I’m Not Like Them, But I Can Pretend

Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain died 27 years ago, aged 27. Between his rock star persona and gentle offstage aura, it’s hard to reconcile Cobain’s humanity with his legend status. But in 1993, Canadian journalist Erica Ehm did just that, in a now-famous interview for MuchMusic.

By Serena Ypelaar

Warning: this article mentions drug use and suicide, and may be disturbing for some readers.

Kurt Cobain – lead singer and guitarist of the wildly famous grunge rock band Nirvana – died by suicide on April 5, 1994, at the age of 27. This year marks the 27th anniversary of his passing, which means he’s now been dead as long as he was alive. 

Why commemorate an artist’s death? Perhaps because their exit from the world is so heavily marked by their artistic contributions. There’s a legacy left behind in those moments – the person is grieved by family, friends, and people who never knew them personally but appreciate their art, their work, or their public persona. 

Kurt Cobain’s legend status has been upheld by admirers for almost 30 years. Photo: Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic

Being part of the “27 Club” means being enshrined in myth forever: Cobain’s legendary status is unarguable. Nirvana has sold 75 million records worldwide. Nirvana T-shirts are still worn by fans (and non-fans) daily. And just last year, Cobain’s 1959 Martin D-18E acoustic guitar (used at the band’s famous 1993 MTV Unplugged session just five months before his death) became the highest-selling guitar in history, fetching $6 million USD at auction.

Nirvana’s fame wasn’t easy for Cobain, however. The three-piece band, whose final lineup comprised Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl (now Foo Fighters frontman), became superstars almost overnight. Their career yielded just three studio albums: Bleach (1989), Nevermind (1991), and In Utero (1993). Growing commercial pressures after Nevermind‘s success contributed to Cobain’s fear of “selling out”. His depression, coupled with an addiction to heroin, would lead to his premature death. A few overdoses, an intervention from family and friends, and an aborted rehab stay ended in tragedy with Cobain’s suicide – he shot himself in his Seattle home less than a year after Nirvana’s third album was released. 

I first picked up Nirvana as an angsty teen (I mean, is there any better time for it?) starting university. The band’s legacy was already written, and I was just jumping in. Yet the music still resonated, 20 years after Nirvana’s unplanned dissolution. Their lyrics, often scathing critiques of society, still apply today.

Nirvana in 1993 (from left): Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl. Photo: Anton Corbijn

Although he’s venerated as a progressive punk rock icon, feminist, and empath, Kurt Cobain wasn’t known for his effusiveness. He was sensitive and self-critical; bandmates and friends commented that he was always overthinking, and it bothered him to hear about sexism, homophobia, racism, rape, and other injustices. In interview footage, he often appears spaced-out, moody, and taciturn. 

Many musicians dislike interviews, which is understandable given their rigorous schedules. Between songwriting, rehearsals, recording, and touring, journalists don’t get many chances to speak to band members outside rare periods of downtime. Add the fact that musicians are often asked the same questions repeatedly, and it’s no wonder we sometimes see gruffness, apathy, or all-out exhaustion during interviews. Once a musician or artist dies, these interviews become like gold – valuable snippets into their creative processes, insights, opinions, and personalities. 

As a historian and lover of old stuff, I often find myself getting into media after its creator has died. I read and watch interviews to better understand the artist behind the work. I want to get closer to their personality, to recognize them as a human being. It’s the best way to spot mannerisms and offstage persona, which can often be very different from the impression given while performing. After they’re gone, the life of a musician often achieves a mythical existence. The person can no longer contribute to the narrative; they can’t speak for themselves. They’re defined by their overall legacy. That’s why existing interviews become such treasured glimpses into their essence as a person, especially when recorded on video.

And if the interviewer manages against all odds to get something special, it becomes iconic.

Kurt Cobain speaking to Erica Ehm on a balcony in Seattle. Photo: YouTube / MuchMusic

This is where Erica Ehm comes in. A Canadian journalist and longtime VJ at MuchMusic, Ehm interviewed numerous musicians during her time at the television station (1985-1994). Her 1993 conversation with Kurt Cobain is one of her most famous interviews, if not the most famous. It was late summer in Seattle, Washington. Ehm had been sent out to interview Cobain for the release of In Utero

Each of us [journalists] was asked to set up our cameras in a nondescript hotel room, and assigned a short window of time with each band member. As soon as one interview would wrap, they’d be escorted to the next. It’s an impersonal grind. For alt rockers like Nirvana, it must have been a mind-numbing process. 

I knew I’d have to stand out to get a decent interview with Kurt. My hope was to make him see me as more than another faceless media type.

Erica Ehm in 2019

The extended cut of the now-famous MuchMusic interview has over 10 million views on YouTube, and is well-regarded among Nirvana fans and music journalists. Fans often remark on how genuine Cobain seems in this interview – charming but pensive, and most importantly, relaxed. It’s hard to tap into the authenticity of a person in just a few minutes’ conversation, but Ehm does this well by balancing music-related questions with more personal ones. It’s a candid talk by the water, with low-key (if sometimes erratic) camera work. Cobain seems comfortable and Ehm is professional yet casual.

Erica Ehm with Paul Langlois and Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip. Photo: Erica Ehm / MuchMusic

For my interview with Kurt, I came prepared to talk about his album, touring and other standard questioning the record company expected. However, it was the quirkier ones like “What are you reading?” or “Why would you bring a baby [into] a world that you hate?” that allowed him to reveal a bit of himself to us. 

Erica Ehm

It’s a point of pride that it was a Canadian who captured such a meaningful interview. Ehm treated Cobain like a person rather than a commodity (even though he’d begun to feel like the latter over the last few months of his life, as the pressures of fame mounted and his depression and addiction worsened). He was already becoming a symbol, yet Ehm’s approach transcended that: she asked about Kurt the human being, not Kurt the performer. To me, watching this as a music enthusiast, Ehm’s thoughtfulness felt far away from the usual intensity of the music industry. It’s hard to believe that this interview took place on a day crammed full of press for Cobain – it feels like a one-off conversation on an average day.

Extended cut of Canadian journalist Erica Ehm’s 1993 MuchMusic interview with Kurt Cobain.

Not much about Cobain’s life at that point was very “average”. He’d become a rock star in next to no time, and was dealing with copyright infringement and sensationalist press pieces, being interviewed by dozens of journalists. Yet the thing that brought him the most joy – and Ehm seemed to intuit this – was talking about his wife, Courtney Love, and their baby daughter, Frances Bean. These personal insights grant us a glimpse into the life of someone whose fame was so huge that a respite into the everyday was more than welcome. 

It’s hard to say what would’ve happened with Cobain and Nirvana had he not died in early 1994, only a few months after this interview. But one thing is certain: his death cemented his status as an icon and an inspiration to many. As per the Neil Young lyrics quoted in Cobain’s suicide letter, he did indeed “burn out” rather than “fade away”. He never had to slip slowly into obscurity or irrelevance, because he died at the height of his and Nirvana’s acclaim.

Nirvana’s discography. Photo: Diffuser

Ehm’s interview is a big part of the Nirvana “canon” for those learning about Cobain for the first time, a piece of remembrance for those already familiar. Her work in bringing out his personality for us to see and appreciate – which shows us his uniqueness as a person – helps ensure Cobain is still loved and celebrated even 27 years after his death. He preached empathy, acceptance, love for others and self-love, making people love him not just as a musician, but as a human being. In this case the artist is very much intertwined with the art, and the band’s sincerity has immortalized them in the hearts of rock fans worldwide. 

Nirvana continues to resonate, and in the words of Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain “has become something more than a human being to others.” But apart from his talent, it’s his humanity that people latched onto in the first place – and skilled interviewers like Ehm helped preserve it for the ages. 

What ‘The Dig’ Understands About Archaeology

Simon Stone’s historical drama steps away from casting its archaeologists as treasure hunters, mirroring the field’s own turn toward the ethical pursuit of information.

By Jenny Lee

Surprising no one who knows me, I buzzed with anticipation for The Dig, Simon Stone’s film about the Sutton Hoo excavations, for weeks beforehand. I am not really a person who needs to watch things the moment they come out, but I kept the evening of January 15th clear, hoping that it would delight me as much as the trailer promised – and remembering my own happy traipse around the site when we could still go places and do things.

Based on John Preston’s book of the same name, The Dig dramatizes the late-1930s excavations at Sutton Hoo, Sussex, which revealed an iconic Anglo-Saxon ship burial in a larger cemetery context. Against this backdrop, landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan, fabulous if unconvincing as a woman in her mid-fifties), her son Robert, archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), and the rest of the dig team, including a late-arriving Lily James as archaeologist Peggy Piggott, play out a slow, emotionally throbbing story about absence, legacy, and the inevitability of death – themes that are, I note, all the stuff of archaeology.

Absence, not miraculous appearances: Mulligan and Fiennes in ‘The Dig’. Photo: Larry Horricks / Netflix.

The Dig is surprisingly restrained on the subject of the Sutton Hoo finds themselves – we get a glimpse of a few objects emerging from the soil and laid in finds boxes, but there are no loving pans over the famous burial outfit, with its stately mask and glowing cloisonne ensemble. What looms large in the movie’s visual language instead is the absence of things: first a growing hole in the barrow, which at one point threatens to consume Brown entirely, then the imprint of a vast wooden ship in the soil, the boards long since rotted away. (Archaeology requires extrapolation, the exploration of what is no longer there using only what remains.)

This is the most interesting thing about the film for me. Virtually all mainstream archaeological media – your Mummy trilogy, your Indiana Jones – is about the stuff, generally what an archaeologist might call “small finds”. Our archaeologist-heroes pursue these things with fetishistic intensity; they must rescue these things and keep them from falling into the wrong hands. The things, after all, belong in a museum!

Small finds: a gold belt buckle from the ship burial at Sutton Hoo. Photo: British Museum.

For dramatic reasons, there is less concern about the meat and potatoes of archaeological excavation: what action hero could thrill to finds like ‘bit of wall’ or ‘patch of dirt that is a noticeably different colour from surrounding dirt’ or – more exciting yet – ‘midden’?

Early archaeology, too, was often interested in ‘the stuff’ (Howard Carter with his eye to the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, seeing – yes, wonderful things), often blasting through strata and losing precious data in its rush for finds, then spiriting goods out of their contexts to be displayed in European museums. The Dig looks back on this era with the perspective of nearly a century of archaeological thought and postcolonial theory, recognizing – as British archaeology was late to do – Basil Brown for his meticulous, thoughtful practice. It purposefully minimizes the small finds, as if to suggest that the dig was not about the things at all, and so sidesteps one problem with archaeological media: its tendency to condone, and so naturalize, the wholesale theft of cultural objects by Western archaeologists and cultural institutions – an entrenched, ongoing issue in the field.

Excavations at Sutton Hoo, 1939. Photo: British Museum

This reframes the story of Sutton Hoo, and maybe of archaeology in general, from the miraculous appearance of objects in a field to the culmination of dedicated work and thought by many minds and hands. It’s a slow pleasure, not an epiphanic one: the moment of truth is not the emergence of treasure from the ground (though this is always exciting) but the confirming of a hypothesis, the accumulation of knowledge.

The film ends on a long take of Brown and his team piling soil back onto the barrow site to cover the delicate ship burial. Much of Sutton Hoo is still unexcavated, reserved – as is common practice – for future archaeologists and their future technologies, in the pursuit of knowing more.

Recommended reading and listening:

Travel in the Time of COVID (It’s Not What You Think)

The year was 2020. Heritage professionals and travel buddies Emily Welsh & Serena Ypelaar were excited for their annual weekend trip with friends. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic thwarted such plans, but the duo went ahead with a Christmastime trip to Quebec City – virtually. Their online “visitor experience” explored how sensory immersion can convincingly take us elsewhere. 

By Emily Welsh & Serena Ypelaar 

Serena Ypelaar: This is one of my top memories from 2020 – which I guess isn’t saying much, as everyone spent most of the year at home. Back in December, Emily and I travelled to Quebec City ~virtually~ since we couldn’t do so in person. It helped that we’d both been there before; we had sensory memory to work from. Moving our trip online actually shaped a unique experience that was almost as fun as the real thing – I was surprised how absorbing it was. 

We travelled to Quebec City at Christmas without leaving our homes. Photo: Shorttrips / ed. Serena Ypelaar

As part of our pseudo-trip, I planned a virtual stay at the Fairmont Château Frontenac, which has always been on my bucket list. Can’t afford to stay there irl, so why not pretend, with the help of PowerPoint and HQ images? But we couldn’t just appear in Quebec – a virtual train ride would bridge the gap between Ontario and Quebec nicely, so I hopped onto YouTube to find the goods. You’d be surprised how many Ontarians post videos of their train rides. As our Zoom call connected on Day 1 of the trip*, I for some reason decided Ozzy Osbourne’s “all aboard!” (from “Crazy Train“) was a mandatory soundtrack to our simulated journey via Zoom screensharing and someone’s train video. Sorry for subjecting you to it, Emily! 

In the virtual tourism world, money is no object – we could “choose” our rooms. Photos: Château Frontenac / ed. Serena Ypelaar

Emily Welsh: “All aboard! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.” The perfect way to start a trip! Music plays such a large role in travel, especially for us. The first person POV helped me feel as if I was actually departing on a trip, rather than simply showing up at our virtual hotel stay, which likely would have been a jarring introduction. I was immersed in the experience from the very beginning, and it only got better from there. After exploring the public spaces and rooms of the Château Frontenac, we explored the Old City with a first person night time walk. Walking among others bundled up against the cold, hearing the snow crunching underfoot, seeing the Christmas lights and skaters, it was as if I was breathing in the cold air and exploring the city with friends. I was mentally choosing benches to sit on and Christmas booths to visit. 

The walk we “went on” in Quebec City. There are many others like it on YouTube, shot in 4K. Delightful when you’re stuck in lockdown! Video: NAC Design on YouTube

SVY: I couldn’t have described it better myself – the sights and sounds really got me! I can’t convey how much I enjoyed the night walk. Another boon from YouTube and shot in 4K, it was as if we were actually walking through the snowy night, through the streets of 17th and 18th century architecture I love. Perfect way to spend the simulated evening. 

It’s not a vacation without a food tour! Photo: Kerrmess

EKW: For Day 2 of our trip, I was excited to curate a walking food tour, or dessert hop, of Old Quebec City. Quebec City provided the opportunity to taste traditional French and French Canadian dishes, and explore the modern inspirations offered by restaurants and shops. For instance the piesicle, frozen pie on a stick, offered at Kerrmess seemed too cool to pass by (pun intended). 

However, I quickly realized this trip must also be realistic, and although we may wish, we cannot simply eat the day away! I decided to pair a tour of historic homes and architecture with the dessert hop, as food and architecture seemed to go hand in hand in my mind. By examining the architecture of the Old City, I was constantly surprised by stories of cultural influences, military campaigns, epidemics, natural disasters, building codes, and modern reconstructions. I was pleased to gain a fuller understanding of the city’s history, and excited to share what I had learned. 

Map of our food tour. Photo: Google Maps / ed. Emily Welsh

SVY: Your tour was engrossing, and can I just say I was glad I had tea and stroopwafel on my end, because taste-testing-without-actually-tasting was a killer! Your visuals of bakeries, restaurants, and of course, food sparked my imaginative powers, that’s for sure. And the way you interwove all the stops with local building history, the evolution of the city, and landmark features made the experience really organic, yet again fooling me into thinking I was there. It’s amazing how much you can engage with a faraway place if you tune your senses in. If we ever get back to QC, we’re re-enacting this food tour, s’il vous plait!

EKW: I’d be honoured to offer this tour dans la vraie vie!

SVY: We engaged with even more places as the trip went on. When organizing travel itineraries, the first place my mind goes to is “HISTORIC SITES” (yes, my brain yells it in all caps). So it was only fitting that we checked out the Fortifications du Quebec National Historic Site, Lévis Forts National Historic Site, and Le Monastère des Augustines. The Plains of Abraham and other sites were not on the list (despite my fascination with Wolfe and Montcalm) as we’d both been there, done that. Instead we watched a rather dramatic video about the Fortifications, followed by a few lads’ recent visit to the site thanks to YouTube (overlaid by my on-the-spot spiel about the colonial history of Quebec and New France). Visitors captured in that video were masked up, which struck me as particularly authentic – how it would be if we were really there in 2020.

Virtual heritage tour slide, with embedded videos (like this intense Parks Canada one) bringing the sites to life.
Within Le Monastère des Augustines. Photo: Facebook

Google Maps / Street View brought the Lévis Forts before our eyes, as if we were standing there. While it was interesting learning the history of the British-built forts, not much is left of them today to engage with. The virtual trip served us well in that sense. We didn’t have to make the long trek to the outskirts just to see… well, not much. We learned, we interacted, but we also decided we don’t need to see the forts in person, thanks to virtual tourism! On the other hand, Le Monastère is a place I’ve seen from outside and always wanted to enter, so it was fulfilling to traverse the halls in some form and I definitely want to explore further in person.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Major-General Sir Alexander Cambridge, 1st Earl of Athlone & Governor-General of Canada, at the First Quebec Conference, August 1943. Photo: Wikimedia

EKW: How else should one’s brain shout historic sites? The fortifications of the city are impossible to miss, so I was excited to learn we were going on top of the walls and inside the associated structures! Again, the immersion of the virtual trip was paramount and your curated tour made it as if I was actually exploring all of the exhibits in person. Plus, your personal re-telling of the city’s history, with fun historical photographs thrown in, made it an even more valuable and enjoyable experience.   

I was also excited to explore the museum and archives at Le Monastère Des Augustines. The site, its collection, and interpretation provided me with the opportunity to learn about early healthcare practices in the community, as well as the opportunity to investigate how tourism, accommodation, wellness, and heritage can be blended in a single site. I’m glad you were able to walk its halls, albeit in your digital presence.  

SVY: Thanks! I had the ideal company. So, the big question: would you do a trip like this again?

EKW: In a heartbeat! From researching our destination, to designing experiences, and finally executing the trip, this educational experience exceeded my expectations. I was pleasantly surprised by how immersive a virtual trip could feel. Even outside of a global pandemic, I would consider completing a virtual trip prior to a physical one, as it provided such a well-rounded introduction to a city and would help inform decisions for the real deal! I think it would be an interesting experiment to try a virtual trip for a city we had not visited before to examine whether the level of immersion is equally as deep without prior memories.   

SVY: I’m right there with you (ha). This trip was awesome and like you, I’m taken aback by how effective it ended up being. Agreed about using virtual tourism to plan in-person trips. A virtual first-time visit somewhere would be intriguing … Shoutout to the power of imagination and memory, and to you, Emily, for your partnership in this worthy endeavour. Before long it’ll be time to pack our virtual suitcases for a spring adventure! If this is all the travel we have in the time of COVID, well, I’m not that mad about it anymore.

If you’ve taken a virtual trip of your own over the course of the pandemic or otherwise, we’d love to hear about it! Let us know in the comments or via social media where you “travelled” and how it went.

*We did the trip over one afternoon, but pretended there were multiple days because why not? Gotta make the most out of our fake trip, ya know… 

Our Lady Peace: The Once and Future Age of Spiritual Machines

As 2020 winds down, one of Canada’s alternative rock mainstays looks back – but only for the purposes of moving forward. As Our Lady Peace prepares to release Spiritual Machines II, the follow-up to their seminal 2000 album, it’s worth examining how the original holds up after twenty years.

By Bennison Smith 

Age of spiritual machines
10 – 15 billion years ago,
the universe is born

– “R.K. Intro”

Ray Kurzweil’s tinny narration kicks off the Spiritual Machines album – and appropriately so.

Our Lady Peace’s fourth record is loosely based on Kurzweil’s non-fiction book: The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (1999). The popular futuristic work inspired the Canadian band to churn out this concept album a mere year after the release of their third record, Happiness… Is Not A Fish That You Can Catch (1999).

They did so with Kurzweil’s blessing, as well as his input. Kurzweil (credited as “R.K.”) recorded several passages from his book as brief spoken-word excerpts for use on the album. The excerpts serve as eerie connective tissue between the album’s ten musical tracks.

The panic of the future rears
You dig, you jerk
You find another way
– “Right Behind You”

Spiritual Machines is a lot of things.

Artistically, it takes Kurzweil’s vision of a digital future populated by machines that think, feel and pray – and then runs with it.

Considering its futuristic themes, the album’s release in the first year of a new millennium was a timely one.

As well, the album served symbolically as the end of an era for Our Lady Peace.

It is the last OLP album produced by Arnold Lanni, the producer who guided the band creatively beginning with their grunge origins on the Naveed (1995) album. Shortly after the release of Naveed, the band was catapulted into sustained commercial success.

Lanni produced all four of their early records and departed after Spiritual Machines. His replacement on the Gravity (2002) album was one Bob Rock (a name which never fails to provoke a reaction across the OLP fandom).

Album cover for Spiritual Machines (2000). Photo: Wikipedia

Save for a few tracks on Gravity, Spiritual Machines is also co-founder and lead guitarist Mike Turner’s last contribution to the band – for now, anyway.

Turner’s understated approach, along with his ear for melody and timing, helped to elevate the record to a creative high the band hadn’t realized up until then – and arguably hasn’t quite realized since. Listeners should pay attention especially to the penultimate track, “If You Believe”  for an excellent example of Turner’s technical wizardry on the guitar.

Spiritual Machines represents the “old” Our Lady Peace, before the band chose another direction. And for that old OLP, it’s hard to think of a better send off than this record.

It’s also very interesting that the band, featuring an almost completely different lineup save for Raine Maida and Duncan Coutts, has chosen to embark on a sequel record with the upcoming Spiritual Machines II.

Like a machine,
I’ll fix you from the start
– “In Repair”

It is impossible to have a conversation about OLP without mentioning lead singer Raine Maida. Inevitably, such a conversation will turn to the topic of his voice.

Bassist Duncan Coutts recently acknowledged on an episode of Canadian Music Podcast that Maida’s voice is simultaneously the group’s “gift and curse.”

It is a gift because his distinctive vocal register can be instantly recognized by a listener, regardless of the style or tempo of the song Maida is performing.

For the same reasons, his voice is also a curse when the band is attempting to branch out creatively and seek new audiences.

Over his career, Maida has famously sung up and down the vocal range. Depending on the song and the record, he will sometimes sing in a deep, resonant baritone. Sometimes he will also sing in a falsetto so pronounced that the lyrics will become virtually unintelligible.

For an effective blend of both ends of the Maida scale, listeners can simply listen to his baritone and falsetto layered on top of one another in the verses of “In Repair.”

And how many times has your faith slipped away?
Well is anybody safe?
Does anybody pray?
– “Life”

Despite being a record about robots, Spiritual Machines brims with life.

“Life” is, of course, also one of the album’s big singles and a classic OLP radio anthem.

The life of the album begins with an urgent declaration of solidarity on “Right Behind You” and reaches its apex with “The Wonderful Future,” a song featuring bass and percussion that are evocative of a slow, but persistent heartbeat.

“The Wonderful Future” is a track with interesting subtext, which will be discussed in a moment.

I’m drowning inside your head
– “Are You Sad?”

For all its futurism, Spiritual Machines is still very much a product of the 1990s (i.e., on “Everyone’s a Junkie,” the lyrics contain a slightly dated reference to “endless television”).

The themes of the record, however, remain universal.

In the face of a seismic change, the record’s central narrator struggles to maintain their grip on their relationships to those closest to them. They offer solidarity (“Right Behind You”), support (“In Repair”), comfort (“Are You Sad?”) and express regret for what they couldn’t do (“Middle of Yesterday”).

The themes on the record are effectively conveyed by some of Maida, Turner and Coutts’ most proficient musical work – not to mention the work of then-drummer, Jeremy Taggart, whose distinctive performances behind the kit underpinned much of the band’s early success.

She needs to know I’m alive,
but I’m flesh and I tear
– “The Wonderful Future”

The burden of caring for other people, when their problems become your own, permeates tracks early on the record.

Caring for other human beings is a worthy cause. But it also takes a toll.

Meanwhile, by the end of the record, the narrative presents a contrasting vision with “The Wonderful Future” and its aforementioned subtext.

The song’s narrator seems to have begun a relationship of some sort with a spiritual machine. The relationship described in the song seems ethereal, maybe even vapid.

Where there were human bonds holding the narrator back earlier in the record’s narrative, they instead seem elevated by the bond they have formed with this machine, whether it be one of simple friendship or something else.

On “Middle of Yesterday” the narrator was full of regret for doing wrong by another person they once cared for. At that midway point of the album, they seemed to be hopeful for a resolution of some kind. But on “The Wonderful Future” they don’t seem to care anymore now that an angelic machine of some sort is in their life instead.

How we, as listeners, are supposed to feel about this narrative development is naturally open to interpretation. But it’s a significant note to end the album on before the last Kurzweil spoken word track (“R.K. and Molly”) is slipped in for good measure.

Does the album’s narrative imply that society itself is headed on a parallel path to the narrator regarding its relationship with technology, digitization and artificial intelligence?

And does that path represent an ascension as a society?

Or perhaps a downward spiral?

We will have to see if the band is up for tackling these questions – and more – on Spiritual Machines II in 2021.


Bennison Smith is a budding Our Lady Peace superfan. One of the highlights of his fandom so far was being asked multiple times to “please sing a little quieter” by fellow audience members at an OLP concert. Bennison’s fandom for OLP began in earnest with the Burn Burn (2009) album and has only grown since. He was pleased, but not terribly surprised, to be recognized by the Spotify algorithm for placing in the top 0.5% of Our Lady Peace listeners on their platform.

Bennison’s conclusive rankings of all things Our Lady Peace:

Favourite OLP album: Spiritual Machines (2000), of course
Least favourite OLP album: Healthy in Paranoid Times (2005)
Favourite OLP song: “Blister”
Favourite Raine Maida look: the long-haired days of the “Fear of the Trailer Park” tour circa 2002/2003

The Secret Life of Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier’s photography was discovered after her death, raising questions about who the elusive artist was and what drove her work. Yet continued interest in her work and private life raise further questions about artistry and privacy.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Who is Vivian Maier? That’s one of the main questions posed by the documentary Finding Vivian Maier. These days, Vivian Maier is recognized as one of the great American street photographers of the twentieth century. But prior to her death in 2009, she was completely unknown to the world at large and her life remains something of a mystery.

Self-portrait of Vivian Maier. Photo: Maloof Collection.

After discovering a cache of photo negatives at an auction in Chicago in 2007, amateur historian and collector John Maloof realized he had unwittingly purchased the unpublished work of a brilliant street photographer, with thousands of beautiful photos taken in the streets of Chicago and New York in the ’50s and ’60s. Maloof eventually published the negatives he’d acquired to Flickr and through the power of the Internet, Maier’s work went viral. It’s now shown in art galleries worldwide.

New York, NY. Photo: Maloof Collection.

Maier took over 150,000 photos in her lifetime but spent the majority of her life—about forty years, to be exact—working as a nanny in the Chicago area, her talent and artistry hidden away along with boxes and boxes of unprinted negatives.

The story of a nanny who secretly took thousands of breathtaking photos was so compelling that it drove Maloof to obsession in trying to pin down the woman behind the camera, which he documents in his film. What emerges through interviews with the now-grown children Maier once nannied is a portrait of an artist who was strange, elusive, cruel, secretive, difficult, cold, radical, caring, brilliant. In short, complicated. Like all human beings are.   

1959, Grenoble, France. Photo: Maloof Collection.

What also emerges are enduring questions about the nature of art and artistry, of discovery and privacy and consent. Maloof, of course, has profited greatly from his discovery and subsequent exhibition of Maier’s photographs—something Maier herself, who was practically destitute before her death, could obviously have benefitted from. But, as people who knew her are quick to point out, she was intensely private and likely would have hated the attention that comes with fame and recognition.

Then again, she’s no longer around to have a say in the matter, so is there really any harm in making her work and her life known?

The work is one thing. It’s as brilliant as everyone says. Maier was prolific and genuinely talented. A true artist with a keen eye, who was never without her camera and who had a knack for capturing humanity in all its beauty, absurdity, warmth, and ugliness.

September 1953. New York, NY. Photo: Maloof Collection.

Her life, and the speculation about it, is another. What right have we to know the ins and outs of this very private person’s life? It has little bearing on the mark of her work. Maloof wants to get to the bottom of the mystery of Vivian Maier. Why did she take so many photographs? Why did she never publish them? Why did she hoard newspapers and take particular interest in grisly stories of murder and depravity? Why did she remain “just” a nanny throughout her life? These are questions that can never be fully answered. And probably they shouldn’t be. A lot of them make assumptions about who and what a woman, and a woman artist in particular, should be.

The question that persists, which Maloof asks again and again in the film, is: why didn’t Maier put her work out there? It’s a good question, one that begs to be answered. Why wouldn’t an artist want the fame and fortune that we tend to think all artists are entitled to?

The answer is, we’ll never know. What Maier wanted and intended to do with her own art is something no one can answer. Why she chose to hoard her countless rolls of film will remain a mystery. But that’s as it should be. We’re not supposed to have all the answers.

April 7, 1960. Florida. Photo: Maloof Collection.

Diane Arbus once said that “a photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” And the more we learn about Vivian Maier, the less we seem to know about her. But she was a person, not an object to be unraveled, poked and prodded, sensationalized.

While I’m grateful that Maier’s work was made public, because I wouldn’t have been exposed to her stunning photography otherwise, I also believe that art doesn’t have to be commercialized or publicized in order to be great art.

Think of all the kitchen sink poets and hobbyist painters and bedroom guitar heroes and secret photographers out there, quietly making art for themselves. Art isn’t a rarefied domain, closed off to those who can’t afford to make it—or at least, it shouldn’t be. Art is how we make sense of our own experience and the world around us. It’s for everyone and it’s being made by everyone, each in their own way, as we speak. Art is not a privilege. It’s a human necessity.

It’s a good thing that Vivian Maier is finally getting the recognition she rightly deserves, even in death. God knows strange, difficult women rarely get the same appreciation afforded to their male counterparts. Still, people will always love to speculate about the private lives of public figures. But ultimately it’s the work that matters most. Regardless of who she was and what she did, Vivian Maier’s photos will continue to speak for themselves.

January, 1953. New York, NY. Photo: Maloof Collection.

 

1917: Walking in a Soldier’s Boots

Cinematography and sound in the film 1917 take us through the trials of World War I soldiers on a visceral level. There’s no better way to empathize with those who fought in the trenches than seemingly embarking on their journey ourselves – thanks to sensory storytelling techniques.

By Serena Ypelaar

Another Remembrance Day has passed, albeit very differently this year. With the COVID-19 pandemic surging in parts of Canada and worldwide, we weren’t able to gather at town squares and city halls with veterans in the same way. We weren’t out as much; we didn’t see as many poppies on each other’s lapels. But all this aside, we can still pay tribute to those who made sacrifices for our freedom. Especially now, the theme of sacrifice is crucial as we try to protect each other by staying apart.

I’ve written about this before: no matter the politics of war, its toll on our fellow humans is something we can all recognize. We feel it through devastation, through loss, through grief, glory, and gratitude.

It’s often said that the best way to understand someone’s struggle is to walk a mile in their shoes. One film that does an excellent job of putting us in a soldier’s boots is Sam Mendes’ 2019 war film, 1917. The film is critically acclaimed for its immersive powers, having won Academy Awards for Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Sound Mixing, on top of seven other nominations, including for Best Picture. Having seen it at the start of this year, I was captivated by the cinematic techniques that told the story.

Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) lead us on a tense journey through no man’s land, illustrating both the horrors and the human aspect of war. Photo: Roger Ebert

1917 follows two young lance corporals in the British army during World War I. William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are given a do-or-die mission in northern France. The duo must trek across the treacherous no man’s land to prevent a different British battalion from launching a planned attack, which would play right into a German ambush if it were to go ahead. Schofield and Blake must get there within 24 hours, before the attack is scheduled to take place. They’re sent off with a terse warning: “If you fail, it will be a massacre”.

George MacKay as Lance Corporal Schofield in 1917 (2019). Photo: Vulture

The ensuing story is harrowing enough on its own, bluntly depicting the theatre of war and the horrors that come with it. Death, violence, poverty, destruction – we know what to expect from a war film, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing when it’s before our eyes, or ringing in our ears. Now imagine actually being there in person. We don’t need to work hard to do so, because the film’s cinematography (in the capable hands of Roger Deakins) situates us right alongside Schofield and Blake as if we were walking, running, climbing, and crawling with them. We’re made to feel like we’re right there thanks to incredibly long takes – the whole film looks as if it were filmed in one continuous shot. It wasn’t, but it might as well have been; it seems impossible to distinguish where takes end because they span minutes, each take cleverly shifting into the next.

Photo: Ourculture

As a result, 1917 comes across as a progression of events in real-time – much as you might walk through a field yourself, for instance. Even if you blink, your view doesn’t cut to various images in succession – you’re likely to take in your surroundings more gradually, organically. You might also get swept up in the sounds of your environment. Likewise, the film replicates empirical observation intuitively, thanks to the long takes and sound mixing. Perhaps my analogy makes assumptions about accessibility, but my point is that we’re made to follow Schofield and Blake through no man’s land directly: the film is linear, never using the same location twice. There are no omissions from the action unfolding in front of us, thereby absorbing us into a rawness that feels like the present. The result is an immersive experience (my favourite phrase). We desperately hope the soldiers will get there in time, and it’s that suspense that helps to pull us in.

Using clever transitions from one long take to another, 1917 creates the illusion of one continuous shot – and in so doing, makes us feel as though we are right in the middle of the battlefields.

“That was my battle every day; to marry something that technically had to be incredibly precise with performances that felt spontaneous and real and a little rough around the edges, and not in any way robotic or preplanned or over-rehearsed. And to make sure that the technical scale of it didn’t overwhelm the human story … to make sure those two things could coexist without one destroying the other.”

Sam Mendes, Director
Photo: Ourculture

1917 isn’t based on a particular battle, and all its characters are fictional. This could be any World War I battlefield, any soldiers – what matters is that they’re human, like us. The casting of relative newcomers MacKay and Chapman in the lead roles gives the film an air of anonymity and grim humility; the narrative doesn’t chase glory or pride. Like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), 1917 is sober in tone, illustrating war on an intimate, human level: the story of a few individuals. Notably, 1917 balances low-profile leads with the high-profile casting of the military officers: Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, and Richard Madden. Yet they have about five minutes’ screen time each, because it’s not the generals that carry this film; it’s the average soldier.

Likewise, when remembering war, we’re not just remembering conflicts between faraway countries, a long time ago (there are people living through war right now). We have to remember the enduring humanity, the selflessness and courage of veterans and civilians over a sustained period of time – even through the inhumanity of war. It’s something that 1917 illustrates very well through its cinematography, casting, and pacing. The heightened uncertainty of global situations (be it war or pandemic) underscores just how much each person’s contribution can mean in the greater scheme of things.

So by watching films like this, by simply paying attention for a while, we can honour their sacrifices.

Black Lives Matter in the Arts and Humanities too.

The Mindful Rambler blog shares BIPOC-focused arts content and commits to more inclusive discussions regarding the arts and humanities.

2020 continues to demonstrate that it’s a time of great change. Over the past weeks, we’ve witnessed and taken part in the Black Lives Matter movement as it’s unfolded – and we’ve been listening, learning, and reflecting with specific regard to our work as a blog that highlights history, literature, art, and biography.

The truth is, the majority of storytellers and creatives celebrated in the mainstream media are white. We must do more to include diverse perspectives in literature and art beyond just the western canon and “mainstream” history, and talk more about issues in society today – because the humanities don’t exist in a vacuum. Our studies are influenced by the world around us, including the world’s inequalities. In our previous blog posts, we’ve analyzed culture and race – albeit mainly focusing on Indigenous cultural heritage in Canada. We’ve also run posts featuring prominent LGBTQ2S+ individuals, and will continue to do so. However, we haven’t really touched upon anti-Blackness that is present across the disciplines we discuss. It is 2020 and yet the experiences of racialized communities continue to be dismissed and disregarded; queer identities continue to be questioned and invalidated. We cannot overlook the imbalances of power which allow racism, homophobia, sexism, and discrimination to thrive.

Mickalene Thomas, “Portrait of Mnonja” (2010) at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture (Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery). Photo: Adam Fagen

Together as a team, we’ve assembled some articles and social media amplifying the voices and stories of BIPOC creatives, sharing content which discusses race through the contemporary lens of today’s vantage point, as well as content reviewing historical sensibilities and their implications. This article is not intended as a one-time contribution to the ongoing discussion, but rather as a commitment to more inclusive storytelling on this blog moving forward – laying the groundwork of what we’re learning from this movement and applying it. We’d love to hear from you if you know of any resources we could add to this list – the learning process continues every day.

Some content about BIPOC cultural heritage & creative industries

Forgotten Black British Histories | “There is an oversimplification of Black British history”
Akinola Davies

Why I made the series “Black to Life” | “This is British history and not just Black British history”
Akinola Davies

12 Black Scholars on the Black Lives Matter Movement and Canada | “Black scholars in Canada have engaged with public audiences to help contextualize how racism is very much a Canadian problem”
Active History

British Rapper Dave performing “Black” at the BRIT Awards 2020 | “The least racist is still racist”
Dave

A guide to supporting Black trans artists in Philly and beyond | “Black Trans Lives Matter, too, and it’s important that we elevate and listen to those voices”
Kyle V. Hiller

Open Letter to Hollywood from WGAW Committee of Black Writers | “Black writers have been critically underrepresented … at the expense of consistently authentic and diverse storytelling”
Michelle Amor, Hilliard Guess, Bianca Sams, Writers’ Guild of America West

The Skin I’m In | “I’ve been interrogated by police more than 50 times—all because I’m black”
Desmond Cole

Watch Documentary: The Skin We’re In | “Do Black lives matter here [in Canada]?”
Desmond Cole

Why I Teach About Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World | “People are more comfortable with antiquity being racist (and sexist and classist) than they are with it being diverse”
Rebecca Futo Kennedy, Eidolon

Hell is for White People | “A painting from 1515 turns a mirror on its viewers
Alexander Nagel, Cabinet Magazine

Money Talks: About Racism in Canada | “These faces found in our wallets … had a direct hand in harming Canadian citizens who did not fit their ideal image”
Ryan Pilling

Powerful Photos of Black Women in White European Nobility Gowns | Interview
Fabiola Jean-Louis, interviewed by Jessica Stewart

Why It’s So Important that Juneteenth Become a National Holiday | “A national Juneteenth observance can affirm that Black Lives Matter”
Usher

Black authors are on all the bestseller lists right now. But publishing doesn’t pay them enough.
Constance Grady

Kehinde Wiley’s Trickster | Vivid portraits of artists – in pictures
Kehinde Wiley, featured by Guardian staff

Kendrick Sampson, Tessa Thompson and Over 300 Black Artists & Execs Call for Hollywood to Divest From Police | “Hollywood encourages the epidemic of police violence and culture of anti-Blackness”
Kendrick Sampson

Some BIPOC creatives to check out on Instagram

This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are a few BIPOC creatives whose accounts we follow. Please let us know in the comments about more creatives whose accounts we should follow!

reenactorsofcolor | “Acknowledging & celebrating people of color who participate in living history & their historical inspiration.”

dandywellington | “Bandleader #DandyWellingtonBand, producer, style activist. #VintageStyleNOTVintageValues

notyourmommashistory | “Public Historian, Performance Artist, Historical Interpreter, Activist and Abolitionist”

vintageblackcanada | “A Multidisciplinary Creative Initiative Documenting the Transnational Modern History of the African Diaspora in Canada. © Curator @mraaronfrancis

georgian_diaspora | Museum of historic images of multi-ethnic peoples. #history #arthistory #diaspora #fashionhistory #curator

youngsewphisticate | “Seamstress, Weaver & Living Historian”

fabiolajeanlouis | “Haitian Born | New York based | Photographer | Paper Artist | Designer | Interdisciplinary Maker”

jeremydutcher | Musician

blairimani | “Black & bisexual & Muslim. Cohost of @AmericaDidWhat w/ @katerobards | Historian & Author of #MakingourWayHome & @modernherstory. She/Her.”

time.travel.is.possible | “Living History Interpreter | Sharing my love and passion for living history one post at a time”

wearefempire | “Championing female CEOs of minority ethnicities. Helping #DIYentrepreneurs & creatives to scale | Workshops, PanelTalks & The Fempire Sisterhood.”

wu_tsang | Artist

magthehistorian | “Public Historian, Historical Interpreter, Activist, World traveler (He, Him, His) #worldtraveler #livinghistorian #blackhistorian”

shoesfirstthencorset | Glynnis

chippewar | “Jay Soule aka CHIPPEWAR
Chippewas Of The Thames First Nation | Art, Apparel, Indigenize

tiger.lilys.threads | Entrepreneur

mickalenethomas | Artist | Photographer | Filmmaker | Curator | Co-Founder @deuxfemmesnoires

kehindewiley | Artist

scificheergirl | “Hobby costumer, wife, and mom with a dancey-dance problem | Costume Prodigy | Orko #motu2020crew”

labelladonnahistory | “Sociologist. Biologist. Traveler. Thinker. Dreamer. SCA Laurel. #Rievocazione Storica (14th / 15th C living history of Italian city-states).”

thevintageguidebook | “Ayana | Writer & vintage/historical fashion enthusiast | Midcentury & pre-WWII | sewing | books | makeup #vintagestylenotvintagevalues”

broadwayblack | “A theatre enthusiast who fosters artistic diversity & excellence for the love of Black theatre artists. Folk call me Drew Shade! #broadwayblack

museummammy | “author, art lover, and fashion person | currently learning ASL | my book “this is what i know about art” is out now & my book “black futures” is out soon”

blkemilydickinson | “Cree Myles | She/her | I read and start shit”

tawnychatmon | “Photography based artist. Please see links in my profile to stay involved”

Canadian Music Picks 2020: Indigenous

Canada Day is a time to reflect on the creation of this country, including the colonial legacies that remain. We’ve picked songs by Indigenous musicians to celebrate Indigenous arts and facilitate a deeper awareness of the complexities of this holiday.

By Serena Ypelaar

This should have been the first Canadian Music Picks playlist.

Back in 2018 when we started this segment with the “Canadian Music Starter Pack”, we shared top picks from musicians across the country, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to mark Canada Day.

But despite the celebrations every July 1, Canada Day is a painful reminder to many – of the trauma of forced removals, residential schools, the outlawing of cultural practices, and the other instruments of colonialism that were used in an effort to control and assimilate Indigenous peoples who have been here on the land long before European colonists arrived. The fact is that cultural genocide took place in Canada to achieve the Confederation of 1867 that many still celebrate today.

Yes, Canada became a nation 153 years ago today. But at what cost to Indigenous peoples, the rightful occupants of this land? If you’re uncomfortable thinking about this today, imagine feeling uncomfortable or unsafe every day, or living in a place that has been hostile to your very existence here.

In this year’s Canada Day playlist, we honour Indigenous peoples who have lived on this land since time immemorial. We celebrate Indigenous musicians from diverse nations and cultures, each with their own stories to tell, whose talents weave tales of resilience, love, suffering, strength, retribution, compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

A Tribe Called Red at CBC Music Festival at Echo Beach in 2018. Photo: Mac Downey

On Canada Day, you may feel proud and grateful, you may feel uncomfortable or sad; you may feel any or all of these things and beyond. Take a listen to our playlist – and in so doing, take a moment to acknowledge the complexities of Canadian history and listen to the perspectives of these Indigenous artists. The Mindful Rambler is pleased to share the playlist here and on Spotify.

Canadian Music Picks: Indigenous

The Virus – A Tribe Called Red, Saul Williams, Chippewa Travellers
Toothsayer – Tanya Tagaq
I Can’t Remember My Name – Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Kimmortal
Healers – iskwē
Someone Call An Angel Down – Derek Miller
Takugiursugit – Beatrice Deer
Generation – Buffy Sainte-Marie
Big Crow – DJ Shub ft. Black Lodge Singers
Havava – The Jerry Cans
Evil Memory – Crystal Shawanda
Oqiton – Jeremy Dutcher
Mixed Blood Lullaby – Jani Lauzon
Arnaq – Elisapie
Warpath – Drezus
Tiny Hands – Quantum Tangle
Remembrance – Robbie Robertson
Stay Strong – Kelly Fraser
Pieces – Leonard Sumner
All Night – Digging Roots
Soul Angel – Tom Jackson
Tavva – Riit
Better Place – Winnipeg Boyz
Spirit Child – Willie Thrasher
Nutarâsuk – Deantha Edmunds
Suffer in Silence – Susan Aglukark
I Pity the Country – Willie Dunn
Hay in the Loft / Six Nations Reel – Métis Fiddler Quartet
Bring the Thunder – Northern Cree
copper – nêhiyawak
Modern Rock – Saddle Lake Drifting Cowboys
Proud Métis – Arlette Alcock
Halfbreed Blues – Andrea Menard
Jungle Night – Joey Stylez, Carsen Gray
Rolling Thunder – Leela Gilday
ALie Nation – A Tribe Called Red, John Trudell, Tanya Tagaq, Lido Pimienta, Northern Voice

Commodifying the California Dream

In our latest guest post, Ann Davis of Travelbloom explores California’s significance in the AMC drama Mad Men, including the cultural contrast between east and west in the 1960s and 1970s.

By Ann Davis

Warning: this article contains spoilers from Mad Men, including its seventh and final season.

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? … reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay”. In the first episode of Mad Men, Don Draper establishes his personal ethos when it comes to advertising. Unbeknownst to his peers, this ethos rests in stark contrast to Don’s personal struggle: he is unable to accept himself, represses his past, and is therefore a profoundly unhappy person. So where does one go to find acceptance in the 1960s? Not to New York City, where the majority of Mad Men takes place, but rather west, to California. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, California became emblematic of modern thinking and bohemian ideals, a hotspot for counterculture, the way of the future. Likewise, in Mad Men, Los Angeles is a city full of hope and potential, a symbolic contrast to New York.

Don’s New York style is entirely out of place in California, showing the culture clash between east and west coast. Photo: Screencap from Mad Men

Don Draper is an east coast ad man who struggles to adapt to a changing industry, as his internal struggles inhibit him from changing with the times. During periods of duress – marital issues, career trouble, identity crisis – he goes west, seeking escape in the Sunshine State. California is depicted as an idyllic dreamscape, both within the universe of Mad Men and on a meta-textual level. It’s aesthetically beautiful: sunshine, palm trees, blue skies, swimming pools, bikinis, bohemian fashion. Bohemian is a key word when it comes to 1960s California. Don’s first visit to Los Angeles is disrupted by his involvement with a group of people who encapsulate this California fantasy: wealthy, educated drifters who lounge poolside, take drugs, and have casual sex with each other. A woman invites Don to join them. “Who are you?”, he asks. “I’m Joy”, she replies (S2E11). When the Madison Avenue ad men need to escape reality, they go west to the fantasy world of California.

Part of what makes California so idealized is that it’s a place of acceptance. Behaviour that deviates from the status quo is part of the west coast fantasy. But for Don Draper, California is home to the ultimate symbol of acceptance: Anna. Anna Draper knows Don’s biggest secret: he is not Don Draper. During the Korean War, he stole the identity of his dead commanding officer (Anna’s husband) in order to secure a better life for himself. Anna’s forgiveness and reassurance that what he is doing is okay allows Don to be at peace with himself when he visits her. However, acceptance from others does not equate to self-acceptance, and Don struggles to capture the same feelings of acceptance in California after Anna’s death in Season 4. After visiting California for a highly unsuccessful business trip in Season 6, he laments “I don’t know what happened … I usually feel better out there” (S6E10).

It is only with Anna that Don is able to reconcile with himself. Photo: Tumblr

He tries to reconstruct the California fantasy with his secretary-turned-wife Megan Calvet. Though initially living and working with Don in New York, Megan moves to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. Through her own participation in the California dream, she transforms from Don’s idealized wife to a self-actualized woman. When Don is fired in New York, he seeks solace in California, offering to finally move in with Megan in Los Angeles. By this point, Megan does not offer Don the same unconditional acceptance that Anna Draper offered, and he is not welcome. The two divorce. Without unconditional acceptance from another, California is no longer refuge for Don, and he must seek this acceptance elsewhere.

Megan’s character transformation is emphasized through costume design. As she embraces the California lifestyle, her fashion follows suit. Photo: Screencaps from Mad Men

Don’s search begins on the east coast, where he opens up about his past in an effort to pitch an ad to Hershey’s. Rigid east coast companies are unwilling to accept deviance from the status quo, and Don is subsequently suspended from his ad agency. With nowhere else to go, Don ventures west one final time, eventually following Anna Draper’s niece to a spiritual retreat in the hills outside of Los Angeles. The Esalen-like retreat exemplifies California’s bohemian, progressive attitudes of self-acceptance and spiritual enlightenment. It is here, during the series finale, that Don bares his soul to Peggy, his protégé, and experiences catharsis during a confessional seminar. It is here, in the sunshine of California, that Don accepts himself and is able to reassure himself that what he is doing is okay. He is okay.

Don achieves self-acceptance by embracing California. The strong visual cues in Mad Men’s final scene emphasize this shift to the west coast. Photo: AMC

It is here that he realizes the value of self-acceptance, the bohemian movement, and the California fantasy.

The California fantasy will sell Coca-Cola, and we will buy it.

This Coca-Cola advertisement is the final impression we’re left with, at the end of Mad Men.

Ann Davis is a digital content creator from Ottawa. Currently based in Nottingham, England, she founded Travelbloom in 2019 to document her move from Canada to the UK. You can find more of her work here.

“We Cannot Speak Other Than By Our Paintings”

Vincent van Gogh is one of the most renowned painters in the world. In a stunning visual undertaking, Loving Vincent pays tribute to the artist by reinterpreting his paintings in the world’s first painted feature-length film.

By Serena Ypelaar

Moviegoers often remember visually stunning films for years to come. Beautiful cinematography, outstanding production, and vivid imagery stays with us – that much is certainly true with the biopic Loving Vincent (2017), a feature-length film about Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh.

A still of Vincent van Gogh as depicted in Loving Vincent (2017). Photo: Medium

Starring Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan, Chris O’Dowd, Helen McCrory, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jerome Flynn, Aidan Turner, and Robert Gulaczyk, Loving Vincent is a Polish-British co-production exploring the end of Van Gogh’s life. Though the film’s pacing is somewhat drawn-out at times and the plot is speculative, it stands out for one reason: it was entirely hand-painted in the style of Van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh, “Wheat Fields at Auvers Under Clouded Sky” (1890). Image: Wikiart

Loving Vincent is the first feature-length painting animation film in the world. 94 of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings were reimagined for the film, along with new visuals. Dorota Kobiela, the film’s co-director alongside Hugh Welchman, launched the project after reading Van Gogh’s letters. She felt a profound desire to tell his story by capturing his art and its subject matter from a biographical perspective. Kobiela thought it was only right that the film should be painted. Despite pitching a seven-minute short film in 2008 and having been told it would be impossible to pursue a feature-length film, Kobiela started a successful crowdfunding campaign and set to work.

You may wonder how paintings can integrate seamlessly as a film. Surely they were supplemented with computer-generated imagery (CGI)? The answer is no – the actors performed their roles and CGI was only used to supplement the visuals captured on film, as well as to add the movement of the backgrounds. However, none of that footage was really used in the final cut of the film, which was entirely comprised of paintings. Every single frame was its own painting, with 12 frames per second. That’s 66,960 frames – which means just as many individual paintings were created by hand.

From left: Eleanor Tomlinson during the live-action filming phase; Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Adeline Ravoux (1890); the final keyframe for “Loving Vincent”. Photo: Loving Vincent
Vincent van Gogh, “Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin” (1888). Image: Wikiart

Production took place largely in Gdańsk, Poland, with 80 highly skilled painters recruited from worldwide to paint each frame of the film. These paintings interpret the story of Van Gogh, diverting us from details we’ll never know for sure and redirecting our attention to the essence of his visual art. The delivery of this film is what captivates us – its sense of movement brings Van Gogh’s work to life. Some of the famous paintings used in the film had to be extended or reimagined; Van Gogh used many different sizes of canvas for his works, whereas the film had to be one frame size. Producers also changed some colour palettes of well-known paintings on a seasonal basis, as Loving Vincent takes place in summer.

For the sake of authenticity, actors who closely resembled Van Gogh’s portrait sitters were cast – though their questionable accents and pronunciation slightly hamper the film’s impact. There are no French accents to be heard, though the film is set in France, and Van Gogh does not sound Dutch – the actors also anglicize the pronunciation of Van Gogh’s brother Theo’s name (which would be “Tay-OH” in Dutch). If these slight details were presented more accurately, the film could be even more absorbing; it’s definitely a tad distracting to hear the dissonant accents. Nevertheless, the true marvel lies in the visual spectacle.

Chris O’Dowd as Postman Roulin in “Loving Vincent” (2017). Each frame of the film required an individual painting. Image: Loving Vincent

How might Van Gogh feel if he saw this film? Would he be flattered, touched, or feel it invasive? Some may question the artists’ approach of directly imitating Van Gogh’s style, from his signature brushstrokes to the colours that grew more vivid over his career. In fact, there is a long-standing tradition whereby painters engage in artistic “schools” of thought or technique. You may have seen portraits “in the style of” Hans Holbein the Younger, for instance, or heard of numerous students of Rembrandt van Rijn. Even today, artists often have a team of painters who do some of the work when creating large-scale paintings. With this in mind, it might therefore be an oversimplification to call Loving Vincent‘s paintings plagiarism rather than an act of reinterpretation.

Vincent van Gogh, “The Night Café” (1888). Image: Wikipedia

Whatever your opinion on a brigade of artists painting literal thousands of Van Gogh-esque paintings – whether you think they’re a form of uncanny talent, plagiarism, or a bit of both – the production team working on this biopic took the ultimate risk, both financially and creatively. Loving Vincent could have been a flop; it could have been poorly executed (some may think it is). But I feel it’s a gorgeous treat for the eyes, one that pays tribute to Vincent van Gogh the best way it knows how: by bringing his paintings to life.

As Vincent himself said in his penultimate letter to his brother Theo (which was found on Van Gogh’s body after his death): “We cannot speak other than by our paintings”. If anyone lived up to that edict, it was certainly Van Gogh. He constructed the most beautiful scenes for us, telling stories in landscapes and portraits we still love over a century later – all through his paintings.