Nov 12, 2007

Preaching to the Converted...
OR, Small Press Fair Book Eleven

I have to confess that I wasn't as enthused about attending this edition of the Small Press Fair, considering the dreadful sales that I had in the last two. But still, in the evening prior, I was happy to have found my muse again, and had that "go for broke" enthusiasm with me when I went to the show Saturday morning. I was late getting there as I took longer than expected making "Word of Gord" leaflets, and upon arrival, everything had already been set up... without the organizers even having been there! Plus, I was also nervous when I saw no signs about the fair. The front room of the Trinity-St. Paul Centre was given over for readings all day, therefore there were less than normal numbers of vendors this time, as we were only selling in the one room.

Happily, I ended up selling more than the last two fairs combined (but believe me, that's not saying much), yet still I found sales to be considerably less than I was used to at this venue. I spent a good portion of the day chatting with my neighbour and good friend Gordon Phinn, helping him plug his new chapbook and website, both named "The Word of Gord" with some leaflets I printed the night before. I also spent much time during the day wondering what right I have to be there. I've been coming to the fair for six years, and in most cases, I've sold quite well, perhaps because my publication is obviously different from the majority of what is offered-- novels, chapbooks, and broadsheets. Therefore it stands apart, after customers see table upon table of chapbooks.

And just because I don't publish creative fiction, I still support this independent community with my wallet when I can, and I usually leave with an armload of novels or short stories (but NO poetry) from the fair (this day was no exception). Where the rest of the small press community is concerned, I consider myself to be within and without it. In other words, because I do not publish creative literature (fiction, poetry, etc.), I've never felt to be part of the insular community that has mutually supported one another over the years. That is not to say that I've ever felt unwelcome there, although I often question if this is the right venue for me, as they're selling shoes, and I'm selling hats. But by and large, I do consider these people to be brethren- despite the different things we offer, we're all addressing some need. Either we're finding ways to express ourselves, or to create an avenue of material not properly addressed in the mainstream. One way or another, we're carving out a little corner of this popped culture to call our own.

I've seen a lot of changes at this venue over the eleven fairs I've attended, over the course of six years. At first, ESR was a chalk mark in a rainstorm, being among a small minority offering something other than creative writing or poetry. But over the years, I've seen the emergence of comic books, socio-political humour magazines, fanzines, and even DVD's between the tables of poetry chapbooks.

On Stuart Ross' blog, a lively dialog was begun about the decline of the small press fair (some of the reasons I've cited above), and he's definitely more qualified than most to offer his opinions, as he was the co-founder of the event 20 years ago. He is dead-on with his thoughts about the lack of publicity and fanfare surrounding the event, thereby affecting attendance and sales. While I don't entirely blame the new organizers for this misfortune, (as I know they took over the reigns without any contact information for supplies, etc., and that the Toronto Arts Council funding for this event was dramatically cut) I indeed share his concerns that this fair (his child) is going to die.

But perhaps more troubling is that one Mr. Exclusionary So-and-So responded to his post with bemoaning that so many different kinds of things were now being sold at the fair. All right, but isn't this after all the "small press fair"? God help us if the whole place was filled up with nothing but poetry leaflets about clouds, leaves and kittens. While sure I do other shows during the year in which others with broadsheets of dainty haikus would not attend, I like the fact that this fair is so diverse, and if anything, I think it needs to be bigger to properly accomodate the diversity of what can be offered under the umbrella of "small press".

But also one came away with an elegiac feeling at this fair, as I learned that one of my favourites, "Murderous Signs", had ceased publication. Grant Wilkins' semi-regular litzine, with a quality selection of material, was always a treat at fairs, and even more impressive that he paid his writers for their work, and gave away his publication for free. (In fact, Grant was one of the movers and shakers I praised in my now-classic (?) essay, "Us, Independent Mainstream Pop Culture and the Whole Damned Thing", published in 2003.) In the beginning of his fifteenth and final issue, Grant offered the following explanation for discontinuing this publication (Forgive the long quote, but it's important):

"Ranting and raving in the pages of a litzine about the sterility of what passes for culture in the media, the stupidity of government, the willingness of the media to be spoon-fed "the truth" by whoever happens to be in charge, or the gullibility of the great mass of the public for vacantly accepting this "truth", was and is all very good and very worthy in and of itself. The fundamental problem of course is that in doing so, I'm largely preaching to the converted. The sort of people who pick up litzines like Murderous Signs, who read indie comic books, who go to poetry readings and small press fairs or who listen to campus radio aren't the ones who really need to be knocked about the head with my take on "the truth". These are all the activities an the interests of people who are -at least in some respects- on the fringe of the society, and folks on the fringe -left, right, artistic, lunatic or otherwise- are not the ones whose votes, money and TV remotes drive the empty, commercial of we might laughingly call the cultural life of our civilization."

In a nutshell, Grant proves the very thing that Mr. Exclusionary So-and-So (cited above) ignores by wishing the small press fair would go back to selling nothing but chapbooks about cute bunny rabbits. Regardless of what we're publishing, we're all addressing the need for something not necessarily satisfied by the mainstream. Yet, I only partially agree with Grant's statement about "preaching to the converted". While by and large, the people who attend such events as these are already converted, there is still a considerable number of passersby who haven't yet heard the gospel, and for that matter, may not really be willing to listen to such cultural agenda. They're probably just looking for something entertaining in exchange for whatever dollars they can afford to relinguish. As it gets tougher to eke out a business in a dwindling scene, getting any kind of attention at all is the most we can ask.

Nov 10, 2007

New York in the Fifties (2001)

I read Dan Wakefield's book New York in the Fifties many moons ago, and remember it to be a nice little treat, if not as revolutionary as it could be. And that is precisely my thought of this documentary, which uses Wakefield's book as the template, adding interviews and archival footage.

The central thesis of this film is that all of the revolutionary acts of the 60s had their seeds in the 50s, in the Big Apple, which was the exodus for those who didn't buy the white picket fence dream. As such, within the memoirs of such interviewees as Joan Didion (her novella "The White Album" is the for me the definitive impression of the end of the 60s), Robert Redford, filmmaker Ted Steeg (the man who gave us Coffee House Rendezvous, a lovely educational film I've raved about incessantly), musician David Amram, and writer Nat Hentoff, we are given whispers of women's rights, equality, and most of all, the general sense of acceptance and community in the period. If the 1960's were drugs and rock and roll, with music being the communicative device of the period, the 1950s were booze, jazz, and literature was the language of the people. As such, the film turns startlingly personal, with interviewee Dan Wakefield candidly discussing battling his own demons with alcohol. In that sense, the era of the "three martini lunch" had its casualties, too.

But also there is some terrific archival footage of author James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac on the Steve Allen show, and some hilarious excerpts of Norman Mailer talking about womens lib and its alleged lesbianism! I am curious why Mailer wasn't an interviewee. His was such an important voice of the decade, and also a vital example of how an author became a celebrity outside of the printed word, it would have been interesting to hear his take on things. Instead, the filmmakers used some footage of Mailer, in what I believe to be the 1970s! Ironically, I watched this film at about two in the morning Friday night. In a few hours, Mailer would pass away at the age of 84.

Betsy Blankenbaker's film is a joy to watch. While we learn how revolutionary the decade really was, it was a comparatively quiet revolution. As such, this documentary replies in kind, by gently whispering that message.

Nov 8, 2007

The Rainbow Man / John 3:16 (1997)

If Other Cinema was hiring, I'd drop everything and go work for them. But since they're in California, and the chances of that happening are about as likely as Criterion putting out The Star Wars Holiday Special, I'll just have to content myself with praising their fine line of DVD's in my irregular blog posts that are commonly peppered with the enroaching angst of middle-aged disappointment.

But Craig Baldwin's label Other Cinema is a marvelous resource for interesting, offbeat independent or experimental films, and documentaries. The diversity of his catalogue speaks to the outsider, either by mastering some obscure films that the general populace couldn't otherwise see under normal circumstances, or in that the films themselves are about interesting people or cultural trends that work outside of the system (and in many cases, become swallowed by it).

I am not old enough to have remembered the ubiquitious presence of Rollen Frederick Stewart, AKA- The Rainbow Man, who would always appear in the stands at televised sporting events with his rainbow-coloured wig, and thusly became a mini-celebrity in the process. And even if I were, chances are I would still only have seen him once a year, in those times when I am always dragged by ankles to some bar to watch the Super Bowl (which to me is about as exciting as a tap water tasting party).... I mean, come on guys, do I drag you kicking and screaming to my screenings? (Well, maybe I should start...) Regardless, this documentary by Sam Green (he who gave us The Weather Underground)is universal, and in the ten years since its completion, perhaps even a more relevant diatribe against the celebrity machine, in which people know more about the problems of Lindsay Lohan than their own family, in light of such shows as "American Idol", in which nobodies can become a star for fiteen minutes.... and often at their own expense.

With his rainbow coloured afro wig, and spreading good vibes everywhere, Mr. Stewart became an interesting symbol of the hedonistic "me generation". As such, his fame got him fortune, which was quickly squandered. And before we think this is yet another case of a casualty of the 70s fast lane, his career was born again, literally and figuratively. He converted to Christianity and started preaching the good word in public instead (he and his wife would have shirts with "John 3:16" on them). These two chapters in his life are not incongruous-- either era of his career paint a picture of a man who is absolutely fanatical about what he does. (And we later learn how his obsessiveness met with tragedy.) But also, when he wasn't spreading good vibes or the good word, he would consume television like it was air. This man was-is so obsessed with the broadcast band, and knew how to use it for his own purposes, and in that regard, it is surprising how someone so media savvy, who knew how to milk the system, ultimately became a tragic figure of it.

Nov 7, 2007

A Gunfight (1971)

Ex-gunslinger Will Tenneray (Kirk Douglas) has settled down in the town of Baja Rio, making a living as a conversation piece in the saloon, as a (forgive the pun) draw to get cowboys out to buy more drinks. Along comes gunfighter Abe Cross (Johnny Cash), and in their congenial banter, each man knows that despite their attempts at domesticity, they're still gunfighters at heart, and while neither man bears any ill will or grudge against the other, they mutually agree to have a "winner take all" gun duel to the death, in a bullfighting ring.

This very good, underrated western is evocative of such other pictures of the decade like The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid or The Shootist, which examine the theme of "gunfighter as a museum piece". The gunslinger is considered a novelty act, and at times, incongruous in a changing world. But in this enjoyable capitalist satire, the two gunmen take advantage of their archetypal roles by putting on a grand spectacle (fittingly in an arena where a human can now be slaughtered with the same kind of ironic entertainment value as the killing of an animal), and stand to profit from this humility. But this movie is also an elegiac fable, as each man realizes that at heart they're meant to live and die by the gun, despite the consternation of their women (honey-haired Karen Black is the hooker with a heart of gold who chinks Cross' armour; Jane Alexander has an early role as Tenneray's wife).

Kirk Douglas and Johnny Cash are well-matched-- Kirk's gregarious character is balanced by Cash's more introspective persona. In this rare acting role, the singer appears sometimes awkward in front of the camera, yet it is hard to tell if it is due to his lack of experience as an actor, or if he's really in character as the introverted Cross. Director Lamont Johnson, a veteran of television, excelled on the big screen with such character-driven movies as The Last American Hero or Cattle Annie and Little Britches (someone please put this on DVD), or the interesting thriller The Groundstar Conspiracy. Yet the mind-blowing finale of this sleeper is perhaps the most cinematic he ever got, with slow motion, zooms and dissolves to compliment the trippy double ending, offering alternative conclusions if one or the other survived, but showing why the ending must be so. It is a fitting end for such a thought-provoking movie.

Nov 4, 2007

Bandolero! (1968)

Some nights, when you want to settle down with a movie, you may not be in the right mood to watch something with heavy social values, or an arthouse chamber piece where nothing happens for three hours, or even a lofty independent work that wants to challenge our cinematic conventions. In such evenings of indecision as these, you can never go wrong with a good western.

Outlaw Dee Bishop (Dean Martin) and his gang of varmints get arrested in a botched bank robbery, and are sentenced to hang. His estranged brother Mace (James Stewart) learns of the impending execution, and hatches an elaborate scheme to bust them out, posing as a hanging judge. Hotheaded sheriff Johnson (a slightly overacting George Kennedy) and his posse are in pursuit, as the outlaws head south of the border. Racquel Welch is also on hand as eye candy, as the hostage Maria, whose husband was a bystander killed in the robbery attempt. She has little to do but look fetching, spout Hispanic one-liners, and cause the entire cast to fight over her.

During the credits sequence, we are led to believe that Bandolero! is going to be another American oater of the time which attempted a more modernist approach that copied the stylistics of genre films made across the ocean, with spare shots of Jimmy Stewart riding through the desert accompanied by a Jerry Goldsmith score with the trademark whistling from that of a subversive spaghetti western. And perhaps that is true, once you consider that Jimmy Stewart's actions are more morally ambiguous than anything done by his psychotic antiheroes of the Anthony Mann westerns of the 50's. Yet at heart, it is disarmingly old fashioned, as the motivation for Mace's plans is a curious attempt at giving his long-lost brother some civility. Further, the brothers Bishop treat Maria with nothing less than dignity and exaltation- often fending off the lecherous advances of Dee's fleabitten outlaw sidekicks (among them, Will "Grandpa Walton" Geer!) In a way she represents the stability that the brothers want to have in their lives, but as we know in any western that preaches "those who live by the sword", the humble act of settling down is seldom attained.

While at first, this western is enjoyably satirical, the tone changes once the action shifts south of the border. One is surprised by the harsh violence of a film that otherwise looks and feels classically old Hollywood. Curiously some of the action sequences are rather clumsy, considering by this time director Andrew V. McLaglen was already an old hat at this genre (having recently made McLintock and Shenandoah for example), but the movie is unquestionably exciting and enjoyable.

Nov 1, 2007

A Poet on the Lower East Side (1997)

In 1995, Allen Ginsberg's Hungarian translator, Istvan Eorsi, travelled to New York for several days to meet with the legendary poet-activist-prankster to check on his latest body of work. The two men were followed around by director Gyula Gazdag (perhaps best known here for A Hungarian Fairy Tale), and two cameras. The result, subtitled "A Docu-Diary on Allen Ginsberg", is an endlessly fascinating look at the ghosts of the past.

At first, the film is a bit offputting, as there is really no traditional beginning of hello's or salutations. We open quite abruplty in Ginsberg's apartment with the two men going over sheets of poetry. And I began to fear the worst too, as at first this resembles the shaky camcorder histrionics of "America's Funniest Home Videos", instead of feeling like a "film". But in short order, the direction and camerawork become more assured, as if this small group charted out a more clear purpose for the next few days. As a result one feels this project becoming more alive, and it is exciting to watch.

While we do see some candid footage of the two men at work, discussing Ginsberg's poetry, the ulterior motif of this film is a travelogue of Ginsberg, with Eorsi, not far behind, visiting the remnants of his legacy in New York City. Each day of Eorsi's visit begins with a title card summarizing the day's events that we are about to see. The effect is much like the diary films of Jonas Mekas, who is also featured prominently in this picture.

In this travelogue, we also witness such luminaries as Ginsberg's companion Peter Orlovsky and Beat Generation poet Gregory Corso (who is in his element here). But even more moving, Allen Ginsberg takes the camera crew (and ultimately, the viewer) on a tour through the monuments of the great struggle for change that he and his contemporaries underwent in the tumultuous 1950's. We witness the old jazz club where Charlie Parket played near the end of his life, former beatnik cafes, buildings before which Ginsberg had protested to decriminalize marijuana, among other landmark relics. In fact, the long travelling shot which follows Mekas through the basement of Anthology Film Archives, with rows upon rows of film cans, seems also pertinent to this theme, as we remember the great adversity Mekas had experienced back in the day to show these controversial underground films. And to remind us that the struggle for change continues, we also witness some excellent footage of a squatter's demonstration.

As such, the film ends as abruptly as it began, with no traditional goodbyes. Like a diary entry, the film closes with the activities of the final day-- no great resolutions... his life and work will continue on.

It is re-assuring to hear Ginsberg, almost 70, still hang on to his ideals of social change. Perhaps Ginsberg is-was the most Christ-like figure in American pop culture.... his words and demeanour, alternately angry and calming, standing up for those voices oppressed by the societal norm, are tremendously healing. And he is certainly among the most important voices of the past century-- few other figures in popular culture have spoken to as many generations as he, from the beatniks to the hippies, from the punks to the Gen X'ers... he is a saint to them all.


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