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One Minute Warning

L’Orchestre symphonique de l’Isle, Voyages Lointains, Salle Oscar Peterson, 18 March 2023

There is something inherently spooky about the concurrent rise of fandom culture and artificial intelligence, like a chicken-or-the-egg kind of conundrum. Which came first: groups of people who behaved algorithmically, or groups of algorithms that behaved humanly?

Microsoft should just go all-in and develop an AI chatbot so that Star Wars and Marvel Universe geeks can geek out endlessly about which light sabre Darth Douchebag used in episode LXVI of the Andromeda Chronicles. Or whatever. That’s a job made by bots, for bots.

My favourite critic, Roger Ebert, despised fandom.

Jessica Moss with Novarumori, La Sala Rossa, 16 April 2023

The Yale School of Management is doing an excellent job tending a list of big companies keeping their promises by breaking ties with Russia. The CBC and IMAX are among the Canadian businesses that Yale has granted an ‘A’ rating for unconditionally suspending all Russian operations. Still, many more companies have received a ‘B’ for pulling out of the Great White North of the East, but leaving the door open just a crack to return. One day, there will be no war, the logic goes, thus no need for sanctions. And why not be first in line when peace is declared?

Companies on the ‘B’ list include Canada Goose, Bombardier, and everybody’s favourite billionaire-owned dep chain, Alimentation Couche-Tard. Thankfully there are no Canuck companies that received a failing ‘F’ grade, but on the ‘D’ list is the Calgary-headquartered Calfrac Well Services — you guessed it, an Albertan oil company. Go figure that the fossil fuel industry acts with impunity, even in the face of genocide.

McDonalds was one of the first major corporations to pull up stakes at the beginning of the invasion, leaving behind 32 years of Big Macoffs and McFlurryskis. As for any Moskals hoping for a batch of home fries as consolation, tough luck mother suckers. McCain yanked operations, too.

Margaret Atwood, Blue Metropolis Festival, St. James United Church, 17 April 2023

Puddles still dotted the sidewalks but the day’s light rain had largely subsided when I approached St. James United Church for Margaret Atwood’s Q&A, the inaugural event of the Blue Metropolis literary festival. Although it was nearly fifteen minutes to 7pm, there was still a sizable lineup snaking its way out the door westbound and back eastward up St. Catherine Street. I wondered how everyone was going to get inside as I took my place at the end of it and waited dutifully.

We inched rhythmically forth and I realized that this was the lineup for ticket buyers, most of whom would be turned away. Ticket holders like myself could enter at our leisure. And I did — only to envy those fortunate few who would never make it into the event.

Even though I had just stepped inside a functioning church, it felt as if I’d descended to some hellish hell of a hellscape. The walls of the underworld came crashing all the way down and a flock of flying monkeys flapped about the upper rafters periodically attacking members of the congregation beneath with their razorlike talons. Throngs of fervid Atwood fans sporting Atwood tattoos and Atwood piercings rushed the stage, crushing a number of small children to death in the melee. One blue-haired lady — whom I had at first mistaken for Atwood herself, but turned out only to be her body double — was busy feasting upon a bloody stump of the child’s fattiest limb. The scene terrified me so, but I stood fast to document the carnage.

At a quarter to eight, as the audience’s frenzy crescendoed, Atwood at last took the pulpit and wasted no time before summoning Beelzebub’s most despicable demons to the rabid crowd’s unqualified delight. The lights went out and a fan of green lasers pierced dense smoke as pyrotechnics were deployed that would make a Metallica concert look like sprinklers on a toddler’s birthday cake. Subaudible frequencies of Skrillex-esque post-dubstep shook the building’s foundation. Then, Atwood’s voice came roaring from an enormous sound system: “WASSUP WASSUP WASSUP!”

At first flakes and then chunks of alabaster rained down upon the lower decks as the balconies separated from the structure and collapsed, tossing torsos like ragdolls into a pit of mangled flesh below. 33 people died and nine with non-life threatening injuries would have survived had their helicopter ambulance not crashed en route into the Notre-Dame Cathedral killing 14 more unsuspecting bystanders.

I guess that hackneyed old saying holds true: you can’t have a Margaret Atwood Q&A without a ritual sacrifice.

The 25th edition of the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival runs 27-30 April.

An Laurence 安媛, Do you have a minute?, La Chapelle | Scènes Contemporaines, 19 April 2023

I have noticed that the word ‘minute’ has replace ‘awhile’ in conversation as a measurement of time. In the not-too-distant past, one might have said, ‘hey, I haven’t seen you in awhile!’ Whereas now, people, especially today’s youth, are more often heard to remark, ‘hey, it’s been a minute since I’ve seen you!’

One of my favourite answers to this question comes from The Larry Sanders Show in which Artie, the hardnosed TV producer Rip Torn portrays is asked by Phil, the snotnosed little writer, if he has a minute. Artie replies, “I have exactly two minutes, Phil. You may have one of them.” I am so pleased to have made time for An Laurence’s provocative and moving performance. There will be more minutes where that one came from.

Read the NicheMTL interview with An Laurence安媛 here.

Zwan, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver, BC, 25 April 2003

Good God in heaven, it must be 20 years since I took my then-girlfriend on a weekend trip to Vancouver to see Billy Corgan’s new band, Zwan — or, as I like to call them, the never-ending buildup that never began. Is it possible that Melissa Auf der Maur was playing bass with Zwan at the time? I distinctly remember trying to keep my eyes on Corgan’s big bald head rather than the stems sticking out from a too short pair of lipstick red short shorts. Those weren’t artificial.◼︎

All Dressed

Point to Infinity: in conversation with An Laurence 安媛

“In the end, you are never really able to truly merge the two sides of yourself,” says An Laurence, the Montreal-based experimental artist. “They can coexist. But to find inner unity within yourself is also a quest you’ll never be touching.”

Laurence is describing the title of her recording, Almost Touching, named for the mathematical concept called ‘asymptote’: a straight line which stretches towards a curve without ever intersecting.

It’s theoretical geometry, says Laurence, “and also very interesting in terms of the philosophy of art.” But it could just as easily refer to the literal conditions of the post-covid era, in which we might feel reluctant to resume physical contact with the world. To Laurence, it ultimately indicates our ideas of nature, the elusive character of time, the eternal now.

“I realized that all the pieces on Almost Touching are about getting closer to an answer but never really being able to grasp it,” she says. “Like being in the dark and starting to see the form of something, and as soon as you think you understand the concept or the idea, it changes. Actually, you’re never able to grasp whatever you’re searching for.”

An Laurence is equally enigmatic as an artist. At 28, she’s a graduate of the programme in Arts and Technology at Université de Montréal. There, she studied creative programming, sound art, video art, and coding. She is also a curator, an audiovisual media producer, and a classically trained guitarist. Though classical guitar may not be the instrument that immediately comes to mind in today’s experimental music world.

“My first thought,” says Laurence, “was that even if I’m the best classical guitarist in contemporary music, I will not get so much work because it’s very niche. So I thought that I should record the pieces that really impacted me in the last few years, to show what it could be.”

That dedication paid off. Laurence’s courageous 2022 double album, Almost Touching, was lauded by au courant publications Foxy Digitalis and Musicworks Magazine.

Most recently, the contemporary music centre Le Vivier granted Laurence carte blanche to program an event entitled Do You Have a Minute? which gathers together the works of five avant-classical composers. Laurence specifically chose each piece in the concert because of its connection to time. “Music,” she says, “can make our perception of time really different.”

On paper, the titular work is a percussion piece with electronic sounds. But its peculiar aesthetic elements make it more than just a conceptual work. The composer, Thais Montanari, wrote Do You Have a Minute? for a soloist “so that the performer is stuck in a clock,” as Laurence explains.

“It’s a piece for a solo performer who walks in a circle twelve times around these objects, which are time markers. So there’s a metronome, there’s electronic timers, Newton’s Cradles — something that will make percussive, repetitive sound. The idea is about how to walk in the clock. It’s also about information overload — constantly wanting to know everything, and the obsession with time. Counting every second.”

Laurence’s work encourages us to engage in multiple competing temporalities at once, hearing fast and slow. She commissioned the Montreal pianist Gabo Champagne to compose a work around the idea of moss. Entitled Bryophytes, the piece interrogates our notions of acceleration.

“I had just finished reading Gathering Moss,” says Laurence. “It’s a book about moss, and it really mixes a scientific way of storytelling with philosophy. So I was talking to Gabo about this, and how long it takes mosses to exist, and how much effort it takes to exist, and how they’ve been there so long before us. Bryophytes is a piece for piano, percussion, guitar, and voice, but there’s some theatrical elements also, some performing texts, performing actions. It’s all about mixing beauty with the absurd. We are running so much and we don’t really know why.”

Photo: Studio Valaquia

Laurence is concerned with the cycles of nature and what constitutes the natural. “Everything in nature is very fascinating,” she says. “That’s where we all belong — we belong with those things that feed us and the things that allow us to live. In the city, we’re kind of far from it because everything we consume is coming from elsewhere. Especially during the pandemic, people — including me — started to want plants in our houses to feel better. But to look at those plants, I was like, they do not belong here. I knew there were lots of people going super intense on learning about the plants: what pH you needed, what kind of water, what kind of soil. And that’s all very interesting. But if you look outside, nobody cares about the actual ecosystem. The trees that we have, they are the plants that actually impact us. They’re there all the time and they impact the land we live on. All the flowers, all the weeds, all the bushes, all the mosses — everything. Those are the things we actually are a part of.”

Laurence’s creative vision borders upon the transcendental, her outlook engaged as much with philosophy as with beauty, as much with space as with time, and as much about existing in the present moment as a commitment to eternity.

“What we are is never really ours,” Laurence muses, “because everything we’re made of — like our bodies — comes from other people before. And when we’re going to die it’s going to go away. Not only our physical bodies, but also our knowledge, our thoughts, our traditions. All of this is not from us, but it’s going to pass through us. Culture is something that’s living, and something that’s living always wants to go on living. The culture that we carry wants to live and it uses bodies and beings like us to travel through time and space, to not cease to exist. If we didn’t have that heritage, would we be able to go through time?”◼︎

Do You Have a Minute? runs 19 & 20 April 2023 at La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines.

How Do You Spell Holiday?

Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2: notes on the Berlin Wall segment

In the spring of 1987, US president Ronald Reagan delivered an address — one which has since accrued exponential renown — against the backdrop of the Berlin Wall, that old dividing line between East and West, communism and capitalism, totalitarianism and democracy.

The Berlin Wall physically represented what was more broadly called the “Iron Curtain,” the ideological veil separating opposing ways of seeing and ways of life. At that time, history was bending towards us in the West, with our free-market economies and liberal-leaning societies seemingly leading the way. Reagan famously demanded of the Soviet ruler: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Here in the West, we believed in individualism and freedom, which supposedly supported a democratic and responsible government and fostered economic competition and innovation. The Soviet satellite republics enjoyed nothing of the sort, living under dreary planned economies, deprived of private property, with collective standards outstripping human rights, and a resigned sense of political corruption and impending doom destined to pervade daily life.

The Berlin Wall signified this. And at first glance, it seems that the segment housed in the Centre de commerce mondial’s atrium is evidence. The West side is spraypainted with graffiti and splashed with bursts of vibrant colour; the East side is bleak and bears only what appear to be administrative markings. Obviously, the permissive West was the superior flank, and we assumed simply that freedom would naturally flow eastward with the wall’s dissolution in 1990.

But that hasn’t happened.

What we call democracy was intended to guarantee that governments were responsible to the people who elected them. And yet the world’s two leading democracies, the United States and Britain, have demonstrated that even free choice doesn’t assure the contentment of the demos.

The way democracies are structured in the West ensures the perpetual tyranny of the minority. In the US, the population is more-or-less divided, but in the UK, as in Canada, ruling parties can routinely form a “majority” government with 30% or less of the vote. The UK has endured an undemocratic transfer of power so many times in the past decade that it’s difficult to count. And more than 40% of Americans still don’t trust the 2020 presidential election outcome. Maybe it’s time to admit that this form of democracy we live under has a few flaws.

Communications technologies were meant to liberate us Westerners, freeing everyone from the shackles of space and time and allowing the unfettered flow of information to permeate borders and broaden hearts and minds.

And yet the West’s media are constantly warring with each other over what constitutes important information, and who holds the truth. Elon Musk, Twitter’s new owner, has such contempt for the media that he has replaced his company’s entire public relations department with an auto-reply message delivering a poop emoji.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, state surveillance of private individuals was considered one of the most heinous transgressions of Eastern totalitarianism. The Oscar-winning 2006 film The Lives of Others depicted the humdrum occupation of an East German surveillance officer assigned to spy on the conversation and communication of ordinary citizens. This cinematic rendering was supposed to look shocking to Western audiences, a revelation of how low totalitarian governments stooped just to collect a little bit of information.

And yet we in the West have shrugged at exposé after exposé of major media corporations — and governments, too — conducting mass-surveillance that would make Stasi Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler blush like a nun. Social media like Facebook and Twitter are arguably little more than surveillance networks.

Ultimately, it was concluded to be capitalism, like the pudding’s eating, that would prove the West’s dominance. Open competition in every marketplace would allow everyone, doing anything, the opportunity to succeed, for cheaper, thus providing the best possible goods and services to a free public for the least cost, freeing up more capital for leisure and the pursuit of happiness.

And yet the world’s capitalist economies since 1990 have heaved through at least three recessions — one of them “great” — a financial crisis in 2008 precipitated by the collapse of major lending institutions, and the unprecedented consolidation of wealth into the fewest hands in history. A recent Oxfam report found that the 1 percent, as we have come to accept them, snatched nearly two-thirds of all new wealth created since 2020. At $42 trillion, that’s almost twice as much as the bottom 99 percent of us.

What do you buy when you can afford anything? Ironically, the most coveted bauble in the free West is Control.

Capitalism undermines democracy when it becomes possible to purchase political power. And unrestricted communication is compromised when the channels are owned and operated by capitalists for the purposes of surveillance. The free marketplace ceases to be free when capital stomps out competition. And ultimately, the demos — us citizens — lose trust in the system.

That’s what the East-West divide always seemed to be about: trust. If you want for nothing, you can trust your neighbour. You can trust the free media. You can trust the best products. You can trust the most popular politicians. And you can trust fair elections.

Except, as we all know, we can trust none of these things.

Again, it is ironic that the East appears to have won in the trust department, too. You can’t trust Biden or Trudeau or whomever happens to be Britain’s Prime Minister at the time of writing. But you can trust Putin to be Putin. That’s why Trump won — and may again: because, no matter how ridiculous his tactics, America could always trust Trump to Trump.

Our free and liberal democracy has afforded, among other things, what appears to be free and fair choice in all walks of life, including governing authorities, consumer products, and channels of communication. Western life gives us in Montreal the freedom to display a segment of the Berlin Wall as if it’s the spoils of some brutal war in some distant past, as if to say, “job done.” But the job isn’t done. Walls just like it and worse are still being built. And the once shining triptych of democracy, technology, and capitalism has lost its lustre.

On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mikhail Gorbachev warned the world of a new Cold War emerging between East and West, one rooted in the Ukrainian question, and aggravated by what Gorbachev referred to as American “triumphalism.” The West got cocky is what Gorby meant. Instead of ensuring that another wall like it could never happen again, we just decorated it.

First as tragedy, then as tourist attraction.◼︎

999 Words

Bonjour High Drama: in conversation with Michael Martini

In 1985, “Running Up That Hill” was an obscure synthpop single by Kate Bush, an artist relatively unknown outside of a certain very artsy and very English crowd.

Cut to 2022 when the popular series Stranger Things included the song in its soundtrack and catapulted it past Harry Styles to become the most streamed track on Spotify, introducing Bush to an entirely new generation of global fans. It’s what might be described as the ‘new normal’ of popular culture, in which a new context breathes new life into a work of art.

“I felt like I was fighting a battle or something, but now because of that TV show, everyone’s into her,” says the Montreal playwright, Michael Martini — whose latest work entitled Landscape Grindr premieres this week at La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines — of his own Kate Bush obsession. “I feel finally very redeemed. She’s not a terribly well-kept secret, but I’m glad that the baton is being passed, in a way.”

Although Martini is among the last group of graduates of Concordia’s now-discontinued Playwriting programme, he draws creatively more from cinema and music. “I don’t really enjoy reading too many plays,” Martini admits. “I’m not into what I would call ‘TV theatre,’ with lots of dialogue and really psychological characters.”

Still, Kate Bush was one of his earliest inspirations: “I just fell in love with her taste for cacophony,” Martini says, “and key changes, and time signature changes, and narratives that weren’t about falling in love at the club, which seemed to be so ubiquitous, otherwise. That’s when I started writing — little songs and stories at first, and eventually, plays. I also had an ‘aha’ moment with the films of Robert Altman. Like Nashville, where characters are more or less improvising, and Altman is creating layers out of those improvisations, and then suddenly somehow everything comes to a boiling point.”

Montreal’s hottest new production, Landscape Grindr is an interdisciplinary piece and Martini’s most ambitious work, incorporating aspects of video and dance and expanding upon conventional notions of drama.

“The language of the show is not strictly the codes of theatre,” Martini explains. “We’re aware of how different artistic audiences are encountering this work. It is a longer show — it’s about two hours long — and it’s carried forward by a text that I’ve written and that people are enacting. The show is about connections between environmental justice, the #metoo movement, and personal questions of sexuality. Those three different aspects all hinge on questions of: What is nature? What is violence? What is change?”

Martini has been steadily carving out a niche in Montreal for his singular style of satirical yet poignant theatre. Though Martini originates from west of the Quebec border, where he developed a love for a certain absurdist humour.

“My family is from Pickering Village,” says Martini, “the historical part of Ajax, Ontario. It’s quite bizarre. It looks like a ski village made out of cardboard. But it is directly beside a farming community called Greenwood, where they have lots of little pioneer villages and old historical churches and homes. When I first started as a teenager, I was doing English pantomime. There were these plays put on by our community in kind of a Monty Python spirit. Lots of puns, lots of audience interaction, and very DIY. And I think when I look back, that’s really stuck with me. These little plays that were done in pioneer villages around Christmastime. That spirit is still with me.”

Although Martini has enjoyed the support of MAI’s Alliance program and of the Playwrights Workshop Montreal, staging Landscape Grindr has required patience and persistence.

“The timeline of theatre is very tricky,” explains Martini. “It’s very rare that it’s very fast that things happen. In the case of this show, I started writing it in 2017. I did little things here and there with it, trying things out, reading things aloud. But I didn’t have a real full-length script until 2019. And finally, by 2021, I was able to get a technical residency to explore the show. Through all that, it was booked for 2023. So that is a huge challenge, not just logistically. It’s fine when things run at a slow pace. But artistically, I find it a huge challenge to connect to material that starts to collect age, to remain interested in the same things, to honour the ideas you had.”

“I’m moving forward with a sense of humour and kind of a social energy,” says Michael Martini. Photos: Félix Bonnevie

Nonetheless, honouring ideas is what brings them to fruition, and Martini is determined to share his vision with the Montreal community that has supported him through thick and thin.

In 2021, Martini lost nearly everything to a devastating apartment fire. Fortunately, he and his two roommates escaped unharmed, but the majority of Martini’s belongings, including years of writing, were destroyed. In response, the city’s theatre community rallied around him, starting a Gofundme campaign that exceeded its fundraising goal, and assisting with the enormous monetary and emotional toll. This feeling of camaraderie buoys Martini and keeps him excited to share his latest piece with an audience. “I’m moving forward with a sense of humour and kind of a social energy,” he says. “It’s a pretty DIY atmosphere. Everyone’s welcome.”

Landscape Grindr is the culmination of nearly five years of work, and catapults Martini into a completely new context. “You can feel that energy when you are waiting to do something and share something you’re proud of,” he says. “It takes up real estate in your head. And it’s a huge release to share something. I love the community that you build when you’re working on a show — with the people who are in it, but also the people who are interested to come and see it. There’s a really unique sense of conviviality. I love that feeling of a little huddle before a show. I think it’s really beautiful. That certainly carries me forward.”◼︎

Landscape Grindr runs April 11th, 13th, 14th, and 15th at La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines, 3700 Saint-Dominique Street.

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The Cinematheque Quebecoise recently screened a 35mm projection of a favourite film that I had seen dozens of times and know and love like a well-worn novel, like the back of my hand, like a beloved relative — Oliver Stone’s 1994 tour-de-force, Natural Born Killers. Even though I could practically recite this movie start-to-finish, in part because its Trent Reznor-produced soundtrack lived in my Discman and that of every sullen teenaged boy throughout the 1990s, I thought it would be a throwback to enjoy it again on celluloid, on the silver screen.

I saw this film in its first run, sat next to my girlfriend, high as a kite on mushrooms. Of course the screening was on 35mm: 35mm was the standard theatrical medium in 1994. Although it might have been the drugs, I remember it being one of my crispest cinematic experiences. Audiences and critics agreed at the time that Oliver Stone was firing on all cylinders and had made a masterpiece. The movie had generated a lot of buzz in its day for its use of handheld video, super-8, and digital animation. And all sorts of primary and tertiary controversies swirled around it and its director and stars. (Remember Robert Downey Jr.’s biodegradable phase?)

I could see that something was wrong right away with the Cinematheque projection. I had expected the print to have a few scuffs and scratches, which it did. But it also seemed zoomed in, as a picture would look reformatted to fit the dimensions of a laptop screen. It appeared as if the entire film was in close-up. And since Stone was obsessed with close-ups, it gave the effect of an extreme close-up. When the titles were cut off in the satirical sitcom segment starring Rodney Dangerfield, I guessed that something was significantly off, and when the projectionist missed nearly eight seconds of the film during the first changeover because the cues were almost invisible (despite what Brad Pitt says in Fight Club, they are not called ‘cigarette burns’ — nobody who loves film would come close to a film print with a lit cigarette) I decided to inform the house that the projection was incorrect.

At the box office, I told the girl working there that the film was in the wrong aspect ratio. To which she replied, “what do you mean?” This put me in the odd position of having to explain aspect ratio to a Cinematheque Quebecoise employee, as if I were explaining to a surgeon the exact location of the spleen. She ducked into the projection booth and re-emerged, telling me that there was nothing that could be done. I politely requested a refund and walked home in the misty post-apocalyptic night thinking that this was not the Cinematheque I once knew.

I also knew that nothing could be done about the bad projection because I worked for seven years as a projectionist at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. I projected 16mm, 35mm, and even a bit of 70mm during my Telluride days, and had the genuine honour to work under the tutelage of Chapin Cutler of Boston Light & Sound. Chapin is the guy who beat Michael Moore in court recently for the Traverse City Film Festival fiasco. I’ve subsequently lost all respect for Moore. Chapin and his wife, Deborah, are consummate pros and wonderful people.

My first guess was that the Cinematheque projectionist had left the wrong lenses on the projectors — maybe the 1:37 lenses for a 1:85 film. Or it could have been that the lenses themselves were the wrong focal length. I emailed former Telluride Director of Operations, Jim “BF Deal” Bedford, to ask for his opinion. He replied,

Every screen image is based on a perfect relationship between lens, aperture, and screen size. For example, if one would get a perfect 1.85 image on the screen using a 47mm lens, but the lens that was used was a stock 45mm (let’s say because of the cost or lack of availability of a custom 47mm, or perhaps they want to maximize the size of the screen), then this is possible.

The third and least likely possibility is that the Cinematheque had somehow obtained a dupe print, created with an optical printer. Which would have been the only method to “pirate” a film in 1994. Regardless, this couldn’t possibly be the way that 35mm films are shown regularly at the Cinematheque, can it? If the Cinematheque Quebecoise is no longer the place to go to be extremely snobby about film, whither cinephilia?

The last year that I worked in Telluride, the big movie was The Artist — the French, mostly dialogue-free film set during the late 1920s at the turn of sound cinema. It was 2011. Even back then I took the film as a metaphor for the coming digital age, that DCP was about to overtake analogue formats, streaming was about to overtake the theatrical experience, and we had all better get used to it. 2022 was the first year that there were no film prints screened in Telluride. Can it really still be called a film festival if there is no actual film? RIP, seventh art.

Given that even veteran film critic and literally last man at the movies, A.O. Scott, has arrived at the same conclusion, I thought that it might be an opportune time to share some of my all-time favourite experiences in the projection booth.

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly (2007), dir. Julian Schnabel

In 2007, the New York artist and filmmaker, Julian Schnabel, came to Telluride with his newest feature, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I was excited to see this movie, having been a fan of his previous films, Basquiat and Before Night Falls. The print arrived shrink-wrapped from the film lab, never before run through a projector. It still had that lab chemical smell, and each reel was wound tight as a drum. Machine perfect. I could not wait to throw this picture onscreen.

Before the premiere, in which Schnabel was in attendance, I had set up the projectors using loops of RP-40, which is a piece of film with a test pattern printed on it designed to align and focus the picture. Everything looked crisp and sharp and perfect. So I strung up the film and prepared for showtime. But when the lights in the theatre went down and the first frames of the picture went up, I was immediately mortified. Everything was out of focus.

The picture appeared to oscillate wildly between fuzzy and extremely fuzzy, an absolute nightmare situation for a projectionist. I was pulling focus like a madman trying to produce an image — any image. I had my binoculars out, trying to find the film grain. Was there something wrong with this print, I wondered? Had something spilled on the first reel of the film?

What I didn’t realize was that the first reel of the film was shot from the subjective viewpoint of the story’s main character, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French fashion magazine magnate who had suffered a stroke and was in the midst of having one of his eyes sewn shut. It finally occurred to me about five minutes in. When I made the first changeover and the picture came up in focus, I breathed one sigh of relief. Then, when I changed back over to projector #1 for the third reel and only had to make a slight adjustment, I sighed again.

Film projection is one of the few jobs that, if you do it right, nobody should notice. The only time an audience becomes aware of the projectionist in the booth is when you fuck up.

Incendies (2010), dir. Denis Villeneuve

Hometown boy makes good. The Quebecois contingent in Telluride that year was so proud of Villeneuve for his emerging success as an independent filmmaker on the festival circuit. Little did anyone anticipate that he would end up making Bladerunner and Dune reboots. But it was exciting to have the Maelstrom director visit my theatre for the premiere of his newest and, in my opinion, best film. I even played Radiohead as the exit music (for a film).

Modern Times (1936), dir. Charlie Chaplin

As a graduate student at McGill, I started an underground film society called Theatre la pepite. My only aim was to show the prints that I had acquired in Telluride in the little black box beneath the Subway that the university had constructed with grant money and nobody knew about except for undergrads wanting to play video games on a giant screen in the basement of the Arts building. I brought my 1962 print of Modern Times and screened it for a small audience, including Wayne Ross Cullen, the renowned Montreal film technician who helped construct meticulous screening rooms at the Museum of Fine Arts and elsewhere. After the show, Cullen told me that it was the nicest projection he had ever seen. An enormous compliment.

Passerby (2010), dir. Eryk Rocha

The North America premiere of this incredible Brazilian film seemed like it should be straightforward enough. The only remarkable things about the print were that it was in black and white and it was long — ten reels if I recall correctly. But about two minutes after the picture went up, I received an anxious call from the house manager. The film’s director was concerned that the subtitles were not showing up.

Had I accidentally put the wrong aperture plate in the projectors, cutting off the subtitles, I wondered? I framed the picture up and down to see if there was anything cut off. I checked the other nine reels. Nothing. In fact, there were no subtitles. The distributor had sent us the wrong print. The director suggested that we attempt to run a DVD overtop the picture, but that was unfortunately impractical. And there was no way I was going to interrupt the screening: the show must go on! And so the decision was taken to screen the entire foreign-language film to an American audience with no subtitles.

To everyone’s amazement, the film was so captivating that it had transcended the language barrier. Nobody walked out. Even the L.A. Times noted it in their festival report — I was chuffed to be mentioned in this notice as “the projectionist.”

Tree of Life (2011), dir. Terrence Malick

At 10pm one night during the festival weekend, I received a clandestine phone call from my boss asking if I would show up to the theatre for a top-secret screening. I was not to inform anyone. I was not to invite anyone. This screening was, in effect, not happening.

I arrived at the theatre like a ninja clad all in black and under the shadow of darkness and was handed an unlabelled cassette tape by guy with long, scruffy, dirty blonde hair who looked more like a surfer than someone in the film industry. I later learned that this was Bill Pohlad, the producer.

I had no idea what we were about to watch. There were only two men in the theatre and I surmised that one of them was Harvey Weinstein. I pressed play on the device and observed in awe as the most spectacular and moving film I have ever seen unfolded in front of my eyes. The movie was fresh off its win at Cannes and had never been shown in North America. Not only was I one of the first people to see it, I was projecting it.

After the show, Pohlad asked me what I thought of the film. I was speechless. I told him it was brilliant. And he asked me if I would mind sitting through it again for another showing the next morning, to two Fox Searchlight executives, who would end up buying the rights to distribute it in North America.

That was a masterclass in how the film business works. Or worked. Because that was the last time something like that ever happened. Like films themselves, those kinds of deals are no longer seen in theatres. And chumps like me aren’t allowed in the room.

What I learned recently at the Natural Born Killers screening is that the house has ground to a halt. The future of film is in the past. Like the era of the album, or the opera, or the novel, everything ends. For film, this feels like it. Ayo, A.O. Leave the “discourse” to the film girlies on Twitter who think that Michael Bay is an auteur.

That’s all, folks.◼︎

All Dressed

Pattern Recognition: in conversation with Molly Hatch

The following is a metaphor, perhaps, that neither the ceramics artist Molly Hatch, nor Mary-Dailey Desmarais, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ chief curator, intended with their collaboration for the Parall(elles) exhibit.

But the effect of entering the museum and walking up the staircase of the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion, with Hatch’s breathtaking introductory installation, Ducere, unfolding in view is literally one of “stepping up to the plate.”

It’s a baseball analogy, a bit boyish for an exhibition of milestones in women’s design, and a little too on-the-nose, maybe. Nevertheless.

Ducere, from the Latin meaning “to lead,” is composed of 198 perfectly round dinner plates arranged in triptych, each plate hand-painted to recreate the psychedelic Islamicizing pattern Christopher Dresser designed for his 1872 Minton factory Moon Flask.

“A plate is an entry point to see artwork in a way that we wouldn’t necessarily have permission to otherwise,” says Molly Hatch.
©️Todd Merrill Studio

“They’re not hand-thrown,” admits Hatch, “which I often do in my studio. But in a grid layout, the readymade plates don’t distract you. Your eye fills in the blanks around the plates. The gold is an additional firing so the reflective metallic surface is there to mimic that Cloisonne technique which usually has brass or gold between the enamel. And that is real gold that’s applied after the glaze firing which is largely what you’re seeing painted there — anywhere from three to five layers of material, glazed.”

Dresser’s porcelain flask, an important Victorian-period piece from the “granddaddy of Industrial Design,” as Hatch calls him, is one of the Museum’s most recent acquisitions under Mary-Dailey Desmarais’s curatorial direction. Desmarais commissioned Hatch to design Ducere using the Moon Flask as a touchstone. No other artist could be better suited for this reboot.

“It was not only interesting from the point of view of activating our collection,” explains Desmarais, “but also showing a contemporary artist working within the medium of ceramics, that is a traditional medium used for centuries, and doing something entirely new with it. To see how this contemporary woman artist is navigating ceramic practice — doing a completely new take on a work of art in our collection, and something visually captivating, and also historically profound — was really interesting to us.”

Hatch’s star has been steadily rising over the past decade. Her exquisite and epic-scale ceramics were the subject of a 2013 solo exhibition at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. Since, Hatch’s evermore astonishing earthenware designs have been commissioned for permanent installations at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, the Newark Museum of Art in Newark, New Jersey, and now, Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Hatch cleverly characterizes her work as “resetting the table,” but she can add another play on words with the baseball plate turn. For in sport as in life, the plate always means home.

“A plate is an entry point to see artwork in a way that we wouldn’t necessarily have permission to otherwise,” Hatch says. “Maybe it’s just enough to give people another minute to stay longer and say, ‘I understand that that’s a plate, and I understand that that’s a painting. How do you put those two worlds together?’ For me, that’s enough, even if it gives people a reason to stay another minute, or go home and take another look at their tableware and see it differently.”

First and foremost, Hatch’s work encourages audiences to reconsider our relationships with the transcendent world of capital ‘A’ art, the commercial sphere of industry, and the quotidian.

“Everyone has a relationship to a plate,” Hatch says. “They’re objects that we live with and eat with every day. They’re very basic and banal. But we have a relationship to the dishware that we live with and eat off of. My hope is that when you walk into a museum that has all the pretensions of the art world, all that baggage that comes with it, where you’re expected to know how to look at artwork, it gives people the opportunity who are not necessarily in the place of knowing how, or feel comfortable with that relationship to art.”

Molly Hatch (born in 1978), Ducere, 2022, glazed earthenware, underglaze hand painting. Courtesy of Todd Merrill Studio, New York. Photo MMFA, Jean-François Brière

Although Hatch also unfailingly uses her work to stake a claim as a legitimate contemporary artist working in a medium more traditionally associated with craft. “It’s an opportunity, too, to elevate ceramics,” Hatch argues, “to be seen as a painting. It’s a long, old conversation in the craft and design world: we have a different relationship with how the art world views that material, and I think it’s still something that needs elevating, rethinking, recontextualizing.”

Hatch is the granddaughter of a prominent Massachusetts merchant family who amassed a collection of 18th and 19th century objets d’art, a collection that had a profound impact on Hatch’s childhood aesthetic sensibilities. “My relationship to art and the permission I was given to enter it as a profession was from family,” explains Hatch. “There was a lot of access to a family history of objects, and to a certain time period of collecting objects in the Boston area. My great grandparents would have been colleagues of Isabella Stewart Gardner, so they had a lot of the same interests in decorative arts and painting and things like that in Boston society. There was an interesting time period of objects that we lived with that represented that family history, and some of those things I was struggling to understand.”

Hatch’s father was a dairy farmer. It was her mother, a painter, who encouraged her art practice. “My father is a very practical person,” Hatch says. “My mom married him, I think, for so many reasons. But she fell in love with his political passion for organic farming. So I grew up with a creative mother, but she absolutely gave up her aspirations of being a painter, outside of her own personal studio practice, to marry my father and buy into this very big passion of his. And I think he didn’t really understand the art side of her, or that family history. So I think it was interesting that I chose that. Growing up on a farm and having a grandmother who was independently wealthy were two different, opposing things for me to grapple with.”

That oppositional sensibility is what guides Hatch’s choices in subject matter. A thread of subversive tradition runs through her oeuvre — from Worcester Imari, 2015, which reinterprets a pair of 18th century vases from the Frances and Emory Cocke Collection in the High Museum of Art; to Illume, 2016, which presents a dialogue on the nature of Chinoiserie; and now to Ducere, the Dresser-inspired installation.

Moon flask with Islamicizing floral motifs (1872) Minton(s), Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, Bone china with enamel decoration and gilding. Collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

“There’s a long history in ceramics of exporting and borrowing between cultures,” Hatch says. “Particularly in the West, we’re egregiously excited by other cultures and take what we want all the time. So for me, it’s a commentary about taking that apart and putting it back together. Owning it, but taking it apart and showing you a new way to look at it. In this particular case, there are so many different layers of excitement. I’m a female designer, an artist, working with history. Christopher Dresser was one of the most famous industrial designers at the turn of the century. And to have that opportunity to go back and say I’m looking at him through my female lens, and he’s looking at this pattern of a designer at a time when it was acceptable to appropriate imagery from another culture as he did, and create a new version of that for the British marketplace — for me, it’s an exciting place to dwell.”

Doubtless a problematic colonialist history comes attached to Dresser’s work. Although not every form of cultural appropriation is necessarily predatory.

Hatch recounts, “a lot of it started with Chinese ceramic exports and coming to understand that a lot of it was made specifically for the export market, and the imagery they were choosing was the imagery they thought the Europeans wanted. And the Europeans thought it was authentic Chinese imagery. And it was the first understanding that this is a real cultural fusion. This is a cross-cultural interpretation of each other in sometimes really comical ways and sometimes really beautiful ways.” For Hatch, cultures don’t just steal; they share, too.

“You have so many interpretations of each other that it becomes something we imbue with meaning,” she says. “Visual language is something we all can relate to because you don’t have to read it in the same way. It’s a visual thing that we all understand.”

The Museum of Fine Arts’ chief curator, Mary-Dailey Desmarais, specifically chose Hatch to tackle the task of deconstructing this particular past — and for this particular exhibition. “I think when we’re talking about the colonialist history of museums,” says Desmarais, “an artist like Molly Hatch is really interesting because she’s not denying history. She’s taking that history and doing something different and opening it up to new kinds of interpretation and new kinds of stories. And that’s what we really want to do here in the museum is not shy away from our past, but own up to it and open up the history by bringing new ways of seeing the works of art in our collection. Molly’s voice, Molly’s art, is an important part of that story.”

“An artist like Molly Hatch is really interesting because she’s not denying history.” MMFA Chief Curator Mary-Dailey Desmarais.

While Hatch’s practice gestures at complex narratives around fine art, craft, industry, and heritage, her work is deeply personal, too. “I really thought I wanted to be a painter,” Hatch recalls.

“And I thought I wanted to be a printmaker. And I thought I wanted to be a photographer. And I tried all those things. I loved painting, but I felt like I was making my mother’s paintings. I didn’t know how to be myself in that place. Ceramics resonated so much, and I think that’s partly because of my childhood on a farm. It’s taken me a long time to understand the metaphor of taking earth and painting on it and basically marrying my parents, physically, in my work. That’s something I’ve really come to understand lately. My dad understands that I’m making something functional and practical. Maybe it’s me making those plate paintings for my dad so that he can understand how to relate to the work, like, ‘Okay, you can still take it off the wall and eat from it.’”

Producing Ducere was a Herculean task that took nearly five months to complete. Nonetheless, Hatch still feels — like family, like home — that Dresser is a wellspring for creativity.

“The Moon Flask was such a rich place for me to hang out for a while,” Hatch recalls. “There’s some other work that needs to happen. I feel like there’s more there. Talk to me again in three years.”◼︎

Parall(elles): a history of women and design continues through May 28th at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

How Do You Spell Holiday?

Cheap Essential Scenery: seven ideas to fix Montreal’s short-term rentals

There are no innocent bystanders … what are they doing there in the first place?

―William S. Burroughs, Exterminator!

I wanna see some history
‘Cause now I got a reasonable economy.

—Sex Pistols, “Holidays in the Sun”

In the wake of the devastating fire that tragically cut short seven lives, destroyed an historic Old Montreal edifice, and shattered the entire community, everyone was quick to point fingers, all away from themselves.

The media blamed the owner for allowing the building to violate a multitude of codes, including hosting short-term rentals, which became illegal in 2018 in the Ville-Marie borough. The mayor blamed Airbnb, who was listing the accommodations despite their prohibition. In efforts to appease the city, which has already displayed hostility towards Uber and Lime, Airbnb vowed to crack down on unlicensed listings, something they should have been doing in the first place.

Still, no one has blamed the obvious offenders: the tourists themselves. Because if there were no demand for illegal accommodations, and nobody willing to stay in them — haven’t you seen that video? — landlords wouldn’t find evermore reprehensible ways to list their slummy properties illegally, and Airbnb wouldn’t have to crack down on them. And maybe seven people would still be alive.

Nobody ever said that those travellers should have taken responsibility for themselves; should have checked to see if their Airbnb listings had certification numbers; should have checked to see if their accommodations had important things like windows or escape routes; should have questioned why their stays in Old Montreal were so cheap. In order to save money, each of these people deliberately did not take a hotel, and they unfortunately paid the ultimate price.

This is the most cold-hearted niche take yet. But the upshot is that everyone is to blame for this cascading disaster: the landlord for listing illegal short-term rentals in an unsafe building; Airbnb for not double-checking their listings; the city for not enforcing our bylaws; travellers for their reckless disregard; and the community as a whole for allowing this building to exist in such a dangerous state. This fire reveals a deficiency in Montreal’s tourism industry: with nine million visitors expected to make Montreal their destination this summer, we need better, safer, more affordable places to stay.

CultMTL called for the all-out ban on Airbnb’s, but that is unrealistic and the city has already signalled that they are satisfied with Airbnb’s response. The extra tourism that Airbnb attracts is too lucrative to turn away. This likely means Airbnb’s and their particular sort of budget travellers are here to stay, at least for now. Yet there are seven things that Montreal could do to create the kind of accommodations that keep travellers comfortable and safe — and in turn, could render Airbnb obsolete.

The first is to diligently hold Airbnb to its commitments. If the company vows to crack down on unlicensed listings, follow up and make sure that they do. When asked point-blank why the city isn’t shutting down illegal Airbnb’s, the Executive Committee Vice Chairperson for the Commission de l’habitation et de la cohésion sociale of the Communauté métropolitaine and Sud-Ouest borough mayor, Benoit Dorais, offered three words: “It’s really difficult.” No. It’s really easy. All the city — or anyone — has to do is search on Airbnb. Every listing that is not located near Saint-Catherine Street between St. Mathieu and Amhurst is illegal.

Number two: encourage an Airbnb alternative. Montreal is home to some of the world’s most talented tech workers. With so many job cuts in that industry over the past year, there must be an abundance of idle hands just waiting to code the next made-in-Montreal app capable of doing what Airbnb does, but better. Montreal created the Bixi program and not only does it make Lime scooters and Jump bikes unnecessary, it has become the global bikeshare model.

Third: make it understood in buildings known for illegal rentals that they are not allowed. I live in an Old Montreal apartment that has frequently hosted illicit Airbnb’s. Our residents, with the assistance of the condo board and management company, have fought hard to ensure that they are not welcome this summer, installing a sign in the lobby and charging fines for violators.

Number four: equip bylaw enforcement with better tools to find offenders. If Airbnb skirts the bylaws by obscuring the addresses of accommodations, pass a bylaw that makes it necessary to disclose those addresses. No hotel would ever attempt to hide its geographical location. So why should Airbnb? Uprooting illegal listings and keeping guests safe is more important than the privacy of a few Airbnb property owners.

Five: convert disused city properties into mixed-use short-term accommodations and regular rentals. The city could lease or acquire office space that has gone vacant since Covid and remodel those buildings into living spaces for the city’s travellers and residents who need it most. With the recent announcement of the remodelled Eaton Centre restaurant, it is clear that these sorts of retrofits are a popular idea.

Six: license Casa Particular-type B&B accommodations in which travellers can stay with people willing to open up their homes. That would encourage responsibility from hosts and guests alike and relieve the city of some of the supervisory burden over companies like Airbnb. This manner of tourism is popular in Cuba, for example, and offers an authentic local experience for both budget travellers as well as owners monetizing their properties. Montrealers serve as the best ambassadors to Montreal.

Seven: as seasons change and news cycles move on, let us not forget this fire’s victims. Let us remember Dr. An Wu, 31; Dania Zafar, 31; Saniya Khan, 31; Nathan Sears, 35; Charlie Lacroix, 18; Walid Belkahla, 18; and Camille Maheux, 76. Maheux was a resident of the building for over three decades and did not deserve to have her life end this way. None of these people did.

If lawsuits arise against Airbnb, they should see trial and not be settled out of court. Settlements prevent the justice system from administering justice. By design, they also keep these incidents out of the public eye. Usually accompanied by some form of non-disclosure agreement, out-of-court settlements limit what victims are allowed to do and say. More often, the defendant accepts no guilt or responsibility. So when it comes time for cities to regulate, Airbnb can honestly claim that they were never technically found guilty or responsible for terrible things, even though they plainly paid their way out of admitting guilt or accepting responsibility for terrible things. Airbnb has a long history of buying itself out of calamities. Don’t let them.

On Friday, March 24th, on a neighbourhood walk after a long week, I took a cup of tea and headed down St. Paul. I found myself standing on the corner from which the building’s skeleton was still visible. It was a bright, crisp afternoon, not quite springtime, not yet tourist season, but almost. I thought of all the excited visitors Montreal will be welcoming this summer. And I thought that their vacations will sadly take place in this tragedy’s long shadow. The site was still marked out with danger tape and an SPVM officer was busy returning to his patrol car. As he approached, I saw tears in his eyes, because not all cops are bastards, but all capitalists are.

Louis-Philippe Lacroix, father of Charlie Lacroix, one of the 18-year-olds killed in the fire, stoically said: “This happened, there’s nothing we can do, now do everything you freaking can to avoid another story like that.”

There are a few freaking things Montreal can do.◼︎

Report an illegal tourist home to the Ville de Montreal through this portal.