Robbie Robertson’s “Testimony” – A Review

The guitarist and chief songwriter of The Band, Robbie Robertson, released his memoir Testimony late last fall, amidst the usual media fury. The book had to compete with Bruce Springsteen’s lumbering autobiography in the rock book sweepstakes, so Testimony was a tad overshadowed, which is unfortunate, because it is by far the better read.

Robertson concentrates on the period from roughly 1958 when he joins Ronnie Hawkin’s backing ensemble to the final performance of The Band at The Last Waltz in 1976, (the film and the triple album were finally finished two years later in 1978). He charts the ups, downs and in-betweens of a dubious and difficult industry that expanded with the 1960s counterculture, only to crash back to earth in the 1970s due to an excess of a growing drug culture that took its toll on The Band and their contemporaries.

Testimony bears all the hallmarks of Robertson’s songwriting: intelligence, taste, restraint and integrity. The end result is a terrific book and an essential read for anyone interested in music and cultural history, documenting a bygone era of high hopes, shattered dreams, and beautiful music.

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View 902 Podcast Episode 1 – Aaron John Gulyas

In the debut episode of the View 902 Podcast, I chat with my good friend Aaron John Gulyas. We cover an eclectic range of subjects, including the strange life and times of Albert K. Bender and his role in creating the Men In Black mythos (the subject of Aaron’s great presentation at the 2016 East Coast Paraconference in Liverpool, Nova Scotia back in early August), why people gravitate towards the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis as the go-to explanation for UFOs, and some 19th century American history, including a debate over who really won the War of 1812. We conclude with a shocking revelation about President-elect Donald J. Trump.

Aaron is an historian, author, lecturer, and sci-fi nerd. He is an associate professor of history at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan, and also serves as a faculty technology consultant for the college’s Center for Teaching and Learning. His books include The Chaos Conundrum: Essays on UFOs, Ghosts, and other High Strangeness in our Nonrational and Atemporal World, The Paranormal and the Paranoid: Conspiratorial Science Fiction Television, Extraterrestrials and the American Zeitgeist: Alien Contact Tales Since the 1950, and Conspiracy Theories: The Roots, Themes and Propagation of Paranoid Political and Cultural Narratives.

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Viola Desmond’s Story on Film

The announcement that Viola Desmond will grace Canada’s ten-dollar bill has brought her story to the attention of a new generation of Canadians. It is a story of profound courage and resolve that Iain MacLeod and Brian Murray, two Nova Scotian filmmakers, have told in different but equally compelling ways.

MacLeod’s film was a drama shot in black and white back in 1996, whereas Murray’s film is a documentary made in 2012 for his employer, Communications Nova Scotia, to commemorate Canada Post issuing a stamp in Desmond’s honour. Both films run about 45 minutes.

MacLeod took an oblique approach “November 1946,” never showing the actual incident itself but rather letting the word “spread around the town.” Ultimately he used Desmond’s narrative to set up the tension in order to portray an inter-racial romance. The film was an ambitious costume drama that played to a packed house at the 1996 Atlantic Film Festival. Its unusual length and rough language made further distribution a challenge, and sadly it is mostly unseen today. I remember it vividly, however, as it marked MacLeod as a filmmaker of vision and substance.

For Murray, the story of Viola Desmond was one that needed to be simply and directly retold using modern-day documentary techniques. Because there is little to no footage of Desmond herself, Murray used a blend of dramatic re-creations, punctuated by expert ‘talking head’ testimony and period stock footage.

Perhaps most importantly, Murray’s “Long Road To Justice” provides more depth and insight to a story that continues to gain resonance and momentum. As national audiences now catch up to speed with the narrative, we can all consider the extraordinary contribution Viola Desmond has made to Canada’s cultural fabric.

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Did D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” Play in Halifax?

In the Saturday, October 1st edition of the Halifax Examiner writer and activist El Jones quotes an academic paper by Greg Marquis on whether D. W. Griffith’s epic motion picture The Birth Of A Nation ever played in Nova Scotia.

Marquis “suggests” that through researching Nova Scotian newspapers of the time (1916 and 1917) he discovered that The Birth Of A Nation didn’t play in the province in those years. An interesting assertion indeed. Having taught a film history course at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in association with the National Film Board of Canada for a decade and a half, I had access to information that positively disproves Marquis’ “suggestion”.

According to my sources, which mostly are gleaned from oral history, Griffith’s notoriously racist film played at the Neptune Theatre site, then called the Strand Theatre. Admission was an extraordinary two dollars, when regular admission to film shows in Halifax was regularly only a nickle. Special trains were run up from Yarmouth for showings of the film in Halifax.

All of this controversy comes exactly on the North American release of the 2016 film Birth Of A Nation. Co-written, directed and starring Nate Parker, an African-American who has had his own share of controversy over a past rape allegation, this new film chronicles the slave rebellion of Nat Turner. It is one of the most hotly anticipated films of the season, having made a splashy debut at the Sundance Festival last January, gaining a $17 million distribution deal and a great deal of publicity.

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“Shakespeare 400” at the Dalhousie Art Gallery

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare.

As Film Curator at the Dalhousie Art Gallery, I thought it was a good idea to revisit some of the cinematic versions of the Bard’s plays.

There is certainly no shortage to choose from. I did have a couple of guidelines. One was the 140 minute mark. The seats at the gallery are hard plastic, and most people are used to feature films being around two hours long. Shakespeare’s plays, however, generally run longer in their theatrical form. In film, some of the more famous ones – Roman Polanski’s Macbeth from 1971 for example – run 140 minutes or more. Alas, out went Roman’s well-known and well-loved film.

I’ve also found that people’s attention spans have shrunk a bit in the age of electronic devices and premium episodic television. Longer films will almost always lose audiences. I’ve actually seen this happen at the gallery.

Still, the films I’ve chosen for the series are all worth seeing for one reason or another. They run from the 1930s to the modern era, and include great productions from Orson Welles, Max Reinhardt, Julie Taymor, Ralph Fiennes, and others.

“Shakespeare 400” screens Wednesday evenings at 8:00 pm at the Dalhousie Art Gallery. Admission is free but donations are gratefully accepted; seating is limited so come early to guarantee admission. The series is supported by the Canada Council and Arts Nova Scotia.

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Jack Kerouac’s Maritime Connections

Jack Kerouac, along with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, formed the triumvirate of literary and cultural giants at the center of the Beat Generation universe. They set the stage for the 1960s Counterculture, and a general questioning of all Western values that has lingered on into contemporary times.

Kerouac made several references to Nova Scotia in his works. There’s one, in Tristessa, a novel set in Mexico City. There are two others that describe the same incidents when Kerouac, then a merchant mariner in the midst of World War II, landed in Sydney for a raucous shore leave that ended up in some nice working family’s living room after a wild all-night party.

That incident is recounted in Kerouac’s first published book, The Town and the City, from 1950. He and his editors misspelled Sydney as ‘Sidney’, but otherwise the descriptions ring true. The Beat novelist revisited the story again in his 1967 book, Vanity of Dulouz, where, this time, he got the spelling right.

Kerouac had joined the merchant marine after quitting Columbia University, where he had been on a football scholarship, once his career as a university sportsman was done due to an injury. Feeling like he had to contribute somehow to the war effort, he chose one of the most dangerous occupations, travelling the North Atlantic on a merchant ship.

The visit to Cape Breton was on the way to and from assignments to supply the new American air base in Thule, Greenland. After Kerouac had finished his trips to Thule and had safely returned to land, his ship was torpedoed and sunk.

Kerouac’s references to ‘the endless pine forests of Nova Scotia’ are of particular interest to me, not because we’re related, although that helps, but rather because of the particular strain of Tibetan Buddhism tha eventually found its way to the Bluenose Province. That strain, known locally as Shambhala, came to Nova Scotia when its leader, Chögyam Trungpa, ‘felt something’ when flying over the East Coast.

Trungpa was a legendary figure who left Tibet as a young man in the midst of the 1959 Chinese Invasion. He founded Buddhist Centres in Scotland, Spain and finally Boulder, Colorado, attracting attention and devotees as a powerful, if unorthodox, spiritual leader. His version of Buddhism seemed to include a meeting of the West and the East where spiritual quests seemed to include an unexpectedly hedonistic edge.

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia, and particularly Cape Breton, had begun to fill up with Beat and post-Beat figures such as Robert Frank, Richard Serra and Rudy Wurlitzer. Marshall McLuhan once famously said that artists where the antennae of civilization, foretelling the future. If that’s the case, then perhaps Kerouac did foretell of Nova Scotia’s possible role as some kind of promised land.

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The Ghosts of Icon Bay

I stopped by Icon Bay, the “can’t miss it” giant blue skyscraper at 50 Bedford Highway, on Sunday, June 26th, at 1:00 pm for their advertised open house. Unfortunately, there was no-one there.

Not a sign.

Not a banner.

Nary a real estate agent.


It was fitting, however. The ediface occupies a ghostly spot on the Bedford Basin waterfront, overlooking the railway shunting yards and the Bedford Highway.

Looking a bit like a Borg spaceship, of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame, attracted to Earth by the Fairview container terminal’s endless supply of delicious-looking boxy rectangles, Icon Bay might just have slipped past Halifax’s planners in the height department. Now that it’s built, however, there’s no turning back. Hence my interest in a tour.

Since that didn’t quite turn out as advertised, I can at least examine Icon Bay’s strange site history. It’s a history that is haunted by the ghosts of two dark episodes from Halifax’s past.

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