Programmers’ Picks are back and our third pick is by Special Projects Programmer Scott Fitzpatrick! We’ll be sharing all four of our Programmers’ Picks so stay tuned and make sure to add these to your list!
I was recently introduced to the film work of UK-based artist Bea Haut at the PRISME festival in Nantes this past winter. She was there showing two short 16mm films: Pending, an audience-reliant projection-performance, and Drag, a wildly clever meditation on couch disposal (and one of the best films I’ve seen in years). Both Drag and Pending investigate simple domestic action with handmade 16mm filmmaking techniques and a wickedly charming punk-DIY sensibility. Both films will screen at the GFF in the first-ever Canadian retrospective of Bea’s work, Mattering & Uttering, along with NINE additional short films, and Bea will be present to introduce and discuss the work. This will also be the first-ever all 16mm program to show at the Gimli Film Festival, so this is truly a must-see event! AND you’ll be able to catch an even trickier version of the Pending performance at our Saturday night Cinema Outside the Box special program! Buy your tickets here!
One of my favourite projects we’ll be presenting at the GFF this year is Damien Ferland’s comedy web series Hyper-Distracted, which you’ll be able to catch in its entirety, tucked away in some very special spots throughout Gimli. Damien is a natural and singular story-teller, and also a magnet for misadventure. In Hyper-Distracted, he details what seems like an improbable number of Larry David-ian encounters and mishaps, awkward social happenings, and firings from a myriad of jobs. The series is impressively economic, eschewing standard narrative filmmaking techniques in favour of on-location monologues delivered straight to the camera by our protagonist, edited with whip-smart comedic timing. Check out the “Finding-Ferland” map in our program guide for where to catch all 13 episodes.
Jael Jacobo and Ezequiel Guido will be joining us all the way from Mexico City for our special Cinema Outside the Boxprogram on Saturday night, where they’ll be presenting the Canadian premiere of their dual-16mm expanded cinema performance GLYPH. Using hand-drawn animation on 16mm film, GLYPH activates pre-historic, pre-hispanic petroglyphic images and symbols found in the Guerrero and Michoacan areas of Mexico, engraved and carved into stone. The piece succeeds brilliantly at navigating the liminal space between representation and abstraction, exploring ancestry through semiotics, and delivering a unique and psychotropic filmgoing experience, and I can’t wait to see it performed at the Gimli Film Festival!
Our short films programmer Stephanie Berrington has curated a truly knockout program this year with A Look in the Mirror, featuring two of my favourite local and international short films in recent memory. To open the program, Winnipeg-based artist Allison Stevens will show her powerful video essay Love Starved: More than Fat, with live narration. In the piece, Allison exhumes childhood journals, medical records and a lifetime of personal experience, to investigate the shame so often associated with reconciling one’s image of their body. It’s a brutally honest and thrilling piece of filmmaking, buoyed by Allison’s passionately delivered live narration. From Austria, Ink In Milk is a beautifully tender new short film by artist Gernot Wieland, which I was lucky enough to catch at the European Media Art Festival earlier this year. The film uses a combination of childlike illustration and super 8mm photography to weave a poetic narrative regarding childhood memory, gender performance, pain, sorrow, solidarity, and the healing power of forming oneself into crystalline shapes. Ink In Milk made me cry like a baby, and I can’t wait to catch it again in this tremendous shorts program, along with Allison’s video and even more killer work by Penny Lane, Chanelle Lajoie, Nazli Dincel, Heidi Phillips, and more. THIS PROGRAM IS STACKED!
Check out Scott Fitzpatrick’s playlist he made inspired by GFF 2019!
High School Sessions
a playlist for the Gimli Film Festival
“It feels so scary getting old.” (Lorde, Ribs)
I love high school movies and all of their attendant messiness: actors playing below their age, gendered stereotypes, sex, melodrama, flattened morality, comedy. One of my favourite high-school flicks is Amy Heckerling’s debut feature Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which has to be one of the messiest (and deemed too racy to screen on the beach at the GFF). Like a lot of movies in the genre, Fast Times features a loss-of-virginity plot-line at its emotional centre. Stacy, the film’s main character, is a 15 year-old sophomore who loses her v-card to a 26 year-old stereo salesman named Ron, in the dugout of a baseball field (pictured as the cover photo for this mix). She’s told him she’s 19, which is how old Jennifer Jason Leigh really was when she played the character in 1982. It’s a difficult scene to watch, awkward and unsexy, and this is partly for the palpability of Stacy’s discomfort; she’s initiated the encounter but is justifiably nervous. It’s also discomforting because the viewer might be aware that what we’re seeing is ostensibly a statutory rape, or at least a representation of statutory rape, stylized and performed by consenting adults. It’s complicated and messy, as experiences of high school and pop-culture depictions thereof typically are. This Spotify mix, which collects recordings released when the performers were young enough to be in high school (or middle school, in some cases), is messy too. Not only does it provide a survey of pop-music trends over the last 50+ years, it offers a lens through which to consider a number of big cultural ideas, like the commodification of youth, depictions of the teenager, evolving attitudes toward sex and sexuality, questions of consent, gender expression (and limitation), the relationship between writer and performer, and the role of culture producer as moral agent. Let’s discuss some of the tunes.
The mix opens with Little Stevie Wonder, arguably the most prodigious child performer and one of the most critically and commercially successful artists of the 20th century. Sad Boy was released on Tamla Records in 1964 when Stevie was 14 years-old (a year younger than Fast Times’ Stacy). This was actually the sixth single to bear Stevie’s name, with I Call It Pretty Music But the Old People Call It the Blues as the first in 1962, released when he was only 12 (also on Tamla and also on this mix). Sad Boy was written by Dorsey Burnette and Gerald Nelson, both 32 at the time of its release. This kind of collaboration was fairly common in the late-50s through the mid-60s, when contract writers working for labels like Tamla/Motown, Capitol, Stax, Alston and others would pen songs for younger performers. Several other tracks on this mix reflect this working approach, like Frankie Lymon’s Waitin’ in School (released in 1960 when he was 17), The Supremes’ Buttered Popcorn (released in 1961 when Diana Ross was 17), and both tracks by Betty Wright (which will be discussed further later on). This practice and period is representative of the first major wave of youth-commodification in Western pop-culture, in tandem with the invention of the teenager in the mid-1950s and the rise of the teen-movie, bound up itself with pop-music trends and expressions of the time (see: Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Rock Around the Clock (1956), Beach Party (1963), etc.). This trend would wane and the presence of teen pop stars on the charts would decline in the late-60s through the 1970s, when the rise of individualist ideology would engender an audience more demanding of ‘authenticity’ from their culture-producers (see: Bob Dylan, the folk-rock canon, etc). Stevie Wonder set himself apart from his more manufactured peers early on though, when he began accumulating his own writing credits in 1965 (at age 15) and production credits in 1968 (age 18).
What sets a lot of the songs from this first wave apart from what will come next is baked in the lyrical content. At the dawn of the Sexual Revolution, teen pop stars’ depictions of courting and expressions of sexuality were generally pretty modest. In Buttered Popcorn, The Supremes sing about a boy who won’t give a kiss at the movies before he’s had some of his favourite (titular) snack. In Daddy, Daddy (Gotta Get a Phone) (released in 1961 when ‘teen idol’ Robin Clark was only 12) we hear about the pitfalls of having to use the family phone to chat with one’s sweetheart, and how much better it would be to have one in your own room. Dolly Parton sings of schoolyard teasing as romantic gesture in Puppy Love, released in 1959 when she was 13 years-old: “Pullin‘ my pigtails makes me mad / When you kiss me makes me glad.” (Dolly shares writing credits here as well.) In these examples we get something unlike our experience of the adult actress playing the teenage character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High; we get teenage performers performing teenage characters and scenarios, with something like guilelessness. The lyrics do not obscure the age of the performers, rather they invoke their honest age for novel effect. In both Waitin’ In School and I Call It Pretty Music, for example, Frankie Lymon and Stevie Wonder sing literally of sitting in class, respectively: “I been waitin’ in school all day long / Waitin’ for the bell to ring so I can go home,” and “I was sittin’ in the classroom the other day / Playing my harmonica in a mellow way.” Some 37-ish years later, Britney Spears would make reference to sitting in class as well, in the music video for her breakout first single …Baby One More Time (1998). This reference, however, serves less to make novelty of the performers age than it does to project her image as a forbidden sexual object (innocence maybe, guilelessness certainly not). Britney Spears and her debut record (also titled …Baby One More Time) are emblematic of the second major wave of youth-commodification that would begin in the mid-80s with the invention of the boy band, where youth performers would increasingly play not at or below but above their actual age. Album-cut Thinking About You features on this mix, between tracks by Aaron Carter and Hanson (both with harmonies that the HAIM sisters would swoon for), and Britney was 16 at the time of its release. Boy bands with teenage members such as New Kids on the Block, *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys would all achieve major success in the 1990s, but are not featured on this mix, for the simple reason that I very much dislike this particular strain of pop, with its roots in watered-down new jack swing. (Janet Jackson, the artist most often associated with new jack swing, can be found on the back half of this mix, but with the earlier (disco-ier) single Come Give Your Love to Me, released in 1982 when she was 16.) Just one track by the original manufactured boy band, New Edition, features on this mix: Gotta Have Your Lovin’, released in 1983 when group members ranged from 14 to 17 years-old.
This second wave of youth commodification would begin to wane again in the early-to-mid 2000s, with the ascendant rise of the internet and ‘indie rock’ culture. Listeners at this time would once again demand more ‘authenticity’ from their performers, and major labels interested in making bank off highly engineered teen pop stars would have to increasingly rely on their unholy alliance with television (and Disney in particular) to reach a marketable audience, comprised more and more often of children than of actual teenagers (see: The Jonas Brothers, Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus, American Idol, etc. – the legacy of the Mickey Mouse Club). The final nail would be the release of Lorde’s debut singleRoyals in 2013, in which, at age 16 and with sole writing credit for lyrics, she skewered the reigning ideology of sex and excess expressed by her radio contemporaries and forebears: “We don’t care / We aren’t caught up in your love affair.” (A different track, album-cut Ribs, features on this mix.)
Of course, Britney Spears wasn’t the first overtly sexualized teen performer to grace the charts, or to be found on this mix. In 1967, Deep City Records released Good Lovin’ by then 14 year-old soul singer Betty Wright. Written by three men more than twice her age, the song features lyrics like: “I want some man who knows how to touch me / And send chills up and down my spine,” and “I want some man to love me / Some man to hug me / Some man to squeeze me / Some man to please me.” Where Frankie Lymon played his age on Waitin’ In School and Jennifer Jason Leigh played below hers in Fast Times, Betty Wright, well below the age of consent but with a full and mature vocal range, plays above her age on Good Lovin’. Something happens here that’s unsettling, erotic, and loaded with implication, raising questions about consent and the role of the performer, producer, writer, and listener as moral agents. RnB trio Destiny’s Child would see a similarly provocative release in 1997 with their debut single No, No, No, recorded when lead vocalists Beyoncé Knowles and Kelly Rowland were both 16, featuring the chorus “You’ll be sayin‘ no, no, no, no, no / when it’s really yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.” Like Betty Wright, Rowland and Knowles both sing with a fullness and maturity that betrays their youth, their actual ages are obscured, and the questions about consent raised are tough to answer.
Another early example (stranger and funnier) of a teenage performer performing above their age comes six tracks into this mix with The Osmonds’ Sweet & Innocent, released in 1970 when lead-singer Donny Osmond was 13 years-old. Written by Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill and first performed by Roy Orbison in 1969, the song features lyrics that take on bizarre potential meaning when sung by an adolescent boy: “You’re so sweet and innocent / But you’re just too young for me / The way you hold me not too tight / The tender way you kiss goodnight / Tells me you’ve got some growing up to do.” Just who is Donny singing this to, and how old is she? Or is this some kind of meta-reflection where Donny is in fact the one with growing up to do? It’s hard to say. In contrast to Betty Wright’s performances, Donny sounds very much his age here, but the lyrics are obviously meant to be sung by an older man. The effect, while still at least a little creepy, is mostly cute and somewhat comical. A similar effect is achieved in a number of songs by teenage rapper Lil Bow Wow, including All I Know from his second album Doggy Bag, released in 2001 when he was 14 years-old. Like Donny Osmond, Lil Bow Wow sounds his age, and the impression of a boy posturing as older and more sexually mature than he really is comes off as cute and fundamentally unthreatening (cue the giggling girls from KMD’s first single Peachfuzz (1990) (“He’s a little boy!”)). This is a different effect than what’s achieved by Betty Wright or the Destiny’s Child singers playing above age on Good Lovin’ and No, No, No, and one specifically attributable to sex and gender differences. On the records featured here, Donny Osmond, Lil Bow Wow, Aaron Carter, Zac Hanson, Freddie James, Foster Sylvers, et al, sound like boys, while Betty Wright, Beyoncé Knowles, and Kelly Rowland sound like grown women. Comparing photos of Wright and Osmond at age 14 show how this fault in perception is manifested physically as well.
Considering sex difference through the lens of teen-pop music brings us crucially to the second song by Betty Wright featured on this mix, Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do. Released on Alston Records in 1968 when Betty was 15 and written by two of the same writers as Good Lovin’ (Clarence Reid and Willie Clarke), the song finds the young singer offering advice to young women, given “just like a mother”: “Girls, you can’t do what the guys do, no / And still be a lady.” There’s something troubling about hearing this kind of sexism laid out so earnestly, and the idea of taking advice written by adult men, delivered by a teenage girl, as something motherly, but there are some complex truths in here as well. For one, as we’ve seen, the inverse is also true: boys can’t do what the girls do. Teenage boys rarely pass as grown men, physically or vocally, and as such cannot have their sexuality commodified or weaponized in the same way as that of their female counterparts. Teenage boys can’t fully jettison cuteness (cue the giggling girls again). There is no male equivalent to …Baby One More Time, and there likely never will be. This is a complicated truth that could be read as either empowering or objectifying of women and girls, or both, and is a truth that pop music has been historically more adept to address than many other art forms (see feminist indie-pop duo The Blow’s 2006 song Pile of Gold or the entire first decade of Madonna’s career for more on that). More fundamentally though, Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do gets to the simple truth about male privilege, the cultural freedoms afforded to boys not available to girls, and the range of bullshit that women and girls have historically had to endure which men and boys have not. “The guys are gonna wander / Go out and play sometimes / But girls you must not / Let it get you down.” Few performers would experience this difference in treatment, particularly from their public, as viscerally as Marianne Faithfull, whose second single As Tears Go By features on this mix. Released in 1964 when Faithfull was 17, the song was written by Rolling Stones key creatives Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It would be her personal relationship with Jagger and the Stones, however, that would garner the most public attention and lasting scrutiny. In 1969, police raided Mick Jagger’s home and he was arrested and jailed on drug charges. Faithfull was there at the time, and was found by police wearing only, apparently, a fur rug. Other salacious details of the raid, and of her relationship with Jagger, would preoccupy the public and overshadow perception of Faithfull for decades, including a particularly notorious bit about oral sex and a candy bar, which would eventually be debunked. In an interview with Details magazine some 3 decades later, Faithfull would describe how the incident and the rumours that plagued her in its wake ravaged her personal and professional life: “It destroyed me. To be a male drug addict and to act like that is always enhancing and glamorising. A woman in that situation becomes a slut and a bad mother.” Indeed, Marianne Faithfull could not do as Jagger and Richards, and still be a lady in the public eye.
Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do also presents us with another example of a type of working relationship which could potentially be seen as exploitative or even predatory, between an older male writer/producer (or team thereof) and a younger female performer. Certainly, not every example of this type of working relationship could or should be read this way, and there’s insufficient information available to make such a judgement about this particular example. But there are other, less ambiguous examples on this mix, where working relationships between older male writers/producers and teenage female performers were clearly rooted in expressions of control, violence and exploitation. The most left-field track on this mix is Alice Practice, the debut single by Canadian electroclash duo Crystal Castles, released in 2006 when lead singer Alice Glass was 17 and her creative partner and producer Ethan Kath was 29. The two had been involved romantically for the duration of their time in Crystal Castles, up until Glass’ abrupt departure from the band in 2014. In 2017, she came out publicly with accusations that Kath had physically and psychologically abused her for the entirety of their relationship, detailing a decade of abuse, manipulation and psychological control. “He forced me to have sex with him, or he said I wouldn’t be in the band anymore,” she wrote. Kath denied the allegations and sued Glass for defamation, charges that were swiftly thrown out. Other women would come forward after this public revelation with similar allegations against Ethan, while he and his Crystal Castles project still remain signed to Last Gang Records. Writing credit on Alice Practice is disputed, with both Kath and Glass claiming sole credit for lyrics.
Then, of course, there’s Aaliyah, and the second of two pop culture icons featured on this mix whose legacy has been irrevocably complicated by horrific allegations of sexual abuse. Aaliyah, who died tragically in a plane crash in 2001, signed to Jive Records when she was only 12 years-old, and was introduced to writer/producer/singer R. Kelly shortly thereafter. Kelly would quickly become her mentor, then husband (illegally), and would write and produce the majority of the material on her debut LP, the multi-platinum selling Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, released in 1994 when Aaliyah was only 15. Album-cut Young Nation (sole writing and producing credits to Kelly) features on this mix. While Kelly faced charges related to production and possession of child pornography in 2002 (which did not result in conviction), was plagued by rumours of sexual abuse throughout the 2000s and 10s, and was accused of operating an abusive sex cult by BuzzFeed writer Jim DeRogatis in 2017, details of his relationship with Aaliyah were rather effectively kept from the public until quite recently. In January, 2019, the televised documentary Surviving R. Kelly revealed shocking details about the pair’s illegal marriage, Kelly’s coercion of Aaliyah to lie about her age in court documents, and her anguished mental state at the time, among a litany of similarly shocking stories from other women alleging abuse at the hands of the RnB singer. With hindsight, there can be no question as to the extreme imbalance of power present in the working relationship between Aaliyah and R. Kelly, and the extent to which the album they produced, while helping to redefine contemporary RnB music and profoundly impacting pop music trends in its wake, was in fact a product of sexual and psychological abuse.
The other disgraced icon that haunts this mix is of course Michael Jackson, widely considered to be one of the most significant cultural figures of the 20th century, and one of the greatest entertainers of all time. Michael Jackson joined his family band, The Jackson Brothers (later The Jackson 5 and eventually The Jacksons), in 1964 when he was only 6 years-old. He was promoted to singing lead vocal in the band at age 7, and had released four solo albums by the time he was 17. Doggin’ Around is the second track on this mix, from his third album, Music & Me, released on Motown Records in 1973, when he was 15. His breakout as a solo musician wouldn’t come until 1979, however, with the release of Off the Wall, and while his greatest success would come in the 80s with the world-dominating LPs Thriller (1982) and Bad (1987), the bubblegum-soul he produced with his family band and early in his solo career had an influence on pop music that cannot be overstated. Tracks on this mix by New Edition, Aaron Carter and Lil Bow Wow are seriously indebted to the Jackson sound, as are countless others across multiple generations of performers. But as with R. Kelly, our relationship to Jackson’s legacy and the body of work he left behind (Jackson died in 2009) has been irrevocably complicated by the horrific allegations of child sexual abuse that, while known of publicly since the early 90s, were not clearly layed out to the public until quite recently. In March, 2019, HBO aired the 2-part television special Leaving Neverland (arriving right on the heels of Surviving R. Kelly), which provided a harrowing account of the abuse suffered by two of Jackson’s victims over a period of many years. After its release, radio stations around the world began to pull Jackson’s music from broadcast rotation, corporations pulled his CDs from their shelves, and the cultural debate surrounding the role of artist as moral agent was once again reignited. Similarly, reflexive responses had been seen by corporations distributing R. Kelly’s music as well, before and after the release of Surviving R. Kelly. In 2018, after the ‘sex cult’ allegations were published by BuzzFeed (but before the release of the explosive docuseries), streaming giant Spotify announced they would remove Kelly’s music (and that of other controversial artists, such as XXXTentacion) from their public facing playlists and recommendation algorithms, as part of a newly implemented ‘Hate Content and Hateful Conduct’ policy. “We don’t censor content because of an artist’s or creator’s behaviour, but we want our editorial decisions — what we choose to program — to reflect our values,” Spotify said at the time. “When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful, if may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.” This policy was short-lived, however, with Spotify reversing their decision in response to public pushback less than a month after its rollout, announcing they would not “play judge and jury” when it comes to artist conduct. Seven months later, following the release of Surviving R. Kelly, Spotify tried another tactic, introducing a ‘Mute’ feature that would allow users to block content from specific artists (like Kelly, Jackson, or XXXTentacion), but were this time met with criticism that the feature did not go far enough to address the issue, and that it unreasonably shifted the burden of moral responsibility solely to the user. This is only one way in which the deeply ambivalent response to both Surviving R. Kelly and Leaving Neverland was expressed by the listening public. Listening data reported by Nielsen SoundScan, which collates available streaming data across multiple platforms, revealed a surge in streaming play following the release of each docuseries for both Kelly and Jackson. In Kelly’s case, while public radio-play of his music plummeted, his online streams saw a massive 116% increase in the month following the release of Surviving, with Billboard reporting a spike in physical sales as well. As with other matters discussed in this essay, the situation on the ground is complicated and messy, and moral imperatives are not uniformly felt.
About a dozen tracks on this mix have so far gone unmentioned, or have been mentioned only in passing, and there’s plenty more that could be discussed. How Foster Sylvers, for example, the youngest artist on the mix, released Misdemeanor (1973) when he was only 11, with his older brother as producer, or how 12 year-old Chandra collaborated with Eugenie Diserio of synth-punk outfits The Dance and Model Citizens to produce the min-wave banger Kate in 1980. There’s a great story about how Swedish pop star Robyn, whose 1995 single Do You Know What It Takes features here (released when she was 16), was approached in 1994 by the same management team that would later mold Britney Spears into a pop phenomenon. Robyn declined their offer, signed to RCA, and did her own thing. There’s been no mention of Aretha Franklin, whose debut gospel single Never Grow Old closes this mix, released in 1956 when she was 14, or how she already had a one and a half year-old son by the time it came out. Tracks by Tevin Campbell (15), Debbie Gibson (16) and Rihanna (17) have not been discussed, nor has Willow Smith, daughter of actor and hip-hop artist Will Smith, whose 2015 single Not So Different came out when she was 15. Willow and her brother Jaden have both enjoyed wildly varied and indulgent solo careers, reflecting a modern, faux-autonomous twist on the family-band model typified by The Jacksons, The Osmonds and The Sylvers. I haven’t mentioned the penultimate track by The Langley Schools Music Project, a cover of Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run sung by a gymnasium full of middle-schoolers, from the outsider cult-classic LP Innocence and Despair, recorded in 1976 but unreleased ‘til 2001. There’s even a winky reference to the first short film I ever made by way of a track by Mary Wells (17), and another to a recent film by my pal (and GFF Festival Director) Aaron Zeghers, by way of Tiffany (also 17). And of course this mix offers only an incomplete survey, and even more has been left out entirely. For more on teen-pop trends and music released by teenagers see the excellent compilation Home Schooled: ABC’s of Kid Soul, the Yamasuki Singers, the Partridge Family, Donna Lynn, Buzz Clifford, Pat Hervey, Björk, Celine Dion, Selena Gomez, Brandy, Monica, Menudo, Mandy Moore, M2M, Corbin Bleu, Justin Bieber, Jazmine Sullivan, Earl Sweatshirt, Tokio Hotel, Crooked X, Alien Weaponry, Unlocking the Truth, or the excellent new LP Schlagenheim, by UK-rockers black midi. And send your favourite omissions to @artbarbarian on Instagram, cos I’m sure I’ve left a whole school bus-full out.
“Us humans we don’t know one thing / About ourself or anything / And I for one know nothing / But you can tell me something” (Willow Smith, Not So Different)
What were you doing in high school?