Arts, Reviews

Sweaty Palms and Electrifying Sounds

Matthew Cardinal at the tin-roofed, flocked-wallpapered, chenille-drapped 9910 on October 11, 2019. Photo by Suzette Chan.

Last week, Edmonton musician Mustafa Rafiq announced that he would be putting his music curation activities as Sweaty Palms on hiatus while he takes some time off to travel and explore music scenes in Europe.

I met Mustafa this summer while preparing a two-part article on the sound art scene in Edmonton for Luma Quarterly (part one went live in August; my interview with Mustafa appears in November). I was impressed with his commitment to bringing local and international experimental acts to Edmonton stages. He’s presented hundreds of different kinds of shows in different venues, but as someone who doesn’t drive and has a day job, I appreciate his efforts to put on centrally located shows with early start- and end-times. I’ve been avoiding gigs because they just start too late for me, so I was happy to check out some of the venues I’ve been missing out on.

I managed to catch two of the last Sweaty Palms gigs of 2019. The first was on October 11, an electronica triple-bill at 9910. It was my first visit to this downstairs space under The Common. I liked the brothel-esque aesthetic! I sat in one of the banquettes along the wall, opting for comfort over better sightlines, but I am the type of person who closes their eyes once the music gets going.

First up was Matthew Cardinal, a member of nehiywak who also has a solo act. His set ebbed and flowed between being atmospheric and bringing in more of a dance beat. There were passages marked by notes that rang the top end of the hearing range, followed by booming sounds that we could feel through the floor: it was a head-to-toe experience of sound.

Next was Jonathan Kawchuk, who set up what looked like a ping-pong table. He stood on one end with his back to my side of the audience (my viewing angle actually let me see Kawchuk reflected in a mirror on the other side of the room); another musician (I didn’t get his name) was at the other end of the table. Instead of ping-pong paddles, they wielded iPads which seemed to control both the music and a bank of lights above the audience. The sound and light alternated between being soothing and being unsettling, which really brought to mind how little it can take to nudge a person (okay, me) out of their comfort zone.

The final act of the evening was Kara-Lis Coverdale. Coverdale’s set-up was minimal—just her, her sequencer, and a tight spotlight on her fingers—but the music she produced was maximal. Her set came in strong with complex, layered sounds. It evoked images of air travel for me. For the friend who accompanied me, Coverdale’s music specifically evoked Montreal, where my friend had recently vacationed, and where Coverdale is based. I’m sure everyone in the room had different thoughts. The point is, Coverdale’s epic set allowed listeners to dream or meditate on a huge scale.

Kelly Ruth at The Almanac on October 16, 2019. Photo by Suzette Chan.

Less than a week after the triple-bill at 9910, Sweaty Palms in conjunction with New Music Edmonton co-presented a special double bill at The Almanac on October 16. I’ve been to The Almanac for poetry readings. The front of the restaurant is a bistro; the back is a pub set-up where they hold events. This show was an experimental, noise gig featuring two “supergroups”. Opening the night was the duo of Allison Balcetis playing saxophone and Kelly Ruth operating a weaving loom equipped with contact mics running through a sequencer. I interviewed Kelly (also for Luma Quarterly) about her use of a weaving loom to make music, and this was my first time seeing her play. She used a weaving shuttle and her fingers to get sound out of the loom. Maybe because it was October, but the images their set inspired were of wandering through a mansion, exploring the biggest rooms and the smallest corners, and perhaps finding an egress to a batcave or to the outdoors in the end.

The visiting headliners at the Almanac gig were Montreal’s Sound of the Mountain with special guests from Japan, Tetuzi Akiyuma and Toshimaru Nakamura. This was a spectacular set with a reed instrumentalist and a guitarist on either side of two synth players. The synth and guitar evoked visions of machine-built cities, with the reed instruments evoking the breaths and voices of humans who design and live in them.

I feel really fortunate to have caught these shows, and only wish that I’d caught more Sweaty Palms productions over the past few years. I’m looking forward to whatever Mustafa will bring back from his travels.

Follow Mustafa Rafiq at https://www.instagram.com/familyinjera/

Reviews

It’s a Wonderful Life: Arrow 8.01

Meanwhile, back at Queen mansion….

Arrow returned last week for its final season, and it appears the writers are making good on the screenwriting advice to give the people what they want, but in a way that they don’t expect.

I’ve long joked that Arrow‘s final season should flashback to the first season, and it did, but with a twist.

Spoilers ahead:

Arrow 8.01 begins with the exact same footage (edited down for time) that kicked off Arrow 1.01. There are a couple of differences. In place of Deathstroke’s mask was on a pike is Batman’s mask on a pike, and when the island survivor lifts his hood, the person we see is not 2012 Oliver, but 2019 Oliver. The episode goes on to reenact Oliver’s reunion with his mother in the hospital, and with the rest of his family at the Queen mansion.

But things are different back home. It becomes clear that he’s not on Earth-1 anymore. His father is missing, and his sister, Thea, died of an overdose, a fate she avoided on Earth-1 thanks to Oliver’s intervention. Moira Queen has married Malcolm Merlyn, so Tommy welcomes back Oliver not as a friend, but as his brother.

Later, Oliver meets the Earth-2 Laurel, whom he knows from her visits to Earth-1 in past seasons. As Black Siren, she’s a hero on Earth-2, partnered with a hooded archer, Adrian Chase. Like the Laurel/Black Siren, Chase was a bad guy, Prometheus, in on Earth-1. Conversely, Dinah Lance and Rene Ramirez, who are heroes on Earth-1, are villains here.

There’s also a rouge Dark Archer running around, acting like the kind of extreme, vengeful vigilante that Earth-1 Oliver almost became when he first returned to the island. Oliver expects it’s Malcolm Merlyn, as was the case on Earth-1, but it turns out to be Tommy.

Luckily, John Diggle followed Oliver from Earth-1, and we get a hilarious, revised version of their first meeting. After seven seasons of Oliver wondering if he’s doing any good, Diggle tells him that the awfulness of this other world is proof that Oliver made a positive difference on his own world.

The episode continues the flash-forward scenes from last season. The 2040 Arrow crew is also dealing with brother issues: Connor Hawke is the nice vigilante; his brother JJ, leader of the Deathstroke gang, is not. Meanwhile, Mia is emerging as the leader of the heroic side.

Besides all the callbacks and action in both universes and timelines, I really appreciated that the episode took the time to reset themes from the pilot episode, including:

  • personal responsibility for destructive past behaviour;
  • collective responsibility for structural problems in society; and
  • whether to work within the system or to destroy it from outside. (That’s a trick question: in the Arrowverse, you can never escape the system. The forces working to take down the system from the outside was actually a whole other system.)

For the first few seasons of Arrow, Oliver’s motto was, “You have failed this city.” He doesn’t say it in 8.01, but the episode underlined how Arrow has always about how individual actions can affect society as a whole. If you ever wondered what It’s a Wonderful Life would be like with vigilante archers, this is the episode for you.

Arts, Reviews

Silent Sky

Silent Sky opens the 2019-20 Walterdale Playhouse season.

On Saturday, I saw the Walterdale Playhouse production of Silent Sky, written by Lauren Gunderson, about Henrietta Leavitt, the early 20th century astronomer who discovered a relationship between the brightness of a star and the intervals of its blinking. She realized this could be used to measure the distance between the Earth and the stars, and between the stars.

Henrietta worked in an all-female group (the principal investigator actually called it a “math harem”) of “computers” (a tradition that extended to the 1960s mathematicians depicted in the movie Hidden Figures) who did the grunt work of analyzing glass photographic plates made from the big observational telescope at Harvard. Women were not allowed to peer out of the telescope itself. The play depicted how much Henrietta and her colleagues loved the work, despite the small-mindedness of the male faculty.

The patriarchal establishment is represented by a fictional character named Shaw, who also serves both a love interest for Henrietta and as a metaphor for Henrietta’s complicated relationship with the research field as it was then administered. Shaw embodies the saying, “You can tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much!” At one point, he asserts that there is nothing beyond than the Milky Way, despite the evidence Henrietta has amassed to indicate otherwise. He insists that science must follow a logical path, quoting Newton’s phrase, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

But a narrow interpretation of the phrase does not allow for innovation, differing viewpoints, or plain luck. Happily, the play avoids reductive characterizations. While Shaw stood in for the scientific establishment, Henrietta’s fictional sister, Margaret, stood in for the small-town domestic life that Henrietta might have been expected to lead. Both Shaw and Margaret comes around to acknowledge the value of Henrietta’s grand pursuit of truth, no matter how large and how shattering it may be.

A pre-show glimpse of the stage. Set and lighting design by Beyeta Hackborn.

Although the subject of Silent Sky is scientific discovery, music has a large role in the play. It’s used as a metaphor for Henrietta’s scientific theories, and the set is ingeniously dressed in suggest both musical scales and constellations. (Hats off to Beyata Hackborn, the show’s set designer and lighting designer.)

Director Kim Mattice Wanat, founder and artistic director of Opera NUOVA, knows her way around music. She weaves the Congregationalist hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” through out the play, pulling together all the notes and themes of the show. She also works with a wonderful cast. Lauren Hughes is bright and undaunted as Henrietta. Joy van de Ligt provided music and grounded foil as Margaret. Susanne Ritchie and Samantha Woolsey are both fun and authoritative as Henrietta’s non-fiction “harem” mates, Wiliamina Fleming (who discovered the first white dwarf star) and Annie Jump Cannon (who created a classification system of the stars and became a leader of the suffragette movement). Matt Mihilewicz brought physical humour and a believable change in sensibility as Shaw.

I saw the show with three physicists, including one astronomer. The production impressed us all. Four stars for Silent Sky!

Silent Sky is at the Walterdale Theatre until October 12.
http://walterdaletheatre.com/the-2019-20-season/silent-sky/

Reviews

Every Episode of Supernatural Ranked: 1.10 Asylum

Kat and Gavin, perfectly freaked out.

THEN

Haunted asylum is haunted!

But it’s not that simple. The ghosts of patients at an abandoned asylum look scary, but they aren’t the real culprits. The ghost of a psychologist named Ellicott who used anger-inducing therapy on them is stoking murderous rages in living trespassers.

The first victim we follow is a cop who had been called about a disturbance at the place. After he goes home, his amplified rage leads him to shoot his wife and then himself. The next victim is Sam.

NOW

This episode seamlessly combined a compelling horror story with developments in the brothers’ relationships. Sam and Dean get a mysterious text, purportedly from their father. Dean is convinced his dad sent the message and that it’s either a clue to his whereabouts, or coordinates pointing the boys to a job that needs doing. Sam is more skeptical. He actually harbours a lot of anger toward his father, some to Dean, and probably a lot to his circumstances overall. When Ellicott’s methods affect Sam, he accuses Dean of mindlessly following their father’s orders and is prepared to kill Dean. Luckily, Dean is the furthest thing from being mindless, and made sure Sam did not have access to a loaded weapon. He also finds and destroys Ellicott’s ghost.

The interpersonal dynamic between the brothers and their absent father is very well depicted. Given Sam’s animosity to his father, and Dean’s contrasting devotion to the same man, it’s both surprising and heartbreaking when, in the last scene, the brother who receives the call from John is Sam.

NOTES

I’d forgotten house very creepy this episode is! Do not watch late at night on your own! Or, do, and be prepared to get the bejesus scared out of you. Kudos to the show’s special effects and make-up effects teams, and to director Guy Norman Bee, who would return to the show in season 6 and go on to direct 10 very memorable episodes of Supernatural.

Also great in this episode are the actors who play the trespassing teens who Sam and Dean save from the asylum. Brooke Nevin and Nicholas D’Agosto have both gone on to amass a ton of acting credits since. D’Agosto in particular cracked me up with this bit of dialogue as his character, Gavin, describes an encounter with a ghost:

GAVIN
There was…there was this girl. Her face. It was all messed up.

SAM
Okay listen, did this girl… did she try and hurt you?

GAVIN
What? No, she…uh…

SAM
She what?

GAVIN
She…kissed me.

SAM
Uh…um…but…but she didn’t hurt you, physically?

GAVIN
Dude! She kissed me. I’m scarred for life!

Transcript via the Supernatural Wiki

RANKINGS

  1. Episode 1.01 “Pilot”
  2. Episode 1.06: “Skin”
  3. Episode 1.03 “Dead in the Water”
  4. Episode 1.10 “Asylum”
  5. Episode 1.09 “Home”
  6. Episode 1.08 “Bugs”
  7. Episode 1.04 “Phantom Traveler”
  8. Episode 1.07 “Hook Man”
  9. Episode 1.05 “Bloody Mary”
  10. Episode 1.02 “Wendigo”

Reviews

Every Episode of Supernatural Ranked: 1.09 Home

When they assume you have happy memories of the house where your mom was killed by a demon.

THEN

Sam has nightmare that the new owner of their parents’ house is in danger. The new owner is a single mother named Jenny, whose two young children have experienced supernatural phenomenon since moving into the house. Having found a trove of Winchester family photos, she lets Sam and Dean into the house for coffee, but says any strange happenings must be due to the house being old, or her daughter’s over-active imagination.

The boys consult with an old contact of their father’s, a psychic named Missouri Mosley. Missouri says the evil that had visited the house has attracted multiple malignant spirits. The boys expel a poltergeist, but a second poltergeist comes for Jenny’s family, and nearly kills Sam. He’s saved by another spirit: the ghost of Mary Winchester.

NOW

In this episode, Sam and Dean prove that you can go home, but you have to face demons of the past when you get there.

The opening scene where Jenny’s daughter is afraid of the monster in the closet dramatizes a phrase that’s come up a couple of times on the show: there is literally a monster in the closet of the little girl’s room! This is what Sam and Dean were brought up to fight.

Sam finally learns that Dean had carried him out of the house after the fire started all those years ago (later in the episode, Dean would tell Sam to carry Jenny’s children out of the burning house to safety). Apparently, the Winchesters never spoke about that night in detail. The scene tells us a few things. One, Dean and John protected Sam from the details of that night even after Sam was old enough to go to college. Two, Sam’s questions as an adult prompts Dean, a man of action, to reflect on his own life and choices.

After that conversation, Dean sneaks off to leave a voice message for his father. It seems he’s been calling John this whole time, despite not receiving any response. He also shows vulnerability that he hides from Sam, as he’s pretty much in tears when he says to his non-answering father, “I need your help, dad.” It’s Dean’s version of prayer.

Sam and Dean create a plan and a ruse for approaching the new homeowner, but when she opens the door, Sam pretty much blurts out that they grew up in the house and just want to see it. He jumps the gun for a couple of reasons. First, he’s seen her in his nightmares, and he urgently wants to help, so he can’t help but drop the pretenses. Second, he had embedded himself with the normies who should never have to worry about the supernatural. The scene reflects his ease at speaking to them at their level.

Interestingly, Jenny has a bit of a mysterious past that she’s breaking away from. She glosses over her reasons for moving to Kansas, saying, “I just, uh….needed a fresh start, that’s all.” She’s obviously haunted by some kind of regret or past action, so she might be thinking about how she can’t escape her past. I like the way the episode leaves that story open for viewers to fill in.

The episode was legitimately mysterious: I never counted on the multiple spirits thing! It also had a real horror movie scene which ended in bloodily for the plumber who was trying to work while a cymbal-clashing toy monkey was clanging away. Working people can’t get a break on this show!

I remember being surprised by Mary’s appearance. I just did not expect to see her again. What she said to Sam was more surprising: “I’m sorry.” I’m sure at the time, I thought she was just expressing sympathy in the wake of Jessica’s death, but Season 4 revealed how Mary’s dealings with the very demon who killed her affected Sam’s life.

The end of the episode reveals that John Winchester was there the whole time. Missouri wonders why Sam, who is manifesting psychic abilities, couldn’t sense John’s presence. At that point, Sam seemed to be able to sense the activity of spirits, but not living people. He also has a big, rationalizing mind, so believing that John is missing, Sam did not suspect that this father was hiding behind the proverbial curtains.

NOTES

Dean’s face when Jenny says, “I’m sure you had lots of happy memories here”! Genius expression from Jensen Ackles, genius edit by David Ekstrom.

RANKINGS

  1. Episode 1.01 “Pilot”
  2. Episode 1.06: “Skin”
  3. Episode 1.03 “Dead in the Water”
  4. Episode 1.09 “Home”
  5. Episode 1.08 “Bugs”
  6. Episode 1.04 “Phantom Traveler”
  7. Episode 1.07 “Hook Man”
  8. Episode 1.05 “Bloody Mary”
  9. Episode 1.02 “Wendigo”
Reviews

Every Episode of Supernatural Ranked: 1.08 Bugs

Honeys

THEN

Mysterious bug infestations are killing workers in a new suburban housing development. Sam and Dean find a skull on the grounds and learn from an indigenous elder that the community was built on the site of an “Indian burial ground”and the spirits are angry.

NOW

This episode is about aspiration and duty, and what happens when the twain don’t mix. After Dean hustles some locals at pool, Sam draws hard lines between honest work and dishonest work. Dean just wants to do what’s “easy and fun.” They flesh out their differences as they arrive in the suburbs. Dean says he’d sooner die than live in suburbia (making his post-apocalypse choices in Season 5 ironic), while Sam says there’s nothing wrong with “normal”. The debate continues in proxy form later in the episode when Sam tells the real estate developer’s weird, insect-obsessed emo kid that things will get better in college, where he will be free of family expectations. Dean’s counterpoint is to stress the importance of fulfilling family obligations.

The Winchester family values include hunting things to save people. Dean has long carried out what he believes is the necessary violence to keep the supernatural at bay, but Sam has yet to acknowledge that establishing or achieving “normal” can also be violent. How appropriate is it for colonizers to make money off land stolen from indigenous people? The episode’s answer is that it was never appropriate, and never will be.

After a final confrontation with a house full of bees (yes, actual bees were used in the filming of the episode!), Sam and Dean check back with the developer and his family (white neo-settlers, when you think about it). He says the development is on hold while the government studies the burial plot. Remarkably to Sam and Dean, the developer seems to shrug off the delay, saying that the project was the biggest financial disaster of his career. It’s interesting that he didn’t say that it was the biggest financial disaster of his life. It was healthy of him to separate his life from his career, and that he’s not bitter about the financial bath, not when he has what he values most: his family.

It was easy for the developer to talk away sanguinely, but the first victim, gas company worker who could never afford to live in the development, is not coming back. Neither is the second victim, a realtor who was selling homes for the developer. The curse worked from the bottom of the hierarchy, and failed to defeat the most privileged person on the grounds.

The Winchesters never do go back to check on the elder. That part of the story is mired in “magical Indian” tropes. It would have been interesting. He can’t walk away from the history that has left his people dead or displaced. Even if he subscribed to the same notions of ownership as the developer, the elder can’t just take back the land, nor the land does the land return to the indigenous people of the area.

The societal issues brought up in the episode aren’t fully resolved, but there’s enough there to be interesting.

NOTES

Apparently, filming the episode was a nightmare, especially when they brought live bees to the set. The payoff wasn’t great, though: a swarm of bees might be terrifying in person, but it’s not much to look at on screen. For this reason, Eric Kripke has gone on record as saying “Bugs” is the worst episode of Supernatural.

It actually contains dialogue that has fascinated fandom for 14 years. We learn details about the argument that ended Sam’s relationship with his father; Sam and Dean’s differing perceptions of what John thinks about Sam; John’s habit of checking in on Sam at Stanford. The exact moment of Sam’s argument with John has never been depicted on screen, although it has been talked about endlessly by Dean and Sam, and, later, time-travelling John. Every account makes clear that the teller is giving a heavily subjective account. This has given fanfiction writers a lot of leeway to construct the moment and what each character could have been thinking or feeling at the time.

Meanwhile, jokes abound as the developer and the real estate agent assume that Sam and Dean are a gay couple. Separately, Sam ribs Dean about watching Oprah, and Dean likens Sam’s role in the family to “the blond chick in the Munsters”. The show’s open acknowledgement of how Sam and Dean look like a couple and how they embody noth feminine and masculine complicate the characters’ gender and sexuality, launching thousands of pieces of fanfiction and analytic meta (essays).

Rewatching the episode, I wanted to write an essay about practically every scene. It’s not polished, but it is fascinating. “Bugs” is not the worst episode of Supernatural, not by a long shot.

RANKINGS

  1. Episode 1.01 “Pilot”
  2. Episode 1.06: “Skin”
  3. Episode 1.03 “Dead in the Water”
  4. Episode 1.08 “Bugs”
  5. Episode 1.04 “Phantom Traveler”
  6. Episode 1.07 “Hook Man”
  7. Episode 1.05 “Bloody Mary”
  8. Episode 1.02 “Wendigo”