Category Archives: Popular Culture

Andy Michaelson Plays Leonard Cohen

songsofleonardcohenIt must have been early in 1968, because Songs of Leonard Cohen was released in December of 1967. I was 15, hunkered down in front of the Philips High Fidelity, listening to the 4 to 6 PM rock ‘n roll program being broadcast by CKYL, the radio station in Peace River, an hour’s drive north of Grande Prairie. CFGP, Grande Prairie’s only station, didn’t play any rock ‘n roll, and so this was my sole daytime opportunity to listen to the music that mattered to me about as much as anything could possibly matter back then.

(As an even younger boy I had lain under the hi fi, my head looking up into the hollow interior of the cabinet, listening to Auntie’s Barbara’s Children’s Hour, if memory serves. I had to hold my head sideways to slide it in to where I could then turn and look upward. I’m not sure why I enjoyed this practice, but I know I’m not the only one who did as, years later, I was delighted to see as much in the background action of a movie directed by Anne Wheeler.)

The DJ for the show was Andy Michaelson, a cantankerous fellow who freely admitted that, “Andy Michaelson shoots his mouth off!” Weeks earlier I had heard Andy confess to probably aggravating listeners with the assertion that, “Herb Alpert is not a great trumpet player! He is a great arranger!” I had no idea why this might be a contentious claim, but it seemed it was, and that was interesting to me.

At any rate, this day Andy intro’ed a song by stating, in his usual obstreperous fashion, that, “This is hip music!” And then he played So Long Marianne

The horizons of this small town boy’s world proceeded to expand exponentially. I had never heard anything like this. The reedy voice, the ethereal female background voices, and mostly of course, the lyrics. The odd, contrapuntal, redolent lyrics.

Months later, I was to be seen clambering up into the attic of my parents’ home, crawling, hands and knees, across the rafters, dragging a wire that would serve as an aerial for the hi fi, by then relocated to the basement, where I now had the ‘rec room’ as my bedroom. Each night I would carefully twirl the dial in a ongoing effort to tune in fleeting radio signals from afar, always in search of an experience equivalent to first hearing Leonard Cohen. The signals came and went, fading in and out through static like the beckoning northern lights, only from the opposite direction, south, from places like California.

I’d leave the radio on as I got into bed, a cord held in hand and strung over to my bed, so as to pull the plug from there as I finally fell asleep.

Radio ruled music in those days, in a way that it never will again. And within music, rock ‘n roll ruled in a way that I don’t think it ever will again either. 1968 was the year The Beatles released ‘The White Album.’ The Stones released Beggar’s Banquet, for my money the best record they ever did. Led Zeppelin first played together in 1968, billing themselves as ‘The New Yardbirds.’

In David Chase’s (creator of The Sopranos) much under-appreciated semi-autobiographical movie about coming of age as a member of a rock ‘n roll band, Not Fade Away, the protagonist’s younger sister begins and ends the movie by quoting from an essay she’s writing for school. In the final scene, Chase adroitly pulls off a meta moment as she directly addresses the camera and says, “America has given the world two inventions of enormous power. One is nuclear weapons. The other is rock ’n’ roll. Which one is going to win out in the end?”

Then she turns and dances away into the distance, as now are all we boomers who came of age in step with rock ‘n roll. And for at least this listener, the question asked by the younger sister is a no-brainer, because rock ‘n roll changed the world in a good way.

A google search reveals that, as of 2012, Andy Michaelson was living in St. Albert, Alberta, describing himself as a “writer and poet,” contributing a column to the St Albert Gazette and writing a blog.

So here’s to you Andy. You altered my course, undoubtedly for the better.

And so long Leonard. We won’t see your like again.

Global Culture

Cultural industry. It sounds like an oxymoron. ‘Culture’ relating to the artistic or creative, and ‘industry’ describing business interests, on a large scale. At the very least, it seems a rocky marriage.

The term is most often applied to the electronic arts, as they are called: music and motion pictures, the artforms which lend themselves to mass duplication and distribution. No one talks about the dance industry, or the sculpture industry.

The cultural industry I’m most familiar with is the motion picture one, and indeed, someone once referred to the movie industry as ‘too much of a business to be an art, and too much of an art to be a business.’ That just about encapsulates the conundrum.

In Canada, unlike the U.S., the movie and television industries have always needed public subsidy. The costs of production are simply too high, and the Canadian marketplace too small, for the indigenous production companies to survive. That’s been the argument at least.

I can recall, back in the mid-80s, when the Canadian Film Development Corporation, originally founded in 1967 to advance the Canadian movie biz, became Telefilm Canada, charged with promoting and funding the Canadian ‘audiovisual’ private sector, that is television as well as movies. People from the agency were talking about how it was intended to grow production companies from the nascent stage, but then to gradually withdraw its funding as those companies matured and became financially independent.

In the 90s, Telefilm still explicitly required funded productions to be ‘distinctly Canadian.’ These shows were to be stories told by Canadians, set in perceptibly Canadian locales, in which Canadian audiences could recognize themselves. So too were so-called ‘lifestyle’ and ‘industrial’ shows excluded from support; game shows, talk shows, that sort of thing.

downloadAs we rolled into the new millennium, TV shows like Flashpoint, Orphan Black and Rookie Blue made little effort to clarify where their episodes were shot (Toronto), although Rookie Blue did, in its latter seasons, begin to actually use Toronto street names. Rookie Blue also, in its final season last year, received over five million dollars in subsidy from the Canada Media Fund, a public-private partnership administered by Telefilm. That in addition to the considerable monies the production company would also have received via both provincial and federal tax credits. The parent company for Rookie Blue is E1, a multimedia corporation, headquartered in Toronto, with revenues in 2015 of more than $1.5 billion Cdn. You’d have to consider that mature.

And today, when Paperny Entertainment, a Vancouver-based production company owned by E1, produces World’s Weirdest Restaurants for the Food Network, surely a ‘lifestyle’ distributor, that show can access all the same government subsidies that can any other TV show.

At the same time, I don’t mean to sound alarmist bells here. The situation I’m describing is not unique to Canada. It was probably naive to think, back in the 80s, that production companies could be weaned from the public funds which did so much to create the business model by which they grew and prospered. And god knows governments everywhere are competing (some say in a race to the bottom) to offer ever more generous tax credits to attract the industry, given that it pays well, is labour intensive, and relatively non-polluting.

Governments everywhere have also fought to exclude cultural industries from the various free trade-type agreements that continue to proliferate in our times. Ultimately though, the problem is beyond national controls, subject to the same global economic and technical forces which are inexorably interconnecting the planet. As Catalina Briceño, Director of Industry and Market Trends at the Canada Media Fund, wrote in a new report, “[the] globalization of tastes is supplanting cultural differences.”

It’s no surprise then that, especially with dramatic movies and television shows, creators and producers design them to play like home product in several markets. Rookie Blue aired on Global in Canada and ABC in the U.S. Orphan Black premiered on Space in Canada and on BBC America in the United States.

John Fawcett, one of the creators of Orphan Black, certainly did his best to put a positive spin on the situation in an interview with Entertainment Weekly in 2014: “To be honest, we don’t want to say we’re American and alienate the Canadians, or say we’re Canadian and alienate the Americans. The bottom line is we’re one big happy family. We’re just a little bit further north than you.”

Nice. As culture and industry evolve globally, their marriage begets family. I can get behind that. The family part at least. Happy? Maybe not quite so much.

Television’s Last Stand

I nearly cut the cord last week. I wanted to do it earlier, when the hockey and basketball playoffs ended, but some members of my household wanted to watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup, then it was the Pan Am Games…

Which is to say that, in our home at least, live sports is the last remaining reason to pay for cable TV.

It’s a good one, mind you. A hard-fought elite-level sports contest is simply the best entertainment around, involving strong characters, intense pressure, great achievements, profound loss, and far less predictability than 98% of the dramatic storytelling currently out there.

It’s also an incredibly lucrative business, especially for the pro players (not that I don’t think the money should go to those who play the game, as opposed to those who own the teams). Our appetite for professional sports continues to grow—the industry in the aggregate is now said to be worth more than $500 billion globally—and so the scope of the salaries earned by [mostly] men to play games has become patently absurd. The average salary of a Major League Baseball player, for instance, will exceed $4 million this year (That’s the average salary mind you; ‘A Rod,’ the New York Yankees star third baseman, may earn as much as $50 million this year, including marketing bonuses). If Joe Average Baseball Player were to play every minute of every game this summer (and he won’t), he will earn $8230 per hour of playing time. Patently absurd, given the utter lack of intrinsic social value attached to the work he does. Incidentally, Joe is also allotted $100 a day in meal money when he is on the road. Wouldn’t want him to feel the pinch in those expensive hotel restaurants.

But we fans have only ourselves to blame. We’re the ones who fill the stadiums, tune into the games, and yes, pay those cable TV fees, regardless of the cost. We’re the ones who seem to think that our team winning or losing somehow reflects well or poorly on us as individuals. In fact we use terms like “WE won” when a team of players whom we will never meet, and who are only rarely from our home town, never mind our home country, outscores another team that we don’t label ours. It’s more than a little odd.

What’s interesting though, is where the video marketing of big league sports is going. Surely with broadband expanding steadily, and video streaming gaining popularity by the day, it is only a matter of time before these sports franchises begin to control and market their games online, in high quality imagery. Forget ESPN or Rogers Sportsnet. These teams will find ways to make even more money by charging you directly to watch their games via their own internet channels, say in packages featuring certain opposing teams, maybe all home games, or of course with ‘tickets’ for individual games. How can it possibly not go this way?

Well, one possible way is for government agencies to prevent this sort of ‘vertical integration’ of the marketplace, akin to the 1948 antitrust case which prevented Hollywood studios from owning and operating their own theatres, to which they would grant exclusive rights to their movies. Like that case, will we see governments move to forestall undivided control of the production and distribution of sports entertainment?

It remains to be seen; the conventional TV networks have proven to be more resilient than many believed they would be in finding new revenue models (like money from Netflix), but the trends are there. TV viewing declined roughly 10% in the last year, and it’s not like the major sports franchises have to go out and build their brand. It’s there now for them, bigger and better than ever, primed for exploitation via a new medium.

5805107962_48e85060aa_zI’ll likely simply try, at some point, to renegotiate my deal with my cable TV provider. I’ll do my damndest to cherry pick just those channels which carry the games of the teams I like to follow, and my cable provider will do their damndest to ensure that I’m obliged to pick up as many channels as possible in order to do that. Shaw Cable, my provider, for instance and in most obnoxious fashion, spreads the Vancouver Canucks games over four or five of their various channels, then places those various channels in different packages, each of which costs more.

My desire for big league sports entertainment may be a passion which adds meaning to my life, or it may be a pathetic identification with a bunch of rich strangers. Either way, and even if the medium changes, one thing is certain: meeting that desire is not likely to get any cheaper.

The Cowboy Rides Away

To say that the cowboy is iconic in North American culture is hardly sufficient. Mythic hero is more accurate, but it’s important to remember that the cowboy was real, not supernatural like Hercules or Spiderman. The reality was that, for a brief period, essentially from 1860 to 1900, there were a great number of horses and cattle running free in the American frontier, most of them having been abandoned by retreating Mexicans. With the arrival of the railroad following the Civil War, the ’roundup’ and sale of these cattle became possible, leading to the beef industry that employed a great many ‘cowboys.’ The cattle were herded to railheads of course, but not too quickly, because if you did that the cattle lost weight, and they were sold for slaughter by the pound.

Thus the cowboy’s life was one of outdoors ambling on horseback, as part of a collaborative team of men who camped early for the night, gathered around fires to share a meal, tell stories, and maybe even sing songs. It’s a lifestyle with easily apparent appeal, although here’s what the reclusive American writer Trevanian had to say about the broader charm of the cowboy:

“It is revealing of the American culture that its prototypic hero is the cowboy: an uneducated, boorish, Victorian migrant agricultural worker.” 

The Great Train Robbery The original black hat.
The Great Train Robbery
The original black hat.

When the American film industry moved to California in the early part of the 20th century, there were by then plenty of unemployed cowboys knocking about, men who could ride, rope and sometimes shoot with the best of them—just one more coincidental reason why the western movie became incredibly popular. And it is truly difficult to overestimate the popularity and therefore the influence of the western movie. Arguably the first dramatic movie was a western—The Great Train Robbery in 1903—and the genre was dominant right through until the 70s, when it died with nevertheless accomplished films like The Wild Bunch and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the western movie was so successful, over such a long period of time (still longer than any other genre), that it created a ‘conventional form’ along with a set of audience expectations that, long after expiration of the genre itself, offers moviemakers who can reinvent the form within a new context (i.e. The Matrix or Drive) an unparalleled opportunity to go boffo at the box office.

The influence of cowboy culture in popular music is scarcely less significant. Cole Porter knocked it right out of the park in 1934 with a sublime rhyme scheme in the cowpoke paean Don’t Fence Me In

I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences

And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses.

I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences.

The song has been covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to The Killers. And almost 40 years later, James Taylor waxed nearly as lyrical (rhyming “Boston” with “frostin”) in maybe his best song, Sweet Bay James:

There is a young cowboy; he lives on the range.

His horse and his cattle are his only companions.

He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyons…

More than anything else, the cowboy represents freedom, a largely solitary life free of long-term obligations, tight schedules or immediate bosses. Too often in the westerns the cowboy’s love interest represented civilization, settling down and responsibility, and so too often, at the end of the story, the cowboy rode away from the girl, off into the sunset to resume a life of independent rambling (although it’s worth noting that in a couple of the defining westerns, High Noon and Stagecoach, the hero did choose the girl, and they rode off together in a buckboard).

It’s no surprise that the cowboy’s allure arose alongside the maturing of the industrial revolution, when incomes were rising but often as the result of work fettered to a factory system of mechanical drudgery. Are we any more free in the age of the digital revolution, with its increased pace and unrelenting connectivity? Well, not so’s you’d notice.

In the digital age, the cowboy hero seems a complete anachronism, more irrelevant than ever, but I think it’s worth remembering that, although the cowboy almost always resorted to a gun to resolve his conflicts with the bad guys—and the impact of that implicit message upon American society can hardly be overestimated either (see Guns)—he did so reluctantly, in defence of the little guy being oppressed by powerful villains, who were often corporate-types.

Today the cowboy is gone for good from our cultural landscape, and I’m not suggesting he should be brought back. But in our world of ever more powerful corporate interests, we could all use some of his individual pluck. The economic wheels of our day are rolling along just fine; the ecological and moral ones, not so much. Sadly, too much of the cowboy’s good is gone with him.

Why I Read Non-Fiction

As a young man I read only fiction. My tastes ranged widely, from Dostoyevsky to Atwood, from Thomas Hardy to John Updike, but it was almost always a novel. Even a short story was somehow ‘beyond the pale.’

These days I read exclusively non-fiction; biography, history, memoir, the odd quasi-scientific text such as The Sixth Extinction.

funkandjazz photo
funkandjazz photo

 

It’s interesting to consider why this change.

My wife and I joke that it is because, in picking up a non-fiction book to continue reading it, even if just 24 hours later, we don’t have to struggle to recall where we left off. (I like to say that, for me, ‘Short term memory is just a fond memory.”) No paging back, trying to pick up the most recent story events. It’s just inherently easier to resume reading a non-fiction text.

It’s also interesting to note that my first choice in visual media back then, in my callow youth, was invariably a dramatic movie. Something with some edge, growing up as I did in the last great decade of American filmmaking (I’m thinking of movies like Midnight Cowboy or Scarecrow), but nevertheless it was a fictional work that I wanted to see on any given, dissolute Saturday night.

And again, these days my viewing preference is usually documentary, though not as consistently as it is when it comes to the written word.

Real as is the phenomenon of short term memory loss with advancing age, I do think the explanation for this transition in taste is slightly more complicated. As a young person, you live in a world of possibility. Your own story is yet to be written, and so an imagined future is simply more compelling to you. We tell one another stories in order to offer one another life lessons, and thus reading about a sympathetic character struggling with a relatable problem becomes not so much a projection of our current life, as it is a counselling, an offered perspective on the prospects for our coming life.

In middle age and beyond, we seek not so much projection as we do comparison. And we’d just as soon the events of the story be real, as opposed to imaginary. What choices did an individual or group make, what were the consequences, good and bad? These are the questions, I think, which tend to preoccupy the older reader. It’s not that the lessons offered by a fictional story aren’t valid—the greater emotional truth of a manipulated story is certainly authentic and useful—it’s only that, in the slowly fading second half of our lives, we’d rather know that the outcome did happen, as opposed to could happen. For us, there’s something just a bit too easy about the imaginary world, with its unmitigated creative freedom.

It’s indefensible, really. More definitive perhaps, more actual of course, but at the same time, this choice of fact before fiction is depreciated, like the brand new car that you drive off the sales lot, only to watch its resale value drop by at least a quarter by the time you park it. I suspect that no history book will ever be more worthy than Macbeth, and that no documentary film will ever exceed The Rules of the Game in its intrinsic value.

No, admittedly, I read non-fiction in order to check in on my fellow human beings in a more literal, less justifiable way. To see who’s fallen, and why. To see who’s triumphed, and what price they paid in order to do so. It’s comforting in an odd, somewhat disconcerting way. To know that no life is perfect, no outcome guaranteed. To see how large a role chance, luck and circumstance play in failure or success. Not that will, hard work and persistence don’t factor in too; they do, especially persistence, but life has never been fair, and you are lucky if you grew up in a circumstance free of abuse or poverty, where you were loved, supported and well cared for. Many people don’t, and many who succeed are driven by neurosis and insecurity and pain that never leave them.

Reading non-fiction is validating, or it isn’t. It will always inform; if well-written it may entertain. Like fiction it must be honest, and if so, in reading it you will be enriched, given insight. It may not excite the way fiction did in your youth, or inspire, or possess the indisputable, ineffable magic that a single passage from James Joyce or Kazuo Ishiguro may proffer, but then it isn’t meant to. It is meant to carry you on, down the road of life to a destination where every reader of every book, and every watcher of every movie is heading too. When you get there, greet your former self with a smile, and maybe give him a shake. Tell him he’s still loved, and then tell him to get on with it. The real thing that is.

Full Circle

There’s some interesting reading to be found in a paper released by the Canadian Media Production Association last week. It’s titled, Content Everywhere: Securing Canada’s Place in the Digital Future, and it offers up an effective survey of the current media landscape. At first glance, suffice it to say that recent trends continue:

* Video progressively rules on the internet—YouTube now has more than one billion unique viewers every month, with 100 hours of video uploaded every minute.

* ‘Cord cutting’, that is escaping the tyranny of cable ‘bundling,’ continues for consumers—an American who owns an iPad now has a 65% likelihood of being a member of the cord cutter tribe.

* As the market penetration of the so-called OTTs (‘Over The Top’ online streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu) continues to grow—one of the OTTs now reaches almost half of all American households; over 60% of the 18 – 24 demographic—they are moving increasingly into the financing of original content.

The ‘old boys’, the established television networks, know all about these trends of course, and so they have, in recent years, moved actively, if still hesitantly into the digital realm. In Canada, Bell Media launched Crave TV in 2014, Rogers and Shaw finally birthed Shomi, and CBC now has an online comedy channel called Punchline. (Conventional TV’s great strength increasingly remains of course in the provision of live events, mostly sports, but also news, and of course the odd award show, although it’s interesting to note that ratings for the Oscars this year were down about 15%.)

Ben Templesmith photo
Ben Templesmith photo

Overall, the evolving picture is of the online media industry maturing, in all the good and bad that that entails. Perhaps most disconcerting is a subtitle within the paper which reads: “Many things about OTT look like TV.” AOL greenlit 16 original series in 2014, all of them featuring major celebrities or movie stars. Pitch meetings with the big-league OTTs are usually booked through agents or entertainment lawyers these days. And we can all be sure that when David Fincher, after House of Cards, pitches his new series, he’ll be strolling into the Netflix offices past a long line of waiting, lesser-known producers who once hoped that the web would provide them with new and different opportunities. Sigh.

And of course, as the paper, points out, creators for the web face a unique set of additional challenges, even as the process morphs into something distressingly familiar. Chief among them are ‘discoverability,’ and an overcrowded marketplace. The gatekeepers for the online game may no longer be the same, but the smaller players still face a huge disadvantage when it comes to putting bums in the seats. They simply don’t have the resources to compete with the big guys at marketing, or at perhaps hiring the talent which comes with a built-in audience.

And finally, if you’re a Canadian hoping to succeed with online content, you face an added problem with financing, because as slow as the big broadcasters have been to move into the online space, the established ‘legacy’ funders, like Telefilm Canada and the tax credit programs, have been even more lead-footed. Because online revenues have been so difficult to realize, these agencies have been extra adept at shuffling their feet and avoiding eye contact whenever, for instance, documentary filmmakers with an online-only audience in mind have come calling.

I’m reminded of the final scenes in George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm, when the pigs move into the farmhouse, begin to walk upright and wear clothes. Or of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s incisive explanation of Why Nations Fail, describing how it is that, following revolutions, tyrants like Robert Mugabe replace tyrants like Ian Smith, how Joseph Stalin replaces Csar Nicolas II. The digital revolution may not have yet completed itself, not yet come right round in what Acemoglu and Robinson term “the vicious circle,” but the streets have gone quiet again. It may be that no one has been sent off to a “knacker” or to the gulag, but if you were among those who dreamed of a better world, or maybe even who manned an online barricade, well, purchase a ticket and get in line. It seems that all along, the digital revolution was for sale, to the highest bidder.

The Wisdom of the Ordinary

“Sometimes I dream of being a good father and good husband. Sometimes that feels really close, but other times it just seems silly, and that it would ruin my life… If I’m totally honest with myself, I’d rather die knowing that I was really good at something, that I was special or had excelled in some way, than to have been in a really nice, caring relationship.”

Jesse, in Before Sunrise, screenplay by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan

 

16092263739_4d743c338dAs I write this, Richard Linklater’s feature film Boyhood is enjoying a good deal of ‘Oscar buzz.’ The movie, shot over a 12-year period with the same set of actors, has received five separate nominations for an Oscar, and has just won ‘Best Picture’ at the Golden Globe Awards.

I’ve long been a fan of Linklater’s work, ever since first viewing Slacker in 1991. I haven’t yet seen Boyhood. I’m sure it’s a fine movie, but I also wonder if Linklater’s ‘Before…’ trilogy of movies, employing the same set of actors over a nearly 20-year period, isn’t just as worthy an accomplishment.

Linklater is an unusual filmic storyteller in a number of ways, not the least of which is his propensity to focus in upon intellectual concerns in his movies, as opposed to the emotional terrain traversed in more conventional films. The quote above is taken from the first of the movies comprising the Before trilogy. It tells the story of two young people who meet on a train approaching Vienna one evening, and then, in unplanned fashion, get off the train together in Vienna, and spend the entire night ‘walking and talking’ through the streets. Hardly the stuff of your typical American movie.

They debate questions like that quoted above: whether it is better to excel at some particular practice, be it creative or commercial or academic, than it is to be a good father, husband, wife or mother. I don’t want to be unfair to the script—a counter argument to the position quoted above is immediately offered by another character—but I think that the question is often misconstrued. For most of us, it’s not quite an either-or proposition.

Those who truly excel at a practice do so through some rare combination of talent, drive and luck. The talent quotient is ‘god given,’ if you will; the drive portion often does indeed come at the expense of personal relationships, and the luck component; well, there isn’t much any of us can do about ensuring that happens for us. Good luck typically amounts to being in the right place at the right time with the right ‘product.’

It’s a mug’s game for the 95% of us who are not the overachievers to compare ourselves to the 5% who are, even though this is precisely what celebrity culture would have us do on a daily basis. We’re better off looking to the wisdom of older, ordinary people, those who’ve lived, loved and worked in a more quotidian realm. These folks will have come through the bulk of their lives to a point where they’re feeling more or less content, having learned some important lessons along the way, and they will now likely be willing to share some of what they’ve learned. This is exactly what I attempted to do in a personal documentary I made few years back called What Happyns (available for free streaming here).

To measure yourself against the rich, famous or powerful is a surefire way to make yourself feel inadequate, if not miserable. No, better to understand that it’s a regular game you’re playing, alongside regular people. The rewards that come with great riches, fame and power are of course material, but they’re also largely ego-based. To achieve great success in a career is to feel privileged, exceptional. But beyond a certain point in your life you’ll come to realize that those sorts of rewards don’t mean so much.

We should all applaud the achievements of Richard Linklater, if only because his movies make us (me) think, rather than just feel. Tip your hat to the guy, say thanks, and then press on in your ordinary life. It’s all you’ll ever need.

Change

Dick Cavett Nick Step photo
Dick Cavett
Nick Step photo

Dick Cavett, the former [brilliant] talk show host, tells the story of working as a writer on the Jack Paar Show when he learned that Peter Ustinov was to be a guest on the show, and that his segment would last all of nine minutes. Ustinov was legendary as a talk show guest, “the best ever” in Cavett’s words, and Cavett proceeded to throw something of a hissy fit with the show’s producers, arguing that Ustinov should be given the entire show, that the other three utterly forgettable guests should be punted. “Oh no,” replied the producers, “People like change.”

What’s interesting about this episode, from the perspective of our advanced ADD age, is that the Jack Paar Show ended its run in March of 1962 (Johnny Carson would take over). In other words, the media emphasis on fast paced change has been with us for quite some time.

Despite the “idiocy” Cavett describes in his story, it’s undeniably true that many people do in fact enjoy change. My wife likes to periodically rearrange the furniture in our home. It gives her a sense of renewal, a small but unquestionably positive energy bump. Me, I’m more prone to leaving things where they seem to work best. Sure, move the furniture around a few times when the configuration is new, but once the optimum arrangement is discovered, that’s how it should stay.

My wife is the daughter of a Dutch diplomat. Growing up, she lived a life of continual change, as the family moved every few years to a new foreign locale, often exotic and stimulating, places like Kobe, Japan or Capetown, South Africa. I, on the other hand, grew up in one home, one town for the entirety of my young life. In wondering why my wife prefers change, and I don’t, my initial theory was that, having grown up with this usually enjoyable and invigorating level of change, she preferred to maintain it wherever she could, if only on a micro level. I, having grown up in an unchanging environment, not so much.

But then one day I was talking with my brother, and he described the regular incidents where, returning home from a long day at work, he would encounter his teenage daughter excitedly hopping about on the front step, keenly eager to have him help rearrange the furniture in her bedroom. My niece too has grown up in an entirely stable situation, one house, one town. To this day she lives just a few blocks from her parents.

So much for that theory.

The mystery persists. Is it then a gender thing? Certainly it is quite a fundamental rift, this gulf between those who embrace and those who avoid change. All I can suggest at this point is that, like the inclination to be on time or late, the desire for change is both learned and somehow genetic. Lasting too. In any given individual, the need for change, or not, is not likely to change.

Which is not to say that Dick Cavett was wrong, and his producers right. Far from it. We live in a time of unprecedented change, within a veritable vortex of technological transformation, and so, for us, change is anything but a scarce commodity. It’s the long-form article, or uninterrupted period of quiet which has become today’s uncommon resource, and therefore the thing of value.

But more than that, what we’re losing, as we feel the obligation to welcome change, and so throw our arms of awareness wide, is the simple distinction of quality. Which is of course what Cavett was pointing out to his producers. Peter Ustinov was indeed dazzling at what he did as talk show guest, funny, trenchant, witty and articulate. (Watch him here in a compilation of interview clips with Michael Parkinson of the BBC.) He was the best at what he did, and Cavett’s producers couldn’t have cared.

Today the best is often lost among all the electronic noise. Our attention is fleeting, the audience fractured. The news cycle completes its turn in just one day. It may have been going on since 1962 and before, but the embrace of change will always come at a cost, and so today’s accelerating change comes at an accelerating cost. No one should lament the loss of exclusive access to the media, or decry the democratic power of the internet. What we should do is remember to celebrate excellence, and to give it our sustained attention.

Quiet

Certain owners/managers of noisy restaurants—the type where you must shout to be heard by your tablemate—tell us that their clientele like it that way. Said customers enjoy the buzz, the dynamic feel, the sense that they are at that moment in a ‘happening’ place. That may well be; I don’t doubt that you could find individuals within the cacophony who would agree, but I’m a little skeptical as to the real reason why these restaurant bosses prefer the noisy ambience. I suspect it has more to do with the turnover rate that such noise induces. More turnover and the resultant more money.

The opportunity for quiet, for interlude, whether it be for easy conversation, or just contemplation, is to be sought out. As a young man, I once found myself in the company of my slightly older friend John, ankling it across Bear Creek Park in Grande Prairie, when an intense summer rain shower overtook us. We quickly found shelter under the wide eaves of the nearby swimming pool building, where I sat down against the wall to wait out the worst of the rain, and began to muse about what was going on in general in our situation, and where it was likely to lead.

John didn’t want any part of that. I’d hardly gotten two sentences into my musings before he marched off into the downpour. There was no place for such contemplation in John’s comfort zone.

A few years later John drowned in a couple of inches of salty water on a beach in Mexico, after riding a wave for too long while body surfing, breaking his neck when he hit the sand. We may well have been on our way to the bar that day; John was probably drunk when he hit the beach—he’d become an alcoholic while still in his twenties—but it was absolutely consistent with his joyful approach to life that he would ride that wave to its very limit, and then beyond. During that summer afternoon under the swimming pool eaves he was my best friend, and so too he was for several other of my friends. Such were his social skills, and his big heart.

 

"Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching."       - Satchel Paige
“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.”
- Satchel Paige

But a moment of tranquil contemplation was more than he could face. Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you,” but for John it wasn’t a matter of looking back. He couldn’t look sideways, at his present circumstances, without seeing demons staring back at him. I was surprised when he marched off into the rain, and I’m not sure even today that I can say I understand what those demons were, but I saw immediately that they were there, and that he was terrified of them, and so he kept moving.

He preferred a noisy atmosphere, to get drunk rather than to stay sober, and yet, in his own odd way, he was absolutely in the moment. It’s just that he didn’t wish to contemplate that moment. He preferred distraction.

The quiet on Galiano can sometimes be nearly absolute, with little more than the periodic echoing chortle of a crow, or the shrill beeping of a tree frog to interrupt. It’s something I’ve come to value now more than ever, and it’s something I consider akin to a regular physical check-up, something I should oblige myself to do. I want to see if there are any demons standing next to me. I might want to do something about them, before they run me to ground.

One recommended approach is Buddhist; I attempt to calmly stare right back at those demons present, to just ‘sit with them’ for a while, no challenge, no confrontation. Eventually they’re not quite so scary; they’re just demons. I may be responsible for them, but they’re not the final word on who I am, or where I can go

These days, incidentally, without much effort, you can find information on the noise level in restaurants in your area, and act accordingly. One Vancouverite carries with him small cards that he leaves behind after eating in any restaurant; they say either that he enjoyed the relaxed environment, or that he won’t be back, because of the din.

Quiet shouldn’t scare anyone. Connecting to another human being should be the goal. We should all stop moving once in a while, seek out stillness, not distraction. Once you’ve pulled up, take a look around. Any demons? Don’t kid yourself; if you look back there will always be regrets as to how you got here, but hopefully you are still okay with here. If not, if there’s a fiend lurking nearby, while you’re still breathing, there is always something you can do.

Fact Not Fiction

“The cool kids are making docs.”

                                            —David Edelstein

When I attended film school, back in the ancient 80s, there was not a single documentary program to be found anywhere across the educational landscape. We attendees were all keenly intent upon becoming the next Martin Scorsese or Francis Coppola; those most successful fictional moviemakers from the first generation of film school brats. Documentary film was seen by us as slightly dusty, quaint, more often suited to arid academia than the edgy dramatic territory we meant to occupy.

Otrocuenta Desarollo photo
Otrocuenta Desarollo photo

These days documentary programs abound in film schools everywhere, and documentary film is seen as a highly relevant form aggressively focusing our attention upon social and economic issues of immediate concern to all of us.

It’s interesting to consider why this change.

Certainly the greatly increased availability of production and post production technology (think cameras and computers) has a lot to do with it. Today’s media audience maintains a more forgiving expectation of documentary ‘production values’ (the quality of the sound and picture) than that expectation which remains for dramatic film. In the documentary world, content rules, and so if you have captured a terrific story using a comparatively cheap digital camera, then edited on your laptop, you may well be good to go in the marketplace. Searching for Sugarman would be a prime example. Not so much in the dramatic sphere, where a low-budget look is still likely to prevent you from ever hitting the theatres.

But there’s more to it than that I think. Today’s generation of film school students is far more determined to effect change then we ever were. We were interested first of all in making films; today’s doc filmmakers seem first of all interested in making a difference. Where filmmaking was an end for us, it is a means to them. Caught up as we were in the countercultural ethos of 70s ‘anti-hero’ movies like Scarecrow or Straight Time, we were willing to focus our lenses upon the downtrodden, the misfits, but we were rarely inclined to take direct aim at problems we nevertheless knew were all around us, problems like air pollution or economic inequality. Contemporary docs like An Inconvenient Truth and Inequality For All show no such reluctance.

And let me be perfectly clear; this change is much for the better. We humans have a ravenous need for stories, and one of the reasons for that is because we understand, sometimes unconsciously, that stories offer us ‘life lessons.’ They offer us insights into how we should or should not behave in the face of common human problems. To a lesser or greater degree mind you. Some stories are so simple minded that whatever insight they may offer is utterly generic, if not banal.

And documentaries, by their very nature, offer us better insights than do dramas. As good as the storytelling is in a dramatic series like Breaking Bad, for instance—and it is very good—it doesn’t necessarily hold any greater relevance to real life than does your typical comic book movie. Walter White is only marginally more real than is Spiderman.

Not so with Michael Morton, the Texan who spent 25 years in prison before finally being exonerated on all charges, and is the protagonist of a documentary entitled An Unreal Dream. Morton is the real deal, a genuine American hero.

Conventional TV broadcasters operating right now have badly dropped the ball on the burgeoning audience interest in documentaries, as evidenced by a recent Hot Docs study. Despite that fumble however, because of the rise of the internet, and because of their own commitment, the film school students of right now who are drawn to documentary are likely to succeed at making an impact, at changing the world, however incrementally. They are perhaps not entirely typical of the current generation, but they undoubtedly represent a new, different and very worthwhile slice of that generation. And more power to them.