you could out-arm wrestle me?" said he.
"Yep" says I.
"You want to put $20 on it?"
"Just for fun then?"

Inside we went, shooing a pair of retired teachers I'd conversed with earlier from their table and submitting to the advice and etiquette discussions of a number of half-in-the sauce patrons.  We began.  He composed himself and wrestled as if he knew a thing or two about this sweet science, and I was immediately behind the eight ball. He tried thrice to pump me out but I managed to compose myself after each , and in short order he had exhausted himself to give me the well-earned win.  It was a gift of genetics as my gym log reads like a list of good reasons to get a face tattoo.  But goddammit, I stepped up to the plate and secured my wrung in the great ladder of merit.

 I wasn't thinking about that though, I was thinking about "The Old Man and the Sea".  I was thinking about how good it feels to be trying absolutely as hard as I can, that real exertion.  My success was only sweet sweet icing on the cake.  Maybe there's a lesson to be learned there.    

Anyway, I find myself in a pretty good place.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Essex County: Southwestern Ontario needs a Hug. Bad.

It's Canada Reads Time!!!!!!!!

Five New Can-Lit novels found themselves under my tree this Christmas, and as is my habit, I'm reading them in a particular order

It goes like this...
I read the book I figure I'll like the best first
Then I read the remaining for in ascending order of what I think I'll like the best, that is, worst to best.

That's not to say I go into them with my mind already made up, it's just that I judge a book by its cover with the expectation that I'll be surprised.  I never fail to be surprised.

That said, the first book this year was Jeff Lemire's Collection of Graphic Novels called Essex County.  I don't know why comic book is a dirty word, but call them Graphic Novels, so there.

This is a handful of interconnected stories about a small Southwestern farming community and the well-broken families that inhabit it.  Each one of these characters has their hearts broken right in half, thanks in part to their own weaknesses.  They are each and every one as lonely as the flat farm they inhabit.  Which is to say, very.

Lemire's drawing really hits home, the expressions on his characters faces portray that Protestant melancholy as well as anything I've ever read before, and if the art isn't the most sophisticated thing you've ever seen, he uses every panel so thoughtfully that you might start turning your nose at the shortcomings of realism.  Every single panel is a snap shot, nothing is wasted and everything is in sync. If you were shown any one panel from any of the different stories, you'd be able to tell me what the story is about.  It's very involved, but at the same time you can absorb it all right away, there's nothing hidden and there's nothing held back.

Lemire hides humour in the despair he describes so very well, but they're the sort of jokes that have everyone giggling, and then trailing off into quiet with everybody staring at their shoes and putting their hands in their pockets.

You can read the entire 500-or-so pages the first time in an afternoon, but the characters might just hang around in your guts for a long time after that.  It's not pick-me-up reading, but if you're staring at a snowstorm and the natural light has all but disappeared for another day, you might just find this complementing your mood.

For any of you on again off again CBC listeners, Sarah Quin of "Tegan and Sara" fame is defending the book.  Expect Jian to gush and gush and gush.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Love on the Killing Floor

Love on the Killing Floor is a rat's eye view of Toronto in the early nineties.  In our story the city has just been dragged into the cosmopolitan tempo it would beat its chest to a decade later, kicking and screaming.   The novel opens in the shadow of Paul Bernardo's Scarborough horrorfest and the race riots of '92.   Our protagonist is a bottom rung photographer for a small studio; a divorcee moving from party to party and woman to woman, a smug nihilist smack in his element.  With his narrator's voice he turns his observations towards the ethnicities he see's as flooding his Toronto, and rehashes arguments and gripes against the inevitable you're likely to have heard yourself from malcontents of every stripe.  The racial disharmony is easily the most prominent theme in the book, but one of the more interesting off-shoots of our narrator's wailing is his opposition to the Homer Simpsonization of white masculinity.

He sees media reflecting a flabby, bumbling, inelegant coward in his image while the "plight" of the "Other" is romanticized.  It's bitterness, but it's bitterness that makes those enlightened souls we swallow a little harder.  Trevor Clark very cleverly paints his narrator into a corner, quickly running out of faces and people he can stomach, and allows for his escape by way of Yolanda.  Yolanda is a black go-getter who thanks to our narrator's formidable boldness is seduced and enters into a relationship that finally lets him take his foot off the passive aggressive pedal.  She nips the sharper points of his swelling bigotry and acts as the part-catalyst for his getting his life together; getting a proper job and systematically dropping all of his old suspect acquaintances.

Love on the Killing Floor holds within its expertly bound pages about as many sex scenes as you could shake a prosthetic leg at, none of them exactly laden with allegory but entertaining enough and a very compelling blend of machismo and sensitivity.

The book is bound to make you a bit uncomfortable, it pushes a few buttons that don't usually get pushed anymore and any Toronto Readers will love hearing short stories about people who could live on low wages and still afford beer in bars and studio apartments.  You missed one hell of a recession son.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Can'tLit: Fearless Fiction from Broken Pencil Magazine

Can'tLit is prefaced with a "Not your parent's short stories" rant about how Margaret Atwood is ruining Canadian Literature for everyone else.  The editor promises the grotesque, the avant guarde, the So-Hip-It'll-Make-your-Ears-Bleed sentimentality.  Work that finds its way onto Broken Pencil and by extension this book are meant to reside on the edge, where the cutting happens, and fuck you if you don't like it Gramps.

"Whoa" says I.

So I open it up in the middle as I am wont to do with Short story books with that tingling sensation that makes me feel like I should be wearing a seatbelt.  What does Can'tlit deliver me?

Nice stories, sad stories, stories about sex, stories about sad or even violent sex, but this hardened soul did no blushing.  You get the feeling that some of these writers are carrying some serious baggage, but never once do you think they are anything worse than the kind of hipsters who'd help you shovel your driveway if you looked at all fatigued.  I didn't feel grossed out and I didn't feel disturbed.  I felt welcomed, I felt witty, I felt good.

Dear Broken Pencil,

When I was 18 I read Naked Lunch by Burroughs, when I was twenty I read American Dream by Mailer, my grandparents have a copy of the Satyricon next to their Asterisk comics.  If you want to shock me with sex you had better dig real real deep into the tickle trunk because I have to believe when you've read about a guy strangling his wife, sodomizing his maid and then clunking up the stairs to chuck his wife's body out a window, there's no mountain of shock left to climb.

What we've got here is a failure to communicate.  Can'tlit is not a book that's clankering for a censorship debate, it's a collection of very good writers writing very good stories.  It was a pleasure to read and I really liked it.  It dug into some pretty unorthodox sexual dissertations, but always with one foot on the ground and usually tempered with a playful tongue in cheek.

In one story a flat chested preteen falls for a boy with moobs, in another Jesus buys hookers so he can have somebody to talk to, in yet another a gal tours around town in a car painted to resemble her lady bits (or somebody's lady bits).  These stories are too hip and too thoughtful to be shocking, and never does any writer do any shocking for shock's sake.

Therein lies the trick I guess.  I could probably describe some of the stories in such a way so as to make them seem grotesque, but the writers with no exceptions paint a good story behind even the worst descriptions and make the final product...palatable.

I read Can'tlit at a cottage and the lovely summer weather on the lake didn't hurt the ambiance one bit, so If you're making a late run North to enjoy the last bit of August, pick this one up.  May you have as good a time as I did.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Barney's Version

*I've been remiss in posting and I have the happy excuse of being very busy, nevertheless...

I ran into a copy of Barney's version as one of two dozen paperbacks I grabbed from the Canadian Federation of University Women's Georgetown chapter Book sale a year ago.  If there ever was an unbelievable mound of literature ripe for the picking this is it.  I grabbed the aforementioned novels, an armload of biographies and a good grocery bag full of kids books.  The sale is notoriously good and I'm staring down a thick Hemingway Biography my wife got me this year that I'm tackling this summer.

Richler follows his Narrator Barney Panofsky down his slow destruction at the hands of Alzheimer's, of love and love lost, the grandeur of the squalid West Bank in Paris and the sterility of Montreal during the referendum of '95.  All the while he gives a fantastic presentation and stanch defence of the sort of modern Judiasm that colours and frames his perception and makes you want to flush anything you've ever read of Saul Bellow.  It makes for a great read, an interesting and complicated love story, a mystery resolved, a snap shot of two disparate times and places and the best fiction on mental illness this side of The Sound and The Fury.

I've heard it said that if Richler is at times a misanthrope, he is a misanthrope for entirely the right reasons.  Barney has the added benefit of being hilarious in his flaying of friend and foe alike, and most importantly, his barbs are always deserved, or at least defensible.  I enjoyed every page of the book, and have every reason to believe you would to.  It's that rare marriage of patient allegory and palatable storytelling that sets the book and the author on the pedestal their ghosts enjoy now as much as they did in life.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil: Horror by any other name

book cover of 

Beatrice and Virgil 


Yann Martel

Yann Martel.  Yann Yann Yann.  I read Life of Pi.  In fact my entire family read it.  It was a mass Christmas gift from my Grandmother to each and every member of the family, which all in all constitutes a good third of the copies sold worldwide.  On behalf of the Beals, you're welcome.

Life of Pi was by most measures a very good book.  The prose was nice and the story was phenomenal, but enough has been said.  No matter any allegiance to the Can-Con gods or touchy feely all-the-children-of -the-world nonsense, his book smacked of pandering.  I'll happily let it slide because it got me thinking differently and I liked reading it.

So I pick up his letters to Stephen Harper and I scratch my head till it bleeds.  He takes a hand preaching to the choir and bangs a drum about the PM not giving him the time of day after he took the trouble to send him a book every week or so for a year.  Answering the letters of an activist (dare I say at this point narcissist) writer is a lose/lose proposition, Martel even admits as much, but he still made a cool fortune pestering him about PMO's penchant for form letters.  Again, Martel pours fuel on the impotent left's campfire and they swipe debit cards en mass in return.

So, some nine years and a requisite visit to the death camp museums after his last novel he unveils his artistic rendering of the Holocaust.  A story told through a selfsame narrator about his relationship with a collaborator and the latter's fragmented post modern play.  The play is about a donkey and a howler monkey (the title characters respectively) who have lived through "The horror" and spend the play trying to establish a context for talking about their torture.  If you're looking to feel sick to your stomach about the human capacity for meanness, this book twists the reader's guts as well as any other on the subject.  In this regard his misstep was drawing on the descriptions of physical torture and a series of horrible "Games for Gustave" questions that navigate ethical and spiritual minefields.  Nine tenths of the book is spent suggesting at the subject of the horrors, in the play and in the Old taxidermist playwright the narrator is so fascinated with. The last tenth is as gruesome a prose as you're likely to come across.  He trades his Beckett cap for a Freddy Kruger mask and the result, though heart-wrenching, abandons any possibility of covering new emotional ground on the matter.  His slip into the literal, both the shocking and the disgusting, and consciously abandons the context he set out to establish.  He either didn't have the forbearance to take it all the way home or was afraid of what following his thesis to a conclusion would mean.  

In the great tradition of CanLit condescension Martel walks us gently through his thesis, holding our hands and pointing out the attractions of the ride.  "This beast is called an elephant.  Yes, he does take up the entire room." Here's the biggest problem:  He purports to try something new in terms of writing about the holocaust.  That might have been a bold endeavour but he cuts his own efforts off at the knees by walking on egg shells the entire time.  The beginning of the novel is an explanation of the allegoric dance that is to follow.  Why does he telegraph his punches?  He wants to set up a pressure release valve.  He builds in a defence against the critic who will rightly ask what the fuck he knows about the Holocaust.  Every sentence is an apology to any B'nai Brith donor who happens to turn the book to a random page.  "I'm not even Jewish!" his protagonist proclaims after being kicked around by his publisher and right before giving up his original essay/artistic interpretation of the Holocaust.  No, he and his creator may not be, but if you want to talk about the Holocaust as a blight on humanity, how it needs to be looked at through different lenses, and about you're position as a gentile artist tackling the subject, you don't start by tripping over a disclaimer.  Asking pardon for drawing breath demeans your efforts and patronizes the reader, jewish or otherwise.  Nothing good came from it.