Posts Tagged “reviews”

08w08:1 Preview: The Cdn Art Reel Artist Film Fest 21-24 Feb 2008

by timothy. 2 Comments

The Canadian Art Reel Artists Film Festival, 21-24 February 2008
screening at the Al Green Theatre, Miles Nadal JCC
750 Spadina Ave (at Bloor), Toronto

In his as-yet-untranslated book Formes de Vie (1999) Nicolas Bourriaud makes the argument that Duchamp treated the gallery as a film camera, a box in which the gallery ‘recorded’ the work and in so doing made it art. Throughout the 20th Century, the dominance of film as a medium has seeped into our consciousness to such an extant that it seems that all art today works in cinematic terms. The spectacle, the grandeur, the big budgets … the gallery has become a film set and must borrow from the film-production’s capacity to make the impossible real. Take for example the open pits of crude oil shown in There Will Be Blood – accurately reflecting the lack of environmental concern of a century ago, and yet filmed in 2006 under conditions that were probably heavily controlled and legislated behind the scenes. Also consider something like Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth, where the Tate gallery undertook intentional damage to the foundations of the building and displayed it with an aloofness which makes it seem no big deal.

But the ugliness of its construction is as hidden as that which goes into the manufacture of our consumer goods by foreign wage slaves. We are only asked to marvel at the gleam, and not think of the grime.

I raise these points as an introduction to the blending of the cinematic and locational art forms, which is annually celebrated by the Canadian Art Foundation’s film series of artist documentaries. This year’s selections have a common theme of monumentalism, and the documentaries give us insight and access to the grime behind the gleam of art-stardom. Having watched previews of most of the films in this year’s series, (I was provided with all but four of the series’ screeners) what follows are reviews and reflections on them.

Jeff Wall | Jeff Wall – Retrospective 58:42 dir. Michael Blackwood (2007)

Peter Galassi and Jeff Wall
Peter Galassi (L) and Jeff Wall (R)

This film is an hour long eavesdrop as Wall walks through his 2007 retrospective exhibition at MOMA with its co-curator Peter Galassi. The format makes it a little boring at times – but it’s worth it if you’re at all interested in his work, and Wall gives wonderful insights into what inspired his classic pieces. It can be said that he’s a painter using photography to make his images, which are so composed and choreographed to assume the one-off aspect of a painting, albeit made in a medium which ensures a maximum reproducibly. Looking at Wall’s backlit images I was reminded they are precursors of the digital photographs we are all getting used to. One imagines that many HD-flat screen panels will be used to display future photography, as luminous and well resolved as a Jeff Wall. It makes his work seem almost prescient in that regard, and makes the technology behind it seem merely primitive rather than gimmicky or even as sophisticated as it appeared ten years ago.

Philip Johnson | Philip Johnson: Diary of an Eccentric Architect 55:00 dir. Barbara Wolf (1996)

Philip Johnson and Rem Koolhaas
Philip Johnson and Rem Koolhaas in the rain
This film is essentially a grand tour of Johnson’s sprawling estate in New Canaan, Connecticut, which was used as a literal field of experimentation by the architect. Johnson gives tours of the projects he undertook on his land over fifty years, meanwhile the film documents the construction of one such experiment, a building inspired by Frank Stella (who comes to see the work in progress), and which when completed is visited under umbrella by Rem Koolhaas. Once painted, it looked magnificent. I appreciated the inclusion of a scene where the construction workers quarrel with the managers, who are quibbling over ten-grand. ‘Ten thousand dollars is a drop in a hat. I see your place over there, you’re not working for $25/hr with guys making $12/hr, and think you’re going to live on that’. This sentence encapsulates what’s wrong with startchitecture to begin with, and for me is the key-phrase of the film.

As we go forward, this documentary may become one of those historical curiosities in which the rich playboy gives a tour of his Versailles and the interconnected social and environmental repercussions are totally ignored. Johnson (who I’ve most often seen in a suit at the office commenting in documentaries on the work of other architects) here is seen as a full resolution person, who had lived a blessed life of success and had reached an age when he couldn’t help but take it all for granted. His personal art gallery, brilliantly designed to exhibit many large paintings in a small space, consists of work that he needs explained to him by an assistant who first appears in the film sitting in the gallery in such a way that I mistook him for a Duane Hanson. Had The Simpson’s Mr Burns been written as an architect, he would have been modeled on Philip Johnson, and this Mr Burns would return the affections of his Smithers.

Bas Jan Ader | Here is always somewhere else 70:00 dir. Rene Daalder (2006)

Still from a Bas Jan Ader Film

Bas Jan Ader died the year I was born, and yet he has the best artist website I have ever seen, the result of some benefactor buying up his estate in recent years. As a part of this media revival, Rene Daalder was asked to make this film by Ader’s widow. (The trailer can be seen on the Ader website here). This film was a little slow getting started but got more interesting near the half-way mark. One of the nice things about this feature is how Daalder revisits some of the locations Ader used for his art-films, which have been so transformed in the intervening years as to have become unrecognizable.

Featuring interviews with people inspired by Ader’s work, including Tacita Dean, we learn much about his background, and the similar background of Daalder, who attempts to tell Bas Jan’s story by giving us insight into his own. Before he too immigrated to Los Angeles, Daalder began as a film-maker in Holland (one of his early films’s stared Rem Koolhaas, thirty years before getting his rainy day tour at Philip Johnson’s) before leaving after his first ‘most-expensive Dutch film ever’ failed at the domestic box-office. The result is a story of a small group of Dutch expatriates who ended up in L.A. trying and make their fame and fortune in Hollywood. With the exception of Koolhaas, they succeeded while remaining obscure. For example, one of the actors in another early Daalder film was Carel Struycken who I was familiar with as Mr. Homn, Lexanna Troi’s butler from the Star Trek episodes I watched as a teenager, and who also starred in the Adam’s Family movie as Lurch.

Wikipedia states that Ader’s work began to be revived in the early 1990s, and I first learned about him through the Phaidon Conceptual Art book, published in 1998. Richard Rorty described genius as the coincidence of one’s personal obsession meeting a public need. Throughout the 1980s, Bas Jan Ader was to a small group of Dutch men just that friend who disappeared at sea. As one says early on in the film, ‘I didn’t know I was friends with a myth’. This myth was constructed in the early 1990s, which is to say that the public need for Ader’s obsession only began then, this public being an art-world increasingly interested in the type of work Ader produced. As a video artist, his work can be seen throughout the movie (and on his website), and on the one hand it can seem both boring and absurd (what’s up with all the falling?) but on the other it can seem interesting and profound (the sea captain who had thought about it a lot). Ader’s work is a reminder to artists that there’s an potential audience for anything, but it may take twenty years after your death for the public’s interest to coincide with your obsessions.

Richard Serra | To See is to think 44:33 dir. Maria Anna Tappeiner (2006)

In Sheila Heti’s interview with Dave Hickey, he says of Richard Serra that ‘he’s totally not hip, can’t speak without drawing’. Throughout this film Serra is seen carrying a sketchbook, and only once to we see him actually using it. I’ve often thought that Serra’s work will survive for as long as there’s no iron shortage, but give us another couple of hundred years of material squandering, and then will see if this stuff is really worth something as art. Serra’s obsession with drawing allows one to see his sculpture really as a drawing in itself – only he is marking three dimensional space with the material of steel, rather than working with graphite or charcoal on two-dimensions. This image illustrates this for me: a simple line drawing, highlighting the space of the sky, consisting of one of Serra’s steel sheets seen edge-wise. (Of course, this interpretation is aided by the framing offered by the film camera).


Serra’s work makes me question wether things like Stonehenge were really about the stars and the Equinoxes. Perhaps they too liked to mark space with massive objects? I hope that Serra’s work, if it survives future material scarcity, will never be interpreted as astrological charting. That would make our culture look unimaginative. It’s worth persevering the memory of these rusted pieces of steel as attempts to mark the landscape in a creative way, although here I’m again reminded of what bothered me about Johnson’s estate. The land was fine as it was, and along came some egotistical human set about ‘improving’ it by dumping a hunks of rusted metal in it. I don’t think we’ve (as a culture) quite figured out the balance between imagination and destruction.

Anish Kapoor | Art in Progress: Anish Kapoor 27:24 dir. John Wyver (2007)

Anish Kapoor discussing the maquette for his installation
Anish Kapoor discussing the maquette for his installation of Svayambh

This documents the Kapoor retrospective which opened three months ago (Nov 2007) in Germany. Kapoor is one of the bigger names in sculpture right now, but he’s another reminder that artists these days (when they are successful) make big work that highlights vulgar industrial excess (a block of red wax weighing 45 tons and measuring 10 x 4.5 x 3.5 meters. WTF?) and it’s all ok because there’s enough money in the world, it’s affordable to these aristocrats, and besides, what else are we going to do with 45 tons of red wax? Cover cheese with it?

Kapoor emphasizes that his work is about color. The monumentalism of its material just seems like a paradoxical cheap trick: an expensively produced contrivance. Like, this is what it takes to awe people today – not fragility, not the delicate, but the heavy metal (Serra) in your face ear-bleeding loud message. The red wax is awe-some because it’s big.Kapoor’s ____, 2007

In a world where the British-American Empire is guilty of war crimes while we face environmental catastrophe, this type of work just pokes my cynicism. When the process is supposed to be an important part of the work, and when that process is fictionalized (as it appears to be in this case) than what is the work but bullshit? Asking me to imagine the process just renders such installations as the set-design for an unmade film that it so often appears to be these days. With that in mind, I’d much rather walk through the set of the now-filming Star Trek movie than look at a giant block of red wax smeared against a gallery’s wall. Then again, if I saw this is person I might disagree with what I’ve just written.

Sam Wagstaff | Black White + Grey: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff 72:15 dir. James Crump (2007)

Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe

As Philippe Garner (Director of Photography at the London Christie’s) says near the end of this documentary, ‘It horrifies me to think that there’s a generation growing up now in photography that doesn’t know who Sam is. And yet his legacy permeates the field, there’s absolutely no doubt about that.’

Featuring an extensive appearance by Patti Smith, roommate of Maplethorpe and part of the relationship wherein Maplethorpe took advantage of his wealthy sugar-daddy Sam Wagstaff, this is also a reminiscence of the New York 1970s art-scene and gay-demi-monde. What I most appreciated learning was that Wagstaff was responsible for a vast bulk of the collection of Getty Images.

There was some structural problems with this film’s editing, near the middle it became too crowded with interviews and from that point began to seem incongruous. Nevertheless a nice history of a man who helped change the direction of art through his curation and who amassed one of the most important photo collections in the world.

Phyllis Lambert | Citizen Lambert: Joan of Architecture 52.00 dir. Teri Wehn-Damisch (2006) Citizen Lambert

One scene of this I recognized as something I’d seen on TVO’s Masterworks last year – a scene where Phyllis Lambert-neé Bronfman is walking through a Mies van der Rohe building and showing disgust at the curtains put up in its lobby. If I remember correctly, that scene was originally from a Mies-centered documentary. One of the fellow-architects interviewed for this portrait of Lambert (ridiculously modeled on Citizen Kane for god-knows-what reason) stated that architecture as we know it today would not have been without Lambert, primarily because when her family wanted to build their corporate phallic symbol in New York, she reviewed the initial design and convinced them to hire Mies instead, the result being the Seagram building. This resulted in a collaboration between Mies and Phillip Johnson, reputations established and architectural history writ. Considering how devastating architecture has become (the renegade architect Christopher Alexander having declared most of it ‘insane’) Lambert’s role is either a good thing or a bad thing considering which side your on.

Rodin | Rodin: The Sculptor’s View 53:00 dir. Jake Auerbach (2006)

Interviews with contemporary sculptors on the legacy of Rodin. This is really for sculpture geeks. Featuring Antony Gormley, Marc Quinn, Rachel Whiteread, Rebecca Warren, Barry Flanagan, Tony Cragg, Anthony Carro and Richard Deacon. (I just copied that from the blurb, incase those names spark any interest on your part. Honestly, this one I found the least interesting, since I’m not a sculpture geek. It’s just sculptors talking shop, with requisite cinematic close ups of Rodin’s work).

Tickets and times for the screenings available at the links listed above.

07w46:6 Movie Review: Blade Runner The Final Cut (1982; 2007)

by timothy. 0 Comments

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007)
1982: The first edition of Blade Runner is released on 25 June.

1992: The second edition ‘Director’s Cut‘ is released on 11 July. At the time I’m a student of history and as a pet project I’m trying to write a history of Earth from the vantage point of the year 2400. In order to conceptualize the 22nd Century, I look to Blade Runner, and the images found in magazines, which are promoting the release of the Director’s Cut. But I live in rural Nova Scotia and I only know one person in my class who’s even heard of Blade Runner.

1993: I’m in Toronto that March, and look for a copy of the movie to buy. It’s not in stores anywhere.

Which is to say, it took me a few years before I got to see it for the first time. And once I did, it wasn’t the story-line that mattered so much as the sets; for years I’ve watched this movie as a series of montages in fantastic settings, the story-line connecting the scenes seemingly incidental and not even that interesting.

1999: I watch the Director’s Cut for the first time, and I find the extreme letter-boxing distracting to the extant that makes it almost unwatchable. I had the chance to see it on the big screen that spring but decided a now forgotten ’round-table’ conversation on art-something at the Khyber was more important.

So I can’t remember when I first saw Blade Runner, but it was probably one of the CityTv broadcasts that they ran on New Year’s Eve/Day at midnight through the 1990s. Ten years ago, January 1 1998 at 12am I recorded this broadcast and brought the VHS tape to back to Halifax with me, where it quickly became wall-paper. Whenever it rained that year I would on returning to my small one bedroom basement apartment at the end of the day put in this copy and let in play in the background as I went about my work.

Later I found the Director’s Cut in the video store and rented it. I think that was the last time I watched the film straight through, sometime after its release in February 1999, and with memories of the voice over in mind, I had an its interpretive slant on the images. I found the Director’s Cut version was superior in its subtlety. This film, without Harrison Ford telling you what to think, invited you to consider it on your own terms.

At the time, Blade Runner was part of my extra curricular studies which also included the novels of William Gibson. For a time I was confused and thought I’d read somewhere that Blade Runner had influenced the writing of Neuromancer, (and later read that Gibson had actually been far more influenced by Alien, and imagined Neuromancer as a bit of background to that world). Given that the 21st Century was looming on us all in the late 90s, and my excitement at seeing that s-f time become real, Blade Runner and Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy were part of a process of understanding what kind of world I’d spend the rest of my life in.

Walking up Spring Garden Road in 1999, and seeing the recently installed refurbished pay phones, I recognized their design as something ‘futuristic’ (a term that I hear less and less often these days) and something that would have looked fine in Blade Runner. There seemed to be an attempt to update our world to match the set design of 1980s s-f films, and given how such films then as now use the experimental work of industrial designers, this all made perfect sense. In that way, s-f films function as marketing for new designs. It seems to me that things like Blackberries and iPods are so successful since they were preceded by lengthy marketing campaigns in the form of s-f novels and films, so that when they arrived, we knew what they were, and had a good idea of what we could do with them.

Watching Blade Runner and reading Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy was a way of prepping myself for the life I expected in Toronto, where I knew I’d end up. In fact, Gibson’s descriptions of the Sprawl always reminded me of Scarborough, so at first, experiencing mini-mall urban decay and franchise restaurants had the excitement of visiting a film-set from the future.

(I had the same experience when I visited Ottawa in early October 2000, just after Trudeau’s funeral, and the city reminded me of San Fransisco as seen in the Star Trek Voyager episode ‘Non Sequitur‘. Ottawa had not only cleaned itself up for the new century, but it was also a giant film set, constantly on our television screens hosting those actors of Parliamentary debate. Meeting someone by the Peace Flame, I looked down at the roses laid in honour of Trudeau’s memory, the flag above the Peace Tower at half-mast, as I’d seen in on television in the days before).

So to see Deckard eating noodles in 2007 is a different experience than seeing the same in Halifax in 1998, where chopstick joints were few and far between as they say. There was a Japanese restaurant on Argyle St but I was still too much of hick to understand the menu. Of course, after these years in the Toronto, Blade Runner just seems like a rainy night on Spadina, only more congested with archaic neon logos. Our bars aren’t filled with smoke and clay pipes, and while it probably will cost $1.25 to use a pay-phone in twelve years, the real Deckards by then are much more likely to use an old fourth generation iPhone.

As Gibson was saying over this past summer’s book-tour, even imagining a future in the first half of the 1980s was an act of optimism. I’m old enough to remember television stories about the Cold War and talk of Nuclear Winter. Blade Runner too offered a vision of the future, not quite post-apocalyptic but close, based loosely on Dick’s novel, which had projected a post-nuclear envirocide where ‘real’ animals were all but extinct. The novel’s Deckard dreamed of buying a ‘real’ goat as that society’s status symbol (as I recall, but I read the novel fifteen years ago). Now the movie has eclipsed the novel and the focus on artificial animals seems out of context, and we have a different understanding of artificiality. There’s enough GMO stuff around already that doesn’t seem any less ‘real’ to us, and the idea behind the Replicants is equally strange. Today it’s comprehensible as ‘Oh, there just genetically engineered humans with a four year life-span,’ which is a different play on 1982’s confusing ‘are they robots or something? How are they fake?’ And as we approach November 2019, it’s one time cyberpunk has become steampunk. Maybe our computers will accept voice commands by then, but we won’t have CRT-television set-top scanners at work printing out Polaroids of our 600+dpi zoom.

And it’s such scanning tech which has enabled this final cut version to come out. The original print was scanned at such an extremely high resolution that watching this version of Blade Runner is a new enough experience in itself – such clarity of image and level of detail was never seen before. This ‘restoration’ reminded me of that done on Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling – we live in an era of restoration, the grand updating to reflect cinema’s recorded vision, our imaginations inhabited by visions focused through Carl Zeiss lenses. Some critics then complained that the ‘brightening’ that occurred with the Michelangelo restoration destroyed the experience, while other welcomed the return to the ‘original’ condition.

Michelangelo’s Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut, circa 1970
Michelangelo’s Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut, circa 1970

Michelangelo’s Blade Runner: The Final Cut, circa 2000
Michelangelo’s Blade Runner: The Final Cut, circa 2000

Which is to say that the 21st Century experience of Michelangelo’s ceiling is different from that of the 19th, when the paintings were obscured by three centuries of candle-smoke and the like. And so with Blade Runner: in twelve years time, when it’s actually November 2019. undoubtedly this version of the film will be playing in theatres, and I most likely will find myself in front of the big screen once again, remembering both the time in 2007 when I saw it and the Halifax of twenty one years before. And if the film then still has any currency with the twenty-somethings of that world, what will their experience be of a quaint steam-punk movie depicting questionable dating practices (a forty something throwing a 20 year old girl up against the wall and telling her to say ‘kiss me’, followed the next day with a ‘do you love me?’ question), congested public spaces filled with cigarette smoke, and a level of visual detail lost on the earliest versions of the movie? Will copies of the original voice-over narrated film still be watched, or as ignored as the as murky as the reproductions of the Sistine Ceiling made in the 1960s? Treated, if anything, as historical curiosities, but not invitations to historical experience.

My sense is that Blade Runner is one of those rare works of art which is a master piece despite everything. One feels watching this that no one involved in the actual production had any idea they were making a masterpiece, and watching in straight through as I did, with the scenes visually clarified to highlight how they work together gives one the sense that the plot is kind of weak, in some places (as mentioned above with the romantic scenes) nonsensical, and that this film continues to work for the special effects alone. (It’s a silent movie originally provided with two voice-overs and now only one remains. Blade Runner is probably worth watching with Vangelis’ soundtrack alone). As a masterpiece it gets away from all intentions of its creators and that is one of the reasons it rewards viewing. No one knew what the fuck was going on with it or why, but it just works.

I’m reminded here of Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘story telling problem‘: that when we are confronted with something new we may not have ready-at-hand language to describe how we think about it or how it makes us feel. This in turn can cause us to make simplistic decisions rather than go with more ambiguous and complicated ones. This is how I understand the motivation for the first version’s voice-over narration. It was felt that the film needed some language to orient the viewer. But because this movie is so much about it’s visuals, it should be thought of as a form of animated narrative painting, for which language is not necessary.

So why then record my thoughts on it as I have? Because when I come home from seeing it on the big screen again in November 2019, I’ll want to read this record of what I thought of seeing it in 2007. And for that matter, I might as well share.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut will be released on DVD (in a 2-disc or 5 disc set) on December 18th.

Book Review: Children of Men by P.D. James

by timothy. 0 Comments

Children of Men
The Children of Men | P.D. James (1992)
In anticipation of the upcoming release of the movie, I picked this up last week and am glad to say it is giving away little about the plot, since the film is only loosely based on the book. But, whatev, I’m looking for some broad narrative perspective on the prospect of a world without children and without hope, and without a reason to do anything with posterity in mind. Notable: in the book, it’s the men who become infertile; in the movie, it’s the women. I’m anticipating the movie will be better: it already looks depressingly realistic Also notable: a blatant exposition on the lack of posterity reveals how much we do care about it in the present day, even though it’s not entirely conscious. Why have museums, galleries, libraries? Why sweep empty churches or vacuum office buildings? Because we expect these things to last beyond ourselves; in many cases we maintain so that we can pass along (ie, sell five year old laptops) but in all cases we are anticipating a future.

Art Review: Zin Taylor's 'Put your eye in your mouth'

by timothy. 0 Comments

As noted, I’m beginning specific postings of reviews, beginning with previous GR reviews. This is from GR 07w11:1. – Timothy

The work of Zin Taylor could be accused of inspiring more jealousy than admiration. Consider the facts as they appear: part of the Guelph university educated elite clique, he gets to be in show after show in prestigious galleries with work that is sometimes weak (the piece at The Power Plant in 2005 for example) and Taylor’s continual presence in the Toronto art scene PR seems to be attempting to break the record established by Derek Sullivan. Both artists appear to have been elevated to that collection of what seems like the less than ten artists who are overexposed in Toronto and who are continually asked to ‘represent’ this city of millions to others and to itself.

And so it was with ambivalence that I went down to the YYZ opening on Friday night; a chance to drink beer, be social, see some people I like to talk to and consider friends, and be ignored by those who used to say hi to me but now just think I’m an asshole or something. I wasn’t at all expecting Taylor’s video to win me over as it did, and it is now on my highly recommended list.

And yet, my appreciation for this work was based on my ignorance of its subject matter. I recall seeing years ago the call for submissions from the Yukon asking for artists to come on up and be inspired. I also recall hearing that Allyson and Zin, two artists I’d recently met through a friend, had been chosen to go. And so I knew over the past few years that Allyson and Zin had a connection to the Yukon and that they were making work about it.

With Put your eye in your mouth (which a friend suggested meant ‘digest what you see’) Zin has made a sort of fake documentary on a fake thing: Martin Kippenberger’s metro-net station in Dawson City. Now, my ignorance here was based on being familiar with Kippenberger’s name but not his work, so when watching the video, I thought Zin had seen this structure and made up an elaborate history for it, tying it to some art-star’s name in order to get in the trendy props to the masters. Turns out the Metro-Net was legit (also here), and yet this only diminishes by a bit the overall video, which is still fantastic. It is this type of elaborated imagination that I want to experience with art, and in as much that conceptual art usually goes for obscure one-liner cleverness, I hate it for its denial of the imagination. Now, considering Taylor’s background from Canada’s new conceptual It-School, I suppose I can say he’s showing that you can be both conceptual and imaginative, and the product is better for it.

Art Review: Darren O'Donnell at CCL1

by timothy. 2 Comments

This is reposted from Goodreads 07w11:1. – Timothy

Darren O’Donnell at CCL1

Darren O’Donnell’s work over the past couple of years has been fantastic. His Suicide Site Guide to the City wowed me when I saw it in 2005, and apparently this was because of the ignorance mentioned above, as Kamal Al-Solaylee wrote in his review at the time ‘…only audiences who haven’t been to the theatre in say, a few decades, are expected to be dazzled by the presentation’. I admitted in my review that I was one of such an audience. Yet, how could we not appreciate Haircuts by Children or Ballroom Dancing for Nuit Blanche?

In an arts scene riven by competition and jealousies, Darren’s work is something that we all seem to appreciate without such pettiness. I recently attended the latest production from his theatre company, Diplomatic Immunities: THE END and was genuinely touched: Ulysses Castellanos singing Queen’s `We are the Champions` at the end of the show almost made me cry. This was the song voted on by children at a local school to be that which they wanted to hear at the End of the World. (My vote at the present time is either The Beatles’ `Tomorrow Never Knows` or `Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)` and as I listen to them nowadays I imagine it playing over the footage of this video.)

But what is it about Darren’s work along these lines that is so generally fantastic? For me it highlights what is perhaps a greater shift in our culture, which is a movement toward an interest in ‘real life’ (and to that end, reality-tv represents this transition, by using non-actors but still tying them to some sort of narrative structure). The work of Darren’s theatre troupe, Mammalian Diving Reflex, forgoes an explicit narrative structure and seemingly let’s that emerge on it’s own.

Here, I’m most inspired by a snippet of dialogue from a Star Trek show. In the Enterprise episode ‘Dear Doctor’ which first aired in January 2002, there’s a scene depicting movie-night on the starship; while watching ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ a 1943 film being shown in that time-frame of 209 years from its creation, the character Ensign Cutler asks the alien Doctor Phlox, ‘They don’t have movies where you come from do they?’ He replied, ‘We had something similar a few hundred years ago, but they lost their appeal when people discovered their real lives were more interesting’.

Now, imagine living on Phlox’s planet during that time of transition, when people were discovering their own lives were more interesting. Wouldn’t that time resemble our own, with diminishing box office returns, reality-tv programing undermining celebrity culture, a global communications network allowing for unedited dialogue within varying degrees of privacy, and the rise of the documentary genre in popularity?

This statement was typed out initially by a scriptwriter in Los Angeles at the beginning of this decade and perhaps was meant both as an inside joke to Star Trek’s fanbase (Shatner’s ‘Get a Life‘ skit from his 1986 appearance on Saturday Night Live) and reflecting the concern of Hollywood that they would lose their market. Three years later, Enterprise was cancelled, the only franchise since its resurrection twenty years ago to not last through seven seasons.

Leaving DI: The End four weeks ago I was convinced that our own lives were definitely more interesting. The performance incorporated an element of chance in its selection of two audience members during the course of the evening for interviews by the cast and attendees; on the night I was there, I was stunned by the answers given by the second girl chosen, who told us of saving the life of one of her friends during a climbing accident years before. Also, when asked a question along the lines of ‘why are we here’ she gave such an unexpectedly Buddhist/Eastern Tradition answer that I found myself saying ‘wow’.

The point made for me was that this girl, who had simply been someone sitting in the aisle in front of me, had a much more dramatic world inside her than anything I’m ever offered by fictional constructions, and I took this knowledge onto the street, walking with my companion who was someone new in my life and hence still full of mystery, and saw everyone around me with a new appreciation for our variety, our potential, and of the unknown masterpieces of real life.

This past Thursday, I attended Darren’s opening at The Centre of Leisure and Culture No. 1, Video Show for the People of Pakistan and India which consists of an approximately twenty-minute video and chapbooks of the blog Darren kept while on tour in Pakistan and India late last year. I’ve prompted Darren to place this video online eventually, and if and when that happens I’ll follow through with the link.

At the time of Darren’s trip, I was moved to contact CBC’s The Current because I’d recently heard an interview (begins at 7:45min) with the 24 year old Afghani woman Mehria Azizi who was doing a tour through Canada showing a documentary she’d made about women’s lives in her homeland. This had been one of the more insightful things I’d been exposed to with regard to this part of the world. I imagined Anna Maria Tremonti asking Darren about his conversation with Mike the soldier on the plane, or asking for stories from Darren’s experience with the humanity of these people. I figured it would have fit into The Current’s mandate as I understood it: to educate, to inform, to bring us perspective. Darren’s work deserved this national audience. There was a bit of a followup from someone who was going to forward the info to a producer but in the end nothing came of it. Meanwhile, due to the unreliableness of the CBC’s internet stream, and what I see as too much focus on Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan, I’ve avoided listening to The Current at work for the past couple of months, preferring instead France Culture or the BBC. I did catch the broadcast the other day of their self-flagellation on under and mis-reporting the story of Global Warming. Anna Maria was somewhat bothered by a statement of one of the scientists: ‘never underestimate the illiteracy of reporters’.

The following morning, (that of March 9th) the CBC included in its news roundup the visit by Canada’s Governor General to the troops in Afghanistan, and there was something said about ‘putting a human face’ on the story (mov and realmedia). What’s unfortunate is that Michaëlle Jean, who in the past has seemed an intelligent, well informed woman, was responsible for the stupidest statements in the report. ‘There’s no future without women …’. No shit. But perhaps the real fault lies with the editors of the video, or the fact that she used to be a reporter.

The evening before I’d been to Darren’s show to see the Pakistan video, the talk of putting a human face struck me as more this meaningless political rhetoric. Why are all these human faces those from Canada? Where do we ever see the human faces of the people we’re supposedly helping? How is their humanity ever brought to our attention? The fact that Darren could undermine the agenda of Canada’s national broadcaster with a 20 minute video perhaps suggests just how under-served we are by photo-ops, predictable rhetoric, focus on soldiers, and all the other regular bullshit. My understanding of the situation and of the people involved has been greatly enhanced by Darren’s first-person and personal reporting and the fact that the CBC found him fit only for their hipster-oriented Definitely Not the Opera kind of suggests how little they take his work seriously … something silly for the kids right?

Book Review: Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey

by timothy. 0 Comments

I’m beginning special postings for book and other reviews, and starting by reposting previous considerations. This is from GR 07w04:1 – Timothy

Mr. Mee by Andrew Crumey (2000)

The truth is I wanted to publish a review of Mr. Mee in the summer of 2005, and it is a novel I read in the summer of 2004, but obviously didn’t get around to it until now. Mr. Mee is a novel of three story-lines, with two of the major players being Rousseau and Proust; Rousseau as a character, and Proust as an idea. It is set a decade ago, in 1997, during the early years of the internet – which is an important element to the fiction. The eponymous character of Mr. Mee is a retired, naive academic who buys a computer in order to use the nascent World Wide Web to try and track down an obscure book. In a Borgesian allusion, Rosier’s Encyclopaedia has been referenced in the bibliography of a book he brought home from a leisurely afternoon at the used bookstore.

Andrew Crumey shifts the scene to tell us more about the Encyclopaedia by bringing us back to 18th Century Paris, and introducing us to two characters, Ferrand and Minard, two down-on-their-luck copyists who are commissioned to copy a bunch of nutty writings by a Mr. Rosier. F & M are named after two people who Rousseau wrote about in his autobiography, and Crumey’s speculation on their backstory, and its consequences were outstanding. This novel is simply intellectually delightful in that regard. Perhaps they had something to do with Rouseau’s famed paranoia? Maybe they thought Rousseau a murderer? And perhaps their paranoia was fueled by their work fair-copying this work of an 18th Century genius who’d thought up 20th Century quantum physics and binary computers in 18th Century terms? (One of my favorite parts of the book describes Minard’s construction of a digital-binary computer out of string and bits of paper, and he is heard to complain about needing more memory. It seems that even in the 1760s, it was desirable to have more RAM).

In the 1990s, a professor lies in a hospital bed, contemplating his life over the past several months, and the possibility of his death. He had been a professor of Proust, and had come to teach this work of autobiographical literature after an adolescent infatuation with the work of Rousseau. And so, as he writes his memoir, he reflects both on Rousseau and on Proust. This is the tour-de-force of the novel. I found this the most satisfying, and appreciated it’s intricate subtleties. The professor comes across as just another dime-a-dozen mediocre academic who live their quotidian lives a students and commentators of past human achievement. The Proust-bug has not yet bitten me, and it was here I learned of how Proust described his magnum opus as being ‘about an I who isn’t I’. The introduction of this thought in the professor’s memoir raises the question of how much of his text is about an I that isn’t he. The overall impression is that, faced with impending death, Dr. Petrie has at last given it a try, written his work of autobiography about and I who isn’t I, inspired by his mastery of knowledge of these two masters of the art. Dr. Petrie ignores whatever sense of failure that has brought him to this point – the broken heart, his cancer, the sense that it was his attempt to initiate an affair with a student which brought on the illness. Instead of being cowed by a sense of mediocrity in comparison to his literary heroes, he gives it a go and in so doing constructs a literature of the self. The added poignancy comes from the embarrassed recounting of the infatuation which he blames for the illness out of a sort of hubris, and it is perhaps through this honest memory that his work becomes literary and becomes the final accomplishment of his life.

And perhaps here it is worth remembering that a year ago, James Frey was in the news for his book of autobiography, and it should be an embarrassment to anyone who claims to run a book club to not understand the need to embellish, to lie, to cheat the details as (what used to be called in a more literate age) poetic license.

Crumey’s skill is seen in his ability to weave together the tale of naive Mr. Mee, the octogenarian centre of the story, with the dying professor and the story of Rouseau’s Minard and Ferrand, and in the process, imagine 20th Century theoretical physics in 18th Century terms, remind us of what the internet was like a decade ago, muse on human foibles and the nature of autobiographical literature. Perhaps an even more central thesis to the story is that consciousness comes from writing, or at least, from the type of contextualization of memory that can come from writing. If we are not telling the story, than it didn’t really have to happen. Ultimately it ties into the nature of memory in our lives and the nature of identity as a narrated self.

Mr. Mee on

As I Was Saying to Rousseau … | Hilary Mantel
April 2001 Review of Mr. Mee in the New York Times

The segments from Rousseau’s Confessions on which
the Ferrand-Minard chapters of Mr. Mee are based

And finally, you might remember last week I noted I was working on a website that I wasn’t yet ready to promote. I now am. After several years of hosting my artistic/narcissistic portfolio first as a subsite of Instant Coffee, and than as a subsite of Goodreads, I now have a dedicated eponymous url: expect the visitor-stats to be low and the blog comments to continue to be nil, yet perhaps it is a way – or simply my way – to construct something about an I who isn’t I in the 21st Century.

06w44:1 The Language of Quotation

by timothy. 3 Comments

‘When the individual has reached a hundred years of age, he is able to do without love and friendship. Illness and inadvertent death are not things to be feared. He practices one of the arts, or philosophy or mathematics, or plays a game of one-handed chess. When he wishes, he kills himself. When a man is the master of his own life, he is also the master of his death.’
‘Is that a quotation?’ I asked.
‘Of course. There is nothing but quotations left for us. Our language is a system of quotations’.

-Jorge Luis Borges, A Weary Man’s Utopia (1975)

Somehow the world has become a mediocre comic book, as predictable as a Star Trek episode. I grew up watching Star Trek and still love it for its graphic design, but it was never embarrassed about cannibalizing from its past storylines, and eventually it got so bad that ten minutes into an episode you could anticipate the entire plot-line. But this is an effect not confined to a show like Star Trek, it is true of almost anything on television. I was surprised when I read Chapter 18 of John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards earlier this year in the way he blended his view of art history and it’s failure to adequately resolve itself to television, which he saw as the logical conclusion of centuries of attempts at realistic image making. Image making, he thought, is tied to our desires for rituals. And TV combines animated images with ritual plot-lines, as predictable to contemporary viewers as those reciting along with a priest as he holds up the host. As he wrote:

People are drawn to television as they are to religions by the knowledge that they will find there what they already know. Reassurance is consistency and consistency is repetition. Television – both drama and public affairs – consists largely of stylized popular mythology in which there are certain obligatory characters who must say and do certain things in a particular order. After watching the first minute of any television drama, most viewers could lay out the scenario that will follow, including the conclusion. Given the first line of banter in most scenes, a regular viewer could probably rhyme off the next three or four lines. Nothing can be more formal, stylized and dogmatic than a third-rate situation comedy or a television news report on famine in Africa. There is more flexibility in a Catholic mass or in classic Chinese opera.

He went on to say, and I think this is a kicker given how it was probably written in the 1980s:

The rise of CNN (Cable News Network) canonizes the television view of reality as concrete, action-packed visuals. Wars make good television, providing the action is accessible and prolonged. The Middle East, for example, is an ideal setting for television war. Cameras can be permanently on the spot, and a fixed scenario of weekly car bombs, riots and shelling ensures that the television structure will have ongoing material.

(It makes Steven Colbert’s joke about this past summer’s Israel-Lebanese war more than just a joke but a perfectly conscious reflection of the reality of the situation). In addition, the violence on television reflects a long Western tradition in depicting violence, seen in graphic mediaeval crucifixions and the tortured damned we are familiar with from those seemingly unenlightened times.

But from the enlightened times we got Goya’s image, the sleep of reason producing monsters. As Mark Kingwell points out in his essay ‘Critical Theory and Its Discontents’ the image’s caption can be read two ways, as either ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’ or ‘the dream of reason produces monsters’.1 John Ralston Saul, with Voltaire’s Bastards took the later interpretation for his thesis. But the experience of this decade is one of the first reading: the thoughtlessness of the times producing predictable nightmares.


Everything has gotten so insane that peace and quiet and non-interaction certainly has a lot more appeal. No need to answer the same old questions about how I am, which are rhetorical and meaningless, no need to tell the same boring stories about myself or the state of my life, no need to feel the peer pressure of conforming to someone else’s idea of who I am, who I should be, or how I should be. It is better in this decade to withdraw and watch operas on DVD (Wagner’s The Ring), or famous TV shows (Battlestar Gallactica is like such a masterpiece); and to avoid browsing websites too much because it just seems to add to the sense that everything has gone to bullshit, as MacLeans seems to think as well. So I missed the whole beauty video thing until the day before I saw it on the front page of the Toronto Star, and as I’ve been adjusting over the past month to a 6.30am wake up time to become a ‘corporate minion of patriarchy’ (my Halloween costume) I’m not so eager to go a’gathering for goodreads. I’ve been warning you all for months now that this project isn’t what it used to be, and that will continue to be true in the future. This list began small enough that I knew my audience – drank and laughed with some of you in the past – but now has become anonymous and my motivations for doing it continue to be some sick sense of responsibility to do my part to inform whoever might come a’googlin. I should be much more selfish and egotistical to fit in properly I know. But my work on the web in the past has come from a desire to document, and at this time I would like to use this list to promote and to document for whatever that’s worth.

Death of a President was released in North America on Friday, and it probably won’t be in theatres for long. Not that it matters, because it will attain a deserved cult-status on DVD or streamed from wherever. First of all, having never seen George W. Bush in person he has always been nothing but an animated image to me. Real through portrayal and the delusion of the animated image, and so fitting, I think, to see that image manipulated into another version of a potential reality borrowed from many months from now. The skill of the digital effects became apparent very quickly; ten minutes into it I recognized it as a masterpiece, a shockingly effective use of Photoshop-like tech, and a devastating commentary on current global-american-centric-politics. I mean, what other President of the United States has inspired a fictional yet realistic depiction of his assassination while still in office to the extant that the film is presented as an historical documentary on the subject?This blending of time – watching images from a future, depicting an event from a year from now, presented as some bleeding-heart leftist documentary typically shown on CBC Newsworld on Sunday nights, twists itself into the cold water blast of just how stupid everything has gotten (given how the movie is built out of the current media clichés, from the dialogue right up the structure) but also how we’re caught up in a television dream dictating reality to us. The film hits all the right points, with an eerie accuracy, from the deluded missus posing as Bush’s speechwriter saying how he was somehow connected to God, to the political backdrop of North Korea and Iran. The speeches have been written and the players have taken to the stage and Shakespeare’s famous line has never seemed more true.And for that reason, for the sheer fictionalization of our reality, this moment in later history which seems real because it is on TV, real through portrayal, this film will also be must-see viewing for Presidential historians, both present and future. I am compelled to write about it now, to time-stamp this text with the current date, so that there is evidence to future researchers that this movie came out a year before the October 2007 events that it depicts. I would like to think that this movie will still be watched in future years, long after the Bush administration; as a sociological study of this decade, a study in documentary narrative, as an art film, and as an historical marker of the transformative power of Photoshop-like effects. I got a glismpe watching this movie of the media-scape of the upcoming century and felt future-shock. Nuanced political discourse through fictional history, which only highlights our current confusion between memory and thought. This film is cultural evidence that we can only seem to think through the ‘hindsight is always 20/20’ trope, and that retrospective documentaries have become so prevalent in the age of the self-absorbed baby-boomer-at-the-controls-of-everything (and hence a narcissistic mediascape on their politics, youth, and classic album collections) that it’s only fitting to examine a presidency’s attack on civil liberties through the genre.The CBS Sunday Morning program had a piece on Oct 29 on the beauty video and Photoshop – explaining what young creative people take for granted to the old foggies who watch that sentimental sunday morning sunshine stuff. And the key is what young people are taking for granted versus what the old foggies running the show have in their minds about our future. An older person close to me the other day posited that I might live long enough to see one of Toronto’s main traffic arteries – the Don Valley Parkway – turned into a double-decker highway. As if allowing for more greenhouse gas emitting machines would be an adequate solution to our traffic problems, a vision completely oblivious to environmental concerns. I countered I’d much rather see a better public transit infrastructure built. But of course, I understand where this idea comes from. It’s classic ‘cars are a great and my identity as a man is tied to the sense of freedom they bring me and the teenage sense of fuck you I never got over’. It’s the same mid-twentieth century mentality that you get from politicians when they promote the need for more people to study math and science, because not only is there a space race and we have to prove that consumerist democracy rocks, but because we need all those future engineers to retro-fit these highways into double-decker monstrosities. Ah these old people: it’s enough to wish them all dead, or at least look forward to the future when they’ve left the scene and we can build the world into something more fair and beautiful. They all gave up after Bobby was assassinated, and you can watch all about it on November 23rd. What a contrast. We’re in a situation when eloquent and visionary politicians are now part of a dreamy past, while our present is made up of inarticulate war-mongering folks notable for their lack of vision. That doesn’t seem to me a sign of a healthy state of affairs.

Wishing a certain old-foggie dead is precisely what director Gabriel Range has tapped into. I saw it at a 3:50 matinee with four other people. That is to say, I went alone and there were only three other people in the audience. I’m not sure if that’s worthy of mention – seeing late afternoon matinees on Sunday afternoons isn’t popular enough to be stereotypical. But it also contributed to the feeling that I was watching a secret masterpiece living up to art’s typical response from consumerist culture. They were told to not watch it by the media who readily quoted the likes of Hillary Clinton who thought it was ‘despicable‘. It fits into the thoughts I’ve had lately about Hitler’s famous degenerate art show: Hitler, as John Carey pointed out in his 2005 book What Good are the Arts? was being populist with that exhibit, selling the public their own prejudices toward modern art. But there is a theory about how art is a psychological reflection of the zeitgeist, capturing the spirit of the age, and it seems to be ironic that Hitler, in promoting this to mock it, provided an historical marker for modernist art and highlighted the degeneracy of the society which legitimately elected him in 1933. It was degenerate art made within a degenerate society and Hitler unwittingly held up a mirror thinking it a spotlight. Whenever politicians start making pronouncements on cultural products, one has to think something significant is going on which will need explaining to future generations: that it is an art historical moment.

We’re supposed to all know the game. It’s what makes a film like Death of President possible: string together all the tv documentary clichés for an audience made sophisticated enough by an ambient televised environment to not be confused by the fiction. But of course I say that as someone who saw it with four other people, a film which as far as box-office measures go, did not exist, and as someone with the capacity to reflect on what I saw. As I walked out of the theatre I heard the terrified screams coming from the next theatre-room, looking back I saw the poster for Saw III. Of course Geogre Bush is President in a time when watching violence is what enough people want to do to make it the top film this weekend. You might point out a horror movie is appropriate for Halloween, but Halloween is only appropriate for children. The popularity of violence in whatever manner just highlights our collective immaturity and our inability to grow beyond a mediaeval past, as Bush’s recent moves toward the elimination of habeas corpus show.

JRS wrote: ‘This perpetual motion machine works effortlessly if the flood of images illustrates situations the viewer already understands. That is one of the explanations for the system’s concentration on two or three wars when there are forty or so going on around the world. The others are eliminated because they are less accessible on a long-term basis. Or because the action is less predictable and regular. Or because the issue involved does not fit easily into the West’s over-explained, childlike scenarios of Left versus Right or black versus white. Or because the need for endless images makes television structures unwilling to undertake the endless verbal explanations and nonvisual updates which would be required for the other thirty-seven wars to be regularly presented.’ This was first published in 1992. In the time between now and then, nothing has changed. While the audience have grown more sophisticated, so has television’s methods at keeping the conversation simple. But for me, there is another question, and that is, why? Why is any of this important? Ritual? That alone seems too simple an explanation. I watch TV for the illusion of company and for the occasional good, or big idea.

What is television for? Some will say it’s merely to get us to buy things, but others will say it is to inform. But are we being informed or frustrated? Isn’t anything political on television simply a way of frustrating a democratic citizenship into feelings of impotence when faced with such inane political figures? And isn’t it this sense of frustration precisely what leads to the events depicted in Death of a President? That’s not something you’d get with an uninformed populace, nor perhaps one you’d get if the political machinery actually could register the democratic will of the population. We remain dictated to, told what to think about movies by Hillary Clinton or whatever expert they got hold of at the local university.

I first read Borges’ story, A Weary Man’s Utopia in the winter of 2001 following you know what, when the shit had hit the fan and all the flags were flying. It is the story of a man’s afternoon visit with a fellow in a far distant future. He tells the the fellow

‘In that strange yesterday from which I have come,’ I replied, ‘there prevailed the superstition that between one evening and the next morning, events occur that it would be shameful to have no knowledge of. The planet was peopled by spectral collectives – Canada, Brazil, the Swiss Congo, the Common Market. Almost no one knew the prior history of those Platonic entities, yet everyone was informed of the most trivial details of the latest conference of pedagogues or the imminent breaking off relations between one of these entities and another and the messages that their presidents sent back and forth – composed by a secretary to the secretary, and in the prudent vagueness that the form requires. All this was no sooner read than forgotten, for within a few hours it would be blotted out by new trivialities. Of all functions, that of the politician was without doubt the most public. An ambassador or a minister was a sort of cripple who had to be transported in long, noisy vehicles surrounded by motorcyclists and grenadiers and stalked by eager photographers. One would have thought their feet had been cut off, my mother used to say. Images and the printed word were more real than things. People believed only want they could read on the printed page. The principle, means and end of our singular conception of the world was esse est percipi – “to be is to be portrayed”. In the past I lived in, people were credulous.

I would like to think that in the years since it was published in 1975, people have become less credulous. But the forms of these popular delusions have only aggregated more nuance, so that things are not only read, but heard and seen, and people believe what they read on screens. Or at least the old foggies who are freaked out by Wikipedia seem to think so, severely underestimating the capacities of people to understand the collective nature of the site.

As for politicians being cripples: I recently saw a motorcade come up University Avenue in Toronto and turn onto Queen St – first the chorus of motorbike cops, lead by someone who parked in the center of the intersection, leaping off to perform his ritual in the same manner a parodist would: exaggerated self importance as he held the traffic back, like a romantic hero confronting a tide, and along came the parade of black cars with their two-wheeler escorts. Who was this asshole? I thought. Some celebrity? I still don’t know, although I later heard the Prime Minister was in town. Perhaps it was him. But it seems to me that to parade around in black cars with tinted windows reveals a foolish paranoia: they all think they’re important enough to be assassinated and so hide from us as if we’re all crazy, showing a contempt for the citizenry which is unfair. Leaders shouldn’t hide from us and treat us as if we’re dangerous. But ironically that’s precisely the type of behaviour that leads to the protests they need to be protected from. – Timothy


1. The essay is found in the book Practical Judgments pages 171-181 and the quote is itself a quote from one of the books he’s reviewing; the orginal thought is attributed to the introduction by David Couzens Hoy and Thomas McCarthy in their 1994 book, Critical Theory.

Death of a President | Official Film Site

Death of a President | Wikipedia

CNN, NPR turn down ads for Death of a President | CBC

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emailed by Timothy on Monday 30 October 2006 @ 10:39 PM