Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Fighting Ageing Every Step of the Way: Ben Babchishin's Short Videos on Music and Ageing

Bill Bourne, in a scene from For the Record Featuring… Bill Bourne.

I first came across the filmmaker Ben Babchishin on the Internet. It’s complicated. Master folk muscian Bill Bourne was playing in town at The Pearl Company and I had agreed to go to see him. That day my wife was out of town, so when I got home from work I took her car to run a couple errands. I drove up to the used CD shop in town to pick up something I had ordered, and as I turned left I was t-boned by a teenaged girl who was late for work. “Don’t call the police,” she begged. It was her second accident in a month. As I looked at my wife’s car, the rear passenger door bent neatly in half, I was glad not to be hurt, but wondered how I would ever explain this. The car and I limped home; I spent 2 hours on the phone with insurance companies, and thought … I’m not going out tonight. Then I decided that music might be healing, and took my car to The Pearl Company. My ride there was tentative, every intersection a challenge … but by the end to the night, Bourne and his band had cheered me up. My wife’s car was still a mess when I got home.

I was taken by Bourne, bought his Bluesland CD, and found it enjoyable. I was searching for the name of his guitar player on the Internet when I discovered a DVD called For the Record Featuring … Bill Bourne. I contacted the site, and quickly had a reply from Ben Babchishin, the filmmaker. He offered to send me a copy. He asked me about other music I liked. He told me about another film he’d made for Bravo TV, Mae Moore & Lester Quitzau: In Their Own Backyard. When I told him that I knew about Quitzau and Moore he said he would send that film too. He told me about some of the roadblocks he encountered too. When he suggested to the producers at Bravo he wanted to do a documentary on Valdy, they had replied, “Unhunh … who’s Valdy?”

When the films came I watched them immediately. The filmmaking was intimate and warm. Babchishin had empathy for these musicians. He understood the creative process. His subjects seemed comfortable in the presence of his cameras and crew. That’s a real talent. The Bourne video showed the creation of the Bluesland CD, the rehearsals and recording sessions. It was fascinating. There was a bit too much fast cutting and mixing black and white with colour footage for little or no reason, which has become so popular in modern documentaries (and feature films, for that matter). I recall a beautiful, long single tracking shot in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975). Though directors like DePalma, Scorsese and Joe Wright (Atonement, 2007) still expertly practice this technique, too many others feverishly cut their images to ribbons, including Babchishin here. I was impressed, however, with the audio on the video. The music sounded more immediate and raw than the CD mix, more like the wonderful live sound at The Pearl Company. The passion of Bill Bourne in the interview portions reminded me of his between-song patter.

I continued to receive e-mails from Babchishin. He was working on another project, a series of short films about the ageing process. Not quite documentary, not really comedy, these films were released to YouTube as they were finished. The links to episodes one, two and three appeared in his e-mails. I sent one to a friend who was turning fifty. He said he watched it waiting for the punch-line. There was no punch-line, simply an ending which made you think, “Hmmm.”

Babchishin’s crew at work
Some of the episodes were man-on-the-street interviews, others were re-enactments of events in the lives of people from (let’s face it) my generation who simply don’t want to get old. Get old? Heck, we don’t even want to grow up. In many ways we’re the Peter Pan generation. I don’t feel that much different than I did in the late ‘60s, and the ‘70s when the music was so foundational to life as we know it, and … ummm … beer was 20 cents a glass! OK, you get nothin' for 20 cents nowadays, and all my joints hurt, but I still love The Rolling Stones! One episode of Babchishin’s series shows a mother and father going out on date night to a heavy metal concert. They change into their black t-shirts at the arena!

One man on the street is asked why his generation refuses to get old. He says flat out, “I don’t plan on growing up!” He is dressed in t-shirt, shades, a baseball cap, and proclaims, “I got my eyebrow pierced to flip-off Father Time!” He did this for his fiftieth birthday. Another episode wonders if women between the ages of 45-60 can be sexy. And then proceeds to answer, “Sure, if they have their hair and makeup done at this salon, and have pictures taken in skimpy lingerie.” This is flat-out wrong. When I look across the grocery store and spy my wife of nearly 40 years I am still overwhelmed that this beautiful woman is married to me.

Singer-songwriter Ian Thomas is one year older than me. He recently had knee replacement surgery, and is on a mix of medications for a variety of ailments. At a concert on Saturday night he made many jokes about it. Rock band pharmaceuticals take on a completely different meaning at this age. Ian still rocked the joint, and a splendid time was had by all. We’re ageing, but we have never become old just because it was the thing to do. My mother and father seemed older than we do now when they were only 30 years old. Think about it.

Whether recording the creative process of a Canadian musician, or documenting the ageing population, Babchishin has a clever mind and a sharp eye. The presentation of his films on YouTube is a marvellous idea which should provide an audience far beyond a pay-TV specialty channel. Norma Desmond’s quote from Sunset Boulevard has reached its ultimate conclusion, the artist is big, it’s the ‘pictures’ that got small.

Here's the link to Babchishin's ageing documentaries on YouTube.

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at http://rylander-rylander.blogspot.com. He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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