Tuesday, December 18, 2012

New Column: Rich

I have a new column up on the Interim website - a review of the documentary The Queen of Versailles, which is one of those time capsule artifacts that we might want to use to commemorate the last four or five years of fiscal incontinence. Here's a quote:
The moral writ large over The Queen of Versailles is that the Siegels aren't terribly different from Westgate Resort’s customers – regular people who went in over their heads in pursuit of a conspicuous luxury that they could ill afford. David keeps complaining that the banks got businessmen like him addicted to “cheap money,” as if they were victims, addicts deprived of willpower and discretion. 
It’s also a story of shamelessness, and that might be the larger moral Greenfield’s film could give to its audience. Despite the less-than-flattering picture the picture paints of her, Jackie has been an enthusiastic supporter of the picture, showing up at premieres even as her husband sues the filmmaker for defamation. The Siegels, to be sure, are guilty of a lot of social misdemeanors, but pretension and self-consciousness certainly aren't among them.
 As I've confessed before, there hasn't been a lot that's tempted me into movie theatres lately, but the documentary genre remains stronger than ever. It's also the one least likely to be a major player in the economics of movie exhibition these days, which is another reason never to leave the house.

Buy it at amazon.com

Monday, December 17, 2012


Everybody has an opinion; that's why they might be the least valuable thing in the world. (Their lack of value - relative or concrete - might be the strongest argument against "hate speech" laws.) It's not surprising then that, in the wake of a horrible crime that took the lives of innocent children, everybody has something to say. Unfortunately, the first people we go to for their valueless opinion are celebrities.

Jamie Foxx has a role in Quentin Tarantino's imminent Django Unchained, which is supposed to be one of the director's most violent films. Foxx recently told the Associated Press that he thinks there's a definite connection between cinematic bloodshed and the real thing:
"We cannot turn our back and say that violence in films or anything that we do doesn't have a sort of influence," Foxx said in an interview on Saturday. "It does."
While I appreciate Foxx's concern about the violent murder of children by a lunatic, I wonder if he might like to back up his very public show of moral concern by making a call to his agent and insisting that he not be shown any more scripts with scenes of violence. Because if he sees any "sort of influence" that connects witnessing violence in entertainment with acting violently in real life, he can't in good conscience take roles that perpetuate it any longer. Because the children.

If he wishes to make his point more firmly, he can begin negotiations with the involved principals to block the further re-release or exhibition of Collateral, Miami Vice, Jarhead, Stealth, The Kingdom, Law Abiding Citizen and Ali, and insist that White House Down and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 be either shelved or taken out of production.

Because if he isn't this serious about the damage that he obviously believes onscreen violence is wreaking on society, he's just a concern troll who doesn't need a comments section.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


The worst thing about a senseless, bloody tragedy crime that probably couldn't have been avoided (unless we siphoned away a whole lot more liberty from our society) is that we're so eager to look outraged that we proudly ignore what might be a saner response in the pursuit of conspicuous virtue.

Which is why a lot of people will probably pretend to be offended by my friend Kathy saying the one original thing I've heard so far:
My not really joking solution to school shootings is to ban schools.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


The people who give out the Grammys have just announced, barely a day after the man died, that they're going to give Ravi Shankar a lifetime achievement award.

You know what I think about posthumous lifetime achievement awards?

These guys.

"You remember the Best Hard Rock Grammy we gave Linkin Park? The Song of the Year award for the theme from Alladin? "Runaway Train" the Best Rock Song the same year In Utero was released? Zooropa for Best Alternative Album? Debby Boone as New Artist of the Year? Jethro Tull beating AC/DC and Metallica for Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Performance? "Bette Davis Eyes" for both Record of the Year and Song of the Year? The Grammy we gave to "Patches?" The one we gave to "I Am Woman?" The Starland Vocal Band?"

"Honestly, I don't know what we were thinking. I guess you just had to be there. Didn't this Shankar guy play with the Beatles? Was he the one with the pan flute? I love that guy."


This blog is new, so I'm not sure I can be so presumptuous as to address my "American readers," as I'm not exactly sure if I have any regular readers yet. Similarly, the subject of this post is responsible for much of the traffic to this site, so it's pretty certain that what follows will be familiar to the vast majority of my "readers," American or not.

Sentimental? Yes. Corny? No. Don't you dare call this corny.

Brazening past all that, my American readers might not be aware that the concept of free speech as they know it isn't as common or widespread as they'd presume, growing up in a country that has (at least up until now - more than a bit of diligence is required in these matters) enshrined the principle of freedom of expression explicitly in the founding documents of their country. It's not so simple here in Canada, where we inherited the more circumspect concept of free speech from the British and laid on it further conditions in a poorly-written document pushed by a leader more concerned with his reputation in posterity than with any enlightened, mature concept of liberty or civil polity.

The result is that speaking your mind - or even hosting a forum to let other people speak theirs - is a potentially actionable pursuit here in Canada, and increasingly liable to legal harassment, financial disaster and court-mandated prohibition of your freedom of speech, thought and association. Americans have, so far, been able to defend themselves from this assault on their liberties simply by saying that it's unconstitutional (though there are forces constantly working on attacking the First Amendment - as someone who envies your country's up front defense of liberty, can I warn you to be vigilant?) The rest of the world, sadly, is even further behind the U.S., perhaps even Canada.

So what's happening is that my friend Arnie, who runs a very good blog called Blazing Cat Fur, is being sued by an onerous individual who's learned to use Canada's pitiful statutes on speech to try and silence his fellow citizens. Arnie is, truly, one of the good guys, and deserves all the support he can get in a legal battle that, regardless of the outcome, is meant to punish him economically and warn other people not to even think about saying what they think in any sort of public forum. This is a skirmish in a battle that, if lost, will make Canada a country very much less free than any of its citizens could imagine.

So I'm asking you to go here, read the details, and consider donating something to help Arnie out and maybe even contribute to a legal precedent that will make the steady diminishment of liberty and free speech slow and - perhaps one day - even retreat in this country. We have a lot of battles to fight right now, but losing this one could make winning any of the others almost impossible.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Dear Detroit: This is why you can't have nice things.

(h/t: End Of Your Arm)


Look, we can probably sit around and make fun of Doug Saunders all day, but the fact remains that he's a respected journalist at the country's most venerable newspaper who not only wrote something patently ridiculous, but he made a whole book out of it and continues wandering our media byways defending the whole damn bucket of stupid.

That said, my friend (and editor) Paul Tuns of The Interim pretty much summed up why Saunders has gotten it so wrong, pretty much from the moment he drew breath to speak:
Doug Saunders, author of The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?, writes about why he wrote the book in this week's edition of The Hill Times: "Culture is something that's a product of economic and educational circumstances. It's not a cause. It's an effect ... In many ways, this book is sort of a corrective of that misunderstanding." I think there are three arguments to be made about the interconnection of culture, economics, education, and much more (technology, laws, religion, etc...) and Saunders has accepted as true the one that is almost certainly wrong. The other possibilities are that culture is cause for what happens in economics and education or that these factors continuously play upon each other. I think the constant playing upon each other is the right description.
That's pretty much the whole of Paul's post on the subject, and it needs to be repeated and circulated, to give folks who might be fooled some sort of idea of the resonant, earth-shattering foolishness that underlies Saunders' book.

And no - no Amazon link to the book. You know where to find the thing - I just don't want to make it any easier for you.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


My friend Nick at Ghost Of A Flea posted this today. I'm not sure whether he put it up out of a strange nostalgia for his British roots or to illustrate something about culture - and especially children's culture - in the '70s that no one who didn't live through the era will understand. I'll just have to assume both.

First of all, I watch a lot of British television, new and old, and I never cease to be impressed by the evocative grimness of it all. I grew up with that pastoral image of England you get from Beatrix Potter and Sherlock Holmes, all country homes, sweeping Georgian streetscapes and rural hedgerows, fusty vicars and filling but unspectacular food, which had everything to do with Mrs. Miniver, probably, and nothing to do with my actual family's experience of working class life in Victorian Birkenhead and Lanarkshire. If I'd tried to describe my crumpets and Mrs. Tiggywinkle image of England to my grandfather, he probably would have shook his head and chuckled, before giving me a loving but sound clout about my ears to try and dislodge the stupid.

If only took a few years of Monty Python and On The Buses and Connections to replace it with a different image, of small dingy flats full of nasty furniture where families lived in each others' laps, in tightly-packed streets full of fusty little cars (more Cortina than MGB), where the TV and movies beamed exactly the same dreary picture back at you, and the cramped little kitchen had a rancid odour of boil-in-the-bag peas and omnipresent tea.

If granddad didn't have the wit to get out, it's probably the life I'd have lived. I might be hyperbolizing, but look at the clip above and tell me how you think an American remake might have reimagined that little nuclear family unit stewing in their technologically-induced enervation. If you're thinking a spacious suburban ranch house on sweeping crescents under a beaming sun, you were there too, weren't you? I didn't grow up in the Brady Bunch house, but even in a working class suburb laid out between the wars, the idea that middle class folks would live in such cramped surroundings always made the famous British phlegm seem like another way of describing a fetish for competitive dreariness. Also, phlegm - eww.

The stuff of nightmares.
More striking is the fact that this was a science fiction show aimed at children. To be sure, there's a testiness to British kids' shows that's impossible to ignore - I imagine that the Japanese translation for Thomas The Tank Engine is Island Of Mutant Machines In Bad Mood - but even in the long doldrums of the mid-period Cold War, this Luddite fantasy makes you wonder what sort of agenda the people behind it had in mind, besides creating a future audience for Peter Watkins' The War Game.

The series was based on a trilogy of novels by Peter Dickinson published under Penguin's respected Puffin imprint, which put it in the hands of young readers who, if I am following the logic closely, would have their comprehension of the world they would shortly enter as adults immeasurably enhanced by understanding it to be filled with sinister technology that tormented adults and children alike. "Of course, the children are the future," you imagine people saying, "which is why it's important that we make them literally paralyzed with fear at the sight of a Magimix."

It wasn't without its long-term effects, and a glowing fan page for The Changes online is part of bilderberg.org, an anti-globalization website rife with the usual sort of simmering paranoia that licenses grumbling losers to justify their inability to thrive as just another example of "how the whole fuckin' system is rigged, man. Let me tell you about the connection between Bohemian Grove and the IMF..." It's worth remembering things like The Changes, obscure as they might be now, as an example of how culture creates the conditions for the future, and resonates far beyond the scant days, weeks, or months when it's considered current.

I don't know if Peter Dickinson or the producers of the BBC TV series had any kind of agenda in mind beyond that magpie culture worker's attraction to trends and bright shards of the zeitgeist. I do know that Dickinson began writing his trilogy in 1968, when the counterculture's Aquarian dreams of agrarian utopias were at their most fashionable, and the TV series was filmed in 1973 and aired in 1975, by which point everyone knew what a commune was and even the healthiest inner cities looked dingy and worn-out, even if they weren't in Detroit-like terminal decline.

Adults like to scare themselves with doomsday scenarios, if only to imagine how they might overcome or avert them, but we pass them down to our children as fables. Children like to be scared, so they're always a ready market for our stories. I'm still not sure what kind of fables we're telling kids today, but down in the trenches of parenthood it seems to have something to do with superheroes and supernatural eruptions into teen sex lives. I don't know what effect that will have on our kids, but I do know that a diet of dystopia back in the '70s made my generation prone to despair and often supine in the face of threats to our livelihoods and lifestyles.

We love the technology that's transformed the dreary and dogeared world of our childhoods into a sci-fi novel, but we hold it anxiously and constantly fret about what we'd do if it all stopped working. Which is why Wired magazine devotes a page to doomsday prepping for every twenty it spends celebrating the latest phone or the potential of 3D printers. It's a strange fact of culture that the one we live in was in some part, large or small, created by people who couldn't have imagined what it would be like.

UPDATE: Nick links back, with some further thoughts that I find striking:
"Marx was a technological determinist. What most Marxists - and even the most far out of today's self-styled libertarians - have failed to notice is that socialism happened more or less on time and as predicted; it's just that it happened under FDR in the United States and not, first, in London as anticipated."

Friday, December 7, 2012


I probably watched this every year from the moment it became a staple of TV programming around the beginning of December - those "movie events" that the networks would advertise as if it were a really big deal that a movie, a real movie made for a lot of money with stars that showed in theatres and everything, was actually going to be on your TV! On Saturday night! Brought to you by Ford!

Sure it's a bit plodding, and the battleships look like miniatures, and it's lit like every interior scene happens in rooms that they just happen to test klieg lights in, just behind the camera. It was made barely thirty years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but everyone involved - many of whom probably fought in the war - thought it a fine idea to ask the Japanese to get involved, and even direct the scenes showing their part of the attack themselves, in a way that gives them actual dignity and human culpability. Next to the Marshall Plan, it might just have been one of the most magnanimous gestures a victor has shown the defeated.

Along with Patton and The World At War, Tora! Tora! Tora! taught me nearly everything I knew about the war my father and his brothers fought in, at least until I was allowed into the adult half of the library. We knew how it was going to end, but we still watched it with the hope that, maybe, someone would pick up the phone or get the telegram in time or figure out what that big signature on the radar screen was, but every time it ended with So Yamamura as Admiral Yamamoto intoning his grave fear that maybe they'd bit off more than they could chew, while the camera dissolved to the Pacific Fleet in flames (in miniature.)

I know I'm not the only person who's complained that popular culture - and movies in particular - have gotten much worse in the course of my lifetime, but when you're asked to give an example, it's almost as if there are too many. It's like somebody is asking you why you're making such a big deal about some giant radioactive lizard destroying your city, as they stand with their back to the crushed tower blocks and jets of fire and sparking high tension wires and Godzilla roaring away, rolling their eyes at your hysterical overreaction.

If I needed an example, though, it's worth pointing out that, just thirty years after they released Tora! Tora! Tora!, Hollywood made this:

Instead of Kimmel and Stimson and Genda and Halsey and Nomura, we got an insipid love triangle, historical figures played by a collection of prosthetics, and hypertrophied special effects that made you miss the toy boats in the big swimming pool. It's not like the actual war wasn't dramatic enough - the people behind this hideousness needed to make shit up, with that witless, Gump-like strategy of imagining that the same two fighter pilots who got their planes into the air and fought back on December 7th made sure they were flying Doolittle's bombers for some payback.

Thirty years after Pearl Harbor, men and women who lived through the actual war were confident enough in their ultimately victorious cause to show their side at the lowest ebb of defeat, prostrate after a humiliating surprise attack. Thirty years after that, people who'd only lived through Tora! Tora! Tora! thought it would play much better if they added another act and an extra hour to imagine what was really only a preemptive gesture as both historically apt and dramatically satisfying. It's no wonder that, having been subject to another ambush, in the opening years of a war that will probably be fought for generations, so many people have either decided to either pretend it's not happening or preemptively prepare to surrender.

There's a part of me that wonders, as I try to figure out why the movies - and the culture - have gotten so much worse, whether it's just the people who make the culture who are to blame. Maybe, just maybe, it's also the people who watch them.

Buy it on amazon.com

Buy it on amazon.com.
On second thought, don't - it only encourages them.
UPDATE: Welcome PJTV readers - thanks, Ed!