‘Look sin in the face and tell it to go’: Abel Ferrara’s uncompromised Catholicism

February 24, 2015


The Addiction was released 20 years ago this month. The trailer is here.

The Addiction (1995) is a strange vampire movie about sin, free will, and the problem of evil. As a b-horror movie foregrounded in images of urban decay with a hard intellectual edge, it does not appear on lists of great horror movies. As a Catholic conversion narrative animated by violence and self-destruction, it does not appear on the Vatican’s list of exalted films ahead of Andrei Rublev and Au Revoir les Enfants. Philosophically, it presents a vision of a human nature debased at its core. Theologically, it offers up stark choices for the care of the soul. Despite never finding its audience it holds together as a statement on a certain kind of religious consolation, strangely so given its brutality, thanks to Abel Ferrara, Lili Taylor, and screenwriter Nicholas St. John. They take the mess to its intended termination, we presume — sanctification, conservative Roman Catholic-style.

Subject matter for Ferrara’s films is typically derived from his own Italian working-class experiences, spiked by hard truths that inspired the Italian neorealists in the 1950s. In one way or another, poverty, crime, drug abuse, and self-destruction almost always overlap with Catholic imagery meant to show individuals inhabiting a Christ-haunted world, self-aware with guilt, a sense of justice, and a grappling toward redemption. A Catholic sensibility is easily identifiable in most of his films, but he fixes on it directly in The Addiction, and on the turmoil that he associates with it. Taylor’s character, Kathleen, is forced, at once, to confront the problem of evil and her moral complicity in it.

Kathleen’s day job as a PhD student in philosophy at NYU affords her enough learning to peer into the abyss that is the human condition but not enough to rescue her from it. There is a conventional vampire narrative at the root of The Addiction: Kathleen is bitten in a random encounter and it turns her into a vampire predator. (Luridly, she draws blood from her victims and administers it in the manner of a zonked-out heroin junky, a Ferrara speciality.) The principal vampire is a man named Peina. His name derives from the Latin ‘poena’, meaning punished, and he is a Nietzche-like figure, damned and indifferent, living outside of time and history, dispassionately intervening into the lives of the spiritually vulnerable: ‘Mankind has striven to exist beyond good and evil, from the beginning. And you know what they found? Me.’ Peina is empty ambition, human nature unmasked. He is spiritually dead with no inner life and no pursuit more profound than controlling or securing his fix. ‘The last time I shot up, I had a dozen and a half in one night’, he says. ‘They fall like flies before the hunger, don’t they?’

Beyond good and evil Kathleen discovers the amoral spirit inside her own decaying body. ‘I’m rotting away inside, but I’m not dying’, she says, yanking out her own teeth in a genuinely disturbing scene, and she can go on like this forever. She vents her addiction on an anthropology student who, once attacked, cries ‘Look what you’ve done to me! How could you do this? Doesn’t this affect you at all?’

Kathleen: No. It was your decision. Your friend Feuerbach wrote that all men counting stars are equivalent in every way to God. My indifference is not the concern here. It’s your astonishment that needs studying.

Is not man the measure of all things, like Protagoras said? Kathleen is merely putting word to deed. As an increasingly bitter satire of academia (‘this obtuseness, it’s disheartening, especially in a doctoral candidate, you should know better’, she tells her friend Jean), it reaches its apex (or nadir depending on your view) in Kathleen’s PhD dissertation. Her encounters with Peina invigorate the pace and conviction of her work and she closes her oral defense in this way:

The real question is what is the philosopher’s impact on other egos … Essence is revealed through praxis. The philosopher’s words, his ideas, his actions cannot be separated from his value, his meaning. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Our impact on other egos.

Beyond good and evil Kathleen finds the absolutely materiality of the body and the weakness and corruptibility of the human will. If we recall, as St. John surely does, that ‘seduce’ comes from the Latin ‘seduco’, meaning ‘to lead astray’, we understand how Kathleen finds the path of secular learning. Finally, she finds praxis – goal-oriented action, a jargonny term familiar to any student of critical theory, and in this case a pointed reference to the praxis at the heart of liberation theology.

The singular oddness of The Addiction is its uncompromising theology. On the balance, its take on human nature, the human will, and the body is not out of joint with most Reformation theologies. But its discovery and rejection of praxis recalls a harder edge of Roman Catholicism. This is not latitudinarian broadchurch small-c catholicism, not the liberation theology of Catholic reformers. This is the Catholicism of Benedict VXI, embodied in his statement on the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, known as the seat of the Inquisition in another era, where he explicitly rejects the praxis of liberation theology:

For the Marxist, the ‘praxis’, and the truth that comes from it, are partisan ‘praxis’ and truth because the fundamental structure of history is characterized by ‘class-struggle’. There follows, then, the objective necessity to enter into the class struggle, which is the dialectical opposite of the relationship of exploitation, which is being condemned. For the Marxist, the truth is a truth of class: there is no truth but the truth in the struggle of the revolutionary class.

On the contrary, then, according to Benedict, there is no praxis except evangelically-inspired social work and no liberation except liberation from ‘the radical slavery of sin’. And there is no way out ultimately except by way of God’s grace administered by an ordained authority of the episcopal hierarchy. Kathleen accepts it and receives her last rites. In an interview in his own words (and in his own way), Farrara summarizes the way out as simply ‘Our Father who art in heaven. That’s about the hardcore reality of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. With Nicky St. John, there ain’t no search for nothing.’

St. John and Ferrara’s conclusion to Kathleen’s story may be a failure of dramatic tension but it is a fitting extension of the film’s Catholic logic because it is essentially soteriological. It posits an awful precipice, and it illustrates the leap — into addiction, violence, and eternal guilt — but these obstacles function as almost allegorical signposts in the story of one person’s salvation. Its final lines evoke pure submission: ‘To face what we are in the end, we stand before the light and our true nature is revealed. Self-revelation is annihilation of self’. Kathleen is saved. But for any astute observer who does not share St. John and Ferrara’s severe vision, the film must end on this ambiguous and vaguely disturbing note. Annihilation of self takes us beyond individual egos and the will to power, beyond praxis, beyond even Puritan notions of self-denial, that Protestant method for disciplining the wayward spirit. It does not, however, takes us away from penance, forgiveness for sin, free will, and redemption – hard-won gifts of grace, and nothing less.


Who hates Joe Swanberg?

December 15, 2013

Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz in A Horrible Way to Die (2010)

Who hates Joe Swanberg? He writes, directs, and acts in low-budget movies about the complexities and challenges of relationships. He looks for small moments, everyday compromises, and simple pleasures that shape how we conduct ourselves in relation to others, and how we manage these experiences as part of our inner lives. His themes are foregrounded in wider contexts that supply additional variables. In Nights and Weekends (2008), for example, it’s distance. In Alexander the Last (2009) it’s art and creativity, in The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger (2012), it’s technology, and in Drinking Buddies (2013) it’s the business and culture of craft beer.

So what’s the problem, and why does Joe Swanberg make some movie critics very angry? I submit there are two reasons and they are related. A helpful additional piece of information is the mumblecore genre of filmmaking, a movement he is credited with (and blamed for) inventing. These films are made on low budgets, shot on video, and populated by non-professional actors engaged in some degree of improvisation. It encompasses form, aesthetic, and is tacitly a protest against the organs and methods of commercial filmmaking. Naturally a label such as this offers observers a convenient hook on which to hang generalizations. One critic, a Devin Faraci, who runs a site called Badass Digest and who, I guess, imagines himself to be a kind of Lester Bangs-type, raging against the squares of the establishment, put it this way:

Mumblecore is the opposite of everything that’s great about indie film. It’s the laziest form of filmmaking. It’s a bunch of middle class and upper class white kids whining about their ennui and their middle class white lives in front of a camera, without a script, without good actors. Here’s what you need to make a mumblecore movie: a sense of entitlement, white skin, and Greta Gerwig, and that’s it. To me, the word “core” at the end of mumblecore, sounds like it should be something punk rock, something amazing, something edgy. Instead it’s the blandest, most self-indulgent bullshit, aimed only at the narcissists who make it. Your only audience, pretty much, is you.

This is the first reason that Swanberg is hated. Let us omit the pointed bigotry from the argument and reword it slightly: Faraci does not approve of white middle-class people represented (and representing themselves) in the manner that is characteristic of Swanberg and his ilk. There is symmetry here with Armond White‘s hatred for The Squid and the Whale (written and directed by Noah Baumbach, a Swanberg collaborator) because it seems to extol ‘middle-class vanity’ rather than mock and criticize its smug and dreadful characters. The problem with Swanberg, then, is not that he fails to ‘create something that speaks to people, something that has a soul, something that has a narrative’ – all that is beside the point, as well as being untrue. The problem is that the portrayals consist of lives in front of a camera, of ennui, and of self-indulgence; the portrayal lacks edginess, lacks punk rock.

But if Faraci was a more careful thinker he’d have noticed that he’s accidentally identified what makes Swanberg’s movies daring and different. We’ve been taught by Foucault and the post-modernists that the personal is the political, the political is the continuation of war by other means, and the war will be taken to the complacent. The prevailing assumption of this mindset is that no area of life exists outside this fraught political war zone. But there is a much longer tradition in Western thought of artists pausing over worrying or puzzling ethical problems that honour a vision of human beings as creatures with agency anchored in moral sense and feeling – textures, in other words, that cannot necessarily be reduced to ideological weapons. This is not to make a bloated case for Swanberg as an observer of human nature par excellence. On the contrary, some of his work is sloppy and grasping, although he improves with each effort. (And even at his worst, at the very least, he’s discovered or enlarged the profiles of talented actors and directors like Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil, Ti West, and Adam Wingard). But critics who judge his work as inert, insular, or indulgently inward-oriented may just have their priorities ordered differently. Indeed, their angle of vision and their read on human relations may be rather narrower than his.

Like Eric Rohmer, who turned away from the self-consciously subversive French New Wave at its height, Swanberg shows no interest in politicizing his subject matter and would rather examine his characters and their problems on their own terms. Perhaps the fact that his subject matter is undeniably shaped by (and arises out of) a white middle-class experience means that no amount of soul and narrative will calm the buzzing nerves of a Faraci or a White. But that is not Swanberg’s problem.

The second reason is a function of the first in that Swanberg’s sensibility and elliptical style is just out-of-joint enough that it will fail to find the wider audience accustomed to grander gestures and more overdetermined storytelling. It is rare to find a review of Swanberg that tries to critique him on his own terms. Instead it’s blather about his class, his background, or his personality; or it’s complaints that Drinking Buddies, for example, failed to elicit the heaving laughter of The Hangover, or did not unfold in the manner audiences associate with conventional romantic comedies. Swanberg does less than this but achieves more. It’s enough to shine a small light on some of the things that trouble and excite our lives and our relationships.

Small Pond (2011)

August 23, 2013


I liked Small Pond for the lightness of its portrayals and the directness of its intentions, and I think it succeeds on its own terms as a character-driven comedy. But in its lightness and its directness it also scores some additional victories by distinguishing itself from some of the cliches of indie filmmaking, especially where inconspicuous people in fly-over states are concerned. I feel like a movie set in a small city and chronicling episodes in the lives of decent middle-class and lower middle-class people is a quiet revelation.

The opening sequence shows Kirsten’s (Hari Leigh) procession through the streets of Columbia, Missouri, and it will look more or less familiar to anyone who’s lived in a smallish city or relatively large town (of, say, approximately 100,000 people or fewer). Her leafy neighborhood appears to be adjacent to the downtown core and in any case is within a short walking distance of it, and the streets are sparsely populated by people she probably knows and at least one she definitely knows (Susan Burke). Her housemate Kate (Amy Seimetz) works in the same pizza joint, Shakespeare’s Pizza, and we sense that by the end of her shift she’s crossed paths with everyone who populates her daily routine and for all intents and purposes her whole life.

There are straws in the wind though and eventually Kirsten will be forced to decide if the pond is indeed too small. Some of the circumstances leading up to this denouement are entirely out of her hands, like the landlord’s decision to sell the house that she rents, and some are built up over time, like her frayed relationship with the increasingly put-upon Kate. The big variable and the event on which the third act turns is a result of sheer spur-of-the-moment stupidity. Every review I’ve read has rightly observed the actually shocking nature this ridiculous mishap, and although it is not a twist I do think signposting or describing it will do the filmmakers and viewers a disservice. I will say that it’s shocking because the scene otherwise plays out like an ordinary Friday night but it feels tonally consistent with the rest of the movie because as a terrible decision made in an instant — for someone like Kirsten, not a stranger to bad judgment — it rings true.

It is also the prelude to several moments of grimly amusing comedy. Kate knocks on her housemate’s bedroom door wanting to talk about whatever it was that happened: “Kirsten, open up… I can smell you. Okay, I’m kidding. Open up.” Although I feel like I would like Kate’s tasteless sense of humour, her timing here is itself comically bad. Kirsten’s return to Shakespeare’s Pizza has her cornered by onlookers, shocked at her baffling appearance, mouths gaping open, and although she feels defensive and persecuted, wanting only to escape, like a scene from Dawn of the Dead, these people are also her familiars and they insist they are genuinely concerned about her.

That sense of benevolence is what landed most strongly with me. Another critic made the point that this is no brooding indie film where unhappy people are locked in depressive lives, and it is true that Small Pond is refreshing in part because Kirsten and her peers are not haunted by soul-sickness, rage, or existential darkness. There are no creepers or sinister figures with dark secrets. Not even her landlord or her boss — ever the whipping posts for politicized filmmakers — are portrayed in a negative light. The one reminded Kirsten of her right of first refusal on the sale of the house and the other offered her a promotion that she turned down. Kirsten has a solidly middle-class aunt who seems willing to help within some decidedly reasonable limits.

Nor should we feel inclined to condescendingly view Kirsten and her circle as “loveable losers” because tens of millions of North Americans lead lives that resemble those of the ultimately decent characters depicted here. Some are happy with their lives, some less so, and Kirsten falls along the latter end of that spectrum. At the end we are given access to a dream in which Kirsten’s ambitions are realized and it is not meant to signal the dead-end horribleness of her life or the absurdity and impossibility of her modest hopes. Kirsten wakes up and smiles. This is a movie about unassuming moments of personal redemption and small slivers of optimism.

2002 – 2012: An illness narrative, a distant mirror, and a look back

January 4, 2013

This was originally written in February or March 2004 and describes a twelve-month long treatment for cancer. It was a short assignment for an undergraduate class on literature and health, hence the frequent recourse throughout to various writers and musicians. The principal literary reference is Arthur Frank’s ‘remission society’, an idea developed in The Wounded Storyteller, where those who are said to be well but not really cured reside. It was also inspired in part by Elaine Scarry’s The Body In Pain. I’d forgotten I’d written this until I was looking through old files on a flash drive a little while ago. According to a recent study, 52% of osteosarcoma patients were still alive ten years later. So it seems apt for a look back now that I’m ten years removed from treatment. I have reproduced the text below.


A few months after my 21st birthday I was diagnosed with bone cancer. The persistent, intensifying, and inexplicable pain in my left shoulder, it turned out, was not a deep bruise, a cyst, an abscess, or a rotator-cuff injury. I would need five months of chemotherapy followed by surgery. The next two months were a blur of doctor’s appointments, blood tests, bone-scans, ct-scans, x-rays, and follow-up appointments. Professors were helpful in accommodating my increasingly knotted situation, but by late February I suspended my studies.

I started occupying most of my free time, at that point, feverishly researching the illness. I spent hours on the internet analyzing case studies, consuming grim statistics, and mastering obscure medical idioms. Proximal Humeral Osteogenic Sarcoma. The primary cancer cells seed-off into the bloodstream and settle in the lungs. I learned that this is the same cancer that, when it reached his lungs, killed Terry Fox. I remembered reading newspaper articles about Gina Smith, Miss Teen Nova Scotia, from Dartmouth, diagnosed with bone cancer shortly before me, who attended her pageant in a wig. I remembered follow-up stories announcing the remission of her disease, and I remembered how a few months later she was dead, at age 16. According to one webpage, osteosarcoma ‘fatally colonizes the lungs.’ I read that survival is near 85% if it is halted before it reaches the lungs. If it shows up in the lungs within a few months of diagnosis the chance of surviving shrinks to about 20%.

In early March a ct-scan suggested that cancer cells had spread from my shoulder, settled, and were growing in my lungs. The oncologist did not want me to believe that this was the ‘end of the road’ for me, but nevertheless I tried readying myself for death. I am not a religious person. ‘If you want to know what happens when you die’, I’d say, quoting George Carlin, ‘go look at some dead things.’ But in moments of self-doubt I wondered if I’d have the audacity to say such things on my deathbed. Despite some anger, some anguish, and some self-pity, I ought to give myself more credit for my convictions. The movie director Ingmar Bergman said it best, I think, in his autobiography Images when he spoke of his own insights into death:

‘That which had been formerly been so enigmatic and frightening, namely, what might exist beyond this world, does not exist. Everything is of this world. Everything exists and happens inside us, and we flow into and out of one another. It’s perfectly fine like that.’

My life depends on my will and capacity to survive the treatment, the aggressiveness of the cancer, the success of the drugs, the quality of the treatment, the support of people around me, and a great many other contingencies. ‘I believe in no God and no God believes in me’, Brent Oberlin wrote. So, I thought, let’s just get on with it.

First the chemotherapy had to take its course, and it was punishing. I more or less lived in the hospital during the Spring and Summer. For four days I’d be hooked up to an IV; I’d go home where my body would malfunction in every way imaginable, and where I’d spend eight days recovering enough to repeat the same cycle. It went on like this for five months. April was a wash-out because the poison of the drugs turned me inside out. I couldn’t eat without vomiting; my digestive system simply did not function; I had brutal nausea; my hair was falling out in clumps; and because the drugs had shattered my immune system I had to make extra trips to the hospital with an infection for which I was given ciprol, the drug used to treat anthrax. I was given, among other drugs, doxorubicin, which I have since learned is nicknamed the ‘red death’ because of its potential for inducing long-term life-threatening heart damage. I could not stand up. Meanwhile, the pain inside my shoulder reached a screaming fever pitch, and on the outside of my shoulder I still had 12 large staples in my arm from the biopsy — that strange combination of metal and flesh. I was taking increasingly stronger drugs to mollify the pain.

But by the third month the chemotherapy had reduced the swelling in my shoulder and arm by about half. I went from swallowing about 12 painkillers every 24 hours to taking none. Thanks to a rather amazing drug that quickly restored my white blood cells, as well as thanks to the odd blood transfusion, I could go outdoors and breathe the air of Nova Scotia. Now when I think about Caithlin De Marrais‘s song ‘Atlantic’, I am reminded that the greatest cliché of all is true: those little things really matter.

Beautiful, for spacious skies I put aside.
Purple majesty, you restless thing.
Don’t abandon me.

Maybe I’ve lost my faith in history,
and the only thing I believe in now
is the sound of the Atlantic.

Beautiful, from sea to sea, famously shining.
Beautiful, for gravity.
Be with me through this century.

In the east the sun rises, there are hurricanes.
I can taste the salt water.
And when the earth is only dust and brine,
we’ll eat the salt water taffy.

There’s a kind of renewal in learning to appreciate the simplest things again: relationships, creativity, love, food, the sound of the ocean.

In August I learned that the chemotherapy killed more than 95% of the primary tumor which meant I was ready for surgery. All along this had been a major source of my anguish. I knew that 90% of the time the tumor, or what’s left of it, can be removed without having to amputate the affected limb. Still, with my luck, I thought, I’d fall into that downtrodden 10%. There’s a great song by John K. Samson called ‘Everything Must Go!’ about the sacrifices he makes to get well. Its central metaphor is a garage sale in which the merchant barters with a potential buyer over all the things he’s willing to part with. If I had to part with my left arm I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on living. It sounds dramatic but it’s true. It may sound quite shallow too. John Milton said that blindness isn’t terrible, but being unable to tolerate blindness — that is terrible. And I’m the sort of person who usually prefers to feel anonymous — I need to be able to disappear in a crowd. To lose my arm, at this age, would be to feel every piercing, pitying, puzzled stare on me everywhere I go. I could never escape it. Everyone would know my secret and my privacy would be annihilated. During my long stays in the hospital I never once left my room because I couldn’t bear to be the youngest person there and I didn’t want the pity heaped on me. Maybe the price is too high. I told the doctors I would suffer any amount of pain, and any indignity at all, if I could have my arm.

In August I had surgery. A few words about the surgeon. It’s difficult to overstate the effect he had on me and my family. Having spent weeks in January attempting with frustratingly slow and limited success to get access to a bone specialist, it was a relief to find in him, the orthopaedic surgeon, someone who got stuff done. After I had gotten the results of the biopsy he said ‘you have to have the will to survive this’, and the simplicity and directness of the remark lingered with me. The last thing I remember before losing consciousness on the operating table was him standing over me joking that he’d spent all morning drinking gin, and I think he knew I’d appreciate the gallows humour. He remarked amusingly that I resemble Lenin and we talk about history. The administrators puzzle over why a bone surgeon is ordering lung x-rays, which he does every three months, but he told me he doesn’t want any left-over cancer cells to slip by.

The surgery itself was a success. I have my arm. I have full movement from my elbow down to my hand. I can no longer play guitar, or most other musical instruments for that matter, because some nerves in my shoulder had to be cut. The procedure is technically called a limb salvage and it’s not pretty, and occasionally it’s painful and worrisome, but I have made it work for me. I spent last summer, for example, traveling through Sweden and Norway. It’s something I can live with. A few weeks ago I had a ct-scan on my lungs and although there is what appears to be scar tissue from cancer cells destroyed by the chemotherapy, there is no evidence of active cancer.

I want to say that news of my death has been exaggerated. But I live in Arthur Frank’s remission society where clean bills of health are never given out, and there are shadows. Is that random ache entirely inconsequential or a new primary or secondary cancer? I feel like I’ve aged about fifteen years, and I probably look it. Next September I’ll start an MA in history at York University, and I can’t do anything but go on with my life.

Twelve favorite of 2012

December 28, 2012

(Alphabetical order.)

alternate textAnathema – Weather Systems
I feel like I have grown up with Anathema. In the 90s these were grousing young men obsessed with death and suicide, matching it with occasionally impenetrable music. But by the 10s they exorcised whatever was haunting them and in the process gradually discovered the fragile beauty of life, summoned the inspiration to unleash torrents of sonorous melodies, and arrived at a genuine artistic vision.

Anathema – The Beginning and the End (4:46)




alternate textCat Power – Sun
This is Cat Power’s ninth album and her third big creative risk. From atonal indie oddball, to blue-eyed soul singer, to this frankly eccentric and quite alone electronic-tinged sound, she has never leaped blindly from one to the other. Instead, like a true singer-songwriter, she has massaged each style into her core chilly, melancholic disposition. It also helps that her smokey, shaded voice sounds as great as it always has.

Cat Power – Cherokee (3:59)




alternate textDrudkh – Eternal Turn of the Wheel
At its best, black metal has an historical sensibility. It is a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition that the remote past is held up to the light for scrutiny, if not for glorification. Drudkh is now nine albums into their pursuit of the Ukraine’s complicated history, its myths and poetry, the harshness and beauty of its landscape, and mournful Slavic folk melodies that every where bleed through their own heaving wall of sound.

Drudkh – Farewell to Autumn’s Sorrowful Birds (7:48)




alternate textEnslaved – RIITIIR
Enslaved are a progressive/psychedelic Norwegian black metal band and the manner in which they draw from a style that they have carefully developed since 2000 is suggestive of artists in full command of their muse. The lyrics query the meaning of our common humanity (‘motion is the mother tongue’) through a Scandinavian conceptual language (RIITIIR is a ‘Norse-ified’ term for ‘rites of mankind’), and the music is textured, wintry, seething, and artful.

Enslaved – Roots of the Mountain (9:14)




alternate textMetric – Synthetica
According to singer Emily Haines, Synthetica is about ‘being able to identify the original in a long line of reproductions’. Statements such as these compel certain unkind critics to call her pretentious. But surely we can agree she is very bright, and her restless intelligence has never been more evident in Metric’s music, and here their old new wave-derived sound has given way to a more interesting postpunk-inspired one. It has the feel of a creative breakthrough.

Metric – Synthetica (3:55)




alternate textNofx – Self Entitled
Nofx albums are never very much unlike each other, so the main surprise each time is that Fat Mike, now at 300+ songs, can keep conjuring so many impossibly catchy pop melodies out of thin air. Self Entitled has these as well as a good balance of the band’s best tendencies: some social commentary songs, songs about the joys of self-abasement, songs exhibiting actual introspection, and songs providing a few laughs at certain tendencies within the Abrahamic religious tradition.

Nofx – Secret Society (2:54)




alternate textPallbearer – Sorrow and Extinction
With the brightest lights of the 2000s classic doom revival now buried (namely, Warning and Reverend Bizarre), Pallbearer have emerged from Arkansas with the precise combination of castle-clear vocals, the sorrowful melodies, the slow, graceful, and harmonized guitar riffs, and above all the defiant conviction that these lengthy compositions will not be hurried along.

Pallbearer – An Offering of Grief (8:38)




alternate textParadise Lost – Tragic Idol
Paradise Lost perfected a style that has elsewhere been described as ‘baroque metal’, an approach that is a jet black, elegant, and very British combination of early Black Sabbath-inspired metal, classic gothic rock like the Sisters of Mercy, foggy Yorkshire doom metal, and Depeche Mode-type electronic embellishment whenever it suits them.

Paradise Lost – Honesty In Death (3:48)




alternate textPig Destroyer – Book Burner
This is the sound of a raw nerve, and as it happens the song ‘Burning Palm’ is about exposing such a wound on one’s wrist to an open flame because ‘I wanted to burn on the outside for a change’. Lyrics such as these are (I believe) not merely gratuitous and do not aspire to tastelessness as an end in itself — it’s actually psychologically harrowing stuff, made all the more evocative by the violent metronome-like precision of the music.

Pig Destroyer – The Bug (3:06)




alternate textRose Cousins – We Have Made a Spark
She’s technically from Prince Edward Island, calls Halifax home, has put down roots in Boston, and has most recently recorded music in Northern Ireland. She’s got the miles, and is now carefully building the musical credentials of a country/folk rambler. Though she’s always had the raw talent, We Have Made a Spark is full of refinements — it is emotionally stark and musically adorned in only subtle ways, giving colour and shade to the melodies.

Rose Cousins – The Shell (3:01)




alternate textThe Stray Birds – s/t
An apt name for three classically trained musicians waywardly taking up bluegrass. Like Joanna Newsom, another formally trained virtuoso whose attraction to Appalachian forms of musical expression is well documented, the Stray Birds aren’t just slumming it or ironizing blues, folk, country, and bluegrass. Instead they recognize its capacity to express, in simple and direct ways, a time, place, moment, or mood.

The Stray Birds – Dream In Blue (3:45)




alternate textUnsane – Wreck
According to singer/guitarist Chris Spencer, a New York City lifer, Unsane’s music reflects the ‘noise, confrontation, stress, and alienation that goes along with [urban life], and the dysfunctional ways people try to deal with it’. And as ever, Unsane’s uncommunicative song titles — Decay, No Chance, Don’t, Stuck, Roach, Ha Ha Ha — are as terse, tense, and direct as their minimalist and impacting form of noise rock.

Unsane – Ha Ha Ha (2:57)




Some thoughts on Pte. Braun Woodfield (1981 – 2005)

October 28, 2012

(Originally written in November, 2005)

CBC: Body of Canadian soldier returning home

Saturday, November 26, 2005: Canadian soldiers attended a ceremony in Kandahar on Saturday to say goodbye to Pte. Braun Scott Woodfield, who was killed when the armoured vehicle he was in rolled over on a highway in Afghanistan. To the sound of bagpipes, soldiers lined each side of Woodfield’s casket as it was loaded into a plane for the journey home.


Woodfield, 24, was born in Victoria and grew up in Eastern Passage, N.S.

I met Braun in grade 8 and we remained friends until our paths diverged after our high school graduation. For the most part reminiscing about high school bores and exhausts me, but Braun was one of maybe three people who helped make the experience tolerable for me.

I have many fond memories of Braun. A news report had him described as shy and funny, and he was both of those things – in fact, no one made me laugh harder than Braun during those years – and he was also possessed of a keen perceptiveness and sensitivity, and a capacity for seriousness and introspection. So it’s easy for me to believe that he had thought hard about his role in Afghanistan and that, as his father remarks in one of the news articles about him, he was serious about helping to stabilize the country.

I hadn’t seen him in a few years. But I remember the day after graduation, our mutual friend Ian was dropping Braun and myself off at our respective places. It was 5 a.m. and we shared a laugh about the weirdness of the moment, and he referred to me as Geordi La Forge, which he did frequently because it amused him, and he departed. I remember thinking, ‘will this be the last time I ever see Braun?’ – and so it was. Then suddenly aware of the possibility, I remember deciding, at that instant, that I’d hold the memory carefully and make it last – and so it has.

R.I.P., Braun.

Reverend Bizarre (2003)

October 27, 2012


Harbinger of Metal (2003)

A welcomed development in metal music in the foregoing decade has been a revival of the classic/traditional doom style. There are some basic if rather recondite ways of outlining its appearance. It required bypassing the retro, meandering jams of 90s ‘desert rock’ and embracing instead the almost single-minded Black Sabbath-worshipping ethos characteristic of doom metal’s second generation of bands, namely Witchfinder General, Pagan Altar, Trouble, and (above all, in this case) Saint Vitus. It is more metal than rock, more 80s than 90s, more plodding and foreboding than psychedelic and bluesy, more ‘Black Sabbath’ (1970) than ‘Symptom of the Universe’ (1975). The former of these, the opening track on that band’s debut album, is truly a milestone in rock music and probably the birthplace of doom metal, a song ‘[that] straps you down and forces you to contemplate the long drone of metal mindfulness’ (Martin Popoff, The Top 500 Heavy Metal Songs of All Time, p. 17).

Reverend Bizarre from Finland, a country with a seemingly limitless appetite for extreme metal, wholly inhabit this niche. One enduring feature of the classic/traditional style, as true for blue-collar Sabbath disciples like The Obsessed and Count Raven as for progressive doom like Candlemass and Warning, is the importance of distinctive and conventionally talented singers. This band’s trump card is the charismatic bassist/vocalist, one Albert Witchfinder who, possessing a robust, oaken baritone, croons in a self-consciously dramatic style that is part Michael Gira, part Pete Steele, part Neil Diamond, and altogether worthy of the standards established by the genre’s innovators. (He is pictured above, on the far right. He could probably even pass for a young Matthew Hopkins. Failing to name the other two allusion-laden members of this band at this point would be remiss: Drummer Earl of Void and guitarist Peter Vicar, the latter of whom, as it happens, doubles as a professor of cultural history at the University of Turku.)

Like their other EPs, Harbinger of Metal, at seventy-plus minutes, is a huge time commitment. And like Return to the Rectory (2004), the EP designation points to a greater degree of experimentation along with less quality control. If I had to choose I’d take Return over Harbinger. Of the seven tracks, three don’t really qualify as songs. ‘Harbinger’ is a brief instrumental opener that is probably a nod to early Cathedral, ‘The Ambassador’ informs us that Albert is literally from Hell but does no more, and ‘Magickal Entertainment’ is a brief ambient piece. ‘From the Void’ is notable for its four-minute drum solo but as a merciless twenty-minute song it is otherwise basically inert.

However there are two excellent songs that rank with ‘Funeral Summer’, ‘Caesar Forever’, and ‘Eternal Forest’ as among their best. The first of these is ‘Strange Horizon’. It is vintage Reverend Bizarre, in which the melodies and tempos established in its first half quietly shift around the ten-minute mark, carrying the listener along what simply feels like a rolling swell, or a gentle surge on its natural course. Julian Cope described this song as ‘a Soul Train soul classic re-run in slomo’. To me it’s an offbeat example of the classic singer/songwriter style. It even evokes a protagonist chasing the horizon to escape his past. The difference of course is that he and his companion are not pursuing a Western sunset, they’re leaving their pain ‘to the earth’, and will ‘leave this world behind’:

Long way to the sun,
Soon the dreams will come,
Beyond the strange horizon.

This is doom metal conceived and performed to perfection, but it doesn’t take much effort to imagine, say, any one of the Highwaymen performing this song either.

The other is ‘The Wandering Jew’. Lyrically it relates the medieval myth of the eponymous character who was said to have mocked Christ on his way to the crucifixion grounds. Unlike some of the anti-Semitic readings of the myth that have occasionally surfaced in the course of its long European history, here the sympathy appears to have been slotted with the Wandering Jew himself who, I would say, in the spirit of Reverend Bizarre, takes his curse to wander the earth until the end of time as an opportunity to comment with bitter humour on the hopeless condition of mankind:

Forever I wander, forever alone,
Until the Judgment Day I must walk here
On this piece of shit you call earth.
But I don’t fucking care, because the end is near. Ha!

The last song of note, ‘Dunkelheit’, is a Burzum cover. As far as classic black metal goes, this song is about as musically interesting and innovative as it gets, but as a cover it is a missed opportunity. The lyrics are sung, because unlike Varg, we have here a real singer, but otherwise it does not make much of the song. That they revere Burzum is obvious enough and maybe they thought the song too good to tweak. Albert’s other band, The Puritan, channels its signature use of a simple, repetitive keyboard theme atop lo-fi guitar distortion in a much more interesting way with an original called ‘Those Who Sow In Tears Shall Reap In Joy’ on their Lithium Gates (2008) compilation.

Pauline at the Beach (1983)

October 27, 2012


(Spoiler alert.)

Eric Rohmer’s movies are challenging not only because of the sort of people he depicts but also because of how he depicts them. These are typically middle-class people, steeped in their bourgeois values, social codes and arrangements, and typically engaged in very middle-class activities like vacationing in the country. They are not then paraded out to be mocked and unmasked as wretched hypocrites, as deadly bores, deluded betrayers of the proletariat, mindless dupes of the status quo, as they are to varying degrees in Godard, Fassbinder, Chabrol, Pasolini, Von Trier, Leigh, or Loach. Widely shared philosophical tendencies in British social realism, Italian neorealism, French New Wave, and New German Cinema has meant that, since 1959 and up until the present day, there has been a powerful though intellectually limited and broadly leftist political current coursing through the main arteries of European cinema. One might even call it hegemonic, to use the appropriate academic jargon. The Australian director Hattie Dalton made the point that ‘middle-class characters and stories have disappeared from British screens’. There, hunger for the grit and the grime of the council estate is so insatiable that it is simply a rare event when British middle-class characters are ‘able to play out real dramas in settings for which the filmmakers do not feel the need to apologise’.

Rohmer never apologized. He emerged as a filmmaker in the earliest days of the French New Wave alongside Godard and Chabrol, but as early 1965 he was expressing extreme irritation with his peers and their usual political preoccupations:

‘At the moment I’m quite indifferent to politics — at least in the narrow sense — but I haven’t changed. I don’t know if I’m on the right politically, but in any case, what’s certain is that I am not on the left. That’s right, why should I be left-wing? For what reason? What’s to compel me? I’m free to choose, aren’t I? … Everytime an artist meddles in politics, instead of contributing what one has the right to expect, a view of things that’s calmer, broader and more conciliatory, he entrenches himself in the most narrow, bigoted and extreme kinds of attitudes’ (Cahiers du Cinema, Volume II: 1960-1968, New Wave, New Cinema, Re-Evaluating Hollywood, ed. Jim Hillier, p. 92).

This is why Rohmer’s characters can be examined, criticized, or lauded on their own terms as individual agents within their own particular situations, and not as class caricatures or extensions of whatever underlying structure du jour is occupying critical theorists at any given moment. He did not allow himself recourse to the kind of renewable enemy that a proper ideologue requires and we are invited to feel some measure of sympathy for even his most unfortunate characters. Nor, consequently, did he care in the least if he was dismissed, as he was in France, as politically complacent or reactionary for failing to repudiate ‘conventional’ morality and the supposed evils accompanying it in stronger or more decisive terms.

It’s also why certain critics found him so irritating. David Walsh of the World Social Website will serve as one such example. He is not exactly a beacon of intellectual broad-mindedness, but his critique of Rohmer is the least subtle thing I’ve read by him. The thrust of his obituary is simply that after 1968 Rohmer failed to situate himself on the correct side of history, the latter of course made obvious by hindsight and made irreproachable by the unmistakeable marxian telos of progress. For example, in My Night at Maud’s (1969) ‘the target of the director’s implied criticism is not a wealthy American entrepreneur, but a left-wing professor’. See what he did there? Rohmer plainly got it backwards. Walsh speculates that the events of May 1968 seem to ‘have both energized and alarmed [Rohmer], driven him toward more serious and widely accessible work, put paid to his “anti-bourgeois” phase, and brought into focus what he valued and what he rejected in life’. Rohmer himself admitted as much in 1999: ‘I feel at ease in my domain and there’s no point in trying to escape it. I am what I am and I accept it’. Such regretable choices!

I think that one’s mind has to be coarsened pretty badly by ‘politics’, crudely understood and applied, not to appreciate the intelligence and humanity of Rohmer’s work. Although Pauline at the Beach is not among Rohmer’s most celebrated nowadays, it is an intriguing film. The plot turns on a simple ‘bedroom farce’ that involves Pauline and five additional characters at a summer beach resort in Normandy. Most of these characters are older and more experienced than Pauline. We see them give her advice on how to conduct her personal life, from whom to acquire sexual experience, and, with Pauline, we listen to them dilate at length on the details of their highly-refined sexual habits, preferences, and romantic ideals.

But their advice on how Pauline ought to conduct her personal life is awful, and it becomes evident when they put their own advice into practice. Their sexual recommendations interest her very little because she has her own ideas about that. And their self-indulgent discourses are revealed to consist primarily of self-deception. It is correct to say that despite their greater experience with casual sex and relationships they are, to paraphrase Hal Erickson, less capable of handling themselves and those around them than Pauline is.

But an alternative reading would say Pauline has good sense not despite her lack of experience but because of it. The proverb opening the film is ‘A Wagging Tongue Bites Itself’, and Pauline, the film’s moral centre, is literally a quiet character, a point affirmed by her sister Marion. Figuratively her lack of self-deception as well as her disinclination to manipulate are expressions of her inexperience. But I don’t think Rohmer is coming out in favour of some kind of monasticism, even if he is one of the few directors ‘who make films about how being a “free spirit” or “following your heart” might not be good ideas’, and especially if such impulses or desires become alternatives to honour or responsibility.

Pauline’s interests are made evident and she acts on them and learns from them. The problem, then, is not experience itself, but fantasy, self-deception, and sophistry compounded by poor judgment, time, and yes, the experience sufficient for these shortcomings to harden into habits. Pauline has the time, and she will have the experience. But we hold out hope at movie’s end that she may also have the perceptiveness to avoid the rest of it.

Parity, Defensive Strategy, and Why the NHL Needs to Try Harder

June 8, 2012


I have been a hockey fan since the mid 80s, which is as far back as I can remember. I appreciate hockey when the teams I like are eliminated, and when the teams I hate are still playing. I like watching it, reading about it, talking about it, and thinking about the wider cultural significations of it (see: History, Atlantic Canada, and New England Sports). I have never been bored, much less irritated with it – until now, during these 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. I think the National Hockey League has problems going forward.

Since much the following will appear anecdotal and subjective, I’ll start with the only objective metric available: the NHL’s TV ratings, and they are grievously bad. They are bad relative to their own standards, and pathetically bad relative to their televised competition:

Game three of the Stanley Cup Finals between the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings drew just 1.7 million viewers on the NBC Sports Network. That is down 37% compared to last year, thanks in large part to the game being aired on the new NBC Sports Network. For comparison, game four of the Miami Heat-Boston Celtics series drew 11.0 million viewers and Cupcake Wars on the Food Network drew 1.4 million viewers.

There are many possible reasons for this and not all of them point back to the idea that hockey is boredom-inducing. The Los Angeles Kings and the New Jersey Devils lack a history of rivalry, and this has to be developed over time. As hockey markets go, they are mid-level. The NHL’s marketing strategy is somewhat regionally-biased (towards a handful of teams in the Northeast), and tends to focus on a couple anointed superstars, none of whom play for LA or New Jersey. These teams presently lack a popular profile, especially in the US.

Such factors may account for lax interest among new or casual hockey fans. But they are not commentaries on the play itself, and as a more-than casual fan I do not believe they go far enough in accounting for what is dragging down not only the ratings but also the game itself. The two big reasons are parity and defensive strategy.

The first is that the NHL has too much parity. Parity is credited for preventing a small number of large-market teams from dominating the league. But it has many other implications for how the sport is played out on the ice. One important element that can be overlooked – randomness – is examined by Ellen Etchingham in a trenchant and statistics-literate article:

Parity favors randomness. It favors a wider range of teams winning by narrower margins on the basis of smaller causes. As parity expands and the talent distribution between teams gets narrower and narrower, fewer and fewer games become decisive victories. More games go to overtime; more series go to seven.

This is indeed the broad contour of this year’s playoffs. Etchingham was writing on April 30, during the second round, and by then there had already been 18 games decided in overtime – or to put it another way, 35% of all games played. There is a dreadfully random feel to it all. A bunch of teams randomly make the playoffs, two randomly standing teams randomly play it out, and one randomly wins it. It has the feel of a dispassionate process of elimination, in which there are no upsets because there are no favorites, that ends with a trophy hand-off. ‘[A]n essentially mediocre team’, writes Adam Gopnik, describing the formula, ‘rides a hot goaltender and some freak goal scoring to a Cup’.

Thanks to parity, there are no dynasties anymore, and this is not a trivial point. The Detroit Red Wings front office are famously shrewd team builders, and with four titles in eleven years they are the only team remotely close to meeting the usual definition of a dynasty. For the most part what we have are good teams that flame out after one year. But dynasties matter because they provide continuity and supply drama. I like that the Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs, and Los Angeles Lakers are perrenially good because they’re well-run teams that have earned their respective fanbases and their revenue; their success is well deserved. Dynasties fall and new potential ones like the Oklahoma City Thunder emerge. These are the kinds of medium- and long-term narratives that help dramatize the sport and entrench interest in it. As part of this process, we also like to hate teams that have the temerity and hubris to ‘buy’ championships, in the same way we like to watch a David pitted against a Goliath. These examples are drawn from the NBA where there is little parity, and it’s partly why the NBA playoffs have been so interesting. Some fans complain that the lack of parity in the NBA or MLB unfairly punishes fans of small-market or (seemingly) terminally garbage franchises like the Pittsburgh Pirates or Kansas City Royals. But if your market is too small to support a competitive franchise it doesn’t belong in the league. And if fans feel punished, then place the blame at the feet of the short-sighted, talentless men men who run these organizations. Switch teams if your heart breaks.

The second is the insane mania for defensive hockey. The New York Rangers and Washington Capitals epitomized the style – shot-blocking, trapping, scoring goals by ‘crashing the net’, grinding it out along the boards – but those teams are now gone, and it is nevertheless the the dominant style, and I hate it. It’s absolutely stupid. It takes no skill to block a shot. No one is playing street hockey today dreaming of blocking shots in a game seven. But like the head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes remarked of the defense-only style and shot-blocking in particular, ‘I don’t know if it’s good for the game. It’s good for winning’. This suggests just how much the NHL cares about the overall quality of its product. And the style is effective, of course, in the same way that five guys standing in the key waving both hands over the rim of the net would be effective in basketball. Goalie Tim Thomas won the MVP in 2011, and goalie Jon Quick will probably win the MVP in 2012. Eventually, only goalies are going to with the Conn Smyth, even though they only face about 20 shots per game because another 20-25 are bouncing off no-skill players sitting in the crease or sprawled out in the defensive zone.

And sometimes the Canadian sports media’s function as an echo chamber bothers me. Discourses arise and are repeated here: defensive hockey is good hockey, complete hockey, team hockey. Players that play defensive hockey are ‘good on both sides of the puck’, ‘buying into the team concept’. The style earns ‘rave reviews’ from the Canadian hockey punditocracy. To be a ‘grinder’ – a fringey, physical, fourth-line player, often a fighter, with little skill – is no insult. Perhaps it is now among the highest of compliments, as the grinder Jay Beagle learned when his coach gave him more icetime than Alex Ovechkin, one of the most offensively explosive players the game has ever seen. And as Etchingham reminds us, parity favours randomness as well as defensive-oriented hockey:

As teams match more evenly against each other, short-term unsustainable forces have more influence on major outcomes- bouts of flu and unexpected injuries have more power to utterly derail a season, just as bursts of hot goaltending and shooting have more power to take a team to the top of the standings. Skill matters less, bounces matter more.

In fact, it’s usually skill-oriented Europeans who are marginalized or alienated by this style – Ovechkin, Marian Gaborik, Alex Radulov, Alex Semin, Ilya Kovalchuk. If Kovalchuk and Evgeny Malkin get any credit it’s because they’ve learned to ‘play at both ends of the ice’, which is code for chipping the puck off the boards and blocking shots. This is a glassy-eyed hockey world where no skill and no creativity exist.

It’s not just me and a couple cranks at Yahoo Sports and The Hockey News, either. Women’s hockey great Hayley Wickenheiser is on record as calling it ‘boring’. And in the words of LA Kings legend Marcel Dionne:

The style we’re watching? It is boring hockey. Really boring. Out-muscling, out-bumping … In the meantime, nothing happens … Very seldom do you see a forward beat a defenceman 1-on-1. Doesn’t happen. And the way Wayne (Gretzky) used to curl and trap guys? Very, very few players do this now.

Get it sorted, hockey gods.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

May 16, 2012


(Spoiler alert.)

In chronicling the sudden appearance of low-budget movies in which violent trauma is abruptly forced on unsuspecting people in seemingly serene surroundings, the horror/sci-fi movie critic Richard Scheib coined the phrase ‘backwoods brutality’. This cycle of films emerged in the early 1970s and although the concept has occasionally found expression in other genres (Straw Dogs (1971), Deliverance (1972), for example), since Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) it has become an apparently permanent feature of the horror genre. Almost forty years later the basic idea continues to be re-interpreted and rehashed.

In my view the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is the most successful example of the style. As is standard now, the original takes a kind of blue state/red state dichotomy to a grotesque extreme. There are back roads that lead to another imagined country and its inhabitants exhibit uncontained contempt for oblivious interlopers. We add, then, to the pantheon of horror archetypes, along with vampires, ghouls, and zombies, these orcish middle Americans. It is an open question to me, at least, whether one reason for the endurance of this trope is that for a certain leftish political class it is less like satire and more like a semi-realistic depiction of small-town and rural Southerners and Midwesterners.

In any case, in execution the original is a masterpiece of structure and economy. Its use of tension is meticulously established in the movie’s first forty-five minutes, and then its release, the last forty-five minutes, is actually elegant in its simplicity. Throughout, violence is used in sparing and sudden bursts until the adrenaline-fueled final act, during which it is mercilessly sustained.

Many of these virtues are present in this very good remake, but there are problems. The main one of course is that being a remake it necessarily lacks a spark of genius. This is enough of a reason for some (though not me) to forego the movie in principle. Certainly, an entire industry of tiresome horror remakes have proliferated in the 2000s, but this the best and most lively remake of its kind I’ve seen. The enlarged budget and technical expertise have worked both for and against the film. On the one hand, a variety of new elements have been added to the story. Some, like the mysterious little boy or the ending, feel extraneous, while others, like Leatherface’s exceptionally appalling dead skin mask or the extended family, are more effective. On the other hand, the professionalism and attention to detail demonstrated by Marcus Nispel and Daniel Pearl, who is the director of photography (here as well as for the original), on down to those responsible for filming locations and set detail is consistently impressive.

The basic tension/release framework has been lifted from the original but instead of improving on it with some inspired bit of creativity, the filmmakers have burdened it with additional characters, new situations, more drama, and heightened violence. (We learn from the DVD extras, happily, that some tender moments were left on the cutting room floor.) In these ways the the original’s low-budget guerilla-like realism as well as some of its visceral power have been compromised. But on the balance it works nicely on its own terms, and I think it’s one of the better American horror movies of the 00s. Nispel deserves some credit for attempting to revise the concept in minor ways for fans of the franchise.

Of note, finally, is the performance of Jessica Biel. Having raised her profile modestly since 1996 on the inoffensive Christian tv drama, 7th Heaven, she has found a niche playing characters in physical roles. She’s excellent in this movie, and like that of Marilyn Burns, who played the original indestructible Sally Hardesty, her performance is a kind of endurance test, and despite the insanity it is easy to believe she has the acuity and toughness to survive the ordeal.