High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Provincial Hipsters: The Halifax Report Day 4

So Wednesday was J's turn in the barrel. Although he'd been passionate about the possibility of another Tim Horton's breakfast sandwich in the afterglow of the donair, we skipped morning food and went straight to sessions, which turned out to be a poor decision, as fortification was definitely needed.

The earlier set of sessions was on primate populations genetics. It was not as exciting as I had hoped, although that speaks more to the fact that, by now, my standards were pretty high: If this had been at ASHG, with the exception of the one truly pointless, wrong, and terrible paper in this session (boy was the rage building for those horrible 15 minutes), I would have wept for joy. The final paper in this session was the exception to the rule of mediocrity. Rather than being about primates, per se, it was a very elegant experimental design to identify the sources of human food-borne infections. Furthermore, it actually had implications for public policy. Imagine, as Vince Noir would say, that!

Fortified with coffee and danish (Have I mentioned that the danish and other pastry things were, like, not just edible but actually good? All hail the SMBE organizers!), we headed for the very first time into the Ondaatje Auditorium for the all-math, all-the-time session (hiding under the guise of the Methods in Population Genetics session and fooling no one). This was pretty much the return to Texarkana for J and myself. We made it through the whole thing, but we were whimpering "Math hammer, don't hurt us!" by the end.

Oh! I've just remembered something that I think began on Tuesday. You see, Halifax is smoke free indoors, and that includes Dalhousie, of course. So, you have the usual ashtrays down by the street and the usual folks pushing the limits of the 15-feet-from-the-door rules. On Tuesday, when we were in the Methods in Comparative Genomics Session (and I was still in my suit and feeling cranky), I suddenly realized that my lungs were seizing up like mad. Before I'd even registered that I was having trouble breathing, I was in a state where it was an extremely bad idea to try to walk, particularly up the treacherous stairs of the theater in which the session was held. I realized the source of my trouble was the woman sitting in front of me: She was wearing this hideous multicolored sweater and she smelled like she'd been smoking inside a telephone booth for the last 25 years. For the rest of the conference, she was everywhere, wearing that same sweater and smelling and aggravating my asthma from incredible distances. Anyway, she was at the math!fest, so my brain AND my lungs were going all French on me.

We headed back to the hotel for lunch and decided that we'd neglected the Victory Arms Pub for far too long. You're probably thinking that this was just around the corner from the Lord Nelson, but you'd be tragically wrong in this instance: It's actually in the Lord Nelson. Neener. I had these sinfully good quesadillas, and I think J had a shepherd's pie. It was all so delicious and comforting that I didn't even care that I was being forced to watch tennis the whole while.

But we had to shake off the food coma, because it was show time for J. The session was a very good one, although it's probably inevitable that there will be some "does not, does too-ism" on the subject of selection on synonymous sites, how much difference it makes in the grand scheme of things, and other issues. Time ran a bit short on J, but he got to explain thoroughly the all-important multicolored quadrant slide.

The paper right after his was a very good one, and it was delivered by our aforementioned Gaius Baltar. He joined us along with the young woman from the previous day at the bar in the student union after the session. M (said young woman) showed us her presentation, which was quite good and, best of all, has some interesting jumping-off points for future research, should one desire to spend the rest of one's life buried in the Y chromosome.

After she departed for the banquet, J revealed to me Baltar's deep secret: He'd been working with the data from our paper and had managed to replicate the results. That might sound like no big deal, but given that it took us, 5 years of jumping through hoops to get that published, it was pretty freaking exciting for us. We had a fine time trying to decide how much Castle Dementedness we could comfortably reveal to Baltar in trying to communicate how pleased we were to hear about his results. This dance, of course, was enhanced greatly by the pitcher of beer we were consuming.

J and I learned our lesson about attending conference social events a few years back, so we were definitely skipping the banquet. In fact, we were dead set (so to speak) on doing the Haunted Hike that evening. Accordingly, we decided to have a drink and a snack before heading to the Burns statue. And, really, there was only so long that we could avoid a restaurant called Deco (we sat right under the Charnay poster), which was not just around the corner from the Lord Nelson. Goodness, it must have been at least a block and a half from there!

We had some dangerously cracklicious drinks and shared the mussels (a fabulous Thai-esque take on them, completely different from those at Tizi Melloul, but just as good) and the crab cakes. I still don't know how I had the willpower to walk out of there without the better part of their furnishings.

We dutifully arrived at the Burns statue around 8:15. There were various people waiting around, enjoying the goods from the Dairy Queen on the corner. These included an extremely cute greyhound (a rescued racer) named Samson, who must have been a very good dog indeed, because every single person there with ice cream shared some with him. He was a total sweetie pie, and I had to laugh when his person revealed that when she first adopted him, he used to shoulder check her when they were walking. She couldn't figure out why he was doing this until she looked into his racing history and realized that this is why he'd been a big winner.

We waited until about 8:45, but sadly, the square remained pirateless. We walked back over to Your Father's Moustache and checked the poster, which assured us that we had not been high in reading the specs. J put in a call and left a message. We then walked across to the gate to the gardens and asked the attendant if he knew anything about the Haunted Hike. He said that he knew the pirate well and, unfortunately, said pirate had been quite sick recently. Saddened by the lack of pirates and ghosts, we traveled water-ward again.

We made our stop in at Cows to obtain gifts for our loved ones and began to wander in search of a place to sit and have a drink. Our main requirement for said place was, basically, dark. In walking down the street we thought would contain the Economy Shoe Shop , we found that it did not, in fact, contain it. It did, however, contain The Argyle, which met our undemanding criterion. I had a G&T and noted that the Blue Jays have finally caught up with the hideous and tragic uniform trends of the 1980s.
Go Jays!

After glancing at a food menu and finding nothing especially promising (and not even a hint of oysters), we moved on, once again, in search of the ESS. Naturally, we wound up at The Press Gang. But we decided not to let it be the boss of us just yet. We turned back and really, really did try to find the Shoe Shop. But first we stumbled across Seven, a wine bar that was most definitely dark.

We had a very nice chat with the bartender, who turned out to have worked in seafood brokering for much of her life. She knew and spoke highly of DiCola's, my preferred seafood procurement facility. I had a New Zealand pinot noir that I can't really recommend, although it was drinkable enough to raise it well above the level of the best pinot noir to come out of MIchigan. J had some kind of vodka that might or might not have been blue.

There were some food items on Seven's menu that looked highly intriguing, but the kitchen was sadly closed. This was the first and most gentle chastisement we received for slutting around on the Press Gang. The worst was yet to come. In a final attempt to wind up at the ESS, we got lured into a basement bar called The Seahorse Tavern.
We really should have known better when we were charged a cover, but we pressed on. I was having trouble making up my mind on a drink and finally settled on a Black Russian. Oh, tragic, tragic mistake. The infant bartender dutifully mixed kahlua and vodka and then FILLED UP THE REST OF THE ROCKS GLASS WITH PEPSI AND ADDED A LIME WEDGE.

Thank the evil spirits that I hadn't ordered a White Russian. J was comparatively safe with his tequila, and we sequestered ourselves in the nook with the large round table that bore incredible and eerie resemblance to the book with the large round table at The Pub. Once ensconced in the nook, we had a chance to appreciate how very dire this place was. There was incredibly dire hip hop being "created" by very, very white Canadians with equipment far more expensive and sophisticated than their skill level merited. The space is absolutely fantastic (the pictures on their web page don't do it justice) and it was utterly wasted on . . . whatever it was trying to be.

We finished up our drinks but quick and dragged back into the Press Gang with our tails between our legs. S, the bartender, laughed at our travails. The owner of the PG's property also owns the ESS and The Seahorse. Apparently at the Seahorse, they deliberately mix drinks wrong so that people will stop ordering things that are more complicated than beer or wine. Aiyeeee! Someone might have mentioned that, you know!

To comfort ourselves, we asked S if he would allow us to experiment with making a sazerac on our own. Initially dubious, he eventually poured us two shots of rye, a shot of absinthe, and provided us with lemon, sugar and the bottle of bitters. We eventually managed to mix something that was a pretty passable rendition of the sazerac and patted ourselves on the back for it. Having done so (and J having consumed the balance of the absinthe), it became a good idea to have some more food in our stomachs (you may have noticed that we'd neglected to have any dinner). And so we were forced to have another half dozen oysters, prompting S to tell us that he had 12 steps he'd like to introduce us to.

We managed (narrowly) to make it back to the Lord Nelson without indulging in donair. And so we retired, the last half-day of the conference and our departure looming large.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Punk-Ass Apron Strings: The Knitters at the OTSFM 10th Annual Folk and Roots Festival

This weekend was, for a long time, a quantum weekend. There are many places that I was potentially going to be, right up until the point that I was going to be . . . well, home. Hey, it happens. And it happens to have left me free to carry giant steel garbage cans.

So this weekend is the 10th annual Folk and Roots Festival at the Old Town School of Folk Music, this year is the 50th anniversary of the school, and yesterday happens to have been the first full 24-hour period that the new executive director has lived in Chicago. So clearly the festival runs the risk of being crushed under the weight of its own history. The crushing may be yet to come, but it's more than halfway there at this point.

Once I knew that I wasn't going to have to jet off anywhere at a moment's notice, I told the volunteer coordinator that I had no special requests, other than wanting to be free to see The Knitters, and she should feel free to put me to work. She took me at my word and I did four hours of load in on Friday, which included the aforementioned garbage cans. My forearms may never forgive me, but honestly it's the first volunteer gig I've had where I didn't feel like I was running some kind of scam on the school by getting credits toward classes or concerts for . . . having fun and not doing a whole lot.

So heavy lifting is a great counterbalance to the scam I've been running recently, which is volunteering in the resource center. This involves being surrounded by walls of books, drawers full of CDs, DVDs, and Videos, and occasionally burning a CD, shelving things, or doing a little data entry. Oh, and I am supposed to watch and/or listen to whatever I want to bring people in. Did you catch that? I am earning credits for classes for weeping over Steve Goodman tributes while I knit. My forearms will get over it.

Saturday, I was on macaroni art duty at the kids' art tent, which basically involved standing where I could see and hear the main stage, answering maybe 5 questions all day, and occasionally telling people they could just squeeze in wherever they could find seats at a beading or paper-bag-puppet-making table. I did witness 9-year-old guitarists performing "Stayin' Alive," which I'm pretty sure is in violation of all laws of god and man, but that was the worst of it. Oh, and some extremely nice man gave me my soothing green wrap skirt for half price because I was still wearing my volunteer shirt.

M joined me around 6:30 and we availed ourselves of festival food. (Hippy festivals have superior food in this regard: We had great, superspicy andouille. Later, I had a malt, and the ZK a corn dog and a shake. Oh, also lemonade with crack in it. The parting funnel cake, sadly, was only so so.) Then we sat in the grass, enjoying the just-about-perfect weather, for a while waiting for The Knitters to take the stage.

John Doe and Dave Alvin (the former looking unremarkable in a t-shirt, the latter sporting a jaunty cravat) came out first and warmed up the crowd with Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings" and The Knitters' own "I'm Crying but my Tears Are Far Away." When the rest of the band took the stage, people started standing up and blocking our view, so we made our way to the stage-left fringe of the foot-tapping pit (the gentle hippy equivalent of the mosh pit, of course). The ZK was unduly traumatized by Exene's apron. For my part, it was the sparkly applique on the demure cardigan that blew my mind.

We were making our way up front during "Give Me Flowers While I'm Living," and I think "Walkin' Cane" was up next. John Doe, who is a terrible liar, had promised that "Silver Wings" and "Cryin'" would be the only two sad songs they sang that night. So naturally, I called shenanigans on "Why Don't We Even Try Anymore."

M: What, no one's shot in the breast. No one's dead. This isn't sad.
Me: It's a sad song about marriage.
M: Aren't they all?

He's a funny guy. I might even miss him when I go walking with him down by the river and listen to my knife, which is inexplicably whispering to me to kill him, and I end by shooting him in the breast. Of course, The Knitters provided the soundtrack of my revenge by doing "I'll Go Down Swinging," a cautionary tale for cheating men and a marvelous tribute to the death of dignity for women who've been cheated on. Wait a minute . . . !

We got most of the greats, including "Long Chain On," "Skin Deep Town" (which I'd heard and hadn't really cared for; but now I'm in love after having seen it live), "Dry River," of course "The New Call of the Wreckin' Ball" (I defy you not to stomp along with this song), "Poor Little Critter on the Road," "Baby Out of Jail" (one of the death songs required by contract of all performers at Folk Festivals), and "Poor Old Heartsick Me."

They tried to end with the fabulously erratic, multi-generic "Born to Be Wild," (or was it "Poor Old Heartsick Me"?) but the crowd called them back for two encores. For the first, they did "Rock Island Line." I'm pretty sure this was the one they gave the Merri Mac treatment in homage to the punk rocker in Exene. Earlier, I'd commented to the ZK that it must be hard on DJ Bonebreak when everyone else decides to rock out, given that he's just got a snare and a teeny crash cymbal. I could not stop laughing, therefore, when one of his brushes completely exploded. He soldiered on with just one and calmly pulled a stick out of his back pocket to finish up. That's jazz-drummer cool right there.

By the second encore, he had a second brush again. Sure, he probably has redundancy in the system because it's a good idea, but I like to think that he's been exploding brushes across the country for 2.5 decades. John nixed any ideas of a third encore by declaring that they'd played all they knew, but the crowd was unconvinced enough that many of them stayed through some of the new ED's thanks and commentary (and that's saying something).

We made our way back to the bizarro-world brown line (basically, they'd switched the side of the tracks you stand on, so that the signage is telling you terrific lies about the direction in which the train will travel), and then to the Rock Island. What should have been a nice, quiet ride home was spoiled by 9 fucking Cubs fans who were sloppy, ugly, loud drunk. Fuck all you all for harshing my Punk Country buzz.

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Boys' Happy Time: Transformers, Reviewed

So Michael Bay, Christopher Guest, John Hughes, and David Cronenberg decide that they want to make a movie, and they hire on Timothy Leary to provide Craft Services. My review could stop there, but how likely is that?

It's not like I've seen a lot of porn movies. Even so, me saying that Transformers is the porniest damn movie I've ever seen is not to be taken in the same spirit as, say, "The best martial arts movie ever to come out of France," or "The best pinot noir to come out of Michigan." It is shameless, relentless, gratuitous boy!porn from minute one. It's also incredibly baked—baked on the level of Crank baked. It also pretty much rocks.

The wafer thin plot centers around both sets of Transformers—the Autobots, who stand for truth, autonomy, Christmas, and puppies, and the Decepticons, who disrespect the common worker, have glowing red eyes, consist entirely of sharp, pokey things, and don't think much of humans—searching for the Hellraiser cube Allspark.

At the beginning of his monologue (and, as it turns out, the whole movie, from Blackout's opening money shot to the disturbing, cross-species voyeurism, is a flashback monologue), Optimus Prime —leader of the Autobots and a "good guy" despite the outrageously Orwellian name—implies that they are looking for the cube so that they can revitalize the world that they've irretrievably fucked up. The Decepticons want the cube to . . . well, I actually have no idea why they want the cube, but its life-giving powers never really come up again anyway, so do you want to know the terrifying truth, or do you want to see Frenzy pull off Shia LeBeouf's pants?

From the human side, the plot is divided for much of the movie. On the one hand, the government is scrambling in the wake of a physical attack on an Air Force base in Qatar and repeated attempts to hack our 5up3r 533kr1t databases. On the other, Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf, panted, for the time being) is funding his Porky's Vision Quest by eBay auctioning off the tchotckes inherited from his arctic-circle-exploring, "iceman"-finding, crazy-dying grandfather.

The government cannot hope to fight off this (probably North Korean, or possibly Chinese) attack without the help of infant computer analysts ranging from Tom Lenk (really! And he could have been playing Andrew, but he totally wasn't!) to some kind of refugee from the set of a particularly low-budget porno movie. (And for the record, I think her voice was the real weapon of annihilation.)

Neither the nerds nor the pr0n refugee can get the job done by themselves. There's another attack that can be laid directly at the feet of ding dongs, both the putatively edible ones and the type that don't think it's odd to find the odd boombox in Air Force 1's elevator. After pausing for an extended Air Force recruitment porno video and a lot of running around at the Pentagon, none of it related to the fact that Tom Lenk just up and disappears after far too few lines, they call in the m@d35t h@ckz0rz of all. Tragically, this gentlemen happens to be Black and he's introduced amid a flurry of comic relief that pretty much borders on an Amos & Andy routine. Cultural sensitivity is not in the core competency suite of the baked.

Sam, meanwhile, must defeat the reverse-aging incarnation of Robert Z'Dar (RAIRZ) if he hopes to get in the pants of The Girl (not that she wears pants, mind you, or anything that even mimics a lower body covering of any kind). RAIRZ is a covert Sam ally, though: After manfully deciding to cede the beach to Sam and his prehensile-toed stoner friend (who gets left at the beach and is never seen again), he tries (noneuphemistically) to relegate Mikaela to the back of his external penis.

Despite the fact that, as M put it "It seems unlikely that this is a sudden heel turn." Mikaela decides that nobody puts not!bunny in the rumble seat and resolves to walk the 10 miles home in her wedges and pudendum-revealing skirt. Sam takes the advice of his possessed car's radio and gives chase. The car breaks down. Mikaela thrusts her breasts at it and "tightens its distributor cap," and refuses to start. She seems to blame Sam for this and teeters off again. But the car starts! And she gets in again! And there's more painful pr0n-movie dialogue! (I had not yet clued into the fact that a la Baron Christopher, anything having to do with personal interactions was completely improvised; the Guest-esque improvisation in the scenes with Sam, his parents [Kevin Dunn and Julie White], and the chihuahua while the Autobots are "hiding" in the yard was absolutely top notch.)

And then John Turturro shows up. No, really! I thought I was making it up, too, especially when Sam, Mikaela, and the Autobots force him to rip off his clip-on tie and strip down to his boxers and wife beater (which bears the "Sector 7 logo," and I think someone owes a certain man of steel some royalties). And when Bumblebee uncorks his . . . whatever a corvette would uncork . . . and takes a whiz on one of Turturro's men. (Seriously, I'm really really not making that up. Optimus Prime sternly orders him to stop "lubricating" the individual.)

Optimus really shouldn't be so hard on Bumbleebee, though, because during the obligatory Kong-fettering scene, it's quite clear that Bumblebee is the Rainman of the group. When you get this group of directors together, what are the odds that it will have escaped their collective attention that movie-going audiences love crazy or otherwise mentally and physically disabled people? Bumblebee has plenty of footage of him blinking big, sad, empty blue eyes to fill up his Oscar reel.

Eventually the script gets impatient with these stupid people on opposite sides of a big continent (and those stupid Air Force people lost in the dumb desert), and it scoops up all and sundry and brings them to the Hoover Dam. Which is good, because then we can get to the part where it is all giant, transforming robots fighting other giant, transforming robots all the time.

Oh, why Hoover Dam, though? Because Hoover Dam was actually built to hide: (1) the giant, be-sigiled alien cube and (2) the giant frozen robot-y thing. The four football fields' worth of concrete disguises the "unique energy signature" (everybody do a Stargate shot!) of the cube from any hostile aliens that might be looking for it. EXCEPT FOR THE GIANT HOSTILE ALIEN THAT YOU'RE STORING IN THE DAMNED THING'S UPPER BUNK! Ahem.

For a while at the Hoover Dam, it seems as if we might be robbed of precious giant, transforming robot kung fu fighting by John Turturro's need to show us how to make a monster out of a cell phone. (As much as I wanted to rip out Rachael Taylor's throat so she could never, ever inflict her voice on anyone ever again, I have to give her bit with Jon Voight about Nokias being from Finland two Nigel Tufnels up.)

Fortunately, Josh Duhamel (have I mentioned that he's very pretty and very charming) is strongly if inexplicably moved by a boy's love for his robot. When things start to go Tango Uniform at the Dam, he and his fellow Air Force-y types turn their guns on their counterparts and demand air support as they rush Sam and the conveniently ensmallened cube to a nearby city for maximum anarchy during the huge, inevitable, and hot giant-transforming-robot-on-giant-transforming-robot action.

And, oh, it is so very hot, if very strangely edited. And surprisingly . . . well, not bloody, but . . . automotively effluvial: Bumblebee secures his Oscar nod by losing both his legs; Jazz (the lone Brother Autobot) is ripped the fuck in half, not that anyone notices for a good 25 minutes. And where is our fearless leader during the first 25 minutes or so? Well, you see, Optimus is quite the diva, and his ass is not on screen unless his goddamned theme music is cued up. And if you delay his theme music for too long, he forgets almost every useful feature he has. And his stabby, stabby swordfist was sorely missed.

But seriously, this is the dumbest, most entertaining, most fabulously true-to-the-80s movie I've ever seen. The 'bot FX are supercool, especially the on-the-fly transforming. The editing of the fights was a little frenetic, to the point that it was sometimes hard to tell who was fighting (Bumblebee and Ratchet, for example, are both yellow, and you know how those yellow giant robots all look alike).

I have to imagine that the staff and writers' meetings involved a lot of running around while pretending to be an airplane, finger pistols, and Patchoo Patchoo, NEeeeeEEEEERRRRRBBBBBBBKOOOOOOW! kind of business, but there's not a thing wrong with that. At least not a thing that a giant, transforming robot rumble can't fix.

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