Sunday, May 31, 2015


I turned 11 the day Kurt Cobain was found dead, April 8 1994. My older brother and a friend of mine awkwardly commiserated a bit before we left for school that morning and I had no idea who or what they were talking about. I knew "Weird Al"s "Smells Like Nirvana" like the inside of the fridge, but only had some muzzy idea of its source. All sorts of music came up out of the basement my brother occupied that I couldn't and shouldn't have grasped. But the next year, at 12, I was the proud and solemn owner of a "Kurt Cobain (1967 - 1994)" t-shirt, a blasé, beautiful Cobain staring out from the front. With paper route money, I got the Nirvana catologue from the Music World in the downtown mall and did my best to ape what had become an iconic glower, but soon puberty set in shortly thereafter and that moody moue started to come naturally.

As a tween – that term wasn't in use at the time – Nirvana and their ilk – angry, dour, earnest, as overcast as the Northwest they were hailing from – was the "pop" music I was coming of age to. My generation was too young to have any kind of sensitive understanding of what these songs meant, or where they were coming from, and so we glommed on to the broad strokes, the catchy primary colours of it. If and when we started to experience our own inchoate angst, we had this catalogue of grungy outrage to grow into and appropriate. With Nirvana, and Kurt Cobain especially, we inherited a recent narrative that already had a beginning, middle, and end. In its tidiness, it was all the more salable, so that by the time we got to it, disenfranchisement was franchised.

As a cultural icon, the voice of a generation – the voice of generations, even – Cobain's legacy is pretty stalwart. Miley Cyrus can walk around in a Cobain dress, or cover his anthem, and even though we, the now-aged, may make a face, her identifying with Cobain means something to her swatch of youngster fans. But the Cobain on her dress now is largely the same as the one on my t-shirt in 1995, a culturally over-simplified icon. Though his cultural import remains seemingly strong, the nuances of his actual life and material have been paling since his death.

When someone ends their own life, that final act tends to become a drain down which all their other details spiral. In the case of Cobain's legacy, he is largely defined by his suicide, viewed through the lens of it. Most pictures that get used of him now are of a scowling, haunted, pained tatterdemalion. If he's got a gun in his hand, even better. But this scowling largess – the kind of thing you can put on a shirt – belies the rich veins of humour and goofiness and compassion that were present in Cobain's life as much as they were his music. 

Montage of Heck does the service of restoring the colour to Cobain's face, of using as many pictures of him smiling as it does of him looking like he wants to die. Made up largely of never-before-seen illustrations, journals, recordings, home movies, the Cobain documented in Brett Morgen's new documentary grows from a beaming baby to a hyper adolescent, from a displaced and alienated teen to eccentric guy in his mid-20s who's worked hard for the fame he's achieved, but who's increasingly dubious about the attendant responsibility. The tortured genius angle is here replaced by a portrait of a hard-working bullshit detector. Cobain's art is not presented as epochal or revolutionary. His spastic notebook scribbles are the stuff of bad, ragging teenage poetry which only become sui generis through studied refinement. He comes off as not so much a tortured genius as a devoted art-maker tortured by the oppressive perception of genius.

It's a shame that it was only later in my life, when I was older than Cobain was when he died, that I could make some functional sense out of the tonal marbling of Nirvana's music, of Cobain's writing. Sure, the skinny dude screamed and wailed in a way that that apparently every generation can relate to, but it wasn't always furious and wounded. There's so much vim, sometimes even joy, in that music, in that life, that doesn't jibe with the broader cultural impression of the lot of it, and so gets largely ignored. Montage of Heck is exactly the kind of documentary Kurt Cobain deserves: it defrocks him of his legendary status and restores his wonderful, contraditcory humanity. 

It's hard to say if the 11-year-old me would have liked this version of his new hero, but take a look at that kid. Who cares what he thinks about anything?

- Andrew

Monday, May 25, 2015


At the tail-end of last year, the website Gear Junkie put its finger on a growing fashion trend among dudes: lumbersexuality. The site pitted the recent wooly woodsman look against the trim and prim metrosexual style of the mid-oughts. Assessing the trend in The Atlantic, Willa Brown points out: 
This particular brand of bearded flannel-wearer is a modern take on the deeply-rooted historical image of Paul Bunyan, the ax-wielding but amiable giant, whose stomping grounds were the North Woods of the upper Midwest. Paul and his brethren emerged as icons in American pop culture a little over a century ago. What links the mythic lumberjack to his modern-day incarnations is a pervasive sense—in his time and ours—that masculinity is 'in crisis.'
Brown locates the lumberjack myth to the turn of the previous century, to a period "of rapid urbanization and stark economic inequality." Nineteenth century men were coming to the city for work and becoming cramped in office jobs that offered little room to rise. As a result, they began to suffer "from neurasthenia, a new disease that skyrocketed to almost epidemic status in the 1880s and 1890s. Neurasthenia was the overtaxing of the nervous system, a sort of male hysteria." As a cure, men were encouraged to revivify their masculinity and were offered the mold of lumber camp workers to aspire to.

In truth, the real lumberjacks
who worked the North Woods of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin at the turn of the century lived a reality that held little appeal to the middle-class writers who invented their mythical image. What had once been an industry of small, family-owned lumber camps had begun to scale up to industrial levels, and the men who worked in these camps found themselves in the same position as many Gilded Age laborers: stuck at the bottom of a capitalist economy with little chance of advancement.
The recent rise in "lumbersexuality" is easily located in a contemporary malaise, where men have mostly lost their monopoly on historically male roles. The threat of gender equality – or even the threat of disassembling gendered distinctions all together – economically as well as culturally would seem to drive men towards these masculine signifiers.

It's probably no mistake that Fight Club begins in a support group for men with testicular cancer. Meatloaf's "Bob" has specifically lost his testicles and grown breasts from the treatment. His is a literal emasculation to pair with the figurative emasculation experienced by Edward Norton's unnamed narrator. This won't be the first instance or threat of castration in the movie. The narrator – heretofore known as Jack – would seem to be experiencing "neurasthenia" – but instead of going to fantasy lumberjack camp, he finds supposed reconnection to his lost manliness in slamming another disenfranchised-feeling white guy's face into the floor – as real men are apparently wont to do.

Tyler Durden, the chum Jack makes when their identical bags are accidentally swapped at the airport, makes an argument for the reclamation of masculinity, for both living off and fighting against the grid. Consumerism and conformity are effete in this vision, a form of castration. What men have lost society has lost, Tyler seems to argue. Brought to its logical conclusion, machismo becomes a form of prelapsarian anarchy.

There's a fork in Fight Club. After "meeting" Tyler on the flight, Jack returns home to find his condo blown to smithereens. The first person he phones is Marla, a strange woman he met while medicating his malaise with support groups. Jack hangs up on Marla immediately and contacts Tyler instead. Both Tyler and Marla are outwardly nuts, but Jack is enscorcelled by Tyler, ostensibly seeking a homosocial BFF – or, really, a father-figure. Jack is, after all – in Tyler's words – part of a masculine generation abandoned by their fathers, raised by women. When Jack complains about being 30 and unmarried, Tyler wonders "if another woman is really the answer we need." There are times where the concept Fight Club (the club, not necessarily the movie) feels no more refined than Al Bundy's NO MA'AM club. Marla is permitted to be around so long as she's serving a sexual purpose, but disappears from the movie as soon as she turns out to have feelings – feelings being those soft, unreliable things common to women, those things that Tyler specifically wants to rid Jack of.

But are Tyler's opinions Fight Club's opinions? The movie's legacy certainly has much to do with – apart from "the twist" – Tyler's cool, anti-consumerism manifestos and his bloody remedy for neurasthenia. For a generation of dudes struggling with their own masculinity crisis, it must have felt like Tyler was speaking directly to them. But most people seem to forget that Tyler turns out to be the movie's villain. For all the shirtless bros memorably banging away at each other, the movie ends with Jack and Marla holding hands, gazing into each others eyes.

It would seem that the masculine crisis is no less solved now as it was when Fight Club was released. As with the recent romance with the old romance of beards and flannel, Fight Club – after it's through with all the bare chests and angsty speechifying – actually gets around to making a shy point. Indeed, there's something essentially sad and incessant about a modern dude's struggle for relevance, mostly because – as Brown points out in her article – those dudes are decreasingly sole proprietors of what had once made them – or at least made them feel – necessary. Dressing up like a lumberjack is just as ineffective as joining an underground fight club. It's addressing the problem with archetypal regression instead of worthwhile progression.

- Andrew


Please note that the tentatively-booked Woman in Gold will be swapped with Far from the Madding Crowd in the cinema schedule. The film, starring Carey Mulligan and based on the classic Thomas Hardy novel, will will play May 29 – June 4 in all the time slots that previously listed Woman in Gold.

Woman in Gold is confirmed to play June 26 – July 2. We apologize for any confusion caused by this change.

Monday, May 18, 2015


No wonder Wagner had his great first success with The Flying Dutchman. It was his first mature work to have that mix of elements that make his operas so distinctive and irresistible – that correct mixture of psychological insight and mythic imagination that became the hallmark of all his later triumphs.

Wagner's first library was lost after his first household, which he shared with his first wife Minna, was liquidated to pay for his constant debts. But he had already made himself into an expert on myth and folktale, and had followed closely the Grimm brothers of their various researches into folklore, before they compiled their famous collection of Märchen. It was in Dutchman that Wagner first displayed his genius for grafting and joining together various mythic elements into unique characters and entities that go on to resound so deeply to his audiences. Not til we come to Joseph Campbell in the 20th century do we find someone who has made as much of a study of elements and the science of myth as Richard Wagner.

The central figure of the Dutchman is formed from various similar accounts of cursed ships and ghost ships that appear in folklore. The nameless Dutchman – he is really the captain of the ghost ship of that name – is, in Wagner's version, cursed to sail the seas for all eternity because he cursed god while trying to get around the Cape of Good Hope. He can only be saved by the undying love of a mortal woman. Since he is cursed to roam the seas on his ghost ship, Wagner conceives a dispensation for him (another grafted mythic element): every seven years he is allowed to go on land to find this redeeming woman.

After centuries of seven-yearly attempts, the Dutchman is in hopeless despair of finding such a saviour. Even if he finds a woman who will pledge her sole love to him, that pledge is virtually impossible to demonstrate. She either has to permanently come onto the ship with him – which would be lethal to her, even though it would prove the permanence of her love for him – or else he leaves her onshore, where she is bound to become unfaithful during his next seven year stint at sea. There is a further stipulation that if, after swearing her love to him, she becomes unfaithful she too will be eternally damned by the Dutchman's subsequent curse for being untrue. Thus he has left a trail of cursed women who have been destroyed by their own faithlessness. This is an obsessive serial philanderer not unlike Don Juan, but one that wreaks a curse upon the women who are unable to sustain their total love for him.

This impasse can only be broken by a kind of romantic destiny unique in Wagner. His plots frequently have a central element of lovers destined by the fate in the narrative, to be together. Lohengrin comes specifically to save Elsa and be her husband. Siegmund and Sieglinde have been conceived from the start to make a couple, and Siegfried and Brünhilde gradually realize their destiny to be together, and, in an ultimate Wagnerian twist of irony, to betray one another. In the comedic Meistersinger, we recognize the intended couple Elizabeth and Walter, whose eventual marriage is the aim of the plot, right from the beginning.

The romantic destiny between Senta and the Dutchman is already operative at the beginning of the opera, where we see seemingly disconnected events leading to it. Not only does the Dutchman's ship appear to Daaland and his crew, and an actual monetary contract is then made to line up Daaland's daughter with the Dutchman, but when we meet Senta in the Second Act she has been fantasizing over her idea of the Dutchman, knowing all about the curse and clearly wanting to sacrifice herself to save him even before actually meeting him. She is not an unwilling victim but actively seeks her fate. The major obstacle in the story is the actual acceptance by both Senta and The Dutchman of their mutual fatal involvement. Senta is actually a rather morbid gothic character obsessed with sacrificing herself for this phantom. She is already alienated from normal society because of this obsession. The Dutchman is clearly in despair of ever finding anyone like this to be his saviour.

The two operas Wagner wrote before The Flying Dutchman have none of these special elements of predestination: Das Liebesverbot is an oddly bel-canto treatment of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, with many of its barbs removed, and Rienzi is a very literally political opera about a Roman mediaeval demagogue whose idealism almost triumphs over his persistent political adversaries, who however ultimately tragically destroy him at the end. There is no element of the supernatural in either of these very different seeming operas. Wagner's first opera however, Die Feen – which he wrote when he was around twenty – is full of supernatural elements, and it is an early precursor of his fascination with the fabulous.

The worlds Wagner subsequently represented on his stage after Rienzi only have the most superficial resemblance to our reality. There is usually some sort of magic or supernatural force that is seen to be at work. If it is not some outright active witchcraft – as in Lohengrin (the rightful prince has been imprisoned in the form of a swan) or Parsifal (Klingsor there, is almost a textbook necromancer) – then at least some sort of supernatural force, of magic, of the casting of curses and their undoing, of the carrying of guilt and the means of its expiation, functions as not only a possibility, but provides the main motivations of the various developments and resolutions of the story. Complicating these forces, there is usually a further influence from orthodox religion, such as sin and forgiveness. Yet it is never clearly identified and frequently kept vague from any orthodox connections.

It is the rules governing the magic, the curses, the power struggles, that are gradually revealed only as Wagner's plots unfold, which the characters either obey, use, or circumvent. Whether religious or not, a crisis always forms around some expiation or sacrifice which fulfills or neutralizes the curse or impediment. Even in the Ring tetralogy, the gods themselves are caught in some larger fate that they cannot control, try as they might.

In The Flying Dutchman, the lovers do fully recognize one another, and make their redeeming pledge of mutual faithfulness, and it is only misunderstanding that haphazardly comes between them in the person of Senta's tedious suitor Eric, who persists in chasing her to the degree that the Dutchman mistakenly accuses her of the lethal infidelity. It is here that Wagner demonstrates his unique insights into real psychological subtlety. Up until now when the Dutchman has confronted the countless women who went on to betray him, or were unable to prove their commitment, he has cursed them, thus vindictively condemning them to eternal damnation.

But for the first time, with Senta, he is concerned that he has brought this upon her and wishes to absolve her, and leave her unscathed by his curse. This might – or must – be the very element that allows him to be redeemed himself. Instead of cursing Senta, he leaves in his ship. Still, she seeks to prove her eternal love by peremptorily killing herself to prove there can be no other love for her. The Christian orthodoxy of any of these events is of course untenable, what with the suicide and the curses, but Wagner sought to show the lovers, Senta and the Dutchman, united in a final heavenly theatrical vision, in which the ghost ship is also seen finally sinking to its rest in the depths. Their destiny has been fulfilled.

The Dutchman ultimately redeems himself by allowing Senta off the hook. It is a nicety that frequently goes by unnoticed.

Michael Doleschell keeps mostly to non-fiction, and is deeply devoted to music and culture and never tires of history, and is fascinated by science and the scientific method [as long as they are well explained]. He broadcasts a program of Classical Music for 3 hours every Saturday afternoon from noon till 3 on the U of G's Radio Station: CFRU.


Fair Vote Guelph and the local chapter of the Council of Canadians are revisiting the Robocall Scandal and the 2011 Voter Suppression this month with a week-long visit from documentary filmmaker Peter Smoczynski.

Ottawa-based Smoczynski is in production on a documentary: Election Day in Canada: The Rise of Voter Suppression. His visit to Guelph will mark the launch of a cross-country expedition for the final leg of shooting and fundraising for this independent film.

Fair Vote Guelph, the local Chapter of the Council of Canadians and Fair Vote Waterloo Region will be hosting three different events:

Wednesday, May 20th 6:30 – 8:30 pm.
Guelph Public Library downtown branch programming room. Free admission. Pass the hat donations for the film. This location is wheelchair accessible.

Thursday, May 21st 7:00 – 9:00 pm.

The Board Room, Heuther Hotel, 59 King St. N in Waterloo. Hosted by Fair Vote Waterloo. Free admission and pass the hat donations for the film.

Saturday, May 23rd, 2:00 – 4:00 pm.
This event in The Bookshelf Cinema will mark the official launch of Smoczynski’s cross-country tour. University of Guelph Professor Emeritus, Michael Keefer, will join the filmmaker for this presentation. Professor Keefer is working on a book on the 2011 Vote Suppression. Admission is $20 and includes a reception in the eBar with hors d’oeuvres and cash bar.

Each presentation will include compelling interview footage completed to date, as well as highlights from research underpinning the film. Interview subjects include MP Irwin Cotler, former Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley, investigative journalists Stephen Maher and Glen MacGregor and figures from the Council of Canadians legal challenge, lawyer Steven Shrybman and pollster Frank Graves. The audience will have an opportunity for a Q &A interaction with the filmmaker.

During the week Mr. Smoczynski will be shooting additional interviews here in Guelph – the epicentre of the 2011 Robocall Scandal.

If you were a recipient of one of the fraudulent Elections Canada calls, or know someone who was, please get in touch with Fair Vote Guelph at

Tickets for the Bookshelf event, Saturday, May 23rd will go on sale Friday, May 8th at the Bookshelf and on-line through Eventbrite.

Watch a promotional short HERE.

Sunday, May 17, 2015


I don't want to overestimate how scandalized the world was in the early 90s when it was revealed that the German hunks Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus were not the actual voices behind Milli Vanilli. It's hard to image that anyone really cared, but they did. The group had won a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1990. When their charade was exposed, the award was revoked. As far as the public eye was concerned, this was maybe the greatest music industry scandal since it was revealed that The Monkees didn't play their own instruments.

Nesmith and hat
One of my favourite versions of that Monkees outrage occurs in The Simpsons, where Marge is flashing back to traumatic experiences in her life and remembers a day on the school bus when another little girl explained that The Monkees didn't play their own instruments. Adding insult to injury, the little girl points out, "That's not even Michael Nesmith's real hat." It's a passing dig, but it goes a way to point how just how braided image and music is in pop culture.

Around the time that Milli Vanilli's pop ruse was being uncovered, The Monkees were enjoying one of their many career rejuvenations thanks to reruns of their hit late-60s show playing endlessly on MTV and Much Music. Watching the show then, and now, it's hard to believe anyone, for one thing, ever thought these guys were actually a real band or, for another, cared whether or not they were legit. The Monkees feel like an obvious goofball send-up of real contemporary moptops. Similarly, listening now to Milli Vanilli, it's tough to conceive of hackles getting up over the dud bombshell that these German guys were lip-synching. If you were listening to Milli Vanilli for the music, perhaps you deserved to get hurt by the truth. It's not like either of these acts were The Beatles or The Beach Boys or anything.

The kicker of both these scenarios, though, is that in the wake of the backlash the real Monkees went on to release albums they'd written and performed – offering up the legitimacy that had been requested – and they flopped. Likewise, when the fake singers were removed from Milli Vanilli, forming a "new" band dubbed The Real Milli Vanilli, the same material with different faces also tanked.

In pop music, there's always been a strained relationship between performance and presentation. "Video killed the radio star," as the song goes. When listeners become viewers as well, expectations get created that are often hard to fulfill. This might seem to be a recent problem, except pop music has always been sort of duplicitous, a veil that gets lifted in The Wrecking Crew.

The Wrecking Crew loosely describes an often anonymous group of studio musicians – membership ranges from anywhere between 10 and 30 – who, when combined with reliable hit-making producers like Phil Spector, contributed to and sometimes defined a wide range of popular music throughout the 60s – from Herb Alpert to Nancy Sinatra to the M*A*S*H theme. This was a new generation of studio musicians who, according to the older, more traditional cadre of session players, would wreck the industry. Indeed, these newbies performed anything and everything, from TV themes, to jingles, to #1 hits. They'd take any job and they could play anything. They were rarely credited, but incessantly tapped.

The Crew thrived in an industry that was making a two-fold transition. Image was becoming increasingly important at the same time production was becoming increasingly refined. Groups that were popular personalities couldn't necessarily hold their own in the studio. With radio still the most important launching pad, as good as an act might have looked, they had to sound as good if not better.

By the son of Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, The Wrecking Crew (which is actually a few years old, but finally seeing the light of day after hold-ups licensing the music) makes for an introduction to this time, to these players. Essentially, the Crew were hired guns, but they brought a great deal of innovation to the jobs they were hired for. Their seemingly ubiquitous contribution to more than a decade's worth of music represents a mix of labour and creativity, the lot of which was unsung. Though no one was denying that most of these records were being pulled off by a cadre of masters, the illusion of pop stars helming the recordings was still important to the industry.

In retrospect, it shouldn't come as a surprise that The Wrecking Crew basically was The Monkees – The Monkees being a false front erected solely to move pop songs – but a harder pill to swallow may be the fact that they were also sometimes The Beach Boys. As Brian Wilson began to take the already popular familial surf fluff in incomparable directions, the rest of The Boys simply didn't have the chops to realize and execute it. When it came time for The Monkees to play live, they'd learned their instruments well enough to pull of their catalog, and The Beach Boys did essentially the same. But now The Beach Boys are lauded and The Monkees a sometimes-bankable joke. Either way, The Wrecking Crew got paid and moved on to the next hit.

The Wrecking Crew doesn't itself ask the question directly, but it's begged throughout: if the music's good, does it matter who writes and plays it? The role of authenticity in pop music – as much as we consider pop music art, or vice versa – has always been complicated. As Milli Vanilli was being hung from the tallest cultural tree, and as The Monkees were making a comeback, grunge (or alternative, if you like) was becoming pop. The raspy brooding coming out of the Northwest arrived as a sort of reaction to the gaudy arena wanking that had dominated the 80s, and ushered in a new era of the songwriter's connection to the song. If it had then been revealed that a Nirvana song had been written by anyone other than Kurt, culture would have shot it's bolts. The movement seemed to promise that the gap between performance and performer was snapping shut.

Yet pop music continues to have a troubled relationship with perceptions of authenticity. When Beck won the Grammy for Album of the Year at this year, Kanye West stormed the stage to make tin-logic declarations about what an artist was or wasn't. More interesting than that bloviation, though, was the public's reaction. Between Beck and Beyoncé, who was the true artist? One argument featured a side-by-side compassion of the individual input of each, showing that Beck had his hand in every aspect of the music, from writing to performance, whereas Beyoncé's kitchen was full of cooks. There's no satisfying conclusion to this dispute; different people have different expectations when it comes to their tunes. It usually takes a village to raise a hit song, no matter how close the product is to the producer.

What it really comes down to is Michael Nesmith's hat. If you think he looks good in it, you shouldn't care whether he brought it from home or not.

- Andrew 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Guelph Movie Club: Recipes for Soap Edition

Yes, I know the first rule is I don’t talk about it, but you see, I’ve got this blog to write. May’s Guelph Movie Club selection is Fight Club. It’s hard to believe this movie is 15 years old. 15. Years. Old. That’s weird, right?

I mean, on one hand, the idea Fight Club is 15 years old makes me feel ancient. On the other, the movie still feels fresh to me. It feels like this movie could have been in 2015. Then again, maybe that’s what makes great movies great.

What say you? I guess you better show up on May 28th at 9:00 p.m. and judge for yourself. It should be an epic Guelph Movie Club. We’re partnering with The Dragon Comics and Games Store to celebrate 15 years of Fight Club. There’ll be prizes, giveaways, mischief, mayhem, and soap. Well, maybe not those last few.

Before Flight Club, we’ll also announce our June selection. What will it be? Only you can decide. This month, it’s a Clash of Sequels. Use the poll below to have your say on which sequel to one of our previous Movie Club hits will hit the big screen.

Which Sequel Will We Watch In June?


This whole thing really only works because you folks give a darn about it. Here’s how you can be a part of Guelph Movie Club:

  • 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, I am Danny’s strong desire to see you at the movies.