Friday, July 30, 2010

Log No 204: Odyssey theatre does it again, proving its peerless quality in our cultural life

In its twenty-fourth year in Strathcona Park in Ottawa, Laurie Steven’s Odyssey theatre has produced another rollicking, funny show, although of a somewhat different kind than usual, in a play called They All Do It, Janet Irwin’s loose adaptation of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti.

This remarkable troupe has made a specialty of modifying the traditions of Italian commedia dell’arte by incorporating other traditions, such as Chinese, Italian or German opera, French and British farce and many others.

Invariably Ms. Steven has discovered some sparkling new actors who have made her productions veritably sing, and this has happened again this year with the remarkable comic performances of at least three newcomers to Odyssey productions. Ben Clost, in the leading role of Antonio, proprietor of an Ottawa restaurant, and the man whose machinations motivate the plot, shows himself to have a wonderful sense of comic timing to such a point that the play is always vibrantly alive when he is on the stage. He adopts a comic Italian accent, and gets additional comic resonance from the mask he wears, made by Karen Rudd, one of only two used in this production. The other is worn by Kelly Rigole, playing the role of Despina, a woman who aids Antonio in the plot they have foisted on the four young principals, in another superb performance.

The director who has put this production on stage so expertly is Paul Griffin, a teacher at Canterbury High School, where he has directed 26 plays with student actors, as well as being active in various outside theatre troupes.

It would be churlish to question why two masks are used, since masks are traditional on Odyssey productions, although in this play particularly there seems no need of them, especially on the two characters who wear them. One would think the masks might be used to help enhance the credibility of the farcical plot at moments when the two young women principals are forced to pretend that they cannot recognize their fiancés when they pop up pretending to be visiting film-makers, while their fiancés are away at war.

If these young men had worn the masks in their assumed roles, it would have added more credibility to the plot: but, what the hell, this could probably be dismissed as an unreasonable quibble. It’s not that the two masked actors, Clost and Kelly Rigole, don’t get comic mileage out of the masks. They do, and I suppose I will be told that I shouldn’t make such rational judgments about such a farcical plot. Okay, I surrender the point.

The third brilliant young newcomer among the cast is Emma Hunter, a young woman who has been playing around Ontario theatres for some time --- with a concentration on Shakespeare. Her exaggerated comic delivery and subtle body language enhanced the script in many places: it is safe to say she has a brilliant future in Canadian theatre.

Not that those named above are alone in the quality of their work. The whole cast is excellent, including he two young men, played by Andy Cockburn and Matt O’Connor, as is the second young woman, played by Charlotte Gowdy.

That Janet Irwin spent 30 years in Canadian theatre, has worked for at least 12 companies,, including several in Ottawa, and has performed as director, dramaturge, playwright and librettist should mean that she is well-known to anyone like myself who tries to keep some sort of touch with popular culture. I have to confess however that I have never heard of her before, which forces me back on to a theme of mine about the somewhat restricted place of theatre in Canadian popular culture. When I arrived back in Canada after spending the 1960s attending and writing about British theatre, one of the first things that struck me was that, whereas in Britain the work of almost any successful playwright becomes part of the political, social and cultural discourse of the country, here in Canada, theatre seemed to exist in some sort of vacuum. There are many playwrights, successful, whose work is played regularly, and yet outside of the relatively narrow focus of the theatrical world, they remain relatively unknown to the Canadian public.

Of course, if I had paid more attention, I would have known about Janet Irwin. That such a playwright in Britain would be better known is a function of the density of population, the density of print and media coverage of popular culture, as much perhaps as of the quality of the British theatre, which is among the finest in the world.

I have to repeat what I say every year: in Odyssey, Ottawa has a theatre troupe of the highest quality that has become an irreplaceable element in our cultural life.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Log No 203: Flem Mucus, noted Ottawa composer of popular music, lives on after 30 years

My son Ben, who is now pushing 50, has been in the business of popular music all his life. Whenever he comes to town, as he did recently, he meets some of the boys he began playing with in the 1970s, many now rather paunchy, bearded, or slightly careworn middle-aged men, and he is happily transported back into the days when they were young.

Most of them have given up music as a means of making a living --- it is just too hard --- and have become warehousemen, teachers, insurance salesmen or whatever, although their interest in music, and their memories of the heady days when they hoped they could build their lives around it, remain strong within them.

In those days I had a minor role as what might be called a supporting player, putting out from time to time for the gas for the bus --- or even sometimes for the bus itself --- and turning up whenever the son played. Thus for a few years my wife and I in our role of supportive parents became kind of fixtures around most of the bars and clubs that provided live music, many of which have now disappeared, or been renamed.

Many of Ben’s colleagues in these struggling young bands were very talented musicians, and occasionally, even to this day, one can run into them, still playing their hearts out, in the local bars. Going along with Ben to Irene’s, on Bank street a week or so ago, with his brother Thom, now writing movies in Montreal, and his friend Olivia from Los Angeles, an extraordinarily talented graphic and visual artist, we ran into a couple of Ben’s old musical buddies, Ken Kanwisher and Kurt Walters, and the mention of other of their colleagues from those days immediately precipitated a flood of reminiscence and laughter.

Particularly, a fantasy embarked on years ago by Kurt came to mind. He invented an alter ego whom he called Flem Mucus, a specialist in the composition of salacious, hilarious ditties that are scarcely fit to be repeated in polite company. Kurt may have been their composer, but in Ben he had probably their number one fan, and when Kurt started to talk some of the rhymes with their simple tunes, Ben was, without a moment’s hesitation, able to join him and go through the tunes, word perfect. What is more --- and this proves that Flem Mucus still lives --- he took out his recently-acquired lPhone and with a flick of a button brought up an immaculate song-list of Flem Mucus’s greatest compositions.

“You know,” said Kurt, as the hilarity subsided, “I have put out something like twenty discs over the years, and the only one there is any memory of and demand for, is the disc of Flem Mucus.” He exploded in laughter as Ben kept on chanting the ditties.

I’ve forgotten the names of a few of the bands Ben played in. They began, I think, with one called the Blue Current Preserve, an orthodox swing band, which eventually disintegrated in the course of time. It was followed by a five-piece epic called Traffic Jam, whose main singer was a boy called Brady Bidner, the mention of whom at Irene’s provoked a veritable storm of reminiscence. Then came Saints and Sinners, with an Italian boy called Tony DeTeodoro, now better known around Ottawa as the blues musician Tony D, and with a talented harmonica player who called himself --- and was called by everyone else --- Tortoise Blue. (During this period Tony’s father, Dante was usually there, just as we were). In those days the boys seemed to be playing every week in a cherished bar on Somerset street called the Saucy Noodle, now, alas pulled down to make way for a parking lot or some such.

Saints and Sinners was a popular blues band, but Ben was discontented to be always playing blues, and with our encouragement, he went off to Toronto to join a couple of other Ottawa boys, Jerome Godbout and Joe Toole, in a band called The Phantoms.

This was, I think, the closest Ben ever came to that dream of all rock musicians --- making it big --- because The Phantoms became Toronto’s most popular bar band, always just a touch away from getting the big deal. In fact, they were offered a deal once, the usual sort of slavery deal that is offered to new bands, but they turned it down with contumely, and thereafter having proved to the industry that they had minds of their own --- a grave fault in the popular music business --- they never got another offer. Which, I have always felt was a shame, because Jerome Godbout had the capacity to become a major star.

Ben’s next move was to Austin, Texas, with Gordie Johnson, who was already a rock star within Canada with his leadership of the band called Big Sugar. As Ben had done earlier, Gordie felt he had outgrown the Big Sugar music, and once he and Ben had tasted the delights of the Austin music scene, they decided to form their own band down there under the name of Grady, which came from Gordie’s nickname. They have been hoeing a tough furrow in the American music industry for the last three years, even though yheir band has reached a high level of accomplishment as one of the loudest and most rocking bands in the business.

Their task has become infinitely more difficult with the huge changes that have overcome the popular music business, as the internet has replaced record-buying as the most usual way for people to get their music. But along the way Ben has acquired other skills besides those of an expert bass guitarist. He is a master of front-of-house sound, and is in demand from other bands to do that, and he has also become a well-organized tour manager with a sure touch in the precarious business of organizing and carrying out gigs and getting paid for them.

Anyway, this is where music has taken Ben, and I am sure he has no regrets. But it always amazes me to discover how lively in his imagination are the steps that have led him to where he now is. A few months ago I accompanied him to a reunion of the Rotter’s Club, which had a brief existence on Bank street as the first punk rock club in Canada where aspiring musicians could stand up and strut their stuff.

The Action was one of the first punk bands and was led by Ted Axe and the three Fenton Brothers. Ted Axe turned up for the reunion, and performed impressively with the Fenton Brothers, still on the job after all these years.
That night was a veritable orgy of reminiscence as people I had never heard of before came up and renewed acquaintance with Ben to talk about the old days.

It may be a tough way to make a living, but it is one that seems to hold out the possibility of glory so long as it is pursued.

In summary, I would say of it, as I have said about journalism, making films, and other cultural activities, it is better than working in a factory. Or even, one might say, better than working.

Log 202: For the real information, look to the Internet, not the mainstream media

The drama around the publication of 75,000 U.S. military documents by the Web site known as Wikileaks has left me with one impression, above all. It has to do with the relative reliability of the mainstream media and the Internet.

After all, the supporters of the mainstream media as the only reliable source of information have long denigrated the Internet because their stories are not fact-checked, not edited, as they are before getting into a newspaper or on the CNN, BBC or the CBC.

Not reliable? In comparison to what, has always been my question. The mainstream media itself is unreliable: what’s the difference?

During the run-up to the Iraqi and Afghanistan invasions, the mainstream media has been nothing but a cheerleader in the government’s corner. It has been established that the government told lies to encourage the nation to accept war. The mainstream media has, by and large, swallowed those lies and continued to propagate them, even after they had been revealed to be lies. Reliable? In a pig’s eye.

So, in such a situation, surely it behooves everyone to welcome the publication of as many official documents as possible. Especially those marked “Secret.” Governments will keep anything secret to cover their own asses.

But I notice from the press in the last few days that they are still denigrating the Internet disclosures as showing that they do not respect the law and are reckless with people’s lives. Not so: apparently Wikileaks withheld 15,000 documents because the information in them might have put individuals in danger.

That the Wikileaks documents are authentic is attested to by the fact they have not been denied by government, and by the equally interesting fact that such media giants as the New York Times, The Guardian in Britain, and Der Spiegel in Germany have checked the information against the work of their own reporters, and have devoted huge areas of space (six whole pages in one issue of the New York Times) to stories based on the links.

This is startling indeed: Why did the mainstream newspapers have to rely on amateur sleuths to uncover information that is essential to creating a public informed about what is being done in their name? The whole thing, in my view --- which I am sure is not shared by many --- is a huge black eye for the sycophantic mainstream media, with all its sacred shibboleths about freedom of expression, respect for privacy, respect for the law, and concern about the safety of officials.

Robert Parry, on writes that the Wikileaks documents “illustrate in mosaic detail why, after the United States has spent almost $300 billion on the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban are stronger than at any time since 2001…. (They) sketch a war hamstrung by an Afghan government, police force and army of questionable loyalty and competence, and by a Pakistani military that appears at best uncooperative and at worst to work from the shadows as an unspoken ally of the very insurgent forces the American-led coalition is trying to defeat.”

Julian Assange, the former teenage hacker who founded and runs Wikileaks, said this week he hoped his website would be dangerous to "people who want to conduct wars in an abusive way."

"This material doesn't just reveal occasional abuse by the U.S. military," he told CNN. "Of course it has U.S. military reporting on all sort of abuses by the Taliban. ... So it does describe the abuses by both sides in this war, and that's how people can understand what's really going on and if they choose to support it or not."

Log No 201: Two great British actors illuminate crucial elements of the careers of two powerful American Presidents

One of the disadvantages of seeing movies on TV is that one often misses the beginning. That happened to me recently with the superb HBO production of John Frankenheimer’s new film about LBJ (President B. Johnson), Path to War.

This film is graced by an absolutely marvelous acting performance by the great British actor Michael Gambon, who gives us LBJ to the letter --- emotional, bullying, irrational, humane, arrogant, crude, constantly troubled, and almost impossibly vain. The film follows the course of his last term in office, following his demolition of Barry Goldwater in the general election.

It describes how the President despised that tin-pot little country in south-east Asia, that he thought --- and why not?--- the United States should be able to blow out of the water. Unfortunately, that Ho Chi Minh showed no disposition to just disappear.

Told by one of his aides, Robert McNamara that the South Vietnamese were losing the war, LBJ exploded: “I know they’re losing. You don’t need a phi beta kappa to know they’re losing. Any man who knows how to pour piss out of a boot knows they’re losing.” And then he tells them, “Let’s get this thing done!” with perfect confidence that he has the muscle to get rid of Ho Chi Minh, that troublesome insect.

LBJ told his aides, World War Two killed off Roosevelt’s New Deal, but he was determined that was not going to happen to his Great Society program, his program to improve civil rights, health care, welfare and the condition of the poor in these great united states of America. No, sir! There ain’t gonna be any World War Three. It ain’t gonna happen, by God!

Anyway, having been gripped by this film previously, today I was lucky enough to turn it on at the beginning, which is a superb evocation of the triumph of Johnson’s election.

There are gripping scenes of Johnson’s appalled reaction to the scenes of brutality taking place in Alabama as the governor there, George Wallace, worked to prevent black children from entering schools and universities. Johnson whistled up the governor, and once he was settled in his chair he leaned over with his face close against Wallace’s and said, “Don’t shit me, George…” Then he called for a copy of the constitution and said, “Now let me see, somewhere in here it must say that Negroes have the right to vote.” Wallace had come with the intention of asking that the federal power keep out of this area ofstates’ rights, but by the time Johnson had finished with him he said, nervously, that he had had time to re-evaluate, and then he went before the cameras and announced he was accepting federal help to maintain law and order, in which, he said, he had an “eternal belief.”

Johnson went on TV. “There is no Negro problem,” he said. “There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem. There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma Alabama…. This Wednesday I will introduce a law that will eliminate illegal barriers to the most basic American right --- the right to vote.” The federal troops went to Alabama and accompanied the children into the schools.

But inexorably, what Johnson didn’t want to happen overcame him --- the Vietnamese kept fighting. “I want to leave the footprint of America in Vietnam, hospitals, schools, but bomb craters, that’ll be our footprint!”

Seen by many as becoming the creature of McNamara, with his mastery of the Pentagon, his constant escalation of America’s presence in Vietnam, Johnson and his noble programmes were, in fact, stymied by the Vietnam war, and by the time it was all over, he no longer had the stomach for power, and announced he would not run in the next election. That election was lost by Hubert Humphrey, won by Nixon, who promised to stop he war, but, in turn, merely escalated it. (This film also has a silky performance by another foreign actor, Donald Sutherland, the Canadian, as the trusted LBJ adviser Clark Clifford, who is a voice of dissent and of conscience among LBJ’s aides, although he somewhat changes his opinion as the American presence in Vietnam becomes immense.)

Another brilliant acting performance by a great British actor, incidentally, has illuminated the early life of another president in a film called Warm Springs. The actor in this case is Kenneth Branagh, who gives a rivetting performance as Franklin Roosevelt in the early days when he contracted polio and was forced to fight his body if he wanted to continue in politics.

As part of his cure, FDR was directed towards a rundown little spa in Georgia which initially his instinct was to abandon because of its dliapidaed appearance. But he not only persisted, eventually he became the heart and soul of the place, eventually leaving it half a million dollars from his insurance so that the spa continues in operation to this day.

This film is a magnificent evocation of the problem polio posed to FDR, who needed immense courage even to get back on to his feet, let alone to appear before a political convention to put in nomination the name of Al Smith as the Democratic nominee for President in 1928. Assured by supporters he would manage it easily, Roosevelt barked back, "If I fall over I'm finished," and the tension involved in his getting to his feet and making it to the podium is wonderful cinema.

I can heartily recommend these two films, especially to those among us who are political junkies.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Log 200: Watching the Tour de France has revived happy memories of great holidays spent in that great country

All this talk of the Tour de France bicycle race has reminded me that I think I love France more than any country I have ever been in.

That comes about, probably, because my first trip to France was taken in 1952 on a wornout old tandem bicycle with my wife Shirley in an August that was beautifully sunny and hot from beginning to end, to such a point that I finished with the impression that it never rains in France in the summer.

Quite erroneous, of course, as we found some years later when we were camping, with our car, in Brittany, and it rained ferociously almost every day. Such was my confidence in the French weather that I remember one day we decided to decamp from Brittany and make for the Loire valley, where assuredly there would be wonderful sunshine. So we packed up our sopping tent and drove all day with our car full of querulous kids until we arrived at Amboise, where --- wouldn’t you know? --- it was raining as hard as it had been doing all day.

On this first holiday, of course, we had no kids, and were able to please ourselves where we went, and when. We traveled every day for a month, covered some 1300 miles, and had the time of our life. On a normal day we would rise at 6 a.m and take off along one of France’s beautiful country roads until we would hit one of France’s beautiful little villages where they would already be busy baking the day’s bread. We would buy a baguette --- is there anything better in life than a fresh French baguette? --- and a chunk of Brie or Camembert, cycle out into the countryside, and --- probably somewhere within smelling distance of a magnificent pasture of blooming clover --- sit by the roadside and have our breakfast. Does life hold any finer experience than that?

We started and finished in Dieppe, the port of Normandy that had so central a place role during the World War. We took off along country roads deep into the hills of Normandy, plodding uphill on foot with our heavily laden bicycle, and speeding down the other side, hour after hour.

Not far from Dieppe, a set of panier bags that we had had especially made in England split right across the top --- rubbishy English workmanship and material --- but it happened that on that first night we asked if we could stay in the yard of a peasant farmer. Graciously granted permission, as soon as the farmer’s wife saw our dilemma, she appeared with a needle and strong thread to repair our bags, so that we could continue with our journey. This was the first of many acts of kindness bestowed on us by the French country people.

We came from an England that was still under wartime rationing, but as soon as we got into the countryside of France we were astounded by te magnificent food in the many charcuteries and patisseries, even in small villages. We didn’t have much money, but by being careful we were able to eat like kings.

Cycling all day in the hot French sun, wearing only a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, we soon were as brown as berries, and within four or five days we felt as fit as a couple of fiddles. I can still remember the early evening of about our fifth day out, when the countryside began to slope ever so slightly downhill, and we felt like we were flying. That day ended with our asking again of a peasant family if we could pitch our little tent in their yard: of course, they gave us permission, but not only that. The housewife had been baking one of those magnificent apple pies that French peasant families seem to have on hand at almost any time, and we began to get a soupcon of why French cooking was the most famous and highly regarded in the Western world.

We headed south towards and through Bordeaux, and then further south along a very lonely country road through a forest. A newspaper we picked up while taking a drink at a roadside café revealed to us that an English family called the Drummonds had been murdered just the previous day in an area that we mistakenly thought was somewhere close to where we were, inducing a minor nervousness in us for a day or two.

In fact the murders had taken place many miles away to the east, but they have turned out to be one of the most celebrated crimes of the last century that still elicit books ---- more than a dozen books and thousands of articles have been printed --- 60 years later. Sir Jack Drummond was a celebrated British scientist. The man imprisoned for his murder Gaston Dominici, was a 75-year-old peasant farmer, whose lack of motive has given rise to recent speculation that Drummond could have been a spy, killed for political, Cold War motives.

We reached a beautiful town called Mont de Marsan in the early evening, too late to prepare our own food, so decided to have our first meal ever in a French restaurant. We chose a posh-looking hotel, The Richelieu --- which still, according to Google, is an extremely handsome, well preserved building --- and although we looked like a couple of tramps after our six or seven days on the tandem in the sun, we were welcomed at the door by the restaurant staff almost as if we were royalty, another example of the politesse and suavity of the French. We had a superb meal, which perhaps irrevocably biased us in favour of French food for the rest of our lives.

A few days later, in the Pyreneean village of Bagneres-de-Bigorre our mended English panier bag finally gave up the ghost and we had to put some of our limited money into buying a set of French bags. It was worth whatever we paid for them, because they lasted us for many years, far longer than did the old tandem. In this way we learned about the superiority of French bicycle equipment.

By the time we had emerged from the lower Pyrenees and were heading towards the Mediterranean we had settled into a pattern of rising at 5 or 6 a.m., cycling all morning, and resetting our tent in a new location by 1 o’clock, giving us the rest of the day to investigate whatever town or village we ended up in.

Our bias in favour of the French and their attitude towards food was reinforced when our bicycle got a puncture at Beziers, a small city in a wine-growing area, just short of the Mediterranean. While waiting for the puncture to be mended we wandered into a small café at about 3.30 in the afternoon --- an hour when, in England, every restaurant would have been closed --- and asked if they could give us something to eat. A man and woman who were having their own meal at a table in the back got up, said, “Well, maybe we could find something for you,” and emerged a few minutes later bearing a vast flagon of steaming hot and utterly delicious soup. Ah, the French and their food! That night we slept on top of a cliff overlooking the Med, at Cap d’Agde. And he next day we passed through the fishing village of Sete, pausing to watch the fishermen sitting on the wharf as they mended their nets.

Not only did we make it to the Pyrennes and Med, but also to Paris on our way back to Dieppe, and in Paris we cycled around the Arc de Triomphe and the Place de la Concorde on our old bike, and also went to a number of shows that were cheap enough, and totally delightful.

All this was enough to blow the minds of a couple of kids fresh out of New Zealand, but the whole experience was topped when we arrived at Dieppe with some time to fill before the ferry left, and on one of many wharfside restaurants we had our first experience of Moule Marinieres, a dish that I have since tried in many countries, although none that I have ever tasted could compare with that Dieppe version.

Years later, in the 1960s, when I was in England again for represent a Montreal newspaper, I always took off a month of every summer so that I could take my small family camping in France. We camped in almost every region of the country, and I have never had any reason to change my initial belief that France is one of the world’s greatest countries, among the most beautiful on Earth, and the French are certainly among the greatest peoples who exist anywhere.

Link of the day UN report on Maoris

Link of the day, July 25 2010: James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous people, on a trip to New Zealand has noted “the extreme disadvantage in the social and economic conditions of Maori people…. dramatically manifested in the continued and persistent high levels of incarceration of Maori individuals,” but he added that the settlement process based on the Treaty of Waitangi is “one of the most important examples in the world of an effort to address historical and ongoing grievances of indigenous peoples.”.

Log No 199: Tour finale: Spaniard wins the race; Englishman wins in the Champs Elyseés; Italian takes the sprinters’ title

Nothing in sport matches the arcane nature of the final stage of the Tour de France, the one in which they race 20 times around the Champs Elyseés in Paris.

It is hard for a layman to follow what is going on. First, the guy wearing the yellow jersey (top man) seems to be assured of it, wherever he finishes. So Alberto Contador, the man in question, dodged along in the middle of the group known as the pelaton, comprised of most of the 170 riders who finished the Tour.

Secondly, the stage itself was won by an Englishman, Mark Cavendish, who, although obviously he is a long-distance cyclist, somehow or other seems always to have saved enough to overcome every other cyclist with his sheer finishing speed. Cavendish this year won no few than five of the 20 stages, and in his three Tours he has won a total of 15 stages. Yet this year he finished in only 154th place, close to being among the slowest of all the riders! How’s that? Somehow or other he keeps going through the mountains, and manages to triumph on the flat.

Thirdly, even though he won so many stages, Cavendish did not qualify as winner of the Green Jersey, that is, he was not the fastest sprinter overall. That was won by Alessandro Petacchi, of Italy, who obviously must have done better times than Cavendish in the mountains. Does all this make any sense?

Lance Armstrong, who won seven Tours, came in 23rd this year, 39 minutes behind the leader. Presumably, this will be his last effort.

The Canadian Ryder Hesjedal finished in seventh place, overall, an outstanding ride, although not, as I said in an earlier post, the greatest result ever by a Canadian cyclist. I had forgotten about Steve Bauer, who finished fourth in an earlier year. I had an interest also in the New Zealand rider Julien Dean, who finished second on the last huge climb, and came in third on the final stage, an excellent result.

Anyway, Contador has now won the Tour de France three times, and at 28 he is young enough that he will no doubt be trying to win more.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Link of the day: “OBAMA A SOCIALIST? I WISH!” Matthew Rothschild, in The Progressive, in an excellent article gives 21 solid actions Obama could have

Link of the day: “OBAMA A SOCIALIST? I WISH!” Matthew Rothschild, in The Progressive, in an excellent article gives 21 solid actions Obama could have taken if he had been a socialist, as right-wingers claim. Like me, he only wishes the President had done these things.

Link of the day: Canada could learn a lot from NZ in treatment of indigenous

Coleen Simard, in an article in the weekend Winnipeg Free Press, says Canada could learn a lot from New Zealand in treatment of indigenous people. Her article confirms what I wrote when returning from New Zealand at the beginning of June.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Log 198: Praising a friend: Barry Padolsky’s renovation of Museum of Nature a spectacular triumph

Today I am in the embarrassing position of having to praise to the skies the work of a close friend of mine, Barry Padolsky, the well-known heritage architect.

Usually, as friends do, I am mocking him, calling him sardonically “Mr. Market” or “Front-page Padolsky”, even though I know he has done almost more for the city of Ottawa than any other single person.

Barry is always ready with good advice when some big issue of city planning or development is suggested. And he has had a hand in many excellent works. For instance, I know he has been a valuable advisor to the men who have spearheaded the transformation of St Brigid’s from a disused Roman Catholic church to a centre for the arts. He has designed important clusters of affordable housing, whether for the economically disadvantaged, or the aged. He has overseen such works as the revamping and renovation of the iron fence around the premises of Rideau Hall, and has written reports on the best way to handle the transformation of disused convents, and many other such sensitive projects.

Although no architect I know would ever claim to be solely responsible for his work --- architecture, the creation of new buildings or renovation of old ones, is always a team effort --- I am pretty sure myself that the revamping of the Market building from its long-term white elephant status to its present status as a highly-successful centre of food shops, restaurants and other enterprises, is primarily the work of Barry Padolsky’s imagination.

But what I want to praise him for today is something else. For eight years he has headed the team responsible for the total renovation of the Museum of Nature on McLeod street, which opened a month or two ago. I was away in New Zealand when the opening ceremony took place to the accompaniment, I know, of a great deal of excitement and recognition of his central role. But I did not visit the work itself until this week, when I had an opportunity to show the renovated museum to a young visitor from Los Angeles.

Like me, this young woman, a skilled artist herself, was totally amazed by the quality of the renovation. Its centrepiece is the glass structure Barry has designed and erected on top of the front of the museum overhanging the entrance. It is an interesting visual effect from the outside, but inside its effect is overpowering. For one thing, it is immense, far bigger than it looks from outside, and when one has climbed to the top along the beautiful new staircase built within the structure, one is overawed by the spectacle offered. In addition, the glass of the structure --- the making and delivery of which by some of the world’s leading glass manufacturers Barry oversaw from beginning to end --- appears to catch every kaleidoscopic change in the colours offered by the sky and the outside environment.

But this is only the most mind-blowing feature of the renovation. What was a grey and slightly-depressing interior has been transformed into a sparkling white and pastel cornucopia of lights in exhibition rooms that are simply superb. One must say that the Museum itself has matched with its exhibits the splendour of the surroundings offered by the architects. The dinosaur exhibition is --- I have to content myself with clichés --- simply brilliant. And the only other exhibition I had time to examine, the Bird room, is alive with thousands of marvelously exhibited and hung specimens of the wonderful birds of Canada.

It was obvious to me that everywhere the Museum has provided things for children to do that seem to be not only fun but of educational value as well.

I have just one thing to add about my friend: when I first came to Ottawa in 1977 the city was in the throes of revamping the street patterns around the proposed new Rideau centre. A public meeting was held to discuss this. The official proposal was to transform Rideau street itself into, in effect, a bus station. Barry Padolsky --- who at that time I had known casually for some seven years or so --- was the main spokesperson for those who thought this was a disastrous proposal that would kill Rideau street. Each person was permitted five minutes to make their case, but Barry was not even halfway through his recitation of the solid reasons to oppose this development when a man who had been Mayor of Ottawa, Lorry Greenberg, came out of the crowd, and physically pushed him aside, saying, “Your five minutes is up!”

It was an act of shocking rudeness, but also an ignorant act directed against a respectable dissenting argument. The payoff came many years later when the City Council decided to bring the bus-shelter concept of Rideau street to an end. And the very man who was pushed aside when he warned it would be a disaster --- Barry Padolsky --- was given the contract to try to restore the street to its previous quality. Poetic justice, I suppose, but the whole episode did a lot of unnecessary damage to the cityscape of Ottawa.

Whoever was responsible, Barry’s conscience could be clear. As usual in matters of city development, his judgment had been impeccable. And his imagination, if it had been respected, could have served the city admirably, just as it has done on so many other issues.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Log 197: APOCALYPSE: it seems like the battle to save the globe’s environment is over

Ever since 1970, and probably before, a huge movement has emerged around the globe whose determination has been to save the environment of the Earth from being utterly destroyed by industrial development, to save our water, air and soils from being irrevocably poisoned, our forests destroyed, our oceans denuded of fish.

Some notable victories have been won in various places, but the destruction wrought by the appetites of mankind, and the greed of private (and some public) entrepreneurs, have led to continuing spectacular disasters, which have been no more than punctuations in the inexorable decline of our soils, air, and water, from the unreasonable demands made upon them.

For some years I have been doubtful about the possible efficacy of this movement: I have always felt one has only to go to Toronto to observe the ceaseless traffic that courses the 401 road across the city, and to realize that this is multiplied across the world thousands of times in other cities, to get the sinking feeling that the battle is probably lost even before it is started.

These gloomy thoughts have been stimulated by an article published this week in The Guardian Weekly, reprinted from The Observer, and taken originally as an extract from a book written by Jonathan Watts, called When a Billion Chinese Jump.

The extract deals with what has happened in Shanghai, which, when I visited it in 1983 in the course of researching a film, struck me as being not only the most heavily populated place on earth, certainly the most crowded place I had ever experienced, but also one in which a strictly disciplined population appeared to have the possibility in hand of eventually overcoming the problems posed by their overcrowding and their poverty.

The Chinese were trying to reduce the rate of their population increase, the most essential step; most of their cities, as they developed, were based on the bicycle, rather than the automobile; this allowed the cities to be planned in a reasonable way, without the industrial parks and far-off residential areas that in our cities demand the use of the automobile, just to get to work; in addition, the Chinese appeared to be on the way to housing and clothing themselves; and in agriculture, unlike in the Soviet Union, they had discovered how to grow immense quantities of food, and how to get it to market in the cities.

In various parts of the country they were performing miracles of environmental stewardship, many of which I saw with my own eyes. Yet the logic of their immense population told its own story: some places I visited were clogged with smoke and aerial pollution so grave that it was sometimes difficult to breathe the air.

Nevertheless, in many parts of the country I saw for myself, brave attempts were underway to provide work for everybody. No doubt there were vast areas where poverty remained intense, and jobs scarce. But, to judge by the agricultural commune in which we filmed, they had a genuine concern for turning what we would call marginal land into productive, crop-yielding land, using methods derived from their traditions (for example, generating manure from the millions of pigs they raised in the villages).

While I was there, however, Deng Xiaoping, the power in the country at the time, made a declaration that I considered to be very foolish. He said one American worker could produce as much as 10,000 Chinese workers. Of course, in this equation he was ignoring the vast energy input that stood behind the highly mechanized American worker. If he had taken that into account, the equation would have been much closer to equal, I believed.

Unfortunately, Deng imposed his view of production and power on his country, which has since adopted capitalism in a big way, and has not only become the workshop of the world, but has imported all the negative effects of capitalism, holus-bolus.

Thus, according to Mr. Watts, “from Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s and Starbucks to Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Chanel, international brands made (Shanghai) the biggest, richest and most globalized mass of modernity in China, home to the most luxuriant boutiques, the tallest buildings, the nation’s first formula one track, the biggest auto companies, the second-busiest port in the world and a gathering horde of international salesmen trying to sell the American consumer lifestyle.
“Chinese consumers have never had more options. America’s Wal-Mart, France’s Carrefour, Britain’s Tesco, and Japan’s Ito Yokado are expanding in China faster than in any other country.”

Since the first KFC opened in 1987, the company has built 2,000 outlets in 400 cities, employing 200,000 people, and McDonald’s have grown from one restaurant to 800. (As a result of changes in diet, obesity has emerged as a problem among young Chinese for the first time).

Well, okay, we said a few years ago when considering the possibility of this sort of thing: we have been through this, we have adopted an obscene consumer lifestyle, who are we to insist that the Chinese not be allowed to do the same thing? With their vast pool of labour, surely they have the right to provide them with work by whatever means is open to them?

Fair enough: except that those jeremiahs who warned that if China were to adopt American consumer habits, we would need four or five Earths to provide the resources such a lifestyle demands, are now able to look on the present consumer splurge with some satisfaction because what they have always warned might happen is actually happening.

The Earthwatch Institute estimates that to sustain American levels of consumption, the world would have to double production of steel, paper and autos, produce 20 million more barrels of oil a day, and 5 billion more tons of coal would be needed.

Even to provide all Chinese with a Shanghai lifestyle, says Mr. Watts, would require 156 million refrigerators, 213 million televisions, 233 million computers, 166 million microwave ovens, 260 million air-conditioners, and 187 million cars.

Since the earth’s resources of air, water and soil are already groaning under the impact of Western materialism, to add Third World materialism would seem to pose questions that, on the face of it, we would have little prospect of finding the answer to. Five or six more Earths? Just where do we find them?

And where, in this frenzied race to global consumerism, does the environmental movement fit in? If you ask me, since it is a movement of people without resources, opposed to the wealth-owners, the movement has little chance of surviving, or achieving its goals. A snowball’s chance in hell, maybe?

Log 196: Contador and Schleck battle it out up to 6,000 feet in a thrilling Tour de France stage

What a race! One of the most thrilling races I can ever remember watching as Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador climbed to more than 6,000 feet in the Pyrenees, surrounded by thousands of cheering, berserk fans, and finished virtually side by side first and second, Schleck, who had made most of the running, first, Contador who had stuck in behind him for mile after mile, second.

The weather was terrible, they were lost in fog and cloud as they went up and up, and the crowd, composed apparently of many Spaniards cheering on their favorite Contador, kept racing along beside the riders, waving flags in their face which were snatched away at the last minute, and looking as if an accident was in the making, as it seemed inevitable someone would fall in front of the riders.

At one point Contador attacked, went ahead a few yards, but Schleck pulled him back, and they settled into cycling almost side by side to the top of the Col de Tourmalet.

Now there are only three stages left, two of them short time trials of which Contador is expected to prove his mastery.

It is more than worth mentioning that Canada’s Ryder Hesjedal finished fourth in this stage, probably the greatest result ever achieved by a Canadian cyclist in any event.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Log No 195: Why are our political leaders powerless to get rid of Harper?

On July 7, in an article posted on a Web site I kept in anther place, I posted the article reprinted below, asking where are the political leaders who have the courage to act to get rid of Stephen Harper?

I sent copies to a number of political leaders of the three non-Conservative parties, but only one of them, Libby Davies, of the NDP, has even deigned to reply to my question.

As far as the others --- Gerard Kennedy of the Liberals, Jack Layton and Olivia Chow of the NDP, Gilles Duceppe and Meili Faille of the Bloc Quebecois --- are concerned, this question of getting rid of Harper seems to be of complete disinterest.

One of the points I made in my piece was that the anti-Conservative forces have the votes, as given in the election, and the seats in the House of Commons, to beat Harper and throw him out of office. In other words they have a mandate from the Canadian public, earned democratically.

They were intending to do just that until Michael Ignatieff got rid of Stephan Dion as leader of the Liberals, after which he immediately discovered a disinclination to become Prime Minister.

Unfortumately, Ignatieff seems to have placed a hex on our Members of Parliament, who now apparently don’t have a modicum of guts between them.

Nor do they understand how urgent it is to bring this appalling right-wing government crashing to defeat at the first available opportunity, like tomorrow.

Well, what can a mere voter do?

Here is the piece I wrote on July 7:

Where the hell are the political leaders who care enough about the country to get rid of Harper, as they have the means to do?

Aware that I have been writing about marginal subjects recently, I am brought up short against one overwhelming fact of Canadian political life: that we have an urgent need to try, somehow, to remove this Harper government before they have the opportunity to irrevocably change this country into a little-USA.

Although I have always supported the New Democratic Party, recent events make it clear that this party by itself cannot do the job.

What is needed is what Stephan Dion, as leader of the Liberals, agreed with the NDP, and, more marginally, with the Bloc Quebecois: between them, these three parties have the votes, both electoral votes and in members in the House of Commons, to topple the Tories, and they were ready to do it until Michael Ignatieff displaced Dion, and announced his disinclination to become Prime Minister.

What sort of politician, with the Prime Ministership in his hand, says, “No thanks, I would rather not?”

Therefore, it seems that to get rid of this intellectual Hamlet should be one of the first measures taken in our journey to Harper displacement.

It completely baffles me that the progressive-minded thinkers among the Liberal and NDP MPs have accepted so tamely to support Harper, and abandon their winning coalition idea.

The only explanation is that they have been intimidated by the hectoring of the press, which immediately coalesced around Harper when his job was threatened, and so blackened the very idea of coalition as to force Dion out of office.

The Opposition politicians need reminding that the press is not a neutral observer of events: it is owned by wealthy persons or companies, and it serves the interest of the wealthy, who are today nakedly running our societies. And, unless people have forgotten, the Conservative government is at the service of these same wealth-owners.

Harper’s mantra, repeated on one of his recent overseas trips, is that “losers don’t form governments.” He should tell it to the Swedes. As I have remarked many times in these columns, in the 1960s I heard the Swedish Prime Minister, Tage Erlander, congratulate the recently triumphant British Labour Party on its immense majority of four (out of a House of more than 600), and add that he himself had never had a majority in all his many years in office.

If ever there was a lesson to be learned about politics, it was from Mr. Erlander’s reminder. While never having had a majority, his long tenure as Prime Minister had effectively done two things: it had transformed the social situation within Sweden, and it had created a consensus about the route forward, a route that has made Sweden one of the world’s most successful and humane countries.

It is obvious that Canada today has a body of majority opinion that would make a similar result possible, if only our politicians could organize for that opinion --- expressed in a majority of votes at general elections --- to be turned into effective government.

It is a terrible failure of imagination by our political leaders that Harper is even in power today. Where the hell are the leaders who care enough about the country to get rid of this plague on our politics?

Where the hell are the political leaders who care enough about the country to get rid of Harper, as they have the means to do

Aware that I have been writing about marginal subjects recently, I am brought up short against one overwhelming fact Canadian political life: that we have an urgent need to try, somehow, to remove this Harper government before they have the opportunity to irrevocably change this country into a little-USA.

Although I have always supported the New Democratic Party, recent events make it clear that this party by itself cannot do the job.

What is needed is what Stephan Dion, as leader of the Liberals, agreed with the NDP, and, more marginally, with the Bloc Quebecois: between them, these three parties have the votes, both electoral votes and in members in the House of Commons, to topple the Tories, and they were ready to do it until Michael Ignatieff displaced Dion, and announced his disinclination to become Prime Minister.

What sort of politician, with the Prime Ministership in his hand, says, “No thanks, I would rather not?”

Therefore, it seems that to get rid of this intellectual Hamlet should be one of the first measures taken in our journey to Harper displacement.

It completely baffles me that the progressive-minded thinkers among the Liberal and NDP MPs have accepted so tamely supporting Harper, and abandoning their winning coalition idea.

The only explanation is that they have been intimidated by the hectoring of the press, which immediately coalesced around Harper when his job was threatened, and so blackened the very idea of coalition as to force Dion out of office.

They need reminding that the press is not a neutral observer of events: it is owned by wealthy persons or companies, and it serves the interest of the wealthy, who are today nakedly running our societies. And, unless people have forgotten, the Conservative government is at the service of these same wealth-owners

Harper’s mantra, repeated on one of his recent overseas trips, is that “losers don’t form governments.” He should tell it to the Swedes. As I have remarked many times in these columns, in the 1960s I heard the Swedish Prime Minister, Tage Erlander, congratulate the recently triumphant British Labour Party on its immense majority of four (out of a House of more than 600), and add that he himself had never had a majority in all his many years in office.

If ever there was a lesson to be learned about politics, it was from Mr. Erlander’s reminder. While never having had a majority, his long tenure as Prime Minister had effectively done two things: it had transformed the social situation within Sweden, and it had created a consensus about the route forward, a route that has made Sweden one of the world’s most successful and humane countries.

It is obvious that Canada today has a body of majority opinion that would make a similar result possible, if only our politicians could organize for that opinion --- expressed in a majority of votes at general elections --- to be turned into effective government.

It is a terrible failure of imagination by our political leaders that Harper is even in power today. Where the hell are the leaders who care enough about the country to get rid of this plague on our politics?

Log No 194: Tour de France again exerts its remarkable fascination

I have once again become hooked by the Tour de France. This happens every year: once one starts to watch it, the Tour exerts an impossible fascination, as the four flat-voiced American commentators take us through its many mysteries and arcane rules.

Of course, I have always been a sports jock, will watch almost any sport, but I have to confess this is almost the best of all (next to the All Blacks in full flight, as they have been in their two recent defeats of the Springboks). The Tour is undoubtedly the most punishing athletic event anywhere in the world, and if its competitors are taking some illegal substance to get them through it, well, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. I don’t see how they could survive the 21 day course, the 3,642 kilometres they have to cover, the immense climbs into the high mountains, the rattling over cobbles in small towns, without some sort of help.

Some things have really surprised me. As last year, an Englishman called Mark Cavendish has been prominent: in fact, with three stages won this year, he seems to have been the most successful rider on the tour. But today, after 16 stages, and with 172 of the 188 starters still in the race, Cavendish stands --- wait for it! --- in the 154th position.

Of great interest to Canadians has been the sterling performance to this point of Ryder Hesjedal, who stands in 10th place, an immense achievement. I caught up with the Tour this year on the seventh stage, and his results have varied from his highest placing --- third --- to placings as low as 78th and 52nd. More often he rode anywhere between 12th and 23rd, and all that, put together, puts him in tenth place, which makes him one of the stars of the Tour so far.

A few stages ago, the two top riders emerged in Alberto Contador, of Spain, winner last year, and a young man from Luxemburg, Andy Schleck, who are virtually running neck and neck, with only eight seconds separating them at the moment. They are two minutes ahead of the third cyclist, which, when you think about it, is not that much. So I would say they are not certain to finish first and second, but you never can tell.

Schleck was 40 seconds ahead until his chain came off two or three days ago and he lost valuable seconds, an event that Contador —rather mysteriously, I thought --- apologized for yesterday, because he was held to have attacked Schleck --- not a physical attack, but an attack on his position, an effort to get ahead of him, which was interpreted as kicking a man when he was down.

Where the event becomes really arcane is in the struggle between the teams. Many teams of riders are sponsored by various agencies or businesses, and the objective of each team is to ensure that their top rider wins. This seldom happens, of course, but the manoeuvring the teams do is tough for a layman to follow.

We are getting towards the end. Tomorrow they bicycle back over the route they followed yesterday, necessitating another climb thousands of feet up the so-called Col de Tourmalet, This is the last mountain stage --- there is a King of the Mountains, a Frenchman called Anthony Charteau, who stands in 43rd place in the general standings, although he is a hero because of his great mountain performance. and after this there are left with only one further long, flat stage towards Bordeaux on Friday, and then two short time trials (in which Contador is expected to outpace Schleck), with the race ending in Paris on Sunday.

Wow! What a drama!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Log 193: Capt Vancouver, meticulous navigator, was ill-used by his bosses

One of the advantages of moving house, which I did less than a year ago, is that it gives you a new insight into the books you own. In the last year I have been reading a lot of books I had owned for many years, but never read.

The most recent of these is a rather odd biography of Captain George Vancouver, a name that certainly rings in Canadian history, written by a woman called Brenda Guild Gillespie, and published in 1992 by a small Victoria publisher, Horsdal and Schubart.

I say the book is odd because Ms Gillespie has chosen to pretend that its author is Capt Vancouver's brother John, writing in 1828 long after the events it records. Capt George Vancouver was born in 1757, and died in 1798 at the age of 40. Unfortunately Ms. Gillespie has chosen as a central theme of her book a jeremiad against a half-mad British peer of the realm, Lord Camelford, who was a member of the well-connected Pitt family, a nephew of William Pitt, (the youngest British Prime Minister ever), and who was a midshipman in Vancouver's mammoth five-year voyage around the Pacific. A notably unstable personality, this young peer was so delinquent in his duties that Vancouver had him flogged three times, and eventually dismissed him and sent him back to England, where, burning with resentment, he went out of his way to poison the British establishment against the good Captain.

This is taken up in the first pages of the book, and the story dominates almost every subsequent chapter. I have nothing against a good jeremiad, but in this case it does leave one wondering how much is true, and why this author should have chosen to give it such a prominent place in her story. And then, why does the author pretend she is Vancouver's brother, John?

Anyway, I found the account of Vancouver's long journey quite fascinating, leaving Camelford aside. He was given the assignment by the Admiralty to chart the western coastline of North America, and when he arrived there he discovered the Spaniards had already created outposts along the coast, and had themselves done a lot of charting, most of which Vancouver showed was quite inaccurate.

Vancouver was exceptionally young to have been given such responsibility, but he had sailed with Captain Cook, was well grounded in the problems likely to be faced in the Pacific, and had also received a sound grounding in cartography. He needed exceptional tenacity, for another part of his assignment was to go as far north as he could in the hope of taking Cook's investigations into the so-called Northwest Passage a step further. An interesting section of the story is that by the time he proceeded into Alaska his ship was virtually crippled, worn out from the trials of the heavy seas it had encountered, and the various accidents and groundings experienced along the difficult coastlines it was charting, and by this time, too, Vancouver was deathly ill. So intense was Vancouver's admiration for Captain Cook, that when he discovered the great navigator had made a mistake by supposing what is now known as Cook Inlet to be a river, he was covered with embarrassment and shame because he was supposedly undermining his great hero's vast achievements.

Vancouver went further into Cook Inlet than Captain Cook had managed, and was able to discover that it wasn't a river, but an inlet that, remarkably for a place so far north, is free of ice year round. Because of this, Anchorage, Alaska has since been built as an ice-free port at the base of Cook Inlet.

Vancouver, according to this account, always had exceptional concern to maintain good relations with the Polynesians and Indians he encountered, and there is strong evidence he fell in love with a Hawaiian girl who accompanied him for much of his voyage before he left her off --- bearing an infant, according to Ms. Gillespie's unsupported speculation --- to resume life on her home island. He was also supposed to negotiate the surrender to Britain of Nootka island and sound, on Vancouver island, from the Spanish who were already installed as governors. He did make an agreement for the handing over to Britain of the territory, and on a second visit to the territory he carried out this part of the assignment, the groundwork for which he had prepared with a man who became his close friend, Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra.

Vancouver always apparently regarded himself as doing work for the benefit of all nations. And certainly his work achieved on this punishing voyage has stood the test of time. Probably because of the machinations of Camelford, Vancouver was shabbily treated by the Admiralty after his return, a frail and ruined man, and had to spend several years struggling for enough money to allow him to finish compiling the official story of his epic voyage. He was finally, after long delay, paid $700 for his five and a half years of Pacific travel, many of the documents he prepared describing the journey disappeared (Ms. Gillespie blames Camelford for all this), and he was denied various other payments that were due to him, solely because, she writes, of the solidarity of the British upper classes which coalesced around the young nobleman. Camelford apparently committed several murders for which he was acquitted, and was himself, at the age of 29 killed in a duel.

I had never read much about Vancouver before (although I have made a copious study of Captain Cook) and am impressed by what Ms. Gillespie has revealed, in her rather eccentric account, of the man's remarkable qualities.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Log 192: INCEPTION,much hyped, is a piece of scandalous trash

Anyone who has read my entries for the last 14 years will know that I am not sympathetic to what might be called the extra-sensory perception world of ghosts, mediums, minding reading and all that. Many years ago a music hall performer convinced me that mind-reading is always based on sleight of hand tricks that are invisible to the audience.

So I approached the new highly-praised movie Inception with low expectations.It deals with someone who has perfected the art of entering peoples dreams in such a way that the dream is made into reality, which can be exploded by simply waking up, or being awakened by some traumatic, dreamed event, such as a gunshot.

At least, I think that is what the movie was about, because I had one of those rare experiences in which I was not able to grasp the subject of this movie from the first moment on screen. I never had, from the opening shot, the slightest idea of what these people were trying to do, and furthermore, I was given no reason to care, one way or the other. As far as I could tell, there were two basic sequences: people sat, or lay, around in hotel rooms (or elsewhere) having been placed under, as it were, by which I mean they were placed in comas by the administration of some substance, which was enough to set up the outside sequences, both presumably dreamed, and real.

The outside sequences, however, defied explanation, except as a demonstration of the American love of violence. These sequences had people shooting at each other for reasons that I certainly never understood, and racing around in cars that were crashing into each other. Also, landscapes were disintegrating; people were falling into the sea; they were in the Arctic (again for unexplained reasons) where they were fighting over some building, and trudging over the snowy landscape.

I went to the movie with a couple of highly intelligent young people. Throughout, I was nursing this fear that they were getting it, getting something that was beyond my understanding, so I occupied my time by carefully rehearsing how I would give them my opinion. My opinion was that this was the most pointless film I had ever seen in my life, an opinion that I feared might bring down upon me the wrath of god.

I need not have worried: when we got into the street, my son exploded with exactly the same opinion I had myself (a rare enough occurrence), and his companion agreed. They had been as much in the dark as I had been. We laughed over it and excoriated the movie for the next two hours.

Now this movie, according to the internet site Rotten Tomato, which collects this sort of information, was approved by 84 per cent of the critics, which I take to be an indication of the corruption of American thought.

But wait: a small minority of critics shared our opinion. One wrote in New York magazine: "I truly have no idea what so many people are raving about. It’s as if someone went into their heads while they were sleeping and planted the idea that Inception is a visionary masterpiece and—hold on … Whoa! I think I get it. The movie is a metaphor for the power of delusional hype—a metaphor for itself".

Another wrote: "Despite its big budget ... Inception is full of second-rate aesthetics, yet when shoddy aesthetics become the new standard, it’s sufficient to up-end the art of cinema..." And A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times: "But though there is a lot to see in Inception, there is nothing that counts as genuine vision. Mr. Nolan’s (Christopher Nolan, the director) idea of the mind is too literal, too logical, too rule-bound to allow the full measure of madness."

So at least we were not alone. But there is a further dimension to this aberration. The movie cost $160 million to make, and another $100 million has been budgeted for its marketing --- which presumably explains why it has received such a favorable reception. A hundred million dollars will buy a lot of praise in the United States.

That added dimension comes from the social consequences of spending this kind of wealth on this kind of product. It comes, for example, hard on the heels of the tragedy of Haiti, where the lives of ordinary people have been reduced to almost a nullity. A few days before seeing this movie I read the report of Medecins Sans Frontier on their six months of action following the Haiti earthquake, a terrible tale of human and physical devastation, impoverishment, and societal dissolution, caused, essentially, by the lack of resources available to its victims. The $260 million dollars wasted on his epic movie would go a long way to relieve the suffering --- not only in Haiti, but in many other places --- but this sort of accountability, this sort of societal consciousness, appears to be almost totally lacking even in the new, Obama-driven America.

Another thing I had planned to say in my careful reaction was: "There was one thing I feel I can praise in the movie. It is Ellen Page's neck. She has an exceptionally beautiful neck."

Ellen Page is this remarkable little, young Canadian actress, who is cutting a swathe through the movie industry with her genius. In this movie, as one of us remarked, she had a look on her face throughout that seemed to say, "Whoa, there, fellas! What the fuck is happening here?"

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Log 191: July 18 2010: Alejandro Escovedo, Extraordinary Balladeer

Font sizeI went along last week to the so-called Ottawa Blues festival (which is not a blues festival at all) to hear the extraordinary musician from Austin, Texas, Alejandro Escovedo, (with whom, he says, declaring his interest) my son Ben works on the management of his touring itinerary.

To my delight Alejandro sang, Sister Lost Soul, his remarkable tribute to the punk rockers among whom he began his musical career in the 1970s, many of whom are now dead.

Nobody left unbroken
Nobody left unscarred
Nobody here is talking
That's just the way things are

Sister lost soul
Brother lost soul,
I need you...

This indeed is a haunting tune, bearing that melancholic tinge that is the hallmark of Alejandro's greatest songs. But wonderful ballads though he does write, Alejandro is basically a rocker at heart (although getting towards 60 years of age, by which time he should know better. The distinguishing mark of rockers, however --- my son is the same --- is that they never reach the age at which "they know better." Once a rocker, it seems, always a rocker.

Alejandro is a musician known throughout the world, with a huge fan base that qualifies him at one step below a household name. When I mention him to friends, most say they have never heard of him (although that would not be so around Texas, where he is part of the Austin "legends machine").

He has had a fascinating life which has been the subject of most of his best songs. For example, he wrote a song about how his father left Mexico as a boy many years ago: he and his brother were being brought up by their grandmother, who used to make up stories for them about imaginary people, who were always leaving. The grandmother would take the boys down to the train to stand and wave goodbye to these imaginary people as the train pulled out. One day, Al's father said to his brother, "Why don't we leave?" So without telling Granny, they hopped on the train, and as it pulled away they looked out, and there was Granny, who didn't know they were aboard, waving goodbye. It was the last time they ever saw her. Al's song on this is a heartbreaker.

Al's father was a tradesman, and a part-time musician who brought up a large family in Texas. Al was a 17-year-old university student when he decided to make a film about a group of musicians who didn't play any instruments. For the purpose he formed a punk band. He never made the film, but got hooked on the music, having discovered that he could write impressive songs. So he became a punk musician, and lived the life of a punk musician up to the hilt, absorbing himself in all the indulgences of that breed. One of his claims to fame as a punk rocker was that his band opened for the last gig given by the Sex Pistols. And he was present at the Chelsea hotel, New York, when the celebrated event occurred in which Sid Vicious reputedly murdered his girl-friend Nancy Spungen --- an event celebrated in the remarkable movie Sid and Nancy. Al has written a song about that, too, Chelsea Hotel 78, that is on the same album Real Animal as is Sister Lost Soul.

The poets on their barstools
They just love it when it rains
They comb their hair in the mirror
And grow addicted to the pain.

And it makes no sense
And it makes perfect sense....

Well, to make a long story short, a few years ago, having run through several wives and fathered seven children, Al's life-style caught up with him, and he became gravely ill, and close to death. His fans rallied around him, raised $200,000 to pull him through.

That's the kind of guy Alejandro Escovedo is. He has rewarded his fans by abandoning the old life-style, taking life somewhat more seriously, and devoting himself to pouring out a string of albums containing his great songs.

All I need to add, I guess, is that, having pleased the older members of his audience (like me) with a few of his ballads, he proved that he still has what it takes by blasting the roof off our brand-new War Museum, earning a warm-hearted, standing ovation from Ottawa fans.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Log 190: July 17 2010:Change of Web address

I've decided to change the address of my Web site, Boyce'sPaper, that I have been running since 1996,in the hope that maybe a few more people will be able to pick it up.

Until I changed from Magma to
Airset a few years ago, my site was read by some 350 a month, with a spike to about 1,000 just after the 9/ll event. Since I went to Airset, for some technical reason the Google sweeping machine, that sweeps the entire World Wide Web every two or three months, has failed to pick up this Web site, and if anyone were to Google me by name, there would be links to many articles I wrote under the Magma designation that no longer exists, but nothing about my more recent posts.

Of course, the given behind all this is that I am hopelessly ignorant of the technology involved, so I have just gone along writing my stuff when I felt like it, and not really giving a damn if it is read by
only a few people.

I have tried a few times to join what was described to me as "the Blogosphere", but although always promised it was a piece of cake, I always foundered on the simplest technical demands.

Okay, I am having another go now, have succeeded in getting this thing to its functioning (barely) level, and propose to write what everyone called "my Blog" and I always call my Web site from here until I die. I have just today acquired a lifetime supply of Blogs, just like going out and buying a lifetime supply of socks, every time I get a new pair. (Another of my laboured jokes about my age.)

Doug Perry, of Vancouver, who has been reading this stuff for several years, once said I had the world's oldest Blog (since it existed long before the word Blog came into being), and I was the world's oldest blogger. In that, he proved not to be quite accurate: a couple of other guys were found to be active who had a year or two on me, and I suppose by this time, when everyone in the world has his own Blog, there must be many more.

On my Web site I have posted two types of items: one is a commentary on anything that has been happening to me, anything I might have thought about, any film I have seen, or book read; and the second type is links to various progressive articles written in journals that are not normally read by many people, or that are of particular relevance, especially when seen from my left-wing point of view.

So here is another confession for any new readers who may happen along: I am 82, and more radical in my political thinking than I have ever been (or so I believe). I am coming to the end of a longish life spent in the media. I grew up in New Zealand, worked in newspapers also in Australia, India, England, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, from 1945 to 1971, then became a freelance writer of articles and books, and latterly a freelance documentary film-maker. I also wrote commentaries for the CBC for many years in the days when "public interest" broadcasting meant something to that agency. Actually, when I quit newspapers in 1971 I expected to make most of my living from the CBC, but in fact since that time --- nearly 40 years --- I have been employed for only two jobs by them. So much the worse for them, I say.

I grew into political consciousness as a democratic socialist in New Zealand, and have seen nothing since then to persuade me that capitalism as practised in its citadels of power, is a better system for human welfare than socialism. So I am an unrepentant socialist, and I am afraid I always will be. You don't have to read my rubbish if you don't want to. And if you don't like it, you have the silver lining of knowing that I can't last much longer.

I was able to add "filmmaker" to my c.v because of the extraordinary generosity of two people in the National Film Board called Colin Low and Tony Ianzelo, but I thin
k some of the films I worked on over about 30 years are worth watching. They include films on indigenous people in Canada, on Chinese Communism, on various environmental and human rights issues. Some of them are well-known, and some deserve to be more widely known. (And some are better forgotten, I imagine.)

I have written a large number of books, some of which have been published. A few of them are worth reading, I think, although others may not agree with me. As I get on top of this system I will put an item on with my c.v, naming the books and films.

But otherwise, this is simply by way of introduction, and by tomorrow or soon thereafter I will probably be raving away as comes naturally to me.