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Arkells at the CNE: A Joyous Elegy for Summer

August 30, 2012 1 comment

The prevailing theme of Arkells’ Wednesday night show at the Canadian National Exhibition’s bandshell proved to be the end of the summer, an appropriate match for the Hamilton, Ontario band’s lighters-aloft (or smartphones-with-lighter-apps-aloft) rock songs about campfire romances (“Kiss Cam”), roadtrips along provincial highways (“Where U Goin”) and even sun-soaked South American dictators (“The Ballad of Hugo Chavez”). Enthusiastic frontman Max Kerman, resplendent in his neo-classic-rocker uniform of sweat-soaked leather jacket and vintage-looking Star Wars t-shirt, bantered extensively with the youngish crowd on the passing of seasons. He asked them if they’d quit their summer jobs yet, if they’d purchased their school supplies, and how many were returning to high school or to college. It was enough to make the rare post-university-age attendees going to work the next morning feel a bit out of place, but he did stick admirably to the point.

Arkells

Beyond summertime’s imminent demise for another sun-cycle (marked particularly by a mid-song crooning of Carly Rae Jepsen summer pop anthem “Call Me Maybe” prefaced by Kerman’s hope that the ubiquitous song will be put to bed for good), the point being stuck to by Arkells on this night was a laudable commitment to the old-fashioned collective experience of popular rock and roll. If the prominence of this sort of experience (in the rock genre at least) has declined amongst the youth of the current generation in the U.S., it has endured in the UK and especially in Canada, which a rock-centric cultural imperialist might well interpret as sure evidence of the superior development of those cultures when compared to the American one.

The reigning Juno winners for national Group of the Year cling tightly to the merits of the collective experience, and their leader Kerman openly encouraged the audience to participate in it. With his understated 1950s-rockabilly-style hairdo bobbing with the beat, he led the crowd in mass singalongs (“Agent Zero”), give-and-take chants (the “punching in / punching out” dichotomy from the labour anthem “Oh, The Boss is Coming!”), and rhythmic handclaps all around. There was even a boppy cover of Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams”, the vocals shared between Kerman and electro-pop artist Lights, during the encore. Whatever one might think of collective experience strived for in concerts (and it’s not everyone’s bag, for certain), it’s hard t0 argue that Arkells don’t accomplish it as well as any working band in the country today.

But there is a finer balance to the band’s affect. They straddle the opposing footholds of wider audience appeal and intelligent, indie-derived specificity very athletically, a balancing act most reminiscent of an obvious Arkells influence, the Tragically Hip (who get a witty namecheck in the opening couplet of “Kiss Cam”, referencing their music’s ubiquity at Ontarian outdoor parties). Kerman has little of Gord Downie’s literary particularity, but both songwriters often focus on political and cultural ideas as well as on the intimate complications of personal relations. Kerman keys on subjects of interest to the 20-something male progressive, comparing himself to iconic 1960s rock stars (“John Lennon”, which closed the encore), celebrating rebels and outlaws (the aforementioned “Chavez”, evident US Army leaker Bradley Manning tribute “Whistleblower”), and narrativizing the thorny class identity schisms inherent to leftist social action (“No Champagne Socialist”, which did not make an appearance in the setlist, sadly). These themes deepen and broaden Arkells’ music, which is deceptively simple in its anthemic proportions that conceal complexly interwoven rock arrangements.

But in the flattened-out mass engagement arena of live concerts, Arkells sacrifice some measure of these distinctions for the comforting embrace of the collective rock experience. Even if something is lost in the live process, this is not an inherently bad thing, exactly; Arkells put on a stronger rock show than most, and it’s no stretch to imagine their appeal growing in symbiotic harmony with the scope of their art. My 30-year-old self was impressed and entertained by them last night, even if my 20-year-old self would have been even more so. But then bidding each summer a bittersweet farewell is trait of the young, and their sensibilities are no longer entirely my own. But an impassioned elegy for the warmest season is still worth appreciating, no matter one’s age, and Arkells provided that well enough.

Categories: Music, Reviews

Film Review: The Boxer

August 27, 2012 Leave a comment

The Boxer (1997; Directed by Jim Sheridan)

For all its grim, late-Troubles-era sociopolitical realism, Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer fights to a stalemate. Perhaps it reflected the protracted stand-off in Northern Ireland at the time (which was nonetheless close to resolving itself, or coming as close to doing so as it ever could), but the film is as trapped and impotent as the circumstances it portrays.

Day-Lewis’ Danny Flynn is the simple, plain-spoken avatar of this inability to progress, both a living metaphor of years and generations of lost hopes and squandered opportunities and the fundamental embodiment of this ungainly traction. Day-Lewis and his romantic lead Emily Watson both manage some moments of searing intensity and occasionally penetrate the stiff membrane of their characters’ volatile world, but mostly they’re swept up in the flashy plot with its melodramatic twists, prisoners of the generic conventions more so than of the endemic social reality.

Sheridan has shot mid-’90s Belfast in drab concrete tones, the only brief stabs of colour provided by blood and flags. The boxing scenes play off as such scenes usually do in films, nothing less or more: sweating abdominals, the soft brutality of gloved blows, the white noise of the hooting rabble in the background. Neither Rocky nor Raging Bull closed their boxing match sequences with the assassination of a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, mind you. But that’s a distinction of context rather than of degree.

There’s certainly an attempt being made by Sheridan, Day-Lewis and their collaborators to convey a sort of utilitarian, working-class eloquence, but the result is constipated and pent-up and any pathos is fleeting. The Boxer is a film too invested in the effort to be important to bother being anything else for too long, which is unfortunate considering the talent involved.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price

August 24, 2012 1 comment

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price (2005; Directed by Robert Greenwald)

Eventually, you had to figure that the left-wing anti-corporate documentary genre was going to produce a film as genuinely weakly made, poorly argued and naively knee-jerk in its political notions as conservative opponents of the genre have long accused its products of being. That film, sadly, is this film.

Robert Greenwald lays out Wal-Mart’s myriad abuses with an effectiveness that is no less impressive for its one-sidedness, but then those abuses are hardly up for debate. Anyone who’s done even a bare minimum of research into the subject knows about Wal-Mart’s union-busting, their shabby payment and treatment of employees, their disregard for environmental and safety laws, the destructive effect their stores have on small businesses, the borderline slave-labour employed in their foreign plants, and much more. There’s plenty of evidence to show that Wal-Mart does lots of nasty things to turn a profit, but Greenwald’s film steadfastly refuses to trace the systemic vileness of these tactics beyond the profit motive of one solitary (if enormous) company.

Because the problems with Wal-Mart are merely microcosmic of the problems with American capitalism, problems that are increasingly coming home to roost in a time of economic crisis. Wal-Mart employs cheap overseas labour, but so do many other corporations. They pay low wages and employ illegal immigrant labour, but so do many other corporations. They are flippant about safety and the environment, but so are many other corporations. They ruthlessly game the system, but so do many other corporations. Their union-breaking tactics are more singular, but reflect a widespread American distrust of and distaste for organized labour that has been frothed up by the right for decades (and has a grain of truth or two to it, though perhaps not the grains that conservatives have inflated into historic sins).

The most succinct example of Greenwald’s failure of insight as a documentarian comes in the exploration of Wal-Mart’s failure to provide health coverage for their employees. This lack of concern is decried and several victims of the policy are trotted out to arouse our sympathy, but the larger point is missed entirely. Why should it be up to an employer to provide complete, necessary health coverage to most of their employees? As a Canadian, the alternative of universal health care seems obvious, and would efficiently remove the onus from corporations, who must factor employee health coverage into their profit margins and will thus always find it a tempting element to cut back in order to make it into the black (or ever further into the black, as is often the case). The entire American auto industry was at risk largely because of the benefits the car companies owe to their employees. With a working, fair system of socialized medicine in place (something similar but more far-reaching than the Affordable Care Act constantly maligned by conservatives), this is not an issue for Wal-Mart or for any other company.

Beyond its narrow lack of vision and glib willingness to blame every foible of Wal-Mart on pure, evil greed rather than on the crushing competitive pressures of an environment of unregulated commercial expansion, the production values of The High Cost of a Low Price are ridiculously cheap. The interviews are informative enough, but patronizing captions remind us of who’s talking every time they’re on screen. Beyond this irritation, there is Greenwald’s conclusion, an eye-rolling montage of communities that resisted Wal-Mart’s expansion (although at least a few of the ones listed now have Wal-Marts in them nonetheless), accompanied by laughable scrolling text bleating, “Victory!” A 12-year-old with a deft hand at PowerPoint would be embarrassed to put his name on such a graphical creation. And Greenwald’s tactic of freezing cheery Wal-Mart ads, washing the colours out to black-and-white, and playing ominous music as he flashes stats that contradict the happy messages is both cheesy and cliched. Technical values, it needs to be said, do matter, even in documentaries. The poorer they are, the less likely are viewers to be convinced by the film’s arguments.

Conclusion: Wal-Mart is terrible. So is this film.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-3836296181471292925

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

A Sojourn in Continental Europe, Part 2: Thoughts on Belgium

August 21, 2012 5 comments

At the close of my previous post musing on visiting Paris, I wrote of the often-unnoticed ways that the City of Lights has seen its medieval historical heritage preserved down to the present day. If this can be noticed to some extent in Paris, then it’s nigh-on impossible to avoid in the small, often-maligned country bordering France: Belgium. For all of its mercantile history and contemporary participation in modernity, the great cities of Belgium (or, rather, of its Dutch-speaking northern portion, Flanders) are haunted by a past that had left behind it both aesthetic loveliness and troubling cultural implications.

Belgium has managed to cultivate a bit of an inferiority complex in European relations that doesn’t really befit it in cultural, economic, or political terms. It boasts an artistic timeline progressing from the Flemish Primitives to Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck (though not to my taste, both major artists) to Art Nouveau to Rene Magritte’s Surrealism to… well, I dunno where it ends, Gotye? It has often been an economic and therefore political powerhouse as well, from the thriving late-medieval port cities of Ghent and Bruges to the diamond trade of Antwerp to King Leopold II’s colonial exploitation of the rubber trees of the Congo to today’s membership (and, with its Brussels headquarters, leadership) in the European Union. Still, jammed only half-comfortably between two continental powers (France and Germany) that have often coveted, fought over, and indeed conquered it, and overshadowed even by the country of origin for its linguistic majority (Holland), Belgium is rarely afforded the respect that the unique history of its region, culture, and people have earned.

The aforementioned “Big Four” Belgian cities, all of which were ports of call on my holiday, typify different and even divisive aspects of Belgium even while also accenting the similarities throughout the nation. Brussels is the bustling capital of government, national and continental, dotted with the sort of bulky Neoclassical official institutions that often threaten to swallow other great capitals like Washington D.C. and the aforementioned Paris. French, the prestige language of the country’s elite, has not relinquished its central position in Brussels despite its geographic location in Flanders and increasing progressive concessions to the country’s Dutch-speaking majority. If anything, it’s easier for a visitor speaking French as a second language to survive with only the language in Brussels than it is to do so anywhere in France. In Belgium, no matter what the historical privileged class liked to pretend, French is always a second language anyway.

Antwerp, like Brussels, is both a historic centre and a modern city. The architecture of each is that much more festooned, the famous stepped-gable peaks of Flemish architecture graced with the supplemental gilding that copious profitable commerce affords. Antwerp has long been the town of flash and bang, overflowing with glittering diamonds, an astonishing railroad station, and cutting edge fashion design. The style-over-substance feeling of the place is embodied by its most famous son, the aforementioned Rubens. With his preference for towering canvases, clumsily indistinct lines, sweeping gestures, and rippling cellulite, Rubens is an artist for Antwerp: impressive, showy, and opulent, but largely without a sense of proportion or a soul-like core.

Ghent and Bruges, on the other hand, trade lucratively on their exquisite atmosphere of late-medieval and early-modern urban preservation. Though their aesthetic pleasures are undeniable and therefore quite hard to be critical about, ultimately, both cities present their canals and churches, their wedding-cake market squares and cobblestoned side-lanes, and their profusion of historical fine art for maximum touristic consumption. Ghent manages to escape a more cynical assessment by virtue of being slightly less popular with foreigners as well as slightly more ragged and liberal as a longtime university town. Its main museum to medieval life is the none-too-rose-tinted Gravesteen, an honest-to-god castle in the centre of town that quite openly acknowledges the quotidian brutality of the Middle Ages with its torture exhibits. It also doesn’t hurt that Ghent boasts a dynamic central skyline, one of the continent’s most welcoming cores (the beautiful, homey Graslei), and the Van Eyck brothers’ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, one of the true historic knockouts of European art that also has a fascinating history.

Bruges, on the other hand, although undeniably romantic and beguiling, works a bit too hard to construct itself to visitors as a living museum while simultaneously capitulating to modern tastes and capitalist ambition. As pretty as the Markt square is, only a few steps down any of its connecting straats will lead you into a Body Shop or a Zara or a Pizza Hut, and the city’s amalgamated museum bureaucracy, with its standardized pricing and plexiglass booths, drains the character of many a historical landmark (it doesn’t help, either, that the queue for an attraction like the Belfry is a major timesuck). It’s hardly much of a fairytale, though still pretty fine for all that.

Ironically, the cultural product currently most associated with Bruges, Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh’s rough and hilarious moral-comic gangster escapade In Bruges, subtly participated in the town’s self-romanticization as much as it overtly sent it up. The Bruges in the film is a “fuckin’ fairytale”, as a couple of characters put it, although another is less complimentary, repeatedly dubbing it a “shithole”. We laugh dismissively at the latter assessment because McDonagh constructs Bruges as a romantic Belgian burg indeed, albeit one with a subtle dark side. He has sound thematic reasons to do this, invoking the town as a simultaneous Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory where the moral actions of his characters meet with the variant sentences of a fickle, unseen judge. But it’s still a bit too perfect, so much so that it isn’t perfect at all.

And this is Belgium, too: kind of perfect but really much more imperfect. “Nothing works here, and still it works,” goes a local saying, and it speaks volumes about this small but vibrant and fascinating country’s self-image. In a global order of constricting capitalized ambition with consequences both wonderful and terrible, Belgium finds a way to embrace both possibilities and still seem like a land set snugly before the time of unrestricted consumption. This is why it’s such a great place to travel, and will continue to be.

Categories: Art, Culture, Film, History, Travel

A Sojourn in Continental Europe, Part 1: Thoughts on Paris

August 19, 2012 4 comments

Returning from my first vacation jaunt to Europe for over a decade, there are a profusion of thoughts on the arts, architecture, history and still-living culture of the rich and often-tumultuous continent that have been sparked by my travels, and seem worth sharing in one form or another. I begin with the town where so many continental travellers likewise commence: Paris.

The fascinating French capital bookended the trip itinerary, and while a couple of days was hardly enough to soak in enough of one of the world’s great cities, it was enough to get a feel for the character of the place. Seemingly equal amounts of righteous blood and inked superlatives have been spilled over Paris, amounts that feel both excessive and insufficient, given the city’s bizarre power. This shall not be an essay on the benefits of central urban planning, or a treatise on how Paris’ beguiling romanticism has survived revolutions, wars, gilded ages, and the influx of corporate culture (McDonald’s across from Jardins de Luxembourg, fashion chain stores dotting the Champs-Élysées, etc.). And certainly there are elements of the French civic culture that are less than praise-worthy, in particular the harsh ethnic, cultural and economic divisions between the dwellers and workers of central, historic Paris and the sprawling banlieues on its periphery, which occasionally erupt in violent, frustrated rebellion at the obvious network of persistent inequalities (and Torontonians like to think there’s a downtown/suburbs split in their city!).

One cannot ignore how the firm wall between the 20 arrondisements agglomerated in 1860 and the wider Île-de-France region has constructed the core of the modern Paris into a tourist powerhouse. The charming, romantic destination of legend (and largely, it must be acknowledged, reality) has always been a playground for the 1% and therefore a monument to inequality. Still, the centuries-long series of massive public works, monuments, and cheap, easily-accessible cultural institutions, from former royal palaces that are now public gardens (Tuileries, Luxembourg) or national museums (Versailles, the spectacularly comprehensive art museum the Louvre) to industrial- or corporate-age developments like the Eiffel Tower site, Pompidou Centre or the skyscraper city of La Défense has extended the glories to the people in a manner befitting a country whose modern history is still very much defined by a mass uprising against the assumptions of aristocratic privilege.

But it’s worth remembering that Paris’ history goes back further than the ancien régime, and that was what much of this visit was spent confirming. The city has done a fine job preserving hints of its deeper past in key places, in particular at the Musée National du Moyen Âge at L’Hôtel Cluny, with its treasure trove of medieval art, and at the city’s oldest standing monument, the cathedral of Notre Dame. The literal centre of France (kilometre zero for all distances in the country is the star in the paving stones on the square outside the church), the inspiring Gothic bulk of Notre Dame may well embody spiritual aspirations that the thoroughly secularized republic no longer shares, even if Victor Hugo contributed to its Romanticist re-casting with his seminal novel largely set in its environs.

But the exquisite stone sculptures adorning its towering facade, the famous twisted gargoyles (actually added in the 19th century restoration), pious knights, bishops and kings, and demonic fiends tormenting sinners at the Last Judgment, speak non-verbal multitudes about the nature of official power in the Middle Ages and today. In a vivid visual illustration for a mostly non-literate society, these depictions of the terrifying fate of sinners carried a clear message from the clerical (and, by extension, secular) authorities to their afeared parishioners: do exactly what we say, or be prepared for nasty beings to put the hurt on you for eternity. It’s a deeply medieval conception of Catholic morality, predicated on punitive assumptions, and it’s reflected strongly in the modern France’s civic order in which obedience to established power in which obedience is compelled by the threat of withering social disdain and bureaucratic sarcasm more so than by clumsy state-imposed force (although the paramilitary security forces patrolling the public squares that front on Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower suggest otherwise with an uncharacteristic lack of subtlety).

Similar ideas spring to mind, albeit in a divergent manner, in the other main location of travel on this trip, the oft-misunderstood but lovely nation of Belgium. Some related thoughts on these travels are to follow soon. Stay tuned.

Categories: Art, Culture, History, Travel

Film Review: Lolita (1962)

August 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Lolita (1962; Directed by Stanley Kubrick)

Going into this, I hardly expected Stanley Kubrick to make Vladimir Nabokov’s contentious classic more light-hearted and less creepy. But he does, and it’s not really terribly helpful, honestly.

Only the occasional snatches of narration preserve Nabokov’s erudite, charming writing style, and these brief teases leave you aching for more. It’s unfortunate, too, because there’s some fairly fine performances cluttering the film. James Mason is hilarious early on, brushing off the aggressive intrusions of Shelley Winters’ Charlotte Haze (she’s basically perfect in the role), and grows comfortably into Humbert’s lunatic obsession. Sue Lyon is likely too pretty a Lolita, but is otherwise entirely convincing as a teasing nymphet.

A large part of the problem (indeed, maybe the entirety of the problem) with the film is Peter Sellers’ involvement in it. His quivering, nervous lasciviousness matches the undercurrents of the material and does, to some extent, give voice to the compulsive passion simmering beneath Humbert’s facade of suave coolness. But Sellers, as he almost always is, is just too much; he’s far too over-the-top and excessive to be a fully-formed foil to Mason’s smoothed-over Humbert. Kubrick clearly gave him free rein (as he would in their next film together, Dr. Strangelove, where Sellers’ late flights of improvisation as the title character again blemish a sardonic masterpiece), and Sellers goes off half-cocked, to the detriment of the film. Only in the opening scene is it acceptable, and then it’s only because you know he’s to be killed any minute. Overall, a generally-average adaptation of a remarkable book that likely deserved better.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Up

August 13, 2012 2 comments

Up (2009; Directed by Peter Docter)

Like all products of the Pixar factory, Up has engaging, recognizable characters, a solid plot and well-constructed sequences, heaps of emotional generosity, and a timeless, Old Hollywood quality to its humour that puts the desperate, knowing cultural references that pervade the products of the studio’s CGI animation competitors to shame. It should also go without saying that it’s completely lovely to look at throughout, although the use of 3D adds very little beyond a bit of depth to the landscapes.

But no one ought to have the slightest doubt about the technical and narrative prowess of Pixar at this point. Quality is assured, but transcendence is more fickle. Up begins with its most transcendent section, an exquisite 20-ish minutes of silent-film-style narrative that is saturated with affection and longing, intimacy and sadness. It’s a model of what Pixar accomplishes at their best: a children’s cartoon with intelligence and maturity, a film that artfully earns the hoary old marketing standby “fun for all ages”. The opening act recalls the much more ambitious start of Pixar’s previous crossover triumph, Wall-E. Both are imaginative and heartfelt, and ultimately elegiac; Zen, almost.

But it doesn’t stay that way, and Up soon reveals itself as a mixed bag of pleasures. Once Carl Fredrickson’s house takes flight (a fairly joyful moment that would have been more so if not for the image’s centrality in the film’s marketing campaign), Up becomes a simple adventure movie. A wondrous, often entertaining adventure film, yes, but really only an adventure film. The emotional weight built up so painstakingly in the prologue doesn’t really pay off, and there’s an absence of resonant buried ideas being dealt with, as in Pixar’s best works (particularly in Brad Bird’s films for the studio). That the film’s director, Pete Docter, was also at the helm for Monsters, Inc. (Pixar’s weakest effort that doesn’t involve talking cars) should maybe have been a hint to Up‘s direction.

Still, the film is not without its charms, with the talking dogs in particular providing some much-needed hilarity at key moments (“I just met you and I love you!”). And that astounding prologue proves that Pixar is still capable of great things, even in the midst of a less-than-great film like Up. It remains rather good, but the past work of the magic factory that produced it has lead us to expect better, as well we should.

Categories: Film, Reviews