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I’m a space geek, a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool fanatic when it comes to anything to do with making the stars our destination.

I think it’s a complete drag how we seem to have stalled here in near-Earth orbit. Sending tourists up to the International Space Station at twenty million bucks a pop, while dispatching robot drone ships to the far reaches of the solar system, letting them do the work for us. No need for boots on the ground, expensive manned programs, grand visions…

I’ve loved science fiction all my life. Bradbury, Dick, Matheson, Beaumont, Ellison…those were my boys.

I’m also crazy about cinema.

Put it all together and you’ll (perhaps) understand what went into the making of “Planetfall”:

 

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My new short film, “The Pact”, now available for viewing on YouTube:

…and be sure to check out the other films on my personal “channel”.

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dishI’m glad you asked.

Well, since my last post, I’ve been a busy lad, working hard on the novel-in-progress, kicking PayPal’s ass and—

What’s that? I haven’t mentioned my on-going dispute with those lovely folks at PayPal/eBay, have I? Here’s the poop:

Three years ago I filed a formal complaint with the Privacy Commission of Canada. PayPal brusquely informed me that my on-line transactions had reached a certain (arbitrary) limit and I could no longer use their services until I allowed them to link to my bank account. Ahem. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am touchy about my security and privacy almost to the point of paranoia. There was no way I was going to give those corporate scum-suckers that kind of potential access to my personal banking information.

So I ratted PayPal out to the Privacy Commissioner. Insisted that I was being denied services and my rights as a private citizen were being violated.

After several years of investigations and submissions from both parties, the Privacy Commissioner has concluded that my complaint was “well-founded” and I have had my PayPal account fully restored. Not only that, Paypal has agreed to change its practices and fully implement the Privacy Commission’s recommendations regarding on-line transactions by November 30, 2014. These “corrective measures” will provide PayPal clients with more information and an “alternative solution”, other than the illegal and unwarranted collection of personal banking information.

My thanks to the folks at the Privacy Commission for pursuing such a lengthy and complex case and for holding PayPal’s feet to the fire until they were forced to acknowledge the legitimacy of my concerns.

Vindication! This is what happens when you refuse to be one of the dull-witted, simple-minded “sheeple”. As consumers and citizens of a free country we have rights and must make every effort to ensure our private data isn’t being collected/mined or our financial security rendered vulnerable by greedhead corporations and/or overly nosy, inquisitive government agencies.

So stay vigilant.

voiceWhat else? The novel…ah, yes, the novel. What can I tell you—very little really. It progresses, slowly but surely. Still anticipating an early 2015 release date…other than that, I have nothing to add. Cautiously optimistic but unwilling to go any further. How’s that for unhelpful?

When I’ve not been writing or editing, I’ve been watching a number of good movies, some of which I’ve reviewed over on my film blog. You did know I had a film site, right? Oh, for Heaven’s sake…well, you’ll find it here. I post infrequently (surprise, surprise) and refuse to have anything to do with silly popcorn movies, rom-coms or abominations by the likes of Michael Bay, JJ Abrams, Zack Snyder or (saving the loudest retch for last) James Cameron. I try to champion obscure or forgotten movies, doing my bit to enlighten contemporary cinema-goers, many of whom haven’t seen anything older than “Jaws”. Hands down, the best film I’ve seen so far in 2014 is a Czech film Sherron gave me for Christmas called “Marketa Lazarova”. Nothing else has come close. Set in the Medieval era, complications involving two warring clans…strong intimations of Bergman’s “Virgin Spring” and Kurasawa’s “Throne of Blood”. I intend to watch it again before I sit down and write my review. So much to take in—there is greatness in that film.

March 8th, Sherron and I attended a performance by the Saskatoon Symphony. Not a regular occurrence, I’m shame-faced to admit, but this time around the bill was too good to resist, featuring two of my favorite 20th Century composers, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams. After the intermission, three different choirs filed out and added their voices to Vaughan Williams’ “Sea Symphony” (the text derived from poems by Walt Whitman). Two solo vocalists, Monica Huisman and Peter McGillivray, were also highlighted and the evening concluded, as conductor Victor Sawa promised in his pre-concert chat, not with a huge flourish, but a gentle exhortation to sail on, ever onward, risking everything, abandoning safe anchorages and familiar stars:

“O my brave soul!
O farther farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail! …”

Unforgettable.

Lots of reading and music in the past few weeks—some titles that stand out, Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke (recommended by Penn Gillete on one of his “Penn Point” podcasts), Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Reza Aslan), as well as lots of poetry by the likes of Ted Kooser, Tom Hennen, Donald Hall and W.S. Merwin. In terms of tunes, I’ve been enjoying everything from a compilation of Simply Saucer songs I picked up in a thrift shop, to the Foo Fighters, Airbag, Radio Moscow, Bob Mould, Hayes Carll, Spiritualized…how am I doing?

And I want to take a moment to give a shout out to some individuals deserving of special mention, this month’s Roll Call of Honor:

First of all, a huge “Thank You” to Jason Brock for surprising the hell out of me with a couple of first edition Richard Matheson books. Gifts that arrived from out of the blue (an act of generosity I’ll remember a long time).

A big hug to my sister, Colleen, who recently retired from her longtime position with Viterra and, I hope, will now sit back and smell the roses for awhile—God knows, you deserve it, gal!

And, finally, a sad but fond farewell to a man who often represented the conscience of his nation, Tony Benn. One of my colleagues on LibraryThing posted the following quote, which sums the man up perfectly:

“Ask the powerful five questions:
What power have you got?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you exercise it?
To whom are you accountable?
How can we get rid of you?”

Tony Benn (1925-2014)

satellite

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fireplaceGene Autry crooning from the CD player, the Christmas tree filling the house with its pine scent, wood popping in the fireplace…ah, yes, it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

Those who follow this blog are aware that I love Christmas and still cling to the faint possibility of Santa Claus (hey, the cookies I leave out are always eaten when I get up in the morning, explain that).

This year possesses an extra poignancy, I suspect, because it’s our last Christmas before our youngest lad moves out, leaving us with ye olde empty nest. And a much smaller food bill (but I digress).

Hectic around here, as it is for everybody else this time of year. Trying to finish last minute shopping, get parcels away to relatives and loved ones, keeping the walk shoveled and the house warm during some recent cold snaps.

I’ll probably do a year end review at some point but not on this occasion.

Instead I want to announce a special Christmas treat:

I’ve created, with the help of those over-priced buggers at Cafe Press, some pins/buttons. The button with the smallest print reads “Frustrate algorithms.” Sorry, despite my best efforts, I remain mediocre at taking still photos.

Button

(Click on images to enlarge)

These pins reflect aspects of my personal philosophy, that subversive, non–conformist attitude I’ve had for as far back as I can remember.

I’m giving away three sets of pins along with three personally inscribed copies of my latest book, Exceptions & Deceptions, for the best questions or comments submitted in the next month. Post your remarks, then, if you want to be eligible for a prize, send your particulars (address, etc.) to blackdogpress@yahoo.ca. I’ll make my choices sometime in mid-January and post the names of winners at that time.

Feeling very positive as this year comes to a close. There’s a desire now that I’m fifty to start living a more spiritually and aesthetically fulfilling life, to continue to expand my horizons by exposing myself to smart, daring books and films and music, eschewing the trivial and formulaic. Off with the old skin, on with the new.

“…Identity is the daughter of birth,
but in the end, the invention of its owner,
not an heirloom from the past.”

-Mahmoud Darwish, from Almond Blossoms & Beyond
(Translated by Mohammad Shaheen)

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CliffBurns1A number of things on my plate in the past while, which leads, inevitably, to another long gap between posts.

Starting with the fun stuff, I attended a screening of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic “Nosferatu” and wrote about it over on my film blog. Some musicians from the Saskatoon Symphony provided accompaniment and, what can I tell you, it was an absolutely brilliant evening. The following day I turned fifty and couldn’t imagine a more fitting way to celebrate.

Yeah, I said celebrate. I’ve hit the big five-oh and, okay, physically I’m not as strong or durable as I was twenty years ago, but mentally and artistically I feel close to the top of my game. Growing spiritually, as well, and that’s an ongoing process. I’m in a good space, some of the fears and obsessional thinking that once upon a time dragged me down are either gone or have eased to the point where they no longer cause the kind of damage they used to. My family played a huge part in that transformation and also the sense that my life and work are serving a tiny role in a Grand Design God-knows-how-many years in progress. My faith life is essential to my entire sense of well-being; without it, I’m a miserable cur, hardly worthy of consideration, barely rating a glance.

In terms of my work:

Researching for the novel, reading reference books and trolling on-line for more info, looking for those obscure little tid-bits that add the perfect dollop of detail to a scene, imparting an authenticity that makes the Reader shiver (love those moments).

I collaborated on a sound collage with my youngest son, Sam. He’s getting to be quite the musician so when my wife asked the two of us to put together an “environment” for a puppet and mask project she’s creating, I was curious to see what we came up with. Turned out to be a weird, ambient piece nearly four minutes long. Now we’re going to edit together a short film using that soundtrack and footage Sherron’s assembled over the last couple of years. Hope to have that done in the next week or so.

What else…well, I’d been giving some thought to writing something for the CBC/Enroute Short Story Contest but every time I checked my well of inspiration, it was dry as fossilized bone. So with the deadline looming I’d pretty much given up any notion of sending anything…until a couple of days ago, when I sat down and started tapping away, managing to complete a tale that adhered to the 1500 word limit (barely) and turned out to be a darn good story. Imagine that—posted it yesterday, just under the wire.

Have to confess, I hate entering or submitting my work anywhere—as an indie, I’d rather publish it myself. But the prize money for a six page story is unbelievable, ridiculous, and the notion of spending two weeks in residence at Banff…how could I resist?

From what I’ve heard, the contest receives between 1800-2000 entries annually, so I’m not holding my breath.

But wouldn’t it be nice…

What else? Ah, I’ve been in my basement cave, doing some more painting. A couple of canvases currently being prepped, exercising my visual muscles, expressing myself beyond the precincts of the printed word. Who cares if I’m any good at it?

And music, lots of music playing, which is always an indication I’m in an inspired state of mind. Frequently heard these days: The Eels, Bob Mould, Brain Jonestown Massacre, Jimmy Eat World, R.L. Burnside, Radio Moscow, old Dylan. Keeping it eclectic.

I guess that just about sums things up. Heading into November around here, but the yard work is pretty much done, all I have to do is order some pine wood and see about winter tires for the car.

The next six to eight months will be spent on the novel (mostly), so by Spring, 2014 I should have the lion’s share of the editing done (crosses his fingers). I’ll keep you apprised of developments and, hopefully, will be posting more frequently than I have been of late.

But no promises…

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Cliff:collageThere it is.

Three hundred blog posts…and counting.

And the credit all belongs to…you. D’you think I’d keep this up for 300 posts I didn’t feel like I was getting through, if this site wasn’t an invaluable line of communication to friends, colleagues and readers from, well, from everywhere? You’ve commented and you’ve written, hundreds of you, and I love it.  Some really smart people hang out at my place, ideal readers every one. These are the individuals I’m thinking of when I start a new poem, short story, novel. I want to constantly surprise and amaze them, show them something unexpected. Never let them down, never take them for granted.

Thanks, folks. Thanks, so much.

Not only am I celebrating #300, there’s other news:

Yesterday I completed the first draft of what appears to be a short novel. Worked on it for nineteen (19) consecutive days, 2500 words a day. The experience left me drained, exhilarated…now I have to take a few days and try to figure out what the hell I’m going to do with it. I have another manuscript waiting for revision, an older effort I’m hoping to resurrect, but think I’ll stick with this new one for awhile. It’s in really rough shape—still, I think there’s a polished gem in there somewhere.  It’ll take work, tons o’ research too. Ah, well, I should be used to that.

A surprisingly pain-free draft—not assailed by the usual demons of self-doubt and I tried to take breaks, the occasional walk, get away from the keyboard. Is this the beginning of a new trend? Will I (gasp) stop punishing my body/mind/spirit in the name of art?

To add to the positive vibes around here, my wife has returned from Yellowknife, so our little family unit is intact once more. Sherron spent ten days up there with a troupe of professional artists, rehearsing and performing a dramatic presentation recreating events from the life of a longtime local character, Tom Doornbos.  They used a variety of puppets and employed a number of locales around Yellowknife to tell their story and their play was a great hit. Now there’s talk of touring it…stay tuned.

After picking Sherron up at the airport, we drove to the Broadway Theater and took in a showing of “Berberian Sound Studio”, which I thought would be good…and turned out to be the best movie I’ve seen this year. You can find the review over at my film blog.

And, finally…I promised you a treat, didn’t I?

Well, how about an entire CD of free music, over forty-seven minutes worth of catchy, mind-warping “chillout” tunes?  I’ve just released “Ambient i-viii” in its entirety over on Bandcamp. Here a link to the site—enjoy, download, share.

I’ll start you off with a sample track, one of my favorites, titled “Ambient vi”:

One last time: THANKS.

And keep those comments and e-mails coming.

Love to hear from you…

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surfaceThese days I’m toiling away on a rewrite of the concluding novella of my short story collection in progress Exceptions & Deceptions.

While I’m otherwise occupied, feel free to enjoy two of my recent ambient tunes.

The second, longer piece is an extended version of the soundtrack music for my new short film “Exoplanet”.

WOW Signal

The Zone

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Taking a break from writing, concocted and edited a new short film.

“Exoplanet”…a love letter to science fiction.

Dedicated to Ian Sales and other bringers of wonder:

 

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“I don’t care if it was Bob Dylan,” one disgruntled fan snarled as we lined up to make our way out of the Credit Union Center, “I thought he sucked. He absolutely sucked.”

I didn’t hear anyone protesting, no apologists willing to leap to the great man’s defense.

Rarely have I seen an audience leaving a live performance so utterly listless. They’d come for spectacle, a chance to pay tribute to one of their heroes and here they were, shaking their heads, trying to figure out why a legendarily enigmatic artist would present them with such a haphazard, irritating evening of music.

Talent certainly wasn’t the problem. Dylan’s touring band—Donnie Herron, Tony Garnier, Charlie Sexton, Stu Kimball, George Recile—are top flight musicians but they were cruelly hamstrung by Dylan’s presence, subdued, seldom breaking out of the tightly controlled box he stuck them in. The positioning and body language was instructive:  the backing band remained huddled (cowed?) on one side of the stage while Dylan crouched behind an electric keyboard on the audience’s right.

Ah, yes. That fucking keyboard. A good place to hide, Bob, if you can actually, y’know, play the goddamned thing. Dylan, remember, started out on keyboards with his high school band back in Hibbing, Minnesota. Unfortunately, someone should tell him that his technique hasn’t improved since he loudly and tunelessly thumped out Little Richard hits fifty-five years ago. I know a number of fine harmonica players have taken him to task for his misuse of their precious harp, but what Dylan really needs is a classically trained pianist to come along and slam a keyboard cover on his fingers. Repeatedly. His inexpert noodling, amplified and isolated, evoked continual winces throughout the 90-minute show.

I can understand taking a fresh approach to old, stale material, but Dylan’s re-inventions reduced beloved favorites like “Visions of Johanna”, “Shelter from the Storm” and, yeah, even “Blowing in the Wind” to a discordant and indistinguishable mush.  Was there a single song off his latest (B+) album, “Tempest”? If there was, I didn’t hear it. There was a perfunctory rendering of “Man in the Long Black Coat”, an epic tune casually tossed off, a forgettable five-minute abridgement. I cannot think of one song other than the opener “Watching the River Flow” that worked all the way through.

On those rare occasions when the band finally did cut loose—during extended jams on “Highway 61″ and “Levee’s Gonna Break”—we got a hint of what might have been possible, had they, like the thoroughbreds they are, been given their head and allowed to run. I found it maddening to watch superb artists diminished and under-utilized to that extent.

Only one other recent experience in the arts left me as angry and disillusioned with a revered artist and that was a viewing of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Film Socialisme”. Like Dylan, Godard has what I think is an unhealthy contempt for his audience and, as a result, “Film Socialisme” is a futile mess, a blot on a distinguished, ground-breaking career.  This attitude that you can continually flip the bird at people who pay good money and come to your work expecting to be enlightened or entertained or just not bored, exposes artists at the end of their creative rope, an acknowledgement that if you can no longer provide the goods, you might as well sell the rubes lusterless trinkets and spent tailings from exhausted mines.

I think it’s a shameful stance, childish and self-indulgent. While Dylan was under no onus to play pre-packaged, excruciatingly faithful renditions of his classics, he was obliged to at least make them recognizable versions of the originals. And though he may think of himself the consummate iconoclast and contrarian for refusing to cater to the crowd, he also revealed himself as a man no longer able to rock and roll.
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I would be remiss if I didn’t sing praises of Zimmie’s opening act, the great Mark Knopfler and his stellar accompanying band.

Now this lad knows the score.

He avoided playing all but one of his “Dire Staits”-era hits (“So Far Away”), yet left those present cheered and enlivened by his musicianship, poise and presence. He teasingly responded to those dolts who like to shout out requests from the floor (do you people know how fucking retarded you sound to everyone else), and played his heart out, generously collaborating with his musicians, recognizing their virtuoso skills.

Some of us wondered ahead of time why Dylan would choose such a celebrated artist, a headliner in his own right, to take to the stage ahead of him. Both share a love of history, epic ballads, cinematic storylines—they could well be brothers in arms.

But unlike Dylan, Mr. Knopfler has never forgotten the folks out there beyond the footlights, the steep price they paid for being there.

As he left the stage, he blew kisses to the crowd.

Contrast that to Dylan’s coldly dismissive raspberries…

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Bob Dylan

the troubadour arrived unheralded
the mood sullen in the crowd
he had the reputation of trickster
hat and cape & concealing cowl

he played the part of wise man
tried to bend them to his will
but his magic was much diminished
it only made them ill

he rallied his most stalwart
minions to the King
the others were left abandoned
denied a song to sing

confused and upbraided
filing from the flickering hall
no one there to guide them
catch them should they fall

the troubadour was untroubled
he’d been paid in brightest gold
fools were they who lamented
he’d grown so tired and old

for our idols owe us nothing
evince scorn for our trusting ways
in their eyes we are dupes and fools
refusing to turn the page

put your faith in butterflies
follow their aimless flight
but beware of traveling minstrels
who vanish into the night

* Completed following the Bob Dylan/Mark Knopfler concert, Credit Union Center (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan)

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