Aug 29, 2007

Remembering Doug Riley

This post is slightly off-topic as it has little or nothing to do with film, or VHS collecting. However, since of late, my posts have been increasingly personal, as they are often about memory, this is therefore fitting.

I was somewhat shocked this morning to learn that keyboardist and arranger par excellence Doug Riley died suddenly on Monday while waiting in a plane travelling from Calgary to PEI. He was still young at 62, yet left behind a legacy of music that could fill many lifetimes. Doug had early on earned the monicker of "Dr. Music", a namesake for the band he also created. This supergroup (a veritable who's who of Canadian jazz players), tinged with R&B, gospel, rock and jazz, earned some Top 40 hits in the early 1970's, with "One More Mountain To Climb" and "Sun Goes By". And in addition, Doug was a session player for everyone from the Brecker Brothers to Bob Seger. He also was very busy as an arranger. This tireless wonder could move effortlessly from arranging a classical piece for Placido Domingo to playing the dirtiest blues. For all that, his greatest love was jazz, and Doug was truly one of the masters of the Hammond B3.

When Susan and I were first courting, she had taken me to The Orbit Room to see Doug in a trio called "Smoke". And that was it-- we were "Smokeheads". For about six months, we had visited the place quite frequently on Smoke's regular Tuesday night gigs. With Doug on the B3, his son Ben, then 19, on drums (ironically named after another drummer named Ben Riley), and Tim Tickner as the frontman, interspersing his vibes and electronic percussion with beat poetry, free association, and another in a series of political rants, this band was a truly phenomonal, impossibly funky outfit, combining jazz, R&B, beatnik ambience, and whatever else. Their version of BB Gabor's "Simulated Groove" often opened their show (causing "This is a simulated groove, and I'm trying to look happy" to be a catch phrase in our house), and such ditties as "Harry How Your Garden Does Grow", "Sunflower" or "Gunpoint" turned this into the best night out bohemians like us could ever want. Sadly, this outfit never recorded, at least not to my knowledge, as Smoke should have been the next big thing in the local scene.

But still, we would end up seeing plenty of Doug Riley about town, often with his B3 Quartet featuring saxman Phil Dwyer as the frontman (on stage, Doug has a very quiet demeanour-- he lets the keys do all the talking), with his old friend Moe Koffman in one of the flautist's final public appearances, and even among the B3 Organ Summit, although Doug was unfairly given less chance to play.

On stage, Doug also left an indelible image, usually decked out with dark glasses, a cowboy hat, and ubiquitous cigarette-- a quiet storm who created some of the most sweetest thunder. And despite having worked with a Christmas wish list of talent north and south of the border, he still nonetheless felt happiest playing in Canada's figurative backyard, and our country is all the better for still having this treasure all to ourselves. The legacy of Doug Riley is a true Canadian institution.

Since this is after all a film blog, I suppose we should close with this amusing footnote, that Doug Riley also contributed to the history of Canadian cinema, having found time in his busy schedule to compose music for Ivan Reitman's early films Foxy Lady, and -you guessed it- Cannibal Girls. Rest in peace Doug, you're the greatest.

Tales of an Analog Enthusiast Volume Two... kinda

This weekend I had rented a car, as on the Sunday it was Decoration Day in my hometown, where people decorate the stones of their deceased loved ones. We were celebrating our anniversary on the Sunday, therefore I opted to go pay my respects on the Saturday instead. This trip had ulterior motives too, as along the way I would make a pit stop at any Cash Converters, hock shop or thrift store I could find along the way, all in the name of finding cheapo video tapes.

Ah, my faithful reader, you're probably thinking, "Didn't he get his fill at Sam's?" Well yes, but specifically today's hunt was for some place that would be selling VHS tapes en masse for really cheap, as when ESR publishes the "VHS RIP" issue next month, it is my intention to package the magazine with party favours-- a mystery VHS tape. Even so as the day crept on, and my number one duty for the day would be further pushed back, I never took the time to inquire at a couple of places that were selling VHS's off at a buck each if they would do a wholesale deal. (But all is not lost, I still found some Interglobal titles for my own collection.)

In addition, it was my hope to snap some pictures of drive-ins for my website "See You At the Drive-In". When my father and I travelled to London last month to see about his treatments, I could swear we passed a drive-in on Highway 53, and I attempted to find it on the drive down to Simcoe. Well before I knew it I was in Woodstock, and being in a blinding rainstorm didn't help, so I decided to stop screwing around and go pay my respects proper.

I arrived in Simcoe at 4:30 in the afternoon, affording me enough time to purchase two armloads of artificial floral arrangements for the cemetery. It was weirdly fitting that the sun came out at the precise moment I was picking out the decorations. In the past four years, for whatever personal reasons I've gone back to Simcoe, I've managed to squeak in these moments where I drive by old haunts, always intrigued by the notion of how things have changed since I left them. In some cases, it is a melancholy experience, in in others it is strangely comforting as I briefly encounter the ghosts of my past.

This night, I decided to detour to Tillsonburg on the way back... for two reasons. First, in the hamlet of Courtland just on the east side, there used to be the Skylark Drive-In, which closed in 1992. I hadn't visited either of these towns since then, thus I was curious to see if there were still any remnants of the drive-in, and a resounding "nope" there. Now proudly sits a lumber store where the screen under the stars used to be (at least it's not a fricken condo). So much for today's photo ops. Anyway, in a few more minutes I was in downtown Tillsonburg trying to find pieces of me from 15 years ago.

Back in 1992, I had a second job on weekends working at the convenience store up the street from my house (my mother worked full-time there on weekdays), and in addition, once a week at about 6 AM, I would drive to Tillsonburg to the wholesale store where shopowners would customarily buy canned goods, soda and other such things, to stock up on provisions for the store. You may remember in my first volume of "Analog Enthusiast", discussing people who travelled the county circuit, filling convenience stores with their inventories of movies, as in those days mom and pop variety stores could seldom afford such overhead. Like Ronnie, previously celebrated in Volume One, my boss Steph was another who travelled the circuit with crates of movies to replenish variety stores with video rentals. But in addition to that, he owned two convenience stores of his own. Besides the one in Simcoe that my mother and I worked at, he also had a store in Tillsonburg- and would frequently work shifts there as he also lived in that town. When I ventured to Tillsonburg, I would often stop off at Steph's store to drop off a few supplies. Since Steph was a distributor of movie rentals, most of his store was filled to the brim with movie boxes, much more than the two shelves of films in Simcoe's store. And usually, in addition to dropping off supplies, I would shoot the breeze with him for a few minutes, as he sure knew hell of a lot about film. In fact, I was doing a little video project at that time, and Steph allowed me to do a quick shoot in his store, as I needed a shot of myself looking at movies in a video store.

Yet coming back into Tillsonburg that Saturday night reminded me of another ghost in the past that I hadn't thought of in a long time... part of the summer of 1990 was spent in Tillsonburg selling Filter Queen vacuums! This memory was perhaps enforced by the sights of the same kind of Sad Sacks I used to attempt to sell vacuum cleaners to 17 years ago standing in front of the Tim Horton's staring out at the empty street looking for something, anything. This image is further given melancholy by the pervasive 60's crooners that populated the bandwidth of the town's AM Radio station, whose musical melodies gave imagery of a dreamland far, far away from the people that I would attempt to sell a vacuum to.

AM Radio figures a lot in my recollections of Tillsonburg, as those weekly jaunts at the crack of dawn were also filled with golden oldies blaring in my car. In fact one piece of mental cinema that remains lodged in my memory, is driving by this retro truck-stop diner on a lonely southern stretch of the highway, as the pink horizon broke in the background, while Joni Mitchell's "Coyote" played in the car. In fact, I tried to find that restaurant Saturday night, but it too may be gone now-- it's been 15 years.

But also, I had spent some time trying to find that little side street that Steph had his store, and after much trial and error, I found it, and the effect was not unlike Paul Newman in The Color of Money visiting this loft full of junk where a pool hall had once been 25 years previously. In truth, I still expected the store to be functional, and, I'll admit it, I had half expected Steph to still be there. Who knows? Maybe he would have sold me some old VHS tapes. But instead, the store had been turned into a residence, yet they still kept the design of the buildling intact (although with all the aluminum siding and the slanted roof, I believe it had been a residence prior to being a store).

Visiting my relatives at cemetery can be a sometimes overwhelming experience, especially when I visit the site shared by my mother and my oldest brother. And I suppose my brother would laugh at the irony, that after the whole day, the thing that would eventually choke me up was a Hollies CD I bought in a hock shop for three bucks! This greatest hits collection also had the AM staple "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother", which strikes me with more resonance because shortly after my brother passed away, a public service announcement using this song was frequently shown on television. And so, after playing this CD in my car all day, and pulling in back in front of my house in Toronto, at the end of the night, it was then that everything hit me, now that my mind had managed to stop for a while. And hearing this song for the nth time while I was parked, seeing my reflection in the car window while looking up at the moon, is when the day finally caught up with me, and I wept right at the wheel. As much as it is somewhat cleansing for me to visit old haunts and seeing that the ghosts of my memories still dance there, it is also an overwhelming one. Yes, it is a painful process sometimes to relive pieces of time that cannot be replicated, with people no longer among the living, but I do not consider the past to be dead. It still dances on in my soul.

Pasta with Mr. Pleznik

(Well, after three weeks of battling the worse cold I've ever had, I'm finally back with enough faculties to complete the post that should have been added to this blog on or shortly after Wednesday August, 8.)

On the night of Wednesday the 8th, Susan and I were among those who were reunited with my dear old friend (and one of my mentors) Brad Puskas for a little soiree at The Old Spaghetti Factory. At the age of 21, I had made the daring, but insurmountably rewarding decision to return to high school and upgrade my Grade 13. Brad was then teaching theatre arts at school (I had not known him previously), and we became fast friends with our shared love of theatre and film. (At first, I couldn't remember his last name, and kept referring to him as "Mr. Pleznik", and the name stuck with some of us. But pretty soon, I didn't need to refer to him as Mr. Anything. We became close enough that "Brad" sufficed.)

For him and our mutual dear friend Scott Allgood (who taught English as well as Theatre Arts), I happily apply the title of "mentor". While I never had Brad as a professor, and although Scott had taught me in the first round of Grade 13, my association with these two outside of day classes, during that epochal year of 1988-89 had shaped much of the person I was through their guidance and encouragement... that person that I still attempt to recapture however weak-kneed nearly 20 years later.

Those crazy ten months to date remain the most overwhelming, trailblazing and rewarding moments of my professional life. In addition to taking a full day of classes, all while doing full-time shift work, I still somehow found time to be in two plays, and write and direct a feature-length video... all while forging friendships and blessing me with experiences that I will cherish to my grave. This monumental time of my life deserves a book in order for me to properly give credence to all of those magic moments, and some day I will write it-- it wouldn't matter if I was the only one who would read it.

And although Brad, Scott and I shared many hours elaborating on our love of theatre by putting together a play which managed to make it all the way to the semi-finals of the Sears Drama Festival, and also filled the corners with shop talk of our mutual love of cinema, another bond that I think is integral to this relationship is that we're all Sagittarians, whose birthdays all fall within the first two weeks, and thusly we all have that mad passion to march to our own drummers, and to reach for the stars despite any obstacle. (Plus, we share a certain sardonic humour.) In these pivotal ten months, my previously shiftless life was re-anointed with the possibility that I could do anything, and I damn near did.

In nearly 20 years, I doubt an hour of my waking life passes without some thought of those moments in time. Partially, I know much of this thinking as my trying to live back up to them. This incredible empire of creativity, fun and vitality had to end nearly as quickly as it had started. This core had fallen apart as people (like myself) had gone to the city to school, gotten jobs in the real world, or settled down. After subsequent attempts by myself to vainly try to re-capture the magic, I had finally taught myself to accept that the past had to be left alone.

In ensuing years, I had still kept in touch with Brad sporadically, as he became the art teacher, had divorced, re-married, had two kids and moved to Antigonish, and had lost his second wife to cancer. Thanks to that wonderful invention called Facebook, I had managed to re-establish contact with many of my old cohorts, and during the summer when he was visiting his family in Ontario, Brad had planned a makeshift reunion with students he had similarly befriended over the years. The irony lover in me would be remiss if I didn't at least mention that seeing him in person again after all these years couldn't have come at a more opportune time.

Early in the week, I had become more aware than ever of the disarray I commonly refer to as my life. Perhaps I was undergoing more self-awareness because of the upcoming reunion, but my self-realization increases with inverse proportion as the days decrease towards "mid-life crisis" time. If the Greg Woods of 1989 saw me pissing away my time with what commonly fills my days, he would probably kick my ass, and I wouldn't blame him.

As I creak toward the mountain peak this year, these days have paused for a lot of reflection, helped also in no small measure by Facebook. Even though it seems just like yesterday when I was a precocious student who still had promise, it's incredible how much has changed while other things remain the same. People whom I thought would never get laid in their entire life are now settled down with a couple of kids. Meanwhile at the bat cave, it seems I've spent the past eighteen years simply spinning my wheels in the muck. Early on, I made a lot of sacrifices to instead pursue an elusive dream, idling away my time on unfinished projects and creating one mess after another. Now, I'm not turning this into an exercise of self-pity, as I realize I'm luckier than most people, not least because I have been fortunate to be with that special someone for a dozen years now, when many people I know still have no one to come home to. Essentially, this crescendo of self-reflection has just made me realize to stop fucking around and get on with things, decide what of these half-finished dreams I still want to complete, and be more aggressive about changing the things in my life that need it.

Crescendos are coupled with diminuendos, and as such, chaos is followed by calm. That Wednesday night, it was not hard for the Greg Woods of 2007 to re-discover that Zen calm I always got from Mr. Pleznik. I am reminded of the times in Allgood's class poring over "Film Comment" and saying "Why don't we do this? Why don't we do that?" , or philosophizing over cider in Mr. Pleznik's living room as "Great Gig in the Sky" idled on in the background. Although it took me a moment to locate him in the restaurant as he was without his trademark ponytail, and despite that his life (like many, I'm sure) has had many hardships in these eighteen years, here he was... the same old Brad, with his trademark sardonic wit, sense of fun, and constant evolving (as he talked of his own short-term aspirations).

As such, one cannot help but have a bit of his aura rub off on those around him. One of the final remarks made in the evening was "I was sure Greg would be the first to produce films". This was not meant as a put-down, just a matter of fact. But this statement spoke more to more than he may have thought, as in the past few years i've been less enthusiastic about producing my own work (especially since so much of my time is devoted to upholding other people's). But more to the point, this reunion with my old friend was an indirect reminder for me to stop spinning my wheels, and confront myself with hard questions about what I am truly passionate about. And who knows? Maybe I just might find a bit of that magic from 1989 in the process.

Aug 6, 2007

Playing Tennis With Mimes... Remembering Michelangelo Antonioni

During the 1995 Oscar ceremony, director Michelangelo Antonioni was presented with an honourary Oscar for his body of work. Before he was given the award, there was a marvelous montage of famous moments from his films, with his trademark striking composition, set to Pink Floyd's "Careful with that Axe Eugene" (used in Zabriskie Point). I had had some wonderful grass while watching the Oscars, and so this moment for me was an even greater sensory pleasure, enhanced with some natural stimulants. And when we look back upon the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, who died last week on the same day as Ingmar Bergman, that is perhaps what we remember most about his work. His striking frame compositions made his work worth seeing, although ultimately the worlds his films depicted were far from flattering.

In her classic essay, "Zeitgeist and Poltergeist: Are Movies Going to Pieces?" (collected in I Lost It At The Movies), Pauline Kael equated Antonioni's La Notte (and other arthouse classics of the day) to a modern-day horror film, with the hostess of the party uttering the line "They're all dead in here". If isolation and de-humanization are the horrors of the postwar industrial age, then Michelangelo Antonioni was its Tod Browning.

During his heyday in the 1960's Antonioni earned the nickname "The Master of Alienation" with almost as much pop-art colloquialism as Hitchcock being named "The Master of Suspense". Although having made a few features in the 1950's, it was the auspicious Cannes debut of L'Avventura that announced his arrival to world cinema. This epic-length fable, in which one of the lead characters disappears on an island without the others noticing, created an uproar while it was being projected, and still managed to take a special prize. In subsequent films, La Notte, Eclipse and Red Desert (his first colour film), similar afflictions of malaise and de-humanization affected his characters, in their inability to have warm relationships with another human being. And with the strategic, almost mathematical framing of his characters amidst the equally cold steel and concrete edifices of the modern world, his subjects would become as architectural as their surroundings.

And as such, when his characters did speak to one another the dialogue was enigmatic as to be otherworldly, as in the famous scene in Red Desert, showing Monica Vitti's conversation with a seaman, and neither understands what the other is talking about. To be certain, these films weren't for everyone- seeing bored-looking people standing around for two hours thusly caused people to christen his work as Antoniennui. (And as such, when one thinks of memorable moments in his work, it is usually those with strikingly composed visuals than when their characters are forced to act. Red Desert opens and closes with these arresting sequences of Monica Vitti walking through an industrial area, made further jarring by a weird electronic score. But in between, not much happens.)


But Blowup cemented his reputation. This 1966 classic, set in the swinging London mod scene, features a photographer (David Hemmings), who realizes that he may have accidentally taken pictures of a murder. The movie is not a "who done it", or perhaps not even a "what was done", as the murder, such as it is, became largely a springboard for him to evaluate what is real or transitory in his own lifestyle. The pop-art excess of the Swinging London mod scene is the backdrop of his world, where sex and drugs are plentiful, but ultimately unrewarding, as he searches for a new level of enlightenment. Leave it to Antonioni to set a film in such a vibrant landscape as these countercultural happenings, and then ultimately show just how soul-destroying it is. The famous scene where The Yardbirds play in a club is notable for how the spectators are as immobile as store mannequins. Thomas the photographer's view of reality is crumbling, where the gun disappears from his frame blowups, yet re-appears later; the body in the park is seen one moment, gone the next.

The ending of Blowup is my favourite moment of all the Antonioni I've seen. Back in the park, the photographer watches the mimes play tennis (with imaginary racqets and balls). At one point, the imaginary ball goes over the fence. The camera stays on Hemmings as he throws the ball back in the court, and then subtly, we hear the sound of a tennis ball being knocked back and forth. The protagonist can no longer discern what is real in his world, but finally learns that reality is what people around him artificially create.

Blowup created some notoriety in its day for its nudity and sexual situations (although very tame today), and was also the rare foreign film of the time to be played in theaters as remote as Smalltown Middle America. (While it is English-language, the film is distinctively European in style).

Antonioni's next assignment, naturally, was in Hollywood, Zabriskie Point (1970) was a huge flop. While today it has a cult following, (and perhaps I'm among them) it is admittedly silly, though far from uninteresting. Its central problem is the two weak leads (Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin) who escape their counterculture radical environment, via a stolen plane, and attempt to create a Dionysian world of their own in the desert. However, the adult world soon catches up to them. Many of the set-pieces in this film are as foolish as they are profound. When the two hippie lovers finally copulate in the desert, we are also privy to a hundred other flower children rolling around in the sand. On another level, Zabriskie Point is one of the finest examples of what happens when Hollywood employs (and otherwise distorts) the talents of someone as distinctive as Michelangelo Antonioni. (Another recent example is Emir Kusturica's unwatchable Arizona Dreams) Instead of making a definitive statement piece about the counterculture, Antonioni's approach is like a Martian making a movie about Earth-- illustrating his subject in a language that is so removed from those who would go to see it. Yet, despite the film's oddball symbolism, it is fascinating for all of these things. And it ends with a bang-- literally. The climactic scene where we see architecture and consumerism of the modern world explode and watch the debris float onscreen in slow motion, set to Pink Floyd's "Careful With that Axe, Eugene", is absolutely mesmerizing.

Jack Nicholson in The Passenger

The Passenger (1975) was perhaps his last great success, as it has all of the earmarks of classic Antonioni- strikingly composed landscapes and a protagonist who escapes one's identity. And it is remembered for an 11-minute unbroken shot in its finale where we realize that the hero summarily becomes trapped in his new realm of existence. This is perhaps the third of an unofficial trilogy, where the heroes face tragedy while searching for a new life. Actor Jack Nicholson held the rights to this picture, and had long kept it out of circulation, until its celebrated release on DVD last fall.

For a man of Antonioni's reputation, surprisingly, subsequent films were not picked up for North American distribution, such as Identification of a Woman (1982), and after a stroke in 1985, which severely affected his speech, his forays behind the camera were even more spotty. Beyond the Clouds (1995) was co-directed by Wim Wenders, and his segment for the omnibus film Eros (2004), was greeted with laughter. (The other two pieces, by Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar-Wai garnered much more favour.) Perhaps his most telling cinematic swansong was the short film Michelangelo Eye to Eye (2004), where Michelangelo Antonioni himself appears on camera, gazing at the sculptures of Michelangelo. This figurative joining of the two Michelangelo's is slight, but perhaps encapsulates his career-- where the human subjects are engulfed by, and slaves to an overpowering landscape.