Sunday, April 26, 2015


In the early 20th century, William Mulholland, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power – and namesake of the famous Drive, by the way – started poking his nose into the fertile Owens Valley. Los Angeles was growing rapidly – 11, 000 in 1880; 200, 000 by 1904 – but that growth tugged at the leash of lack of resources. The Owens Valley was a small, agrarian community to the North and, through patient duplicity, Mulholland and his colleagues bought up all the water rights, starving the valley and hydrating Los Angeles. This history is the groundwater of Chinatown, with John Huston's Noah Cross (Noah, get it?) standing in for Mulholland. For a long time the city thrived on this bamboozlement, but now that L.A. is starting to return to desert, what better time to revisit this 1974 landmark neo-noir?

"There's no more beautiful city in the world," said director of Roman Polanski of L.A., "provided it's seen at night and from a distance." You might say that, with Chinatown, Polanski – working with a script from Robert Towne – looks at the city in the daylight, close up. In fact, how much closer could you get than addressing the water, the life force of – in Towne's words now – "an artificial city which has been pumped up under forced drought, inflated like a balloon, stuffed with rural humanity like a goose with corn." The history of how L.A. got its water adds a deviousness to its very existence. The city was growing on a land that wouldn't support it, and the fact that it's become what it's become scoffs at any idea of natural order, is both proof of man's dominance and his hubris.

Chinatown fundamentally has abuse on the mind – abuse on all levels. While it's been out for forty years, I'd hate to spoil it's plot revelations for those who've lived relatively comfortably under their rock. It's worth pointing out, however, that the ecological process Mulholland set in motion is often referred to as "The Rape of the Owens Valley." With this in mind, the human abuse in Chinatown can't help but be braided with the historical ecological and governmental repugnance.

Chinatown doesn't really feature as a literal place in Chinatown. It's only really referred to anecdotally, as the former beat of now private investigator, Jake Gittes. It points to a past never fully revealed. Likewise, the history of water in California lurks in the background of the film, never fully commingling with the action. As more a concept than a place, "Chinatown" comes to represent a broken system that just gets more busted the more you try to fix it, an illogic moving forward with such momentum that it will flatten anyone who gets in the way. 

The famous, enigmatic line, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown," is finally an admission of futility, as well as a statement of complacence and complicity. The disgrace of its own origin is L.A.'s Chinatown, if you will. Whatever the city matured into, its birth is fundamentally ignominious. The ecological trouble Los Angeles now finds itself in is the product of the, in the terms of history's critics, the "rape" perpetrated by Mulholland. As the city now scrambles to figure out how to correct its direction, it's tempting to say, Forget it, L.A. It's Chinatown.

- Andrew

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

So, this quote is the sum total of my knowledge about Chinatown. When we watched Labyrinth a few years back, I talked – in this very spot – about great movies we’ve never seen. Such is the way of things, one supposes. There are so many great bits of pop culture out there that it’s impossible for any one person to see it all.

Maybe that’s what Guelph Movie Club is about. Sure, we’ll see classics we’ve seen a thousand times. But, every once in a while, we’ll get to see things we’ve been meaning to cross off our list – like forever. That’s pretty neat to me.

In other news, this is the spot where we’d normally have a poll. You’ll note that there is no poll. That’s on purpose. We’re going to have a neat announcement about May’s movie. You’ll like it, I promise.

And lastly, an admission: I love hosting Guelph Movie Club. There. I said it. I hope you love coming out each month. I’m pretty committed to making it the best it can be. To that end, a couple of things:

  • Talk about it on Twitter. I’m @dcwllms, The Bookshelf is @Bookshelfnews, and we use #GuelphMovieClub to talk about the movie
  • Let me know how I can make GMC better (Twitter is good, or you can email me: williamson[dot]d[at]gmail[dot]com)
  • Come out every month – and bring a friend

Till then, see you at the movies,

Sunday, April 19, 2015


Like the infamous, invasive Cane Toad that nearly destroyed Australia, the past decade of Western culture has been inundated with two particular pests: vampires and reality shows. Both beasts had sort of noble beginnings (don't laugh: done right, a serialized documentary is perfect for TV), but have been perverted and distorted to the point that they often feel irredeemable. What We Do In The Shadows is at once a send-up and a celebration of these sapped phenomenons.

Starring Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi (a director on the HBO series), the New Zealand film purports to be a documentary exploring the culture of vampires in Wellington, particularly a trio of flatmates – a tyrannical pervert, a dandy, and a bad boy whose ages range from 200 years old to about 700. The film putters along with them as they go through the daily gears of immortality and house chores. If you think culture has become bored with vampires, just imagine how the vampires feel. What We Do In The Shadows is, at it's best, a comedy of banalities – though there are plenty of bursts of horror and gore that will satisfy fright fans. But it's in the banalities where it succeeds most as a lambast of reality programming. Putting a lens on someone's day-to-day, even if they're an undead monster, is the best way to reveal the absurdity of it all.

Depending on your experience, the fake documentary genre has become just as stale and vampires and reality TV. This is Spinal Tap has long been the benchmark, and for the longest time Christopher Guest and the gang were the only game in town. Partly thanks to The Office, we're now assuaged with talking heads and shaky, handheld storytelling. But What We Do In the Shadows never feels stale. Like Flight of the Conchords, much of the humour comes from a fish-out-water innocence. Like with any overdone genre, the temptation is there to start winking, but most of the laughs in What We Do In The Shadows come from playing it straight.

- Andrew


Monday, April 13, 2015


Since It Follows started making the festival rounds last year, it's gained a reputation as both a successful throwback to the, lurking, stalking, atmospheric horror of early John Carpenter, among other 70s and early 80s horror films. About a sexually transmitted curses, demons, and death cults, David Robert Mitchell's sophomore feature has inspired and hopefully earned hyperbole from critics and fans alike, all of whom are surely tired of the phoned-in gore and jump-scares of contemporary horror.

Unfortunately, like a regular civilian, I've got to wait until we open It Follows on Wednesday to have a look for myself. But because that's unacceptable, I did my best to get a sneak peek – or whatever the aural version of a sneak peek is. For the past week, I've been "previewing" It Follows by listening to the soundtrack with headphones on, as loud as I can get. As a result, the jeepers have been effectively creeped out of me.

The composer, Disasterpeace (aka Rich Vreeland), made a name for himself doing video game scores. In particular, the big deal Fez was backed by his nostalgic-sounding 8bit dreaminess. It Follows nods a few times to the chiptune, flute-y quest music of 80s video games. The score does get dreamy sometimes, but with that twist of dread that evokes the tone of David Lynch. Sharp ears will also pick up on similarities to the trilling conversational noises of moments in The Shining as well as the stabbing strings of Psycho. The other comparison that doesn't need to be subtle is to the simple, devious melodies of John Carpenter, who scores his own films. But while there are comparisons to be made, the music of It Follows is it's own beast.

Indeed, for how synth-heavy the score is, there's a sweaty, hairy organic-ness to Disasterpeace's contribution. The sounds move from pounding to drill-like shrillness, the distortion of the synth almost taking on a growl. At times the tones drop so low and guttural that they achieve this physical feeling of rumbling wind that I've only experienced in real life from a struggling woofer. There are sounds on this album that I could only get around to describing as wind chimes made of meat and bone. At times, a sustained tone becomes discomforting, and I'm reminded of Eraserhead, with its industrial soundscape feel that actually serves to illicit nervousness and a bit of nausea, and a gut-deep dread when played through a quality presence. What this boils down to is that Disasterpeace's soundtrack here is presented as a both a presenter and a place, describing something that both pursues you and surrounds you all at once.

If you want to disrupt your life for a spell, I recommend walking around with the album on in headphones for a week. You won't know what you're looking for, but you'll be keeping your eyes peeled for something. 

I keep thinking of some far-back interview with John Carpenter in which he confesses that Halloween didn't work as a horror movie until he added the score. Then all the tumblers clicked and the movie became an instant classic. This doesn't disparage the movie, but speaks to how far you can go with little. The individual, almost laconic elements of Halloween aren't astounding, but they combine in such a way that their sum becomes enormous. Again, I haven't seen It Follows yet, but from what I've read about it, it similarly cooks up a complicated dish with just a few ingredients. What many massive, mainstream, CGI, orchestrally scored horror moves miss is the fact that it doesn't take much to scare someone. All it takes is the perfect amount of little things.

- Andrew


I look forward to TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) every year. Pouring over the lists of films on offer is exciting. Bingeing on up to four films per day can be mind-altering in a good way – or a bad way. Any of you who have participated in the science and whimsy of selecting from those lists realize that it is a bit of a crap shoot. Will you get the films you wish for? And will those films live up to your expectations?

Last September my TIFF binge was at the last minute with no preparation. I left my film selection up to the TIFF movie gods. On my last afternoon, loitering outside of one of the theatres, I was offered a ticket to a film starting momentarily. The gods had spoken. That ticket was for Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary I had heard nothing about. This turned out to be the best film I saw at TIFF. This is the best film that I saw last year.

The reason that the film was made is as interesting as the wonderful story that it tells. From a dinner party that sounds right out of a Woody Allen film (complete with New York psychiatrist) Ethan Hawke (famous actor guy) discovers Seymour Bernstein (formerly famous classical pianist guy). They bond over shared vulnerability, performance anxiety, and the drive to create great art. Hawke becomes obsessed by a story that he wants to tell – a story about art, artistic pedagogy, and the fear of performing what you love. This film is full of music and full of humanity.

Have a look at this brief clip of Bernstein talking with Hawke, recorded live in Toronto in September 2014. Don’t miss this film.

- Doug

Sunday, April 5, 2015


In an oft-told anecdote, Stanley Kubrick calls Stephen King late at night, out of the blue, to gab about ghosts. At some point in the conversation, Kubrick wonders if ghost stories, scary though they can be, aren't essentially optimistic. To Kubrick, the reality of a ghost implies the reality of an afterlife. By extension, the way at looking at the supernatural gives a sort of comforting logic to the possibly-unnerving illogical.

In this passing observation, Kubrick sort of inadvertently puts his finger on and fiddles with the linchpin of horror: we're scared by what we don't fully understand or perceive, but when we tell stories about these things we risk improving understanding and perception, diluting the fear. The problem persists: how do we talk about and describe something mysterious without demystifying it? How do we talk about ghosts without talking about the afterlife?

The yarns of old had it figured out. Take, for instance, the story of Hansel and Gretal. When those squirts wander out into the woods, it's taken for granted that a witch lives out there. Never mind why the witch lives there, she just does. Narratively speaking, this puts a lot of faith in the audience – a faith that's dwindling more and more – that something horrible is just there and has always been there. In the storytelling landscape we live in now, however, an entire movie would be dedicated to that witch's backstory. How she became a witch, how she came to live in the woods, how she acquired a taste for children. You could even devote a movie to the history of the woods. This love of unraveling backstory has become the bane of horror and suspense movies because all the mystery, and therefore all the threat, inevitably gets wrung out.

As a horror or suspense movie The Babadook is good in a way that shines a light on why its contemporaries are so bad.

For this reason, The Babadook will be inevitably frustrating to fans of mainstream horror, but this is looking at it through the lens of the past thirty years of decreasingly scary scary movies. We're inoculated to movies where the source of fear has franchise in mind, and so inevitably becomes elaborate and awkward and thin, shining light on all the crannies where the legitimately frightening stuff hides. But Mister Babadook hovers in that ill-lit, classic spot between a literal and a psychological presence. 

Coming out of Australia, The Babadook is an objectively slight movie with an objectively big feel. Amelia is the widowed mother of Sam, an odd seven-year-old with an interest in magic and homemade self-defense weapons. He has the devotion of a knight, charged with protecting his mother. From what exactly, we don't know. On the surface, it would seem Sam is adopting the Man of the House roll on his lost father's behalf. What he's protecting against, however, becomes a bit more specific after an ashen pop-up bedtime book, Mister Babadook, pops up out of nowhere.

After the book appears – and then re-appears – Amelia and Sam's reality takes a pounding. But what is Mister Babadook, and where did book – as an object, it seemingly lets him into this world – come from? The thing's origins and intentions are never clear and its the fact that its reality is both obvious and obscure that makes it a palpable threat. Is this an actual, sinister being, or the psycological manifestation of inchoate grief? There's no easy answer. And this lack of easy answers sets The Babadook apart. Monsters become less scary the more literal they become. The more they become included in reality, the more they have to adhere to a logic. And logic is rarely scary.

At least anecdotally, The Babadook shares some commonalities with Kubrick's The Shining. For what's supposed to be ghost story, there are not clear ghosts in Kubrick's film. Almost – stress that almost – nothing happens that can't be explained by Jack's delusions. So too in The Babadook, what is supernatural and what is psychological is never clear. Kubrick's question to King can be read as a sort of an insult. In King's novel, the supernatural is literal – as dark as it might be, it's finally optimistic in Kubrick's terms. But telling that story with no certainty of ghosts dials up the tension and the horror, making possible the much more troubling story of a father twisted enough by his own mind that he'd slay his family. With a similar vagueness, The Babadook manages a similar, rare horror.

- Andrew