Friday, December 31, 2021

Year's End

My door to the outside is mostly glass and allows a view from my reading chair (not quite the view above). The view this week was mostly snow, though there were more chickadees than usual. After the last snowfall (over 20 cms on Wednesday night) I hauled out the sack of bird seed I purchased last summer and set up a feeding station (in the middle of the yard, pictured above). 

It took about twenty minutes for the chickadees to muster the trust to land at my station. Or maybe they were negotiating with each other as to who goes first, second, third ... -- the proverbial pecking order. Eventually the first chickadee landed, and it stood there for the longest time -- not feeding. After a few jerky pecks it flew off and was followed but a second, a third ... 

-- until out of nowhere came this flicker, all wings and colour and relatively huge. I opened the door and off it went. I watched for an hour, and it never came back. I counted 26 chickadees in that hour. Or maybe it was the same three chickadees, taking turns.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Daybook: the Journal of an Artist (1982)

After stopping into Pulp Fiction yesterday ("Do you have the Highsmith dairies in paper yet?" CB: "It's barely out in cloth, and publishing being what it is, there's no guarantee of a paperback"), I popped into the Sally Anne on 12th where I found a DVD of that 2005 Enron documentary (Hmm, Mark Cuban was a Co-Exec on this), a DVD of John Sayles's 2002 Sunshine State (private developers attempt to buy up a Florida resort island from its longtime residents) and three books: J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy (2016), Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005) and Anne Truitt's Daybook: the Journal of an Artist (1982).

I had heard of the first two books, but the third was new to me. Blurbed as "[a] remarkable record of a woman's reconciliation of art, motherhood, memories of childhood and present day demands," it is, more metrically, a year-long diary of daily entries started after Truitt's two retrospective exhibitions (one at the Whitney, in December 1973; the other at the Corcoran, in April 1974), and begins with this realization:

"The works stood clear, each in its own space, intact. I myself who, the longer and the more intensely we worked, failed to stand clear. I felt crazed, as china is crazed, with many fissures. It slowly dawned on me that the more visible my work became, the less visible I grew to myself. In a deeply unsettling realization, I began to see that I had used the process of art not only to contain my intensities but also to exorcise those beyond my endurance, and must have done so with haste akin to panic, for it was a kind of panic I felt when once again inexorably confronted by my own work. Confronted, actually, by the reactivations of feelings I had thought to get rid of forever, now so objectified that I felt myself brutalized by them, defenceless because I had depended on objectification for defence." (4)

I wonder what an art therapist would make of Truitt's confession. After all, isn't art therapy interested in the art-making process as way to sort out the maker's personal problems? Surely it's more than that. I will send the passage to a friend whose co-vivant is an art therapist, see what safeguards art therapists have on hand to keep the art and the artist what? -- unified?

Poking out of the book is a mint condition bookmark from the Vancouver Women's Bookstore Co-operative, when it was at 315 Cambie Street (1983-?).

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Selected Screenplays of Joan Didion

The picture above is from A Star Is Born (1976), Esther Hoffman's coming out performance at the American Indian Relief Fund concert. John Norman Howard Speedway was scheduled to perform in that spot, but Howard stopped the band after the first two bars to introduce Hoffman, who was not expecting to perform, though Hoffman's backup singers, the unfortunately named Oreos, were in on the surprise.

I have never seen the preceding A Star Is Born (1954), nor the 1937 version, for that matter, so I am not sure how much this scene borrows from its earlier writers (Moss Hart, Dorothy Parker, et al.) and how much was written by 1976 re-make writers Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne and director Frank Pierson. What we do know is that the "star" of the 1954 and 1937 versions was named Esther Blodgett (before adopting the stage name Vicki Lester), and that her mentor was singer-actor Norman Maine. Esther/Vicki's debut was not at the American Indian Relief Fund concert, but a musical in which both she and Maine appeared.

The 1976 version of A Star Is Born is not the first screenplay Didion co-wrote, nor the last. She and Dunne teamed up to write another old guy mentor/ambitious young woman (journalist) tale called Up Close & Personal (1996). Before that, an old guy (tor-)mentor/operatively ambivalent young woman (actor) tale based on Didion's novel, Play It As It Lays (1972), which you can watch here, in full.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Alexandria Quartet (1958-1960; 1962)

Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) is a writer who was always there. Not there to return to, or there to rescue me, but there in that great cacophony of early-to-mid-20th century English fiction. Yes, I would get to him one day -- after Stein, Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Beckett, Baldwin ....

For some reason I can recall the many occasions when Durrell's name came up, always with a stated appreciation of his genius and prose style, often in the name of "travel writing". Mostly it was women who mentioned him, writers like local "Giantesses" Judith Copithorne and Maxine Gadd. Marian Engel mentions him in Monodromos (1973; republished as One-Way Street), which had me wondering whether he was an influence. As Maxine once said, everyone was reading Durrell "back in the day," and Engel was in Cyprus in the early-1960s.

In late-November I found Durrell's 900 page The Alexandria Quartet in the curated book section of the BC SPCA Thrift Store. Like Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), Durrell's tetralogy tells a story from multiple points of view, with each carefully wrought -- if not exhausting -- sentence seemingly born from an afternoon's worth of musing. Presently I am on Page 54 of the first book, Justine (1958), on the heels of an impoverished Nick Caraway-like narrator as he is caught in the slipstream of 1930s bourgeois Alexandria, Egypt, carried along by his better-off friends (including Justine), while anchored to his Greek girlfriend, Melissa, with whom he lives, and cares for.

There is a paragraph on pages 46-47 that bears re-reading. According to Durrell's narrator,

"[t]here is a passage in one of Justine's diaries which comes to mind here. I translate it here because though it must have referred to incidents long preceding those which I have recounted yet nevertheless it almost exactly expresses the curiously ingrown quality of love which I have come to recognize as peculiar to the city rather than to ourselves. 'Idle' she writes 'to imagine falling in love as a correspondence of minds, thoughts; it is a simultaneuos firing of two spirits engaged in an autonomous act of growing up. And the sensation is of something having noiselessly exploded inside each of them. Around this event, dazed and preoccupied, the lover moves examining his or her own experience; her gratitude alone, stretching away towards a mistaken donor, creates the illusion that she communicates with her fellow, but this is false. The loved object is simply one that has shared an experience at the same moment of time, narcissistically; and the desire to be near the beloved object is at first not due to the idea of possessing it, but simply to let the two experiences compare themselves, like reflections in different mirrors. All this may precede the first look, kiss, or touch; precede ambition, pride or envy; precede the first declarations which mark the turning point -- for from here love degenerates into habit, possession, and back to loneliness.' How characteristic and how humourless a delineation of the magical gift; and yet how true ... of Justine!"

Monday, December 27, 2021

Excerpt from an Interview with the Poet Russell Thornton

The Ormsby Review publishes mostly book reviews, sometimes interviews. The passage below is from Russell Thornton (b. 1959), a North Vancouver-born poet who has travelled widely and is now living once more on the North Shore. On the occasion of his latest book, Answer to Blue (2021), he is asked, "How has B.C. been for you personally and creatively during the last two years of the pandemic?" and his reply entered my system like a Netflix synopsis. 

"My mother had been staying with us (two adults and two young kids) in a two-bedroom apartment for the ten months before the pandemic hit. She was dying of cancer. So I had been in a stressful situation for a while when the pandemic hit. Then my mother died. Then I was taken up with two jobs, one of which I now did at home, and having kids at home sitting at my computer doing their grade 2 and 6 schoolwork via Microsoft Teams (or was it Zoom?). I had to keep my son from constantly typing snarky comments to his classmates. I’d see my daughter listening to music, writing stories, doing art, and texting friends while pretending to pay attention to her teacher delivering the day’s math lesson on the screen. The nice thing was that for a period there, the streets were empty, and my kids and I went on walks every evening. Other than that little blessing, the first year of the pandemic was a tense, wrenching time for me, as it was for many, many people. When my kids got back to in-person instruction, there were several cases of Covid at their school. My usual worrywart parental concern increased, that’s for sure. I had to make sure an elderly aunt of mine, who lives on her own and whom I see every day, stayed isolated. I watched as the isolation advanced her into dementia. On the “creative” front, not much changed for me except my writing locales. I used to go to public libraries to try to write for an hour or so a day on weekdays. I did whatever reading I wanted to do in my car in increments while waiting to drive my kids home from school and activities. When the libraries (and shopping mall food courts) closed, I did both reading and scribbling in my car. The more kid transportation I had to do, the better for me, as it turned out!"

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Puddle Me This

On the solstice I posted a picture of a frozen puddle that I keep scrolling back to. I had never thought much of the picture-making potential of puddles, even after reading Kaja Silverman's book that argues why photography has been with us prior to the invention of the camera, but I do now.

A small depression filled with water produces an image of whatever enters its field. Once frozen, its surface is no longer reflective of what enters that field, but of the conditions (shifts in temperature, wind, etc.) that forms its contours. Not what the puddle is seeing, as Silverman emphasizes, but what, as the "vibrant matter" people suggest, it is feeling.

Until the 20th century, Art was concerned with the making and appreciation of physical objects (pantings and sculpture). Then, in the early years of that century, the re-assignment of purpose-built utilitarian objects as Art (the ready-made), and later, written instructions as and towards the making of an art object (conceptual art) or a gesture (performance art).

In the early-21st century it was recognized (formalized?) that human relationships form the basis of artistic activity ("relational aesthetics") and can manifest in extremes, from the affirmation/decoration of our world (false consciousness?) to a critique of unequal social relations (hetero-patriarchy, slavery, racism, colonialism, social class disparities, resource extraction...). 

In the mid-20th century, Adorno argued for the autonomous art object (art that is not in the service of humanist imperatives, but to be judged on its own terms, autonomously). More recently, scholars inspired by Kant have argued for objects that exist independent of human perception ("object-oriented ontology"), of which some indigenous artists (Tania Willard) have made art "with" and written ""on" (see Willard's excellent essay in Presentation House's Nanitch exhibition catalogue).

Looking once again at this frozen puddle I accept that its author might well be the Maker, but that's not the whole story. It is the eyes that Art, in all its histories, has given us that allow us to keep thinking about it, return to it, as we would return to a well on a hot summer's day.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Cheryl Siegel's Seasonal Tree

Former Vancouver Art Gallery librarian Cheryl Siegel was very helpful to me when I was researching Vancouver art and literature of the 60s, 70s and 80s, particularly written correspondence between VAG curators and artists. For those with historical imaginations who want to know why Jeff Wall did not participate in the VAG's 1983 re-opening Vancouver Art & Artists exhibition at the gallery's new location (the former Provincial Courthouse), book an appointment and ask to see his and Scott Watson's letters.

Cheryl is also the force behind what she calls a "seasonal tree" (above) made entirely of surplus books pulled for recycling. Before every Chanukah, Cheryl would set up the tree on a piece of red cloth on the reading table to the left of her desk (her left). I watched once as some potential donors were being toured through the gallery. When they saw the tree they fell silent and gathered to sit with it. I looked over at Cheryl, head down, working away. Just the faintest trace of a smile.

All the best to you and your family over the holidays, Cheryl!

Friday, December 24, 2021

Joan Didion (1934-2021)

Yesterday I heard that Joan Didion passed away. Kinda stopped me in my tracks. Yes, she was old (87), but she was other things too.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem (not necessarily a seasonal title) and The White Album (1979), published eleven years later, are great collections, while A Year of Magical Thinking (2005) laid bare certain things about the author that reminded me why it is sometimes best never to meet those whose art you admire. 

Maybe I will re-read her novel Play It As It Lays (1970) over the holidays. I remember not thinking much of it the first time around, though I think I understood what she was getting at with the construction/subtraction of her subject, something I was reminded of a couple years later when I read Lorrie Moore's short story "Willing" (1990).  

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Small Craft Advisory

It was only after reading Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of Bruce Chatwin that I understood why I appreciated his first book In Patagonia (1977) more than his other books combined: his editor, Susannah Clapp, went through it with him "line by line."

The relationship between writer and editor reared its beautiful head recently in an interview between David Ly and Jen Sookfong Lee in The /tEmz/Review. Ly asked: "What was the most difficult obstacle that you didn't expect, but overcame, while creating your first book of poetry?" To which Lee replied:

"Honestly, and I will sound like a dingus, but line breaks almost killed me. I am terrible at line breaks and organization in poetry in general. The irony is that when I write or edit fiction, I am a master at structure! But put a poem in front of me and ask me to restructure it, and I swear my brain turns to glue. If it weren't for Paul Vermeersch [the book's editor] gently guiding me along, and showing me what was possible, my poems would all exist as word-filled blobs."

The grab atop this post came from a writer whose first book Heart Berries: a Memoir (2016) I admire very much and am always giving as gifts, a writer whose first published works (that eventually became Heart Berries) first appeared as Fiction (recall the inverse: how James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, 2003, was published first as memoir, until Frey was outed -- for "lying").

My first response to Terese Marie Mailhot's fatigue with "prioritizing craft over humanity" is propositional and therefore closer to "craft": the false dichotomy that has "craft" and "humanity" at odds with each other. The replies to Mailhot's post are overwhelmingly supportive, with an emphasis on "the truth". But if "craft" is seen as interfering with the truth, as opposed to focusing it, or withholding it until it can be more effectively deployed, then what of Art?

It is the structure of James Frey's "lie" that held together the truth of mental illness, addiction and trauma -- those "million little pieces" that can overwhelm us, send us screaming naked through the streets and, as a result, to the psyche ward, if not prison. Stew is fine on certain days, but sometimes I want my meat, potatoes and vegetables cooked separately and plated in a way that allows me to appreciate them on their own, as well as in relation. If we are to have choices, we need options. That's what I learned in school, and why I will always encourage people to read -- and write -- widely.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Lust for Life (1956)

Vincent Minnelli's Lust for Life (1956) is the story of the artist Vincent Van Gogh, from his time at a Dutch seminary school (Van Gogh's father was a clergyman) to his death by a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a northwestern commune of Paris.

Van Gogh is played by American actor Kirk Douglas, whose performance is so gut-wrenching that I was tempted to call a crisis line. Not to make light of Van Gogh's pain -- he clearly had mental health issues (PTS from his parish work in a mining town?) -- but to speak with someone who, as in Al-Anon, understands what it is to be affected by those who suffer from mental health issues.

The grab up top is from the scene where an insensitive mob (Is there any other kind?) gather outside Van Gogh's house after hearing he cut off his ear(lobe). They insist on seeing him, and eventually Van Gogh comes to the window for a writhing.

So much is conveyed in Van Gogh's wordless waist-up dance. The only thing closest to it is Quasimodo peeking out of a cathedral window in the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. What Van Gogh is going through is the internal equivalent of Quasimodo's physical appearance. But poor Quasimodo -- all his life he has suffered on both sides of his body. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

The Mouth of Heaven

Apart from its pothole setting, freezings like this have gone on since time immemorial. That similar (ovoid) motifs were present in pre-contact Northwest Coast art only reminds us that Nature, as we know it, takes it cues from Art, and vice versa.

Imagine coming upon an image like this and cursing the gods for stealing your ideas. Because it's never one god at that point; it's a conspiracy of gods. They're in it together. How could they not be? The gods, wherever there are more than one of them, lack the omnipotence of the one god. Some who used gods in their spiritual practice clearly found it easier to manage the one all-knowing god, and so that god was born.

Ancient Rome had many gods, but the Jews had one god and so did the Muslims. Today, Catholic Romans have one god, along with a son (downloaded into Mary) and a pope who functions as that god's communications secretary. At some point in history one of these popes arranged for those skilled at rendering that which needed to be seen in order to be believed to fill ceilings with that god, as gendered.

The god that fills this pothole is many gods and no god. When it is freezing out, it is godless, and whatever is seen functions similarly to the rhythms that exist in and amongst every one of us -- our spirit(s), if you will. When it is not freezing, it reflects that which looks down on it. In drier conditions, whatever wind there is blows away the finer particles, exposing stones that sometimes stand as teeth. This, I am afraid, is the mouth of heaven.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Hello Doily

The symbol for snow is a doily. The doily above is by Ann Wanamaker and it is a "skull doily". I wondered why it is called that, because it doesn't look like something that clings to one's head, until I looked within it and saw eight skulls circling its centre. Ah, skulls -- more than one. For those driving to and from the Southern Interior this week, please be careful. My weather app shows doilies from Thursday to Monday.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

I remember seeing the trailer and feeling put off. Too much colour, too much exaggeration, too much Tintin. A word horny director once again tucking the tragedy of human life into a comic book. No, I will not be seeing this film. Maybe on a plane, but not in a theatre.

Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel was among an armful of recent purchases that have made their way into my hut. I watched it last night and, as per usual, took old school screen grabs of whatever I felt moved to write about.

Is there any point in describing the plot of this lightning quick, portrait-centric film? Okay, in a sentence: A celebrated hotel concierge from a tiny Balkan duchy travels to the capitol for the reading of a past lover's will, where he finds out (under protest by her family) that she bequeathed to him a "priceless" painting, which he takes off its wall and, during his return trip, is arrested for her murder, jailed, only to escape with the help of Zero, his lobby boy protege, and his concierge colleagues at other hotels, and returns to the Grand Budapest, where, after a gun fight, he is exonerated and, at a reading of the will's codicil, finds himself in possession of everything.

The grab up top was taken during the concierge's trip to the capitol. Soldiers have stopped the train and are asking passengers for their papers. What I saw in this shot is what is framed in the window of the concierge's compartment: not a gathering of soldiers, but a drawing by another quirkmeister, the artist Marcel Dzama.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Experience and Nature (1925)


Trying to to track down Adorno's passage about Art in the future going by a different name, or Art as we knew it being irrelevant, as the kids say today. Yet in all this pulling of books from shelves, the invariable second pile of Do-I-Need-This? books. Do I need Dewey's Experience and Nature? Not if I was weaned on the Frankfurt School, right? But in flipping through Experience I see a pragmatist with dialectical tendencies ("... all art is a process of making the world a different place in which to live, and involves a phase of protest and of compensatory response," 272), though I guess the difference here is at the level of function ("compensatory," like the Marshall Plan compensated those who, as Wallerstein says, lost the war to control the world economy, but remained integral to it), while the Marxist-trained Adorno was more attentive to conflict: that which can never be compensated for (Auschwitz); the hurt that is mined and from which new forms -- ghostly or otherwise -- emerge.

There is a spectre haunting the internet -- the spectre of grief. But is that it, or is grief blinding us from the underlying conditions that bring it into being? Is there anyone out there grieving the loss of modernism? How about democracy? Or is grief now reified into a condition in which its source is independent of (or irrelevant to?) those who have (empathetically) taken it on, adorned themselves in it, as one would a fashionable coat?

Grief is the ghost we make of our injuries, our losses. The ghost we walk with, talk with, the mask on our face, the sanitizer stinging our hangnails -- Hemingway's never worn baby shoes. (Simone Weil soaked in it.) Nietzsche and Foucault talk about the Enlightenment's end-stage as one of malaise, and this is something grief "inspires". Baudelaire notes this too; it's all over Paris Spleen (1869). What is the road out of grief that does't insist on our retention of that which returns us to our loss, as registered as disabling pain? (Is that not Weil's dilemma?) When was the last time you heard someone say, No pain, no gain. Or this one: Suck it up. These are fighting words by today's standards. Everyone I hear from is miserable. 

Friday, December 17, 2021

Rebecca (1940)


I keep her underwear on this side. They were made specially for her by the nuns in the convent of St Clare. 

A scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940). The new Mrs. De Winter is toured through the off-limits, kept-as-it-was bedroom of her predecessor, the first -- and late -- Mrs De Winter, by Manderley house mistress Miss Danvers

Rebecca would be a horror film if not for an ever-present musical score that attempts to regulate our emotions with overflowing dollops of glee. A horror in itself, but not a horror of Hitchcock's choosing. More likely the score was applied independent of him, by the film's backers. Anything but frighten 1940 movie-goers who had enough to be frightened of, what with German bombs falling on their cities and towns.

In a long ago post I mentioned Ms. Schwartz's ENGLISH 11: NOVEL class, where we read Hardy's the Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). The other novel in that class was Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938). An interesting decision to pair these two books. Hardy's novel is subtitled the Life and Death of a Man of Character, whom we follow from a drunken mistake he made at a roadside inn to his dying wish years later: that he be forgotten. In the un-subtitled Rebecca, we are given two characters to consider: the first is a "great woman" in the making (it was Simone de Beauvoir who once wrote: "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman"); the second is the unraveling of a "perfect" woman who we never meet, but over the course of the book and the film, are encouraged to despise.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

belle hooks (1952-2021)

Spike Lee's Girl 6 (1996) could be the American director's least known film, but writer and critic belle hooks, who passed away yesterday, tells us why it is arguably his most important.

Her essay on Girl 6 can be found in her collection Reel to Real: Race, Class and Sex at the Movies (1996), or you can watch hooks talk about it here, with supporting images.

Hard to imagine a world without belle hooks widening the dialogue, getting us out of our default tendency to take comfort in what we loathe for closer looks at what really ails us, and why. 

I hope the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards do the right thing at their upcoming ceremonies and pay tribute to this important -- and generative -- film scholar.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Silver Balls, Silver Balls -- Soon It Will Be Christmas Time

In the middle of the 2200 block of East 30th is a mid-90s-built house (done cheaply, in the Edwardian style), with a large silver ball in its front yard. On that ball is a reflection of what faces it, so it's hard to say it's not much to look at, unless the person doing the looking has self-esteem issues. 

How does it happen that a ball like this ends up in someone's yard? It is unlikely that the resident woke up one morning and thought, I would be happier if I had a six-foot-high metallic ball in my yard, and then went online to find one, purchase it and have it delivered just so. More likely the ball came available (an expendable film prop?), and the resident (who works in film?) said, I'll take it! because it is interesting, unusual, or it might be worth something some day. Strathcona, where many film workers live, is Vancouver's spent prop graveyard.

This morning I awoke from a dream that had me driving northwest on Kingsway, down the hill from Victoria, when I noticed a ball just like this one in my rearview mirror, gaining speed. An unsettling feeling because, although I was accelerating, the image on its surface kept getting larger.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Blade (1998)

Blade (1998) began as a comic book before its adaptation to feature film. It succeeds because it does not depart from the stiffness of the comic book page, allowing that stiffness to deflect any questions we might have concerning, for example, Karen's ability to immediately put behind her the savage attack on her neck (and that of her medical colleague) to follow Blade around, participate in the burning of Pearl, etc. Not so much what people do after they are bitten by vampires, but what they do after they begin their lives as characters in a comic book.

But all vampires are not created equal. Some, like Dragonetti (above, left) are born that way, and some, like Frost (above, right) are "turned" (bitten). Frost wants to summon the Blood God to bestow him with super powers, level the playing field for all vampires (himself exalted), while Dragonetti and his multicultural star chamber like things the way they are.

DRAGONETTI (to Frost): I was born a vampire, as was every other member of this house. You Frost, you were merely turned.

A few scenes later, the one who was turned (Frost) exposes the OG vampire (Dragonetti) to a sunrise, where he suffers a gruesome death-by-CGI. 

When Blade came out, reviewers were quick to draw parallels between vampirism and capitalism as practiced by feudal organizations like the Cosa Nostra, as well as late-capitalism, in the form of extractive corporations like Halliburton. The link between drug addiction and endentured sex work was also alluded to, with terms like "turned".

Watching Blade today, I am reminded of a tension that is all but overcome now, and that is the notion of the "halfbreed", who, as Métis writer Maria Campbell reminds us in her 1973 novel of the same name, can be rejected by both "halves", not to mention the State. Nowadays the most talked about tension concerning those who began life in one category before transitioning to other options is the debate between those who feel a man who transitions to a woman (from he to she or they) is not truly a woman but a man-who-became-a-woman, or trans woman. That this debate is taking place amongst highly evolved feminists speaks to how that discourse, too, is in transition. 

I'm not sure how many Blade sequels followed, but I am curious to know if this identitarian question of "born" vs "turned" persisted. Seems the question of "ascribed" vs "achieved" status has been with us a while now; indeed, it is among the first things I learned in my Anthropology 300A (Kinship) class -- the difference between consanguinial (blood) and affinal (marriage) relations. For some, blood quantum is important when it comes to self-identitificaton, for others, self-identification requires not only blood relations but recognition from those whom you say you are from. Seems vampires, too, have a lot to learn about who they are, though I question the extent by which some, such as Democrat-turned-Republican Donald J. Trump, are willing to take it.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Holiday Viewing

Between Boxing Day and New Year's Day. The only time of the year (over two years, actually) when Time takes a vacation. The day's a blink -- and it's night again. At 4:30pm.

Mood is Time's stand-in, and it plays its own tricks, ultimately (a finite concept, ultimately) discarding Time altogether, or leaving us asking how it could've gone so fast, or so slow. Point is it behaves differently -- during this time.

Clock-time has a finite history and you can time yourself to see how long it takes you to hunt it down online, until you're satisfied you know enough about it, or are freaked out by it -- enough that you've had enough of Time.

Every year between Boxing Day and New Year's Day I program a film festival for one that goes by no name other than the films I assemble from my collection. On one of these days -- what I think of as the festival's "creation day" -- are the three films made by David Lean between 1962-1970. They are Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Dr Zhivago (1965) and Ryan's Daughter (1970). 

The people to which these film titles refer are a sado-masochistic homosexual British Army officer, a polyamorous Russian doctor-poet and a spoiled Irish teenager who seduces and marries her former school teacher, only to fall for the leader of her country's occupying forces. All three films largely take place during the First World War (1914-1918). Lawrence and Zhivago are epics, Ryan's a pastoral. 

Like acts in an opera, these films form a master narrative that I continue to struggle with. And I enjoy the struggle. Especially on those darkest days of the years.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Pot Shots

I have yet to see the current Steven Shearer exhibition at the Polygon, though I did take a peek inside the gallery during the later stages of its installation and noted the works included and where they would be placed. From what I saw, this remains the art of an artist I have followed since the mid-1990s, only more so. Anyone interested in painting should see this show, for the paintings alone. A curious and unsettling mix of gothic, metallic and effete male forms "clothed" in the historic palette and brushwork of the late-19th century Symbolists. 

In addition to the Globe's grudgingly positive review, the exhibition has garnered at least two more local reviews, one by Yani Kong at Galleries West, the other by Dorothy Woodend at The Tyee. These reviews, too, are grudgingly positive, with Kong concluding hers by asking if Shearer's pantings, sculptures and collages are relevant, particularly when compared to "some of the world's most relevant artists" included in the Polygon's previous Interior Infinite show, a comparison that, though intended as a compliment, does a disservice to its curator Justin Ramsay by limiting his accomplishment ("an astute reflection on race, gender and identity") to his selection and inclusion of artists without saying anything of the work that was, to put it crudely, there to represent them, to say nothing of how their work was configured and contextualized.

As for Woodend, she opens her review with a sentence ("Sometimes you can look at a work of art and appreciate the skill, concept and execution, and still not like it very much") that speaks more to personal taste than to the work at hand, a decision that refocuses the review on the critic as a computational apparatus enslaved by today's most common (relevant?) criterion of judgement: the binary like|dislike. While I too find myself repulsed by what Woodend refers to as "dude culture," I remain interested in my repulsions. Not at the dismissive level of like|dislike, but by what should follow from it. I had a similar experience recently while watching the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, simply to track variance amongst that automatonic, subservient, soldiering mob known as the Orks, of which there was little to none. For our purposes, Orks exist entirely to be feared and hated. But the mostly male figures in Shearer's paintings are more complex than that, and they bear a more considered look.

Take, for example, the subject of Shearer's Potter (2021): a willowy, Eno-esque urban figure in last night's party pants, awash in concert lighting and throwing a pot before a backdrop that includes an inventory of jarred organs. This is not your stereotypical Gulf Island potter, nor is it your androgynous 1970s prog rocker, but a confusion of signifiers in support of -- and indeed in resistance to -- some very sophisticated painting techniques. To reduce this complicated subject to a participant in "dude culture" is an abdication of the critic's role to broaden our experience, not reduce it. As for those jarred organs, they function at the level of a test: if you believe them to be souvenirs of a serial killer, then you will not "like" this work; but if you see the potter as a biologist whose hobbies include pottery, you might want to know more than what you're getting from a connoisseurial review.   

As a undergrad in the early 1980s, I remember one of my profs telling us that poststructuralism has contributed to a crisis in Marxist discourse, with many of its scholars returning not to Marx's writings but to that bible of capitalism that Marx was so critical of -- Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776) -- for a closer (Marxist) reading. Around that time I remember another prof telling us that first- and second-wave feminists put off by the ascendancy of Naomi Wolf's superficial The Beauty Myth (1991) have begun devising courses on "masculinity" in an effort to better understand patriarchy and, as bell hooks insists, how it affects not just women but men. Shifts like these seem unthinkable in our quick-to-signify moment, yet they are needed if the critical conversation on art is to transcend, let alone survive, our moment. And with any luck, bring Art with it. 

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Desert Sweater

In the fall of 1987 I received a bad diagnosis from my doctor and moved into my parents' house for a couple months to recover from surgeries and chemotherapy. During that time my mother, who by then had resumed her knitting practice, asked if I would like a sweater, and I said Yes, can I design the back of it? and she said, Yes, of course!

After selecting the style (zip-up front, no collar), she gave me a sheet of gridded paper on which to plot my design. What I came up with was pictorial and based on drives I had taken through the deserts of the southwestern U.S., though my mother cautioned me it could end up looking more like a Chuck Jones Coyote/Roadrunner landscape than anything I might recall from my travels.

She was right, of course. Not that I loved it any less.

Truth be told, I didn't get a lot of wear out of my "desert sweater", but I liked having it around, taking it out on cold days to wear over my pyjamas while I watched TV or read. More a security blanket with arms than anything I would wear in public. But as the years wore on, I came to associate the sweater with my illness, or at least that part of my illness I wanted to be clear of. Chemotherapy (vinblastin, cisplatin) was brutal, the hardest thing I have ever endured, and I hope I never again have to go through it.

Last year, in an effort to add space to my life, I went through my clothes and ended up keeping only one-tenth of them. Some were made into rags, though most were given to the Salvation Army. There were some nice articles, a good portion of which I shared with friends and their children, and what wasn't wanted I took to Natalie at Woo, who gave me cash and credit. Among these clothes was the desert sweater.

It was while going through my clothes with Natalie that I noticed one of the two front pockets on the sweater was moth-eaten. I attempted to withdraw it, but she said no, she could fix it, and I appreciated that.

A couple weeks ago I stopped into Woo and Natalie told me she had my sweater in her window and that it caused a brief sensation. A number of people had asked to try it on, with one of them coming back to buy it, and a few more coming by after that to ask if it was still for sale. I asked if she had a picture of it in her window, and she said she did and would send it to me. That night I phoned my mother to tell her, and she said she remembered knitting the sweater, but not what it looked like. I emailed her the picture and it all came flooding back. Happily, tearfully -- because there was a part of her that thought I wouldn't make it.

Friday, December 10, 2021

MCC Thrift Shop

Back in the late-1990s, after I passed on the keys to the Malcolm Lowry Room and my time was truly my own, I found myself in the habit of getting up each morning and, as quick as I could, getting in my car and driving somewhere. I had a number of these somewheres in my life, the most visited being a cafe just east of Commercial Drive, on the south side of Charles Street, called Harry's. It was only after shooting three games of pool while kibitzing with Harry that I felt focused enough to return home and do what I do for a living, and that is write.

Somehow, for some reason or reasons, I find myself back in this habit. And so it was that I set out yesterday for the MCC Thrift Shop on Fraser Street, in search of what I don't know. The whats this time turned out to be two cotton place mats in a shade of green (sage?) that have, through no conscious effort, become an accent colour in my living space, as well as a beautifully constructed wall hanging made of twigs from a bush or tree, likely from the other side of the Pacific. Supplementing that, the usual array of books, CDs and DVDs, but this time just books, which include:

Other Fires (1986), because I mentioned it in a recent piece I wrote for Ormsby Review of another anthology, called emerge 21,

and Marie-Claire Blais's St. Lawrence Blues (1973), because she passed away last week and all I ever knew of her, besides reading with her at a festival once, is La belle bête (1959).

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Public Art

Yesterday the Vancouver Sun published a story on the barge that remains grounded at Sunset Beach. The story, inspired by a social media meme, concerns the barge's status as a work of public art. But rather than provide a quote from the City of Vancouver's many specialists on public art, the Sun's Kevin Griffiths instead relates the opinions of a former private art gallerist and founder/president/board member/curator of the Vancouver Biennale who, through the assistance of former city councillor and initiative arm-twister Jim Green, uses public space as a showroom for his public art commissions/selections, sometimes towards their sale, from which this founder/president/board member/curator's Biennale benefits. Does the City, as the Biennale's open-air venue-provider, receive a portion of that financial benefit? Has the Sun ever thought to ask him that? Or the City? Just what is the leasing agreement between the City and the Vancouver Biennale?

The founder/president/board member/curator of the Vancouver Biennale doesn't believe the barge is, in itself, a work of public art, though he doesn't really tell us why, or what public art is. He does, however, believe that if the barge is painted, it might qualify as such -- like the painted cement silos on Granville Island, a paint job he commissioned for a previous (2014) Biennale on a structure that one Vancouver photographer thought resonant enough as is, but the Biennale founder/president/board member/curator saw as a blank slate, a turrim nullius, something to colour, turn into dolls, infantilize, anything but celebrate what those gorgeous silos were designed for, as truth-to-materials examples of industrial design. Don't mean to get all Corbo here, only to remind those old enough of a time when newspapers had visual art critics, first, all-purpose journalists, second.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Monodromos aka One-Way Street (1973)

Every few years Marian Engel's fifth novel Bear (1976) experiences a revival, for different reasons every time. The most recent revival noted the author's concern over the appropriation of Indigenous stories.

Something that is lacking in these Bear revivals is attention to Engel's other books, most notably her novel Monodromos (Anansi, 1973), renamed One-Way Street when it was re-published by Paper Jacks, an imprint of the equally-defunct General Publishing.

In Engel's Goodreads bio, all but Monodromos bears mention. I wonder why that is, for it is, to mind, her most resonant book. As far as Mediterranean novels go (novels that are set there), it ranks with Fowles's The Magus (1965) and Berger's G (1972) for imagination, insight and some very fine writing.

Marian Engel died of cancer in 1985. She was 51.

Monodromos is not included in Engel's Maclean's obituary, though it does mention a trip she and her ex-husband Howard Engel took to Cyprus in the early-1960s, which likely inspired the novel.

Here is an early paragraph from Monodromos

"The island has passed from hand to hand with history. Only Napoleon and Kubla Khan seem to have neglected it. It has been an adjunct to every other empire; it's out of its British phase now, waiting for history to clear and clot again, to see what it will become. It has a wan look in the winter sun: this desirable property to let. I hope the islanders are shrewd about the rent." (3)

Tuesday, December 7, 2021


On Sunday I drove to North Vancouver to attend the second day of Combine, an art fair organized by four Vancouver-based private art galleries (Franc, Monica Reyes, Unit 17 and Wil Aballe) and housed at Griffin Art Projects, a flexible space whose mandate includes the exhibition and discussion of artworks held in private collections, in addition to artist residencies, talks and whatever else can be imagined in the name of contemporary art.

After viewing the exhibition I returned home to listen-in on a ZOOM discussion involving the galleries' principals. During the discussion someone brought up the example of the Seattle Art Fair, which began robustly in 2015, due in large part to a Seattle-based collector who used his influence to pull in some of the U.S.'s leading contemporary galleries.

The first Seattle fair was impressive in terms of participating galleries, artists, curators and the many events and activities they took part in, and one wondered how much this commissioning collector was willing to spend to keep it that way. Turns out not enough, because the fair lost steam after a couple of years, and once COVID hit, it went on hiatus, though it intends to return in July 2022.

Vancouver's cultural ecology is not immune to the kind of top-down development that gave us the Seattle Art Fair. An example can be found in the city's leading cultural institution -- the Vancouver Art Gallery -- and its twenty-year mission to move to a new location and build a purpose-built structure that, as it turns out, is no longer the stand alone edifice its former director insisted on, but an anchor in a Centre named after one of its donors. The VAG's latest donor, who recently donated 2.5 times what the naming donor provided, is the author of the VAG's top-down approach, a philosophy that begins with politicians, not the people who vote them into office. 

For me, Combine is taking the right approach to developing an art fair, one built by its participating galleries from the ground-up. Granted, this way takes longer, but it is to my mind the only way to make anything anymore -- allowing people of all walks to have a hand in the placement of its bricks and mortar, feel part of that which is growing, as one feels when one sprouts a seed on a window sill in February and replants it in the garden in April, enjoying it throughout May and June, before picking one of its flowers in July and pressing it in a book until November, when it is taken out and twirled by its stem, put in an envelope and sent to a friend. 

*Untitled poster by Robert Kleyn courtesy of Monica Reyes Gallery

Monday, December 6, 2021

I Just Gotta Have More Theramin

Last month I took a chance on a Naxos CD of Leoš Janáček's Choruses for Male Voices recorded in 1995-96 by the Moravian Teachers Choir in the Minorite Church in Uničov. Pleased with my purchase (I have become partial to choral music), I picked up last week at the Burnaby Value Village an Altos CD (first released by PYE in 1960) that included Janáček's Sinfonietta (1926), whose opening bars and ground bass sounded familiar.

It was only after humming those bars on my way to the grocery store that a lyric snuck in -- "take a look down at the madman" -- which I recognized as belonging to those great song pirates, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Yes, but which song?

After entering the band's name and lyric fragment into a search engine I was led to "Knife-Edge", from ELP's 1970 self-titled debut album. In this period-era "live" recording, keyboardist Keith Emerson is so moved by his band's performance that at 3:56 he takes from atop his Wurlitzer a theremin-strip (like the one used by the Beach Boys in "Good Vibrations", 1966) and anticipates an out-take from This is Spinal Tap (1984).

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Roma People

The word gypsy derives from what was once thought to be the origin of the Romany-speaking people, though we know from the film Latcho Drom (1993) and books like George Borrow's The Gypsies of Spain (1841) that "gypsies" came not from Egypt but from northern India. A subsequent derivation of gypsy -- the word gypped, as in cheated --is now banned (as a pejorative) by the CBC.

On that note, the little boy at the Hungarian train station who offers to pay a band of Roma to make music so he can dance away his mother's sadness gets full value for his gesture, his money refunded. This is a scene that never fails to turn me into a blubbering mess, and while passing through Basildon, England one autumn I visited a fortune teller to tell me why.

"Show me your palm," was the first thing she asked after her mother took my ten pound note and tucked it into a cigar box. As she studied my palm, I asked if she had seen the film Latcho Drom, and without looking up she said, "Yes, yes, and you think you are the little boy at the train station."

Saturday, December 4, 2021

"10" (1979)

Blake Edwards's "10" was released in the final weeks of the 1970s, and for a moment the film was everywhere. Back then, everywhere meant billboards, newspapers, magazines and television, where it was a staple of conversation for talk show hosts like Johnny Carson, known in those days as America's sandman. "10" is among a number of Hollywood films that came out in the 1970s and 80s that I never saw and, in an effort to better understand those born just before the Baby Boom, I am trying to catch up on.

By today's standards, "10" would never get past the elevator pitch. Dudley Moore plays George Webber, a suddenly middle-aged, successful playwright/composer with bratty tendencies living alone in Beverley Hills, where he entertains his singer-actor girlfriend Samantha (Julie Andrews, above) when not writing songs at his lyricist's Malibu beach house. George gets everything he wants, and yet he remains unsatisfied -- until he catches a glimpse of a young woman (Bo Derek) on the way to her wedding and, as in classical mythology, he sees in her face an ideal ("An 11," as he tells his shrink).

Through various trickeries, George learns who the woman is (her name is Jenny) and he pursues her on her honeymoon to Mexico (we would call this stalking today), where he saves her husband from drowning and, because Jenny is a thoroughly liberated woman, she invites him into her bed while her husband is recovering in the hospital. It is there in bed (with Ravel's "Bolero" playing) that Moore's old world morality catches up with him and he leaves the situation unconsummated and returns to L.A. to reconcile with a justifiably mistrusting Samantha, eventually winning her back (we presume).

As in many Blake Edwards films (it was Edwards who made The Pink Panther, 1963, and The Party, 1968), there is, like L.A. itself, an expedient yet numbing plot line freeway with off-ramps that lead to vital neighbourhoods rich in mystery and intrigue -- places where life happens. There are also numerous shadings that are timed to stick with the viewer. Samantha's feminism is intelligently articulated, if not embodied; a Mexican hotel guest who fails to seduce George points out to a bartender (a little too whimsically) that men seem to do better as they get older, while women just get older. Another human moment is conveyed in a phone call between George and his lyricist Hugh (Robert Webber), who has decided to end his relationship with his much younger boyfriend and advises George not to do the same with Samantha: "Don't do as I do, George, do as I say ..."

Those who have never seen this film will likely know it through the speechless swim-suited body of Bo Derek. The pairing of that kind of body with the Olympian number 10 is, in these quick-to-signify times, enough to curl our lips and keep us scrolling. But to do so is to miss some insightful vignettery. The freeway, as we know, is no way to see the world, yet the plot of "10", like that "information superhighway" known as the internet, has in some ways liberated us, allowing us to move from one exit to the next. Yes, freeways are unpleasant things to be on, just as the internet too has unpleasant consequences -- both of which need to be addressed. But not here. Not at this exit. At least not today.

Friday, December 3, 2021

"It's not nice to fool Mother Nature"

No more art criticism as we knew it a la Greenberg but a "natural" world sullied to the point of pushback, where the "art" of the "maker" is now critical of its inadvertent editors and conservators.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Advent Calendar

It wasn't that shops weren't selling advent calendars, it was the kind of advent calendar they were selling. Hager Books of Kerrisdale has a variety of calendars that any shop that knows its clientele is forced to carry. Of course I wasn't interested in the Harry Potter advent calendar, so I went with something more traditional, which is to say I went with something that reminded me of my childhood: a painted scene of Mary, Joseph, animals, a manger in the distance, the unseen Magi (presumably on the other side of the hill) ...

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

No Sleeping After Television

Crazy dream last night. After spending part of the day searching unsuccessfully for an advent calendar, I retired early and recalled the calendars of my childhood, when suddenly I am amongst the crowd of a Christmas-themed episode of Storage Wars. Feeling guilty about missing the first twenty minutes of the show, I start backing out of the crowd when my name is called and I am asked to open the door of that day's unit. With the cameras rolling (of course), I lift the door and find the unit filled with what I learn are Irish refugees. I look behind me: both the crowd and the cameras are gone -- it's just me and the refugees. Only now the refugees are no longer Irish refugees but Iranian border guards, and I am asked for my papers. I swing my satchel around, open it, and what should I find inside but an advent calendar. Without thinking, I pass the calendar to the nearest guard. He opens the December 1st door, then shouts in my face, "No soup for you!"