Vancouver poet and musician Catherine Owen is the author of nine books of poetry. She has also published numerous chapbooks, and her work has appeared in various publications and anthologies. She has been nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, the B.C. Book Prize, and the ReLit Award, among others. She has also played bass in the metal bands Inhuman and Helgrind, and, currently, Medea.
In 2012, Owen published two books. Trobairitz (Anvil Press) is a collection of linked poems focusing on the confluence of the medieval troubadours and their female counterparts, the trobairitz, and 21st-century metal music. Catalysts: Confrontations with the Muse (Wolsak and Wynn) is a collection of essays that explores Owen’s artistic inspirations (including two pieces on the genesis of Trobairitz), as well as travel essays, reviews, and criticism.
The following e-mail interview was conducted over the holidays at the close of 2012.
Where did your interest in the culture of troubadours and trobairitz come from? What made you decide to structure an entire suite of poems around this 12th-century genre?
I must say first that the word “decide” is interesting here. I think it was more a convergence of forces that overwhelmed me utterly and compelled the eventual book: meeting a man who had the power to imaginatively replicate a medieval troubadour and who was also concurrently a metalhead, and encountering the trobairitz in 2006’s In Fine Form, a poetry anthology edited by Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve, within a footnote for the villanelle form, which was created by the troubadour Arnaut Daniel.
I had been playing in the metal scene from 2001 and yet had felt incapable of writing poetry about its complex mélange of energies. Once I began researching trobairitzes I began to see parallels between both the rebellious impetus behind many troubadour forms/modes (those opposing organized religion, for instance) and metal culture, and between the way women and men construct and deconstruct themselves on gendered terms within these scenes and eras.
Poems continued to flow throughout the period where I read everything I could find on the medieval world, courted the muse-man, played local clubs, and went to the south of France in a futile yet stirring quest for traces of these itinerant and ephemeral poet-singers. Gradually, over six or more years, Trobairitz manifested its weird blend of musics.
One aspect that both the medieval context and the metal genre share in common is a fairly evident sexism. In the former, women had to battle to find a place (and voice) of their own, and in the latter, as you point out in Trobairitz, women are often forced into a role as erotic objects for men. (This tension is particularly evident in the poem “Tenso: Between the Comtessa de Dia and Senhal Fohlia, circa 1186,” a dialogue that has been played out in one version or another in many discussions of CanLit circa 2012–13.) How entrenched do these gender roles remain today, in both writing and metal? Have you noticed signs of cultural change that would better allow women artists to be accepted for their art on a level playing field with men, or does their presence continue to amount to mere tokenism?
Perhaps it was the jarring distinction I initially experienced in the difference between being a woman writer and being a female metal musician that provoked Trobairitz. I was raised in a fairly androgynous fashion – at least until adolescent hormones kidnapped me – and as a writer/intellectual I had never actually felt any particular sexism.
The metal scene however is a different beast. The genre is still mostly shaped by mid- to lower-class males who tend to draw their inspiration from certain sources of aggression. Some of these derive from the economic system, some from imagery in video games/horror films and some, yes, from their resistance to the female gender, whether in the abstract or specific.
Many women don’t seem to need this outlet of fast, intense, ear-ripping-off music, whether due to conditioning or hormones. Thus, I don’t think that women will ever achieve gender parity with men in the metal scene. The numbers can’t really be equivalent.
However, more and more women are creating and performing metal, and though a lot continue to be defined by their sexualized image, many have transcended this superficiality (which still persists in being an aesthetic aspect of the genre for both male and female musicians, as does youth).
With any liminalized group though, the “club” mode tends to predominate and if the overtly rich, women, non-Caucasian, or homosexuals became too visible a part of the scene, there would be an outcry, undoubtedly. It’s a fierce, unyielding kind of music that can be picky about whom it admits/acknowledges. So why did it call to me at twelve years old? I can only reveal that it must have been a fusion of my Catholic upbringing, my classical violin training, and my innate desire to be other.
In Catalysts, you identify three specific muses who have influenced your writing: the Viennese painter Egon Schiele, the poet Robinson Jeffers, and an ex-partner who committed suicide. How important were these figures in shaping your artistic vision?
Crucial. Egon Schiele was my first real muse. He lunged at me from the shelf of a Burnaby library in the mid-1990s, in the form of his book of Impressionist poems/paintings called I, Eternal Child, and I was smitten. The path was laid out: research madly, become absorbed completely, and write endlessly.
Robinson Jeffers I found through the vast reading I undertook on environmental theorists for my book on extinct species, The Wrecks of Eden, which was published in 2002. I became obsessed by his lyrics, then life, then eventually, his epic poems set on the Carmel coastline, pieces imbued with his philosophy of Inhumanism. I even wrote a thesis on him.
Frank, the muse of Cusp/detritus, ran his eyes into mine in the summer of 2000 and, long after he died in 2003, gave me poems through the mind of schizophrenia, ineffable love, and music.
There have been other muses – the pioneer photographer, Mattie Gunterman, for instance, and, currently, the Fraser River – but these three represent the first five years of realizing art would be pretty much everything to me. They were dark, moving, troubled, engaged, ruptured, and powerful figures who let me in. Then let me in again.
Elsewhere in Catalysts, you write: “Too many poems are currently being written and published that emerge from an idea, a narrative impulse, a character-driven structure and little else. In other words, poems shaped by the primary considerations of prose, not poetry. Part of the diminishment of poetry’s literary and cultural viability is in this widespread adoption of prosaic modes and in the concomitant neglect of diction, linguistic musicality and form.” But you also point out that many of the short cuts poets take these days result from the distractibility of an audience in thrall to multiple screens, channels of advertising, and consumption. Is a return to a focus on diction, musicality, and form sufficient to counter the other cultural forces that seem to be conspiring to further marginalize poetry in our culture?
I don’t think poetry has to counter or compete with these cultural forces. The solution is certainly not to try to be like any one of them, turn all our poems into videos or games, say, never mind prose-texts.
I do believe that a combination on one side of an academic takeover in which the “teachable” poem becomes the poem that is written, and on the other side the pseudo-popularization of so-called poetry within avenues like the slam is responsible in part for the diminished power of true and diverse poetry. And there are too many writers and not enough readers, certainly not sufficient book buyers.
Further, the publishing scene is glutted by MFA products who seem to use their book publication as merely another addition to their CV, caring little whether it is sold, lacking interest in touring it, and being indifferent to much but cachet. It’s frankly incredibly boring.
In terms of my hopes for resurgence – not of poetry getting to the masses, but of poetry thoroughly becoming a vocation again for the few (as it always is) – they would be related to the composition of poems that attend to the means by which we work with heightened language: obsession with words, intensity of approach to form, and a prioritizing of what sings in the blood and thus is memorable.
Orality within the textual.
I am fine with being marginal. But I am not happy with poets themselves writing with numb ears and seeming content to let their makings descend into an abyss of the banal. Sure, I can be grandiose. But it keeps me waking up – the poem, the chance magic of it.
Kicking off 2013, I’ve got a quartet of new Quill & Quire reviews online, including a fabulously rare review of a novel for children.
First up is a stellar debut story collection from Spencer Gordon. If you haven’t already checked this one out, I’d strongly urge you to do so.
Gordon demonstrates a refreshing willingness to test the plasticity of language and structure. “Frankie + Hilary + Romeo + Abigail + Helen: An Intermission,” which reads like a mash-up of David Foster Wallace and American Psycho–vintage Bret Easton Ellis, is an interrogation of boredom in the context of a society that has become so enthralled by the notion of celebrity that a mere litany of irrelevant facts about people in the public eye can be thought to carry some kind of deeper meaning.
This is not to suggest Gordon is incapable of being straightforward when it suits him. Two of the most emotionally affecting stories in the collection – “Wide and Blue and Empty,” about a mother’s attempt to connect with her grown son, and “Last Words,” about a man in his sixties trying to come to terms with the squandered potential of his life in the wake of a cancer diagnosis – are perfectly traditional short stories, rendered all the more potent for their lack of stylistic pyrotechnics.
Next is a Jon Krakauer-esque non-fiction book about the 1984 plane crash that killed the leader of the provincial opposition in Alberta, and the four men who survived.
On the night of Oct. 19, 1984, Wapiti 402, a 10-seat Piper Navajo Chieftain twin-engine aircraft bound for the town of Grande Prairie, crashed in the wilderness of Northern Alberta, killing six passengers, including Grant Notley, the leader of the provincial opposition NDP. Four people survived: Erik Vogel, the pilot; RCMP constable Scott Deschamps; Paul Archambault, the prisoner Deschamps was escorting from Kamloops to Grande Prairie on an outstanding warrant; and Larry Shaben, minister for housing and utilities in the Alberta provincial government. The four men spent a harrowing night fighting the elements and struggling to stay alive while waiting to be rescued.
National Magazine Award winner Carol Shaben – Larry’s daughter – reconstructs the events leading up to the crash, the night on the mountain, and the way the survivors’ lives were changed as a result.
Third is a gorgeously illustrated book of photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, accompanied by fascinating text about the various celestial bodies and galaxies.
Terence Dickinson, the editor of SkyNews magazine and author of NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, has compiled a visually breathtaking array of Hubble’s images in an extraordinary new volume.
Accessible but never condescending, Dickinson’s text describes the makeup of celestial objects from brown dwarfs to blue supergiants, and cogently explains Hubble’s major breakthroughs (such as allowing scientists to determine with greater accuracy the rate at which the universe is expanding).
And finally, the first book in a new series for young readers, written by the indefatigable Cary Fagan.
There are no clear-cut villains in this novel: the school bully reveals unexpected dimensions, as does the young magician, Franklin, whose resistance to accepting Sullivan as a member of the group turns out to be born of jealousy. Even Mistress Melville, the most frankly malevolent of the troupe, helps Sullivan find a hook for his juggling act (albeit out of selfish motives).
Nor is Fagan content to restrict himself to a single register. Young readers may giggle at the two police officers named Spoonitch and Forka, but will likely miss the joke in the fact that Mintz father and son are named Gilbert and Sullivan.
Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany. Rudolph Herzog, Jefferson Chase, trans.; $16.95 paper 978-1-61219-130-0, 250 pp., Melville House Publishing
It is difficult to imagine how dangerous it was to tell that joke – so seemingly innocuous from a 2013 perspective – to a German audience during the years the Third Reich held power. The cabaret performer responsible for the quip, Werner Finck, had every reason to be wary of the Nazis’ “cultural inspectors,” having already spent six weeks in the Esterwegen concentration camp as a result of his public performances. Following his release, the popular German comedian and actor found work at the Cabaret of Comedians in Berlin, an establishment run by a man “known for toeing the party line,” but was forced to temper his act to ensure that his political humour was not overly explicit; his audiences became adept at reading between the lines of Finck’s comedy, and the performer himself referred to working at “half throttle.”
By 1939, the relatively liberal attitude the Nazis adopted toward critical humour during their early years in power (at least prior to the Reichstag fire in February of 1933) had disappeared, and Joseph Goebbels, who headed the Ministry of Propaganda, was on the verge of cracking down hard on transgressors. As Rudolph Herzog writes in his intriguing book: “Goebbels, determined not to be flouted again by his rival Göring, was preparing a renewed attack on Finck within the General Staff. ‘Political jokes will be eradicated, ripped out by the very roots,’ Goebbels noted in his diary.”
Humour, of course, has various registers and uses: it can be harmless or cutting; it can be employed to let off steam or to underscore hypocrisy and cupidity. It did not help matters that the Nazis’ response to humour they found too critical or subversive was applied so arbitrarily: punishment ran the gamut from imprisonment in Dachau to – in extreme cases – execution. Finck was lucky as a result of his fame and the timely intercession of an actress who was also an erstwhile consort of Hermann Göring. Others did not fare so well. Erich Ohser, who was responsible for satirical political cartoons depicting, among other things, “a man out for a walk in the snow urinating in the form of a swastika,” was arrested for making seditious remarks to a friend; Ohser committed suicide, and his friend was sentenced to death.
Herzog, the son of noted documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog, details the diverse ways various levels of society employed humour in the Third Reich, from professional cabaret performers to ordinary citizens to the government itself, with its officially sanctioned propaganda cinema that served, in part, to foment anti-Jewish sentiment. The Nazi campaign against the Jews, Herzog argues, was aided by the kind of anti-Semitic banter that was allowed to spread like wildfire throughout German society: “There were even jokes that laughed at anti-Jewish violence, and these were told not just by hardcore Nazi party supporters, but also by hordes of willing opportunists and March violets.”
On the other side of the coin, Herzog points out that persecuted Jewish Europeans also engaged in humour – although of an understandably darker, more mordant variety – as a coping mechanism. The author records a scathing joke about unequal food rations under the Nazis: “Our occupiers know a lot about nutrition. They’ve scientifically determined that Germans need 2,500 calories a day to survive, while Poles require only 600 and Jews just 150.”
The final section of Herzog’s book addresses what is arguably the most distressing question in the context of humour and the Nazis: is it ever permissible to laugh about the Holocaust? Guilt over Nazi atrocities is pervasive in German society even today, but Herzog points out that anti-Semitism persisted even after the war was over. He quotes the three “unwritten rules” about depictions of the Holocaust attributed to American scholar Terrence Des Pres:
- The Holocaust shall be represented, in its totality, as a unique event, as a special case and kingdom of its own, above or below or apart from history.
- Representations of the Holocaust shall be as accurate and faithful as possible to the facts and conditions of the event, without change or manipulation for any reason – artistic reasons included.
- The Holocaust shall be approached as a solemn or even sacred event with seriousness admitting no response that might obscure its enormity or dishonor its dead.
“But by the end of the 1960s,” Herzog writes, “the American comedian-director Mel Brooks would break all the rules – written and unwritten – of historical piety.” It is possible that Brooks managed to get away with his 1968 farce, The Producers, complete with its comedic centrepiece, the fictional Broadway musical Springtime for Hitler, because the director was himself Jewish. Elsewhere in his book, Herzog points to movies shot outside Germany during the Third Reich – Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be – as comedic works that successfully satirized Nazi fascism and its attendant persecution of European Jews, and he is complimentary toward the Oscar-winning 1997 Roberto Benigni film La Vita e Bella. Interestingly, he ignores any mention of the notorious unreleased Jerry Lewis vehicle The Day the Clown Cried.
In sum, Dead Funny is a fascinating examination of an aspect of German history that is often overlooked. Herzog debunks the myth that humour was absent altogether under the Third Reich, and in so doing also explodes the notion that the German people were ignorant of the crimes being committed by Hitler and his cronies. For cultural enthusiasts and students of the Second World War, the book provides a disturbing glimpse into life under the Nazi regime, and the bitter comedy that simultaneously helped foster and sabotage it.
Double Double: How Tim Hortons Became a Canadian Way of Life, One Cup at a Time. Douglas Hunter; $33.99 cloth 978-1-44340-673-4, 382 pp., HarperCollins Canada
The year 2004 is remarkable in the history of the Tim Hortons chain of coffee shops/eateries. That was the year the term “double-double,” referring to customers’ preferred method of ordering Tim’s signature blend of coffee (two creams, two sugars), first appeared in The Canadian Oxford Dictionary. At the time, Katherine Barber, the dictionary’s editor, told the CBC that the criteria for including the term in what had become the go-to reference book for the Canadian lexicon required ensuring it had penetrated the culture fairly broadly: “‘We had to determine if it was used only in Tim Hortons doughnut shops or more widely,’ Barber said. ‘We found evidence in The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Hamilton Spectator, and the book Men with Brooms, based on the curling movie.’”
National Business Book Award winner Douglas Hunter mentions the dictionary milestone only once, in passing, in Double Double, his new volume on the history of the company that, in one sense at least, has become indelibly associated with the Canadian identity for many people. “Tim’s is routinely said to have inspired the Canadian ‘double double,’” Hunter writes, “although when the editors of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary recently tried to verify this, they couldn’t nail down an indisputable source.”
Hunter makes this observation at the beginning of a chapter titled “The 100 percent: Tim Hortons Becomes the Inclusive Canadian Experience,” in which he floats the argument that the perception of Tim Hortons as the location of choice for hardworking, average Canadians – as opposed to, say, Starbucks, which caters to effete, latte-swilling elites – is largely chimerical, at least from the perspective of corporate governance. Hunter references a York University marketing professor who contends that the Tim Hortons brand is built around the idea of inclusion, not exclusion: “[A] rich businessperson and the unemployed worker can both walk down the street carrying a Tim Hortons coffee and feel comfortable,” Hunter writes. “That’s a unique brand proposition that Tim Hortons does not want to harm. Tim Hortons has always been about the 100 percent.”
While this may be true in terms of branding tactics at head office, it is clearly less true for the politicians who seem to feel it a necessary part of a campaign to appear in a Tim Hortons outlet, holding a steaming cup of java, as a means of forging a connection with Joe and Jane Average Canadian (whom Hunter opposes to “Richard or Rachelle Pretentious Internationalist, frequenter of Starbucks and espouser of non-working-family values”). So essential has this image (or myth) become that Stephen Harper, who does not drink coffee, made a point of pausing in a 2009 address to sip from a Tim Hortons coffee cup (the cup contained hot chocolate). Michael Ignatieff, a tea drinker, also went out of his way to court the Tim Hortons vote during the federal election of 2011. When the Toronto Star‘s Susan Delacourt snapped a shot of a Starbucks coffee cup on a table in Ignatieff’s campaign bus, social media lit up. “‘The Conservative bloggers went wild,’ [Delacourt] recalled. ‘It was, “The elite, latte-drinking Iggy is revealed.”‘ She thinks the image was retweeted more than 500 times.” (The offending beverage belonged to Zsusanna Zsohar, Ignatieff’s wife.)
The process by which Tim Hortons became an iconic part of the Canadian landscape is Hunter’s focus in Double Double. He touches on many key aspects of the corporation’s development, beginning with its inception as a side project for the store’s eponymous NHL defenceman, who was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1967, the last time the team won a Stanley Cup. The major historical points are enumerated: Horton’s partnership with Ron Joyce; the (apparently alcohol-fuelled) fatal car crash in 1974; Lori Horton’s lawsuit claiming she was duped when she sold her half of the company to Joyce; the company’s IPO and attempt to break into the market south of the 49th parallel. Casting his net broadly, Hunter necessarily sacrifices depth of penetration, but there is much interesting information on offer. The chapters on branding and marketing strategy are particularly interesting, especially in addressing the way the chain positions itself in an increasingly crowded and competitive market. (Hunter contends that the Tim Hortons/Starbucks rivalry is overstated: McDonald’s is actually the larger threat to Tim’s bottom line. And the observation that Tim Hortons is seen as a coffee supplier in Canada but a doughnut purveyor in the States is a fascinating insight into the divergent psyches of the two countries.)
But the resolute focus on the corporate aspect of the story means that the other side of the story – the one involving the millions of people who daily consume the products that Tim’s offers – largely goes missing. The book’s subtitle promises to explain how “Tim Hortons became a Canadian way of life,” but Hunter does this from the viewpoint of the brand, not that of the commuter standing in line every morning to get his or her caffeine fix before heading into work. Hunter deftly explains corporate endeavours to entice customers during each discrete “day part,” and examines the company’s attempts to broaden its customer base by offering more nutritious menu fare and European-style frothy beverages, but apart from quoting a few posts on the Tim Hortons Facebook page, the voices of the people who actually consume the products being sold are never heard. As a result, we get the company’s MBA-influenced attitude toward consumer psychology, but aren’t permitted to assess that psychology first-hand.
Similarly, Hunter includes quotes and references to a plethora of CEOs, consultants, politicians, and marketing professionals, but does not allow sufficient space for the one group that could arguably provide the most unvarnished ground-level perspective of all: front-line employees in the chain’s stores – the shift workers and part-timers who actually pour the coffee and toast the bagels day in and day out. It is possible that many of these people, working within a corporate culture that maintains rigorous control over its brand image, would be reluctant to talk, or might be less than forthcoming about grievances or problems within the company, but the absence of their voices altogether renders the company portrait somewhat one-sided and incomplete.
Hijacking History: American Culture and the War on Terror. Liane Tanguay; $29.95 paper 978-0-7735-4074-3, 284 pp., McGill-Queen’s University Press
When the Twin Towers collapsed following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the 24-hour news stations appeared to show the footage on endless loops: the second plane slicing through the South Tower, the staggering fireball, the gasps of horror from the anonymous masses below. One refrain was heard over and over from people gathered around television sets watching in stunned amazement, a formulation that quickly took on the mantle of cliché: “It looks like a movie.” But not just any movie. What was unfolding on television screens around the globe looked specifically like a Hollywood movie, full of spectacle and special effects, choreographed for maximum emotional impact.
The connection is not lost on Liane Tanguay, external fellow of the York Centre for International and Security Studies at Toronto’s York University. Indeed, Tanguay points out that American popular culture had spent the decade prior to 9/11 perfecting the aestheticization of catastrophe to a degree not seen previously. Blockbuster disaster films of the 1990s, of which Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day may be the most financially successful example, presented scenes of ultra-realistic destruction that evoked Immanuel Kant’s idea of the sublime, which, in its dynamic form, “must be represented as exciting fear.”
Tanguay quotes Kant in order to forward the argument that the fear involved in the sublime is vicarious, cathartic, safely removed from the vicissitudes of reality – a quality, Tanguay writes, that “no doubt accounts for part of the disaster genre’s appeal.” She goes on to suggest, “It is in part this feeling of exemption – enhanced by the sense of ‘control’ over one’s pattern of consumption, the fact that one can choose whether and when to subject oneself to such images – that comes to constitute in its endless repetition a sort of symbolic ‘mastery’ over the anxieties and fears such films elicit.” When this imagery forces itself into the real world, the veneer of “mastery” is rent and the vicarious fear bleeds into actual fear, something America, in all its millennial triumphalism, appeared unprepared for at the turn of the 21st century (and one good reason why Hollywood-style disaster films do not proliferate in the national cinema of, say, Israel or Serbia).
But equally important in the development of American pop culture during the post–Gulf War 1990s, Tanguay argues, is the tendency for what she refers to as “im/mediacy,” the positioning of the viewer as an active participant in events. Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, with its scenes of urban warfare shot at low angles using a roving camera that puts the audience in the centre of the action, is a template for a new kind of hyperactive, first-person approach, which carries over into news coverage featuring “embedded” reporters filing stories from the front lines of American war zones. “The direct involvement of the journalist in the military action pre-empts any ‘mediating’ perspective he or she could otherwise offer, while the visual effect of the first-person camera comes to implicate the viewer in a ‘video-game’ presentation of the war. The new ‘realism’ is therefore both tightly controlled and compelling to a still greater extent because of the ‘self-replications’ it affords.” (This “self-replication” would reach its apotheosis with the cell-phone videos of G20 protests in Toronto and the Vanvouver Stanley Cup riot, all of which were instantly uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo, shared widely, and subsequently co-opted by police and prosecutors in tracking down the perpetrators of violence or dissent. This observation is outside the scope of Tanguay’s analysis, but seems a logical outgrowth of her arguments.)
Placing the viewer in the “subject position,” while simultaneously promoting a culture of fear across both entertainment and network news platforms, created a post-9/11 climate that allowed the administration of George W. Bush to suggest that an open-ended and nebulous war on terror was necessary to preserve an American way of life structured around the liberal capitalist ideals that Francis Fukuyama identified as existing at “the end of history.” The irony, as Tanguay shows, is that the simplistic binary arguments of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld (“You’re either with us or with the terrorists”) helped foster a much less simplistic, more morally ambiguous cultural landscape in which films like Independence Day, with its noisy jingoism and xenophobic “us versus them” mentality, began to give way to more nuanced fare, such as Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, Brian de Palma’s Redacted, and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Tanguay overstates her case somewhat here: although she admits that Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film was less successful at the box office than James Cameron’s Avatar (which Tanguay asserts can be read as a kind of subversive, anti-corporate blockbuster – a contradiction in terms if ever there was one), she largely ignores the inability of the more morally relative Iraq War–themed films to connect with domestic audiences.
Moreover, her book suffers from a too-narrow historical perspective, which precludes any illustration of how the cultural forces that allowed the war on terror to proceed unchecked have been the bedrock of the American psyche since at least the Second World War. Here, for example, is Tanguay writing about a pair of Gulf War documentaries, which she describes as though propaganda never existed prior to 1991:
Indeed, in CNN’s War in the Gulf and CBS’s Desert Triumph, images of oil-soaked seabirds – victims, allegedly, of Saddam Hussein’s ecological crimes – were invested with greater emotive value than those of dead Iraqi troops. The latter were shown as evidence of allied “victory” at the end of the ground war, while imagery of struggling wildlife was accompanied by a sentimental soundtrack designed to elicit pity and compassion. The dehumanization of the “inevitable” human victims of the allied war effort thus contributed to the sense of moral integrity on the American side while simultaneously containing the conflict within the symbolic framework of the simplest of Hollywood narratives.
None of this is inaccurate, of course, but neither is it any different from the approach taken in newsreels during the Second World War, not to mention the films of John Wayne. Propaganda predates postmodernism, whether Tanguay admits it or not. These objections notwithstanding, Tanguay’s book is a frequently energizing synthesis of political analysis and cultural critique, examining the ways in which a media-driven climate of fear combines with a consumerist imperative to create the perfect conditions for an entire society to lose sight of its core values in the pursuit of material comfort and peace of mind.
Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and a Short Story. Julian Barnes; $19.95 paper 978-0-345-81300-8, 244 pp., Vintage Canada
Julian Barnes is a deeply serious reader. This is not to say he is joyless – far from it. The seventeen essays (and one story) in his new collection testify to the vivacity with which Barnes approaches the reading act, as well as the range of his interests. However, if you’re looking for discussions of recent bestsellers or the latest popcorn fantasy series for young adults, you won’t find them here. Instead, you’ll discover a triptych of essays devoted to the high modernist Ford Madox Ford, an appreciation of the 18th century French moralist Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort, and a short piece on Félix Fénéon, whose uncategorizable work Nouvelles en trois lignes (re-released by New York Review Books in 2007 as Novels in Three Lines) Barnes calls “the literary equivalent of a cocktail olive.”
France represents one focal point for Barnes’s sensibility as a reader, at least as evidenced by the pieces on offer here. Through the Window is roughly divided into three parts. The first deals with British writers; the second, central sequence of essays focuses on French writers; and the final part looks at a handful of Americans. These sections segue organically into one another. Kipling, the “demotic, pragmatic, self-educated celebrant of the British empire,” whose fascination with France was by no means uncomplicated, serves as the pivot between the first and second parts of the book, while a pair of American writers – Wharton and Hemingway – each of whom spent a considerable amount of time in France, form the bridge between the second and third parts.
Barnes is a classicist, and implies his disinterest in much current writing by largely ignoring it. The only living writers he deals with in this volume are Lorrie Moore, Michel Houellebecq, and Joyce Carol Oates (the last in a brief, and not altogether laudatory, consideration of her memoir A Widow’s Story). He does talk about Lydia Davis, but only in the context of her translation of Madame Bovary (a “linguistically careful version” that sometimes “takes us too far away from English, and makes us less aware of Flaubert’s prose than of Davis being aware of Flaubert’s prose”).
Collectively, the essays in the book paint a picture of Barnes as a thoughtful connoisseur, an enthusiast who never allows his enthusiasm to blind him to a work’s faults. Even at his most effusive, Barnes is rarely platitudinous. The one exception might be the opening essay on Penelope Fitzgerald, an author to whom Barnes makes no secret of being in thrall. This essay does offer some repudiation of the reputation Fitzgerald was afforded in the press, a reputation “attended by a marked level of male diminishment.” It also suggests that perhaps Fitzgerald won the Booker for the wrong work, “which would hardly be revolutionary in the history of the prize” (a truth Barnes should be intimately familiar with, one can’t help but remark).
As a careful reader, Barnes notices things many others might miss. Hemingway, Barnes is quick to point out, is often characterized as the apotheosis of machismo, when in fact he wrote more persistently and convincingly about cowardice and inaction. John Updike, “delineator of conventional, continuing America, is incessantly writing about flight.” Barnes shows himself to be an unapologetic advocate of Updike, claiming the Rabbit Angstrom quartet as “the greatest post-war American novel.” His piece on Updike (actually two pieces, published in the New York Review of Books and the Guardian shortly after the older writer’s death in 2009) also illustrates the ways in which Updike might have been one of the finest and most unsentimental literary examiners of aging and death, perhaps one reason (along with his precisely detailed, demanding prose style) he appears so off-putting to many younger readers.
Through the Window opens with a preface entitled “A Life with Books,” in which the author traces the roots of his bibliophilia and makes an impassioned case for the continuing relevance of books as objects. He quotes Updike (again), who late in life expressed despair about what he considered to be the dying art of printed literature. “I am more optimistic,” Barnes asserts, “both about reading and about books. There will always be non-readers, bad readers, lazy readers – there always were. Reading is a majority skill but a minority art. Yet nothing can replace the exact, complicated, subtle communion between absent author and entranced, present reader.” In the essays that follow, Barnes proves himself a very good reader, indeed: one who elevates the skill to art. Taken together, his essays on writers and books he admires also illustrate a separate assertion from his preface, one that seeks to debunk a myth all too common in our modern mindset: “When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it.” Through the Window is an exuberant, intelligent plunge into life.
It’s Banned Books Week in the United States, which seems an appropriate occasion to highlight Toronto film critic Richard Crouse’s new volume, Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of the Devils. Crouse’s book has itself not been banned (at least, not yet), but it deals with one of the most notorious cases of censorship in film history.
Ken Russell’s 1971 film The Devils, loosely based on Aldous Huxley’s novel The Devils of Loudon and John Whiting’s play The Devils, focuses on a series of alleged demonic possessions of Ursuline nuns that took place in the French town of Loudon in 1634. Starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, the film immediately ran afoul of both British censors and Warner Brothers, the American studio that financed it. (Crouse points out that this is one of the only times in history a studio has actively suppressed one of its own properties.)
The lethal combination of violence, sex, and religion made the film a target for queasy censors, who subjected the movie to an increasingly invasive series of cuts and deletions. (Film director Joe Dante called The Devils “the incredible shrinking movie,” because every time it was shown, something else went missing.) Specific bones of contention included Sister Jeanne, played by Vanessa Redgrave, uttering the word “cunt” (Crouse quotes John Trevelyan, one of the more progressive members of the British Board of Film Censors in 1971, as telling Russell, “It’s taken me ten years of fighting just to get [the word] ‘fuck’ accepted. The British public isn’t ready yet for cunt”); the climactic torture and burning at the stake of the Oliver Reed character, Father Urbain Grandier; and – most infamously – an orgy scene featuring a group of very naked nuns and a life-size Catholic crucifix. Of that scene, Crouse writes that a preview screening in Mayfair “made many of the censors want to wash their eyes out with soap.”
What made this all the more remarkable was that Russell was not some hack exploitation director: by 1970, he had already had a storied career at the BBC, and had been nominated for an Oscar for his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Women in Love. But Russell, who died in 2011, had a cinematic sensibility that was sui generis, combining baroque elements with an undeniable affinity for trash. (Other Russell films of note include an adaptation of the Who’s Tommy, the William Hurt sci-fi vehicle Altered States, and the late-period genre pieces The Lair of the White Worm and Gothic.) And while the years 1970–’71 saw the release of two other X-rated Warner Brothers picutres – the crime drama Performance, co-directed by Nicholas Roeg and starring a debut film actor named Mick Jagger, and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange – the studio refused to release The Devils uncut.
Indeed, Warner Brothers was so skittish that it took out ads in a number of American publications warning the public about the content of even the heavily censored domestic release. Crouse writes:
“The Devils is not a film for everyone,” screamed the header of a July 19, 1971, quarter-page ad in New York magazine. “It is a true story, carefully documented, historically accurate – a serious work by a distinguished filmmaker. As such it is likely to be hailed as a masterpiece by many. But because it is explicit and highly graphic in depicting the bizarre events that occurred in France in 1634, others will find it visually shocking and deeply disturbing.
“We feel a responsibility to alert you to this. It is our hope that only the audience that will appreciate The Devils will come to see it.”
So nervous was Warner Brothers about the film’s content that – in what must be a unique moment in film history – it actively campaigned to limit the audience that saw the film.
Crouse details the making of The Devils, including its writing, casting, and shooting, and includes comment from editor Michael Bradsell and quotes from the film’s designer, a then-unknown named Derek Jarman.
But Raising Hell is perhaps most valuable in putting The Devils in context, and attempting to explain, to the greatest extent possible, why it came in for censure when other boundary-pushing fare of the time – from upscale Oscar-nominated films such as Rosemary’s Baby, A Clockwork Orange, and The Exorcist to low-budget exploitation such as I Spit on Your Grave – did not. (The answer, unsurprisingly, has much to do with the attitude of The Devils toward the institution of the Catholic Church.) But despite quoting an online rumour that the social conservatism of current Warner Brothers president and CEO Alan Horn is responsible for the continued suppression of the film’s most controversial content, Crouse stops short of explaining why the director’s cut of The Devils remains locked in a studio vault, while other, equally incendiary films (Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, for example, or Takeshi Miike’s Visitor Q, or Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses) are widely available on DVD.
Nevertheless, Crouse’s book is a fascinating look at a film that very few people have seen, and even fewer have seen as its director intended. Raising Hell is a case study in what transpires when religion and art collide, and it should be read as a cautionary tale in the current climate of culture wars and clashes of civilizations.
Anyone in Toronto who would like to hear the author talk about Raising Hell and the controversy surrounding The Devils should come out to the book’s official launch tonight, beginning at 7:00 p.m. at No One Writes to the Colonel.
The Devil’s Cinema: The Untold Story Behind Mark Twitchell’s Kill Room. Steve Lillebuen; $29.99 cloth 978-0-771-5033-6, 338 pp., McClelland & Stewart
In 2006, as part of its Midnight Madness program, the Toronto International Film Festival screened a fascinating – and highly disturbing – documentary called S&Man (pronounced “sandman”), about the world of underground horror films. Opening with a clip from Michael Powell’s notorious 1960 film Peeping Tom, a movie Slate‘s Chuck Bowen calls an “exploration of moviegoing as ultimate voyeuristic fulfillment of untapped, queasy desires,” S&Man investigates the often uncomfortable relationship between horror films and voyeurism, with particular focus on a vicious subgenre of cinema verité mock-snuff movies: stuff that generally gets circulated online and at specialty conventions, and goes way beyond familiar notions of so-called “torture porn.” Over the course of the movie, director J.T. Petty interviews three such filmmakers: the improbably named Bill Zebub, Fred Vogel, and Eric Rost, the creepiest of the bunch, who is promoting a series of highly realistic stalk-and-slash films called S&Man. Just how willing the participants in his films are becomes a central question in Petty’s own movie.
What is most disturbing about the film in retrospect is the way it willfully blurs the line between fiction and reality, calling into question the very notions of reliability and truthfulness audiences have come to expect of documentaries. “A lot of what attracted me to doing a documentary,” Petty has said, “was how overtly manipulative and fictional they are, and how little audiences seem to be willing to see this. S&Man is easily the most dishonest movie I’ve made so far.” It is precisely this dishonesty that makes Petty’s film such a fascinating artifact of our post-postmodern age. The distance between what is presented as fact and what is actually going on provides S&Man its ironic bedrock, but also hints at the idea that our traditional understanding of representation may be fallible, that nothing is what it seems and the truth is a moveable feast.
Petty employs elements of unstable, shifting irony to examine the ways fiction and reality blur into one another, but what horrors might transpire if the safety valve of irony were removed, if the line between fantasy and the physical, moral world disappeared completely within the labyrinth of an extremely disturbed mind?
These, in part, are the questions that persist throughout journalist Steve Lillebuen’s book-length examination of convicted murderer Mark Twitchell, an aspiring filmmaker in Edmonton who became internationally infamous in the media when he was branded the “Dexter killer” as a result of his obsession with the television series about the eponymous Miami blood spatter expert who moonlights as a serial killer.
On October 10, 2008, posing as a woman on an Internet dating site, Twitchell lured Johnny Altinger, a lonely, 38-year-old Edmonton man, to a rented garage where he bludgeoned and stabbed him to death, then dismembered the corpse over the course of a bloody Thanksgiving weekend. What is remarkable about this – other than the evident savagery and inhumanity of the acts themselves – is that only two weeks earlier, Twitchell and a small crew had used the same garage as the set for a low-budget, eight-minute short movie called House of Cards. The plot of the movie? As Lillebuen describes it, the film “would feature a cop-turned-serial-killer whose own moral code would see him lure cheating husbands off dating websites with fake female profiles.” The killer in House of Cards was meant to be a variation on Dexter Morgan, the serial killer played by Michael C. Hall in the Showtime series based on Jeff Lindsay’s novels.
Both Dexter and Twitchell are of necessity pathological liars, and Lillebuen goes to some lengths to illustrate the way in which the two figures overlap in Twitchell’s warped mind. He quotes a passage from one of Lindsay’s books:
Being careful meant building a careful life, too. Compartmentalize. Socialize. Imitate life.
All of which I had done, so very carefully. I was a near perfect hologram. Above suspicion, beyond reproach, and beneath contempt. A neat and polite monster, the boy next door.
Elsewhere, Lillebuen quotes Twitchell himself as having written, “Anyone can turn out to be a psycho without being overtly obvious about it.” (Lillebuen underscores the parallelism in these two passages by including them as epigraphs to the book.) The extent to which Twitchell did not merely absorb the Dexter persona, but actually took steps to become the character is illustrated by a Facebook page Twitchell created under the fictional killer’s name. He began to refer to himself in the third person, including status updates that read, “Dexter is crouching killer, nervous father” and “Dexter is patiently waiting for his next victi … uh, play date buddy,” updates that received enthusiastic and encouraging responses from other rabid fans of the show. Well before Altinger’s murder, Twitchell wrote on his own Facebook page, “Mark has way too much in common with Dexter Morgan.”
In Lillebuen’s depiction, Twitchell appears at times completely self-aware, at others utterly oblivious. He acknowledges that he probably fits the clinical profile of a psychopath, but seems genuinely perturbed when he is caught in a lie. And some of his lies are so outrageous, it’s a wonder anyone ever bought them in the first place. Following the murder, Twitchell managed to convince one of his filmmaking buddies to store Altinger’s car in his driveway by telling him that he bought the car for forty dollars from a stranger he met in a gas station parking lot. The elaborate and contradictory stories he tells the police during questioning make them instantly suspicious, but their inability to locate Altinger’s remains puts them in doubt of being able to secure a first-degree murder conviction.
Lillebuen does a solid job of unravelling the knotted coils of Twitchell’s personality, separating the hideous fact from the dark fiction and showing how the two merged in the killer’s disturbed mind. He does not allow the book to devolve into an easy condemnation of violent art, and indeed goes to great lengths to show the craven way in which Twitchell’s defence lawyers attempted to cast his own damning writings – including an extraordinary document entitled “S.K. Confessions,” which the police retrieved from the hard drive on Twitchell’s computer – as the creations of a filmmaker who was in some way aping Petty’s approach by attempting to elide the distinction between what was real and what was part of his fictional cinematic world. These parts of the book are the strongest, and there are extended passages from “S.K. Confessions” describing Altinger’s dismemberment that are staggering and frankly difficult to read.
Less effective are Lillebuen’s attempts to dramatize events, such as the confrontations between Twitchell and his then-wife as she grows ever more suspicious about his actions and the flimsy excuses he uses to cover them up. There is also an extended sequence involving a struggle between Twitchell and a putative first victim – who ended up escaping with his life – that is overwritten and melodramatic.
Although the focus of the book is on Twitchell, Lillebuen also includes scenes told from the perspective of detectives investigating the case and Altinger himself. This proves to be a good idea, as it helps mitigate material that would otherwise have been, in Conrad’s words, “too dark – too dark altogether.”
If S&Man is, at least in part, about the tricky business of separating fantasy from reality, The Devil’s Cinema examines what happens when that line gets obliterated entirely. “Reading Dexter will not make you a killer,” wrote Jeff Lindsay in an opinion piece for The Huffington Post, which Lillebuen quotes in his epilogue. “If you are not already capable of killing another human being in a cold, cruel, deliberate way, no book ever written will make you capable of doing so. There are no magic words that will turn you into a psychopath.” While acknowledging the difficulty of comprehending the “smoke-filled labyrinth” that is Mark Twitchell’s psyche, Lillebuen quotes a snippet of the killer’s writing that indicates an awareness of the morality of actions taken in the world, as opposed to those dramatized by dark fantasists: “There is no key. No root cause … There’s no school bully, or impressionably gory movies, or video game violence, or Showtime television series to point the finger at. It is what it is and I am what I am.”
“[Anne Frank] was adept at self-examination and felt that people would benefit if at the end of each day ‘they were to review their own behaviour.’ Her attempt to better understand herself was inextricably linked to her development as a writer and to her status as an adolescent. For a child, the struggle to become unique, to assert individuality, has yet to acquire urgency. For the adult, that struggle may have ended in acquiescence – certainly in compromise. But for the adolescent the effort takes on a life or death seriousness. Not only is identity at stake; uniqueness carries its flip side: aloneness. The child can ease aloneness through play; the adult, through work. But the adolescent cannot escape facing the difficult questions: How do I nurture and protect my distinctiveness? How do I overcome my self-consciousness? How do I alleviate my aloneness?”
– “Anne Frank and the Search for Self,” from What the Furies Bring by Kenneth Sherman
Over the past two days, news broke that two heavyweights on the CanLit scene are releasing new work online, in the increasingly popular “single” format, as spearheaded by companies such as Amazon and Byliner.
Yesterday, Penguin Canada announced that activist and author Judy Rebick has launched a new e-book entitled Occupy This!, about the Occupy Wall Street movement, a grassroots uprising the author finds as significant as the social revolution of the 1960s. The 74-page book is available through online retailers such as Kobo, or direct through the Penguin Canada website.
Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood, arguably Canada’s most Internet savvy canonical author, has released a new short story, entitled “I’m Starved for You,” via the San Francisco–based digital publisher Byliner.
The Rebick title is selling for $3.99, and the Atwood is priced at $2.99.
At the beginning of the year, Quill & Quire published an article about the rise of “singles” online publishing, which numerous commentators have suggested could be the salvation of long-form journalism. In the Quill article, Jason McBride writes:
What has become known as the “singles” model – advertising-free, tablet- and smartphone-friendly, book/magazine hybrids designed to be read in one sitting – could be the silver bullet that writers and print media, long beset by declining ad revenue in print and a fickle, penny-pinching market online, have been waiting for. “It’s really a frontier,” says Mark Bryant, the former editor of Outside magazine and one of Byliner’s co-founders.
Bryant likens his company to Random House’s Vintage Contemporaries fiction imprint, and, indeed, the distinctive branding of Byliner Originals, which sport digital “covers” featuring a signature bright yellow and consistent typefaces, appears to be the product of a traditional publisher. Byliner has now published more than a dozen titles by writers such as William T. Vollmann and Ann Patchett, and plans to eventually offer a new Byliner Original, ranging in price from $0.99 to $5.99 (U.S.), almost every week.
Writing in The New York Times, Dwight Gardner calls Amazon’s version of the idea – Kindle Singles – “probably the best reason to buy an e-reader in the first place.” The long-form journalism contained in the singles format, Garner says, hits “the sweet spot between magazine articles and hardcover books.”
Moreover, Garner points out, there are significant incentives for authors to publish in this format:
For writers, there’s money to be made here. Amazon offers 70 percent of the royalties to its Singles authors. The all-time best-selling Single, a short story titled “Second Son,” by Lee Child, the British-born thriller writer, was originally published by Delacorte Press; it is priced at $1.99 and has sold more than 180,000 copies.
So far Amazon has issued more than 160 Singles, at a rate of 3 per week. It has fairly strict rules for the nonfiction it selects. No excerpts from books. Generally no expanded versions of articles that have appeared elsewhere. Barnes & Noble offers similar material in its Nook Snaps series, and Apple has Quick Reads on its iBookstore, but neither is offering original material.
As an avowed advocate of short fiction, it would be foolish of me to criticize any vehicle that allows for more stories to get disseminated to more readers. And the singles idea is not new: it’s merely a digital version of the kind of long-form journalism once found in general-interest magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic. And while the two former publications still regularly feature short fiction, other magazines have been scaling back on their fiction in the last decade, so this new venue seems to be a good way to fill that void.
And yet, I remain conscious of the experience of the music industry in the wake of Apple’s iTunes. All of a sudden, $0.99 singles were in, and full-length albums were, if not out, at least exponentially less popular. The rise of Kindle Singles, Byliner, and a similar initiative launched by The National Post at the end of last year offer bite-sized works of fiction and non-fiction that can, in most cases, be consumed in one sitting. With luck, these newly popular formats will constitute one part of the literary ecosystem, without cannibalizing longer works, such as full-length novels or works of non-fiction.