the archives: 2000.
Yes, it's that time of year again, and I just can't seem to shut up about it.
So, in the spirit of saving the world from the mindless pap that is spewed across television screens (and let's face it, what else is there, really, to do, once the pressies have been opened and the wrapping paper used to start a conflagration in the spare bedroom? But I digress) throughout the festive season, we offer you a selection of watchable christmas crud.
This'll be short.
In no particular order...
A classic among classics. Simple, funny, smart, great soundtrack, you remember it from childhood, you relate to the tree.
How the Grinch stole Christmas (the real one)
Boris Karloff! Chuck Jones! Dr. Seuss! Need we say more? Of course not.
The ever brilliant Billy Wilder's black comedy about infidelity, ambition, and love. Anyone who has ever slogged through corporate hell, or spent the holidays all alone, or been betrayed by a rat bastard with a cheating heart, will love the story of C.C. Baxter (Jack "everyman" Lemmon), the schmoe who tries to get ahead by letting the high-ups at work use his apartment to carry on extra-marital trysts, while sweetly dreaming about Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine before she got all weird), elevator operater. Gossip, intrigue, and the kind of alcohol-sodden office party that is now pretty much verboten. Ah, the holidays.
Okay, it's not a Christmas film, so sue me. It's about angels, and much more poignant and penetrating than any other film you could name. It practically defines the adjective "haunting" as it is applied to film. The story of an angel who gives up immortality for a taste of humanity, filmed in cold war Berlin.
That should be enough to keep the awkward sentences from overwhelming your family over the holidays. Cheers and pass the eggnog.
updated 21 december 2000. permalink
I learned recently that one of the main reasons penicillin is no longer effective against many diseases is that Sir Sanford Fleming was an obnoxious prick in real life*. Rumour has it that the Diabetes Foundation is seeking a court injunction to prevent biographers from delving into the private lives of Banting and Best, for fears that, if one of them cheated on his wife or something, it could render insulin useless as a treatment.
"But that's crazy!" I hear you cry. "What possible effect could someone's private life have on the value of his work?"
Tell that to the amateur art critics.
Everyday, it seems, we are subjected to another memoir, another unabridged diary, another expose. Another witless fool exclaiming that they can't watch Woody Allen's films, ever since he shacked up with Soon-Yi. I don't expect everyone to like Woody (or Picasso, or Salinger, or...), but shouldn't people at least have a valid reason for disliking his work? Apparently not.
Why is it that the arts are held to such a high standard, compared with the rest of the world? Why are we so eager to dismiss artists and writers as base creatures who ought to be beneath our comtempt?
Is it that they have tried to understand the complexities of life - flown too close to the sun, as it were - rather than just getting up every morning and trudging through the snow towards their mid-life crises like the rest of the world's population seems content to do? Is it simple jealousy? Is it the tall-poppy syndrome? What?
Or is it simply that the vast majority of the planet just doesn't get it: a man does not equal his work, period. You don't have to be a genius to be a sweetheart, and you certainly don't have to be a sweetheart to be a genius.
Sciences are hard-edged and inherently objective. The square of the hypoteneuse equals the sums of the squares of the other two sides, you can test the equation as much as you want and it'll still work. Art is the opposite, laden with symbolism (which is often culutrally specific), hidden levels that you might not 'get' if you are one of the uninitiated (atheists like me, for example, miss Biblical references all of the time). This leads to a sense that the arts are elitist (nevermind that there are libraries all over the country where you can borrow books for free. The intellectual establishment is way easier to infiltrate than the old-money class system, but that's another rant).
Anyway, what exactly is the purpose of art? Well, setting aside for the moment the fact that that is an inherently unaswerable question, let's say it's this: to explain the unexplainable (just like science and religion), to find answers to all of those abstract questions: what is the meaning of life? What is the ultimate answer to the ultimate question? And what is the question, anyway?
So we read Franny and Zooey or watch Annie Hall and try to glean as best we can the unknowable answers. 'Cause these guys are supposed to have them, right? And if they have all of the answers, then that should include the secret of happiness, right? So if they aren't happy, then they've failed, right? So if they can't, for instance, make a marriage work, how do you expect the rest of us to manage? We're practically doomed to a string of meaningless affairs, being mere mortals and all. Kind of like when Jim Fixx died of a heart attack, every couch potato saw it as an excuse to be lazy.
'Cause hey, it's easier to sink to the lowest common denominator, isn't it?
Anyway, shouldn't it be obvious that the unknowable answers are, well, unknowable? And that the quest for the answers is as important as the answers themselves (cf every book ever written that uses rivers as a metaphor for this)? And that if someone actually had the answers, he wouldn't need to go on a quest to find them? Therefore, in a weird sort of way, the people we look to for answers are even less likely to have 'em than the average Joe?
Just a thought.
updated 14 december 2000. permalink
What is with the ridiculous proliferation of bells and whistles in every aspect of life?
Call me crazy, I'm guessing there is a direct link between the rising cost of movie tickets and the excess of extraneous noise (visual as well as audible) to be found in the typical cinema.
We now have bigger chairs with more padding! All manner of nasty-smelling crunchy food available at what used to be known as the candy bar! Sound systems that can cause internal bleeding! The longest escalator in the world, and more special effects - just in the lobby - than you would have thought possible!
How can a mere film compete with all of that? Guess with all of that going on, they figured we wouldn't notice how little effort is put into writing a script that makes sense. Funny how the best films seem to be the ones that are made cheaply. Unglossy.
Too bad ego always gets in the way.
Gloss often stands in the way of the product. Take for example Roseanne. When that show started, it was funny. It was hailed as a true-to-life portrayal of a working class family. A while ago I found myself watching one of the later, hideously awful episodes. They had committed the heinous crime of cobbling together funny scenes from the past instead of writing a new script. The really eye-opening part was watching Roseanne through the ages: as the real-life Roseanne gained money and power, the tv Roseanne went from being a pasty-faced blob with bad hair and clothing, to a seeming tanning-salon junkie with countoured cheeks, shiny tresses, and designer duds. All while working the same crummy diner job. Whatever.
I thought of that recently when I saw The Big Kahuna, Kevin Spacey's labour of love. Good script, good acting, the only thing that really stood in the way of it being a great film was the over-smarmy production values. Every scene infused with a golden glow more appropriate to a soap opera love scene then the story of failing middle-aged industrial lubricant salesmen. During Spacey's big scene towards the end, he flips out, it's big emotion time, and all I could think was: "What a great shirt. A seriously great looking shirt." The guy I watched it with thought the same thing, so I know it's not just me. We freeze-framed the credits to catch Mr Spacey's wardrobe sponsor: Armani. Well.
What is it that these people don't get? "I'm playing a working class schmoe, but I refuse to appear on screen looking anything less than gorgeous, okay?" Yep, there's realism in action.
Who can concentrate on the story with all of these pretty props to look at?
Methinks the studios who moan about the impending death of cinema (et cetera) due to new technology are missing the point. The only frill I need from a cinema is a big screen (which most multiplexes don't have anymore, anyway). The actors' wardrobe doesn't matter. The availability of nachos doesn't matter. The upholstery on the chairs doesn't matter.
Last night, I went to Massey Hall, notorious for it's awful seating (in the upper balcony, it's folding wooden chairs). I'm going back tonight. Why? There are shows I want to see. It's all about content. Massey Hall hasn't had problems selling tickets for a hundred years, without the benefit of mod cons. Surely that, if nothing else, should prove the value of steak over sizzle. If I want to sit in a comfy chair, I'll stay home, thanks. There's no point in cinemas trying to compete on that level. They will lose. Their ace in the hole should be giving us something interesting to look at while we're there.
Production values? Who needs 'em?
updated 7 december 2000. permalink
Ah, the Oscar race is upon us again.
I spotted my first "for your consideration" ad a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times, and today's Globe and Mail bears the image of the golden statuette with the great derriere.
The problem with awards like the Oscars is they inspire mediocrity. Don't offend the academy. Give them something feel-good, preferably with an oft-nominated-but-never-rewarded-really-old-actor-who-may-die-at-any-moment in a major (but still just supporting) role. The really interesting films don't rate a mention.
Take last year, which saw an above-average crop of filmfluff
And The Matrix got four awards. Yikes.
At least Hilary Swank got noticed for her incredible performance in Boys Don't Cry, but that was the only "difficult" film that got anything.
"What about American Beauty?" I hear you say. Don't get me wrong, I thought it was a great film, but thought-provoking? No. Stays in your brain for days on end after seeing it? No. Middle-aged suburban man suffers mid-life crisis. Fine. Well written, well acted, well directed, but there's no way it could be said to be better than Magnolia, end of story.
It all comes down to the voters. Who are they? Why were they chosen? Basically, anyone who has ever been nominated for an award gets to vote. Until the day they die. Ergo, the Academy is full of people who are old and tired, who aren't up to the challenge of watching a thought-provoking film (and people who live in houses formerly owned by Academy members, like my friend Andrew, who now has a very thorough video collection). Wanna bet the reason Magnolia didn't do better was that it hit a little close to home for a lot of people? I guess if I was an older person coming to terms with - or trying to avoid coming to terms with - my mortality, I wouldn't necessarily want to watch people involved in that very struggle. It's an intense film, touching on many of our most basic fears, from the fear of living an incomplete life, fear of dying alone, fear of closeness, fear of wetting your pants as a child.
So what of this year's crop of films? To tell you the truth, I haven't felt compelled to see a lot of them. Croupier was brilliant, but too quiet and disturbing to rate an Oscar nod. And I liked Waydowntown, but it's too lightweight (at least if one subscribes to the Oscar definition). Worse, it's Canadian.
It's funny to think that this is how far we have travelled from the ancient Greek ideal that catharsis brought about by theatre could be so overwhelming as to cure disease. We don't want to cure anything anymore, though, just treat the symptoms. We want a movie that will paint us with a superficial happiness for three hours afterwards, not one that will make us think and reevaluate our lives.
Much easier to watch some lame hollywood tripe, in which good is good and evil is evil and everyone gets their just deserts. Oh, maybe throw in the odd film like American Beauty, which is a bit more complex than average, but nonetheless much safer than Magnolia.
After all, we wouldn't want people to questions their own needs and motivations too deeply around the biggest shopping season of the year, would we?
updated 30 november 2000. permalink
Why are you sitting, all alone, staring at your computer, when you could be interacting with the world? Huh?
Last week, I was at the opening of the Digitised Bodies show at Inter-Access (which was, by the way, really amazing, and you should go there now). "Digitised Bodies" seemed a bit of a misnomer to me - the digitised part, not the bodies part - since there wasn't really that much digital media stuff going on. There was one piece, though, that consisted of inter-related epigrams, essays, and interviews with a variety of artists (some of whose works adorned the walls, floors, et cetera) on our notion of the body; it was all done up in lovely flash programming, and was very intriguing - fascinating, even.
But so, so isolating.
How long did I spend sitting there, staring at the screen? Dunno. But when my charming escort tapped me on the shoulder I nearly had a heart attack. I might as well have been alone in a little closet.
Art used to be a communal experience. Standing in a gallery amongst other people, maybe slightly jostled for space, we observe the effect a piece has on others, and this affects us in turn. Practically the entire population of an ancient greek city would gather to witness theatre. Audience members feed off one another's reactions. Performers feed off the energy of the audience. Shared tensions, excitement and release become magnified in a group setting.
You don't get all of that when you are alone - or feel alone. This is the difference between going to see a movie, and renting the video. The encroachment of monitors into public galleries diminishes the sense of being part of a shared experience.
It is also disorienting and disturbing to allow yourself to feel you are alone in your own little world, only to have someone brush up against you.
Maybe that is the (unintended?) consequence of such installations: the realisation that you are not alone. The realisation that technology may seem isolating, but the walls it builds are made of glass.
Hell, maybe it's just a sneaky trick to lull the audience into a false sense of security. Maybe the artist was hoping the viewer would be unusually candid and comfortable in a cozy little corner, and do things that aren't normally done in public.
Didn't happen. ;)
updated 21 november 2000. permalink
The worst stereotypes are the self-fulfilling-prophesy kind. The kind that come true because of the barriers they create. Smart women are plain. Pretty women are dumb. And women will scratch one another's eyes out if left unattended.
The first myth has been around so long, there are too many examples to mention, and many women have capitulated to try to earn some respect. Sexy Bebe Neuwirth had to tie back her hair and button up to the neck to play a psychiatrist. Sinead O'Connor first shaved her head to distract record execs away from her looks so they might listen to her music (I guess that would make her the anti-Britney).
Men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses.
Countless women have played dumb over the centuries as that was what was expected of them. We're all paying double for it now. Russell Smith's column on writer Candace Bushnell's latest book critiques the unfair criticism it received, but misses the underlying reason for much of it: she is an attractive woman, and as such, not allowed to be smart. Ergo the book is dumb.
Britney Spears says everyone wants to be sexy (true, but you don't have to dress like a sperm-burping gutter-slut to be sexy) and there's nothing wrong with using that to sell records. But every woman who uses sex to buy herself some attention diminishes her achievements. Will Britney be remembered for her ballads or her belly button?
When Ian Brown (in Smith's own newspaper, the Globe and Mail) "asked Bushnell how many men she had slept with and if she used a vibrator," it's hard not to assume he's hoping for an invitation. Or at least maybe she'll let him watch? It has nothing to do with the book. It has nothing to do with writing.
Women who use sex to sell their products normalise this. If you are using sex to sell your product, we'll judge your product based on your sexuality. And all you pop-culture babes are interchangeable, right? So if it's good enough for Britney, it's good enough for the rest of you.
It's obvious that you're pretty (nudge nudge wink wink), and we've already decided that if you're pretty, you must be dumb. Ergo, you can't have earned your success due to talent. Ergo you must have slept your way to the top. Right? So it's okay to judge you based on your sex life. In fact, it's a reviewer's duty.
We've grown up in a world in which women (along with minorites) have suffered systemic discrimiation in the workplace (yes, I know, it's getting better, but the scars haven't healed yet). It's not surprising that some women think, "If wearing a low-cut blouse will get me the job, why not do it now and prove myself later?" Do women claw each other's eyes out out of sexual jealousy? Or is it because we remember the seventies, golden age of tokenism, in which instead of competing on a level playing field with men, we were told we could compete with other women for the one-out-of-ten spots available to us? I know that last year, when Roxane Ward's Fits Like a Rubber Dress came out, I (as a twenty-nine-year-old writer) thought, "Oh no, the woman-turning-thirty-in-Toronto-novel has been written now, and there's only room for one." do men ever think like this? None that I know of. So I'm guessing that a lot of the women reviewers Smith quotes in his column were thinking, on some unconscious cellular level, "There is only enough oxygen on this elevator to support x-number of charming lady-writers. If she gets on, we're toast."
Am I wrong? I hope so. But it does seem that a lot of criticism aimed at Bushnell's book seems to be of the personal variety. She's not likable, she's not nice. She's been around. She's not as smart as I am, and would you look at that dress?
What is this, anyway? High school?
Can I be a grown-up now?
updated 14 november 2000. permalink
Ah, the internet, where all opinions like to think they are equal.
In the New York Times Arts & Leisure section last Sunday, there was an ad for "Get Carter" (the new, sucky version). It featured the usual glowing quotes from suspiciously obscure sources - Midwestern small-town radio stations and the like - as well as a quote from "A.M. Benneter, www.themestream.com."
Themestream.com is basically a vanity-press magazine. Anyone can post anything there, within reason. The vast majority of themestream.com's content seems to comprise "uplifting personal essays" provided by would-be "freelance writers." All of whom seem to have thesauruses, although not all have quite mastered the concept yet (hang that Roget for putting antonyms on the same page as synonyms!).
This leads to two (inter-related) trains of thought:
Aside from the plethora of bulletin boards offering home-grown recipes for tuna shakes and protein bread made out of crushed pork rinds, many mainstream, respected shopping sites allow members of the public to offer recommendations. Does anybody edit these things? Are they generated at random by some soulless bot? On Amazon.com, for example, if you look up Don Bajema's "Reach," you are told that people who bought this book also bought the Hollywood Collection Bette Davis 'Trophy Aquamarine' Ring Size 9.
I cannot pretend to follow the leap of logic here. Maybe one person did buy both of these, but is that enough to draw a correlation between the two?
The second point raises some interesting speculative fodder as well.
Obviously, the brightlight who found the themestream.com quote for "Get Carter" is assuming that the majority of New York Times readers have not heard of or visited the actual site.
Also, the film is clearly so awful that, in order to get favourable copy, they had to resort to a google search of the 'net, and then use whatever they found. One wonders. Will they soon be resorting to searching usenet newsgroups as well?
And will this effect web content in other ways? Small-time reviewers routinely fall into one of two categories:
Will we now be subjected to endless mindless "I laughed I cried" reviews of everything in existence? One shudders at the thought. The situation is bad enough already, with endless personal homepages featuring "about me" pages which include everything from the solipsistic subject's vital statstics to favourite chocolate bar (one hilarious example I stumbled across is from a professed "minimalist" who has about eighty-five pieces of metal sticking out of her head).
Thank goodness there are still people like me around, who only provide insightful, objective commentary.
updated 17 october 2000. permalink
Thought I'd start the revamped review off with a rant, and this has been churning around in my brain for a while...
And actually, yeah, a lot of them do. The woman writer who is not obsessed with her sex is depressingly rare.
I actually thought of a bunch of female writers who don't write about Being A Woman, but they all write so-called "genre fiction." But perhaps they are writing about Being A Woman, but disguising it as something else, thus getting their point across in a subliminal way?
let us take, for instance, S.E. Hinton.* Ms. Hinton's novels were largely about a group/gang of underprivileged/poor kids in their struggles to overcome societal norms and oppression by the "socs," snotty rich kids who wear madras shirts. Harmless fiction for teens, or subversive analogy? Hmmm. Perhaps it is just a coincidence. Perhaps.
Or perhaps we could take as our example Dame Ngaio Marsh, writer of murder mysteries. In each of her books, someone is killed. Killed horribly, in fact. Many women write (and read) murder mysteries. Are these violent fantasies an expression of her suppressed rage at society? One wonders. One ponders.
But yeah, we do write more about our sex than men do. Why?
Not to mention that we are reminded of our Womanhood every time we step out of the house and some wiseguy yells "hey nice (insert appropriate body part here)!" ;)
so far the list of female authors who are not obsessed with Being A Woman and do not write "genre fiction" consists of:
And of course there are inevitably women who have simply escaped my memory at the moment. Whom have I missed? let me know.
* Not actually true. I'm just making this up to prove a point. Please don't sue me.
* I have not actually read her books since I was a kid. I may be remembering everything wrong.
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