Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour Season 2 Preserved for the Benefit of Future Generations

Call it my holiday gift to you - I've just finished uploading and embedding all of the Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 2, to the site. Now you can enjoy the world's greatest radio programme over and over again.

Just click the label "radio hour" to sort the posts, and you're off to the races. You'd be doing yourself a favour if you just listened to them all at once, but I'd call episodes 1, 4, 5, 6 and 10 my personal favourites. Since the second season built on the strengths of the first, I haven't uploaded the earlier episodes yet. Given the nigh-insatiable appetite the public has shown for my work so far, however, I may get around to it one of these days.

The new season picks up January 9th. The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour airs Mondays 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio, 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at http://www.trentradio.ca/stream.htm. Thanks to everyone who listened over the fall, and happy holidays!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Film Review: Winter's Bone

You probably don't need me to tell you, since the film was nominated for four Oscars, but I saw Winter's Bone a couple nights ago and thought I'd chip in a recommendation. It's far gritter than most Oscar films, with nary a trace of gloss or glamour, as you'd hope and expect for a film about poverty and meth labs in the rural Ozarks.

Director Debra Granik earned that authenticity by shooting in real locations in Missouri and casting locals in several parts rather than big-name actors. I have a soft spot Southern Gothic and Appalachian stories, and the Ozarks seem to fit the same niche. Although I've never been there, it seemed to me the film's depiction of rural squalor was sensitive rather than exploitative. It never feels cliched even when the banjos come out, which is saying something.

That's an even higher compliment given the film is a full-blown thriller. The plot follows Ree Dolly (Jennifer Laurence), a put-upon seventeen year old carrying for her sick mother and two siblings as she searches for her missing father. It seems her father put the house up for bond before he disappeared, and it's looking doubtful he'll make his court date. One of the things I liked about the movie was the way it put a fresh spin on tried-and-true genre conventions. All the film noir, hardboiled tropes are there - the heroine gets drawn into the "case" through a series of interviews with increasingly menacing figures, all of whom warn her off the trail before they offer a single clue. In some ways the movie reminded me of Brick, which recast film noir in a high school. Winter's Bone is less stylized, and I appreciated the look at poverty and gender politics it took along the way. Full credit to Jennifer Laurence and Chris Hawkes for acting the hell out of their roles, too.

There's nothing remotely seasonal about this post, but if you're feeling a bit over-seasoned, this movie'll cut through the Christmas cheese like a hillbilly's flailing chainsaw. In fact, I liked it so much I think I'll look up Daniel Woodrell, who wrote the book on which the movie is based. Seems he's coined a whole new genre, "country noir," to describe his work. For those of you who've neither read nor seen Winter's Bone yet, here's a trailer to pique your interest:

Monday, 12 December 2011

Chris Hedges' "Empire of Illusion"

Reading comes to me in waves; in the downtime I listen to music, watch movies, and do my best to pretend I'm still literate by recommending books I read years ago. Occasionally, though, I'll pick up a humdinger that sets me off on a white-hot reading streak. I finally got around to picking up Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges, something I've been meaning to do since it came out in 2009. The book's subtitle is "The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle," and I feel doubly guilty for waiting this long since it's such an urgent, insistent read.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of nine books of political commentary. Empire of Illusion, as the title suggests, looks at the way in which popular culture encodes selfish and violent values with the intent to distract and deceive the public. Worse yet, it looks at how the deception and the reflection of the public comes to dovetail. The message might be familiar, but Hedges has a knack for illuminating just the right moments to show how depraved "ordinary" entertainment can be, or how low the debate has stooped. He examines the World Wrestling Federation's distillation of cultural values and the porn industry's emphasis on violence, building to a wholesale critique of North American politics. Lofty as it sounds, Hedges has the chops to execute that goal intelligently. Although he repeats himself occasionally, Hedges has a rare gift as a polemicist and makes you feel the subject deeply.

As potent as the writing is, Hedges is not a manipulator. Instead he champions intellectual inquiry with the kind of vigour that makes it seem worth defending. He takes a chapter to analyze the problems of contemporary academia and observes that the traditional outposts of intellectual exploration have become cloistered, compartmentalized, and compromised. If I'd had his critique during my undergrad, I might've been a lot less lonely. As I've mentioned here on the blog before, I have a particular interest in understanding mediocrity, and in interpreting what if anything is below the surface of the banal. Chris Hedges makes me think maybe I've put that goal too mildly, but at least he's given me some new angles to interpret. If you want to practice, you can warm up by watching Kevin O'Leary belittle Hedges' defense of the Occupy movement as "pretty nothing burger" and accuse Hedges of being "a leftwing nutbar" on the ostensibly civil CBC (or you can dismiss it as a distraction, as Hedges would probably prefer you do).

Sometimes after reading a particularly good book, I feel like I've been jarred awake out of the long, meandering nap I call my life. Unfortunately, being awake means I get an inkling of how sick our society really is. If you're feeling sluggish yourself, by all means read Empire of Illusion. If you're wary of downers, then you might be even more desperately in need of this book. Punishing as it can be, I like the way it ends. Too many political or environmental books spend nine chapters prophesying doom, before titling the tenth "Hope" and briefly sketching a few unexplored avenues for optimism. If Hedges' ending isn't exactly cheery, he concludes on a moral and philosophical note that is uplifting without engaging in self-deception. If I hadn't been reading it in a crowded cafeteria, I might've cried. Instead I looked out over the of blaring tv screens and the crowd of young people, and realized I didn't have a clue what to expect.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 2, Episode 11: A Bang & Jangle Christmas

Ho ho ho, the Bang & Jangle Radio Hour fall season is over. I hope last night's episode filled your heart with holiday sparkles. I tried to cut down on the Christmas cheese with a couple winter-themed tracks and a couple Hanukkah numbers. I also think Portsmouth Sinfonia nailed it, and I almost made a joke about Santa stuffing my stocking with their albums, and then I wondered what the hell these holiday specials are doing to me. Here's the playlist:

Leadbelly - Christmas Is Coming
Spike Jones - Winter
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Jordan - Baby, It's Cold Outside
James Brown - Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto
Eartha Kitt - Santa Baby
Yogi Yorgesson - I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas
Lou Monte - Dominick the Donkey
Portsmouth Sinfonia - Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies
The Pogues - Fairytale of New York
Robert Earl Keen - Merry Christmas from the Family
Woody Guthrie - Hanukkah Dance
The Klezmatics - Spin Dreydl Spin
C. W. Stoneking - On a Christmas Day
Dr. John - Le Divin Enfant
Jimi Hendrix - Auld Lang Syne
Secret Bonus Track

Never heard Woody Guthrie's Hanukkah songs? Dying to know what the Secret Bonus Track is all about? Remember now you can stream the Bang & Jangle Radio Hour straight off this site.

The season resumes January 9, thanks for listening!

The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour airs Mondays 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio, 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at http://www.trentradio.ca/stream.htm.

Season 2, Episode 11

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Film Review: Take Shelter

Mental Health Awareness Month isn't until May, but it seems I'm getting a headstart with two posts on the subject in a row. Last week I made the case for The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky as the Saddest Book in the World, and over the weekend I finally caught Jeff Nichol's Take Shelter, a film with a similar bent I'd been hankering to see for months.

Nijinsky's book is non-fiction, of course, but Take Shelter handles its subject with enough sensitivity to deserve the comparison. It concerns a man named Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), whose apocalyptic visions drive him both to build a tornado shelter in his backyard and question his family history of schizophrenia. Part of the reason I'm so fascinated by stories like this one is because I have known people suffering from mental illness, and I have tried to write my own fiction on the subject. Let me tell you, it's not so easy. What Take Shelter does right is show exactly how Curtis is trying to be sane. Rather than becoming too engrossed in his delusions, the narrative, the tension, and the empathy are all based on how he is trying to respond to his plight. We feel more invested in his personal dignity, his sense of duty to his family, and his fear, and we can separate these things from the symptoms of his illness. Writer/director Jeff Nichols deserves a lot of credit for keeping such careful control of potent material.

That said, it works as a movie too. This is one of those films where your teeth and back hurt by the end of it and you're still sorry it's over. The tension runs higher than any horror movie I've seen, but has more to do with dread and unease than spectacle. Part of it has to do with some disturbing contemporary resonances, though the writing is strong enough to work them in without compromising the narrative. In Curtis' visions, it rains motor oil; at one point he calls his psychiatrist while standing at the gas pump. Notice in the scene where he pulls over to watch lightning on the horizon, there is a Real Estate sign in the lower righthand corner. Even the soundtrack seems to echo Curtis' life - he has a deaf daughter, and the soundtrack is mainly made up of high, ringing tones muting the dialogue and effects.

Curtis is played by Michael Shannon, and this movie makes it official, he's my favourite actor. He's already played crazy people to the hilt in at least three other movies (his turn in Revolutionary Road got him an Oscar nomination), but he continues to find new inspiration in each role. His role in Bug, based on the play by Tracy Letts and filmed as a two-hander with Ashley Judd, first turned me onto him. But Bug is more of a claustrophobic mindfuck than a study of mental illness. I'm a huge fan of Werner Herzog, but I have to say Michael Shannon's role in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? is about the only good thing in the movie. Michael Shannon rises above the wooden dialogue and clunky scenes, a feat that even Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny, and Udo Kier couldn't match (it's as if Herzog knew it and gave him all the plum lines - Shannon tells his pet flamingos "I know you're my eagles in drag"). If you want to see Shannon in some saner roles, I recommend his noirish turn in The Missing Person, or his performance in the lead role in Shotgun Stories, also by Jeff Nichols.

But enough about Michael Shannon - time to praise Jessica Chastain. She makes Curtis' wife Samantha more than a foil or voice of reason and gives her life of her own. Watching her move from furious to confused to genuinely worried in the course of one scene is heartbreaking. The filmmakers know it, too; the narrative is mostly framed around Curtis, but after he leaves the room in the aforementioned scene, notice how the camera lingers on Samantha just a few frames longer than necessary. It's a sly bit of editing that seals the emotional impact.

In researching for my own fiction, I've read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies in this vein. Even so, I can't think of another one that so effectively balances drama, sensitivity, and artful execution. It might not be everyone's cup of tea, so don't come complaining to me if you come out of the theatre anxious and bewildered. Sometimes, though, that's well worthwhile. 

Take Shelter Trailer: