Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Samurai at the Roxy

In 1971, a festival called Films of Japan opened at the Roxy Theatre in Toronto. For some reason I don't remember, I attended the first film, got hooked, and then attended all of the subsequent showings until the series was cancelled, halfway through the thirty-odd films.

One of the first films I saw was Samurai Rebellion. A black and white film made in 1967 by the director Masaki Kobayashi, it concerns a Samurai family slowly drawn into a confrontation with their lord. I was fascinated by the medieval dress, the interior simplicity of the dwellings of rich or poor, the elaborate protocol and intricate social systems, the highly ordered and stylized culture. The slowly mounting tension of the story finally explodes with incredibly fury. In the climax two Samurai friends who find themselves on opposite sides calmly duel to the death under dark clouds near a field of long grass undulating in a fierce wind. It was certainly one of the most powerful scenes I had ever seen in cinema at that point.

In 1971 Japan, although still notorious for it's aggression in World War Two, was just another little Asian country, known for cheap plastic toys. The first few cars from Japan had just started to trickle in with awkward names like Datsun, Toyoto and Mazda. The sole perception of quality was in Canon and Nikon cameras. There were only two or three Japanese restaurants in Toronto. But if Japan seemed quaint and irrelevant to those around me, it was no longer so for me.

Thus the beginnings of my Japanophilia. I was soon investigating the nation of islands any way I could. I encountered the woodcuts of Hokusai and Hiroshige and bought reproductions for my walls. I listened to Koto music. I experimented with a Japanese lunch item made by rolling up cold rice and various other ingredients in a sheet of dried seaweed and slicing the resulting log into sections. I visited the Japanese Canadian Cultural Center and naively bought a “Learn Japanese” manual. I read novels, poetry, biographies and travelogues. I got the first hints that all is not cherry blossoms and immaculate gardens in the Japanese psyche, that underneath lie some incredibly twisted and bizarre impulses and practices. I saw more films. My first car was made in Hiroshima. I planned to visit Japan.

These days, in my part of town, its easier to get sushi than a hamburger. The bin at the video store for the films of the modern director Takashi Miike is larger than those for Bergman and Fellini combined. Japan is no longer seen as quaint and irrelevant. But my interest persists. So yesterday I was pleased to find that I still possessed the poster for that film festival at the Roxy many years ago.

And notwithstanding my respect for Japan's most famous director, Akira Kurosawa, my three favourite films are still Samurai Rebellion, Harikiri and Kwaidan, all by Masaki Kobayashi.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012


A photo I took today over about 30 miles of water of Hamilton steelworks down the lake from Toronto. Notice how the image of the buildings is mirrored and the whole thing seems to be floating above the water. The texture of the waves is very odd too. I used a 300mm telephoto lens and then cropped down the image by about 20X.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Burn, Burn, Burn

This is the story of four friends. It is not usually told this way.

Three young men met in New York in 1944. Two years later they were joined by the fourth.

Each with different characteristics, they formed an interesting synergy......
......A handsome athlete, a shy drifter, born into a French Canadian Catholic family in small town New England.
......An intense bisexual Jewish teenager from New Jersey
......A perverse, paranoid drug addict, the oldest at 30, supported by his rich St. Louis family.
......And a western hustler from Denver, a chronic car thief, a “holy goof” whose manic energy inspired his friends.

These four created a mad lifestyle of immediacy and high spirits fueled by drink, jazz, high speed driving, drugs, taboo sex, hitch hiking, rootless wandering and minimal employment. Postwar America was a place of conformity and rising materialism, and their lifestyle contradicted that, but I doubt if this mattered much to them, they just loved living that way.

Friends through the late Forties and Fifties, these men kept up a voluminous correspondence, on occasion sharing wives or being lovers themselves, and rushing madly in various permutations between New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Mexico City, Tangiers and Paris, together with an ever widening number of new friends and associates.

They all had a love of writing. One amongst them wrote novels that chronicled their lives, and so to large extent were autobiography. That he was able to capture the spirit of their life in words, without any discourse or editorial (aside from an occasional Buddhist note), is his achievement.

Jack Kerouac's famous novel, On the Road, written in 1951, was published in 1956, but the events depicted, the arrival of Neil Cassidy into the group including William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, had actually occurred ten years earlier.

The book was reviewed in 1957 in the New York Times, and called a major novel, and although that opinion was far from unanimous at the time, there is no doubt that the book has had a lasting presence. Protest in the Fifties was almost non-existent, although one must mention people like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. But the novels of Kerouac and Burroughs, and the poetry of Ginsberg, went a long way to igniting the counter culture that arose first with folk music, then the Sixties dissension and exploration.

The circle of friends romp through most of Kerouac's books. Neil Cassidy becomes Dean Moriarty or Cody Pomeray. Kerouac becomes Sal Paradiso or Jack Duluoz, or Leo Percepiad. Ginsberg is Carlo Marx or Irwin Garden or Adam Moorad. William Burroughs is Old Bull Lee or Bull Hubbard. And similar names are created for their other friends, a Who's Who of bohemian America including Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure and other writers like Alan Watts, William Carlos Williams, Randal Jarrell, Kenneth Rexroth.

The close friendship came to dissolve in the early Sixties as fame and and other pressures rendered the mad lifestyle impossible, and Kerouac and Cassidy died before the decade ended. But the Beat writers, as the four friends came to be known, changed things with the spirit they lived by, as much as anything they wrote.

"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles." (from On the Road)

trailer for the upcoming movie of On the Road

trailer for the movie "Howl"

trailer for the movie "The Source"

oh, and read the books too.......

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band You Never Heard Of

We tend to think that talent and accomplishment mean fame and success. One Toronto band, the Monitors, who in my estimation created awesome music, got very little recognition, didn't last long, and no doubt was completely paid for out of the band members pockets.
I first heard them around 2006 in a tiny little place on Queen Street called the Smiling Buddha bar. When they got up to play I had no idea who they were but immediately realized how great they were.
Keith on his Melody Maker
Their last show was several years later at Clinton's. Some band got up before them, did a tasteful set, showed how good they were on their instruments and behaved like they thought a rock band should. Ho Hum. Then the Monitors got up and tore the place apart like they had no choice. And that was that.
Diego Shea
Special mention goes to Diego Shea, who did main vocals and songwriting. He's currently playing in the Castros. The Monitors Myspace page is still available, with four great songs you can hear, of which Easy Rider is my favourite. Go to Myspace and search for "themonitorsmusic". I'm happy owner of a copy of all demos extant (thanks Keith). Sometimes world-class bands play just down the street for free.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Why Meditate ?

glass of water
I have been meditating for about 12 years, on and off. I'm not sure about the benefits. I think I may have received benefits, but its not something I can point to with words. Things can be subtle but still very powerful. Maybe I'm more relaxed, maybe I'm more patient, more grounded, more content, more able to take time to smell the roses. It's hard to say. 

It's important to see what our condition is. I believe that all us modern folks are actually weird and dysfunctional versions of humanity. Most spiritual paths have a way of talking about this and the usual idea is that we each have two selves, one that is essential and exists in the moment, and one that is conditioned and focused on past/future and grasp/avoid.

Meditation is a chance for your essential self to get its time in the light, so to speak. But when we are in the present we don't care about benefits. And being concerned about benefits keeps us from being in the present moment. 

So rather than benefits, think of meditation as a chance to practice being, or to just be. 

If meditation has one obvious benefit, its that it helps us see how our mind works, and what we're really thinking about. And where our attention usually is (which ain't the present moment). As my (then) teenage son said to me after his first meditation class "Dad, I can't stop thinking!". So one of the benefits is seeing what going on inside yourself, learning about yourself. You'd be surprised at the misconceptions we have about what goes on in our own minds.

Some people meditate to have blissful experiences, or become more peaceful, or to calm down. That's fine, but when you have a idea like that, your setting a goal, having expectations, judging and rejecting anything that doesn't seem to be giving you the experience you want. But being in the moment requires that you accept the moment for what it is, not what you want it to be. Its hard because its so simple.

Even sitting cross legged on a cushion can be a trap, as I think of myself as "meditating" and being "spiritual". Better to meditate by just sitting in a chair alone in a room for half an hour and doing nothing. 

I think the only thing to try to do, when your thinking mind will let you remember, is to place your attention on some sensation, be it a sound, a visual detail, or the feeling of space around you in the room. This is "doing" yes, but it then allows you to have a few moments perhaps of "being", and surely it is a good thing to just "be" fully in our life once and a while.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Starvecrow on Street View

Today I decided to search for my birthplace.....on Google Street View. 

Since my origin was rural Ontario, I wasn't sure if this was possible, but it proved easy. Clicking down on some likely sideroads, I soon found the brick farmhouse where friends of my parents, who my Sister and I knew as "Uncle" Jack and "Aunt" Mabel, had farmed. Although we had lived in the area only a few years, we had returned frequently for a visit. I then zoomed down the road a mile or so and found the bridge over the stream where I had fished as a boy. OK, I thought, lets see if I can find the house I was born in, so I clicked down on the road at a good starting point, just east of Leaskdale. I did a quick 360 and there it was, unmistakable in its simplicity!  

A rectangular box with a door dead centre and two flanking windows, the symmetry only broken by a chimney on one end, the wood plank construction having neither the elegance or cachet of brick, stone or log. This is the house my parents called Starvecrow, because they joked even a crow would starve there. This is the house where I was born in the middle of a blizzard, with only my Grandfather to assist my Mother. My Father had gone for the doctor, but was unable to make it back in time because of the huge snowdrifts. 

A screen crop of the Street View image is above. Below is a detail from a watercolour presented to my parents and dated at what would have been around the time of my conception. It shows that a chimney has been removed and a vertical siding added to the present structure. The inscription reads "with best wishes to a happy couple, Edgar Pauliof, July 3 / 46".

Thank you Google.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Pleasures of the Harbour - Phil Ochs

Pleasures of the Harbour was an album released in 1967, which I remember hearing back then, but only became reacquainted with recently. The artist is Phil Ochs, a folk singer of that era, who somewhat rivalled Dylan as a composer and performer of topical protest songs. And like Dylan he began at a certain point to create music of a more personal and experimental nature. Pleasures of the Harbour, although having protest songs on it, also had two lengthy songs (eight minutes plus), Pleasures of the Harbour and The Crucifixion, of a completely different direction from Ochs previous music.

Both songs, in my opinion, have been severely damaged by overproduction, in one a swelling orchestral score, in the other an electronic soundtrack. Nevertheless, both songs are powerful, moving, unique. Even though I had not heard them for over forty years, they immediately leapt into my memory and took me to the same beautiful and haunted place they had 45 years before.

Ochs voice is unique, a sparse, earthy, noble and deeply human sound, the lyrics are poetry, the cadenced melodies unfold in hypnotic progression.

There are a number of shorter live versions of these songs on youtube, and although not ideal, I find them better than the original studio versions.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Take Shelter

Hollywood is tripping over itself to do vampires, zombies, superheroes, remakes of foreign films, reissues in 3D. Then these little films like Take Shelter come along and make me believe in the magic of film again. Any film that really surprises me, that keeps me guessing, that sticks in my mind for days after to be digested, gets my vote.

I love quirky little films by unknown directors with unknown actors. Well, unknown actors at the time, Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain have since achieved enviable reputations.

Good films have a unique flavour, a mood, like a dream, that persists in the memory. A singular flavour created by the actors faces, the story, the music, the film making style. Cliched films have no residue because there is nothing new, but a good film creates its own mood unlike any other.

This film, somewhat of a harrowing experience, concerns a very ordinary man living a very ordinary life who begins to realize that something deep and ominous and unknown is beginning to form in his world and no one else can sense it.

The ending stands as the most powerful and perfectly realized two minutes of film-making I can remember. And the musical score is brilliant and perfectly suited to the film.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Black and White For Sure

Saw these cormorants down on the breakwater, Sunnyside, Toronto. Interesting how they all line up, evenly spaced (there were more, but this is all my lens would include). Then this swan swims by, an interesting contrast. I had no hesitation in making this a black and white photo !