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Fresh Tracks on an Open Story Road: The Closing of the Wheat Pool

January 31, 2012 Leave a comment

The End of the Wheat Pool

In an announcement that was both sad and unfortunate and yet elegantly fitting, Edmontonian roots-rock band the Wheat Pool announced via their website that they would play their farewell show at the Pawn Shop on Whyte Avenue on March 23, 7 years to the day after their first gig together. Although the band produced only two full-length records and an EP (as well as a solo record from singer and bassist Mike Angus which may suggest a way forward from here) and never quite broke out of the Canadian independent music ghetto that is CBC Radio 3 into larger-scale success, they will be deeply missed by this one blogger at least.

As I have previously hinted at in this space, I found the Wheat Pool to be the band that most indie fans felt (or wanted) the Rural Alberta Advantage to be. Although both bands craft prairie elegies that express a more personal form of Western alienation, the RAA do so in the fashionable poses of the big-city indie scene in which they have situated themselves (namely, Toronto) while the Wheat Pool grounded their restless musical wandering in the honest vernacular of country and rock. Even the vaunted local references diverged, with the RAA snatching at large-scale Albertan tragedies (the Frank Slide, the 1987 Edmonton tornado) while the Wheat Pool hold their sights on personal touchstones at home and elsewhere.

But the imminent end of the Wheat Pool is not a time for measuring art against other art or for the underdog’s lamentation at the misguided tastes of the people. Although the band released more music and gained wider notice after I moved away from Edmonton at the end of 2008 than before, the band and especially their debut album Township will forever be associated in my mind with my last year in the wintry Albertan capital.

As strong as its wider-ranging follow-up Hauntario was, Township will remain, to my mind, their finest achievement. It’s an album marked by the sort of nomadic youthful wanderlust that leaves broken hearts and barely-healed bruises in its wake, its lyrical imagery balanced exquisitely and vivified with tense passion by vocalist brothers Mike and Robb Angus while being pressed inexorably forward by Glen Erickson’s gracefully detailed lead guitar lines. The melodic resonance of the Wheat Pool’s songs accumulates gradually, like a January snowfall, until their weight and splendor is undeniable.

This effect was most prominent in Township’s closer, “Phone Book”, perhaps their greatest single composition. While the song is a bittersweet reminiscence of the end of a spent relationship and a tribute to the saving grace of a new one, its tone of resigned finality allowed it to easily imprint itself upon my departure from the city of my birth to wander on my own uneasy adventure, for good, ill, or the usual measures of both that tend to be dispensed to us mere mortals. As great as it is, though, there are many other great songs, too: irresistible rockers like “Geographic Centre of Canada” and “I’m Not Here”, the ode to the poverty-stricken in “Emily Carr”, the haunting and tremendous Louis Riel ballad “Peniel, SK”, the aching, poetic “Italy”. For a band that has left us with so few songs, the Wheat Pool crafted many memorable ones.

Although it can never occupy the place that “Phone Book” does for purely esoteric and associational reasons, Hauntario’s emotional pinnacle “Lefty” is perhaps a more complete summation of the Wheat Pool’s depth of affect. It’s a song of invariable transitions: fathers going to war, families saying “so long, Ontario” and moving West, prairie storm-fronts growing and receding, and that ultimate transition, from life to death, from the corporeal to ashes and dust. And yet amongst the transitory, there is that which lingers, as impermanence is forever foiled by permanence: “Your brothers, they look the same / as your two boys”. This is music that forgives but can’t ever forget, and whose remembrance is its own species of joyful pain.

There’s a line in “Lefty” that is a timeless synecdoche for the Wheat Pool’s humble, underappreciated triumphs: “Two sets of fresh tracks on an open story road.” It seems that the Brothers Angus, with Erickson and drummer Stephane Dagenais, followed that road as long as it remained open, and have left off making tracks lest they become ruts. For a band so focused on that which has been lost to vanish themselves is practically poetic in its justice, but the Wheat Pool leaves much more behind them than a simple tombstone.

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Categories: Music

PopMatters Television Review: Luck

January 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Note: I write regular album, DVD, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title below to go to the review.

Luck

 

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: All the Presidents’ Men

January 28, 2012 Leave a comment

All the Presidents’ Men (1976; Directed by Alan J. Pakula)

The pre-eminent cultural document of one of modern America’s most notorious political scandals, All the President’s Men treats the Washington Post’s gradually-accumulating Watergate investigation as the detective story it was. Visually arranged with clear-eyed economy by noted conspiracy-thriller director Alan J. Pakula from a script by William Goldman (writer of The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid), it proceeds with irresistible inertia and charm and not really a whole lot of simmering liberal outrage.

Oh, wrong house. Sorry to bother you Mrs... I mean, Mr. Hoover.

Indeed, considering the characterization of the Watergate investigation in general by movement conservatives as being driven by a liberal ideological vendetta against the reviled Richard Nixon, there’s nary a hint of partisan affiliation at all in Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting efforts. Indeed, Robert Redford’s Woodward even confesses to being a Republican to assuage such doubts raised by a potential source. Liberal Hollywood can be nothing if not careful when it comes to covering their collective political tracks in the effort to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, and this is evident here, despite the charged subject matter.

What the film does accomplish is the nearly-instant mythologizing of the reporting of “Woodstein” (a portmanteau for the two junior reporters amusingly coined by their irascible editor Ben Bradlee, a role which won Jason Robards a Best Supporting Actor Oscar). What ensues is a complex and intermittently tense narrative pitting plucky, smart good against smug, powerful, faceless evil, complete with plenty of earnest but reticent conservative functionaries agonizing over whether to reveal the extent of their own knowledge of official wrongdoing.

Its depiction of the moral agonies of the upper-middle-class aside, All the President’s Men is iconic for more simple cinematic reasons. There’s memorable visual touches, like the long crane shot pull-back of the reporters poring through documents in the Library of Congress, or Woodward’s deeply atmospheric meetings with “Deep Throat” in a parking garage at night (both of which were parodied in a classic episode of The Simpsons). The dialogue is not as demonstrative in its cleverness as other Goldman scripts could be, but it skews towards sharp realism in its exchanges. So many of the key plot moments are marked by razor distinctions in language, and so much convoluted and clandestine detail from the book upon which it is based must be boiled down into more basic filmic terms, that Goldman’s task was more to be precise and careful than to wheel free with unfettered wit.

I hate trusting anybody... especially those of you in the Academy.

We also have the stars, Redford as the presentable, stand-up Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as the hyperkinetic, suspicious Bernstein. Their portrayals have settled the respective public profiles of this most famous reporting team in American history for all time, although their subsequent career paths have helped that process. Woodward has become a venerable scion of Serious Journalism, regularly offering milquetoast conventional wisdom on current affairs talk shows and most recently penning sober stenographical non-exposés from inside of the Bush Administration, whose wasteful pre-emptive wars based on false premises and illegal detention and torture regime puts that infamous “second-rate burglary” in perspective a bit. Bernstein is not exactly a non-establishment figure, but has shown a more consistent distrust of institutions than Woodward has since Watergate, at least. One can mostly extrapolate their professional trajectories from the way the actors have approached them as characters.

If the film has a particular problem, it’s with how it ends, with the clacking teletype exposition of the eventual unraveling of the Watergate cover-up that led to Nixon’s historic resignation as President. The more specific focus that Goldman and Pakula have chosen makes for the tighter film, but also prefigures a story larger and more unwieldy than film narrative can quite accommodate (some of the more bizarre details of the larger story can only be hinted at; Kenneth Dahlberg’s apparent evasive tactic of claiming to be traumatized by his neighbour’s kidnapping drops like a joke, but he wasn’t kidding, she really was kidnapped for a ransom). As with much of the political world, the truth is not only stranger than fiction but more labyrinthine and multifarious as well. Even as All the President’s Men displays an understanding of this, the film pushes for simplification whenever it can. As such, strong as it is, it’s more of an engaging synopsis of Watergate than a comprehensive document of it. Could a movie be anything more, or anything less?

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Progressive Cynicism on the Yellow Brick Road: Gregory Maguire’s Out of Oz

January 25, 2012 1 comment

As popular as they are with readers, Gregory Maguire’s The Wicked Years books occupy a curious position in several cultural realms. Among mass market fantasy fiction series, they are undoubtedly less prominent than contemporary series like Harry Potter and Twilight, their themes more subtle and nebulous, their writing less immediately intelligible, their finer features far more particular. In the context of Ozian pastiche, it is generally welcomed as a revisionist take on the fanciful but childish kid-lit oeuvre of Oz’s creator, L. Frank Baum, but there is nothing gentle about this revision: it is an out-and-out inversion of Baum’s initial implications.

Even in terms of The Wicked Years’ own profile in popular culture, the stylish, nuanced, literary depiction of Oz provided in Maguire’s books has been obliterated by the gaudy Broadway adaptation of the first book, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. The musical subbed in soft-focus juvenile romance and lame inspirational platitudes for Maguire’s sharper Oz of political atrocities and existential ambivalence, but audiences responded warmly to the music and to the knowing tweaks of a classic childhood narrative. Maguire himself didn’t seem to mind the changes either, and even dedicated Wicked’s sequel Son of a Witch to the original Broadway cast (surely the copious royalties from the show stilled any creative qualms that might have arisen).

As Maguire wraps up The Wicked Years quadrilogy with Out of Oz, it is worth considering what his unique vision of Oz ultimately constitutes. First and foremost among the series’ qualities is Maguire’s prose style. Despite his fantastical subject matter and the kid-lit lineage of his chosen world, Maguire’s writing is extremely literary and highly written. His descriptions are full of peculiar vocabulary choices that are no less evocative for their peculiarity, giving his magical steampunk Oz a level of detail that is easily exploited on many occasions.

The dialogue, meanwhile, is aggressively clever, indeed often unrealistically so. Wit is evidently the birthright of every denizen of Oz, as even unschooled fugitives from civilization spit out a litany of bon mots like so many rakish drawing-room bon vivants. The dialogue exchanges are consistently entertaining as well as being key conduits for Maguire’s often vicious sense of irony, but can get distractingly precious nonetheless (as in an apparent teenage boy using the term “studied ineffectuality”, for instance, although perhaps that’s meant to be a hint).

Leaving Maguire’s notable style aside, though, what of his narrative, his characters, his themes? As the final act in a saga full to bursting of deferred closure, Out of Oz has an unenviable task of wrapping up literally dozens of individual character arcs and embedded subplots, as well as resolving the more general plot of the novels, namely the political and social fate of Oz itself.

At the conclusion of the last volume, A Lion Among Men, Munchkinland had seceded from Loyal Oz (the main state in the realm, centered on the Emerald City and the aristocratic northern province of Gillikin) and triggered a war that, by the time of Out of Oz, has become bitterly drawn-out. Lady Glinda (the erstwhile Good Witch of the North) is under house arrest by order of General Cherrystone of the Oz army, who is using her estate to prepare and launch a secretive assault on a lakefront Munchkinlander fortress. Sir Brrr (better known as the Cowardly Lion) is lingering nearby with the escorts of the enigmatic Clock of the Time Dragon, a puppet-show theatre contraption with intentions of its own and a taste for pointed sociopolitical satire. The Clock conceals the Grimmerie, an ancient and powerful magical book once possessed by Wicked’s protagonist, Elphaba Thropp, the Wicked Witch of the West. Like the Clock, the Grimmerie seems to be vaguely sentient and reveals its trove of spells to only a select few of its choosing, but that doesn’t prevent it from being sought by both sides in the war as the ultimate weapon with which to turn the tide.

Meanwhile, Liir, Elphaba’s squib offspring and the focal point of Son of a Witch, has been in hiding with his hippie wife Candle since the end of that book. With them, or possibly not, is their daughter, revealed at the end of Son of a Witch with the splendid closing phrase “she cleaned up green.” And as if all of that wasn’t enough for one book, guess who’s back in Oz? That all-earnest, all-singing, witch-killing Kansan schoolgirl Dorothy Gale, arriving not with the wind this time but on the figurative back of an earthquake (the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, to be exact) and destined for a propagandistic show trial in Munchkinland.

If this sounds like a massive cargo for one literary vessel to carry, it is. Out of Oz bursts at the seams with narrative detail and background exposition; Maguire even feels the need to awkwardly stop the story at one point and send a series of characters out on leisurely nature walks with Liir, to fill out the backstories that he left out until that moment. Still, he manages to balance the flood of information with the more delicate bildungsroman elements, as Rain, the aforementioned granddaughter of a witch, comes of age and grows into her inheritance as a being of magical ability and, of course, as a person.

Indeed, Out of Oz, like all of the Wicked books, is a patchwork quilt of genre pastiches of which the coming-of-age novel is only one fabric sample. Maguire uses these books as dioramas for his adaptive abilities, trying out the settings, moves, and poses of his influences, especially those from English canonical literature. The book begins with a parody of British novels of manners set in palatial country estates, as Lady Glinda and Cherrystone (Maguire’s most effective representation of the rigid, rational cruelty of institutions) face off over polite dinners while the former’s freedoms are increasingly curtailed and the latter’s war machine is gradually built up.

There’s a considerable amount of travel through the wilderness after this, as in the epic quest narratives of myth and fantasy fiction, and a destructive and deadly siege of the Emerald City by dragons that invokes not only the siege of Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings, but also the grim survivalism of literature about the Blitz. Maguire even finds time for a brief but charming boarding-school-novel interlude, Rain’s enrollment at a private girl’s academy in the college town of Shiz connecting her to Elphaba’s formative attendance of the university in the same town in Wicked.

Ultimately, Maguire’s Wicked Years books have another closer analogue, namely Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Although The Wicked Years is much livelier, funnier, less ponderous and more humane than Pullman’s famous fictionalized argument for atheism, their questing travails and philosophical outlooks are both similar. More vital, however, is the evidently shared aspiration to employ a form so often yoked to stiff traditionalism to express modern progressive anxieties. Maguire and Pullman boast a comparable trenchant liberalism and an attendant distrust for religious demagogues and power-hungry political charlatans. He even quite purposefully dismantles the famous conservative epigram from the end of The Wizard of Oz film, insisting that upon reaching adulthood, “our adventures secure us in our isolation… Sooner or later, there’s no place remotely like home.”

This is all instructive of Maguire’s perspective of knowing skepticism, as is the general structure of his main characters’ arcs in each of the four Wicked books, Out of Oz included. Unmooring his fantasy narrative from the narcissistic demands of heroic convention with a laudable lack of sentimentality, Maguire constructs the journeys of Elphaba, Liir, Sir Brrr, and finally Rain not as a litany of achievements but as a succession of failures that only seem more substantial in rose-coloured hindsight. This view of life is not a positive one, but it reeks of profound, cynical truth: as human beings (or Animals), we can do no better than to keep half a step ahead of our myriad imminent disappointments at any given time. Out of Oz, like most of the Wicked books (I’ll never be anything but underwhelmed by the whinging tone of Son of a Witch), stays a few steps ahead of its disappointments, and it’s that consistent outpacing that makes them a notable and even impressive entry into the mass market (sort-of) fantasy market.

Categories: Culture, Literature, Reviews

PopMatters Best Films of 2011 Entry – X-Men: First Class

January 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Note: PopMatters has been running its year-end Best Film of 2011 feature over the past week or so. I have contributed an entry to these list features, a shortened take on my earlier blog review of X-Men: First Class. Click on the link to go to the page with my entry, but do check out the entirety of the various lists if you have time as well.

The Best 40 Films of 2011 – #10 – X-Men: First Class

 

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Touch of Evil

January 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Touch of Evil (1958; Directed by Orson Welles)

What does it matter what you say about movies?

One of the rare post-Citizen Kane films that Orson Welles directed that he actually managed to finished, Touch of Evil faced edits and compromises from its completion to well beyond its initial release (as a B-movie, whose sordid traditions the film embraces while simultaneously elevating). Despite the obstacles, the film remains a landmark noir in its restored DVD version at least, which was based on Welles’ detailed notes to Universal concerning his editing preferences.

If Touch of Evil is not quite on the level of 1940s genre high-water-marks like The Maltese Falcon or The Third Man, the latter which Welles starred in (though did not write or direct), then the major factors in its falling short have to be the plot’s reliance on sensationalist exploitation material and the thoughtless racial offensiveness inherent to studio-period Hollywood. Set along the Mexican border in brothels, remote motels, and looming oil fields, the narrative involves a car-bomb murder, drug hysteria, and rampant police corruption. Starring Charlton Heston as a Mexican drug enforcement official (his skin is darkened by makeup, but his Spanish is at least impeccable) on a honeymoon with his blond American wife (Janet Leigh) who becomes embroiled in a crooked murder investigation conducted by a crusty immensity of a police captain (Welles himself, in a role of minimal vanity), the film has far more visual interest on offer than it does compelling content.

Shadows dance on backlit brick walls, ceiling fans rattle, and even in black-and-white you can feel the sickly glow of the neon signs of moral indulgence. The famed single-shot opening sequence is a marvel, the camera swooping over roofs and across dusty boulevards, following Heston and Leigh and the soon-to-be-bombed convertible to their dramatic convergence. It is bookended by the closing pursuit beneath oil derricks and junk piles to a stone bridge, where Welles’ Captain Quinlan clings to his robe of lies to the last breath. The villainous Quinlan’s introduction is classic Welles: chomping a cigar while exiting a car, he’s shot from below, his size and menace masterfully emphasized.

Even if Welles displays his usual artist’s eye, as well as the maverick’s button-pushing disdain for the studio Code’s censorship (check Grandi’s phallic cigar thrust in Leigh’s face in their initial meeting), he forces the edgy material too hard. The “reefer madness” sequence in the motel seems fairly ludicrous to modern eyes, and holds little of the threat it is meant to. Beyond the queasiness of the Latin-washed Heston (intoning his lines with the varnish of wooden authority and even losing his shirt once or twice to expose his stone-slab abs), the other major Mexican character, the execrable Grandi, is played by a Russian-born Armenian (Akim Tamiroff). Leigh vamps in her undergarments and shows some moxie in the aforementioned face-off with Grandi, but is given little to do beyond the first act but be a damsel in distress. Marlene Dietrich is in the mix, too, though one can barely fathom why.

Despite its considerable stylistic quality and technical proficiency, maybe Touch of Evil loses points for its dirty, leering soul, a too-literal embodiment of its themes of official corruption and moral compromise. Or maybe it’s just too much of its time, neutered by the Code, overwrought by its creator, and saddled by its poor studio-mandated choice of male lead. But the film’s touch is hardly nimble enough to overcome such burdens, even if its director overcame many to get it made and (belatedly) released in a form he mostly could have approved of. A genre classic? Surely. A masterpiece? Let’s not get carried away here.

Categories: Film, Reviews

TV Quickshots #7

January 21, 2012 2 comments

TV Quickshots

Bomb Girls (Global; 2012)

Canadian television is in a tough spot. With neither the funding capital or the related industry base of our southern neighbours, who continue to siphon much of the creative energy and onscreen and behind-the-scenes talent away from homegrown productions, Canadian original programming works very hard to finish a distant second, if not third or fourth, to American shows airing in the same slots.

Bomb Girls... and Stud

It can be frustrating as a viewer in this country, because we ought to able to tell our own stories with something approximating the creative verve and sheen that the United States tells its own. Unfortunately, often the core concept of a show is extremely strong and compelling, but the execution lags heartbreakingly behind. Witness Global’s six-part mini-series Bomb Girls, airing since the start of the year. The kernel of inspiration is, well, inspired: following Canadian Rosie the Riveters working in a Toronto-area munitions factory during the Second World War, there is ample potential for a keen examination of wartime social norms as well as critiques of the gender roles which were being inverted by women’s involvement in the war effort. Bundle these themes up in a sly revisionist period drama with the attendant nostalgic styles of speech and fashion, and you may well have a Canuck Mad Men in miniature.

But where Mad Men, like most successful television efforts, marries strength of concept and technical precision with intelligent writing and solid performances, Bomb Girls can’t get past its central points of interest into specific strengths. Both in thematic terms and in nuts-and-bolts dialogue terms, the writing is laughable, full of high-flown hagiography about “our boys” bravely fighting Hitler and saddled with clumsy and occasionally confusing slang (one business grandee made a comment about canaries in pews whose meaning and significance I missed entirely). The gender relations stuff is constantly sidelined into questions of blatant physical sexuality, steadfastly refusing to engage with any depth in the thornier negotiation of roles that occurs outside the bedroom (or, in one case in the premiere episode, a brick wall).

There’s a firm awareness of the class divide, too, but it reeks of lazy liberal moralizing, as the spoiled rich girl (Jodi Balfour) identifies with and yearns to be as “authentic” as the working-class factory floor girls. It’s enough to make one nauseous, as is her similar triangle with an earnest soldier and her upper-crust fiancé. Her desire to the “real” approximates the similar modern trust-fund yupster dilemma, but without an ounce of self-awareness.

But Bomb Girls‘ failure is not on the level of content but in the translation of that content, as mentioned. The dialogue is awkward and declamatory, straining to be zippy but falling short, and the acting can’t make up the gap. There is some interest in the relationship between factory supervisor Lorna (Meg Tilly) and her bitter war-wounded husband (Peter Outerbridge), but it’s shunted aside for the frantic travails of the young, all of whom are portrayed by actors of considerably lesser calibre than the careworn married couple. The resulting complete picture is painfully insufficient and undeniably second-rate. I want to believe that Canadian television can do better than Bomb Girls, if only marginally. But this time at least, it just doesn’t come together.

Categories: Reviews, Television