Monday, November 23, 2009

Human Leftovers

“’Trash’: A Queer Film Classic”
By Jon Davies
ISBN No. 978-1-55152-261-6
If you need any proof that this shiny little pocketbook is a serious academic discussion of an old Andy Warhol movie just turn to page 76 of the book. There you’ll find the line, “The second scene finds Joe arguing with Holly…” That’s “second” as in the scene that comes after the title credits and first scene – both of which apparently demanded the first 75 densely detailed pages to explain. Now THAT’S academic.
The movie’s plot is deceptively simple. Joe Dallesandro, a hunky hustler and drug-addict, lives with Holly Woodlawn, a drag queen who turns the trash she collects in the street into furniture for their apartment. In search of his next hit Joe floats from one neighbour to the next, while Holly stays home and fumes. That’s it. That’s pretty much the whole plot of “Trash.”
But whether or not you’ve seen “Trash”, you’re in for a bit of a shock when you start to read this analysis of the movie. The first shock is just how much the movie predicted today’s disposable culture – art- and people-wise. The second shock is just how much mileage (172 footnoted pages!) Davies gets on a single, largely forgotten Andy Warhol movie. Seriously, in a broken English age of texting teens it’s both enlightening and exhausting to read something by someone reading so much into one line of dialogue, one scene, and one movie. Even more daunting is just how cerebral Davies gets. Sure, kids today are socially smart and tech-savvy but I’m not sure they’re going to be able to grasp the “classicism” of a blowjob. That’s a shame, really, because, in our sexually saturated culture the book manages to return the reader to that wow-worthy era when sex wasn’t a spectator sport, drugs were dangerous, and movies were actually worth discussing and arguing about. Carefully sifting through the aesthetic of “Trash” Davies unpacks the movie’s central theme, espoused by the movie’s director, Paul Morrissey: “(T)here’s no difference between a person using drugs and a piece of refuse.” This is heady stuff for those of us who thought “Trash” was just strung-out kids filming each other doing nothing because there was no YouTube back then.
Of course, this being an Andy Warhol movie, the message is muffled (or amplified, if you’re doing a doctorate) under a lot of art school pretensions (male nudity, an opening shot stolen from Marlene Dietrich’s movie “The Blue Angel”) and, like the cocktail chatter at a film festival, some of that zeal amps up Davies’ assessment of “Trash” itself. Sometimes he manages to make the movie sound much better than it is (he mentions the movie’s “thrilling dynamism” and its “stylized super-proximity”). But if you’re going to be cornered by an excitable movie patron at a film festival you’re lucky if it’s Davies. He’ll have you longing for that waaaay bygone era when movies were actually art.
Sure, perhaps at its most grandiose, “Trash” (the book) suggests that “’Trash’ [the movie] urges us to accept as valuable the limited, the tawdry, the vulnerable, and the sordid because they are the common qualities of the human condition.” Oo-kay… We’ll try to ignore the fact that pretty much every movie asks us to accept as valuable the limited, the tawdry, the vulnerable, and the sordid because they are the common qualities of the human condition. But given the ongoing drama of what to do with Vancouver, Canada’s poorest and drug-addled neighbourhood, the downtown east side, “Trash” is more topical today than when it was first released. As for “’Trash’: A Queer Film Classic”, ultimately, it’s a passionate swirling of ideas that makes discovering old movies sound like the most thrilling pursuit ever. Davies’ book has the whispering intimacy and wide-eyed excitement of great date dialogue. Who knew that the most erotic title of recent memory would be a very long review of an old Andy Warhol movie?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Plants for the Grim Gardener

“Black Plants: 75 Striking Choices for the Garden”
By Paul Bonine
ISBN No. 978-0-88192-981-2
How’s this for two words you’d never expect to use together: black plants. No, not the oil-slick shrubs and trees that got major ink in the media when that pipeline burst in a residential area of Vancouver a few years back but actual healthy, thriving plants that just happen to be, well, black. And not the bark-black or brown-black of certain wall flowers or cedars, but the black-Black-BLACK of debt or death. Is there such a thing? Well, according to this surprisingly original gardening book there are actually 75 such things, each of which gets a colour picture, a paragraph and the moisture and light requirements it needs to survive. The Hillside Black Beauty bugbane, for instance, likes “part sun” and “light shade” and – perhaps given the stress of being the only black plant in a garden of rainbow colours – drinks a LOT of rainwater. The book goes on to say, almost with the same relish that Poe wrote about his raven, that the bugbane sports black “lacquered” leaves “as ornate as the carved designs on a piece of Moorish furniture.” As for why some plants are black, science says it likely has something to do with either compounds the plant creates to protect it from sunlight or some pigment-particular genetic trait.
The book suggests that including a black plant in your garden can give the space the mystery and depth of a Dutch realist painting. I think gardeners are more likely to use big black plants to put a period on where their garden ends; kind of like Nature’s Edge. Regardless, whether you use black plants in your garden or put the book “Black Plants” on your coffee table you’re guaranteed a conversation piece.
In Margaret Atwood’s futuristic “Oryx and Crake” much was written about the Chicken McNuggets of the future coming from a genetically modified headless bird. The idea of black plants is similarly sci-fi distressing. In a culture where even funeral flowers are colourful and cheerful, a black plant (black – that metaphor-heaviest of colours) that’s alive and flowering seems downright inconceivable. Can we – should we? – stop and smell the flowers if they’re black? But then again, maybe I’m reading too much into the existence of black plants. It’s not like nature is trying to tell us something. Uh, right?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"A Life in the News"

And Now a Word from Canada's Ted Baxter...

“A Life in the News”
By Tony Parsons
ISBN No. 978-1-55017-461-8
There’s a chapter in this funny, thoughtful memoir from the anchorman of British Columbia’s most popular news program that’s titled “A Short Chapter on a Long-Standing Gripe” that unexpectedly sums up the whole book. In it Parsons complains about on-air flubs and typos. Viewers of Vancouver’s Global news (the show he hosts) will wonder how such an incident-rich history could be such a short chapter. Parsons, apparently, wonders as well. Well, he wonders why all those Middle Eastern regimes insist on electing men with unpronounceable names. He quotes letters from annoyed viewers telling him the difference between “pursuing” charges and “perusing” charges (one of his show’s typos). Then he shares some funny on-air gaffes, like when his former co-anchor called a bone marrow donor a “boner donor.” And then there are the missed cues; moments when the camera is on and the anchor doesn’t know. And what about whe- Sigh… Weren’t the Webster awards (Global has won a few over the years) supposed to be for excellence? Rejoice, fans of The Mary Tyler Moore Show; WJM-TV is alive and well and telecasting from Burnaby B.C.!!!
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (okay, it is if you’re a serious news junkie). The public has spoken and this is what they want: to watch stories hot off the wire service read by the same kind of people they wouldn’t mind chatting with while they’re waiting for the bus: unthreatening, smiling, and admittedly human in that ‘everyone-makes-mistakes’ kind of way. A memoir by the anchorman of such a show should be a no-brainer; a behind-the-scenes look at the people behind the news. But while Mom and Pop Canada will be charmed by Parsons’ self-deprecating honesty about his bouts with drink, depression, and marriage (he’s currently on his fourth), aspiring journalists will do a lot of skimming – until they get to a couple of wow-worthy chapters where Parsons talks about covering political scandal, the future of TV news and – especially - his vivid recollection of being disciplined for criticizing his boss and co-workers publicly. Still, the book is also likely to give anyone who cares about proper English and likes their news delivered with some dignity a major mad-on about the current state of the fifth estate. Yes, Parsons says, he’s frustrated by the on-air typos. And, yes, according to the book he’s hand-delivered dictionaries and books on correct grammar to the office gremlins himself. All of which begs the question: So why do the flubs just keep coming? And why is Parsons complaining to the public when he’s the one in a position to demand it get fixed? Maybe the Global on-air crew should just ad-lib the news if reading it is such a bother. Whatever your potshot, it’s a disturbing, enlightening and bizarre situation that a book that’s supposed to celebrate an anchorman’s legacy should instead prompt the question: Why should anyone care about proper spelling and grammar if the most watched news show in B.C. doesn’t? I mean isn’t the news, as Lou Grant once told Mary Richards, something sacred?
Well, apparently the rules are different at Global and the result is that everything that the Global news show touches gets tainted: the ratings system which says they’re the most watched news program in B.C. (which in itself is a sorry statement about the devolution of the Canadian voter), the news shows on other channels (in a bid to catch up to Global, ratings-wise, the formerly smart CTV newscast has adopted the former’s torturous friendly banter between cackling on-air “personalities”), and especially those “awards” for “excellence” Global’s won - despite all those on-air typos, missed-cues and mispronounced words.