What I came South for

Orlando,  Saturday, May 21.

 

When I called my pal Sean when I got across the border, I told him I couldn’t wait to simply sit and talk to Americans. One of the great pleasures in being here is to get a chance to feel the pulse of these (in the real sense) republicans.

 

Yesterday was a good day. Jon and I were determined to have a clean second run at the show (after some rocky patches, particularly on the tech level, on our opening). We wanted to give the Orlando audience a real version of The Paladin, and we arrived in plenty of time at the theatre, feeling ready and confident. Playing for a small but attentive crowd, Jon gave a fine performance.

 

After the show, I went into the park where the Orlando Fringe is centred.  It’s a beautiful public space, fronting the Orlando Science Centre, two major galleries, and adjacent to the Orlando Shakespeare Center that hosts multiple Fringe venues. There is a festival tent set up in the middle of the park as a music venue: last night I listened to two of the local hip-hop heroes who were backed up by a competent rhythm section and a very nimble jazz flautist. This afternoon, the venue was given over to female singer-songwriters doing a song-circle, playing for donations to a local charity that distributes food to children (when one parses this, it sounds pretty disturbing—Orlando is not the barefoot South).

 

I drove (one drives everywhere in this town) to the music store where I had purchased a lot of expensive cable for the show, in case of need. I was relieved that the store gave me no grief about returning the 150 bucks (US) worth of guitar and speaker cable.   I also bought a very sweet little parlour guitar for a hundred bucks from their “scratch and dent” rack. I’m looking forward to a long relationship. On the way back to the freeway which connects all Orlando communities, I noticed the Bodacious Barbecue hut, which turned out to be a real little cultural gem. The little stop is a modest little take-out/eat in with ten picnic tables in the (mandatorily) air-conditioned interior, and a few on the deck. The nice girls took my order for a pulled pork sandwich (excellent), and as I waited, sipping my complimentary Pepsi, the large group who had ordered just before me said grace as their orders rolled out. As far as I could make out, they were some kind of expedition from a church group. You know you’re in the USA when a mixed group of extended families have a prayer session before eating fast food. I was glad to note, as I am to report, that this group was a mixed-race gang, and the kids ate, hugged, wrestled, and (a lovely moment) shucked the corn-cob, which was offered them by the proprietors, together. I haven’t seen a lot of racial mixing here in Florida, and it was a pleasure to watch the five year-old black kid roughhousing with one of the white adults. Hope comes in small quantities, and is worth celebrating.

 

Later that evening I repaired to the local quasi-English pub, where they have Newcastle ale on tap, and I can reliably convince the barmaids to tune one of the TVs to the NHL playoffs so I can get my fix of ice-sport. (St. Louis was crushing the Sharks.) A guy beside me was ordering Jack Daniels with the remark that “I hear this is one of the places to be in Orlando.” I ventured that I was glad to have found it in that case, as I was a visiting Canadian. He explained that he was from New York, and as the Montreal soccer team was taking on the local Orlando team (cheered on by the supposedly Anglophilic Orlando soccer fans), I explained that I was very fond of Montreal, as an example of another world-class city.

 

This got us to talking about his job as a traveling baseball scout for the New York Mets, and before long, he had revealed to me that in his youth he had been a major-league pitcher (“not a very good one,” he said modestly) with the Brewers and the Mariners. I expressed my admiration and he introduced himself as John Updike. I couldn’t help but comment on the fact that his namesake was a much-celebrated fiction writer. He grinned and said, “my mother liked books.”

 

John was a pleasant interlocutor. I loved what he said about his job scouting for the Mets. He expressed his longing for the kids that he interviewed to be able accept that they COULD succeed as long as they committed themselves to the discipline of their craft. I told him it was the same in theatre, another discipline that attracts young people who want to be stars. In his case, he described the frequent encounters with parents who expect a contract for their precious young star athletes before those gifted young people have proven their necessary sacrifice to discipline. He endeared himself to me very deeply by praising young Canadian prospects, many of whom he has dealt with, and who, if they have a background in the tough sport of hockey (so he claimed), already have the strength of character that professional baseball requires.

 

It was a fascinating chat, because as John pointed out, he deals with a talent pool whose elite stand to make scores of millions of dollars. This doesn’t stop many young men wasting their talent because no one has convinced them of the old adage: success is ten per cent inspiration… and ninety per cent perspiration. I saw this truism proven out so many times in Theatre Arts, MacEwan, that it has for me the strength of Natural Law.

 

I’m happy to have made this acquaintance; it tickles me to now have an open invitation to a Mets game. Maybe I’ll get a chance to cash that in some day.

 

Now, to pour a little perspiration onto my lovely little new guitar…

From Florida

Orlando impressions: Good Folks

 

First, everyone drives everywhere. Rather like suburbs anywhere on earth, the only way people can realistically get around and do their daily tasks is to drive. From my billet to the Orlando Fringe is a fifteen-minute haul down the I-4 freeway, which like every freeway in the States that I’ve been on so far, is under never-ending construction. Reminds me of Edmonton, that way…

 

Floridians are, from this Canuck’s perspective, almost obsessively polite and engaging. It’s literally hard to buy a coffee without someone asking, “Well, haow arh yoo, honey?” or “Cain Ah help yoo, darlin?” When you’re handed a sandwich at the deli counter, the lady might fix you in an affectionate gaze and say, “yoo have yoursailf an absolutely wunnderful daiy!” And she makes a point of meaning it.

 

I think this habit of social engagement is drilled into Southerners, not only by the business principle that the customer who feels good will return, but by some cultural imperative learned in churches and schools. This morning, out for a walk to get a coffee and sit somewhere where I might write these words, I passed a gentleman, roughly my own age, grey-white like me. I said “good morning.” He responded, “Good Morning, Sir.” Perhaps in a society as militarized as this one (and it is unmistakably military), people get accustomed to chains of command.

 

Americans are more social animals than Canadians. They have less space around themselves, and they create less distance around themselves, than we do. Most Canucks expect to be left alone until there is a need to communicate, whereas most Americans will open a conversation, assume that you want to hear their story, or take it upon themselves to begin an encounter. I’ve heard strangers say surprising things to one another, explaining to strangers why they were late, or how they feel about their dogs or their life, in a way that only very eccentric Canadians do. A Vancouverite would look at you rather blankly if you encountered them on a walk and began to explain why you were limping, or how you felt about your job or your niece or your pet.

 

American grammar is an adventure. I went to buy thread at the Target store the other day. When I gave up searching and asked a cashier, she actually didn’t understand the word “thread” at first. (No doubt her mother would have, but who sews in a world where you throw everything away?) She referred the question to another woman, who advised me to “go down at the end, you see where the housewares is? Down the end from there.” The thread was indeed in the general locale of where the housewares was, but nowhere near the end of anything, not even an aisle. I heard a radio DJ confess, “I’m “confused in that.” Of course, everything is always “at” somewhere, as in “I don’t know where it’s at.”

 

I’m not being a grammar nazi making these remarks, I’m just taking note that there was clearly never a Miss Corcoran (that frightening face of my fifth grade), drumming the blackboard or a desktop with her pointer on behalf of the sacred laws of English grammar, in the average American’s life.

Americans work hard. They don’t distain lower-wage jobs the way, for example, Albertans did during the oil boom, but engage with them fully, and work hard at them. It’s an endearing quality. Broom-leaning isn’t a common American pastime. Perhaps the last fifteen years of relative economic hardship are responsible for this ethos, but I think it’s also cultural. I walked by the local Roman Catholic church today, located, along with the service agency it runs, in a large park. The gardener, who keeps the place looking beautifully manicured, raced by in his golf cart, a small stars-and-stripes flying from the rear, on his way to make something neater.

 

I tried to sift though the AM radio dials on my drive South. The bandwidth is largely taken up by the Christian Right, who preach against sin, not shy to preach against sinners as well, and the subtext and surtext of talk radio in the South is certainly how liberals are leading the USA adrift from its natural place in the order of things. I’ve seen one Trump bumper sticker reading “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” which was not at all surprising, except that the bumper was shared by a University of Florida sticker. I saw a t-shirt yesterday that read “HERE IS MY GUN PERMIT: The Third Amendment states….” The conflation embodies everything that distresses me about such people. Point out to this guy that “the right to bear arms” is not in the least incompatible with acquiring a permit to do so, and he would no doubt start yelling at you or, more to the point, might exercise his right to bear arms.

 

All in all, however, my trip to the USA is a pleasure. I feel like a foreigner here, and I am. The fact that Americans look a lot like me, and speak (more or less) the same language makes travel here more convenient than many places I have been in the past two years. I have a fellow-feeling for these bluff and engaging people. They are not shy, they engage each other, they believe in their society and they want to make it function. That impulse to cynicism (or at very least to irony) which is a Canadian’s birthright seems not to be shared by our cousins to the South. I would never consider changing the maple leaf, nor yet the fleur-de-lis or even the Red Ensign, for their battle-scarred flag (and yes, the Rebel flag is seen in places in the South as well), but they are by and large, very nice people. Their only weakness is their capacity to believe, like the muscle-bound guy forever pumping iron in his basement, that they’re not strong enough.

 

I am not a praying man, but if I were, I would pray that Donald Trump doesn’t win next November, because the world will be subject to Four More Years of American belligerence and exceptionalism. The people I’ve been pleasantly chatting with over the last while don’t need that any more than do the Mexican workers who do the lower-paying jobs in much of the nation, or the Persians who just want into the States so as not to be shot at. They’re good folks, too.

ECONOMIES: a poem after visiting the Royal BC Museum

ECONOMIES (after a day at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria)

 

We made five shillings a month

Ordinary seaman, bosun did better

And when we seen them natives and their canoes

We thought, how’d they get the time to carve all that cedar

That takes time you know and naught to eat but dried fish

And some kind o’ berries the squaws went out to get.

They was dancing on the bows of them canoes

Wearing great masks of grizzly, raven

Dancing on the bows like birds and bears

That had drunk a lot of grog.  We thought the world of their

Balance, although their seamanship warnt no better than ourn.

 

I gave a man a needle I had spare

He poked it right through his nose

And grunted, satisfied.  His squaw

Gestured give it here, and pointed at the hole in the needle

I took some thread and poked it through,

She laughed like it was magic

And then they disappeared.  Next day

The man came back, handed me

A sea otter pelt, so I gave him a tuppence

He bit into it, broke a tooth, and left, satisfied.

 

Three months later, we dropped anchor in Shanghai.

I took that hide ashore and a merchant in bright silk gowns

Took one feel of it and gave me twenty pound and some silk

Ribbon for my hat.

 

Next time we dropped anchor in Nootka Sound,

(two years it was, and a lot of salt water under the keel)

A sea otter pelt was only to be had

For a firearm or a good metal blade

But there was hardly a sea otter to be found.

Hunger in The Games

The Hunger that Arises from Watching The Games

I am somewhat shy to report that I could not resist the last installment of The Hunger Games, a series of films that showed real promise in the second chapter. That film’s premise, like the first, included a really good idea at its core. It is an idea whose literary original has been mined from sources as varied as Ben Hur, Gladiator, and the Japanese film Battle Royale, but that doesn’t make it less worthy.

Like the other adolescent fantasy films that flood the cinaplex marketplace (all of the films, for example, of Michael Bay), the world in which the Hunger Games are played is not the real world, so the films can have a high-stakes look of things taking place in reality while trampling on anything resembling real politics, sociology, gender issues, race issues, or (let us not forget) physics. People who don’t “do” history can look at the trumped-up cinematic fascism of The Hunger Games films and feel like they’re paying their dues to their inconveniently nerdy Social Studies 20 teacher (herself uninterested in the real study of history).

I nevertheless really enjoyed the trip that the second film (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) took me on. I grinned, delighted, at the visual conception of the decadence of The Capitol, with its gaudy Fox-News-On-Steroids-Meets-American-Idol sensibility. Stanley Tucci’s big bright teeth were by themselves a reason to love this movie. And Jennifer Lawrence sells Katniss Everdeen’s moral burn as well as anyone could possibly do. All of the movies have a gratifyingly proactive girl-power message about a girl who is more powerful than Sly Stallone, but without the mean male psychotic killer thing. When Katniss draws her bow, we feel her pain. Sure, things go kerpow and splat, but she didn’t really mean it. But I digress.

I liked the second film for its quite amazing mis-en-scene; the scene where Katniss is interviewed in her bleak District 12 landscape, for example, and shows up on the glittering screens of The Capitol looking like she’s on the set of America’s Got Talent.   It is a striking and important statement about the propaganda power of media; it’s not a new thought, but I’ll bet it was new to many of the young people in the audience.

The narrative confinement of the forced-duel-to-the-death plotline is important in the first two films; it gives them shape, and keeps us from asking the difficult questions, like where do contestants in the Games, or the people of Panem, for that matter, go to the bathroom? Or, what economic model does Panem run on? If the country is a Dictatorship, how does Donald Sutherland make his money? Rome was, after all, not built in a day, it was built on military conquest and permanent tribute (that’s why they needed the legions in Gaul). Panem seems to run on pure unfairness.

But why bring up Political Economy when you’re chewing popcorn, right? Oh, I know why! Because the films seem to have a kind of realpolitik hardness to them. Which brings me to the third and (sadly) fourth films, in which a revolution is staged. Well, it’s not so much a revolution as a media event, and if does strike you that the revolutionaries are a surprisingly well-coiffed group of young white people with cool tattoos, well, be satisfied that there are a couple of token black people in the film, even if their roles are comfortingly functional and definitely one-dimensional. BUT I DEGRESS! The problem with the last film is that, without the confined space of The Games, which forced the protagonist into the moral problem of staying alive while trying not to become a murderer, the character of Katniss finally, in the last episode, becomes a mere G.I. Jill.   Her struggle to be a decent person continues, but When Shit Gets Bad out there in the war zone, her hanging on the fence about the war becomes absurd. That’s why, I think, the big action scene in the film is between humans and these weird, toothy underground gollums that (literally) come out of nowhere to provide an excuse to exercise the sub-bass woofers in the theatre’s sound system. It’s one of the few moments in the film where Katniss actually gets to DO anything with her famous bow-and-arrow, but it’s as arbitrary to the story as if the young gang of tattooed heroes were attacked by a herd of wildebeests.

There is a bunch of portentious stuff at the end of the film in which the new regime for which our heroine has fought turns out to be as nasty as the last (and all hail to the costume mistress, who subtly suggested a kind of post-Trotskyist look in a nice little scene towards the end). But the screenplay neatly tiptoes through little problems like post-revolutionary politics in order to reunite Katniss with her True Love, and there are babies, flowers, and Jennifer Lawrence looking maternal at the end. Joan of Arc unburnt, order restored, and the full color palate allowed to bathe the filmstock.

A very casual reading of history would tell all these busy screenwriters, and all of us distracted popcorn-munchers that major wars ALWAYS end in horror, that the winners ALWAYS lie about the horrors they perpetrated in order to win, and that the victims are ALWAYS the women and children. I suppose it’s too much to ask that we expose our children to the real facts of history. We live in a world of paper heroes in digital landscapes. All hail the new rulers of Panem.

Response to an Act of Religious Warfare

In the aftermath of the Paris killings, the Facebook world has been, as is only appropriate, afire with opinion, speculation, ire and sympathy. I do not have the kinds of Facebook friends (I’m happy to report) who leap to make bigoted statements about Muslims, or to publicly indulge in revenge fantasy.  I am, however, surprised that more people are not making a direct correlation between religiosity in general and the murders. If this ghastly day taught us anything, it is that there is indeed a war going on, and it is a continuation of a very old war. In 1099, a Christian army gathered before the gates of Jerusalem, an army of adventurers, pirates, hired killers, and religious zealots. After besieging the city, they eventually broke in and put to sword and fire not only the Muslim defenders, but almost everyone else in the city, regardless of their faith.

The killers who attacked Paris operated on a smaller scale, but on precisely the same religious principles, and with as little discrimination as to the victims. Like the Crusaders, it mattered  little what beliefs their victims actually held  (there must surely have been some Muslims who died in the attacks), only that they were in the wrong city, a city that had (like the Sodom of the Jewish origin myth) sinned.

Absent downright revenge fantasy, I found it particularly bizarre when my Facebook feed was sprinkled with inducements to pray.    In a paroxysm of anti-clerical thought, I wrote the following somewhat flowery passage:

Pray? I shall not pray. Let those who abandon thought, personal responsibility, and reason pray! Let those who wish to turn themselves over to the care of God, or Allah, or Buhudda, or even Lenin… pray. The psychopaths who yell “Allah Akbar!” as they reload their machine guns to cut another murderous swath cannot be responded to by saying “MY god is greater than yours.” No. I shall not pray.

Not surprisingly, I was scolded by some of my more ethereally-oriented friends who found comfort in prayer, who reminded me that prayer brings comfort to those most immediately affected, or who denied that they were actually appealing to a Deity of any kind when they prayed. Another stream of religious apologists loudly proclaimed that the killers weren’t really Muslims. This is outright nonsense.  Of course they were not “good” Muslims, as measured by a very selective reading of the Koran, but they were obeying the Koran as literally as those Christians who castigate and condemn homosexuals, or who can read the Apocalypse in an orgy of self-congratulating hatred towards anyone who does not share their reverence for the fantastical story of the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection (capitals theirs, not mine). Let us remember that these attacks were not an isolated event, but rather a continuation of the attacks against free expression that occurred last January. Never make fun of our god, or we’ll kill you.

If there is anything to learn from the horror of bloodshed in Paris, it is that the real battle that is being fought is against rationalism and intellectual liberty. It is being fought specifically by religious extremists.   A statement by Isis after the bombings celebrated this highly-organized attack as being against the “prostitute-ridden” city. This is different in degree from the murder by Christian extremists of doctors who perform abortions, but it is based on the same principle: that doctrines held by the murderer trump the rights of the victim, and it is very interesting indeed that in both cases, it is rage against reproductive freedom that fuels the anger of the religionists.

The geopolitical ends of this attack have no more rational base than the gratification of bloodlust that satisfies the psychosis of the killers. These killings will do less to advance the strategic, much less the theological, aims of those responsible than Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. Princip, a Serb extremist, brought more horror on his countrymen than that suffered by any almost any other national entity. The Eastern Front rolled back and forth over Serbia for the entire period of World War I, killing, dispossessing, and torturing millions. I doubt that the co-religionists of the killers will suffer in quite the same proportion (precisely because the French people ARE governed by human law and not by dictates of the Old Testament), but suffer they will, as will their fellow nationals.

The French do not have a fleet of aircraft carriers to launch.  They have neither to capacity nor the political naivety to  commit a massive strategic blunder like that committed by the Bush administration after the New York outrage.   Fuelled as much by the greed of his ministers as by the Christian fundamentalism of that president, it was precisely the “Crusade” (as Bush so foolishly called his military campaign) that could, as Al -Qaeda intended, galvanize the Muslim world against the West. The galvanization of Western sentiment against the Muslim world is, however, all too easy; it is tragically facile to extend the anger against the extremists to anger against all Muslims. Critics of the new Liberal government in Canada have traction by which they can argue against the humanitarian gesture to accept Syrian refugees.

Ironically, this forces a certain faction of the Left into the position of, if not defense of Islam, at least of defense of those who practice Islamic faith and hold its tenets to be true. This is a forced marriage that makes me cringe: the tenets of that faith are fundamentally hostile to the beliefs of progressives in the West. Bigotry towards Muslims is unquestionably as bad as any other bigotry. That does not give my progressive friends license to condemn my raging against those very tenets by which those who committed mass murder justify their actions, or to perpetrate the strange casuistry that the perps were not in fact Muslims at all.

Another strange sentiment that I see propounded by the moralists on the Net is that it is somehow a moral failure that it takes an attack on a Western city before our empathy is aroused for the victims. These people love to point out that we don’t cry out against the bombing of Baghdad (for the record, I have, in fact). We are even scolded for our sympathy towards Parisians. Whence comes this sentiment? My own cultural associations, my sympathies are with the country whose Revolution declared the Rights of Man. My travels have taken me to Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and without any question I would more happily live –and die, for that matter– in France than in any of those countries, in all of which I experienced a deep hostility towards my person as a Celt and towards my philosophy, which tells me that men and women are and should be equals, that one scientifically proven thesis trumps every revealed truth in the Koran, and that I have the innate right as a human being to challenge the assumptions of any priest or imam who pronounces what I ought to believe. I will never trade life AFTER the Reformation for life BEFORE it, and, let me make this perfectly clear, I WILL FIGHT for my right to remain free of all those who claim their particular Book of Stories for the Credulous should govern my life.

Finally, in a strange mathematics of horror, I have read posts on the Net comparing single murders committed by crazy Christians to the Paris murders. It is disingenuous to compare a single person’s killing spree, grotesque and immoral as it may be, to a concentrated military attack on a civilian population. To point out that Christians are as capable of evil as members any other religious group is to say nothing at all. No one with the most meager understanding of Western Civ would claim otherwise. To point out that the killing was committed in the name –quite literally– of Allah is not to condemn all Muslims, any more than to point out that illegal bombings by (say) the US Air Force is immoral is to condemn Christians, or Liberal Democracy.   God, Allah, Jehovah, or The National Interest: all can be evoked when one is inclined to spill blood. None of it justifies what happened on November 13, 2015 in Paris, and no prevaricating can unmake it as an act of religious warfare, or prevent me from feeling sympathy for the victims and rage against the criminals and their profoundly anti-human beliefs.

November 15, 2015

Rebel Without A Cock: Trainwreck

Rebel Without A Cock:

Trainwreck, directed by Judd Apatow, written by and starring Amy Schumer

Watching the bourgeois heart that is revealed beating at the core of this mediocre film is like watching that tiresome James Dean “classic” for the first time. You have the same bewildered sense of trying to find the rebellious streak in a scene about driving cars off cliffs. This isn’t a film about empowerment of the feminine (which it very loudly proclaims itself to be). This is a film about self-indulgence. It’s worse: it’s a self-indulgent film about self-indulgence.

I am again swimming upstream against a tide of positive critiques of this movie, holding the banner that says “bullshit!” Even Christopher Orr in the Atlantic, one of the few magazines left in the USA for literate people, can’t bring himself to proclaim that Amy Schumer has no clothes, because, for much of the film, she, actually… has no clothes on, and YOU’D BETTER NOT MENTION that she’s not that attractive a sight. It would be cultural suicide to suggest, when talking about a film that throws stereotypes in your face like pies at a country fair booth, that the one break from stereotype it actually accomplishes is the one in which women who don’t look like models cavort with men who look like Hercules.

Yes, there are a few good jokes: I like LeBron James gently parodying his own stardom, as the 100-million dollar athlete who never picks up the cheque. There’s a great visual gag in the opening, where Schumer’s character, returning from a one-night stand on (oh, shame!) Staten Island leans against the railing of the famous ferry like Kate Winslet in Titanic, and the camera pulls back to reveal that she’s actually at the stern of the boat, going backwards. (That helicopter shot must be one of the more expensive visual gags in recent Hollywood history.) And the slapstick gag at the end where Schumer does a face-plant makes me laugh for the same reason Inuit laugh at people when they slip on the ice (i.e., it’s the funniest joke available). But the sex joke told six times is overkill by six times… Please, ladies, the “I’m staring at the ceiling bored while the guy orgasms” trope is now the equivalent of the “dad gets the water-toy in the crotch” bit in all of those not-funny family comedies.

The whole venture has the stink of a dishonest vanity project: Look at the hunks I can go to bed with! Look, I got sports stars to be in the film with me! Look, I put on the gear of the Knicks’ cheerleading squad and actually did some of their moves! Look, we talked the Harry Potter guy into shooting some scenes for a film-within-a-film that parodies pretentious cinema! (Without, unfortunately, actually parodying any pretentious cinema.)

This movie has more to do with Schumer’s utterly middle of the road fantasies than any edgy material that’s going anywhere risky. Her love interest (Bill Hader) is a sports surgeon (thus an excuse to get as many pro athletes to do a vanity turn on the screen as possible) who evidently is virtue personified because he volunteers for Doctors Without Borders (that would be “medecins sans frontieres” for those of you who like to acknowledge history). Well, we’re not going to spend any of the budget going to any of those places where doctors actually DO that brave and difficult work; presumably there aren’t enough Starbucks franchises in those places to make a decent macchiato for the cast and crew. So let’s just concentrate on Dr. Hader’s celeb patients, and take his seven-figure income as given for our modern Cinderella. (Cinderella’s name, in the original German, is closer to Cinder-slut. Not a bad reference for this character.)

The film can’t get through two minutes without doing that LOUDLY MOUTHING AT YOU FROM BEHIND THE BACK OF ITS HAND “LOOK, I’M BEING POLITICALLY INCORRECT NOW! AREN’T I BOLD???”  Sadly, the film is (I shudder to say it) actually POLITICALLY INCORRECT, like, in a bad way. The black guy in the theatre tells the muscle-head boyfriend to keep his bitch in line; the ultima bitch editor of the pretentious magazine that the heroine works for is, of course, English (Tilda Swinton, the only really brilliant performance in the film); the street person who is Amy’s pal is charming and apparently really likes his life of homelessness. He is never invited into her apartment, (obviously!!), but in her redeeming moment of discovering that she is actually a bourgeois mediocrity, she gives him all her leftover booze and drugs. Way to help the homeless, girl. Kinda like Doctors Without Borders, NYC-style.

The writing in this film attempts satire; the trouble is that satire can’t be done with an instrument no sharper than a cricket bat. If this is what serves modern America for satire, let’s go back into our libraries and read Swift, or for that matter, Lenny Bruce. Dig up the old Python videos and watch their grainy scenes on an old VCR. Palin and company created more intelligent comedy slapping each other with a dead fish than this film has in its two-hour (yawn) duration.

Amy Schumer is now a very famous person who is bound to become more famous. She has achieved fame partly by declaring her right to proclaim her womanhood by her own definition. Well and good. If she has so little consciousness that she can confuse this highly conventional rom-com with edgy social commentary, she needs to consult some text books. As for Judd Apatow, he’s made some of the best film comedies in this generation by taking a fresh look at American cultural assumptions. This ain’t one of them.

Tomorrowland and Fury Road… Virtue is SO yesterday

Two Kinds of Tomorrow

On Mad Max: Fury Road, the critics have spoken: it’s okay to like diesel-powered gas guzzling trucks spewing smoke across the desert while bands of apes (some of them female!) shoot, stab, club, gouge, crush, disembowel, and otherwise murder one another in the name of Saving the Girls (as long as, beneath a thin layer of grime, they look like fashion models wearing not very much). I’m so glad that the message of this film, which is that it’s bad to hoard water while oddly white-painted people go thirsty, and that even if you’re half nuts, you can redeem yourself by allying yourself with the feminine, has not been lost on the arbiters of public taste. Otherwise, I’d have to draw the conclusion that Tonka Toys Writ Big, which certainly thrilled the adolescent boy inside of me, is not enough to qualify as high art.

On the other side of the ledger we have Tomorrowland, a film that many critics have excoriated, and which is aimed at an even younger demographic. Brad Bird’s new film, which was released more or less simultaneously with Fury Road, has drawn a mild yawn at best, and at worst a sneer, from those who write about movies.

Let me declare that I had a good ride at each of these films; I like Charleze Theron every time she burns up in the direction of a camera, and Tom Hardy is Hollywood’s best import from the immense pool of British acting talent since, well, since everybody else. I’d watch these two actors do almost anything, as long as I don’t have to see Hardy wear another f-ing mouth-mask ever again. As for the best thing about Fury Road, I add my aging baritone to the choir singing the virtue of an action film that’s actually full of action. After two decades in which the director should be calling “Lights, Camera, Graphic Department!” it’s SO yesterday (in a good way) to be watching real people do amazing stuff on the movie screen. Some of the stunts in FR might have been conceived by the Cirque Du Soleil on unclean meth, and the film looks mesmerizingly like it was shot on Mars, if that planet were closer to the sun than ours. Eat your heart out, John Carter. In fact, for a one-trick pony, this horse just won’t quit, it wins the race through the desert like Vigo Mortensen’s mount Hidalgo.

So, how come I like the other kid’s fantasy film better? Well, first, because Brad Bird has a sense of humour: he can never resist making quite sophisticated jokes at the crucial moments of his movies, like when Wallace Sean, embodied as the Supervisor of the Insurance Corporation in The Incredibles, neurotically arranges his pencils on his desk, or when the kid in the Iron Giant needs a mentor, and he finds a composite of Jack Kerouak and James Dean. There is a certain nostalgia about all of Bird’s movies, and Tomorrowland is no exception. In this film, he is asking, “what happened to the optimism we used to have about the future?” It’s a worthwhile question. Okay, he doesn’t come up with some of the really hard answers, like America Has Been Fighting A War Of Imperialist Expansion Since 1905, And It’s Losing the Economic Part, or American Greed Has Trumped American Democracy. What he has come up with is, in fact, a very American answer to the question: Americans have stopped listening to their visionaries.   The tragedy isn’t unfolding because of Cupidity, but rather because of “the vision thing.”  But in fact, to the extent that this is precisely true, and that progressive thinkers have increasingly traded bold vision for mild acquiescence to the politically correct, this film is saying something worth saying.

The action he concocts around this concept is superb, and funny. The always-surprising George Clooney is here discovered as a new incarnation of Dr. Emmet Brown, and the plot takes us back to the future, where the nominal present serves as a launching pad for a chase movie that goes through more worm holes than Buster Keaton in (is it The Engagement?).   We are treated to two of the best performances by young actors that we’ve ever seen at the movies, and there’s a romantic underpinning of the plot that just edges close enough to forbidden territory that it’s dangerous without crossing the line.

This film is, unlike Fury Road, full of computer generated trickery, but I find the unreality of it kind of delightful, as though the director/writer had conceived the film as an animation, like all his best work, and tried to express it as a live-action film. You might ask, “what’s the big deal about that? Isn’t that what Batman, or Sin City is doing?” The answer is, not quite. Those films bring the comics to life; Tomorrowland brings the comic aesthetic to life, or functions as though real life became a comic which was then filmed as live action.

To read some of the criticism, one would think that the plot of Tomorrowland is impossibly complex; I didn’t have this complaint. I did have to shake my head a couple of times, as when Bird sets up a rule whereby the possessor of a certain magical pin is transported to Tomorrowland but is confined by the physical limitations of their daily reality, and then abandons the rule. But I don’t expect or demand too much attention to physics from the guy who brought us a Superhero costume designer who is more intelligently funny in two minutes onscreen than the entire career of Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller combined.

At the core of many complains about the film is the idea that its positive thinking message is too preachy, too blunt, too YESTERDAY. (One critic even ascribed to it a debt to Ayn Rand!) I presume they would rather live in Mr. Miller’s sunburned apocalypse of Fury Road for a couple of hours, and talk about the deep ideas being swatted around in that film. That deep ideas aren’t the first thing on the mind of that director is amply proven by one scene in particular, in which a bevy of young women (one played by an authentic Victoria’s Secret model), show off their talents (okay, their tits and asses) as they wastefully douse themselves with the only drinkable liquid for a hundred kilometers. And these are the damsels in distress that the film’s protagonists set out to save. I say abandon ‘em to the weirdos: their self-preservation instinct isn’t developed enough to bother with.

The virtue of Fury Road is in sheer filmmaker skill and chutzpah: the locations, the boy toys, the fight choreography, and the dance of motorized mayhem are all superbly crafted and executed. The living hood ornament of the car of the baddie leader (a scream rocker playing a Gibson Flying V) is almost worth the price of admission. But for the sake of all that’s unholy, don’t watch this film or, heaven and hell forbid, WRITE about it as though there are any ideas in it that you couldn’t jot down on a bubblegum card.

For a real idea or two, grab a ten year-old and put your ticket money down on Brad Bird’s flawed but very clever film. Then leave him with his Tonka toys and take a fourteen year-old (along with your own inner 14 year-old) and go sand-truckin’ for a couple of hours.

Cuba in February (2)

Cuba in February (2) Cuba-HavanaStatue “My grandfather went to that factory every day for five years, and he oiled that machinery.” This is the story of a grandfather who was a tanner by trade, and having arrived in Cuba from Europe, he worked hard, and in spite of fierce competition, and because of his honourable business practice and business acumen, he finally owned a factory. Sadly for him, four years after the revolution, the regime decided to include smaller businesses in their centralization of the economy. They told him he had to close his tanning factory, telling him the space was needed for storage, throwing skilled leatherworkers out of work, depriving them of decent wages, and depriving the town at one stroke not only of good jobs, but of locally-produced leather goods. For five years, the factory sat idle, and the old man would go into the place every day and oil the machinery against the day when he would be allowed to re-open the factory, thus providing jobs, continuing a tradition of craftsmanship. Finally, a more aggressive centralization was instituted, and the government sent in a crew with acetylene torches and cut up the machinery for scrap. I for one cannot excuse the regime for such bizarre and damaging practices. Cubans are not looking for America to come and save them; the very opposite. They fear what will happen if the trade walls come down and their country is invaded by raw capitalism. They like their public education, their health care system and the distinction that their unique place in the world gives them. But they do want more freedom, they want freer trade, they want access to the physical world via travel, they want access to the world of information that is the unrestricted internet, and they want to stop living within an absurdist joke. The system they fought to put in power has betrayed them to ideology that is more bankrupt each year they stay in power, and seems to lack any cogent leadership. It is as though everything became frozen in 1959—not just the cars held together by love, bondo and binder-twine, but the revolution itself. Every government worker is bored, aggressively impolite. Every aspect of the infrastructure is tired and decayed. The high ideals of Fidel, and the massive public uprising that washed the hated Batista regime into the sea (along with the millions he stole in the act of leaving) is nowhere in evidence. The people are as exhausted as their stuff; I have never been anywhere so institutionally cynical. I have seen much deeper poverty, much deeper unhappiness in my travels. I have seen (as in Mexico) much more blunt and brutal shows of state power, but this is a society living in a state of apathy. Nothing to be done, live and breathe another day, for it will be exactly the same as this day, as yesterday: tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow… People don’t fear their government so much as they endure it, because they don’t believe it will change. Cuba will change: the Castros will not last much longer, and the island will be pried open by the world, but the real challenge will be to pry the people out of their political torpor. If your experience of sixty years is that It Doesn’t Matter, or, as the local phrase goes, “it’s somebody else’s job,” what can convince you that it does matter, that it is, in fact, your job? Feb 27: At the theatre. We walked over to the bus station today to acquire a ticket on Saturday’s bus to Veradero. The ticket agent had on her bet Cuban bureaucratic manners. We advanced from the line-up and into her office (yes, when you buy a bus ticket in this country, it’s like going to the Principal’s Office). She sat and busied herself with her nails for a moment as we stood—and very long, loudly-painted nails they were—she could but awkwardly hit the keys on her computer. (She was, by the way, a drop-dead gorgeous woman. If you saw her on the street you’d have to stop yourself from staring at her.) On the walls of the bus station are painted long slogans images of Fidel and Raul captioned “Our Heroes.” I thought, “Such old men. People need younger heroes than this, people whose deeds are more freshly inspiring.” Like the young Muslim woman who took a bullet for insisting on her right to be educated. Later that day, we went along to the theatre to see the play by the Dramatic Society. How oddly the whole affair was conducted! We arrived at 2:23 for a 2:30 matinee. A small throng of high school students sat on the steps of the theatre. R and I were admitted early into a theatre that would seat perhaps 200, designed as a proscenium-arch theatre with shallow wings not unlike many a Canadian high school stage, outfitted with a spare collection of lighting instruments. I think the technician or stage manager, seeing us take our seats, thought, “this must be our audience,” and took down the house lights. The actress onstage, who was en scene as we came in, launched into her first monologue. The play was about three women on a boat trying to get to Florida. They are caught in the Sargasso Sea (I’m not sure if this nautically possible) and dying slowly of thirst. The three actresses, all of whom were attractive, physically well-trained women, moved well, spoke audibly, and pronounced their words well enough. However, the director, if there was one, had declined to have them do anything but emote. None gave an account of the thirst, exhaustion, heat, sunstroke, disbalance, or any other quality that the given circumstances seemed to call for. They fought and orated like 1st-year acting students tearing the scene to tatters. Meanwhile, the front-of-house staff, apparently taken off guard, let in the students who were there to see the play in small groups over the course of the play. How they were to have any stake in the dramatic situation was a mystery to me, and to them as well, evidently, since they wandered into the dark theatre talking amongst themselves as though they were walking into Assembly, as though there were no play at all happening on the stage. They commented amongst themselves quite frankly on what they were looking at. Having performed for a lot of High School students, I didn’t need a translator to catch the gist of their commentary: “Oh, look, there are some people talking up there.” “Rad, man.” “Weird.” “Lame.” “That’s supposed to be a boat, I suppose.” What was obvious was the complete lack of any theatrical CULTURE. The events onstage were divorced from any of the real tools of the theatre: reaction, situational awareness, physical truth, character development. Indeed, all things that might come from the Zone of Silence (as I’ve been preaching for 35 years). The Director used few of tools at his or her disposal: no lighting changes, no real attempt to create the “boat”. The front of house staff clearly were not in communication with the tech staff, and worst of all, no one massaged the most important relationship of all, that between performers and audience. I suppose after 60-odd years of professional theatre in Edmonton, after 34 years of a festival that produces up to 184 plays in 10 days, after three generations of training actors and other theatre people, we have learned something of our craft. I sometimes forget how far we’ve come. R and I went along to the city museum later, and I paid my fees both to enter and to take pictures, which I declined to do, as not much in the museum was inspiring; to be sure there were pictures and displays of artifacts, but not organized with any sense of narrative or context. What surprised me was the absence of any contrast between pre and post-revolution, as though the fact were being ignored. R provided commentary, particularly about the beauty of the older exhibits of Cienfuegos’s glorious past. The best thing in the museum was the group of young art students who were helping each other install their own works, which I gathered constituted their grad projects from the art college: their enthusiasm and cooperative energy were delightful. They worked with joy, helping each other to pour sand, to string wires. Finally that evening, I marched with J and his daughter down to the athletic grounds—several acres of scrub grass and gravel, surveyed by a covered audience bleacher of crumbling concrete. Two or three hundred people of all ages jogged, stretched, practiced karate, and (predominantly) played in pickup soccer games, using steel structures the size of hockey nets for goals. Juan was there to play with his pals, and he’s an impressive older player. The level of futbal skill was high, and the energy was so like Canadian shinney or ball-hockey sessions that it warmed my heart just to watch. Fun, taken seriously: the competitive fire burning in each breast, the out-of-bounds ball chased with real energy, so to keep the momentum of the game going. At the house afterwards, J was noticeably warmer to me. He really wanted to see the picture of himself that I took on the field. He makes me his special mojita. After dinner (another great meal cooked and served by an M.D.!) R comes over with his daughter K, who wants to get some music from my computer and show me her work. Her cartooning is excellent; she has a unique talent. The tool she really needs now is access to the Net. It is the very tool she is institutionally denied. J also wants to show his son’s art: amazing still life studies, each of which has a humourous touch or a visual joke or pun. His son has not been admitted to art college; evidently the college accepts students on some other basis than that of technical skill. On my my last night in Cienfuegos, the last night in February, 2015, we all (both of my Cienfugo friends’ families) walk down the Parada to the seaside club and pay one CU (in my case—10 pesos the Cubans), to enter the open-air concert area (once upon a time the Pan-American Airways slip where seaplanes landed rich American gamblers and other high rollers). Two members of the band I’d played with two days ago are in the 11-piece concert band. They are kicking it as we walk in, playing a wide repertoire of popular music from Beatles to salsa. The 2-piece horn section is killer good, my young friend Pavel is demonstrating a mastery of electric guitar chops that surprise me (I hope he’s using the strings I brought him), and the 3 (male) vocalists are strong in their harmonies and their group dancing. The percussion section is speaking a language that we Northern types understand no more than Esperanto, and the women in our little group, after a while, simply will not allow me not to dance. The second-set climax is Queen’s “We Are The Champions.” Every Cuban band I’ve heard so far (I’ve heard six) covers this tune. To my ears, it’s just a hockey-jockey chant that yobs bellow at the end of a victory. Apparently, the song has some special resonance with Cubans, whether it’s regime defiance or simply proud defiance of the world: “to hell with embargos, to hell with hardship—we still exist!” When the band packs it in and the recorded music (predominantly Cuban) fires up, everyone is up on the floor dancing. J gets up with Rs wife, R leans over to me and says, “now you’re going to see some really good dancing!” Indeed: they put on a clinic of sexy, beautiful moves. The black girl who is dancing in front of me has more rhythm in her hips than half of the Canadian nation. Mar 1. I left Cienfuegos yesterday, with kindness and warm affection on all sides. Juan and Anita part from me like a brother. As far as R and family, I now feel like they are a part of my lifelong planetary connection. I vow to help K in whatever way I can. The four-hour bus ride from Cienfuegos to Veradero was marked by two bizarre coincidences. I was sitting at the back of the bus, with the last free seat on the bus beside me. At the one-hour mark, the bus stopped to pick up a single passenger from an obscure resort on the coast. A woman makes her way back to the empty seat and plunks herself down. We greet each other, and as her accent is clearly Canadian, I ask her where she’s from: Duncan, B.C. Her name is Kathleen Reid. Another few sentences of conversation reveal that we know several people in common, including the erstwhile director of the Malaspina College theatre program, and two of my former colleagues at the National Theatre School,  with all of whom she has worked on theatre shows. The coincidences don’t stop there: we are both from families with 3 boys and 1 girl, born in the same order, we both are twice married, and both have 1 daughter and two sons, in the same birth order. She even has a London, Ontario connection (I believe she said she was born there, and so I tell her about nearby Brownsville, founded by my ancestors). Then she tells me about her father’s WW2 navy career (he was at Lt. Cmdr aboard a destroyer), and how he was in Halifax on VE day. At this point it would not have surprised me to learn that her father and mine had ended the Halifax Riot getting drunk together. As all of this information is unfolding, a guy makes his way from the front of the bus to try to use the (of course) out-of-commission toilet, and I think… “that looks like… no, it’s simply not possible!” When we stop for a short break, I approach the man. Yep… “You ARE Alex, from Edmonton, right?” He laughs, “Ken, I couldn’t believe my eyes!” We have jammed together many times in Edmonton, and always enjoy playing together. He is on his way to Havana, and when Katherine and I get off the bus in Veradero, we agree to meet in Havana on the morrow, when I’ll be there. That night in Veradero, Katherine and I, by silent compact, spent several hours together. After a dinner at the local café where Cubans eat (one-third the price of the places on the tourist Strip), we buy some rum and hang out on the beach under the stars, talking about politics, child rearing, spirituality, Canada, ex-mates, theatre…  fellowship.Cuba-Havana12. In the morning, we have coffee with Carlos and we hear his achingly sad story of three years at a boarding school in the Seventies. The story is hauntingly similar to that of many Native Canadians; he too was removed from his family and culture. Not surprisingly, he credits music (often listened to illicitly, either on radio stations from the USA or through the English teacher’s locked door) with saving his sanity. No wonder he likes rock music. THE NEXT DAY… I get on the bus to Havana. I am seated next to a talkative Argentinian. I’m glad he assumes my Spanish is better than it is. It’s a great language lesson when you understand 20 per cent of what’s said to you, and you have to strive to get more. 2 Marso. My last morning in Cuba. The town of Vedato (part of Havana) wakes up shaking itself into another bright day, the mist rising from Havana’s vast harbour as some cruise ship painted with a bright bustling flower design as though it were a child’s toy steams into the bay from the calm Caribbean to disgorge its tourists. They will timidly poke into naughty Havana for a single day to buy and snap and gawk and then retreat to the safety of the ship and its groaning boards of food and drink. I spend a few more profitable hours in the company of Dario, the young artist who is hoping to buy an apartment in Habana and move in with R’s daughter when they can afford to marry. He is a very quick, articulate young fellow who forebears my slowness on the uptake of things Cuban. His art, which he is happy to show me on his laptop, ranges from painting to cartooning to animation, to humourous live-action video. He reminds me so much of my hyper-smart nephew Brendan (they even look alike) that I wish I could magically transport them into the same room and watch the intellectual sparks fly. He generously accompanies me to the airport (showing me how to get there on public transport, saving me a bundle of money), and stays with me as long as he can before my plane leaves. This young lion, like his beloved, like every young person in Cuba, yearns to join the vast cyber-world that they are perfectly well aware is the stream in which, world-wide, their generation now swims. To the USA, I say, yes, if you really want positive change in Cuba, park your ships off Cuba’s shore, but if you truly want to help the people of Cuba, keep the guns unloaded, missiles in their tubes, the planes on the decks. Broadcast broadband internet signal instead. **

Why I’m voting for the NDP in Alberta’s election on Tuesday

Why I am voting for the NDP in the coming Alberta election.

I am a lifelong leftist.

It’s something that I learned on my parents’ knees, so to speak.  They were the son and daughter of Alberta pioneers who suffered terribly when capitalism spectacularly crashed in 1929, and were active enemies of European fascism in the Second World War.  They also came from a Protestant tradition of rationalism and assumed that having a social conscience was what made you a decent human being.  Our family found itself in opposition to every Alberta government since 1935, partly for philosophical reasons, since we were not Christians in the era of “Bible Bill” Aberhart and his successor Earnest Manning (the Social Credit era), and partly for practical ones, as we watched as the Conservative Party grew more unresponsive and ever more paranoid and contemptuous of the democratic process in the Klein era.

I am an economic Leftist because the raw facts are that EVERY functioning economy on Earth is a MIXED economy, with elements of state control of vital services.  This is not ideology, it is practicality:  those services provided commonly by the state (education, health, social welfare, the military) tend to be the LEAST profitable, and the state has no choice but to provide them if we are to have universal education, universal access to health care, etc.   This is fundamental to the REGULATION of societies.   This does not mean that governments are inherently better at organizing people to do all things.  I have traveled in two important socialist states over the past several months, and the contrast between Vietnam’s vibrant economy, which is tolerant of enterprise, and Cuba’s, which is not, is very instructive.  I highly approve of free enterprise, it’s just that it works best in those situations where the old motivator of self interest operates best.   I also believe that monopoly capitalism and monopoly state-ism have the same fundamental flaw: they cease to be regulated when power gravitates to smaller and smaller elites. This fact is often ignored by those on the political Left, to their peril.

I am impatient with Leftists who ignore practical considerations, even as I’m impatient with those who don’t teach their children to be responsible for themselves, but I do share with them two fundamental beliefs.  One is that human beings are not inherently evil (as Bible Bill was constantly reminding us); the other is that they ARE inherently self-interested, which means that they need regulation.  And whether you’re talking about Cuba, whose rulers have bluntly refused to answer to the electorate for 56 years, or Alberta, where the electorate has declined to make the rulers answer for themselves for 44 years, the way we regulate governments is to change them.

There is one further thing that I share with those who will vote for change on Tuesday:  optimism.  The sky is NOT falling.  People ARE capable of learning, adjusting, getting better, but they cannot do so without experimentation.  Political innovation is as important as any other form of that oh-so-human trait.  Mistakes WILL be made, should the NDP form a government in Alberta.  I’ve seen monstrous mistakes made by every government I have ever studied.  But there will be innovation, and there will be another election in which we will judge the government on its performance.