Sunday, December 21, 2008
Monday, December 15, 2008
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Even so, the rhythm of my life now brings with it a new set of associations that inevitably start simmering Christmas anticipation, and perversely enough, one of the big ones is grading final essays in December. The latter stages of grading provoke a shift at the molecular level as the end of the semester comes into sight and I feel increasingly inclined to watch and listen to Christmas-themed things. One of the big ones for me is listening to Dylan Thomas read “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” something I have blogged about in previous Decembers.
And there’s also Christmas carols … but only some of them. Come Christmastime, my decidedly un-religious nature experiences a fundamental contradiction, as I tend to lean more toward traditional Christmas music: I love the more overtly religious carols, especially when performed chorally or orchestrally. I also have a weakness for the mid-century crooners, Bing Crosby in particular. I do tend to cringe when contemporary pop stars record Christmas albums … I hear enough Mariah Carey and Celine Dion in shopping malls through the year without needing to hear their deformations of “Santa Baby” or “Silent Night.”
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan doing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” is now one of my favourite versions of my favourite carol, as is Loreena McKennit’s “Good King Wenceslas.” There’s also the new-old classics, by which I mean the things I grew up with—such as Bing Crosby and David Bowie doing “The Little Drummer Boy,” and pretty much all of Boney M’s Christmas album (was that laughter I heard in the cheap seats??). And of course the twin pinnacles of my childhood Christmas: John Denver with the Muppets and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, both of which are in my iTunes library.
(And to digress from music for a moment, I should add two more recent additions to my annual Christmas viewing: Love, Actually and the Christmas episode from season one of The West Wing, the latter of which takes first place in the list Television Guaranteed To Make Chris Cry No Matter How Many Times He Watches It. Dear god, I’m getting a lump in my throat just writing this).
And then there are the new-new classics, songs you hear and immediately know they’re there to stay. Which this year happens to be my boys doing “I Believe in Father Christmas”:
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
There’s a great moment in the first season of Mad Men when the men of Sterling Cooper—who have effectively hitched themselves to Richard Nixon’s would-be presidential star—view a JFK television ad, and suddenly realize what they’re up against. The ad is peppy, happy, cartoonish—a montage of image’s of the handsome Kennedy and his wife alongside a series of random Americans of various ages and stations (though not races or ethnicities)—and is utterly substanceless. Don Draper and company are taken aback by the breathtaking shallowness of the ad, but as ad men recognize the ad’s persuasive power ... especially when compared to Nixon’s ponderous and stern catalogue of his qualifications for the presidency.
One of the things I love about Mad Men is the way in which it so frequently subverts our accustomed understanding of certain cultural and historical moments and artefacts. The mythos of John F. Kennedy for us today (the version other than the unremitting lothario) is the eloquent and earnest, brilliant and dedicated leader who surrounded himself with the greatest minds of his generation. Nixon resides in the imagination as the self-obsessed, pathologically dishonest Machiavelli willing to do anything to attain and consolidate power. The first we like to imagine would have been a force for good had he not been cut down; the latter inaugurated a politics of skulduggery and character assassination that has been the norm until the recent election of Barack Obama.
Of course, neither of these portraits is entirely true or fair: Kennedy and his “best and brightest” have to bear much of the blame for Vietnam, and Nixon was (for all his faults) an accomplished administrator and diplomat. But their respective mythologies persist, which is why seeing the JFK ad was somewhat jarring—it has frequently been said that Kennedy was the first television president, that his victory was a product of this new medium that allowed his image of youthfulness, combined with his accomplished oratory, to sway the electorate. But those looking back on Kennedy with rose-coloured glasses tend to associate his televisual appeal not with the vapid TV ad seen above, but with such historic moments as the Berlin speech. It is, hence, a bit of a shock to the system to see said vapid ad and realize that Kennedy’s campaign not only exploited the shallowness of televisual sensibilities, but blazed a trail we’ve been walking since.
I’ve been musing on these questions this morning because of two things. One, I’ve been reading The Assault on Reason by Al Gore (speaking of candidates partially hamstrung by ponderous earnestness); two, there’s a particular turn of phrase that has been increasingly irritating me in the aftermath of our recent parliamentary silliness: the frequent recourse of liberal MPs and political commentators to the discussion of how to recuperate “the Liberal brand.”
I’ve always been a fan of Al Gore, and have a deep respect for him as a politician, statesman and just generally as a human being. The frequent assaults on him since 2000 by both the conservative and mainstream press have exemplified a particularly pernicious form of American anti-intellectualism that irritates the hell out of me, as well and scaring me a great deal too (plus, I have a certain sympathy for stodgy and pompous know-it-alls, having been justifiably tarred with that brush myself many, many times). The Assault on Reason is an extraordinary book, and one I’m now wishing I’d read when it was first published—though had I done that, it would have filled me with despair at the nadir of the Bush Administration and the uncertain prospect of what was to succeed them. It’s worth reading still however (Obama hasn’t been sworn in yet—forty-one days!), because it offers a trenchant critique of what happens when we allow mendacity and misdirection to rule political discourse in the place of reasoned and measured debate.
While we wait with bated breath to see whether Obama’s election will usher in a new era of pragmatic and transparent leadership based on rational debate, our own political situation in Canada makes me recommend The Assault on Reason as a fine book to be put in your loved ones’ stockings. Or perhaps, in this political climate, the stockings of your unloved-ones. Even as the Bush/Cheney/Rove style of politics is being shown the door by the American electorate, our own PM continues to play zero-sum partisan hardball and consolidate his party’s power by any means necessary. To quote Rick Mercer: “We've seen unheard of cooperation between political rivals all over the industrialized world. But not in Canada. Not with Stephen Harper ... No my friends, he has one goal and one goal only and it has nothing to do with governing: how can he use this crisis to destroy the opposition?”
What is perhaps most galling is the degree to which he continues to succeed. He made a drastic misstep that led to him almost being ousted by the coalition, but somehow convinced our GG to prorogue Parliament. He’ll return in January unrepentant but with a budget with enough gifts for the electorate that the coalition—which already looks dead in the water—won’t have a leg to stand on. And he’ll have managed, through some bizarre bit of political misdirection, to have transformed his blunder into political capital. And to those who say you can’t argue with success, I cry bullshit.
Why? Because it’s not about who wins and loses in Parliament, it’s about who wins and loses in Canada, and at the moment we’re all losing big time: because we have a locked and shuttered House of Commons at a time when we need leadership, because we have a prime minister more interested in holding onto power than genuinely working with the opposition for the greater good, because we have an inept and factious opposition, and because we’re pretty much a laughing stock. When Jon Stewart said the other night on The Daily Show that Canada’s biggest export is jokes about Canadians, I really couldn't do much more than sigh and silently agree.
All of which is why the incessant argument about “the Liberal brand” makes me want to knock people’s heads together. A political party is not a pair of sneakers or a celebrity fragrance, but we’ve arrived at a point where that’s exactly how we treat it. Harper &Co., according to a news report I heard yesterday, already have a series of Michael Ignatieff attack ads ready to roll out. Presumably they also had a series of Bob Rae attack ads in the can, and undoubtedly they’re assembling anti-coalition attack ads in the unlikely eventuality that the coalition is still drawing breath in January. The Conservatives have become masters of branding: they know that this is the strategy by which one comes to value or devalue something based on a set of associations detached from the innate value of a given object. They have been waging a very successful war against the Liberal brand since the waning days of Chretien, and have indeed succeeded in devaluing it dramatically.
Which is why we should remember that we're not talking about a consumer product here but a complex of elected officials, staffers, ideas, policies, and voters that cannot and should not be reduced to a set of simplistic catch-phrases, talking-points, and visual cues.
Which begs the question of why the Liberals allow Harper to control the debate. Every time an MP expresses their confidence in the “Liberal brand,” they’re playing a game they’ve been losing consistently. I can’t say I’m without ambivalence about Michael Ignatieff, but I take comfort in the fact that the Liberals seem to be getting their act together and ending, or at least suspending, their crippling internecine squabbles (the operative phrase here being “seem to be”). But Mr. Ignatieff: please don’t talk about the Liberal brand. Please don’t play Harper’s game. Granted, I’m not entirely sure what the alternative is, but then I’m not the newly appointed party leader presumably surrounded by a lot of smart political operatives. There is one glimmer of hope, however, which happens to lie to our south. Promise me you’ll think about how to change things.
Friday, December 05, 2008
- My friend Jason’s Facebook status update sums it all up for me: “Jason is boggled that even as our laissez-faire partisan neighbours to the south managed a recovery package in days, all our morons managed was a time-out. With pay.” At a moment like this, it strikes me that doing nothing is about the worst thing a government can do. Even an election would be preferable. Not very, but still.
- Everything I have predicted about the course of events since the coalition became a gleam in the Opposition’s eye has been wrong. I was thinking I should just stop prognosticating, but when the G-G gave Harper permission to dissolve Parliament, I came to the conclusion that I simply don’t possess an irrational enough mind to see into the crystal ball of our federal politics.
- In happier news, the semester is over and I will be winging home to Ontario in slightly less than two weeks. This was a good semester, and after the perfect storm that was my fall term last year, it felt like a walk in the park. I actually managed to get some of my own writing done, which felt so decadent that I had to remind myself that that’s technically 40% of my job description—40% research, 40% teaching, 20% administration. The problem was that this time last year the math was more like 40% research, 40% teaching, 60% administration. Which is what happens when you leave the math to English professors.
- Forty-six days of Bush's presidency left.
- It occurred to me recently that I came roaring back to my blog after a two-month absence largely on my obsession with the American election. And now I’ve been going on about Canadian politics. Not wanting to turn this into an exclusively political blog, I shall do my best to reinsert more literary and personal stuff (i.e. things I actually know something about). That being said, this essay is one of the smartest things I’ve read since Obama’s election, and articulates some of the things I’ve thought way better than I ever could.
- Teaching this term was a joy. I had two classes, my standard 20th-century U.S. fiction, and a fourth-year seminar on American Lit after 1945. In both cases, I decided to mix things up a bit by giving each course a specific theme rather than just doing a typical survey. In the case of the former, I decided to take advantage of Obama’s candidacy and focus on novels dealing with issues of race and identity; in the latter, we looked at post-9/11 fiction. The 9/11 course, while interesting, was a bit tougher—because, as it turns out, most novels written about September 11th really suck. At the same time however, we did Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which is an utterly fantastic read and helped balance out stinkers like John Updike’s Terrorist. In both classes, though, I had some amazing students … which really is the rule rather than the exception here. I am consistently impressed and often blown away by the students I have; it’s quite the privilege.
- Speaking of, my student Emily introduced me to the genius that is the comedy of Dylan Moran, who you may remember as the irritating David in Shaun of the Dead. His stand-up is brilliant: the following clip in which he expounds on the nature of Irish vs. English sensibilities, and Protestant vs. Catholic had me laughing so hard I was close to asphyxiating myself:
Thursday, December 04, 2008
What I imagined our leaders saying as I watched them debate the coalition on the muted TVs at the gym while I ran on the treadmill yesterday
"OK. OK. OK. Please don’t take the PMO away from me. Please!! You guys don’t understand what it’s like … I NEED to be Prime Minister! It’s like a drug. I can’t give it up. PLEASE! Look, it’s my campaign guys’ fault … after we did all those ads, they took the sweater vest away, and happy fun cuddly Stephen went away too, and hardass wants-to-be-President Stephen came roaring back. Let me put the sweater vest on again! I can do this, I swear! Don’t you understand? THEY TOOK AWAY THE SWEATER VEST!!"
(For some reason sounding an awful lot like Ian McShane) "Listen, you oil-sands worshipping shitheel cocksucker. You, my friend, just bought your cocksucker Conservative fucking party one long-term ass-fucking. You call this a fucking power grab, you with your wanna-be fucking executive branch? You fucking George W. fucking Bush clone? What you see before you, my monumentally arrogant friend, is a parlifuckingmentary solution to your pale imitation of those American Karl Rove cocksuckers. You want to be president, emigrate to the United fucking States of America. You want to be Canadian, you just bend over there and take our Westminster procedure like a polite little fucknut."
"I would like to correct Mr. Flaherty’s characterization of our agreement as the “New Socialist, New Separatist Coalition” and remind the honourable member that four years ago his party’s leader sought an identical agreement with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois. And I would like to further chastise the honourable member for speaking not only hypocritically, but for employing such incendiary and divisive language. We are not the “New Socialist, New Separatist Coalition,” Mr. Speaker. We are the Communist-Centrist Coalition of Partitionists, or CCCP. HA! That’s right, you bourgeois pigs, you running dogs! WE GOT YOU! At long last, the glorious revolution may commence! Добро пожаловать к соединению канадских советских социалистических республик!!"
Monday, December 01, 2008
“One happy result of recent election outcomes is that now liberal Americans get to tease our liberal Canadian friends about the role reversal — they’re the ones saddled with government by rightwingers, and they’re the ones who’ll need to flee ‘cross the border to enter the bountiful Land of Obama.”
Except, as he points out, possibly not for much longer. I obviously have had my head in the sand for the last few days, because it wasn’t until last night, listening to Cross-Country Checkup on CBC as I made dinner, that I first heard of the Conservatives’ massively controversial budget and the response of the opposition parties. I’m still a little hazy on the details of what made this budget such a “F*ck You!,” but the consensus I heard last night, from both sides of the political spectrum, was that Harper’s arrogance finally got the better of him—promising a conciliatory approach after the election, and then explicitly poking the opposition in the eye with a stick.
Which brings us to the two possible routes from here (or three, if we take into account the oh-so-Canadian strategy of doing nothing) being the opposition getting together to bring about another election, or the opposition literally getting together and forming a coalition government. The former prospect makes me want to jab the aforementioned stick in my own eye, but the latter is kind of exciting. Not necessarily because I think a coalition government would be the answer to our prayers or the solution to our problems, but because it would have the effect of driving federal Canadian politics out of its rut, and make three of our four major parties actually work together.
Also, it makes federal Canadian politics more interesting. The last election was such a dour affair because its outcomes, and indeed the process of the campaigns, were so predictable as to be practically foregone conclusions. I can’t remember the last time Canadian politics ever actually inspired me … actually, it’s entirely possible that my country’s politics have never inspired me, which is extremely sad. In fact, one of the last times I heard any of our leaders say something that moved me was when Rick Mercer interviewed Paul Martin on the October 28 episode of his show; Martin said “My father understood that government has a really positive role to play in the lives of people. You start with individual freedom, and then the question becomes, ‘Well, how the heck do make sure that people have that individual freedom?’ Well, if you’re not born to privilege, then you don’t have the same freedoms as people who are, and government has a responsibility to put you in that position with the best education, the best health care. That was my father’s belief, and it’s certainly mine.”
It says something about our current state of affairs that I really miss Paul Martin.
So I’m profoundly interested to see what happens should the opposition give this coalition idea the old college try. I suspect if it goes forward we’ll see Bob Rae as its nominal leader, because Stephane Dion would be a non-starter with the Bloc, and Ignatieff a non-starter with the NDP; Bob Rae, given his history with the New Democrats and massive amount of experience to boot, will likely rise to the top. The big question is the composition of the cabinet: the Bloc can’t possibly expect that a separatist would be an acceptable prime minister to the rest of the country, but they’ll have to be given something. Some key portfolios, at the very least, would be dropped in their laps.
I must admit, I am slightly gleeful at the fact that this prospective coalition will necessarily give the party of separatism a hand in government, largely because it’s exactly the kind of surreal logic that surfaces in Canadian political life from time to time that makes me love my country that much more. The very first comment on Matthew Yglesias’s post read “A separatist party joining a coalition government? Man, Canada can be weird sometimes.” Yup, we certainly can—and we’re not even mentioning the Trudeau years, or Mackenzie King’s séances, or Sir John A’s drunken whistle-stop campaign speeches.
But it also, I think, speaks to something in the Canadian character, in finding strength and consensus in accommodating difference. And to those calling in to Rex Murphy’s show last night with apocalyptic predictions of Canada’s demise should the Bloc get ANY power, I ask you this: have you not been paying attention to Quebec all this time? Separatism gains steam when Quebec feels disenfranchised, and withers on the vine when Quebec wields genuine political clout in Ottawa. Paradoxically, giving the Bloc a seat at the table in a coalition government would, I honestly believe, do more to marginalize extreme separatists than aid them.
On the other hand, the enfranchisement of Quebec at the expense of the Harper government, while denuding Quebec separatist sentiments, is more than likely to foster them out west, especially in Alberta. One caller last night hit the nail on the head when he observed that such an unlikely coalition would be read by Albertans as representative of the lengths Quebec and Ontario will go to claw back power from the western provinces and deny them a voice in the governance of the country.
So we’ll see. It’s all a great reminder that democracy is an intractably messy thing. I think it’s moments like this that Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government in the world … except for all the others.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
That being said, I would like to pay tribute at various points over the next fifty-nine days to the outgoing president by recalling some of his memorable locutions. While I certainly wouldn't want to compare our pain to that of soldiers fighting a fraudulent war or the victims of Hurricane Katrina, those of us whose principal business is the English language have found this president particularly galling for the violence he has visited on sentences (though honestly -- and I never thought I would ever say this -- Bush's use of language is pristine when compared to the labyrinths of Sarah Palin's speech).
On the other hand, we teachers of English now have a great contemporary Exhibit A when we come to define the term "malapropism" to our students. It is a term first put into common use by the character Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals, who misuses words to comic effect -- such as saying "He is the very pineapple of politeness," where she means "pinnacle." My personal favourite example predates Sheridan in Much Ado About Nothing, where the constable Dogberry announces to the Duke that "We have comprehended two auspicious characters."
Had Mr. Bush been a little more up on his literary genres, he'd have known that the accomplished malapropist is always a minor character used to comic effect, and is never supposed to be either the protagonist or antagonist. Perhaps the President-Elect should give him a copy of The Rivals and Much Ado as a get-your-ass-out-of-my-White-House parting gift.
Those who follow this blog regularly will possibly have noticed that the tagline under my title changes with every post, and is always a random (hopefully funny) quotation from somewhere. Well, in honour of the outgoing Malapropist-in-chief, I will have as my tagline a Bushism for every entry I post between now and January 20th. It is quite seriously the very least I can do for him.
In the meantime, here are ten of my favourites. Please feel free to contribute your own in my comments section.
"Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream."
"I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family."
"I hear there's rumors on the Internets that we're going to have a draft."
"I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully."
"You work three jobs? … Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that."
"Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB-GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country."
"We ought to make the pie higher."
"Rarely is the questioned asked: Is our children learning?"
"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."
"There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."
(OK ... so maybe most of these aren't malapropisms per se).
Friday, November 21, 2008
Today, I am a man in mourning. I just discovered that ABC has cancelled Pushing Daisies.
Nothing will ever be happy again.
Then again, I suppose it was a longshot that a well-written, quirky, funny, vaguely surreal show about a piemaker who can bring dead people/things back to life with a touch and consign them forever to the grave again with a second touch, who can't resurrect people for more than a minute because if he does someone else has to die, and who uses this ability with a private detective named Emerson Cod to wake up murder victims to find out who killed them and collect the reward money, but breaks the one-minute rule when he brings his murdered childhood sweetheart Chuck back to life and can't bring himself to kill her again (causing the funeral home owner to die in the process), but also of course then can't actually touch the woman he loves, and so is forced to live chastely and sweetly with her while their adventures investigating crimes continue, joined by the vivacious and petite Olive who works for the pieman at his restaurant The Pie Hole and who is herself not-so-secretly in love with the pieman, would not survive long in the cookie-cutter world of network programming.
Alas -- Lily, Vivian, Emerson, Digby, Chuck, Ned, Olive ... we hardly knew ye.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
As used this morning in the NY Times by Thomas Friedman: “The two most impactful secretaries of state in the last 50 years were [James] Baker and Henry Kissinger.”
Besides being one of those buzz-words that has surfaced in marketing lingo and therefore irritating by proxy, it is also a painfully ugly and awkward word to hear—especially considering the array of alternatives one may use, such as “effective,” “successful,” or “accomplished.” If one really wants to stress their impact however, can we not just use the actual word “impact” without resorting to awkward adjectival distortions? As in: “The two secretaries of state with the greatest impact on foreign affairs were James Baker and Henry Kissinger.”
Thomas Friedman: you’re on notice. You’ve recouped a lot of ground with me since endorsing the Iraq war by tacitly acknowledging your error, and further with your calls for realigning the energy industry with green innovation.
But seriously, “impactful”? You watch yourself.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
One of the pleasures I have had in the post-election phase is watching the conservative press in the U.S. fulminate, lather, rationalize, and generally tie themselves up in knots. Several themes have emerged:
1. Some have attempted to recast Obama’s victory as evidence that States is a “center-right” nation—some even going so far as to claim that he effectively campaigned as a “Reaganite.” This particular howler is bad enough taken on its simple merits, but somewhat more baffling when you recall that, up to and including the day of the election, these same voices were calling Obama a “socialist.” It’s amazing what 365 electoral votes can apparently do to the perception of one’s ideological tendencies—from Stalin to Reagan, all in twenty-four hours.
2. The current economic downturn has been labeled by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh as “the Obama Recession.” Yes, the President-Elect, who has held that title for not quite two weeks, is apparently responsible for our economic woes. Why? According to the Hannity/Limbaugh logic, people have lost all consumer confidence with the massive tax hikes promised by Obama looming on a horizon two months away. Which would be an interesting argument were it not for two key facts: (1) however else Fox News might spin it, Obama’s plan is for tax breaks for everyone earning under $250K, and a tax hike for those earning over that much (and, not to split hairs, but it’s not so much a tax hike as a return to pre-Bush taxation levels); (2) that very $250K+ demographic that Obama explicitly said would experience a tax increase VOTED FOR OBAMA. That’s right—exit polls indicated that those earning over two hundred thousand a year voted for Obama by a margin of 52 to 46 percent.
3. Sean Hannity in particular continues to bash away on the “how much do we really know about Obama?” theme, repeatedly citing the accusation that Obama isn’t really an American citizen, harping on the Bill Ayer connection, and making vague suggestions about the extent of his “radical associations.” Yawn.
4. Obama’s coming for your guns, America!! No less than that bastion of law, order and legality G. Gordon Liddy enjoined Americans on his radio show (yes, he has a radio show) that, during the coming Obama presidency, “The first thing you do is, no matter what law they pass, do not—repeat, not—ever register any of your firearms.” (This, mind you, was the same guy who in 1994 advised people that if the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms comes to your door, “Go for a head shot; they're going to be wearing bulletproof vests.”) Apparently, those people clinging to their guns (who may or may not also be clinging to religion) have been purchasing firearms at a greater rate than gun dealers have seen since the aftermath of September 11th.
Watch the Daily Show’s take on this here.
OK, so while items one through three are kind of funny, number four is just kind of scary. The 1990s were marked by this kind of militancy, in which paramilitary groups like the Michigan Militia prepared for the invasion of the U.S. by the U.N. and Timothy McVeigh and friends did dire things with fertilizer. The last I checked, the War on Terror was still a going concern … are we looking at the rise of domestic threats again because a more liberal administration might take the egregious step of registering guns and putting restrictions on assault rifles and grenade launchers?
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Fortunately, there are those capable of explaining these things to those such as myself. I am, as always, referring to Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppets:
So there you are: the financial meltdown explained in high-pitched brogues.
And if I may briefly return to my above comment about living in the one economically sound province with rising real estate values while holding the one genuinely recession-proof job? HA!
Saturday, November 08, 2008
- I recently discovered that Obama's new Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was the model for the character of Josh Lyman on The West Wing. That's kind of cool; what blows my mind is that his brother Ari, a talent agent in L.A., was the inspiration for the character of Ari Gold on Entourage. All of which leads me to the conclusion that you really don't want to fuck with this family.
- And so it begins: today I went into Shopper's Drug Mart for some odds and sods, and had the pleasant experience of hearing U2 on the store soundtrack. As if to make a point to me specifically, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" was cut off before it finished to be replaced by Neil Diamond singing "The Little Drummer Boy." Seriously? Seriously ... and once again the consumerist powers that be renew their assault on my sensibilities in their yearly attempt to make me loathe Christmas before December begins.
- I've decided to found an advocacy group for the abolition of lotteries. Not because they feed people's gambling addictions (which they do), or because low-income people spend a disproportionate amount of their wages on them as compared to high-income people (which they do), but because I invariably end up behind them in the checkout line as they have their two-dozen or so tickets checked by the clerk, and then take their sweet time deciding whether to take their meagre winnings in cash or more tickets. The madness must end! I must be allowed to buy my toothpaste with dispatch!
Thursday, November 06, 2008
I’ve been kicking around ideas for a couple of posts dealing with the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, but none of them are coming together. I tried to articulate one of them to my 20thC U.S. novel class, as the election is quite germane to our subject matter—we’re focusing on issues of race and identity in American fiction—but didn’t quite manage it. Perhaps I will come back to these thoughts when the dust settles a bit more.
Suffice to say however that Tuesday night was a night to remember. I had an election night party, and my living room was crammed full of people glued to the television as the returns came in. Never before have I seen, or would really have ever dreamed of seeing, such an extraordinary international response to an American election. Here we were, a group of Canadians who had watched our own recent election pass with barely a murmur, mesmerized by this spectacle and joyful at the result. The posts I had been kicking around all speculate on the reason for Obama’s extraordinary international appeal, and the passions he has managed to excite both within and without the United States. Those thoughts, still embryonic, will wait … I will keep this one personal.
I imagine it’s an occupational hazard, combined with too many viewings of The West Wing and eight years in the wilderness of Bush malapropisms, but the mere fact of an exceptionally intelligent and articulate candidate who speaks to his audience like adults was like intellectual ambrosia. Still, I was skeptical about Obama’s lack of experience, and sat the fence for the first stretch of the democratic primaries. As things progressed however, and the Obama campaign showed its true mettle against one of the most ruthless political machines this side of the Potomac, I became more and more impressed. It wasn’t just that he was articulate—it was that he was calm, cool, and utterly unflappable, and seemed genuinely to hold himself above the fray.
And then there was this:
And I was sold. The revelations of Jeremiah’s jeremiads against America should have been the end of things for Obama, and for any other candidate in a comparable position, it probably would have. Though Obama had so long succeeded in keeping the issue of race out of his campaign, the appearance of Reverend Wright’s intemperate (though for any halfway serious student of race in America, hardly surprising or exaggerated) sermons effectively made continuing in this regard impossible. So what does he do but address the issue head-on, in a speech that will one day be read alongside Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Negro is the Fourth of July?” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” as pivotal moments of great oratory. If you haven’t already, watch the speech above or read the text of it here. It is at once honest and straightforward, and exceptionally intelligent: it threads an impossibly difficult needle and addresses an historically divisive topic in a way that respects its audience and challenges them to rise to the occasion.
I’d say that I’m a sucker for great oratory, but that would be at once understating and simplifying things for me. I am an English professor, a career choice that has not been arbitrary or accidental: it is rather one that proceeds from a deep and abiding investment in the belief that language and discourse are not only among the most powerful tools we have, but are the measure of what it means to be human—in both the positive and negative senses. Obama’s detractors have frequently attacked him for offering “mere words,” even suggesting that his eloquence and articulateness somehow disqualified from high office because they signified that he was a man of words and not action.
Perhaps it goes without saying that I consider the whole words vs. action equation something of a false dichotomy; once upon a time the advertising slogan of my alma mater, the University of Western Ontario, was “Leading. Thinking.” As one of my favourite professors there was fond of observing: haven’t they got that in the wrong order? Thought (ideally) should precede action, and, as I tell my students, unarticulated thought exists nowhere but in your own mind. The larger our shared vocabulary, the more nuanced and subtle our understanding of the world is.
On the other hand, words and action have run in opposite directions in the Bush Administration. Besides “terrorist,” “freedom” and “liberty” were among the few words Bush could reliably wrap his lips around, but he effectively emptied them of content by mouthing them endlessly while suspending habeas corpus, endorsing domestic wire-tapping, and manufacturing evidence for a fraudulent war; his fulminations against “evildoers” lost whatever traction they might have had when the photographs from Abu Gharib surfaced.
Al Gore accused the Bush Administration of waging a “war on reason”; I consider that synonymous with a war on language. To be well-spoken was to be elitist. To be articulate was to be ineffectual. To be intelligently critical was to be anti-American. When I watch or read an Obama speech, I am reminded on one of the basic tenets of my discipline: language taken in all its subtlety and nuance moves toward inclusion, to the expansion of vocabularies of understanding; language reduced, simplified, and delimited excludes and divides, and infantilizes those who use it.
George Orwell taught us that. I’d like to think he’d be wearing a smile today, too.
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
2. On the upside, now that Ontario is a have-not province, experts predict that Ontarians will become folksier, friendlier, and funnier
3. There was something else ... something else to celebrate. I can't quite think of what it is ...
Monday, November 03, 2008
There are a handful of thoughtful and intelligent conservative writers and commentators I regularly read because it makes little sense to only ever read the stuff you know you already agree with; to paraphrase Slavoj Zizek, it is far more intellectually productive for left-leaning thinkers to argue with smart conservatives than to agree with mediocre liberals.
William Kristol—NY Times columnist, founder and editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard, chairman of the Project for the New American Century, and general all-around neoconservative mouthpiece—is not one of them. I do eagerly await his Monday column, because it so frequently offers the kind of laugh that goes well with coffee in waking me up to a new week. I usually follow that up with dropping into Andrew Loman’s office to ask, “Hey, did you read Kristol this morning?” … and the hilarity continues.
Hilarity tempered with disgust and irritation, mind you, as Kristol is celebrated as a bastion of the intellectual right and has possessed in the past a very influential voice within the neoconservative movement. Except that he has effectively been wrong about everything. Not just most things: everything.
He said, for example, at the beginning of October that Obama could be beaten if the McCain campaign would “take the gloves off” and let Sarah Palin go after Obama about William Ayers. And she did … and we saw just how well that worked. Just a week later, Kristol was opining that McCain should “fire his campaign” and go back to being himself, eschewing the kind of Rovian tactics he was advocating in the previous column.
Back during the Democratic Primaries, he characterized the unguarded moment when Hilary Clinton teared up as “manipulative,” and suggested it was the reason she won New Hampshire; speaking of the constituency of women voters, he said “White women are a problem, that's, you know—we all live with that.” After McCain tapped Sarah Palin as his running mate—a choice he celebrated unequivocally—he then turned around and blasted criticism of her as “sexism.”
He has been one of the most indefatigable champions of the war in Iraq, of the Patriot Act, and of all of the mutable rationales offered for invading Iraq in the first place; he was among those predicting that it would be a cakewalk, that those calling for higher troop numbers were alarmists, that the American soldiers would be treated as liberators. His support of the Iraq war is perhaps unsurprising, considering that the Project for the New American Century (a collective including such signatories as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) was calling for the invasion of Iraq when it was first founded in 1998.
So it was with a feeling of dread that I read the first sentence of his column yesterday: “Barack Obama will probably win the 2008 presidential election.” Uh-oh. I suppose I can balance that dread with the memory of all his “advice” to McCain/Palin over the last few months, and how all that has panned out. Fortunately, in the sentences following this pronouncement, dear Bill provided me with his trademark comedy: “If he does, we conservatives will greet the news with our usual resolute stoicism or cheerful fatalism. Being conservative means never being too surprised by disappointment.”
Oh, where to even begin … “resolute stoicism”? “cheerful fatalism”? Methinks my friend Bill hasn’t been introduced to Sean Hannity and Anne Coulter—though as a regular contributor on Fox News, I don’t entirely know how he’s avoided this. He’s apparently (lucky for him) never heard Rush Limbaugh in full swing, and I guess he must have been backpacking in Nepal or something during Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings, and thus missed conservatives’ progressively more vitriolic attacks in print and on air. And he evidently hasn’t been reading the back-and-forthing on political blogs over the last few months.
And besides the glaring fact of the historic awfulness of the Bush Administration, exactly what “disappointments” have Republicans had to deal with over the last eight years? I suppose the 2006 midterms count … but other than that, a lock on two branches of government and some serious inroads into the third doesn’t seem like something to make Republicans need to blink back tears. If Obama wins tonight, I look forward to seeing just how “stoic” and “cheerful” the American Right is over the next eight years.
With the increasingly partisan temperament of U.S. politics over the last ten-fifteen years, an increasingly toxic national discourse polarizing the ends of the political spectrum and the ascendancy of Rovian campaign tactics to the national norm, there’s only one person I can point to who possesses “resolute stoicism” in the midst of the maelstrom—and he’s the guy I hope and pray to see some time late tonight passing 270 electoral votes.
Sunday, November 02, 2008
After three incarnations, in Bloom Country, Outland and finall the eponymous Opus, my favourite penguin is going gently into that good night. Breathed has said that he wants to spare his most famous and well-loved creation from the current toxic political climate: "I'm destroying the village to save it. In this case, a penguin," Breathed wrote. "We are about to enter a rather wicked period in our National Discourse ... bad enough to make what we're in right now seem folksy and genteel. The ranting side of my cartooning impulse will destroy the thing that makes Opus comfortable for his readers. And me."
I only learned of Opus' impending demise a few weeks ago when my friend Jen blogged about it ... having been interned as an illegal alien by Homeland Security and then transferred to an animal shelter, Opus has retold the highlights of his life over the past few weeks (with some Sarah Palin episodes we oddly never knew about prior to now); and yesterday, Steve Dallas had the honour of discovering Opus' paradise.
It made me weepy. Goodbye Opus ... we hardly knew ye ...
Why? Mainly, because redistribution of wealth is government’s primary job, whether it be FDR-style New Deal big government or the small-enough-to-drown-in-a-bathtub fantasy of Grover Norquist. But there is something more insidious when “spreading the wealth” is framed in the derisive tones of a Sarah Palin or a Sean Hannity, for it is invariably citing welfare—the spectre of having your hard-earned money taken away and given to some stoned slacker eating nachos on the couch, or an unwed mother who has children solely for the extra money it adds to the welfare check. These stereotypes have been repeated so often in the past that they don’t even need to be explicitly drawn.
What baffles me is that this supposed entitlement of the poor is more certain to get people’s hackles up that the entitlement of the wealthy. Why is it preferable to certain sectors of the American Right that the $700B bailout not purchase American taxpayers a stake in the banks they’re saving? Why is it preferable that these banks have complete autonomy over the money they’re given (as was Henry Paulson’s original demand)? The answer of course is that the former constitutes “socializing” the banks; any government incursion in the private sector is an impingement on freedom, never mind that when FDR made a comparable move in the Great Depression, the American people saw a return on that money.
The first version of the bailout failed in part because there remains a stolid core of free-market fundamentalists among U.S. legislators, who see any form of government assistance—much less assistance that would purchase a stake in private enterprise—as the leading edge of socialism. The $700B figure is serendipitous however, for the fact of the matter is that there is a massive sector of the U.S. economy already socialized to a tune just shy of $700B annually.
Defence spending in the United States accounts for, depending on how you read the numbers, 20-40% of the annual U.S. budget, and the total amount spent each year is equal to the defence budgets of the rest of the world combined. This however seems to have escaped notice in the current campaign silliness, that a whole host of research, development and production companies and corporations are largely or wholly subsidized by tax dollars. Vast numbers of people are reliant on government support: just see how quickly Congressman X loses his seat if he lets a military base in his district get closed down; see how secure Senator Y becomes when she lands a plum DOD contract for industry in her state. Three million people are employed by the Department of Defence; even more by corporations like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, or Kellog, Brown & Root, all of whom receive billions in defence contracts every year. The economic presence of the military, as Eisenhower noted in his farewell address, “the total influence—economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government.” Eisenhower then went on to make his famous warning against “the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”
Re-reading those words today sort of feels like closing the barn door, so to speak. As Chalmers Johnson, writing for Harper’s in autumn 2003, observes: “munitions making and war profiteering have supplanted the energy and telecommunications deals pioneered by Enron and WorldCom in the 1990s as the most efficient means for well-connected capitalists to engorge themselves at the public trough. To call these companies ‘private,’ though, is mere ideology. Munitions making in the United States today is not really private enterprise. It is state socialism.” The ongoing debacle in Iraq has only magnified this reality: a deadly quagmire for U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians, but a no-holds-barred capitalist playground for companies and corporations in a position to receive government contracts, often without having the bid for them, and usually with little or no government oversight—the result being billions given to companies like the notorious Haliburton, with very little to show for it in the end aside from a very well-equipped Green Zone.
I don’t write this post as a polemic against US military spending, but to try and explode the egregiousness of the whole “socialism” accusation. A good hypothetical litmus test for free-market economy is to eliminate government spending and realistically speculate on what would happen. Would the economy chug cheerfully along? I’m not an economist, but it seems pretty clear that the recent Wall Street collapse would be a minor blip compared to what would happen if the military-industrial complex suddenly found itself without its $600B dollars in annual taxpayer money.
A possible counter-argument here is that I’m talking apples and oranges—that military spending (unlike, say, health care or social security) is an absolute necessity, and that we cannot talk of national security in terms comparable to banking, investment, or the auto industry. I do not agree with this assessment, however, for the simple reason that there is more to national security than being able to drop bombs or fire missiles (especially when the principal threat currently posed is not by conventional armies or nation-states). “Security” is itself a complex of factors, bound up in a nation’s level of education and literacy, its physical and economic health, and its confidence in itself as a nation. The already-cited fact that U.S. defence spending equals that of the rest of the world combined is something we often hear, but it never fails to shock and appal. Why that kind of government spending is utterly acceptable while universal health care is considered the vanguard of a communist revolution (as Ronald Reagan characterized Medicare) by a certain segment of the U.S. population frankly escapes me.
So let’s all take a deep-knee bend and ratchet down the whole “socialism” thing, OK? Or at the very least approach the term with a little more nuance. Which is all very much like crying out in the wilderness during campaign season, I realize, but a boy can dream.
Saturday, November 01, 2008
At any rate, our discussion yesterday made me nostalgic for my forays into directing at Western, and reminded me that it has been five years since last I wore that particular hat—Macbeth in autumn of 2003.
I had submitted a proposal for the UWO English Department’s annual outdoor Summer Shakespeare for 2005, in the hopes of having a nice swan song with which to round out my final summer in London before moving to the Rock. Alas, it was not to be: the drama committee decided to go with Twelfth Night, on the basis that it would be a more “summery” play than my own pick.
That still smarts a little. My pick? I wanted to take a page from the divine Orson’s playbook and condense both parts of Henry IV into a single two and a half hour production. Welles did this is his extraordinary film Chimes at Midnight, and while there would be a certain temptation to make this production an homage to The Man Himself—right down to using his screenplay—I had some other ideas. Namely, I wanted to make this a play about the writing of history, about what makes it into the books and what does not. The character of Falstaff, who is arguably one of the most brilliant of Shakespeare’s creations, was something he created whole cloth ... the “court” scenes of the play all more or less follow the historical record as put down by Raphael Holinshed, but the scenes at the tavern, where young Prince Hal indulges in a sentimental education of debauchery and crime, are entirely fabricated.
The play would be performed in a galley stage, with the court scenes unfolding at one end (where the throne is) and the tavern scenes at the other. Center stage will be a lectern with a large folio on it. The actors will have minimal costuming: they will all wear basically the same nondescript base outfit, and add to it pieces of costuming that will signify their characters (hats, swords, cloaks, etc.). There will be some doubling of characters, but this will be done in a self-conscious manner. In fact, much of the show, from the costuming perspective at least, will be very meta. We’re not looking for naturalism or verisimilitude here.
This version of the play introduces a new character: Raphael Holinshed, the historian, who will at intervals read the relevant sections from his history (which is of course the handsome folio sitting on the lectern center stage). In the second act, which is the second part of Henry IV, his role as voice of authority is contested by “Rumour,” an allegorical figure in the original play.
Given that this is a time of year given over to such pursuits as fantasy football leagues, I thought I’d offer the latte-sucking, chardonnay-swilling liberal elite version: Fantasy Shakespeare! I will not however (at least not for this one) draw my dream cast from the ranks of Hollywood or the RSC, but from the ranks of those I have worked with in the past. Hence, this blog post will mean a great deal to certain people, and next to nothing to those I’ve never met. Consider it my homage to the extraordinary people I’ve had the good fortune to work with over the years.
Raphael Holinshed: Jeremy Worth
Jer’s really the first and last choice for this role, and I had been planning to do everything necessary to get him to play it had the drama committee opted for my proposal. Kidnapping, bribery, blackmail: the slight man with the megaton North London timbre in his voice, who was a haunting and tragic Clarence for me in Richard III was going to play this role come hell or high water.
King Henry IV: Allan Pero
Allan is a professor in UWO’s English department, and not someone I’d had the good fortune to work with. He is however quite possibly the most dramatic professor I know, known to burst into song at times during lectures. Another one of the original casting choices for this play.
Prince Hal: Jan Weir
First we take the crown, and then we take Agincourt: I’d pretty much have to do Henry V after giving Jan a taste of Shakespeare’s lovely truant prince.
Sir Walter Blunt: Shaun Campbell
Shaun played a Blunt for me in Richard III—typecasting? Not at all. Except that he’s a good fellow to have around when you need someone who can play a character with the strong silent type thing.
Earl of Northumberland: Ed King
Would that Ed could have been my Macbeth, but by that point he was in the four winds. Ed played Buckingham in Richard III, bringing a slick and oily charm to the role of Richard’s fixer. Someone I have unfortunately lost touch with—should you happen across this blog post, Ed, drop me an email.
Hotspur: Sean Mulligan
I love the character of Hotspur: he is such a fantastic parody of the Marlovian hero, especially in his first speech where he describes in hyperbolic terms his duel with the Welsh Glendower. I would have one direction for Sean: Hotspur is a Klingon—go. Sean went from being the Lord Mayor in Richard III to Claudius in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to Banquo in Macbeth (oh, and I think he might have played some roles in plays I didn’t direct). He is also a fight choreographer par excellence, and would be given free reign over the battle sequences.
Lady Percy: Caitlin Murphy
I’ve never directed Caitlin, but have seen her act on numerous occasions. An exceptionally talented actor and writer. Also, a very good friend I don’t talk to nearly enough.
Edmund Mortimer: Holm Bradwell
Actor-wise, Holm has been one of my constants: Rivers in Richard III, Hamlet in R&G, Snobby Price in Major Barbara, and MacDuff in Macbeth. I took a chance on him for Rivers because he had a lovely, handsome insouciance, and have never been disappointed all the way along.
Worcester: Gregg Taylor
A good friend I first met while playing a tiny role in Julius Caesar, Gregg is an exceptionally talent writer, actor and director ... as evidenced by his two ongoing radio-show series from his company Decoder Ring Theatre. Seriously: check them out. Anyway, given the logistics of geography, it is highly unlikely that I’ll ever have a chance to direct Gregg in anything ... and that makes me sad. I do hope one day to visit the Decoder Ring Mansion and reprise my role as Father Mike in The Adventures of the Red Panda.
Owen Glendower: Mike McIntyre
Mike was Ratcliff in Richard III and Lennox in Macbeth ... and in the latter case, I kick myself for not trusting him with the title role, dammit. Mike is a dream to work with: thoughtful (in every sense of the word), intelligent, and about the best physical actor I’ve ever worked with. The man moves like a frickin’ cat in fight scenes. A great actor when it comes to minutiae: during rehearsals for Macbeth, he became the model for the rest of the cast for how to wear your kilt. Seriously.
The Douglas: Scott Brubacher
A fine actor, frighteningly talented composer and all around lovely fellow, Scott played Angus in Macbeth as a serious and dignified druid. We’ll give him more warlike chops in this go around.
Falstaff: Serge Saika-Voivod
Also someone I was plotting by nefarious means to get into this role. Serge masterfully played the amoral arms manufacturer Andrew Undershaft for me in Major Barbara in fall 2002; he was, like Jer, the first and last choice for me on this one.
Mistress Quickly: Jo Devereux
Gertrude in R&G, and a magnificent turn as Lady Macbeth make me happy to have Jo in any play I do ... though I still haven’t quite forgiven her for passing on playing Lady Britomart for me in Major Barbara.
Doll Tearsheet: Brandy Ryan
Brandy played the assassin Tyrell in Richard III -- played her as a beautiful, deadly, and cold (though not too cold, as the murder of the prince showed) femme fatale. Still one of my favourite roles in plays I've directed.
Bardolph: Deane Billington-Whitely
Along with Holm, Deane has been one of my actorly constants: Henry VI in Richard III, Rosencrantz in R&G, Adolphus in Major Barbara, and the Porter in Macbeth. A shame we’ll have to hang him when we do Henry V.
Poins: Andrew Patterson
Andrew was my Polonius in R&G, and is besides that one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Put him and Deane together in a room, add beer, and you’ll never need cable TV again. The world waits with bated breath for him to finish writing A-Team: The Musical.
Peto: Jordan Matteis
Add Jordan to the above mix, and we’re off to the races. This is my “Tavern Dream Team” right here. Jordan was Laertes for me in R & G, and obligingly took on a very small role in Major Barbara when I should have trusted him with one of the leads. I made up for that a little by making him Malcolm in Macbeth, a role he played beautifully.
Gadshill: Ian Brooks
Ian has been masterful for me twice: first as a very inexperienced and hapless Richmond in Richard III, and then as a chilling and dangerous Menteith in Macbeth (Menteith, usually a nonentity in that play, Ian and I reinvented as Macbeth’s assassin—so he takes out Banquo, kills MacDuff’s family, and in a moment I still love to remember, turns on his people and pretends to be one of Malcolm’s men at the very end). We’ll let him rediscover his talent for comedy as part of the Tavern Dream Team.
Pistol: Sean Mulligan, redux
Here’s the one pointed piece of doubling I will do ... in addition to the high seriousness of Sean’s Banquo (played with a lovely quiet dignity), he showed what a childhood spent watching bricoms can do when he played Dogberry in one of those plays I didn’t direct (Much Ado, directed, incidentally, by Holm). Inspired lunacy, it was.
Stage Manager: Tigger Jourard
Who else? Tigger’s been with me on every show, and is the yin to my yang, the Jekyll to my Hyde, the Edge to my Bono. I want to bottle her quiet authority and sell it.
Assistant Stage Manager: Diane Piccito
Partly because she is so very very good at the job, but mostly to watch her get drunk on sangria at the cast party.
Costumes: Amanda Gauthier
Oh Amanda, how do I love thy presence on my crew? Watching Amanda deal with actors and their various little preening obsessions is pure entertainment value. The best time was when we did our first full-costume run of Richard III, and our actors became a little too fond of the WWI uniforms they donned.
Well, there you have it – I have unfortunately left many people out, in particular some of the amazing women I’ve worked with (H4 is kind of light on the women’s roles, alas). My apologies for this to Brigid Aiken, Christina Marchetti, Gillian Wilson, Susan McDonald, Gwyneth Barrett, Tiffany Koch, Natasha Harwood, Erin Robb, Julie-Ann Stodolny, Laura Higgs and Bethany Cairns (wow, that’s a long list) and all the people (men and women) who I’m inevitably forgetting ...
So, if my dream cast would like to pull up stakes and relocate for three months (two months rehearsal, one month production run) and come out to St. John’s at your own expense, I will see into getting the proper theatre space.
Friday, October 31, 2008
When you come to the end of the video, a screen appears encouraging you to customize the video for your friends and send it on.
I love this. It's like a virtual chain letter, but funny and entertaining. "I'm worried John McCain will bomb my goats. He is a crazy man!"
All that remains is to figure out who this Nudar fellow is. I have my suspicions.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
I blame Budweiser, because the ad was based on a short film that made the festival circuits, and had it not been picked up as a beer ad it might have remained a subcultural phenomenon (with a revival after the rise of YouTube, to be certain).
Several days ago, the original cast of the original film short posted a "sequel" on YouTube. And speaking as someone who went twitchy for many years on hearing "wassup?", this is really worth a watch ....
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
I suppose there’s a Tower of Babel reference to be made here, but the image that’s sticking in my mind—the one that always sticks in my mind when I see pictures of Dubai—isn’t so much a tower crashing down as one deserted and desiccated in the middle of an empty wasteland. Like many of the nations of the Middle East, Dubai survives—and flourishes—on oil money. It is touted as the fastest growing city in the world, having grown in a very short space of time from a small, dusty burg to a gleaming metropolis that features some of the most daring and innovative (and in some cases, ugly) engineering and architecture in the world. It has built, among other things, an indoor ski hill, an underwater hotel, and a man-made archipelago of islands that shape a map of the world.
There’s a line somewhere between architecture that celebrates the nobility of the human spirit and that which articulates the vulgarity of excess. I’m not certain where that line gets drawn, but I’m reasonably certain Dubai has pole-vaulted over it. In some circles, the city is celebrated as the vindication of free-range capitalism, with its exponential growth facilitated by zero percent in corporate taxes and one hundred percent foreign ownership of property allowed. Similarly, its enthusiasts point to the fact that, despite being a Muslim city, has access to every form of vice from oceans of booze to hot and cold running hookers (this, presumably, vindicating the Fukuyama argument that capitalism in its purest form pulls the teeth of tyranny).
I read a remarkable book this summer by Alan Weisman titled The World Without Us, in which he poses a hypothetical question: if every human being on earth were to disappear tomorrow, what would become of all the structures we left behind? In other words, how long would our fingerprint remain on the world once we were no longer around to maintain it? How long before the earth reabsorbed all the monuments to our existence?
The short answer is: surprisingly quickly. Weisman’s book is one of those remarkable hybrid creations—part thought experiment, part environmental disquisition, part dystopian meditation—that leaves the reader with a striking series of images. Granted, I have always been drawn to post-apocalyptic novels that imagine a world shorn of most of the human race, but Weisman takes it in another direction altogether and reminds us of the transience of human creations.
I thought of Weisman’s book this morning when hearing about Dubai on the radio, because I cannot see images of that city without seeing it as a monument to oil-based wealth—wealth that is, by extension, non-renewable after a certain point. Depending on who you listen to, at our current rate of consumption we’re good for another century or so or already looking at the prospect of massive decline in the coming years. This latter position is that of the “peak oilers,” groups arguing that we are coming to, or have already past, the point of peak oil retrieval, and that we will be seeing dramatically diminishing returns that will lead to a global energy crisis. Their detractors call this suggestion mere doom-saying, and suggest that world oil reserves are far healthier than the apocalyptos would have us believe.
I wouldn’t know about that, but … um … the oil will run out one day, right? We’re all in agreement about that? Anyway: with that in mind, I cannot look at pictures of Dubai without seeing them as they’ll appear at some stage in the future … empty, cracking, broken glass, the streets reclaimed by desert. I’m at heart an optimist, and so I have faith in people to rise to challenges—as we’re faced with right now, environmentally and otherwise—but the seeming inevitability of Dubai’s fall, its transformation one day into a broken monument of glass and steel in the midst of an empty desert puts me in mind of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”:
I met a Traveler from an antique land,
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Saturday, October 25, 2008
I really, really wanted to love this film. And when I say this, I mean I wanted to love this film from the moment I heard that Paul Gross was doing a film about the travails of the Canadian Army in WWI. I love Paul Gross, and I love Canadian military history. In spite of the fact that I speak from the political left, I’m all about the Canadian military, now and historically. I’m a military history junkie, and one of my favourite books is Pierre Berton’s Vimy. I think Canadians undervalue this tradition, and we really should celebrate the fact that we have one of the best trained armed forces in the world. There’s a moment in the film, present in the trailers, that I admit makes me happy—when a Canadian officer tells Sgt. Michael Dunne (Paul Gross’ character) that “the enemy has a name for us ... they call us ‘stormtroopers’.” I admit: right then there was, for me, a moment of unbridled patriotism, something akin to the weird validation I felt yesterday morning when I heard an American foreign policy expert tell David Frum on CBC Radio that “the Canadian forces in Afghanistan have behaved magnificently.” Yes, I would imagine they have. The Canadian Armed Forces have a remarkable history, which effectively started in WWI, but progressed through Operation Torch and Juno Beach in WWII, the Korean War, and through the various peacekeeping duties assumed in Vietnam, Cyprus, the Balkans, Rwanda, and elsewhere. A military that has produced the likes of Generals Lewis Mackenzie, Romeo Dallaire, and Rick Hillier has no cause to be humble.
Or generals like Sir Arthur Currie for that matter, our Canadian supreme commander in WWI. Marginalized by his British superiors earlier in the war, he was given increasing autonomy in part as a result of Prime Minister Robert Borden’s repeated insistence that Canadian troops not be subjected to the hidebound dicta of the British command, which resulted in such catastrophes as the Battle of the Somme. But Currie was also given freer reign as it became clear that Canadian troops could accomplish what the British and French forces could not. This did not set them apart from other Commonwealth nations, mind you: Australian and New Zealand troops comported themselves comparably well, leading the British commanders to sniff that life in the colonies obviously toughened these chaps up. But in reality, Canadian forces were not so blindly bound to nineteenth-century military dogma, which entailed putting large numbers of enlisted men under lieutenants and sergeants with no room given for individual initiative. When the principal tactic of warfare was to stand in long lines and blast away at the enemy with muskets at close range, this kind of fierce discipline was what won battles (and what made the Redcoats the most formidable infantry in the eighteenth and nineteenth century). It does not however tend to work that well when confronted with accurate, quick-firing long-range rifles and machine guns; but marching wave after wave of soldiers at a brisk walk into enemy fire was what Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, did in battle after battle (leading a German general to morosely observe that the British soldiers were “lions led by donkeys”).
Sorry for the history lecture—in my alternative life where I’m still an academic, I’m a military historian.
All the foregoing I say to emphasize the desire I had to love Passchendaele (and to inform those who might not otherwise know, that I’m a history geek). I was also very concerned that it was going to be very bad, as the trailers made it look like it would commit the typical sins of earnestness and clumsiness that mark so many Canadian filmic projects. Indeed, if you had somehow missed seeing the spelling of “Passchendaele” in the ads and had a general ignorance of WWI, you could be forgiven for thinking the film’s title was “Passion Dale,” for all the lingering pastoral shots of Paul Gross and Catherine Dhavernas. I worried that this film would awkwardly suture a stilted love story onto an overly sincere rah-rah-Canada war narrative. And ... well, it sort of did, but it wasn’t quite as cringe-inducing as I had feared.
For those who don’t want to know details of the film’s plot, here is where I say SPOILER ALERT.
The uncharitable would call this film a vanity project on the part of Paul Gross, but I don’t agree. I honestly believe it was a labour of love for him, and while the distinction between those two things can sometimes get blurry, I applaud his dedication to this project. The problem however is that it becomes more difficult to distance oneself when you’re writer, director, co-producer and star. Paul Gross really needed to step back a little and let some other, subtler hands work on the script. It felt as though he were trying to cram everything possible into the story.
To wit: Paul Gross is Michael Dunne, a sergeant in the CEF. At Ypres, he watches his buddies get taken out by a machine gun nest, which he then blows apart with a grenade, and in a moment that haunts him for the rest of the film—his original sin, if you like—he bayonets through the forehead (ouch) a very young German soldier who was trying to surrender . Unable to reconcile that act with the medal he is awarded, he goes AWOL, is invalided back to Canada, and rather than being tried for desertion is diagnosed with neurasthenia, or shell shock, and assigned to the recruitment office. He falls in love with Sarah, who was his nurse, whose father was killed at Vimy Ridge. Sarah’s younger brother David is in love with Cassie, the daughter of a local doctor. David is asthmatic, and has for that reason been rejected from military service. Cassie’s father effectively tells him that until he sees fit to serve in uniform, he’s not man enough to marry his daughter. Michael Dunne refuses to enlist David, even though his superior officer is willing to look the other way on the asthma.
We discover at this point that Sarah and David’s father, born in Bavaria, had died at Vimy Ridge fighting for the Germans. Apparently Sarah and Michael’s neighbours discover this at the same time as us in the audience, because there is quite suddenly an awful lot of anti-German sentiment expressed, as Sarah loses her job as a nurse and her house has its windows broken and “HUN” painted in red on the walls. We similarly discover that David’s desire to enlist stems as much from his hatred for his father’s choice and his desire to symbolically kill him as it does from satisfying Sarah’s father. Michael has meanwhile come to Sarah’s rescue, of course, spiriting her away from her house and holing her up at his small flat, where she can get clean. Oh, wait—I didn’t mention that Sarah’s addicted to morphine? Sorry: Sarah’s addicted to morphine. She and the sweet and gentle Michael Dunne naturally hook up at this point, and while they’re dallying David gets Sarah’s doctor father to write him a medical note allowing him to enlist. Sarah gets the mistaken impression that it was Michael who enlisted him, so of course Michael re-enlists so that he can protect David. Sarah discovers her mistake and volunteers as a nurse on the Western Front, very conveniently getting assigned to the very place Michael and David end up.
With me so far? The general bones of the narrative are pretty strong, if not particularly original—but then again, one does not go see a war movie, at least not one that is self-consciously “epic,” for originality. The problem, besides this seeming need to cram as much business as possible into the plot, is that much of the above feels extremely stagy and contrived, and the dialogue is at times painfully stilted and awkward. There is, also, something of a requisite tokenism in the Canadian ranks, with a French-Canadian and a native soldier featured fairly prominently. The imagery and symbolism is similarly heavy-handed, with a recurrent bird motif in the form of the kestrel , and a sort of “sins of the father” theme that builds to a rather ham-handed ending sequence. Something we hear about frequently is an occasion where the Germans ostensibly crucified a Canadian soldier against a barn door. Michael Dunne is having none of that however, repeatedly telling people that “artillery explosions can throw bodies into the most bizarre poses.” At this point, the foreshadowing bell goes off in the head, and we know someone’s getting crucified by artillery before the film is out. The question is: is it David or Michael?
As it happens, it’s David. After the hard-pressed Canadian forces repel the first German assault, David goes a little nuts and starts charging after the retreating enemy, somehow making it all the way to their trenches where he finds himself about to be shot by a German officer. Before this can happen, a shell lands in the trench—throwing the duckboards up vertical, with David pinned there by barbed wire (a veritable crown of thorns). What follows could have been a very moving and powerful scene if it had been a bit less painfully symbolic—if David had been wounded in no-man’s land and Michael Dunne had run out to rescue him. Because of course Michael goes to the rescue: at first dodging bullets and mortars, and taking a wound high in the chest. As he nears David however, the German officer calls ceasefire and they all watch in awe as Michael drags himself toward David—again, a potentially powerful moment if it weren’t for the literal crucifixion, to say nothing of the fact that Michael pauses a moment, apparently spent, on his knees in the mud before David. And then of course we have the excruciatingly long sequence of Michael carrying David—still affixed to the cross—back to Canadian lines. I honestly haven't seen such self-indulgent Christ imagery since the closing sequence of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. I suppose we should be grateful the Michael and David weren’t named Peter and Christian.
Considering the symbolic logic in place, it comes as no surprise that David survives and Michael dies from his wounds: expiating his original sin of killing the young German at the film’s start, and sacrificing his life that David may live. It may have been David that was crucified, but the Christ figure comes through pretty clearly at the end.
My problem with all this is that, to paraphrase Rupert Giles, the subtext of the film quite emphatically becomes text. There’s a painful earnestness here: as if Paul Gross was concerned that we might not get it. Well, we got it. Again and again and again. Which is truly a shame, because otherwise Passchendaele is a very noble endeavour. The problem with noble endeavours however is that they often simply don’t make good art.
That being said, I will cop to my own moment of helpless sentimentality: at the very end, when Sarah, Cassie, David and Highway—the native soldier—stand before Michael Dunne’s grave, the final shot shows the lonely grave-marker suddenly surrounded by the gravestones of hundreds of Canadian soldiers. That was when the weeping started for me.