Monday, October 29, 2012

Red Herring

The absurdity of the idea that a few scenes from an unseen movie polemic were the spark that ignited a global incident was summed up in a headline by Australian columnist Tim Blair: “Four dead in film review.” Some Christians, recalling the indifference and even derision that met their protests against films like Hail Mary, The Last Temptation of Christ, Dogma and Life of Brian, could be excused for wondering if they might have been taken a bit more seriously if they’d thrown a rock or two.
I wrote this column for the Interim over a month ago, and it already feels like ancient history, even if the current U.S. administration is still wholly unwilling to acknowledge that a really bad, obscure film had nothing to do with what amounts to an act of war - the murder of one of their ambassadors and three of his American support staff in Libya, a country they were nominally supporting.

Come on - you've got to remember this. No?
Certainly no one is talking about The Innocence of Muslims any more, even if the filmmaker remains in legal custody, out of sight and mind until his hearing three days after the upcoming U.S. election. Basically, though, I started this column as a way of expressing my almost complete lack of interest in any of the movies that have been released in the last year or two, and what amounts to an existential crisis for someone, like myself, whose job description is "TV and movie critic."
For myself, I have to admit that my enthusiasm for moviegoing is at an all-time low in the nearly three decades I’ve been writing about films. At the beginning of the year, anticipation for Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s prequel to his 1979 breakthrough film Alien, was making me frantic for the summer to arrive, but by the time the film actually premiered to lukewarm reviews in early June, I found myself willing to wait till it came out on disc. Nothing tempted me out to the theatres all summer, and apparently my apathy wasn’t unique. 
The point is that the 2012 time capsule, if it's at all honest, will have to include a copy of this execrable movie, for the simple reason that nothing else that hit the theatres (and I use that phrase very loosely) was as important. And that if I were in any meaningful way involved in the movie industry, that would make me very worried.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Pope = Badass

Sometimes I think the Holy Father really wants to fuck with our heads.

It's like Ken Adam meets Guillermo Del Toro.

(h/t: Ghostofaflea)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why I Don't Take Libertarians (or Young People) Seriously

In the interest of openness, Reason magazine has polled its staff to see who they were voting for in the upcoming U.S. elections. The results remind me of why hanging around libertarians reminds me of college.

Also, pot makes you stupid, and "smart" people generally aren't as smart as they think they are.

I was a big fan of Peter Bagge back in the heyday of Buddy Bradley and Hate! comics, but it's sad to see it re-confirmed that he votes like he's throwing a tantrum.

Who did you vote for in 2000, 2004, and 2008? 
Matt Welch: Ralph Nader, largely because of my support for campaign finance restrictions, a subject on which I have since totally changed my mind, but also as a protest against bipartisan civil liberties abuse; John Kerry (to fire George W. Bush); and no one (would have been Bob Barr if I had completed the paperwork in time). 
Jesse Walker: Harry Browne, Michael Badnarik, Bob Barr. 
J.D. Tuccille: If I remember correctly, I voted Harry Browne in 2000, to sleep in and skip the process in 2004, and Bob Barr in 2008. I consider voting non-essential, but excusable as a defensive act and form of expression. Honestly, I sometimes half-complete a mail-in ballot, then toss it. 
Jacob Sullum: Harry Browne, Michael Badnarik, Bob Barr. I admit I had to look up the first two, although giving Jacob Sullum someone to vote for may be the Libertarian Party's most important function. 
Peter Suderman: In 2000 I tried to vote for Bush, but mostly out of sheer laziness never got around to returning my Florida absentee ballot. In 2004, I voted for Bush, which in retrospect was pretty stupid—perhaps even as stupid as voting for Kerry would have been. In 2008, I held my nose and took the trash out of my apartment on election day. But I didn’t vote. Taking out the trash was more satisfying, and more productive. 
Scott Shackford: Ralph Nader (sorry), John Kerry (sorry), Bob Barr (sorry). 
Damon W. Root: I voted for Michael Badnarik in 2004. I didn’t vote in 2000 and 2008. 
Mike Riggs: Nobody, nobody, and nobody. 
Anthony Randazzo: The first time I voted for president was in 2004. I voted for George Bush as a protest vote against John Kerry. I voted for Bob Barr in 2008 (see above reasoning for Gary Johnson). 
Garrett Quinn: I was too young. 2004: Kerry because he was from Mass. 2008: Bob Barr. 
Charles Oliver: No one. 
Terry Michael: Gore, Michael Badnarik, Obama. The 2000 vote was purely pragmatic, as I held my nose voting for the anti-Bush. In 2004, I couldn't be "pragmatic" when the empty suit Kerry said he would have voted for the war resolution even if he had known there were no weapons of mass destruction. And the 2008 vote was an enthusiastic vote for Obama, because I thought he was telling the truth about being anti-war and because I thought he would end identity politics and because I believed he was telling the truth about no health care mandates. I was fooled. But not this time. 
Dierdre McCloskey: The Libertarian candidates, whoever they were. Hmm. Can't bring them to mind. 
Katherine Mangu-Ward: Didn't. 
Tibor Machan: Libertarian candidate (again, to keep libertarianism in the news). 
Ed Krayweski: I was too young to vote in 2000 but I was actually a campus field coordinate for the Gore campaign in northern New Jersey. In 2004 I ended up voting for Michael Badnarik and in 2008 for Obama
Rob Kampia: Harry Browne, Michael Badnarik, and Bob Barr. 
A. Barton Hinkle: This space intentionally left blank. 
Steven Greenhut: To my shame: Bush, Bush and Obama. I voted for Dubya in 2000 because he promised a humbler foreign policy. We see how that turned out. I voted for him again in 2004 for reasons that I forget, but temporary insanity is the only excuse I can muster now. As I wrote in my newspaper column at the time, I voted for Obama because of my belief that John McCain should not be anywhere near a nuclear trigger given his hot temper, which he displayed during a newspaper editorial board meeting. I argued that a McCain/Palin administration would pursue policies not that much different from Obama, except that the GOP would be behind him as he pursued bigger government. I argued that an Obama administration would at least spark a backlash, and the Tea Party movement suggests I was correct on that point at least. 
Nick Gillespie: The Libertarian Party candidate in each, though often without much enthusiasm. 
Matthew Feeney: In November 2000 I was in the seventh grade and had only been living in New Jersey for three months. I had no idea who these Bush and Gore people were. In 2004 I was slightly more politically aware. Had I been of age and an American citizen I would have voted for John Kerry. In 2008 I would have voted for Obama, but I was not an American citizen so could not vote. I was a liberal in 2008 and I liked Barack Obama. An added incentive for my support for Obama was the Republican 2008 vice-presidential nominee.   
Brian Doherty: I have never voted, and don't expect to. 
Shikha Dalmia: I wasn’t a citizen in 2000. I voted for Bush against Kerry in 2004 and didn’t vote for either Obama or McCain (or the Libertarian Party nominee Bob Barr) in 2008. 
David Boaz: I tend to think that think-tank officers should keep their ballots secret. But I am generally guided by the fact that in 40 years of voting I've never encountered an election in which my vote would have made the difference, and by the principle that it's better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don't want and get it. 
Ronald Bailey: Bush, Bush, Obama
Peter Bagge: Harry Browne, John Kerry (whom I despised, but I really wanted to see Bush get fired), and Bob Barr (the worst Lib candidate ever, but still much preferable to McCain or Obama).

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


The other night, through the usual circuitous channels, I managed to watch Take Me I'm Yours, a very recent BBC documentary on the band Squeeze. Like almost every other band that's ever existed, they've apparently reconstituted themselves for what I can't help but call the nostalgia market, many years after their last hit, and almost as many years since the record industry that sold those hits began its utter collapse.

Up front, I loved Squeeze. I'm not sure how well they did in the U.S., but the band was never off the airwaves here for at least three or four years at the turn of the '80s, when they were among the cleverest of bands haphazardly marketed under the banner "New Wave." The first I ever heard of them was "Cool for Cats," a cute, catchy tune, but one that had "novelty" written all over it, and I was happy to assign the band to the same bin as Splodgenessabounds and The Rezillos.

Until I heard this:

This was Squeeze at their most British - a story song straight out of Sillitoe, set in the east and south London (or Birmingham or Liverpool or Manchester) we'd learned to imagine thanks to those English films of the '50s and early '60s that captured a country where anyone who wasn't in the House of Lords lived in a moldy bedsit or shabby terrace house next to a bomb site under a sunless sky. The story was simple enough; a working class life whose trajectory spanned a handful of years between leaving school and realizing you'd run out of options. (The sort of story that would be told later, by Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, with considerably more venom.)

If you were raised working class, it was an old story, played out by family and neighbours, and especially by the older brothers and sisters of my friends. "I never thought it would happen, with me and the girl from Clapham," Glenn Tillbrook sings, the first line of the song plunging you behind the eyes of a young man bewildered by the possibilities his life has offered him, but by the second verse he's moved in with her, by the third they're pregnant, and by the fourth his meagre wages are barely enough to sustain his tiny family.

This was, for working class boys, Alternate Life Scenario A, and as the song comes to its sad conclusion, you can feel your heart tighten with a kind of preemptive dread - or at least mine did, a year from my sixteenth birthday, with this path waiting, perhaps, in my unrealized future. It didn't feel maudlin, though, and the pathos of Chris Difford's lyrics as sung by Tillbrook felt earned, even if they were, as Difford admitted, inspired mostly by one of those sunless movies, and by the BBC's topical Play for Today.

In a few deft lines Difford and Tillbrook painted a very vivid picture of the young man's giddy emotions giving way to weariness, and the love he had for his wife and daughter abiding despite the sorry outcome. It was hard to deny the poetry of a line like "The devil came and took me, from bar to street to bookie," especially since you'd seen some variation of them before at least once in your scant sixteen years, right down to the heartfelt rationalization and inability to take responsibility.

It was a great song, but almost radioactive with pathos, which is why I was grateful when they followed it up with the album Argybargy and a string of fantastically catchy singles like "Another Nail In My Heart," "If I Didn't Love You" and "Pulling Mussels (From The Shell.)" They were cleverly written and beautifully played, and suggested, at least for awhile, that pop music in the new decade dawning would potentially be playful and smart.

The BBC documentary is full of interviews with peers and fans of the band - people like Elvis Costello, Mark Knopfler, Nick Lowe and Aimee Mann, who marvel at the band's cleverness, their talent and musicanship, and especially Difford's lyrics and Tillbrook's voice. At one point Tillbrook, who did most of the music, plays from memory the first song he ever wrote, at 11, after dreaming the tune. It's audacious and sophisticated and recognizeably a Squeeze song, and for a moment you hate him.

The band's heyday takes up perhaps half of the hourlong documentary, after which I was reminded that they made albums after East Side Story and singles after "Tempted," "Black Coffee In Bed" and "Annie Get Your Gun." A lot of albums, in fact, but none of them had a single near as memorable as the dozen collected on Singles 45 And Under, the 1982 greatest hits album that anthologized the band before their break-up and reformation in the mid-'80s.

You can see that Difford and Tillbrook are bewildered at how the band's later incarnations, with eight albums between 1985 and 2010, never really made the same impression as their first four, recorded in as many years. Their friends and fans wonder why later records like Some Fantastic Place were completely ignored, but as you hear snatches of songs and watch clips from videos, the answer seems obvious.

Reflecting on highlights of their latter career, Difford recalls a song he wrote as a plea for help at the bitter end of his drug and drink addiction, and a reminiscence of his late brother, written during a period away from Tillbrook, while Tillbrook tears up as he remembers lyrics Difford delivered to him after the death of his first serious girlfriend, the one who encouraged him to answer the ad Difford put up looking for bandmates years ago.

When we hear the songs, however, they sound competent and tuneful, but decidedly drab. They are, to be sure, Diffordesque and Tillbrookian, but they have none of the punch or charm or vividness of their first dozen or so hits, and all while the quality of pop songwriting in general has gone into a screeching nosedive. Difford and Tillbrook seem certain that they're the best work they've done in years, mostly because they're deeply personal, and inspired by events in their own lives. And that, I think, is the problem.

I keep thinking of how easily you were drawn into a classic Squeeze song like "Another Nail In My Heart." After the pumping, descending riff caught your attention, the first words you heard were "The case is pulled from under the bed/She made a call to a sympathetic friend who made arrangements." The story had begun, and you were drawn into a domestic, as they say in Britain, its narrative unspooling on an exquisite melody. "Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)" was much less obvious - more a descriptive essay on summer vacations and the aspirant working class at play, painted with humour and achingly clever lyrics, with yet another quietly virtuosic guitar solo to provide brief intermission.

I have no idea that any of these songs were inspired by real events in the life of either Difford or Tillbrook; don't forget that "Up The Junction" was really just Difford's idea of kitchen sink drama put through a filter of memory and imagination. In the BBC documentary, he's quick to insist that "Tempted," an achingly soulful song about infidelity, was written when he was happily married, and untempted by the fruit of any other. He had simply made it all up.

Not surprisingly - to me at least - when we see the current version of the band performing their hits, they sound like cover versions. Time is not kind to performers, and while it's probably inevitable that the years will separate an artist from the person they were when luck, inspiration and skill conspired to produce their hits, it's a tragic truth that those years will separate them from being able to fully inhabit those songs again.

It's obvious in the film that Tillbrook has miraculously maintained his voice, and I doubt that the years have dulled Difford's powers of observation or skill with words, but it's also plain that, together or apart, they've been unable to repeat the feats of pop song genius they managed to pull off at least a dozen times when they were in their twenties.

It's not unfair to say that artists can be poor judges of their own work, and personal significance can be precisely that - personal, and impossible to communicate to an audience. With a bit of distance and intelligence, a critic might occasionally be a better judge of an artist's output, but when you're talking about popular art, the only barometer that matters is the public that makes it popular, and whose taste, averaged out over years and generations, is the only verdict that matters.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


No, I'm not watching it tonight. Even if I had cable, there's no way I could bear the possibility that Romney won't be able to hit a single one of the barn-sized targets his opponent has presented him. Dear Americans: Seriously, I love you guys, but how did you ever let it come to this?

I have a documentary on Carroll Shelby and Ferrari that I couldn't finish watching last night. At least I know that has a happy ending.

UPDATE: No, I didn't watch it, but did he really say he'd defund PBS? Whoa.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Context for Kathy: Lightbulb

My friend Kathy has a post up at Taki's on Sandra Tsing Loh's heartfelt cry from the hot tub, a piece in The Atlantic that paints a picture of women - strong, empowered women, my friend - spelling out just how close men are to getting pink slipped out of history. On her way to tearing Loh and her editors a convenient new one, she drops some cultural references that, for the sake of anyone born after 1980 or raised outside the Greater Toronto Area (that would be billions of people, right?) might need a bit of explaining.

After recapping the scene Loh set in her piece, with a group of mostly divorced middle-aged women sitting around getting snapped while complaining about their husbands, ex- and current, Kathy has a little moment of generational pop culture recall, writing that she "was reminded of SCTV’s 'Bill Needle' and his description of the feminist play 'I’m Taking My Own Head, Screwing It On Right, And No Guy’s Gonna Tell Me It Ain’t.' To wit: It’s about how 'women who don’t have any problems sit around talking about their problems.'”

Helpfully, the link to the piece on her blog embeds the original skit:

If you were, say, 17 years old at the time this episode of SCTV aired, you might have found it a bit excruciating to watch. The satire might not have been so obvious, since as far as you can tell a lot of what adults called "theatre" in those days looked about this bad. What you did know was that there had recently been a musical called I'm Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road, and that a local production had a respectable run recently in your hometown of Toronto, playing at the dinner theatre in the same restaurant and banqueting complex where your sister had her wedding reception.

The musical's writer and original star was Gretchen Cryer, who opened the show in the summer of 1978. According to the Wikipedia entry on the show, the plot wasn't wildly different from the satire performed by SCTV's Andrea Martin, Catherine O'Hara and Joe Flaherty:
Manager Joe Epstein returns from a trip and finds his star Heather Jones on stage at a nightclub, singing her own songs about the emancipation of women, together with the two singers Alice and Cheryl and the band. She told Joe Epstein that this would be her new show. Joe, who had been Heather's friend for a long time, reacted angrily to Heather's change, but he was not able to persuade Heather to go back to her usual role. Almost 40 years old, she feels that the time has come for a change. The songs she is singing now are touching Joe in an unpleasant way, because they remind him of the way he treats his own wife. Heather is determined to support women's liberation; she splits up with her manager and goes on to perform her own show.
I'm Getting My Act Together... was produced by Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival, and went on to play Chicago, Los Angeles and London's Drury Lane Theatre. The Toronto production I remember being advertised so relentlessly ran in a swanky licensed venue midway between Rosedale and Forest Hill, the city's most expensive neighbourhoods, so it's not like it was some sort of Living Theatre, avant-garde bourgeouis provocation. Numbers in the show have titles like "Natural High," "Miss America," "Strong Woman Number" and "Lonely Lady." Here's "Natural High," from the cast album:

It's worth remembering that mainstream feminism in the '70s was set to a soundtrack of treacly, earnest, middle-of-the-road hotel lounge act showstoppers, which the SCTV folks pretty much nailed with their parody. For anyone who lived through it, two words should suffice: Helen Reddy.

(If you young folks think I'm being a bit pedantic about all this stuff, you have to understand that you can be a bit stupid sometimes, and we old folks feel we need to talk slow and draw a picture of life as it was lived so very, very long ago.)

The SCTV episode with I'm Taking My Own Head... aired in October of 1981, so Martin and O'Hara had plenty of time to study their subject, and perhaps even take in a performance of Cryer's show at the Ports Dinner Theatre, or perhaps even in Chicago or New York. What anyone growing up in Southern Ontario at the time would know was the inspiration for I'm Taking My Own Head author Libby Wolfson - local daytime TV "women's shows" starring people like Joyce Davidson and Dini Petty, and especially Micki Moore's You're Beautiful, which aired on CityTV, the local channel that SCTV mined relentlessly for material.

Moore's show took its title from the Carole King song that it used as a theme, and oozed an estrogen-thick fog of self-affirmation that could repel men for a block-wide radius. It aired from 1977 to 1989, and mere glimpses of it convinced young boys off sick from school that the girls they knew stood a pretty good chance of turning into the neurotic, needy, resentful creatures who filled Moore's overstuffed couches. There's no helpful archived video of You're Beautiful on YouTube, but here's one of SCTV's Libby Wolfson satires:

The lesson is that you can make fun of things all you want, but it doesn't mean that the object of your humourous scorn will go away, or that it won't actually get stronger, and even thrive under the apparently fertile glare of your derision. Also, a single generation can turn anything from parody to reality.


British historian Eric Hobsbawm died this Sunday, apparently certain to the end that a vast loss of human life was somehow worth the cost of the failed Soviet project. As with Christopher Hitchens - who wrote about Hobsbawm with an easy familiarity - there was no eleventh hour realization, no deathbed conversion. It's about time we stopped fantasizing about these things; leftism, after all, is more a statement of faith than conviction, and faith will endure almost any torment or misgiving.

I feel moved to write about Hobsbawm's passing as a mentor of sorts - not that I subscribe to any facet of his ideologies or consider anything he wrote as definitive, but the truth is that Hobsbawm's work played an important, if conditional, part in taking me to where I am today.

Back at the dawn of the '90s I found myself in a unique and - in retrospect - valuable set of circumstances. I was single and living in a large but incredibly cheap loft apartment on the downtown west side, and thanks to what I realize now was the last brief boom time of journalism and magazine publishing in Canada, I was able to earn a comfortable living while enjoying outrageous amounts of free time. It was also at that point that I realized that my education - five years at a reputable but shabby Catholic boys' school, followed by three incomplete years of an arts BA - had been, to put it mildly, lacking, and that now would be a good time to catch up on some reading.

I decided that my lifelong interest in history was sorely lacking any real foundation in facts or context, and that I was at a loss whenever it strayed into the minefields of politics or economy. I began plowing much of my disposable income into books - the internet was still a few years off, remember - and ended up purchasing Hobsbawm's trilogy of books on "the Long 19th Century."

I read them, and his companion book on the 20th century just ending, with real interest, but found it hard to ignore the feeling that the author's viewpoint was substantially skewed, and that many of his observations didn't really harmonize with my understanding of the same events. In the interest of "equal time," I began reading Hobsbawm alongside books by Paul Johnson, the conservative historian who I like to imagine as his polar counterpart, fated to author books destined to end up on the same sale tables as Hobsbawm's an ocean away from where the two men lived  and worked, if only to provide me with the context I craved.

What rankled me about Hobsbawm was a persistent bloodlessness in his tone, which worked in service to - I would only understand this later - his tacitly Marxist view of the inevitability of history. When people (well, atheists, mostly) hit me with that slyest of questions - "You're a smart person. Think of everything the Catholic Church has done in its history - the Inquisition, Galileo, the witch burnings, the abuse of children; how can you be okay with that?" - I'm reminded of Hobsbawm, repeatedly saying that he was fine with the 20 million (minimum) who died in the hope that the realization of global Communism could be realized, and whose lives were essentially wasted because there's no way that it could, or should.

Never mind the myths and cliches people are willing to spout when trying to damn the Catholic Church. I'm still willing to answer that I'm happy, as a Catholic, to own the errors and mistakes of the Church's history. They happened - albeit not quite the way that most people imagine - as did so much of the rest of the horror and folly we find in history. The fact is that most of it didn't happen in my lifetime, and that which did (clerical abuse) is something that Catholics do protest constantly, to the point where I trust my fellow parishioners more than the bureaucracy of my archdiocese, and I find it hard to fault people whose faith has been shaken by the revelations of abuse and cover-up.

That said, the Church is a greater thing than the people in it, and God's grace a greater ideal than a pervert's betrayal of trust or the selfish ass-covering of a clerical bureaucrat. The ideology of Communism  - dialectic materialsim - explicitly rejects transcendence, so the greater good imagined by someone like Hobsbawm is ultimately destined to be a human achievement. And humans are assholes. That God not only failed, but was built to fail.

But it has to be remembered that much of that tainted history happened (if it happened the way it's imagined) long before I was born; the famines and purges and pogroms of the Soviet era all happened in Hobsbawm's lifetime, and he never found it in himself to protest them, or even tear up his party card.

"He is determined to show that he was not a dupe, but went into it all with eyes open, while he is no less concerned to argue that he did not want to become one of those 'God That Failed' ex-Communists," Christopher Hitchens wrote of Hobsbawm in a New York Times review of his rather blandly titled book Interesting Times. "Is this idealism or cynicism?"

I found most of the ideological leftists I knew to be cynics, from the college classmate who espoused the revolution of the working class but could be found in summer floating in the pool at his girlfriend's house in Rosedale, to the Chilean Marxist who sponged constantly off his wife's parents while fucking around on her at every opportunity. Reading Hobsbawm made it easy for me to imagine how they could do it with a smile on their face.