Thursday, November 30, 2006

Battlestar Galactica: A House Divided

We're halfway through the third season of Battlestar Galactica. My friends love it, my wife loves it, and the critics love it, too. But I'm afraid I've signed off, thanks to three words that appeared at the end of Season 2:

"One Year Later..."

Well, here's three more words for you: Jump The Fucking Shark. Geez, did that move ever piss me off! And since you asked, I'll tell you why: because there's no end in sight.

First of all, I'll acknowledge the obvious: 100% of the TV writers out there are looking for the goose that lays the golden eggs, and when they finally find it, 99.9% of them want that goose to live into a ripe old age. These people live from project to project, pouring their creative energies into one dead-end concept after another, and when one finally grows a shaky pair of legs the writers find themselves creatively sprinting from one episode to the next, hoping against hope to sustain interest, to increase the flow of advertising bucks, to generate ever larger audiences. They will work a concept to the point of exhaustion, then work it a little further, then take an absurd risk to keep it going because once the money starts coming in they know it's too good to be true. It will dry up someday. It could be they'll pay off the mortgage with this project; more likely, the gig will close by the end of the season, and they'll be knocking on producers' doors with their briefcase full of untried concepts.

I've got a lot of compassion for these people, but when my interest in their personal story eclipses my interest in the story they're selling, we have a problem. Enter: Galactica writer and executive producer Ronald D. Moore -- an interesting guy. He has a restless but surprisingly direct intelligence. He was responsible for some of the better episodes in the Star Trek franchise, and I'm curious to see what his next project will look like. I'm just not interested in Galactica anymore, because it has taken on a drearily familiar shape. As with its contemporary 24 and The X-Files before them, Galactica has hooked the viewer, and is gearing up to play it past exhaustion. Viewers of Galactica are going to have to brace themselves for one grim revelation after the next, each one suggesting the potential for coherence and resolution, in a creative environment where, in fact, neither is a possibility.

If the viewer has the stamina of, say, a Northern Pike, this is a game that could stretch for seasons on end. I'm too old to play the Pike ("Jackfish" is what we call 'em on the Prairies). I've got the fight of a Bass: I'll sure let you know when you've hooked me, but if you don't reel me in nice and quick, I'll be off before you know it.

The Post-Mortem: (for those one or two readers who might not have seen the conclusion to Season 2, Spoiler Alert) "One Year Later..." was a distasteful, downright campy act of disrespect to the viewer's intelligence. First of all, it transformed the preceeding two episodes into a trivial, 90-minute red herring. Laura Roslin's dark night of the soul, in which she struggles with whether or not to rig her re-election, has no real point to it. The writers could have let Baltar win the thing without her hand-wringing, because her moral qualms and near moral failure add absolutely no narrative currency to the story's "conclusion".

Secondly, "One Year Later..." is a high-school English Class exercise. We all did it with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. We even subjected the classics to a Monty Python "one year later" treatment. Similarly, Galactica. Poofy hair and floppy guts (I shudder to think what a naturally athletic guy like Jamie Bamber had to eat to resemble the Pillsbury Doughboy), and feisty, once-single women who have become married, embittered shrews ... "Will this be on the test, sir?" Gimme a break.

End Spoiler

Seems to me this was roughly the same stunt that lost me as a viewer of The X-Files. Chris Carter cooked up a season-closing cliff-hanger in which Fox apparently committed suicide, because he was now convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that all his sleuthing for extraterrestrials was based on a fraud. The problem for me was a) I didn't for a minute buy that Fox might possibly be dead because b) the viewers had seen countless little flashes that indicated he was pretty much on the right track.

The whole stunt screamed of desperation, and only gave credence to Stephen King's ascerbic dismissal of the show as "a five-year cock-tease" (some three flaccid years before Carter was finally forced to put the series to bed). I'd have thought Moore was above such pedestrian carny stunts, but I'm clearly wrong. Not that Moore will lose any sleep over my disaffection. My wife still watches the show, thanks in large part to this "cognitive dissonance" that Adam Rogers is so fond of.

To my mind, the real television triumph is Deadwood. Three seasons -- or three-and-a-half, if you include the two forthcoming feature-length TV movies -- and that's all she wrote. It was gritty, had no shortage of gravitas or humour (an ingredient the Galactica stable seems oblvious to) -- in other words, plenty of that thar "cognitive dissonance" we seem to enjoy. And it quit before Al Swearingen morphed into Dr. Claw.

However, do keep me posted -- I always appreciate attempts to woo me back into the fold. But, most importantly, be sure to wake me up when it's over.

The Wilhelm Scream

This is one of those little bits of information that has probably altered the way I shall see movies from this day forward. A nice montage of the Wilhelm Scream is here.



Links from bOing-bOing

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Soundtrack for the Post-Farewell Ride Home Alone

I asked DV for his soundtrack for the ride home alone, after dropping off his daughter. He obliged, and here it is. It is, typically enough, a class act through and through. I only hope I can muster up such composure and aesthetic heights when it's my turn to drop one or the other daughter off at her adult destination.

I do, however, have a soundtrack I play after I've delivered my wife to the airport, for yet another one of her international jaunts. My feelings about those trips are intensely conflicted. On the one hand, she (and by extension, the three of us at home) are incredibly privileged to have her see and contribute to such worthy work in such needy places. On the other hand, it takes a hell of a toll. The summer before last, she visited a site in post-Tsunami India. She came back on my 40th birthday with some incredibly moving stories, but just this spring she let me read her journal from that visit. One year later, I'm reading for the first time her account of a "Grieving Circle", held by a seaside community. Terrible, beyond heart-breaking stories come out, then one young man staggers in from outside. He's drunk and he's raving. Someone translates his ravings for my wife. His young wife was giving birth to their first child, a daughter. Both were swept away.

This story has silently sat in the pages of my wife's journal for the last year, like a tiny, horrible bomb. Who knows what else she's seen? And yet, of the two of us, she is undeniably the most spirited, the most optimistic and the most uplifting. She is my hero.

Every time I drop her off at the airport, I have to stave off my "Dear God, what if something finally happens to her on this trip?" thoughts. No easy task, and the ride home takes exactly 55 minutes. For the last two-and-a-half years, I have used that 55 minute ride to play Contraband by Velvet Revolver at a volume that drowns out the road noise, and the noise in my head.

The album is horrid. It is self-pitying, it is frightened, and it is frightening. Whenever I play it I picture a room full of Richard Bransons cooing into the cauliflower ears of Scott Weiland and Slash and all the other GnR survivors, saying things like: "You poor, coddled, drug-ruined pussy-hounds. Life is so unfair. Now just sing into the mic and tell us how you really feel." The end result is thunderously loud and just self-indulgent enough to distract me from my worst fears -- at least for that crucial hour before I get to face my children again, and muster up what's really there, to be a man and do what has to be done before I crawl into a bed that's too big for me.

Every time I'm fallin' down
All alone I fall to pieces
-- meh. It ain't Shakespeare, but it sure does the job.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Ebert's Best: 1985

1985

1. The Color Purple
2. After Hours
3. The Falcon and the Snowman
4. Prizzi's Honor
5. Ran
6. Witness
7. Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome
8. Lost in America
9. Street Wise
10. Blood Simple

I haven't seen The Color Purple, but I've read the book. When you travel in certain circles ("liiiiiii-brul!"), that book is referred to with the sort of frequency (and insistent reverence) that other circles reserve for the Bible. I'm not quite so fond of the book, but I think Alice Walker did exactly what she set out to do: write a fairy-tale version of her grandmother's life. It still stretches the boundaries a little too far for me to keep with it: I can't quite make the journey from the book's grim beginnings to the final pages where everyone's sitting around the table, taking a toot and waxing blissful philosophic. But maybe The Color Purple is America's Les Misérables. If that's the case, a more current translation of Hugo's classic is long overdue.

But let's talk about movies. After Hours is a funny movie, but not in a "ha ha" way. I originally saw it with the crowd it was made for: college kids. Snickers and cynical guffaws were abundant in the early minutes (I delivered a few of them myself), but gradually slacked off as the movie continued. The group I was with repaired to a cafe afterwards. Everyone agreed we'd just seen a comedy, but no-one was entirely certain what to make of it. I probably saw it once a year for the next five years, and I have only one fixed opinion of it: there will never be another Peggy Lee song used more effectively than Scorsese's framing of "Is That All There Is?"

Fast first impressions: The Falcon & The Snowman -- one of Sean Penn's more memorable turns as a weasle. I took a date to see Prizzi's Honor. That's not the worst choice I've made for a date movie, but it's pretty close. And I didn't agree with the critics, either. Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome -- oog. I can't believe this movie came from the same guy who brought us the first two Max movies. He removed the teeth and claws before he released the tiger the third time out. Lost in America -- I laughed when the biker flipped David (Brooks) the bird, but that's where it ended (also kinda cute to see Linda (Haggard) stupidly losing the nest-egg on "22" -- the magic number for the young refugee couple in Casablanca). As for Blood Simple, I grant the Coen Brothers the sort of prestige that some people give Robert Altman, so I will save my thoughts on this and other movies in their ouevre for later.

We're left with Ran and Witness, my two favourite movies that year. Witness has drifted somewhat from my favour since then (I giggled the first time I heard John Waters' response to people censoring his early work: "Well, who do I have in my corner, whenever I encounter something that's just too much for my sensibilities? Who's going to save me from the barn-raising scene in Witness?"). And I saw Ran after visiting an eye-specialist following a hockey injury. I had those eye-drops that stretched my pupil to the max, and saw this whole movie in horrid, hazy glow. It's a gruelling, bloody, epic retelling of King Lear, and it's every bit as horrific and moving as a viewer could expect from Kurosawa.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Ebert's Best: 1983 & 1984

1983

1. The Right Stuff
2. Terms of Endearment
3. The Year of Living Dangerously
4. Fanny and Alexander
5. El Norte
6. Testament
7. Silkwood
8. Say Amen, Somebody
9. Risky Business
10. The Return of Martin Guerre

Of the bunch, the two I'd see again are Terms of Endearment (Larry McMurtry rules!) and El Norte. In 1983 a common rite of passage in small Canadian universities was a humanitarian trip to the coffee fields of Nicaragua or El Salvador. I was too fiscally minded to add an extra few hundred bucks to my mounting school debt, so I stayed home and watched this movie instead. The filmmakers try to cram every possible illegal immigrant experience into the film's two-and-a-half-hour running time, and they pretty much succeed. The story works as an emotionally compelling melodrama, because it is personal and not overtly political.

1984

1. Amadeus
2. Paris, Texas
3. Love Streams
4. This is Spinal Tap
5. The Cotton Club
6. Secret Honor
7. The Killing Fields
8. Stranger than Paradise
9. Choose Me
10. Purple Rain

I somehow doubt Mozart was the giddy frat-boy we see in Amadeus, but historical accuracy is beside the point. This is a personal exposure of Solieri's jealousy eating him alive. Again, there were moral currents to the story that set off depth charges for a churched lad like myself. I loved it. I loved Solieri for saying everything I was too timid to say. And I loved the music and the spectacle for transporting me to a place where Solieri's message had to be heard above it all. It seems fitting that this movie was released the same year as The Killing Fields -- Dith Pran's closing line, "There is nothing to forgive", pretty much sums up my personal ideal.

This Is Spinal Tap -- a little of my public love for this movie is here.

I loved The Cotton Club. Was there a story involved? I can't remember. But I have no trouble recalling Gregory Hines tap-dancing with a couple of old-timers, and a very young Tom Waits looking like he was having fun.

I didn't much like Paris, Texas (though Ry Cooder's score for it was a treat). And Purple Rain? One of the year's ten best movies?! Methinks a certain popular reviewer has a very soft spot in his heart for a certain Appollonia Kotero....

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Ebert's Best: 1981 & 1982

1981

1. My Dinner with Andre
2. Chariots of Fire
3. Gates of Heaven
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark
5. Heartland
6. Atlantic City
7. Thief
8. Body Heat
9. Tess
10. REDS

Between 1980 to 1985 I probably saw more movies than I've seen since. Were this my list, not Ebert's, you'd see Alien, First Blood, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Victor/Victoria and Sean Connery's High Noon set in space, Outland. I saw that last one twice in as many days, the second time ensconced in a row of female classmates who shrieked at the sight of the strangled man whose tongue resembled a blue tennis ball. Yep. Definitely Outland.

Yahmdallah calls REDS a "spinach movie", and that's how I'd categorize most of these movies (with some obvious exceptions). The same bunch who attended that Outland viewing attended Tess (we were supposed to have read the book for school). Typical high school senario: endless chatter and ham-fisted flirting. But both genders were silent when Natassja Kinski bit into the strawberry.

I saw My Dinner With Andre and Gates of Heaven several years later, when I could almost qualify as a young man. Both of them left a deep impression on me. In the former, you had a conversation between two people trying to come to grips with the cosmos; in the latter, you witnessed (among many, many other sights) two children facing their genetic destiny. I saw both of these films on VHS. Both of them forced me outside, where I could walk and weep.

Chariots of Fire -- if you grew up in Evangelical circles, you HAD to see this movie. You didn't have to like it.

Atlantic City -- anyone who's lived in Toronto for a few years has seen this movie after staggering home and shutting down the subway (at 11:30 p.m. -- tres provincial, is our Toronto). CITY TV mogul Moses Znaimer is the would-be Polanski-esque gangster in this flick, and his station broadcasts this movie every three weeks. For all I know, it's a great movie; I've usually drifted off after the lemon scene.

Body Heat -- about 30 minutes into this movie, William Hurt is jogging by the sea. He shuffles to a halt -- a sweaty, worked-out mess -- and lights a cigarette. So too, this movie: it hits the sweet spot so hard, it is a verifiable hazard to your health.

Raiders of the Lost Ark
-- I don't really want to comment on this film. Lucas and Spielberg got all the elements so fantastically right, they felt the obligation to try again. And again. And again?! Say it ain't so, and leave it alone.

1982

1. Sophie's Choice
2. Diva
3. E.T.
4. Fitzcarraldo / Burden of Dreams
5. Personal Best
6. Das Boot
7. Mephisto
8. Moonlighting
9. The Verdict
10. The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time

In the summer of 1983 I vowed never to see E.T. So far, so good. However, I'd very much like to see The Weavers, Fitzcarraldo and Burden of Dreams.

My thoughts on Das Boot are here. And Mephisto is a terrifically disturbing film. A rich, successful artist is such a rarity, how could a mediocrity not sell out once the opportunity is finally presented to him ... by the Nazis?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Ebert's Best: 1980

1980

1. The Black Stallion
2. Raging Bull
3. Kagemusha
4. Being There
5. Ordinary People
6. The Great Santini
7. The Empire Strikes Back
8. Coal Miner's Daughter
9. American Gigolo
10. Best Boy

Saw most of Ebert's picks for this year, some of them only once, back in the day. The Black Stallion might be worth another visit. The only recollection I have of that movie is, "This sure ain't Star Wars."

In that same vein, I went with a grade nine classmate to see Kagemusha because the movie's ad campaign went something like this: "GEORGE LUCAS PRESENTS KAGEMUSHA: THE SHADOW WARRIOR!! ... (a film by akira kurosawa) ...." I expected a big screen version of Shogun, minus Richard Chamberlain; what I got was my first exposure to AKIRA KUROSAWA -- in lurid colour, no less. The nightmare sequence where Kagemusha is tormented by the ghost of the man whose identity he's assumed was particularly disturbing. When Ran came out some years later, I was among the first in line.

I've seen Raging Bull a bunch of times, to the point where I'm disinclined to see it again. This movie is a visual stunner (including the plus-sized DeNiro), and the acting is downright feral. But I can't help thinking, "This is a young man's film." A brilliant young man, to be sure. Scorsese seems to be staring hard at bad decisions driven by untamed ego -- youthful decisions, the sort that are given a pass when a man chooses the path of maturity. If you like your movies to be moral fables, this is the one to watch.

Being There: Peter Sellers used to claim his unique ability as an actor was to disappear. For those of us who grew up watching the Pink Panther movies on TV, that claim was a little hard to swallow. This movie went a long way to supporting his self-assessment. Brilliant.

Ordinary People: People were blown away by this movie (me, too). There were only two conversations that took place afterward: either you discussed the psychologically perceptive script, or you discussed the acting talent. No-one suspected Mary Tyler Moore had this role in her; everyone wanted to see what the cast members -- particularly the kids (Timothy Hutton and Elizabeth McGovern) -- would do next. Of the bunch, Sutherland remains the most interesting one to watch. As for Hutton and McGovern, well ... funny how these things go, isn't it?

The Great Santini -- a theatre friend of mine once said his fondest dream would be to cast Robert Duvall as King Lear. Duvall's bullhorn stylings in movies like Gone in 60 Seconds would make this casting call look dubious, but another look at The Great Santini (particularly when contrasted to The Apostle) reveals an actor of substantial range and subtlety. Hey, I'd pay money to see a Duvall/Lear.

And finally, to complete the year's circular theme: The Empire Strikes Back: Lucas's greatest crime was to follow up Star Wars with a sequel that improved on the original. My take: Lucas had women of strong character on his payroll, including his then-wife Marcia (editor) and screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who looked at his typing, identified the emotional heart of the matter, then took the appropriate care to frame it properly. Alas, this was never to occur again.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Thanksgiving Soundtrack

A belated happy Thanksgiving to my American friends. I hope today's weather for all of you is sunny and cheerful, encouraging you to walk off some of yesterday's turkey, Grand Marnier Apricot Sausage Stuffing and Pecan Rum Pie (waiting for that recipe, DV).

This week was just another week for us Canuckleheads -- stuffed to the ribs with predictably overwhelming ordinariness, plus one or two surprise bonuses. In my case, a friend from the prairies came for a visit. We both grew up in the same small town, and have known each other for over 35 years. Our conversation is a dialogue that began in his farm yard in 1969, and continues to this day. We reserve small talk for each other's children.

Anyhow, the soundtrack to the dialogue was chiefly what you see to your right "On The Platter". I have to say that Janiva Magness and John Hiatt do not deliver music that encourages conversation; their vocal delivery is so immediate and compelling, it can actually stop conversation. They're best played in the car, when you drive solo and require some gentle prodding of those emotions glowing in your gut. Of course, once that takes flame, the impulse is to share, share, share so I play them as I prepare supper and pour the wine. Ms. Magness is a recent discovery, and she is all boozy, lusty, blues -- Do I Move You? has such direct appeal, I'm afraid to sing her superlatives lest I start sounding like a stalker.

John Hiatt is someone I've followed since I saw him on the Slow Turning tour. He reassembled The Goners for Beneath This Gruff Exterior, and this album takes its place behind Bring The Family as the Hiatt album I am most passionate about.

James McMurtry made a suppertime appearance. I love Childish Things -- McMurtry's vocal delivery brings to mind Lou Reed at his absolute best, when he's pinned down the humanity and the humour of his beloved weirdos, and brought just the right telling details to the surface to suggest the unfathomable depths below. McMurtry produces literate and un-snarky songcraft -- a brainy rarity that is wholly welcome.

Dianne Reeves -- this is actually her soundtrack to Good Night & Good Luck, a movie I've not yet seen. When I first played the disc, I posted the original album cover art, but it bugged me to see David Strathairn's mug where her beautiful face ought to be. (I've nothing against his acting, which I suspect is note-perfect for the film. But this is about Ms. Reeves' music, and she should be front and centre.) This album is 50s era club singing, which I've always been fond of. Her vocal quality is similar to Ella Fitzgerald's, but her stylings are more in sync with Sarah Vaughn or even Dinah Washington. The opening track, Straighten Up And Fly Right, is a brilliant start: Ms. Reeves takes a song that is usually played as an ironic lark and draws out just enough tension to suggest a seriousness and moral ambiguity that might be lurking beneath the jaunty lyrics. The disc has been in continuous play for the last four weeks, and is likely to stay there for the next four.

As August came to a close with its short nights and dreams deferred, and September hove into view with its schedules and goals, I found I had a real hankering for the music of The Alan Parsons Project -- particularly Sirius / Eye In The Sky, a pair of songs that always struck me as cool, cynical and depressing in a bad way. And yet there I was, in the mall's music store, leafing through the "A" file, then (with a shake of my head) the "P" file. I'd pull out the most recent "best of" compilation, consider its physical heft and debate the merits of its possible purchase. I knew I'd regret it if I bought it, but would I be able to shrug it off as a "lesson confirmed", or would the purchase nudge me further down the slope of indulgence and self-loathing?

Fortunately, Yahmdallah came by with the cure: he recommended The Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. If the Alan Parsons Project were to take a hit of goofy gas, then step off the plane in Tokyo and start playing, they might sound like this. Trust me, it's a good thing -- The Flaming Lips serve up a warm-hearted, esoteric goofiness that begs for repeated spins.



Finally, there were those hours that called for music without words. For that, I resorted to Summer Sketches, by the Bill Mays Trio, and New Dawn, by Dominic Miller and Neil Stacey. All in all, a fabrujous soundtrack for someone who wasn't celebrating Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Ebert's Best: 1979

It's a shame this year doesn't have any entries by Robert Altman (God rest his soul). Or maybe not. When it comes to Altman, I think the films that work (Vincent & Theo, The Player) are breath-taking; the ones that don't (pretty much the rest of them -- though I still need to see McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville, and a few other uncontested "greats") are indulgent, odious and usually both. In the end, he was a big man and a rascal, who didn't seem the least concerned with the negative opinions of pissants like myself. I'm sorry he's gone.

1979

1. Apocalypse Now
2. Breaking Away
3. The Deer Hunter
4. The Marriage of Maria Braun
5. Hair
6. Saint Jack
7. Kramer vs. Kramer
8. The China Syndrome
9. Nosferatu
10. 10

Apocalypse Now -- my experience(s) of this film are on record here.

Breaking Away -- You won't often hear me moaning, "They don't make movies like this anymore." But in this case they really don't, and I wish they did.

The Deer Hunter -- I thought it was brilliant the first three times I saw it. Then I read Goldman's Bambi comparison. Then I saw it again when I was 21. Now I'm not so sure. But it's worth pointing out that this is effectively the first year American movies tried to go back to Vietnam.

Hair -- I had a grade nine classmate who saw this movie more times than I saw Star Wars. She grew her hair out and stopped bathing; the most embarrassing thing I did was jump around my back yard, waving a large stick. But this is indeed an infectious movie.

Kramer vs. Kramer -- Saw this movie only once, back when. I remember thinking Streep was impossibly mean and confused; Hoffman was impossibly quick to adapt; and the kid was impossibly cute. I might think differently if I were inclined to seek it out.

Nosferatu -- this is the Herzog version. A local TV station once ran this movie, then the original, back to back. There are some differences, to be sure. But I expected substantially more. I'm not sure why Ebert is so fond of this particular exercise in homage.

Update: "It seemed as though there would always be another Altman film to look forward to." Michael Blowhard suggests he might be the prototypical Altman loon "profiled" by The Onion, and gives a stirring farewell consideration to the man and his unique ouevre.

Console Wars: Part One(?)

Last Thursday, just before the release of Sony's Playstation 3 and the Nintendo Wii, I was gearing up to prognosticate the "winner". I wrote a few paragraphs, then promptly quit. I was creeping toward genuine analysis, and when I realized going further would require some basic groundrules, or even (*gasp*) a little research, I headed for the exit.

I could not, for the life of me, see the appeal of the new Playstation, and simply assumed this was true across the board. I've always maintained that "realistic" graphics do not make for better games, and that the game industry has, with precious exception, become moribund and unimaginative. Any console focussing on graphics and sound was focussing on bells and whistles, and fated to limited success. Because Nintendo seemed to be pushing its console just outside the envelope, while Microsoft and Sony were keeping their's tucked safely in its folds, I picked Nintendo as the winner.

It's still too early to declare a fast winner, but my instincts re: Sony were a tad off the mark. The first round of PS3s disappeared like so many Tickle Me Elmos, and it's likely to sell in decent numbers until Microsoft releases its next generation of xBox. When I asked my 18-year-old nephew about this consumer response, he acknowledged the craziness of it all. He figured his current PC could be upgraded to PS3 status with less than $300 worth of new hardware, while the PS3 pricetag is nearly $800 before taxes. Still, he had to admit his first instinct was to line up with his buddies and shell out the extra bucks.

That urge is not altogether foreign to me. But when it comes to spending money on digital entertainment, I'll sit out the "wars" and wait for a clear winner -- or, more likely, reluctantly choose a platform that appeals to my current life parameters. I'm too old and too happily married and much too pleased with family life to waste time charting possible trends in the wi-fi world. Based on this, this and this, it's possible Nintendo will score a little more cash from our family budget in the next few years.

Or maybe it's just a matter of which customer line I'd prefer to join (cartoon link from the bro).

Monday, November 20, 2006

Southwest Turkey Chili

One reason why I prefer the Canadian Thanksgiving date over the American is its proximity to Christmas. It's nice to have at least one month sitting between the Thanksgiving feed bag and the December graze fest. It's not like I'm slimming down in that solitary month, but at least my pancreas is getting a bit of a break.

Still, I'd gladly pull up a chair at Darko's this week. For his (and your) turkey left-overs, I provide you with the recipe for Southwest Turkey Chili, from the out-of-print Aqui Recipes, Vol. 1 by Rob Francis, with improvements by DV (left-over roasted chicken works well, too):

3 Tbsp Olive Oil
3/4 Cup Carrots, diced
3/4 Cup Celery, diced
3/4 Cup Zucchini, diced
1/2 Cup Red Onion, diced
1/4 Cup Red Bell Pepper, diced
1 tsp Garlic, minced
1 Tbsp Chipotle chiles, minced
1 tsp New Mexico chile powder
2 tsp Cumin, ground
1/2 tsp Black pepper
1/4 tsp Salt

1 1/2 Cup Black beans, drained
1 1/2 Cup Chicken stock (low sodium)
1 1/2 Cup Tuscan tomatoes, strained
1 tsp Oregano
3 Cup Turkey, diced
2 tsp Hershey's real chocolate

Heat the oil, and saute the next 11 ingredients until vegetables are crisp-tender. Add the chicken stock, tomatoes, black beans, turkey and chocolate and let it simmer for 20 minutes before serving. My daughters like it like this, but adding a little of the right hot sauce to your bowl doesn't hurt it any, either.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Ebert's Best: 1977 &1978

My daughters are home from school today, thanks to one of those curriculum-based "holidays" instituted by the school. Yesterday, when we discussed the potential activities for today, we considered heading out to see Flushed Away. I've seen just about everything the Wallace & Gromit team has produced, and I'm sure I'll enjoy this movie too. But as we talked, I had to put a muzzle on my inner child; like everyone else this weekend, he wants to take a date to see the new James Bond.

"Hard to believe," I said, while staring wistfully at my older daughter, "but before you came along, your mother and I went out to the movies every week. Left work, met for a quick beer at the pub, then dashed across the street for a show."

I don't make a habit of this sort of reminiscing (for what it's worth, this week has been an abnormal slog for the lot of us). And I mention it only because responding to this list has made my recollection of the past look downright dubious. Off to the movies, at least once a week? Plus movies on the VCR -- often on Friday, Saturday and Sunday? How is it possible I missed so many ostensibly great movies?!?

These lists have been, as the politicians are fond of saying, "humbling". But since I've already outed myself as a dilettante, I might as well keep going.

1977

1. 3 Women
2. Providence
3. The Late Show
4. A Woman's Decision
5. Jail Bait
6. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
7. Aguirre: Wrath of God
8. Annie Hall
9. Sorcerer
10. Star Wars

Let's start with the obvious -- 1977 was the year I first went to the movies. Just go here if you don't already know my Star Wars story.

Close Encounters -- saw this way back then, too. First impression: this sure ain't Star Wars. Second impression, 20 years later: what, exactly, was the big deal over this movie? The first three seasons of The X Files were an enormous improvement on the entire concept (but then I've always been partial to paranoia).

Annie Hall -- wow. Woody Allen discovered his swing and knocked it out of the park with this one. This really should have made it to my Fifteen Favourite list (maybe I'll just quietly remove Gidget...).

Aguirre: The Wrath of God -- my favourite Herzog movie. Unfortunately, you'll see exactly why this is so when we get to 1982.

1978

1. An Unmarried Woman
2. Days of Heaven
3. Heart of Glass
4. Stroszek
5. Autumn Sonata
6. Interiors
7. Halloween
8. National Lampoon's Animal House
9. Kings of the Road
10. Superman

Interiors -- the final scene where the sisters artfully arrange themselves for the camera got me giggling. I don't think that's the response Woody was hoping for.

Halloween -- when I was 16 I attended a Halloween party, and this was what we were watching. At 16 years old (in 1981) that moment when Jamie Lee Curtis runs from room to room and discovers all her dismembered friends was, I thought, sufficiently scary. I watched it again last year and was struck with two realizations: 1) by today's standards, this movie has a leaden and ineffectual pace; 2) the young and adorable Ms. Curtis was (by today's standards) a thick-ankled lass!

National Lampoon's Animal House -- I'm setting myself up for a fall, but here goes: First of all, I don't mind admitting this is a truly entertaining flick. But that's part of my problem with it. In 1979, in my suburban grade nine classroom, every single one of my male classmates had seen this film and memorized swaths of its dialogue. They also committed to memory every word uttered by Cheech & Chong ("Dave? Dave's not here!"). Throw in Saturday Night Live and you had a three-cornered template for life. In Grade Nine. In the suburbs. I've gone back to the old neighborhood and caught up with most of my friends from that single year, and I can't help but get a little depressed by what a corpulent, brain-dead bunch they've turned into. Maybe there weren't the proper parental checks and balances to prevent this outcome. And maybe your grade nine class was different. But I think this movie had an undue influence on these feckless kids of bourgeois privilege.

Superman -- I've always had problems with this character. He's only compelling when he's Clark Kent. Otherwise, he's Steve Austin (the original, mind) with a cape.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Youthful Desires UNLEASHED!


That's right: buy now and avoid the rush! (The next thing I'll be unleashing is a host of promotional e-mails, so brace yourself.) I should add that I rated the book "suitable for teens" so that my storefront and the sample pages are accessible to everyone. But I think it's only fair to say the book contains some rather salty material that parents (I hope) would filter or (better yet) discuss with their teens. Exercise your own discretion, or drop me an e-mail of inquiry.

Excerpts:

Footnote To A Bread Recipe

Kissing Einstein


Tar And Feathers


Mike Mentzer, R.I.P.

Youthful Desires

The Spirit of '76


Christian Punk


"Nullus est liber tam malus ut non aliqua parte prosit" -- Pliny The Younger

Monday, November 13, 2006

Ebert's Best: 1976

1976

1. Small Change
2. Taxi Driver
3. The Magic Flute
4. The Clockmaker
5. Network
6. Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare d'agosto (Swept Away)
7. Rocky
8. All The President's Men
9. Silent Movie
10. The Shootist

The Shootist -- the Duke's final opportunity to sink his teeth into a character piece. Not many people bother with this film, though, and I think it's due to the by-the-numbers conclusion. This could have been a great movie if the final pages had been run through the typewriter a few more times.

Silent Movie -- love it. The 70s deserved Mel Brooks, and he the 70s. Neither of these two phenomena had the legs to stretch into the 80s, and maybe it's just as well for all of us.

All The President's Men -- only saw this once, and that was many, many years ago. I watched it after reading William Goldman's account of the absurdities of its production. I was surprised at just how engaging it was. I was also impressed with Woodward and Bernstein's dogged legwork. I somehow doubt that standard is being applied to print journalists anymore.

Rocky -- it's easy to forget just how good this movie was. All those sequels ... *sigh*. Stallone was so personally attached to this film and its success, that the story became about him. Now every movie he does is about him, while there's less and less of him that is of interest.

Taxi Driver -- the library in my family's church had numerous autobiographies ("testimonials") that portayed New York City as one huge, seething pit. Some of the details in these books were so sickening (and not a little prurient) that when I finally saw this movie, the experience seemed a little ... tame. Still, it adheres the closest to my childhood picture of NYC, in contrast to, say, Woody Allen's movies.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Brilliant

Searchie draws a parallel between po-mo pyrotechnic linguist Rumy and the esteemed Sufi poet and mystic Rumi, here.

Ebert's Best: 1974 & 1975

1974

1. Scenes from a Marriage
2. Chinatown
3. The Mother and the Whore
4. Amarcord
5. The Last Detail
6. The Mirages
7. Day for Night
8. Mean Streets
9. My Uncle Antoine
10. The Conversation

Word is The Shawshank Redemption is the most popular movie in North America, but I don't understand how that can beat out Chinatown. I guess you just can't beat a happy ending.

The Last Detail -- an interesting throwback of a film, but here's the telling detail: Jack Nicholson is vertically challenged. Just look at that shot with the three sailors walking down the street. I know Randy Quaid is a tall galoot, but that only emphasizes the fact that Jack is short. Now flash forward to his scene on the beach with Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give. I figure the only way he gets the height advantage while walking side by side with Keaton is if the director digs a trench for the lady.

The Conversation -- a creepy little film, especially when you consider (as Ebert rightly points out) how inept Harry (Hackman) is at his job. The film's conclusion is a study in paranoia. (Trivial aside: there's a delightful rumour that Francis Ford Coppola wrote the first draft screenplay for The Godfather while enjoying focaccia sandwiches and espresso at Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store in San Francisco. If the big man penned something at Mario's, I'd guess The Conversation was probably that movie -- Mario's seating is comfortable, but not so comfy a guy could pencil a script for a three-hour movie. In any case, North Beach is obviously a locale dear to Coppola's heart; his restaurant is a stone's throw away from Mario's.)

I'm not sure how I missed seeing Mon Oncle Antoine (a Canadian film that had nearly as much local airplay as Goin' Down The Road), but that's just the tip of the ice-berg. Check out:

1975

1. Nashville
2. Night Moves
3. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
4. Farewell, My Lovely
5. The Phantom of Liberty
6. A Brief Vacation
7. And Now My Love
8. A Woman Under the Influence
9. In Celebration
10. Dog Day Afternoon

It pains me to admit that of all the critically acclaimed movies in this list, the only one I've seen is the Raymond Chandler flick. But what a flick! I remain partial to Bogey's turn as Sam Spade in The Big Sleep, but Mitchum's feet were born to fill those gumshoes.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Battle of the 80s Bands: I Declare The Winner!

"Either you loved U2, or you liked them fine," writes Dan Kois in Slate's R.E.M. vs. U2. "Either you loved R.E.M., or you hated them."

That's a good sentiment to get the e-mails coming, but it doesn't quite capture where I was in the 80s. U2? R.E.M.? I liked 'em both just fine. But I loved, loved, loved Talking Heads.

The closest I ever got to seeing any of these bands perform was in the movies (by the time I was finally in physical proximity to a U2 or R.E.M. concert, they'd lost my interest -- I'd moved on to Lou Reed and T Bone Burnett). In 1982 we had U2 Live at Red Rocks: Under A Blood Red Sky. Having seen the Red Rocks amphitheatre, I was duly impressed by the bonfires on the cliffs. I thought Bono demonstrated a nifty grasp of rock theatrics with his flag-waving, but his little jig with the feathered blonde from the audience struck me as being a bit twee.

A year later Talking Heads gave us Stop Making Sense. It's just grossly unfair of me to even begin to compare the two performances. One movie caught a glimpse of a very young band on the rise, the other demonstrated a journeyman band's absolute mastery of music and theatrics. A more even-handed compare and contrast would be SMS with U2's Zoo TV. Tina Weymouth reportedly came backstage during a Zoo TV concert and told the Irish rock stars this was what she'd hoped her little band would amount to. She was there, she's entitled to that opinion. I still think U2 comes off looking like bunch of copycats and hucksters. Bono's "sincere" set, when he takes off the shades and sings the obligatory numbers from Joshua Tree, *really* kicks me in the gonads. And lest we somehow misconstrue his "message", he skips backstage and reappears as MacPhisto. Eef -- Stop Making Sense is looking better and better all the time.

These days my CD collections of both U2 and R.E.M. have been shoved to the back of a dusty closet. As for Talking Heads ... it's just not Friday night without at least one or two songs from their still-impressive body of work.

Ebert's Best: 1972 & 1973

1972

1. The Godfather
2. Chloe in the Afternoon
3. Le Boucher
4. Murmur of the Heart
5. The Green Wall
6. The Sorrow and the Pity
7. The Garden of Finzi-Continis
8. Minnie and Moskowitz
9. Sounder
10. The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid

The Godfather -- I remember a babysitter reading the book and telling me the movie was the biggest moneymaker ever (I read the book as an adolescent, and wondered what my former babysitter had made of the three-page sex scene). Also in '72, my father came back from playing hockey and said a number of his team-mates had seen the movie the night before. Their favourite scenes? The knife through the hand, the bullet in the head and, of course, Mr. Ed in the bed. You'd think these hosers had tripped across a time machine and watched Robocop. When I finally saw it, I was surprised to see it was such an incomparable improvement on a book that had been (sex scene aside) a truly tedious read.

1973


1. Cries and Whispers
2. Last Tango in Paris
3. The Emigrants/The New Land
4. Blume in Love
5. The Iceman Cometh
6. The Exorcist
7. The Day of the Jackal
8. American Graffiti
9. Fellini's Roma
10. The Friends of Eddie Coyl

Last Tango In Paris seemed a little over-the-top and not particularly erotic when I finally saw it, but then I'd already seen Body Heat which drips with a carnal sweat that LTIP only begins to muster. LTIP paved the way, I suppose, so I'll give it that. And Brando's -- sorry: "Paul's" -- meltdown at his dead wife's viewing is harrowing, visceral stuff.

The Emigrants/The New Land
-- I attended a Mennonite high school, and had a grade 11 teacher determined to impress upon his class of horny would-be punk rockers exactly what their ancestors put up with to get us this far. We spent a day watching these films. Wow. Mission accomplished. The scene where a little girl dies after eating dough that hand't yet risen is particularly heart-rending. And that's just the beginning.

The Exorcist -- speaking of harrowing, visceral stuff, this movie still has it in spades. (Hm -- a good year for Max Von Sydow.)

The Day of the Jackal
-- we know how the story ends, and yet the movie's tension is strung to a fine pitch. "Intelligent thriller" need not be an oxymoron.

American Graffiti -- it's hard to believe this movie, which kicked off Happy Days and innumerable other Boomer nostalgia-fests, nearly died in post-production. But then I suppose that remains the occupational hazard of just about any movie (excepting anything under the "Star Wars" rubric after 1977). A deceptively sweet movie with a bitter aftertaste. And I second Yahmdallah's tie-in: be sure to watch Dazed And Confused as a companion movie.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Ebert's Best: 1971

1971

1. The Last Picture Show
2. McCabe and Mrs. Miller
3. Claire's Knee
4. The French Connection
5. Sunday, Bloody Sunday
6. Taking Off
7. Carnal Knowledge
8. Tristana
9. Goin' Down The Road
10. Bed and Board

Of the four I've seen, Goin' Down The Road is the most familiar -- and anyone who lived in 70s small-town Canada could tell you why. Cable television was a privilege reserved for people in fancy-pants cities. With a decent antenna on our roof we could pick up four channels (including the all-French one); with a pair of rabbit ears, we could get two, maybe three. The only channel we received with any clarity was the Corp., and if they weren't broadcasting Hockey Night In Canada, they were showing Goin' Down The Road. When SCTV cooked up and served Garth and Gord and Fiona and Alice (Part 1, Part 2), you can be sure the nation laughed -- with relief. The CBC also put GDTR on hiatus. When I caught up with it ten years later, I was surprised to see how affecting it actually was. If you can't Netflix this, then I suppose you could settle for The Last Picture Show (sheesh -- what a downer year!).

I think Carnal Knowledge is a strange and very uneven movie. The sexual tension in the early scenes between Jack Nicholson and Candice Bergen is as finely tuned as any of the famous Bogey/Bacall exchanges, and communicates precisely that sickly thrill that takes over two people who realize they are about to do something very, very bad. But the Bogey/Bacall movies were finally about people rediscovering and holding true to a standard, while this movie is about establishing hurtful behavior as a personal norm. Guess which of these templates makes for the sort of movie you'd like to see again and again?

These days, when The French Connection is referred to it's for the car-chase. A revolutionary use of storyboarding, stunts and editing to be sure, but let me just evoke the "ripple effect" clause: if that's all this film is going to be remembered for, I'd say we've left the grocery store with the wrong parcel of goodies. This flick has several memorable "movie moments", but the best of them is Popeye Doyle's distracted indifference when Cloudy tells him he's just blown away another cop. When I first saw that, it took me a while to realize that my point of view had become completely in sync with Popeye's. Now that's a movie moment, and you ain't gonna pull it off with just a car-chase!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Progress!

Hey, look what landed on my doorstep today:



I was, quite honestly, blown away by the overall quality. I've been in the habit of buying from small publishers, and what I got today not only met but exceeded my expectations. Technology is indeed a wonderful thing.

Right now the red marker is out, and I'm scrawling up a storm.



We'll let Remembrance Day take its course. Then Youthful Desires shall have its way.

Ebert's Best: 1970

1970

1. Five Easy Pieces
2. M*A*S*H
3. The Revolutionary
4. Patton
5. Woodstock
6. My Night at Maud's
7. Adalen 31
8. The Passion of Anna
9. The Wild Child
10. Fellini Satyricon

Five Easy Pieces -- a cringe-inducing movie, but not a "bad" movie. The way Nicholson's character tries to take everyone down a peg can be simultaneously grating and entertaining, the classic example being his request for toast from an embittered old waitress who doesn't have it on her menu. He's too clever to be doing what he does, and he's too stupid to adopt a little compassion. Playing piano in a traffic jam is indicative of his mindset: pent-up frustration is the only impetus that gets him to explore wiggle-room. I like the film, but I dislike its ripple effect. I've heard the diner scene described as "the triumph of an Everyman". It's certainly an emotionally rewarding scene, but I consider it anything but a moral triumph. I'd say if the Fast & Furious movies are indirectly responsible for an increase in deaths from reckless driving, Five Easy Pieces is indirectly responsible for college kids mouthing off to weary waitresses at the IHOP. Another ripple: a risible Coke commercial that ripped off FEP's traffic scene and ended on a triumphant note with everyone drinking high-fructose corn syrup.

M*A*S*H -- an early example of Altman's ability to sell cynicism and cruelty as the weapons of choice for the secular saint. I first saw it when I was 18, and even at an age when testosterone and hormones overrode any instinct toward political correctness (a term that hadn't yet been coined) the shower-room exposure of Hot Lips struck me as unforgivable. But that's Altman for you. He neither excuses nor apologizes for his characters' behavior. Twenty years later he got Huey Lewis to piss on a woman's corpse. A real subtle "message" there, for you moviegoers who weren't happy with Raymond Carver's brand of understatement.

Patton -- I'd like to see this on the big screen. On any size of TV screen, it feels as if it should be an Off-Broadway one-man monologue. I'd like to see that, too.

Woodstock -- a terrific movie that fully captivates the first time around. But I defy anyone to give it a second viewing and not hit the "next scene" button.

Fellini Satyricon -- saw it, but I don't remember it. So maybe I didn't see it.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Christian Punk

“Drew," said Wil, "where are we dropping you off?”

“Uh, Carol's parents. San Jacinto. You need a bed, or are you heading for home?”

Wil sighed. “Home.” Home to Lisa. Home to Rodney, their dough-faced sprat with the toxic diapers. Dear God—sometimes he couldn't believe the boy was his. Wil could stare and stare into those beady eyes, trying to find some sign of...

Oh, who was he trying to kid? It was physically impossible to stare into Rodney's eyes: right from the moment the whelp left the womb Rodney had the attention span of a chimp on speed. Wil couldn't stare into those eyes if he'd gone
A Clockwork Orange on the brat and strapped him to a chair. Rodney's sole purpose in life was to bookend Wil's misery with careful consideration of what to destroy next. Rodney wrapped his chubby mitts and gums around food, records, books, stray lyric sheets and guitar picks—anything physical that had emotional ties to Wil's soul, including, especially, Lisa. Lisa, once a curvy, nervy, undeniable piece of the Lord's handiwork, now a depressed, misshapen lump who ate ice cream straight from the bucket. Who got lost in thought three minutes into intercourse. Who smelled like she'd just lost a talcum fight with herself...

“Home to the wife and kid,” said Drew. He clucked his tongue. “You lucky dog. Sure wish I was spending the night with my Carol.”

I'll bet you do, thought Wil. He shoved his hip against the amp until the dull ache increased to a sharp pain. He stopped, threw his head back against the kit, and gave up. His hip and head throbbed, feeling worse than ever.

And the truth was, Wil wished he was spending the night with Drew's Carol, too.

Ebert's Best: 1968 & 1969

1968

1. The Battle of Algiers
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey
3. Falstaff
4. Faces
5. The Two of Us
6. The Producers
7. Oliver!
8. The Fifth Horseman Is Fear
9. Rachel, Rachel
10. Romeo and Juliet

It shames me to admit I've seen neither Zefferelli's Romeo and Juliet or The Battle of Algiers. It seemed after 9/11 you couldn't read any of the wags without getting at least one reference to TBOA before segueing into "Should we torture?" And Oliver! was one of those Saturday afternoon movies on our old b&w TV set. I can't comment on it, except to say that ever since, it takes very little prompting (from my children -- my wife stopped long ago) to get me to raise a knee and jig down the street.

Man, does Ebert ever love The Producers. This movie must qualify as one of those "You had to be there" moments, because I've seen it a couple of times, and it just doesn't soar until Springtime For Hitler finally takes to the stage. And while I understand some people's hestitance to have a laugh at the Nazis, I think there's a qualitative difference between this and Hogan's Heroes. Mind you, I think Werner Klemperer pulling in a paycheque for doing Hogan's Heroes is rather fitting. Where does this end? In any case, this flick launched the career of Brooks, and the world is a happier place for it.

You can't beat seeing 2001 on the big screen. Anything smaller, though, is snooze-inducing. Lots of terrific scenes inspiring lots of terrific send ups.

Moving along...

1969

1. Z
2. Medium Cool
3. Weekend
4. if...
5. Last Summer
6. The Wild Bunch
7. Easy Rider
8. True Grit
9. Downhill Racer
10. War and Peace

What a year. I've contended that, in this post-Wild Bunch day and age, it nearly amounts to a moral outrage when filmmakers mount another Western. Still, I'm glad True Grit was released in TWB's bloody wake. Wayne's Oscar comment -- ""If I'd known this was all it would take, I'd have put that eyepatch on 40 years ago" -- is satisfyingly self-depracating, but a little off the mark. The Duke's Rooster Cogburn reminds me of my father-in-law, an association I don't make with any of Wayne's other roles.

Easy Rider is a bit of a kick to see. I can't think about it now, though, without remembering my wife's reaction to On The Road. This was early in our marriage and we were, in fact, on the road. I was reading the book to her, and for the first hundred pages or so everything was fine. But at some point, these guys entice one of their brethren away from his wife and crying baby, and my wife said, "What a pack of bums!" I couldn't agree more.

Ebert's defense of Easy Rider as a Great Movie can be read here.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Ebert's Best: 1967

Yahmdallah has taken on the entire 33 years of Roger Ebert's Ten Best Movies Of The Year (here) and weighed in on each of the films he's seen. Go on and click on the link: it's not as intimidating a prospect to read as you might think, given how several movies (including Magnolia -- one of my favourites) don't rate much more than a "meh". Responding to it, on the other hand, is a little more daunting. But I'm up for it, so long as I go through it year by year.

1967

Ah, how well do I remember the turbulence of that year! I was in Philadelphia at the time. The zeitgeist blew with such strength, there was no denying the emotions that frayed as the individual strove desperately against the totalitarian boot of authority, the whipsaw of confusion that came with instant gratification or denial of same, the gentle touch of warm flannel on my bare buttocks before I soiled my nappy yet again (to my mother's everlasting frustration)....

These were the movies so cruelly denied to my two-year-old self (bold print connoting the ones I caught up with some 20 years later):

1. Bonnie & Clyde
2. Ulysses
3. Blow-up
4. The Graduate
5. A Man for All Seasons
6. The War Game
7. Reflections in a Golden Eye
8. Cool Hand Luke
9. Elvira Madigan
10. In the Heat of the Night

I've seen Bonnie & Clyde a couple of times. It's engaging enough to merit re-visiting, but overall it doesn't have nearly the effect on me it apparently had on Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael or any of the other opinion pedlars of the day. Neither Beatty nor Dunaway have ever appealed to me as actors, so a large part of the charm equation is missing right from the get go. Ebert and Kael viewed the movie as ground-breaking stuff, and I'll give them that. But my interest in these lost youths who would be dapper scoundrels isn't strong enough to generate that feeling of violation that seems to come with the movie's violent conclusion.

There's probably no better time for me to confess that I viewed most of these movies many years after I'd internalized (and often memorized) their send-ups in the pages of my uncle's MAD magazines. Ah, Balmy & Clod -- does humour in a bellicose vein get any better than that? Sigh!

The Graduate -- Ebert's later analysis of this flick is right on the money: Mrs. Robinson is the one character who keeps this movie interesting 30 years later. Thank you, Anne Bancroft.

A Man For All Seasons -- I'm a little surprised to see it here, but I suspect it's still a staple for high schoolers who can't be bothered to read the play. Orson Welles has a brief bit where he does his patented "I'd rather look at another wall than at another actor" shtick.

In The Heat Of The Night -- had to read the book in grade nine. When I finally saw Norman Jewison's movie adaptation of it, I was disappointed in the maudlin "bonding moment" between Tibbs (Poitier) and the Chief (Steiger). The book is better (but that's almost always the case).

Next: 1968 ... or as I shall forever remember it, The Year of the Toilet.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Who's Left?

Who cares? I'm still buying it.

Youthful Desires

My reflection was gone from the window. The darkness outside had disappeared. A light steadily glowed, almost outshining the light in Norgrove's room. I stepped over to the sill and looked out at an enormous, ornate building with towering arched windows. They were scrolled with elaborate iron work, as if they were stained glass, missing the color. Through the leafy design, I saw what looked like large shadows, flying away from the windows and out of view, clearing a pristine hardwood floor that had been polished to a sheen. I couldn't tell if this was an empty cathedral, or an ornate gymnasium. The shadows glided past the glass, then disappeared again. I leaned closer to the window for a better look.

I could vaguely make out the building's exterior. It loomed up like a medieval cathedral, dark with gothic forboding. “Wild,” I breathed. “What is it?”

“A monastery, I think," said Norgrove. "I honestly don't know.”

I laughed. “There's a
monastery in the middle of the university campus?”

“Apparently. Connected to St. Mike's, I'm told. No doubt there's some sort of academic angle to it. Hold on, here comes trouble.”

The shadows returned, swirling slowly in formation, then stood still and waited.
Nuns — they looked like nuns. Their black robes were crisp and neat, swaying with gentle gravitas. I craned toward the window, squinting hard, trying to pick up some telling detail, like the expressions on their faces, which, from my addled perspective, were as blank as thumbs.

The women began to move. They slowly lifted their arms out to their sides, then held them aloft at shoulder height, forming a platoon of crosses draped in shadow. I could feel my heart and breath accelerating, driving hard. Suddenly, the platoon exploded into action. The women spun like dervishes, scurrying and whirling across the floor, grasping hands, twisting, pulling, catapulting, thumping their heels — their entire bodies — against the floor in a thunderous drumbeat.

Come Back, Toby Tyler

Movies and Mennonites make for a conflicted bit of business, what with the former presenting so many worldly temptations to the latter. In the prairie village of my youth, some kids were allowed to see movies in the local cinema, others were not. Just about everyone, though, saw movies in school — twice a year, and always a Disney family flick.

Most of these were critter based adventures that required at least one romp through a well-stocked grocery store (followed by the inevitable “He doesn't belong here” speech from one of the parents). A few were more remarkable — Bambi and Old Yeller come to mind. But I'm guessing the movie that left the deepest imprint in most of us sprats was Toby Tyler.

I haven't seen it in over 30 years, but I have a clear recollection of how I thought of it as a kid. Toby is an orphan, cared for by a soppy stern uncle and gormless aunt. The uncle wants him to stay home and tend to the pigs, but Toby just wants a break for once because the circus is in town. He watches the parade, gets caught up in the spectacle, the pigs run amok, and his uncle sends Toby to bed without any supper. Toby does the logical thing and runs away to join the circus.

What follows is a masculine version of Pollyanna. Toby faces adversity with a steadfast innocence, and eventually insinuates himself right to the heart of the circus. By movie's end, he is performing alongside the circus darling Mademoiselle Jeanette in front of a full house that includes his now penitent uncle and aunt. Even his beloved chimp Mr. Tibbs, felled by a hunter's bullet, is resurrected and restored to Toby's new, larger world.

Like so many of the Disney offerings of the day, Toby Tyler is a three-handkerchief weepy, resonant with messages a child intuitively takes to heart. Chief among these is its portrait of adults: when they don't begrudge a child's presence, they're quick to manipulate the kid to their own advantage. Compassion comes slowly, if at all.

I sometimes wonder if everyone from my generation didn't run away from that village to join the circus. We bartered away various pieces of our innocence, or put ourselves in situations where it was torn away from us. Some of us came back — enough of us to keep the village growing — but I doubt any of us received applause for it. Citizens of small towns, contrary to the Disney stereotype, have more in common with Toby's hardscrabble circus-mates than they do with the yokels who applaud a boy performing stunts on a horse. In my experience, now as then, people from small towns are more cynical than most city residents. If that's not a quality you can live with and deal out in kind, you move to and stay in the city.

I'm not sure why I'm musing in this direction. My little family is navigating a bit of a rough patch, so maybe I'm just pining for that childhood sense of security that allowed a kid to relate to the ups and downs of a circus orphan, confident finally in one's ability to persevere and see some good come of it. Certainly I hope that's the point of view we're encouraging our children to adopt.

But there is also a characteristic of small towns that I'd like to see changed. Kids who like to play the “What If?” game quickly learn that a small town isn't the place for it. That's not necessarily a bad thing: there are some “What Ifs?” that are extremely imprudent to indulge. Having said all this, it still astonishes me to see some of the businesses people hope to set up in a small town. It's one thing to get a convenience store up and running, and quite another to try the same trick with a balloon bouquet outfit. So what if the balloon bouquet lady worked out a deal with the convenience store family? Well ... that's a “What If” you'll rarely see entertained in a small town. Rather than fail small, the balloon bouquet lady naturally figures it's better to swing for the bleachers.

Towns have such a tough time keeping their communities economically alive, but that ever-present cynical vibe doesn't make the task any easier.

Anyhow. Scattered thoughts while our family waits for the circus to come to town.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Mike Mentzer, R.I.P.

Anderson snapped off the music. “You're the best you been, brother, no question there,” he said.

“But?” seethed Theo.

Anderson gave a cavalier shrug. “I doubt I even need to say it. I'm talking about your delts. They're there, they're shredded, it's just you need a little more symmetry, is all.”

Was he right? Theo was ready to clock the little fucker, that's just how right he was. Theo suffered from the Mentzer Midriff — a trunk so large he couldn't suck his gut in far enough. Getting his pecs and delts big enough to offset the abdominals was a never-ending struggle. He gritted his teeth. “So what's the prognosis, doctor?”

Anderson shook his head. “That was the prognosis, Einstein. The prescription is this: incremental doses of synthol in your final two weeks leading up to the event. We do it right, the only thing people will notice is your winning form. The big question, however, is this: are you willing to do a little more work for me?”

Naïveté Is Not Equal To Innocence

Over the last ten years I've read Alan Wolfe's work with interest (none of the books, mind you, but the articles he's done for The Atlantic, etc.). I doubt I've seen anyone who stands outside the Evangelical Culture work so hard at understanding these people and giving their point of view a fair hearing. It's not uncommon, however, for me to sigh as I read: having had some experience from inside that culture, I've often thought his empathy bleeds too frequently into sympathy. Still, empathy for anything "other" is in short supply these days, and his demonstration of it is welcome.

Slate links to this Wolfe review of former Washington insider David Kuo's biography of disenchantment. (It's at TNR, so you'll have to register or resort to one of those "already-registered" websites). If Wolfe's take is accurate, my use of "disenchantment" may be premature. I get the feeling Wolfe read the book, pounded his fist on his desk, then rolled up his sleeves and got to work. Not that I still didn't sigh from time to time, but I am gratified to see Wolfe take on one of North American Evangelicalism's most hallowed sacred cows: naïveté.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Tar And Feathers

His friend Roger was taking care of a professor's house, a bi-level suburban fortress with a back yard pool and a cantankerous outdoor fridge packed with beer. He and Troy helped Roger clean the pool, treat the water and skim off the floating elm seeds before diving in and cooling off. Come nightfall, they'd retire to the lawn chairs, and savor their mutual loneliness while listening to the buzz of dying cicadas compete with the rumble of neighboring air-conditioners.

One afternoon, he pedaled his bicycle into the back yard and found Roger standing naked in the middle of the pool, his tall gaunt figure taut with concentration, long wiry arms stretched out in simulated flight. Roger said nothing in greeting, so he asked Roger what he was doing. Roger was silent a while, then he murmured, “I'm trying not to slip into the abyss.”

Youthful Desires Publishing Update

Once I figured out pagination, the rest of my formatting proceeded without a hitch. Lulu has my file, and I've placed my order. I now await my proofing hard-copy of Youthful Desires. If the message boards at Lulu are any indication, I'll receive it within two weeks' time.

I'll repeat for the record that this is not my Chinese Democracy (a 763-page little something I once wrote is a more likely candidate for that category). As the signs say when you slow down and finally come to a complete stop for road repair: Thank you for your patience!