Monday, 30 July 2012

The Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals

The recent passing of British actor Victor Spinetti, who played the overwrought TV director in The Beatles film A Hard Days Night, provides me with an excuse to once again present my views on director Richard Lester's contribution to the music video as an art form.

That view is that by accident, happenstance and serendipity, perennial bachelor and British film director Richard (Dick) Lester invented the MTV-style music video. This was, of course, a side effect of Lester's being engaged to direct The Beatles first film A Hard Day’s Night. This is perhaps a tall claim I stake, so let's begin with cases...

The 20th Century precursors of music cine-concrete-commercial include:
  • George Antheil's 1924 Ballet Mécanique
  • The music montage is preasaged by the Cine Symphony of the mid 1920s into the 1930s, as represented by Dziga Vertov's 1929 masterpiece Человек с киноаппаратом (Man with Movie Camera)
  • The film musical proper begins in 1927 with a musical sequence in The Jazz Singer and continues for decades
  • By the 1940s there were the “Soundies” which involved film jukeboxes
  • And then in the late 1950s / early 1960s the Scopitones
  • But none of these are MTV-style music videos. And no single director of cinema comes closer to inventing the entire genre than Dick Lester. Even at the time of the 1964 release critics were agreeing with The Village Voice that A Hard Day’s Night is "the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals”
  • Queen's 1975 Bohemian Rhapsody is the first music video, in that it was an advertising commercial for the band's song, imaged using video technology, featuring the bad in a conceptual environment, lip-syncing to their own song, delivered by videotape to popular music programs with the express purpose of promoting the song
  • The music video as a form cannot exist before the inaugural broadcast of The Buggles Video Killed the Radio Star on MTV August 1, 1981

While MTV is the MTV of jukebox TV, Scopitones do not a music video make... A music video
  • Is absolutely not a hermetic performance on a soundstage
  • Is absolutely not a performance recording
  • Is an advertising message for the band's newest song
  • Is absolutely not a City Symphony

Herein I present my argument for Dick Lesters invention of at least 6 primary modes of MTV-style music video montage:

The inline narrative ("we're just playing our song right here")
A Hard Day’s Night Scene: Baggage car. Song "I Should Have Known Better" 
This is the one scene that was presaged by the 1940s "Soundies". Here Lester merely revivifies, rather than invents. "More than Words" by Extreme definitely is inspired by Lester's work.

The performance in the TV studio
Possibly Lesters' best single invention. In several modes:
A Hard Day’s Night Scene: The rehearsal. Song And I Love Her
At first blush, just a "Soundie" rehash set in a TV studio. But the images of the Beatles on TV cameras, the shots of the Vision Mixer Desk and the images of the Beatles on the monitors creates a metacritical context of celebrity fetishism several decades before
  1. The invention of postmodern deconstruction and
  2. People magazine (the retail version of same)
  3. Jean-Luc Godard's appropriation of Roland Barthes' development of semiotics

Lesters 2nd chef-d'oevre - The screaming live concert in the TV studio

Tell Me Why / If I Fell /I Should Have Known Better
A form Lester invents out of whole cloth.

The last number She Loves You is astounding. Lester combines cinema vérité footage of orgasmically screaming tweens with a rather stolid live TV performance by the band. 

I would argue that when the Beatles came to America, the reason the tweens screamed as they did was BECAUSE of the Lester film. i.e. he presages the reaction and actually indoctrinates the behavior. That is, Lester socially conditions America

The contemporary exemplar: Andre 3000's Hey Ya. BTW have you ever spotted the coffin on the set in Hey Ya?

The masterpiece- The wacky montage
A Hard Day’s Night - the opener, and Lester in his strong suit.
Can't Buy Me Love
Lesters' strength, evident in all his films. In HELP! Lester would do his best work in this vein.
The contemporary exemplar: Madness - Our House

The mood mystique
Wherein the hero walks moodily though the landscape whilst the song doth play in the background. Possibly not entirely original to Lester. But certainly the first to use Beatles music for same. And certainly the first to continue the screen into dialogue with the underscore still running.


I wanna be your man

Another Lester invention that was never translated into a commercial form - a cinema vérité look at the stars daily existence set to one of their songs.



Actor Victor Spinetti, star of Beatles films, dies aged 82 after cancer battle

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Barber-ism

I got a kicky new 'Do today. Well, actually my standard summer buzz. “Hair too hot – must remove to cool brain.”

To get to my barber I must walk for 20+ minutes past block after block of other barber shops. That causes me to reflect on why I am so picky?

I have of course gone to all the great Toronto stylists of the 1980s and 1990s, such as the late John Steinberg's Rainbow Room. John was awesome. I do miss him. There was a window in the 1980s where he would fly in the best stylists in the world and I would produce takeaway videos of their live styling performances. Those were good times my friend.

John Steinberg. Handout photo found all over the web. © someone, no doubt. We respect that.

For a time I visited what law enforcement calls "A Basement Betty" which is a licensed hair stylist working out of her own home. Although my Basement Betty was Ian. I never ratted him out to law enforcement, even though he never got my color correct.

Now all I want is a proper haircut. I have gone all the way down to Steve's, on Queen East at the east side of the corner where The Opera House is. Steve's is famous for his happy endings. Which are not what you think. He has one of those electric shoulder massages and he gives you a free electric shoulder massage. Which is awesome. But Steve has this habit of returning to Greece for July and August. And hey, July and August are two months when I demand biweekly buzzes. "Hair too hot – must remove to cool brain."

I'm too cheap to take transit to go to Micheal’s at Church & Wellesley. Michael no doubt does the best job on my hair. But why spend the extra 6 bucks on tokens just to look good? I mean, I'm the guy who had a Basement Betty named Ian dye his silver hair chesnut?!

But today is all about "John's Classic" at Broadview and Danny. A real haircut, 17 bucks (plus three dollar tip, of course). My guy can deal with my double crowns and my nose hair problems. I do my own eyebrows. And he's just finished my birthday buzzcut so I am one happy dude - "Hair too hot – must remove to cool brain."


Me, sporting a John's Classic. Viewed from my best side.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The sadness of sadness

I'm sad. I'm not going to say why I am sad right now because this blog is not a place for revelatory confession. Also the events involve others and I have no permission to expose their pain.

I had the great misfortune to have a happy childhood. To have been born during the postwar boom was entrée into the most privileged life any generation of what we now call "the 99%" has ever known. Houses cost a few thousand dollars. Cars a couple of thousand. There were more jobs than men to take them. Unions were making a difference. The doors of the Nation were wide open – please, come on in, this is Canada. Welcome!

And for a child life was an endless series of amusement park entrances in candy-coated red with the promise of all fun within! And sugary treats. And naps – many have written about falling asleep in one place (perhaps the car) to awake in another (probably your own bed). Anyhoo, a tapestry of squealing delight to the point of complete exhaustion.

The legendary Canadian supergoup Rush has a song titled "Lakeside Park". That was a real place. An amusement park in my home town. When I was 13 my friends and I rode our bikes out there (4.8 kms). We arrived and saw that the park was demolished. There was an atmosphere of disbelief. I walked to where the park should have been. I found the cement footings of what had been a ride called the Caterpillar. I sat in the sand and wept.

Like Holden Caulfield, I was weeping at the loss of my own childhood.


Me, in happier times

The Caterpillar Ride, today, at Idlewild:


Standing is outstanding

In Saturday's National Post Andrew Coyne devotes his column to decrying sitting. Citing an article in the British Medical Journal The Lancet, he says sitting now kills more people than cigarettes. And I agree with him. When you sit in an office at a computer all day long
  • You are not exercising any muscles
  • Your blood distribution is disturbed
  • Your lymphatic fluids pool instead of flushing away
It's why I always get up every hour and walk once around our floor when I'm at work.

Read the whole story here. Stand up for saving your own life!


Me, standing at work

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Trillium Building


A generic mid-century high rise residential apartment building located in East York near Woodbine and O'Connor. Displaying some very classic Googie-like adornments including a Porte-Cochere full of wholes.

Videography by Alan Fox. Soundtrack "Blip Bounce feat. Philter Fox"


Saturday, 14 July 2012

Alternative Transportation: AutoShare vs car2go vs Zipcar

BlogTO provides a surprisingly helpful look at Toronto's three competing hourly car rental outfits. Surprisingly helpful because a typical BlogTO article sends its abstemious vegan food critic to review restaurants like WVRST, which serves ONLY beer and sausages. Neither of which the food critic will consume before writing their review.

BlogTO: Car sharing in Toronto: AutoShare vs. car2go vs. Zipcar

BTW the comments are even better than the article. Especially the comparison of insurance plans, which the vegan reporter never thought about because they've never driven a car and were too busy with their soy smoothie.

And here's the AutoCar AND Zipcar location right at the end of my laneway. It's so darn handy I'm actually going to get a driver's license again.

Alternate Housing - Shipping Container Conversion

There are many ways to build a home. It's an issue I track because, like many Canadians, when I retire I'd like it to be a snug home in a beautiful, natural area.

"Shipping Container" may not be your idea of a snug home, but there are many firms working to change that. Here's one...

Converting shipping containers into dwellings, offices, labs and other habitable structures may just be the beginning of the trend.

Update: The National Post has an article about a shipping container housing project in Vancouver

Photos: Innovative homes made from shipping containers are viable – not to mention very cool

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Personal Rapid Transit - In Pod We Trust

Everybody loves elevated railways.* Except anyone on the second floor. Never knowing when a few thousand of your fellow citizens will zoom past your cube is the number three reason why no one takes monorail seriously.

However in our world of dreamers and schemers monorail just makes sense. No less an imagineer than Walt Disney made it the theme transit system of tomorrow. Even one of Toronto's Mayor Fords proposed it as a scheme to shuttle people from nowhere to some deserted plateau. And Jane Jacob's urban visionary successor, The Simpsons, lampooned the monorail as the ultimate gimmick for desperate cities in desperate times.

Yet the dream of monorail will not die. First of all, it excites urban planners because it's a method to use the only available downtown real estate - the space above the roadway. With a monorail, erection is a breeze! Everyone who wants to drive on the road can do so, plus you can whisk those second-class losers who can't afford cars on their choo choo in the sky.

And times must be very tough indeed, because there are now three elevated railway companies pushing the same urban transit concept – Personal Rapid Transit. Yes, a streetcar meant to carry one person?! On demand!

This is one idea that looks sensational on a drawing board. It makes for a great set of powerpoint slides. It carries a price tag that is surprisingly cheap. You can build a system that blankets all of downtown for the cost of a few miles of four lane highway. Including the cars!

Then some poor unfortunate has to climb those long stairs up to the elevated train, and stand on the edge of a platform with no railings suspended some 20 feet in the air.

Let's watch that video:


So that was some time ago. What's happening with PRT today?
Well better 3-D computer graphic animations. Without further ado, let's submit to Sweden's Vectus PRT sales presentation



Well that was professional. Now, let's look at the video shot at the test track and see what it really looks like.



Nothing screams "unproven technology" like the flashing amber lights attached to each outbuilding along the course. "Danger! Our technology is being used."

During the "Winter Test" part of the video, we saw the #2 reason people hate monorails- because they dump huge amounts of snow at random intervals on the pedestrians foolish enough to walk on the streets.

And I hoped you noticed all the ladders around the test track. A reminder of the #1 reason everyone hates monorails. Because if they break down or malfunction in any way... you're stuck way up in the air. Enjoy climbing down that ladder!

PRT systems are being not built all around the globe. Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is not building a PRT system. In North America, Microsoft is not building a Vectus System at their Redmond Campus. In fact, more PRT systems are not being built now that at any time in the previous century!

UPDATES
The Economist reports that if Ben Cayetano becomes mayor of Honolulu he is going to do a Mayor Ford and cancel the elevated rail project that would have serviced all of Oahu..

And The Monorail Society reports that Moscow is going to decommission its 8 year old monorail. Looks like we can call that one a monoFAIL.

The Reality: Heathrow's Ultra PRT
The Ultra Personal Rapid Transit system at Heathrow is in a glorified busway, and they lumber along with the grace of racoons, slamming into the sides of the track on curves and bouncing up and down. That would be a great ride action for a haunted house ride on the fair, but probably not quite what the international air traveler is looking forward to after taking the red eye over from North America.

Here's the video. You may as well skip the first two minutes of them training the passengers.



And finally, because you've been so patient, here's a treat. The King's monorail!

Fahrt im Kaiserwagen der Wuppertaler Schwebebahn




*Disclosure: Elevated railways are not monorails, although most monorails are elevated railways. All of the systems in this article are railways and none are monorails, except the Schwebebahn. Explaining why is boring and geeky. But calling all of them monorails is more fun!

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Art-Streamline-Deco-Moderne

Nothing provides more torment for the strolling urbanite than correctly classifying architecture dans le mode Arts Decoratifs. Because, quite frankly that Art Deco building you pass every day almost certainly is not Art Deco.

First, and most obviously, because Art Deco dates from les Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs, April to October 1925. Yet the term Art Deco is not coined until 1960. Art Deco was an exhibition, not a school. Thus it has become conflated with the contemporary and formal architectural schools of, say, The Bauhaus in Germany and De Stijl in the Netherlands.

Also since we are talking about the city of Toronto, we could not be farther away from the European capitals where Art Deco was practiced.

Finally, Art Deco was never about architecture. Art Deco is about household decoration. The primary Art Deco object is a cocktail shaker. In an Art Deco cocktail cabinet.

Then there is the practical business that in the period 1914 to 1939 the world was:
  • Twice at war
  • In a recession
  • Traveling by steamer

The totality of these conflated realities is that there were almost no chances for wealthy American property developers to:
  • Become exposed to the ideas of Art Deco
  • Find expert architects to design Art Deco skyscrapers
  • Have sufficient funds in the bank to build Art Deco skyscrapers
  • Have a sufficient labor force to mobilize to build their chic and modern tributes to their own inner Croesus

Thus it is with confidence I state that your favorite Art Deco building might be Art Moderne. It might even be Streamline Moderne. But it is NOT Art Deco.

Let us use this humble borough war memorial to function as our Rosetta Stone and provide the codex of Art-Streamline-Deco-Moderne.
What do we see?
  • Clean lines
  • A trapezoid shape
  • Limestone
  • Corners without fillet or radius curve
  • Period font
  • Only one obscure glyph - the memorial wreath
  • Korean War -1950s

And directly across the street is this superb Streamline Moderne masterpiece - Toronto East General Hospital, circa 1949...
"Fox, you ask - Why Streamline Moderne and not Art Moderne?". Good question. Those horizontal speedlines are among the most characteristic design element of Streamline Moderne. To qualify in this category, something on the building must look like it's going fast

Sadly, here is a cute little Art Moderne cottage right next door to the hospital. With a callous application of siding and brick veneer her perfect lines have been completely destroyed...


Finally, here is a real Art Deco building, Hamilton's 1930 Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo passenger train station...
copyleft Wikimedia Commons


And finally, another look at that beautiful Art Deco building that has been destroyed in the 21st century

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Not a run-of-the-mill mill

Late last century I lived in east Toronto Danforth. I developed a special appreciation for this area. Unlike the overdeveloped downtown Toronto, where the past has been descecrated, east Danforth contains many historic structures that may have been adapted but are still evidently time travellers.

Perhaps none captures this more than 10 Dawes Road. According to Melanie Milanich, in "Dawes Road: a Shortcut to the Market and a Natural Resource Base" 10 Dawes Road was "A steam powered grist mill, built in the 1890s and originally called
Chalmer's Flour Mill..."

In 2009-2010 local business directories cited 10 Dawes Road as the property of Elizabeth Feed Co.

Click to enlarge





Normally I provide a detailed and erudite commentary that interprets the artefact for you. In this case I am not going to. Look at this building and trust your instincts. That cast cement base is clearly mid-late 19th century (that is, 1850-1880). All that corrugated sheet metal superstructure is clearly cladding covering a wooden mill that needed a new layer of protection. That headhouse on the top story is clearly where the works of an elevator are housed.

And there is NO WAY this is a steam mill. Where is the powerhouse? Where is the hundred foot smokestack?


Not entirely good news. Those lovely new french doors mark the commencement of the next renovation. One I predict will end with the structure transformed, re-clad, and unrecognizable.




We carry complete lines for
racing pigeons, budgies
and other birds
Best mixtures available
Race horses, dogs,
all other animals
Grits, Gravels, Flax


I have met with the owner and hope to have interior shots before the year-end.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Art Deco Gem - 103 Church Street


There has sat at the corner of Church and Richmond a tiny perfect Art Deco masterpiece for four score and two years! The 1930 J. Frank Raw Building is one of the platonic ideal of Arts Decoratif movement. It's all here- the limestone finish, the font-astic typography of her numberboard, the Egyptian ziggurat setbacks (absolutely essential for period), the octagonal windows, the mullioned windows... even the curve of streetcar track is perfect and to period.



And, most significantly, it has been well maintained. Many of its peers have been "improved", typically by adding a 50 story modernist tower on three sides of them. Or carving them out into a cheapjack theatre, like the conversion of the TSE into "The Design Exchange".









The Art Deco Society officially records the building as the 1932 Charles Dolphin Building. Given that Dolphin's masterpiece was the 1941 Postal Delivery Building now called "The Air Canada Centre" it is an impressive pedigree for this building.

And here is what happens to Art Deco buildings when they are not maintained properly.


Sunday, 8 July 2012

Watching our waste lines

Walking with a child is an amazing experience. You, the adult, are not really taking anything in, just gauging distance to destination, obstacles such as the person on a scooter, and avoiding being smushed by that dump truck. Inevitably the child will suddenly stop and fall the sidewalk squealing "ANT"! And you look to the area of attention and see... nothing. And then you lean over and squint, and see something about the size of a subatomic particle. Why yes, there is an ant. Our children are really engaged with the world seeing the magic of every tiny thing.

Thus it was with a frisson of childish delight that I first noticed that in the older precincts of this great metropolis the sidewalks were peppered with sewer catch basins topped with manhole covers declaring "City of Toronto 1889". Such as the one below, which I captured at the NW corner of Church & Richmond. Yes, that is my foot, added for human interest.



Somehow I find it delightful. The boulevards of this provincial capital are paved with cast metal antiques. As if Louis Comfort Tiffany streetlights lined the boulevards of Manhattan. Although functional devices linked directly to the disposal of human waste, the scrollwork in the centre of the rondelle shows the care of master craftsmen of two centuries ago. And they have survived the growth of the city, the re-alignment of sidewalks and streets and the hammering of trucks, construction equipment and vandalism, and millions of passers-by.

And what lies beneath is even more remarkable...
Workers in the Garrison Creek storm sewer tunneling operation, Toronto, 1912, sewerhistory.org

Toronto Archives

The sewers in these photos are still in use! A dedicated group of urban spelunkers has been exploring Toronto's buried infrastructure, documenting and mapping it on the website vanishingpoint.ca. Vanishing point does a great job of documenting all of these junctures where sewers of one era still being used as adjuncts to huge concrete monstrosities that are clearly 1960s and 70s upgrades when Toronto had her explosive growth.

And if you want to follow the story without having to click your mouse, Netflix subscribers can view a detailed history of Sir Joseph William Bazalgette's London sewers construction in episode 4 of the BBC docudrama series Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. Select "The Sewer King".