Building a Merritt-ocracy

Over his Magnetic Fields career, Stephin Merritt has never performed the same experiment twice. After creating the iconic break-up triple record 69 Love Songs, he put out the reverb-drenched Distortion, a Jesus and Mary Chain homage, which found a companion in this year’s Realism. Then there’s his Lemony Snickett soundtrack The Gothic Archies, and his work on last year’s Coraline off-Broadway musical. Through all this he has emerged as a distinct voice for a generation’s worth of heartbreak.

The Varsity: I remember an interview you did with Daniel Handler for the 69 Love Songs box set where he compared something you did to Simon and Garfunkel and you visibly cringed. But Realism is this eclectic folk album—has something changed, or is this a different kind of folk?

Stephin Merritt: I have nothing against Simon and Garfunkel—I quite like Cecilia. I just can’t stand Bridge Over Troubled Waters. I don’t particularly mind that comparison, but generally I don’t like being compared to anybody. I prefer to be eclectic enough that I’m not directly comparable.

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TV: It seems like much of your output has had a tension between romanticism and realism in a way. Do you think that’s fair?

SM: Well, I don’t believe in the category of realism in the first place. I use it as a general term, like Distortion. We use it as a false god—as is folk itself. I don’t believe in folk and I don’t believe in realism. That’s why I titled this record that way: I find the ideas of both of those things highly problematic. I think the marketing category of folk is essentially racism. It’s a way of selling white people singing English, especially in non-standard accents—things that are traditional or sound vaguely that they are traditional, and anything outside of the boundaries of that are called blues or world. Realism has its own problems, but it’s at least not that socially-, sociologically-constructed.

TV: I heard you were going to name the records [Realism and Distortion] True and False, but that you backed out on that. This goes back to that idea of coming up with imperial, binary categories.

SM: I thought it would be annoying to call the folk record True, and the distorted one was called False, but it would be cloying the other way around. So I went with Distortion and Realism, which are actually much better at describing what’s wrong with each record. I want the title to reflect what people are most likely to complain about. As with 69 Love Songs—Tom Lehrer says that 69 Love Songs was 65 love songs too many. He doesn’t like the idea of love songs, but how can you complain when the title is already 69 Love Songs? And with i, all of the track names start with the letter. You can’t complain about that because that’s the title of the record.

TV: I remember an interview you did with Guy Maddin where at one point you said that it didn’t make sense to try to represent oneself realistically in music or film. Do you feel Realism the record is like that?

SM: Actually, the realism of the title just refers to the recording process and if there is any additional resonance to that in the lyrics, it is entirely accidental. I’ve never tried to write autobiographically. Well, that’s not true. I tried to write autobiographically on one record and nobody noticed, so I have never brought it up.

TV: Do you think somebody could figure out which one that is someday?

SM: I suppose someone could delve deep. It’s the only record without any vampire songs.

TV: So it’s not a Gothic Archies record.

SM: No. But that’s pretty autobiographical in a certain way, because it’s about my voice and if that doesn’t reflect my personality, then I don’t know what does. In that way, it’s about me in some way. But it’s more about the three fictional children and the books that were written about them.

TV: With the Magnetic Fields, I find that your music is associated with unrequited love by a lot of people. Do you worry about people projecting their aspirations for what love might be onto your music?

SM: Well, I can’t control what people do with my records. I also don’t know what people do with my records. People write me fan letters saying “I didn’t commit suicide because 69 Love Songs is a good album.” I have no idea what that means.

TV: You have to understand on some level what that means.

SM: I didn’t commit suicide because 69 Love Songs is a good album. We almost all didn’t commit suicide because 69 Love Songs is a good album.

TV: A lot of people find something very personal in the idea of the Magnetic Fields, probably much more than most pop music, I think.

SM: Hm… I don’t know what to say to that. I think most people who’ve ever heard of Magnetic Fields are probably early adopters, who latch on to something they feel like they have found, as opposed to having something jammed down their throat. That probably gives me a more personal connection. But other than the fact that I’m not very famous, I can’t think of a particular personal connection. I don’t know what that is.

TV: Do you consider yourself to be a romantic?

SM: No. I don’t think I know what that means. There’s confusion between the Romantic period, the Romantic movement, and lower case “r” romantic. I don’t know where to begin untangling that. Sorry.

The Magnetic Fields play tonight with Laura Barrett at The Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

U of T gets a B

The College Sustainability Report Card—arguably the most comprehensive survey on American and Canadian universities’ environmental commitments—has consistently placed the University of Toronto in and around a B average. Despite what seemed to me like a fairly progressive agenda and my readiness to make excuses for my university, U of T truly is a B student.

Beginning with a B- in 2007, it seemed to show improvement with a solid B in 2008, but then dipped back down into a B- in 2009, only to settle again with a B in 2010. The newly installed solar thermal heat recovery system at the Athletic Centre is what catapulted the grade to a B this year.

Even though the report card has not seen an A in its four years, I was still curious to know what was causing our university to consistently hover in the realm of the lacklustre.

The report said that only the newly built Exam Centre on McCaul meets the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Existing Buildings—a set of performance standards that ranks sustainability measures in buildings already constructed. Because of this, the university received a C under the green buildings criteria. But then again, the nature of retrofitting a sprawling campus with enrollment nearing 50,000 cannot occur overnight. I then noticed a glaring F under the shareholder engagement criteria.

However, a few positive notes caught my eye. The Sustainability Office maintains seven full-time staff, has diverted 62 per cent of recycled waste from landfill, and has been successful with the Lug a Mug campaign.

To compare, I decided to peer into how three other universities—all known for their good green doings—were scoring.

First up was College of the Atlantic—“devastatingly progressive” as one graduate put it—situated in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Long known for sustainable practices matched only by the progressiveness of its curriculum, COA traded in incandescent light bulbs for CFL ones long ago. All its electricity now comes from hydropower, with all landscaping done through organic methods. Aside from the (now) standard use of bicycles and composting systems, the college has chosen to ban bottled water (hurrah!), and serve up strictly grass-fed beef and confinement-free eggs from adjacent farms.

How do they do it? I took one glance at their endowment and enrollment ($15 million and 300), and decided that this alternate universe of compost toilets and waterless urinals (yes, they are what you think they are) was only possible for such a small campus.

I decided to shift my gaze to Maine’s neighbour two-over, Vermont. Middlebury College, long known for its outstanding language courses, has now become the poster child for campus sustainability. Many of its graduates have gone on to run global environmental campaigns and win fellowships for new approaches to solving social problems.

Middlebury has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2016. In so doing, it has purchased solar arrays, thermal heating, and a demonstration wind turbine. Much of its reduced energy record is owed to a cogeneration plant (an energy recycling system that makes use of biomass or other municipal waste) fuelled by woodchips, and the purchase of so-called “cow-power” (glorified farm manure). They even have a sustainability-themed residence. My mind immediately wanders into a fantasy world featuring twenty-somethings toasting their own granola, making their own jam, and playing the banjo by their garden patch of tomatoes and zucchini.

Middlebury has also shown remarkable campus cooperation: used vegetable oil from the dining services is donated to the athletic department, which in turn uses the waste to fuel a vehicle for the ski team. I pause to wonder if it’s these small pockets of carbon neutral spaces that will “solve” climate change—or at least make a valiant attempt at it—instead of fruitless meanderings of multilateral diplomacy. I again take one look at Middlebury’s endowment and enrollment ($691 million and 2,500) before dismissing it entirely.

My next stop is the University of British Columbia. With over 30,000 students and an endowment around 1 billion, it serves as the most apt comparison to the University of Toronto. With its B+ worthy green acts, I also figured that they might serve as a vision of what we could aspire towards.

UBC has pledged to go carbon neutral by the end of 2010 through a climate action plan that contains measurable strategies for emissions reductions. Much of its produce comes from campus farms and the school offers a sustainability minor in all disciplines.

Toronto may not have the same amount of yoga studios and health food vendors lining its streets to promote green living as the new modus operandi. We probably can’t milk our own cows by King’s College Circle, or install compost washrooms at Robarts. But we can make structural adjustments big and small, that take into account our urban setting, the size of our student body, and the constraints of our financial endowment. My next few articles will address some of the areas where we do have legroom.

FNUC loses funding

Saskatchewan has cut off funding to Canada’s only native university after weeks of scandal over alleged mismanagement and misspending. Provincial funding accounts for $5.2 million at the First Nations University of Canada, one fifth of the school’s operating budget.

FNUC asked Saskatchewan to be patient, as the university’s board of governors prepared a report on how to fix the problems plaguing the Regina-based school, to be completed by the end of January.

School officials then said the report would not be ready until mid-February. Rob Norris, advanced education minister, responded, “Quite simply, that’s not acceptable for us.” FNUC has missed several deadlines for reforms.

The day after the funding announcement, the controlling board of FNUC, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, dismissed the board of governors and put many senior staff on administrative leave. FSIN is expected to appoint a new board this week.

Some students say the issue goes beyond mismanagement, and many vented on Facebook. “The mistake has always been letting the issues at FNUniv stay an ‘Indian issue’—education is an issue that is important to all of us,” reads one post.

FNUC students and some chiefs from FSIN are demanding that Ottawa step in and fill the void left by the Saskatchewan government, but federal Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl announced this weekend that the federal government will not be adding funding.

Strahl noted that the $7 million in federal grants given to the school are now under review.

“When the province says they’ve lost confidence and will not support the university moving forward, it’s hard to misinterpret that. It’s pretty unequivocal language,” said Strahl in an interview with the CBC.

Strahl told the CBC that he has had numerous discussions with FSIN about the issues at FNUC over the last two years—there have been allegations of mismanagement and misspending since 2005—with little progress.

The latest incident came to light when FNUC’s chief financial officer, Murray Westerlund, left his post in December 2009. The departure follows a report in which Westerlund alleged hundreds of thousands of dollars were misspent. He has filed a wrongful dismissal suit.

Over $250,000 was doled out in unclaimed vacation pay in the last four years, with most of it going to senior staff. An additional $215,000 was spent on consultation fees for the construction of a teepee veterans’ memorial. There were also questionable university-paid staff trips to Hawaii and Las Vegas, among other places.

In January, a former member of the FNUC Students’ Association was charged after allegedly defrauding the association of $35,000. Blue Pelletier, 31, is alleged to have written student council cheques to himself between August 2006 and February 2007. He is facing one count of fraud and one count of theft over $5,000, and is scheduled to appear in a Saskatoon provincial court in June.

FNUC was federated in 1976 as the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College and is the only university with the majority of leadership coming from the Aboriginal community. There are a total of 769 students enrolled at its main campus in Regina and its satellite campuses in Saskatoon and Prince Albert.

From the physics lab to the Four Seasons

Mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal exemplifies the diverse routes a U of T student can follow after graduation. Segal is currently playing the role of Mercédès in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Carmen, but the opera singer recently obtained a Master of Science degree from U of T’s Department of Physics.

“I sometimes think of singing opera as being like building a laser,” Segal told The Varsity last week. “I was constructing one for my Master’s and everything had to be in the perfect position for something to come out which was much greater than what was put in.”

Opera singers are known for their unique ability to sing without amplification over the volume of orchestras and into large opera houses. This requires an extremely disciplined technique. The body must be perfectly aligned, the tongue, jaw and facial muscles in place, the intercostal muscles expanded, and a steady and energized breath moving from the diaphragm.

“That’s my strange way of thinking about it,” Segal continues. “The body is this big laser. Everything has to be in the perfect spot and it amplifies itself, and that’s how we can sing over orchestras.”

An opera singer’s technique takes years to develop and training usually begins in the mid-teens. Bachelor and Master degrees in Music Performance typically follow. Lauren Segal, however, discovered the art form later in life.

“I did my undergrad at York,” the mezzo explains, “and in my second year I joined the choir so I could get some sort of music back in my life—I was studying science. I started listening to opera there because of my friends in the choir who were studying it and loved it.”

This love led to Segal’s decision to begin training. She started taking vocal lessons in the third year of her undergrad and continued throughout her undergrad and graduate years. Eventually, Segal had to choose between a opera or a PhD in physics.

“I couldn’t really do both properly at the same time anymore,” she admits. Finally, she decided that the science-student phase of her life was complete. “I just chose opera. My heart pulled me there.”

Yet Segal’s heart didn’t pull her to immediate success. An opera singer needs an extensive knowledge of languages, a solid technical command of his or her vocal chords, as well as connections and professional recognition.

“After my Master, I realized I didn’t have the same background that most of the other singers had through their studies,” Segal explains.

She caught up through hard work. Segal took language courses in French, Italian, and German, studied music history, and carried on with her lessons. It wasn’t until she started doing workshops, auditions, and competitions that she slowly worked her way into the business.

The first major recognition of Segal’s talent came with her acceptance into the COC’s Ensemble Studio. The ensemble is an elite training program for young professionals that has produced some of Canada’s most celebrated singers. Members perform small roles in COC productions and understudy larger roles, while receiving full-time schooling.

“They have very intensive training,” she describes. “Lots of coaching, lots of role study opportunities as performances … you work a lot and you learn a lot.”

Despite Segal’s lack of a music degree, she believes her physics training helped her as a singer.

“My background was in optical physics,” Segal says, “and light and sound behave in the same way. When people talk about singing resonance, I think about it in the scientific definition.”

What Segal is referring to are the vibrations of sound waves against facial acoustic cavities that happen when singing or speaking. Opera singers resonate over orchestras by producing sound waves that vibrate at a very high frequency, through manipulation of the throat and well-developed technique.

Lauren Segal is not the only Canadian opera singer who has pursued studies in a seemingly unrelated field, and at U of T to boot. Internationally renowned soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian completed a Bachelor of Biomedical Engineering here before joining the COC Ensemble. Segal still credits not pursuing a music degree as being to her advantage.

“I think it’s very easy when you’re in a music program to get bogged down in some things,” she ventures. “I think pursuing something different allowed me to have a fresh outlook.”

And is there any fresher image than an opera singer who can draw on her experience building lasers to explain her unconventional success?

Lauren Segal can be seen in the COC’s Carmen, which runs at the Four Seasons Centre through February 27. For more information, visit

Bones laid bare

On Friday, the Royal Ontario Museum’s dinosaur specialist took the stage to discuss new directions in dinosaur research. David Evans, the associate curator of vertebrate paleontology, gave the concluding talk to “Discoveries Around the World,” a day-long colloquium where the public was invited to hear curatorial staff present research and recent discoveries in natural history and world cultures.

The ROM has been collecting and researching dinosaurs for over 100 years. Evans joined the ROM in 2006, when he was 26 years old. Since then, he has traveled to northern Yukon, the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, Golden Gates Highland National Park in South Africa, and the Milk River region of southern Alberta. He is the first dinosaur specialist the museum has employed since the 1950s.

Evans spoke of techniques like CT scanning and powerful visualization programs. “[They] lead us to a much better idea of what the function of the bizarre crests in some of these dinosaurs are, what senses were more important than others in a dinosaur’s everyday life,” said Evans. These techniques also help reconstruct evolutionary relationships in better detail.

Bone histology is a method Evans compares to “rings in a tree.” Researchers read the annual growth rings in the microstructure of bones, visible under a microscope, to reconstruct the life history of a dinosaur. Thanks to a grant, the ROM is setting up its own bone histology lab.

“We’ve collected over 20,000 pounds of field jackets of dinosaur bones and we’re just starting to prepare the fossils, but we’re coming up with some really interesting results,” said Evans, adding that new dinosaurs could be added to the collection. “We have the world’s oldest dome-headed dinosaur, the oldest member of the Ceratopsidae that we know of from Alberta, and probably the world.” His team also found the skull of a duck-billed dinosaur that is “almost certainly a new primitive flat-headed dinosaur.” The ROM has seven complete skeletons of duck-billed dinosaurs (also called hadrosaurs), Evans’ specialty.

“When you name the dinosaurs, are you going to name them after yourself like the other paleontologists?” asked one of the kids in the audience. Evans smiled before saying, “No. Definitely not.” He could not divulge possible names, but said that the world shouldn’t expect to hear about a recently discovered Evansaurus.

Evans and his team hope their research will raise awareness for the Dragon’s Tomb site in the Gobi Desert, to protect it from fossil poachers. Poachers steal skulls, teeth, and claws, which fetch a high price on the black market.

Campus Stage: Assassins and The Laramie Project

Assassins: UC Follies production full of hits and misses

A carnivalesque atmosphere fills the theatre as the Proprietor (Adrian Yearwood) steps onstage and shouts to the audience “Do you wanna kill a president?” So begins the UC Follies’ Assassins, a musical that looks at the lives of nine men and women who at some point in history tried—and sometimes succeeded—at killing the President of the United States. These figures include Leon Czolgosz (Andrew Dundass), Giuseppe Zangara (Brandon Hackett), and Samuel Byck (Matt Duncan).

At the order of the Proprietor, a killer carnival game begins as one by one the assassins march onstage looking bewildered and troubled before accepting a gun, aiming, and shooting. From here, they launch into the cheery, upbeat tune “Everybody’s Got the Right,” which claims the right to dream, to be free, or even to kill the president. It is this dark humour that gives Assassins its sinister appeal.

Assassins, featuring music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and story by John Weidman, first opened in 1990 to great controversy. This could only be expected from a musical that features a duet between Squeaky Fromme and John Hinckley Jr., who vow their love to Charles Manson and Jodi Foster respectively. The silliness and amiability of these goofy characters could easily be mistaken for approval. However, Assassins is intended to promote anything but—we’re supposed to look at these characters as people who, like the rest of us, had sought out the American Dream, including fame, fortune, and meaningful lives. Even their oddities and antics feel somewhat familiar to those watching. Unlike most of us, who respond to failure by settling for a clerical job or a hobby maintaining a blog about cats wearing sweaters, the would-be assassins simply took another route.

Where the UC Follies’ production stumbles in its musical aspect—though Sondheim has provided a handful of witty numbers from “Gun Song” to “Another National Anthem,” there were an equal number of long, droning ballads and ensemble chorus numbers that felt more generic than edgy. On top of this, only a few of the actors were confident and capable as singers. Most of them barely hit their high notes and struggled through the fast-paced lyrics. As the play is titled Assassins: The Musical, this weakness becomes a little distracting.

Though the cast’s musical stylings weren’t always on target, their acting abilities certainly were, and the cast worked well together as a team. Notable performances included Michael David Bolstein’s sly and sinister John Wilkes Booth, who appeared just in time to persuade troubled miscreants that assassinating the President could fix problems as commonplace as a stomach ache. Ian Ronningen’s Charles Guiteau and Ann Pornel’s Sara Jane Moore also provided entertaining, memorable performances that were rich in humour. The only actor a bit off his mark was Joey Uunold, who played his Baladeer bigger than everyone else’s characters and thus felt out of sync with the rest of the production.

On a final note—if you, like me, are familiar with only a quarter of America’s presidential assassins—quickly brushing up on your history before seeing this production would do you well. While their biographies aren’t necessary reading in order to follow the plot, a quick skim through Wikipedia can certainly enhance the humour of the musical and your appreciation for each character.—Ariel Lewis

VCDs’ The Laramie Project could easily break your heart

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The set is minimalistic and brightly lit as the cast members take their places in a line of chairs silhouetted by a simple black backdrop. The theatre is full, and the audience is eerily hushed by the incoherent babble of the performers, who speak urgently overtop of one another. The voices of the actors twist together, as they solemnly stare forward, taking no notice of each other or the audience.

The Victoria College Drama Society’s production of The Laramie Project is all about voices. The play is based around the murder of 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was beaten and killed in 1998 in a hate-crime that targeted him largely for his homosexuality. Instead of focusing on the narrative of the event, The Laramie Project chronicles the reactions of those who were involved and affected by the crime, weaving countless testimonies of townsfolk to create a dialogue and coherent narrative that sheds light on the nature of hatred, ignorance, and hope.

The actors shift from their linear perches in a well-choreographed transition that characterizes the show as a whole. With the set in a simple, black box format, the cast’s every movement becomes crucially important, and the well-timed choreography allow for an actor to seamlessly switch characters with nothing more than a quick jaunt across the small stage. The story is told in a meta-narrative, with cast members portraying the original interviewers of the townsfolk before embodying the interviewees themselves—a challenging project that requires the small troupe of actors to portray more than 60 roles with no costume or set changes.

Several cast members shone in the endeavour. Sarah White, who played the 39-year-old police officer who arrived first on the scene of Matthew’s beating, was convincing, natural, and heart-wrenching. More remarkable, only a moment before she delivered the steady, but emotionally charged monologue, she spoke from the perspective of an interviewer from two steps away. Her transition from interviewer to character was seamless. With a subtle hair change, White embodied her new character, suddenly acquiring new speech patterns and facial expressions.

Almost every cast member had a similar chameleon moment, with standout performances from Alex Wells, who was exemplary as the town’s grizzled limousine driver, and Luke McElcheran, whose rendition of the town reverend was fearsome. McElcheran’s later speech as the doctor who attended to both Sheppard and his perpetrator closed the first act with a gut-wrenching but understated description of the entire town’s dilemma.

The Laramie Project is emotionally laborious to watch. The tragic story is made all the harder to digest because the actors portray each character so compellingly that the simple tragedy of the story is made multi-faceted and larger in scope. Each individual considered has a story of pain caused by the crime. Given that the play also runs three acts—and three hours—the show would surely fall flat without the incorrigible energy exhibited by the cast. Instead, the charisma and chemistry between actors presents a compelling vision of small-town Wyoming and despite the black backdrops and wardrobes, the play effectively manufactures a vision of the dusty landscape, nothingness, and mountains.

The show’s surging emotion is evident in all three acts and hardly ever lets up. The cast works well as an ensemble, creating a beautiful and haunting vigil for Matthew Sheppard, complete with candles and an eerie tune of sorrow. The show culminates in the intense trials of Matthew Sheppard’s murderers, which kept an exhausted audience on the edge of their seats, even after two-and-a-half hours.

At the conclusion of the third hour of The Laramie Project, your heart is breaking, you’re trying to hide your tears from your seatmates as the light comes on, and the chorus of voices and tragedy continues to haunt you as you exit the theater. The actors have done their job, bringing to life a simple show, armed with nothing but charisma and dialogue to enliven three-hours of simple talking.—Emily Kellogg

Freshly pressed: Woodpigeon’s Die Stadt Muzikanten

Some albums are best enjoyed in a cozy environment with enough time for one straight-through listen. Woodpigeon’s third album, Die Stadt Muzikanten is a clear fit for this category.

With its warm, almost homesick feeling, Woodpigeon combines a subtly layered musicality with simple and upfront folk sensibilities. Group mastermind Mark Hamilton’s voice and creative vision definitely qualify him as Canada’s answer to Sufjan Stevens. “Woodpigeon vs. Eagleowl (Strength in Numbers)” is the most obvious proof of this, but despite echoes of Stevens’ work, Die Stadt Muzikanten is entirely unique and special.

The album’s 16 tracks clock in at over 70 minutes—it’s long, to say the least, but for once it’s a good thing. The tracks intertwine perfectly, even though the album appears to have no lyrical theme. Stand-out track “Spirehouse” is soft and nostalgic, while the indie-pop “My Denial in Argyle” should be quite accessible for music fans new to Woodpigeon’s work.

Overall, Woodpigeon has made good on their folksy roots with Die Stadt Muzikanten, though music lovers of almost any genre will find this an enjoyable album.—Ryan Kelpin


Woodpigeon plays the Drake on Thursday, February 11 at 8 p.m.

Evil Las Vegas

Consider an early scene in Saint John of Las Vegas: John (Steve Buscemi), a drone at an insurance company, is called to see his boss, Mr. Townsend (Peter Dinklage). Townsend gives John a chance at a promotion when he assigns him an insurance fraud investigation, for which he is also given a hard-nosed partner, Virgil (Romany Malco). Townsend’s office is jarringly bizarre—painted garish red, with picture frames and desks cramped in front of the walls’ centres, and four Roman pillars around the desk—and as the scene progresses, it also becomes clear that Buscemi, Dinklage, and Malco are never photographed together. Director Hugh Rhodes cuts back and forth between the three actors. The editing, framing, and set design combine to create an odd, alienating effect that pervades the film.

Now consider the next scene. John has learned from Townsend that Jill (Sarah Silverman), his attractive co-worker at the cubicle next door, “likes a good hair pull,” so John hovers behind her and tentatively, almost apologetically tugs her hair before rushing back to his desk. She then reaches her hand into his cubical and taps the wall suggestively, and we see that her fingernails are painted with yellow smiley faces. We later learn that they immediately had sex in the bathroom off-screen.
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This is, for want of a better phrase, the movie’s “love story,” and during his insurance investigation John periodically talks to Jill on the phone, as if to establish their relationship as the story’s emotional centre. Yet while Buscemi and Silverman give surprisingly sincere performances, their characters’ relationship is built upon a comic scene involving a ridiculous sexual fetish, and none of their miniscule screen time together suggests any chemistry. Is Rhodes playing this relationship for laughs? Does he want it to have emotional resonance? Or does he want to have his cake and eat it too?

Saint John of Las Vegas is the type of film that causes one to question over and over again what the director was going for. In scene after scene, game actors stand in Rhodes’ carefully-detailed compositions—often right in the middle of the frame, surrounded by empty space, as if stranded—and deliver ludicrous dialogue with straight faces (“They got this expression in prison: if a cross-dressing skinhead don’t rape you, just take your smokes and don’t ask why”), and the effect is peculiarly unfunny. The deadpan ambience, the deadpan acting, and the deadpan script create an orgy of deadpan, with no two elements generating any comic tension. However, this is not the fault of Buscemi, who, as a recovering gambling addict returning to Las Vegas with great trepidation, is completely believable. With sideburns, heavy bags under his eyes, crooked teeth and a suit jacket/undershirt ensemble, he looks like a cross between Elvis and John Waters.

Some of the comic set pieces are so leaden they practically fall off the screen. A scene in which John and Virgil run afoul of a gang of militant nudists comes with the sinking realization that Rhodes sees the nudists not as a set-up for a joke, but as the joke, period. Ditto a scene where John interviews a circus carnie (John Cho) in a flammable suit. Cho lights the suit over and over and over and over again until a restless audience lowers its estimate of the intrinsic comedic value of flammable suits.

With its slow, strange ambience and its episodic structure, Saint John of Las Vegas reminded me of The Limits of Control, Jim Jarmusch’s recent attempt to strip the thriller genre down to its most basic elements. In that film, a stoic assassin travels between locations and waits for instructions for most of the two-hour running time. I wonder if Rhodes is attempting something similar with the mismatched-buddy subgenre. Like, say, Rush Hour, this film’s leads are racial and temperamental opposites partnered against their will in a crime-fighting context. In this film, however, they develop no fondness, understanding, or empathy towards each other, and their little episodic misadventures never build. Perhaps Saint John of Las Vegas is a Dadaist prank? Unlikely, I know, but maybe this is what film criticism is for: assigning arbitrary meaning to shaggy dog stories.

Saint John of Las Vegas is now in theatres.