September 30, 2009

My Winnipeg.


Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Winnipeg.

Heart of the continent. The Winnie in the Pooh. Slurpee Capital of the World (tenth time in a row in 2009). Home of the world's longest skating rink, Dickie Dee ice cream, Domo Gasoline, Canwest, Porno Pizza, Ben Moss Jewellers, McNally Robinson, Salisbury House restaurants, and New Flyer buses. Cradle of K-tel, E-Children, Harlequin Enterprises, Nygård International, The Guess Who, the Crash Test Dummies, and Motor Coach Industries.

Home to the Royal Canadian Mint, western Canada's oldest civic gallery (world's largest collection of Inuit art), Le Cercle Molière (the oldest continuously running theatre company in Canada), the first Hudson Bay Company department store, and the first A&W in Canada. Winnipeg - the capital of a frigid prairie province, held in winter's grip two thirds of the year. An isolated outpost surrounded by a landscape so prostrate, it's said you can watch a dog run away for three days.

Winnipeg: where Tommy Douglas witnessed the General Strike of 1919; where A. E. van Vogt began writing science fiction; where Marshall McLuhan switched his major from engineering to English; where Neil Young formed his first band. The place where Canada's first school patrols were established, and the 9-1-1 emergency telephone number was introduced to North America. The only city on the continent occupied by "Nazis" during the Second World War.

Birthplace of Louis Riel, William Stephenson (the real James Bond), Robert Hunter (co-founder of Greenpeace), Bob Rock, Terry Fox, and - incontrovertibly - G. Arthur Maddin. For nearly a quarter of a century, Maddin - the banker turned auteur - has endeavoured to resurrect once avant-garde techniques like iris shots, breathless titles, shock cutting, staged poses, and melodramatic acting, through hermetic, studio bound celebrations of cinema's artifice. His style seems at first regressive, but is quite cleverly postmodern and surrealist in a very Magritte manner.

Four years ago, Guy Maddin managed to weasel funding from the Discovery Channel for a feature film about his city of birth. Though only a documentary of the metropolis in Maddin's experience, My Winnipeg presented a place so enchanting, it could quite frankly strike anyone who's never actually visited it as the most exciting city in North America. So exotic was Maddin's vision, born and bred inhabitants had problems identifying that positively enthralling place with the dreary, frigid black hole most of them have unsuccessfully sought to escape all their lives.

"Back in Winnipeg's earliest years, the Canadian Pacific Railway used to sponsor an annual treasure hunt. This contest required our citizens to wander the city in a day-long combing of our streets and neighbourhoods. First prize was a one-way ticket on the next train out of town. The idea being that once someone had spent a full day looking closely at his own hometown he would never want to leave."

Now, Coach House Books has published the script - or, rather, the guiding narrative - of My Winnipeg, and as if to compound the reputation of the "gateway to the prairies", they've done so in a flimsy quarto paperback (complete with typos). Although some copies have had pockets containing the DVD pasted into them, the presentation seems to reinforce the pulpiness of Maddin's fiction. Despite claims of extensive annotation, and "a cornucopia of illuminating arcana", those interested in Maddin's process will learn little new.

The annotations mainly consist of further outrageous claims, either excised from the filmed version or simply added for heightened befuddlement, while the "illuminating arcana" shed but brief light on the contents of the darkest recesses of Maddin's mind. Lovers of ephemera, in particular (North American) cinema and hockey trivia, will have a field day - as will the select species of Winnepegophilists. Scholars of drama and the moving image will likely gain more insight attending one of Mr Maddin's lectures at the University of Manitoba.

However, the book - like the film - does indeed contain a number of quite true (or, at least, difficult to disprove), curious and interesting facts about Canada's seventh largest municipality, as well as a lovely introduction of Ann Savage - who's last film My Winnpeg was. It doesn't reveal how Maddin managed to cajole out of retirement that most fatal of cinema's femmes - capable of making even Bette Davis cower - to play his mother, nor how he convinced her to do so in a city frozen in amber (never mind ice) time and again when commerce found alternative routes across the continent.

The conversation with Michael Ondaatje and the contributions of several Maddin collaborators that supplement the volume, further adroitly blur the line between fact and fiction, leaving lifelong Winnipeggers - even those acquainted with the most obscure city lore - on an equal footing with everyone else: flabbergasted. If not bamboozled. But Maddin's intent is far from malicious; his isn't a quest for achieving trivial superiority.

Infamous for his loathing of research, Maddin has minted myth from a handful of actual circumstance and a truck-load of half-remembered rumours to not only re-awaken its sleepwalking inhabitant's interest in their surroundings, but also explain what keeps them - and Maddin in particular - in Winnipeg. Emulating what Canada's neighbours to the south have elevated to a science, Maddins fanciful cinematic ode to his hometown tries to remedy a deficiency in Canadian culture: the ability to revel in the history and contemporary culture of the places we inhabit.

In a nation made up to such great extent by the uprooted, leading a protracted nomadic existence - always en route or desirous to go somewhere else - in self-contained bubbles imposed by an almost implacable, immense physical remoteness, Maddin's mythmaking is license to rediscover our shared cultural geography, and consider it as exciting, inviting, unique, and worthy of reverence as that of other nations.

September 17, 2009


In an industry where players are frequently unfairly marked down in their prime in favour of younger models, it remains unusual to encounter a film where the average age of the principal cast is 67. In fact, Bent Hamer's fifth feature could be described as the last chance to glimpse some of Norwegian and Danish cinema's most illustrious luminaries. Yet, on its Norwegian premiere, O'Horten was largely met with apathy. Luckily, this leisurely, tragicomical gem found distribution in an additional 40 countries, and so far more Americans alone have seen it than the 32,757 Norwegians who turned up for the film's initial run nearly two years ago.

Its protagonist, the titular Odd Horten, is a 67 year old locomotive engineer employed on the Bergen Line. Horten's set to retire after nearly 40 years of dedicated service. Apparently unwed, the rhythm of his life dictated by train timetables, his time divided nursing his vintage motorboat and visiting the nursing home in which his ailing mother is confined. The sole highlights of Horten's existence seemingly the overnight stays in Bergen, where - having guided his train across the highest and most challenging railway line in Northern Europe - he lodges at a small inn run by an extraordinarily welcoming concierge.

Like many others who've allowed their work to define them, whose job description has become their sole identity, Horten has no clue what to do when no longer required to work. Without his job, his life suddenly seems devoid of meaning and purpose; the dutiful engineer's life derailed. As Horten blunders into retirement, literally missing the last train he's supposed to drive, he finds not only his identity but the environment in which it was anchored dissolving as well. His beloved locomotives off limits, the proprietor of his choice tobacconist suddenly deceased, the chef at his favourite pub arrested by the police, his attempts to settle into a senior's life as haphazard as half-hearted.

Though director Hamer allegedly intended to make a train-themed film, these rail-guided vehicles play a lesser part than the uniforms associated with them, and the identity such uniforms confer onto their wearers. At first, Horten's railwayman's uniform appears to be the only set of clothes he owns. As he stumbles out of the workforce, no longer guided by rails, losing the uniform's accouterments piece by piece, Horten's formally formal attire acquires an even more symbolic function. Hamer lets his protagonist gain insight by experiencing not only a physical death but a symbolic one as well - as he did in his international breakthrough Salmer fra kjøkkenet (Kitchen Stories).

Though the cast, headed by veteran actor Baard Owe in his first leading role as Horten, includes stalwarts Espen Skjønberg, Ghita Nørby (albeit quite briefly), and Henny Moan (coaxed back from recent retirement), only Bjørn Floberg - who also appeared in Salmer ... - may seem familiar to international audiences. The clever cameos of Sámi film director Nils Gaup, weatherman Terje Walløe, and the brief contributions of comedians Trond-Viggo Torgersen and Fredrik Steen will also likely be lost on anyone but recent residents of Norway.

Although Hamer's pensive opus has more in common with Patrice Leconte's Monsieur Hire than Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Le fabuleaux destin d'Amélie Poulain, O'Horten's international success may do for Oslo's legendary "brun kneipe" (brown pub) Valkyrien - not to be confused with the similarly named bistro cafe in the same neighbourhood - what Jeunet's commercial breakthrough did for Paris' Café des 2 Moulins. However, it may take more than appearing in two award-winning films (the first being Petter Næss' Elling) to counter the rather dismal reputation of Valkyrien's kitchen - its food reportedly prepared at a different eatery altogether. (Which may explain the "arrest" of the chef in the film.)

Curiously, for a film about old men contemplating leaps of faith - as do practically all of Bent Hamer's films to date - O'Horten discreetly delivers a sly polemic on gender in sports. Using ski jumping (that particularly Norwegian contribution to downhill antics) as a plot device, Hamer cast Anette Sagen as Horten's mother in her youth. Considered one of the world's best female ski jumpers, Sagen's also known for her clash with the chairman of the International Ski Federation's ski jump committee, Torbjørn Yggeseth, over whether women should be allowed to compete on the highest ski jumps at all. Leaving no doubt as to his own position, Hamer - whose mother was a ski jumper - has one of the film's characters remark "What kind of society would we live in if women weren't allowed to jump?"

September 13, 2009

Willy Ronis, 1910-2009.

French photographer Willy Ronis has passed away. A member of the Rapho photo agency, he was the first French photographer to work for LIFE magazine. Famous for never leaving his camera at home - "not even to buy bread" - Ronis stopped taking photos in 2001, when the cane he required for walking got in his way. Examples of his work, which among other accolades earned him the epithet "photographer of Paris par excellence," can be seen here.

September 3, 2009

La Roux.

Forty years ago, electronic music aficionados hardly strained themselves counting the women active in the field. Ten fingers would suffice to handily index Ruth Anderson, Charlotte "Bebe" Barron, Delia Derbyshire, Maddalena Fagandini, Pauline Oliveros, Daphne Oram, and Eliane Radigue. Relegated to the sidelines - more so in popular than academic electronic music - they were rarely involved in composition or production, and when they were their contributions were trivialised. However, this staunchly male bastion has in the past two decades been overrun by women, increasing its popularity as well as tremendously decreasing its nerdiness to the point where currently all bets on artist of the year among hipster trendspotters lie with new, female electro pop artists.

There are several reasons for this, not all of them progressive. One is the continually shifting trends in popular music. This year, slovenly male guitar bands are out, smart solo electro poppers are in. Leading the charge (with a large, female-fronted electro underground bleeping under the mainstream radar) are Victoria Hesketh (alias Little Boots), Joanne Germanotta (alias Lady Gaga), and Eleanor "Elly" Jackson - the most prominent half of the duo La Roux. All in their early twenties, all likely adept with gadgets and computers since elementary school, all reaching for their computers rather than medieval guitars when in the mood to compose music.

The current recession may be another reason favouring these DIY divas. The need for buoyant escape has increased, while recording label budgets have shrunk. Solo artists, plugging away at their musical devices in their bedrooms, can churn out product far cheaper than any bunch of meat-and-two-veg rockers, slacking about a professional studio at (on average) C$50 per hour. To the major media conglomerates, who've never bothered to disguise their far from philanthropic interest in popular culture, rock and rap currently amount to a thin, bland, and severely overpriced gruel, while the rising electrogrrrl riot seems sleek, exciting, and modern by comparison. Never mind cost-effective.

It's a combination of circumstances that have not only helped La Roux's self-titled debut album earn a nomination for the Mercury Prize (the British equivalent of the Polaris Music Prize), but also helped the band bar the recently deceased Michael Jackson from the top of the UK singles chart, creating a surge in the UK sales of (physical) singles in the process. A fitting revival, courtesy of a retro-tinged band, for a format which spent it's 60th anniversary this year circling the drain, having been declared defunct by the music industry at the beginning of the decade. The album opens with In for the Kill, La Roux's second, shrill breakthrough single which - despite being dismissed in March by BBC Radio One as "too tinny" to warrant airplay - by the end of July had sold more than half a million hard copies in the UK alone.

Seems most people don't rely on an outmoded medium like wireless to know a good tune when they download it: In for the Kill occupied number two on the UK singles chart for five consecutive weeks, the longest synth pop grip on that slot since Ultravox's Vienna in February 1981. Without so much as coming up for air, the album slips straight into its far strongest number, the Moog-driven faux tango nuevo that is Tigerlily - complete with sleazy voice over from Elly Jackson's thespian father Kit. Then the momentum is momentarily punctuated by Quicksand, the band's debut single released last fall on French independent label Kitsuné. A top twenty hit in Canada (scraping into #153 in the UK), it's a track that finds the duo far too busy flirting with Prince's When Doves Cry to develop a memorable chorus of their own. Which is a pity as it contains some of the album's most striking lines: "You, you moved into my mind again ... walking around rent-free."

But Quicksand soon gives way to Bulletproof, La Roux's third single. Living up to its title to an even greater degree than In for the Kill, it's the first original synth pop track to reach the top of the UK singles chart since Adamski's acid house anthem Killer in May 1990. (Unless one counts Erasure's ABBA covers EP, Abba-esque, in June 1992.) Of course, that's ignoring casual stabs at electro pop from the likes of Kylie, Robyn, and Madonna. But simply using computers - as do most recordings, regardless of genre, these days - doesn't make one synth pop. Although, the parallels constantly drawn between new bands like La Roux and the 1980s have more to do with music critics' lack of familiarity with electronic music than these newcomers' particular pedigree; not everyone using a synthesiser has been directly inspired by Kraftwerk.

A track like Bulletproof is in fact a perfect example of La Roux's debt to the late 1980s house revival of barebones electronic dance music, rather than the late 1970s wave of electro pop. Not surprising, given that their rough-hewn sound - maintaining that slight distortion acquired while composing in a living room on synthesisers borrowed from friends - is largely due to the solid 1990s club credentials of Ben Langmaid, the practically invisible half of the duo. It was allegedly Langmaid who steered the folk rock inspired Elly Jackson towards vintage synthesisers, introducing her to early recordings of bands like Depeche Mode, Eurythmics, and Heaven 17. The band's contemporary perspective is further hinted at in Colourless Colour, with its reference to "early nineties décor." Not particularly steampunk, they're probably not alluding to the 1890s.

The packaging of the album on the other hand, quite intentionally takes its cues from the early 1980s, with Jackson's familiar Brixton stomping grounds given a Blade Runner-esque, tech noir once over. Making that multiethnic area of London vaguely reminiscent of the dilapidated core of practically every average metropolis, with the accompanying assortment of insalubrious entertainments and roaming ruffians, required no stretch of imagination - as art director Alexander Brown found out when threatened with a knife while photographing the Brixton station overpass to provide backgrounds for photographer Andrew Whitton's glossy portraits of La Roux's striking, redheaded vocalist. The successful fusion of imagery has undoubtedly contributed to Elly Jackson's asymmetric hair and idiosyncratic wardrobe garnering more attention than her musical talent. Her voice, if mentioned at all, is most often compared to Ann Lennox, or Allison Goldfrapp - likely the only other synth pop divas middle aged rock critics can think of.

Though on tracks like Fascination and the upcoming single I'm Not Your Toy, Jackson's strained falsetto is frankly more reminiscent of Billy Ray Martin, an equally striking vocalist perhaps best remembered for leading the short-lived house outfit Electribe 101. Lyrically, La Roux's first collection of recordings could be construed as a concept album, documenting a particularly tempestuous love affair - purportedly with some basis in Elly Jackson's personal life. The blunt observations sit rather well with the jaunty pop songs, but have also earned Jackson a reputation as somewhat of a loudmouth among the quite unforgiving British media. Stylistically steeped in the glory days of post-punk, when radical ideas and pioneering instrumentation enjoyed their first brief flirt with mainstream success, the brash attitude shouldn't come as a surprise.

When finalising La Roux's contract with the venerable Polydor label - saved several times in its 85 year history by smart signings, only narrowly missing out on the Beatles - Jackson reportedly turned up wearing a t-shirt inscribed "I am a cunt." Such precariousness isn't unusual in a genre which attracts a large number of solo artists used to getting their way, given theirs is mostly a solitary pursuit. But it also quite frequently leads some of them to shoot themselves in the foot in spectacularly stupid ways. Hopefully, Jackson's habit of thinking out loud is merely a sign of inexperience rather than cheap publicity ballyhoo, and will find an outlet in future recordings as opposed to increasingly hostile press. It would be a pity if this year's most successful new synth pop act disappeared in a puff of poorly formulated comments.

Not yet finely honed, La Roux's craft holds room for future improvements, and isn't solely dependent on electricity; careful listeners will discover choice bits of acoustic instruments hidden in the mix. Elly Jackson may not comfortably inhabit her range yet, but already possesses a unique voice, allowed to sound on its own with scarcely any treatment. The album does contain a couple of duds - the aforementioned Quicksand and the mopey ballad Cover My Eyes, a track that easily clinches this years prize for most underutilised gospel choir. But it's precisely the "rough diamond" quality that'll likely appeal most to an audience increasingly accustomed to continuous progress throughout their favourite artists' careers. Electronic music is after all a genre obsessed - as was the recently deceased electric guitar and recording innovator Les Paul - with discovering new, hitherto unheard sounds. La Roux's overall pithy debut collection of bright synth pop, briefly recapitulating the past, is a promising start.


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