Tag Archives: movies

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.

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.

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.

Just Like Yesterday

Meet the new boss.

  Same as the old boss.

from Won’t Get Fooled Again, by Pete Townshend

 

The guardians of the old media have found a brilliant way to exploit the denizens of the new. By dangling the carrot of access to television—a mature industry where recognition and revenue remain solidly in place—the executives who stand at the gates to TV can cause the multitudes who populate the online realm—an industry where revenue is dispersed very unevenly and recognition is highly fragmented—to work tirelessly to promote their exclusive brands. It’s perfect.

In recent times, those clever folks who control TV have evolved the method of the online competition in order to shamelessly advance their corporate brands. Offer those who create content for the web—especially of course those who operate within the social media arena—the chance to create for TV, and those creators will toil doggedly, nearly interminably on your behalf, and they will do so without a cent of actual remuneration, and on the slimmest of chances at success. How great is that?

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has just concluded a nation-wide contest where 285 comedy creator-teams submitted video ‘teasers’ in pursuit of a single (although lucrative at $500,000) prize of the production of a half-hour TV special. The competition ran over ten weeks, and the teaser was only the beginning of the work demanded of these aspirants. Each week, in addition to the endless amount of online ‘sharing’ these teams were obliged to do—if they were to have any realistic expectation of prevailing in the contest—these teams had to produce a new video ‘mission’ on a specified theme (‘The Do Over,” “The Differentiator” etc.).

Likewise Telus, a corporation with a more regional territory (Alberta and BC), have just run the ‘Storyhive’ competition, where hundreds of applicants chased 15 grants of $10,000, leading finally to one winner gaining $50,000 toward the production of content for Optik TV, the television service owned by Telus.

It’s a truly prodigious amount of work done by talented people on the behalf of others for absolutely no monetary recompense. The competitions are won of course via online voting solicited by the contestants, and don’t think it’s anything like a democratic, one email address, one vote mechanism. No, visitors to the relevant site (where you must of course register) ‘earn’ votes by repeated visits, or, more germanely, online promotion of the corporate site. For CBC and Telus it’s win win win; for 99%+ of the contestants it’s lose lose lose. And, if it’s necessary to drive home the point of this losing game, in the Telus competition, in winnowing the pitched projects down to the final 15, there is not one iota of critical adjudication applied; it is entirely determined by online voting. In other words, at least until that first significant selective step, Telus does not care one whit about the actual creative quality of the submissions; they care only about the quantity of online visitation they are able to achieve.

Let me be very clear about my take on this process. It’s manipulative, exploitive, and vile. The folks behind it should be ashamed of themselves.

Tau Zero photo
Tau Zero photo

But, as with so many of the changes wrought by the digital revolution, neither is this obnoxious game about to go away. The television executives who have invented it have mined gold for themselves, and they could care less about the fact that almost all of the losing contestants have nothing good to say about them or their contest. Those losers are simple collateral damage in the winning war for online traffic, and thus advertising dollars.

It’s odd and slightly unsettling that (as described in a recent article in The New Yorker magazine) KingBach, a top star on Vine, an online video site where content episodes last a sum total of six seconds, dreams of making it on TV and in the movies, where fewer people will watch him.

Welcome to the new world of mass media, which looks altogether too much like the same old world. The ‘young adult’ demographic still watches far more TV than they do online video. YouTube will make less than $4 billion in advertising this year; CBS will earn more than $8 billion.

Pete Townsend’s prayers may well have been in vain.

Storytelling 3.0 – Part 2

We tend to forget—at least I do—that, in the history of storytelling, movies came before radio. By about 15 years. The first theatre devoted exclusively to showing motion picture entertainment opened in Pittsburgh in 1905. It was called The Nickelodeon. The name became generic, and by 1910, about 26 million Americans visited a nickelodeon every week. It was a veritable techno-entertainment explosion.

The thing is, anyone at all—if they could either buy or create the product—could rent a hall, then charge admission to see a movie. To this very day, you are free to do this.

When radio rolled around—about 1920—this arrangement was obviously not on. It’s a challenge to charge admission to a radio broadcast. In fact, the first radio broadcasts were intended to sell radios; this was their original economic raison d’être.

Sadly, very quickly it became illegal to broadcast without a government granted license. (Oddly enough, the first licensed radio broadcast again originated from Pittsburgh.) And almost as quickly, sponsorship became a part of radio broadcasting. The price of admission was the passive audio receipt of an advertisement for a product or service.

An exhibit in the Henry Ford Museum, furnished as a 1930s living room, commemorating the radio broadcast by Orson Welles of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Maia C photo
An exhibit in the Henry Ford Museum, furnished as a 1930s living room, commemorating the radio broadcast by Orson Welles of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
Maia C photo

Radio shows were much easier and cheaper to produce than movies, and they weren’t always communal in the way movies were, that is they were not always a shared experience. (Although they could be—many a family sat around the radio in the mid part of the 20th century, engrossed in stories about Superman or The Black Museum.)

More importantly, as with book publishing, the gatekeepers were back with radio, and they were both public and private. No one could operate a radio station without a government license, and no one could gain access to a radio studio without permission from the station owner.

Then came television with the same deal in place, only more so. TV shows were more expensive to produce, but like radio, they lent themselves to a more private viewing, and access to the medium for storytellers was fully restricted, from the outset. As with radio, and until recently, TV was ‘free;’ the only charge was willing exposure to an interruptive ‘commercial.’

With the advent of each of these storytelling mediums, the experience has changed, for both storyteller and audience member. Live theatre has retained some of the immediate connection with an audience that began back in the caves (For my purposes, the storyteller in theatre is the playwright.), and radio too has kept some of that immediacy, given that so much of it is still produced live. But the true face-to-face storytelling connection is gone with electronic media, and whenever the audience member is alone as opposed to in a group, the experience is qualitatively different. The kind of community that is engendered by electronic media—say fans of a particular TV show—is inevitably more isolated, more disparate than that spawned within a theatre.

The first commercial internet providers came into being in the late 1980s, and we have since lived through a revolution as profound as was the Gutenberg. Like reading, the internet consumer experience is almost always private, but like movies, the access to the medium is essentially unrestricted, for both storyteller and story receiver.

And that, in the end, is surprising and wonderful. Economics aside for a moment, I think it’s undeniably true that never, in all our history, has the storyteller been in a more favorable position than today.

What does this mean for you and I? Well, many things, but let me climb onto an advocacy box for a minute to stress what I think is the most significant benefit for all of us. Anyone can now be a storyteller, in the true sense of the word, that is a person with a story to tell and an audience set to receive it. For today’s storyteller, because of the internet, the world is your oyster, ready to shuck.

Everyone has a story to tell, that much is certain. If you’ve been alive long enough to gain control of grunt and gesture, you have a story to tell. If you have learned to set down words, you’re good to go on the internet. And I’m suggesting that all of us should. Specifically what I’m advocating is that you write a blog, a real, regular blog like this one, or something as marvelously simple as my friend Rafi’s. Sure, tweeting or updating your Facebook page is mini-blogging, but no, you can do better than that.

Start a real blog—lots of sites offer free hosting—then keep it up. Tell the stories of your life, past and present; tell them for yourself, your family, your friends. Your family for one will be grateful, later if not right away. If you gain an audience beyond yourself, your family and friends, great, but it doesn’t matter a hoot. Blog because you now can; it’s free and essentially forever. Celebrate the nature of the new storytelling medium by telling a story, your story.

Guns

The Gaiety Theatre became a church, then a parking lot. pinkmoose photo
The Gaiety Theatre became a church, then a parking lot.
pinkmoose photo

The game was derived directly from ‘the westerns’ we watched every Saturday afternoon at the Gaiety Theatre in downtown Grande Prairie, wherein the final act of every movie consisted of the good guy and bad guys (the baddies always outnumbered our hero) running around and shooting at one another. “Guns” we called it. “Let’s play guns!” we would shout, and soon we’d be lurking/sneaking around the immediate neighbourhood houses, blasting away at one another with toy weapons, inciting many an argument as to whether I had or had not “Got ya!” If indeed you were struck by an imaginary bullet, a dramatic tumble to the ground was required, followed by rapid expiration.

Let no one ever doubt the influential power of the ascendant mass medium of the day. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, I grew up without television, but those Saturday matinees were more than enough to have us pretending at the gun violence that is all too real in the adult world. Video games seem an even more powerful enactment of the gun fantasy that can grip children, but the difference may be marginal. I doubt that movies have lost much influence over young people today, and I further suspect that in the majority of Hollywood movies today at least one gun still appears. Check out how many of today’s movie ads or posters feature menacing men with guns, with those guns usually prominent in foreground. Sex sells, but so it seems do guns.

And of course the rest of the world, including those of us in Canada, looks with horror upon the pervasive, implacable gun culture in the U.S., wondering how it is that even the slaughter of twenty elementary school children isn’t enough to curb the ready availability of guns. Because, from a rational perspective, the facts are incontrovertible: more guns do not mean greater safety, quite the opposite. You are far more likely to die of a gunshot in the U.S. than you are in any other developed country. Roughly 90% of Americans own a gun. The next closest is Serbia at 58%. In Canada it’s about 30%. Australia 15%. Russia 9%. And a higher rate of mental illness does not mean greater gun violence. It’s pure and it’s simple: more guns mean more gun violence, more people being shot and killed.

But we are, by and large, not rational animals, and no amount of logical argument is going to convince members of the gun lobby that gun ownership should be restricted. It’s an emotional and psychological attachment that cannot be broken without causing increased resentment, anger, anxiety and a sense of humiliating diminution. Guns are fetishes to those who desire them, sacred objects that allow the owner to feel elevated in status, elevated to a position of greater independence and potency. After all a gun will allow you to induce fear in others.

And yes the American obsession with guns has historical roots, the revolution and the second amendment to the constitution and all that, but, as Michael Moore so brilliantly pointed out in this animated sequence in Bowling for Columbine, much more essentially it has to do with fear. People enamored of gun ownership feel threatened; without a gun they feel powerless in the face of threats from people they view as dangerously different from themselves. And nothing but nothing empowers like a gun.

You might think that people who love guns do not wish to play with them. Guns are not toys to these people, you might say; they are genuine tools used to protect their owners, mostly from all those other people out there who also own guns. But just down the road from where we live on Galiano is a shooting range. On quiet Sunday afternoons we invariably hear the sound of gunfire echoing through the trees, as gun aficionados shoot repeatedly at targets, trying to do exactly the same thing over and over again, hit the bull’s eye. Those people are indeed playing with their guns; they are recreating with their guns. Why? Because it makes them feel better.

Successful movie genres are manifestations of broadly felt inner conflicts; in the case of westerns those conflicts are around issues of freedom and oppression. And the western may still be the most successful of all movie genres, remaining dominant from the very birth of dramatic film (The Great Train Robbery, 1903), right through to the 1970s (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971). The problem is that the western offered ‘gunplay’ as the answer to oppression, and therefore the suggestion that everyone should have a gun. But once everyone has a gun, everyone is afraid. And once you are afraid, no one is taking away your gun.

The End of the Movies

I grew up without television.  It never arrived in the small town where I lived until I was about ten.  So I grew up watching the movies, initially Saturday afternoon matinees, which my older brother begrudgingly escorted me to under firm orders from my mother, who was looking for brief respite from the burden of three disorderly boys.  Admission was ten cents, popcorn five cents.  (If these prices seem unbelievable to you, all I can say is… me too.)

file2791245784270Movies were it, a prime cultural (and for me eventually professional) mover, right through my adolescence and early adulthood.  For me, TV has tended to be a kind of entertainment sideline, something to be watched when a new show came around with some serious buzz, but more often just a passive filler of downtime, material to unwind with at the end of a busy day.

That has of course all changed in recent years, and not just for me.  I don’t go to the movies much anymore—that is I don’t go to the movie houses—and, what’s more, movies don’t seem to matter much anymore.  These days movies are mostly noisy spectacle, big, flashy events, but events with very little to offer other than raucous entertainment.  Comic book movies are the dominant genre of today, and, no matter how I slice it, those comic book characters don’t really connect with life as I’m living it, day to day.  And, as I say, it’s not just me, as someone from an older demographic.  Today, unfortunately, the audience for the movies is smaller, and more narrow than it’s ever been.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMovie audiences peaked in 1946, the year The Best Years of Our Lives, The Big Sleep, and It’s A Wonderful Life were released, and 100 million tickets were sold every week.  By 1955—when Guys and Dolls, Rebel Without A Cause, and The Seven Year Itch were released—with the advent of television, that audience had dropped to less than half that.

But the movies survived television and found a ‘silver’ age (‘gold’ being the studio-dominated 40s) in the decade from 1965 to 1975, when we watched movies like The Godfather I and II, Midnight Cowboy and Chinatown, and the works of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Francois Truffaut enjoyed theatrical release right across North America.  It was a time when movies did seem to have something to say; they spoke to me about the changing world I was in direct daily contact with.

Then came the blockbusters—Jaws and Star Wars—and the realization that Hollywood could spend hundreds, not tens of millions of dollars on a movie and garner just as large an increase in returns.  Movies have never been the same.

Today less than 40 million people in North America go to see a movie once a month.  In a 2012 poll done by Harris International, 61% of respondents said they rarely or never go to the movies.  Why would you when you have that wide screen at home, ad-free, with the pause button at your disposal?  The most you’ll likely pay to watch in private is half of what you would at the movie house.

And then, this year, we had a summer of blockbuster flops.  The worst was The Lone Ranger, made for $225 million and about to cost Walt Disney at least $100 million.  Both Steven Speilberg and George Lucas have said that the industry is set to “implode,” with the distribution side morphing into something closer to a Broadway model where fewer movies are released; they stay in theatres longer, but with much higher ticket prices.  Movies as spectacle.

(If you’re interested in reading more, an elegant, elegiac tribute to the run of the movies is The Big Screen, published last year and written by David Thomson, a critic born in 1941 who has thus been around for a good-sized chunk of film history.)

It may well be that movies, as the shared public experience that I’ve known, are coming to the end of a roughly 100-year run.  It was rapid, glamorous, often tawdry, sometimes brilliant, once in a while even significant, but technology is quickly trampling the movies.  If you were there for even a part it, you might feel blessed.

Foreign Culture Wars

When it comes to culture, Europeans think differently than many of us west of the Atlantic.  Just last month, European countries, led by France, unanimously endorsed the concept of ‘cultural exception’ in the current U.S.-European trade deal talks—meaning that cultural industries are exempted from full exposure to the free-trade winds that will blow through other industries under the new agreement.  It’s a position that in the U.S., with its mega-imagesscale cultural industries (Amazon and books, Hollywood and movies, ABC and Desperate Housewives, etc.), seems almost nonsensical.  For someone like the late Jack Valenti, Hollywood lobbyist extraordinaire, it’s simply a matter of cultural industries outside the U.S. failing to make competitive product.  He used words like “baloney,” “odious” and “a needless crutch”, for instance, when describing quotas on foreign television previously established by EU member states.

It’s a battle that Canada had to fight when negotiating its own free-trade deal with the U.S. back in the 80s.  At the time the Americans were keenly interested in gaining unfettered access to both the energy and cultural industries in Canada.  And, in the interest of context, it’s worth tracking back further, to the institution of ‘Canadian content’ regulations in the early 70s.  Prior to 1971, for instance, Canadian musicians heard on the radio were a thin and scattered bunch.  Following the imposition of the ‘Can-con’ rules, there was a veritable explosion of Canadian musical talent, from recording artists as diverse as Anne Murray and Steppenwolf.  (Although Anne may have won the day on most radio stations, prompting one wag to wonder whether AM was in fact her moniker.)  The digital revolution has since of course, negatively impacted the music industry as much as it has any trade anywhere, but, for a time, the pop music scene in Canada was never more robust.

In TV too, the original imposition of Canadian content rules quickly spawned a sizable industry that had previously been hardly present at all, and that continues as viable to this day.  There was an original mandate with government subsidies of the film and television industry to create product that was ‘culturally distinct’—stories would be ‘recognizably Canadian’—and with globalization that mandate has suffered (Is there anything genuinely recognizable as Canadian about a show like Rookie Blue?), causing one to wonder if the TV industry is still ‘cultural’ at all, but I digress.

The point is that cultural industries outside nation-state juggernauts like the U.S. and China have historically needed protection in order to flourish, if not survive.  What someone like Jack Valenti failed to recognize is that it takes the same ratio of talent within any pool to produce hits, regardless of place; therefore the Canadian or French pool has to be protected if it is to remain large enough to produce proportionately fewer hits, that is enough hits to survive.  Without that protection the industry will simply be overrun by the wildly larger numbers of both people and dollars emanating from the American cultural behemoth.

Which is exactly what has happened with the Canadian movie industry, where Can-con rules have never been applied.  (If you’re wondering why, perhaps it’s sufficient to say that Hollywood movie distribution contracts, back in the day, did not even recognize Canada as a separate territory.)  While the Canadian radio and television industries have evolved a reasonably sound business model, the same can’t be said about the indigenous movie industry in Canada.  It has been, and remains marginal; what I have described as an ‘ego-driven crap shoot’ where few people are employed, and audiences are meager.  (I’m referencing English-speaking Canada here; French Canadians actually go to see their own movies in considerable numbers.)

In Europe, French regulations delay the release of DVDs, in order to preserve movie houses.  German regulations force online book retailers to sell their product at list prices, in order to preserve bookstores.  Different thinking.

The internet of course arose in a ‘wild west’ American culture where any form of regulation was considered anathema.  In 2000, Yahoo! was sued in France after Nazi memorabilia was offered for sale on its auction site.  (It’s essentially illegal to sell such stuff in France in any venue.)  Yahoo! fought back, arguing “free speech,” that France could not rightly impose its laws on a U.S. company.  Yahoo! lost that case.

Vive la différence.