Thursday, December 20, 2012

Witnessing Christmas in Your Eyes

Merry Christmas, Padawan.

This is Christmas number three for you.

The first time you were three months old, and generally speaking I don't think you even noticed.  Sure there were sparkly lights and about a week straight of lots of extra people and yummy smells around, but you hardly had any context whatsoever and you did a lot of sleeping.  It was a joy to have you around for Christmas, but you weren't really experiencing the joy.

Last year you were definitely interested in the stuff around you.  You liked the tree.  You hated going to see Santa Claus (so much so, that this year I made your Mum take her turn to take you for Santa pictures).  You definitely got into the spirit of opening presents - including a few that weren't yours, of course.  But still, I don't really think you had a sense of Christmas.

All that has changed this year though.  You are still pretty unclear as to what Christmas is, but you sure are enjoying it.  You love wrapping presents.  I don't know if you've quite figured out that there is a consequent opening of them - it seems to me that once kids have that figured out, its all you can do to stop them from either exploding with anticipation or just giving in and opening them prematurely.  (I guess that is next year.)  You adore the tree.  Both of them.  You have your own little one up out of reach on your dresser in your room.  You've also enjoyed helping decorate Grandma Van's tree, and Karen and Mollie's tree.  You do a little bit of redecoration of our tree EVERY day.

You love the Christmas Market at Queen Elizabeth Plaza.  Mostly you like the carousel, but I think even if there were no carousel you'd still want to go in every time we pass it.  You and I have been there an average of twice a weeks since it opened.  I think we had our last trip there today - I don't know where we'll find the time in the next four days.

Yesterday it snowed and we went out into it to go and see the old Woodward's window displays set up around town.  There were a lot of Christmas trees too - you loved that.  The weather was pretty unpleasant, truth be told.  It was not a fun show.  It was a cold, wet snow.  Pretty much rain with an attitude.  It looked pretty in the air, but as soon as it touched the ground it was a yucky slush. Yesterday was the day hot chocolate was made for.  (You love hot chocolate.)  But despite the weather you loved it.  You were totally game and even when we had to double back twice to see displays we'd missed the first time, you didn't care.

You love wrapping presents.  You enjoy putting tape on things.  Never where it will be useful, but what's the need for that?  You also like drawing on tags and cards.  Note I didn't say "signing" - though I'm pretty sure that no one who gets a gift from you will have any doubt who they are receiving the present from.

You love "The Ginch" (sic) and also Rudolf - whose last name it seems is "Withyournosesobright," if one is to ask you.  You haven't asked to watch Shrek all month!

You have figured out that when Christmas comes you are going to get a whole day of "Nana, and Papa, and Grandma Van, and Karen and Mollie, and Tara, and K.C., and Mum, and Pop and December," and you are very excited by it.

You look forward to your Jacquie Lawson advent calendar (and your Lindt advent calendar, for that matter) every night.

Oh Padawan.  You have only scratched the surface.  You haven't even had turkey dinner yet or a New Year's Eve party.  And of course, the real discovery of the true spirit of Christmas, the gift of giving GETTING STUFF!

It wasn't really why we called you December, but you appear to be embracing this season with all you've got.  That's a good thing, 'cause inevitably you are going to be associated with it for your entire life.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

It Has Been a Strange Week to Be a Parent

Anyone old enough to read this already has a rough picture of what happened this week in Conneticut.  So, as with most posts lately this is not for you, this is for December, my daughter.
I was looking forward to writing tonight.  I was planning to write and tell you about how you, December, are reacting to Christmas.  (It's pretty fun to watch.)  Perhaps I will do it later this week.

Your Mum has been sick this week.  Friday we sent you off to daycare so that she could get a full day of rest.  You are at an age where you are an inevitable handful.  Most of the time that is delightful, but you have no off-switch.  What two-year old does?

For my day I headed out the door early for work, looking forward to a day of news filled with reviews I expected to support my expectations of The Hobbit - beautifully designed, but why the hell is this slim book going to be 9 hours or so of cinema?  And for the most part, that is what the reviews have been... but by lunch I had noticed my first warning.  A single Facebook post that read "Turn it off.  Go outside."  It first I interpreted it as a run-of-the-mill, "don't spend too much time in front of the TV" manifesto.  By the time I began eating, scrolling through my feed, it was clear - something terrible had happened somewhere.  The specifics were then still forming, but the basics were clear - a young man had taken a gun into an elementary school and started shooting... children, adults, he didn't seem to care, but mostly it was children.  Young children.
It turned into a dark day pretty quickly.  I actually avoided anymore news.  I just wasn't ready.  I put out some angry words about the NRA, 'cause it was as close as I could allow myself to get, and forged on through my day.

Before I was a parent, I used to get so angry at the oft heard sentiment "unless you are a parent, you just can't understand."  It is a pretty condescending thought.  "WTF?  Are you saying I can't possibly have the depth it takes to reach that level of compassion or empathy?  Well, fuck you."  Well here I am, a parent.  What I am going to say is this; "Before I was a parent, I didn't have that capacity.  It didn't turn on the moment of birth.  It developed over these past two years - and has noticeably kicked in harder in the past nine months or so.  I'm sure it has more developing to do.  But yes, after I became a parent, everything changed."

When I picked you up from daycare on Friday, I gave you the biggest hug I've ever given you.  It wasn't the longest or the squeeziest, but it came from a place I previously did not know.  A place of immense gratitude that you were coming home with me.  That you would be safe in bed that night.  That you were going to have Christmas.  And, if you'll forgive me for being so willfully maudlin, that I can't imagine how I would manage to carry on if anything were to ever happen to you.

(NOTE from a year later - just for context, this post was written in response to the Sandy Hook shootings.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

730 Days Hath December

Hello Padawan,

I just put you down for your last nap of being one.  The next time you lay down for a mid-afternoon snooze, you will be two.
So now its time for me to fail at being profound in a birthday(ish) address.

A year and one week ago your Mum went back to work and my life changed in a way that was nearly as profound as when you were born.  All of a sudden I became your primary care-giver (though only by a small margin).  I stay home with you three days out of most weeks.  Your Mum takes you on weekends, while Mondays and Fridays you go to day care while I do various wage earning things.  Mostly due to your own demands and requirements your Mum still does more hands on care than I do when we are both home, but you will quit breast feeding relatively soon, and that should make a big difference.

Now, while I have been game for this fatherhood thing from the get-go, I willingly admit that there are things I've been more actively looking forward to than others.  I knew that diaper changing was something I was just going to have to grudgingly live with and that was that.  (But you are potty-training now, so while I have yet to see the light at the end of that tunnel, we can no longer look back and see where we came in.)  I don't relish the thought of having to counsel you through the rough parts of interacting with other kids.  (That has begun.  Just last week you had a run in with a young lady in the building who simply doesn't know how to play nice with other kids.  It made me so fucking angry.  (Please don't speak like that until at least high-school, okay?  And even then, choose your moments based on a combination of respect and effect - we'll discuss the intricacies of that in years to come, a series of conversations I actually am very curious about, if not outright looking forward to.)  Boys... yeah - that may be rough on me, but we shall see.  (Hey, remind me when you are old enough, we should watch Castle - the father daughter relationship there is about as good as a man can dream of, we can both probably gain something from it together.)
I've enjoyed so many of the stages you've already gone through, but in many cases the greatest delight was fleeting and quickly left to memory.  I know you are going to spend the rest of your life being reminded of how you said your name for the first time along Riva dei Sette Martiri in Venice, for example.  But you've recently reached a stage that I've been actively looking forward to from the beginning, and it is a stage that is going to gradually morph into another stage I've been looking forward to.  You've begun voicing your own ideas - somewhat mis-shapen ideas, often due to your grasp of the building blocks of language - but delightful because of that.

The other day we were talking about going camping and when I asked you how long you were going camping for, you declared "two minutes and one time."  A week or two back you were asked who your friends were.  The first time, your answer was "Mummy and Daddy and Karen and Mollie," but when asked again (in hopes of a repeat performance) we were in formed that your friends were "Frogs.... and bunnies."  Often on weekends when I come home from work you tell me about some part of your day.  I rarely pick up more than the obliquest of details, but I can usually identify some major aspect of what happened (more often than not, that you went to a "big park.")  From here you will gradually develop the ability to tell me more and in more precise detail, we'll fly through the glory and embarassment of "the mouths of babes" stage, and before too long we will be having conversations and debates on an equal footing.  I look forward to all of this and more.

We've also reached a stage where when we play I can pick you up and roll around with you without my primary job being to protect you (though there is still a lot of that going on).  You are a much more active participant in our rough-housing and it is always one of my favourite part of my days.  It is still growing, but at the same time I see how it will slip-away.  You get bigger every day, and while I have gotten stonger to accomodate that, the tale of the boy who became the strongest man in the world by lifting a baby bull every day of it's life is a myth.  You get bigger and I get older (and though it rankles me to admit it, I am past my physical prime) and as you become more work to play hard with, my stamina will gradually slip away, and bit by bit without even noticing it happening we will lose those playful delights.  But I swear to you that I will always do everything in my ability to play those games we create for as long as you will have me as your playmate.

Tomorrow we start year three, and though today doesn't look very different at this end, I look forward to looking back in a year and seeing how much your world has grown.

Love your Pop.

P.S. I just checked, and as of this afternoon, "Three Minutes of December" is over half a day of continuous viewing!

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Truth & Signal Top Films List 2012

Perhaps you've heard about the Sight and Sound Top Films List?

It keeps on cycling back into my life over this past month. It got an awful lot of attention this year (they actually only compile it every ten years) as for the first time since 1952, Citizen Kane was not the number one film. This year the number one was Vertigo.

Naturally this kind of list gets me thinking about my own experience with film. What are my favourite films? What films have had the biggest impact upon me? What movies have I watched over and over again and felt like the well was endless?

So I decided to make my own list. Mine isn't 100 films. I limited myself to 11. I tried to do 10, but I simply couldn't leave one of the 11 I whittled it down to off the final list. My list is not numerated. There is not a number one. The most important - the "most essential" - films in my life.

Only one of my films is on the Sight and Sound list.

Six of the eight directors who I have declared I will watch (but not necessarily enjoy) anything they do are represented - one of them twice.

Only one silent film. Only one foreign language film. 

I am reasonably certain that there isn't a film on my list that I have seen less than 20 times (which is probably why there isn't a film newer than a decade old the list - indeed only one since the turn of the century.)

These aren't necessarily my favourite films (see next note), they are the films that I have found to be the ones I felt compelled to watch the most (Beast of Bottomless Lake excluded for obvious reasons).

For years I have named five specific films as my favourites of all time. They are on the list, but only because as I considered the films that should be on the list those five kept coming up for all the reasons that the other six films did. So they got there honestly. If I were to name my favourite 10 or 11 films probably three or four of the films on this list would fall off. Perhaps I'll make that list some day, but I think by having a pretty solid top 5, I've kind of already done that.

Lastly, before I move on to my top 11 most essential films.... Citizen Kane v. Vertigo? For me it's Vertigo all the way. Spoiler alert - it doesn't make my list. I think it's a fantastic film. But if I were picking a Hitchcock film it would be Rear Window. I've never managed to get through Citizen Kane in a single sitting without falling asleep. I think that speaks volumes.

So, without any further futzing... The Truth & Signal Top (11) Films of All Time for 2012:

(In chronological order of release.)

The General - 1926
I went through a BIG Buster Keaton phase in my late 20s. While a few people would call Sherlock Jr. their favourite Keaton film, there are virtually none who know what they are talking about who would deny that The General is a masterpiece. I hardly know where to start. It is a whopping adventure, and Keaton is spectacular in his stunt-work. Watch any of the action sequences and they actually challenge action sequences of today for their excitement, largely because most of them are single un-cut takes. It features the most expensive shot in film history (for its day) and it manages to tell it's tale with less than fifty title cards. (Trust me. I've watched a lot of silent film. For a feature, that is amazing.) Keaton's most famous single stunt (and shot) may be in Steamboat Bill Jr. but for prolonged sequences, The General is the show to see. Of all the films on this list it is the one it has been the longest since I've watched it... that will probably be rectified soon.
FUN FACT: The General (which is the one film on my list that is also on the Sight & Sound list) was a box office failure when it came out. Keaton was known for comedies. The General is an adventure. He may have made his best film, but it wasn't what audiences were used to seeing from him. It took decades for people to respond favourably to that disconnect. Those who still haven't still think Sherlock Jr. is the superior film.

The Great Escape - 1963
This is probably the hardest film to defend on this list. Jodie has never made it past the introduction to the camp - which is too bad, because the best is yet to come... however, I don't think that much of the rest would change her mind. Admittedly, it is a film that is populated about 99.6% by men, and it takes a lot of criticism for that. But a lot of that would be a result of the fact that it was men who were on the ground in the 2nd World War. 
FUN FACT: If you listen to the commentary of the collector's edition of the film, there is a point where they address this fact and mention that the producers wanted to shoehorn some women into the movie in the most cynical of ways and that the director, John Sturges, put his foot down. 
Why do I love this film? Because it's clever and fun and tragic. I suspect that a lot of my aesthetic came from that juxtoposition. "Hey this is all jaunty, but a lot of despair can come from it... and that despair might actually be a victory in its own right."
And sure Steve McQueen's motorcycle stunts are lame by modern standards as well as being historically inaccurate, but I've never found them to be any less cool (and, hey - its a movie, not a history lesson).

Jaws - 1975
Jaws was already over two decades old by the time I saw it (oh yeah, I saw it later than all but three movies on this list) because I had been the perfect age to get the message (when it came out) that it was the most terrifying thing a person could see on screen. Yet despite all that build up, it survived. It was my friend Keith's favourite film and I finally gave in in 1997 and watched the damned thing. And it is a masterwork of storytelling. All other aspects aside, whenever I go back and rewatch it, it is the parcelling out of information that stands out to me as being the most fantastic element of the film. Each sub-element of stakes and character is revealed at exactly the right moment until action has to happen - and all of that occurs with the weight of the set up on top of it. Face it, the film doesn't even need the shark until 82 minutes into the film. It is that well crafted. Spielberg was the first director who I ever knew the name of. He is probably the most important director of my life, even if I'm generally less fond of his work these days.

Star Wars - 1977
There is simply no way this film cannot be on my list. It is flawed. The sequels are flawed. (Though Empire Strikes Back is the superior film of the bunch.) But there is no film I have watched more times and there is no film which directed the course of my life so much, nor from such a young age. It is still a lot of fun. Most of what I get out of it now is nostalgic, sure I have mostly contempt for what George Lucas did to the second/first three films, but it had to be on this list.

Alien - 1979
I doubt that this was the first film that ever scared me, but it absolutely is the first one that left an indelible mark. I first saw it at a birthday sleep over when I was about 12 and it scared the bejesus out of me. We ended up watching it again the next morning too. I've never really quit. The first sequel would probably make it's way onto my top 20 list. The 3rd installment has some terrible early CGI, but isn't that bad a film - and importantly was the first feature of the only director to appear twice on this list. And unlike Ridley Scott's other big early masterpiece, Blade Runner, it doesn't feel dated. (Yes, I did just say that.) Scott is one of the six directors on this list whose work I will give a chance to at any turn. His latest, Prometheus - the prequel to Alien - was rough, but ultimately it was gorgeous and it passed the "Did it entertain me?" test, despite its faults. (Which I can't say about the fourth Alien film - which I rarely acknowledge the existence of, so bookmark this page - or the AVP spin off.)

Das Boot - 1981
I first saw Das Boot when it was still called The Boat on these shores and only ran around 2 hours in length. I had snuck out of my bedroom in the wee-hours of a pay-TV free movie weekend to see what was on. I didn't actually know what it was I was watching because I had missed the beginning. (It would be some years before I would discover that I had only missed a few minutes, though I did figure out what it was I was watching that very night.) Nonetheless I was enthralled pretty much right from the start. It was likely the first subtitled film I ever watched through to the end. I saw it once or twice between then and the mid 90s when I really sunk my teeth into the Director's Cut and since then have watched it nearly annually (though parenthood is putting a dent in that average.) I even bought the full 5 hour version. I've only watched it at full length twice, and probably never will again (well maybe once more in many years time) as it doesn't really add much to the superior 3+ hours cut. To this day I still find the tension of certain sequences to be such that I feel like I can't afford to blink. Wolfgang Peterson is another director whose work I will always give a chance to.

Goodfellas - 1991
Much like with Das Boot I started unwittingly watching Goodfellas in the opening few minutes and was instantly hooked. The film is a clinic. It is outrageous that Martin Scorsese took another 15 years (and several worthy contenders) to finally win the Best Picture Oscar. Goodfellas (and to a lesser degree Casino) are the films that put the lie to the rule that voice-over makes for a bad screenplay. That is a pretty good hueristic, but it simply isn't a universal truth. There isn't really anything that hasn't been said about this film that I can add. It's fantastic. The four leads each give some of the most important performances of their careers, the pacing is spot-on, the music could not do a better job of both moving the film forward and placing it in time (after time after time), and the camera work is as close to flawless as any film gets. (Insert ubiquitous reference to Karen's introduction to the Copa here.) And yes, I'll watch any Scorsese film once.

Seven - 1995
Another film that breaks the voice-over rule, albeit only for one line. I'm not sure it needed to, and it's probably the only weak choice in the movie. I first saw Seven (or "Se7en" if you insist on being a wanker) on a last moment whim. I was on my way to see The Shawshank Redemption when the poster for Seven caught my eye. The friend I was with, Todd, suggested we take a chance and see this film we'd never heard of instead. BEST MOVIE GOING CHOICE EVER. (It took me nearly a decade to get around to seeing Shawshank. A great film, but I've only felt the need to watch it once.) When the film was over, Todd and I sat for about two minutes in silence after the credits were over before either one of us spoke. I can count the number of times on one hand that a movie has made me feel like I've never seen anything like it before, and the only film that ever made me feel that way that isn't on this list is The Matrix. The fact that two of those films were directed by David Fincher is pretty much why he is my favourite director of all time.
On a side note, only one other time have I changed my choice of viewing at last moment based on a poster. I ended up seeing Hardware instead of Miller's Crossing. WORST MOVIE GOING CHOICE EVER.

LA Confidential - 1997
For my money, the best crime drama ever told. I can't even recall at which turn in the plot I spontaneously cried out in the theatre "what the fuck is going on?!" The woman beside me whispered "Yeah. Isn't it fantastic?" Damned rights it was. The plot-lines which spin-around each other towards the abyss; the cast that is populated by a host of characters (mostly police officers) who are each in their own way terrible people (and variously bad cops) but all thoroughly compelling; the fact that most audience members were seeing both Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce for the first time and not having the slightest clue they were Aussies; the pitch perfect scenic design and matching camera-work; and a plot which seems so insanely convoluted, yet comes out being perfectly clear and seemingly inevitable....  sigh; it is so frikkin' good. If it hadn't come out the same year as Titanic it would have cleaned up at the Oscars.
I went on to read the book, which is now one of my favourite books of all time, and discovered that the screenplay is even more brilliant than it at first seems. James Elroy - the novel's author - declared the book un-adaptable. It is a miracle he was wrong. The book and film could not be much more different, yet satisfyingly still be the same story. I could not concisely sum up how without giving far too much of either one away.

Fight Club - 1999
David Fincher is of course one of the directors whose work is on this list whose movies I will always see. Fight Club is probably the best example of a film which spoke directly to who I was when I saw it when it came out, and on top of that, it's a ripping great yarn. This was the first time we really got to see Fincher put his technical savvy front and centre... and the fact that the script and his cast manage to not get upstaged by it is why this is such a fantastic film. Again, this is a film which can't be talked about much and really just needs to be experienced. If forced to make a Sophie's choice and pick one of my top five films of all time as my number one, I could make the choice a different way on any different day, but I think the smart money would be on Fight Club.

Memento - 2000
Memento backs its way onto this list, but I don't mean that in any way which lessens the film that it is. When I was considering my criteria - the  "most essential" films" I watched over and over again and felt like the well was endless," Memento fit the bill at least as well as two or three others on this list that popped to mind immediately as contenders without considering the criteria as the determining factor. I have analysed the living shit out of Memento. I watched it in the edited order (of course) and even before I had a DVD copy with the option to watch the events in chronological order I did so - on VHS, which took some doing. Christopher Nolan is the most recent director to work his way onto the list of directors who work I will always see. Memento probably isn't even his best film. But it is the one that worked it's fingers deepest inside of me.

Some clean up:

So, for the record, who are those eight directors whose work I will always see?

Spielberg, Fincher, Scorsese, Peterson, Scott (the Elder), and Nolan - all on this list. As well as, the Coen Brothers (Who I am counting as one as they do not work without one another, and for me have the widest range of hits and misses of directors on this list, erring towards misses, but damned interesting ones.) and Steven Soderberg (Whose work I probably have the worst record of actually seeing - largely due to the manner of release of his lesser known work.)

What came close?

Its a long list, but three films stand out as movies that I really have rewatched at length:
Brazil (Though I suspect that if I was going to add it, I would have by now.)
Primer (Though in the grand scheme of things I watched it a LOT to try to untangle its compellingly fascinating and complex plot, not to re-appreciate the quality of the film itself. It's kind of a false positive. I figure this is the most obscure film on the list.)
Children of Men (I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the main reason it didn't make the list is that it hasn't been out long enough for me to watch it enough times to really earn it a place. Given some more time for consideration, I think there is a real chance that it will either un-seat a film on the list, or earn it's own place on a list of 12. Perhaps I shall do it all again when the Sight and Sound 2022 list is published.)

Of course there are many many films that I LOVE and with different parameters, many of them could have made the list instead of these, but I believe there is a need in this realm of discussion to ask how important these films are in my life and that is different than how beloved they are to me (though there is some overlap).

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Talking Beast

Once again writing to my daughter December in whatever future she gets around to reading this. Hey Padawan. I of course have no idea how far into the future this message is going to intercept you. I don't know if I am still around, or not. For all I know I'll never get around to leaving you another public message like this, or they will keep on coming for another five or even six decades. All I know is that some day you will probably stumble across these or someone will say "hey, you know your Pop left a bunch of messages for you on his blog from before you were born until... whenever." That person might even be me. When you find them you may let me know you found them, you may not - fair enough, as of now I don't know whether I'm going to point them out to you or not or if I do when. They aren't a secret I'm keeping from you - that would defeat the purpose... and what a silly place to put a secret - out on the internet for public consumption. Chances are this won't be the first or the last one you read, so there will be some value in suggesting that before you read any more that you stop and consider whether there is some satisfaction in rationing the remainder out to yourself. Perhaps you already are, you seem like a clever kid. They aren't going anywhere - they lasted this long for you to find. Save them as something special to be consumed, savoured and cherished like the pieces of an expensive chocolate bar... mind you if you are like your mother that will be a poor metaphor. Remember that you can only have the experience of reading them for the first time once - and they are a finite resource in that virgin form. But that's not what I wanted to tell you about. For context, you are a bot more than 20 months old. We returned from your first trip to Europe (Barcelona, Messina, Dubrovnik, Split, Koper, Venice and London in that order.) a little less than a month ago. You walk, run and climb (just today you went all the way up a slide "the wrong way" on your own - I'll post a video soon and hopefully remember to link it to here) you use an adult fork and know how to open doors yourself, you love birds, buses, frogs and Shrek and the Muppet Show. Your favourite foods right now are bananas, apples, blue berries, asparagus and corn. I take care of you three days a week, your Mom for two and the other two you go to daycare. And you are busting through the language barrier right now. It is pretty cool. Eight weeks ago your vocabulary (not including names of people you know) sat around a dozen and a half to two dozen words that you used singly and only a few of them came out with confidence. Shortly before we left for Europe it started opening up - both in number and construction. One day you and I were out walking - literally training for Europe, getting used to the carrying pack - and I had given you part of a banana over my shoulder. After a few blocks suddenly from behind me came your voice "MORE 'NANA!" It was pretty exciting. You had never strung two words together into one concept before. Of course you got more Banana (On a side note, "'Nana" has inexplicably changed into "'Nani" since then.) Soon thereafter it became apparent that your vocabulary was taking off - all of a sudden you were using a new words every day - sometimes two. In Venice one night an exciting thing happened (well, two - if you count you starting - no, DEMANDING - to go up and down stairs all by yourself). It was late and the three of us - you, your Mum and I - were walking home along the water. Mum and I were asking you questions, as parents do, to see what you will answer. "Who is this?" "Mum!" "Who is this?" "Daddy!" "Who are you?" "'Cem-mar." You whispered. We almost missed it. You said your own name for the first time. A few nights later in London you suddenly started saying it non-stop. (I have video of that too, I'll have to link it.) Oddly since then you don't say it so much. You seem to have decided that your name is "You" ...which makes a certain amount of backward sense linguistically. It will pass, and I will mourn the days when we could point at you and say "Who is this?" and you'd earnestly say "You." By now I haven't got a clue how many words you are picking up in a day. You don't often put more than two together at a time, but they are often grammatically correct in a simple subject-predicate sense. You will open your favourite books and say many key words that appear on that page - you aren't reading, but you associate those words with those pictures. You will spend hours parroting single words that you pull out of the sentences we say. You have full mastery of "more", "no", "yes" (though we hear it less), "Mum", "Daddy", "Shrek", "Show" (Short for Muppet Show), "'Nani" and at least a dozen more. Your less available vocabulary continues to grow too and each day you are demonstrably better at expressing yourself than the day before. It is fascinating, shocking, adorable, delightful, and at the same time a little heart-breaking. I know this is only the beginning of "losing my little girl" but at the same time I am so excited to be meeting the new little girl who is taking her place. She is funny and clever and willful and before too long I expect she'll be able to hold her own in stand-up debate with her old man. I look forward to that day, but it doesn't need to tomorrow.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

President's Trophy Redux

Here we go again.
The Canucks are once again the number one team in the NHL.  That is the second year in a row that they have won the President’s Trophy. 
I wasn’t particularly upset last year when they lost the Stanley Cup in the seventh game to Boston.  Disappointed, for certain, but it was hard for me to be truly down.  They had been, not only the best Canucks team ever, but on paper they were one of the best teams ever in the regular season – only letting go of a truly remarkable statistic in the final game of the season (they very nearly had not only the league’s number one position, but also the most goals for, the least against, the best power-play and the best penalty kill – the last of which slipped from their grasp in the final game.)  They were the Western Conference Champions, they were assured a heap of hardware at the NHL awards, they had got the Blackhawks money off their back... what was not to love?  (Well, the asshole “fans” who rioted after game seven, that is what – but that is a separate tale.)  They had taken too many games to get to the final round and simply didn’t have enough gas left in the tank to beat what was quite possibly the goalie on the hottest hot streak ever.  Tim Thomas, Boston’s back-stopper, topped off a season that will be in the conversation any time people discuss the best season a goal tender ever had, with a Stanley Cup raising ceremony on our home ice.
But enough of Boston.  The Canucks were a wickedly good team last year – like the kind of team that could be threatening to dominate for years.  (I said so then, just check my Facebook feed.)  That was what mattered to me, that we were that good.  Losing game seven was simply a lesson – a team learning what it takes to go all the way.  The same lesson well served both the Edmonton dynasty of the 80s and the never ending juggernaut – now well into its second generation of players – known as the Detroit Red Wings (who won 1/3rd of the Stanley Cups between 1997 and 2008! as well as not missing the finals in nearly two decades – indeed this year may be their least contenderish since I was in University, and they are still to be contended with).
And now, they have done it again.  Last night they won their second President’s Trophy in as many years.  With the help of a few last minute stumbles from the Rangers and Blues, for certain, but you don’t get to the point of having the opportunity in your own hands by luck alone.
This is a pretty rare feat.  Less teams have been the top team in the league since the beginning of the expansion era than have won back to back Stanley Cups in the same period.  (President’s Trophy doesn’t go back that far, but you can do the math and project backwards.)
It is also somewhat scarily auspicious.  Every team that has won back to back President’s Trophies has gone on to win the Stanley Cup.  (Edmonton, Calgary and Dallas in their second President’s Trophy winning year; Detroit in both the following years, plus see stats above.) 
Last year when the oft repeated Canuck’s mantra “there’s always next year” began ringing again, it never felt like it was more real, and now it seems true.  The next three months will be long (especially in my neighbourhood, only 3 blocks from Rogers Arena) and the Canucks may fail again.  I won’t cry if we fall short, but the simple fact that the team is this good and it is clearly not a hiccough does make me well-up.  The Canucks have been good for years now, but their current level is truly something to behold. 
I simply don’t buy the “woe is us” attitude of most Vancouver fans.  Yeah, we don’t have a cup (yet), but there are teams that are worse off.  Teams that have gone longer.  Teams whose road has been rockier.  Teams who, even without the past two or even five years of Canuck’s success taken into account, haven’t seen even the Canuck’s level of success.  Specifically I think of the St. Louis Blues – who entered the league two years ahead of Vancouver and have only been to the cup final twice.  But that was during the NHLs expansion equivalent of affirmative action – where the expansion teams competed for one Cup final position, while the Original Six competed for the other.  Or, look at the sorry fate of Buffalo.  The Sabers and Vancouver joined the league together.  The Sabers infamously won the coin toss for top-draft pick and chose the mighty Gilbert Perrault, while Vancouver got Dale Tallon, who while a known Vancouver name, largely due to being our first ever draft pick, was not even close to the career-quality of Hall of Famer, Perrault.  Even with that extra out-of-the-gate advantage, the Sabers have only been to the Cup finals once.  And what a Cup final it was... the right team won (not the Sabers), but for absolutely the wrong reasons.  (You may recall that the NHL changed the rules as to what constitutes a goal for exactly the length of time it took for Brett Hull to put his foot in the crease and sneak the puck past Hasek and for the Dallas Stars to lift the hardware into the air.  No, really, go and check out the time line.  No exaggeration.  That is almost exactly how long the rule was in effect.  Almost certainly the worst single call in the history of the NHL.  But I digress...) 
We can’t complain.  The Canucks have been to the Cup final three times now – twice punching above their weight, and once by simply being mighty.  And if history repeats, we will be there again this year, hoisting the hardware.  Yes, I will be happier once we have won the Stanley Cup, but I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth.  The Canucks of this decade are the best they have ever been, and I am delighted to revel in that.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

I am what is wrong with theatre in Vancouver. (Thoughts upon the death of the Vancouver Playhouse.)

Last night, Saturday March 10th marked what is expected to be the final performance of the Vancouver Playhouse. That is shitty. My circle of friends is full of people who do or have made their money in theatre from time to time.

I have made my money in theatre. Not now. Not for some time now. But once upon a time I had collected a paycheque from what I guess was a number of live performances that numbered in the plural thousands. I never performed on the Playhouse stage. Arts Club GI – check. Queen E. – check. Performance Works, Shadbolt, Playwrights, The Cultch, Production House, Gateway – check, check, check, check, check, check, and many other small local theatres extant and otherwise, as well as stages in every province but the Rock and the Territories.

I love making theatre.

But I fucking hate going to it.

I haven’t really made that much of a secret, but if I’m ever really going to be public about it, it may as well be now. Seventy five percent of the time that I am in a theatre I just want to get the hell out. I can sit through the worst of movies, but as soon as a theatrical production gives me the tiniest crack to slip a sliver of disappointment in… the entire house of cards is wedged apart.  But to be clear, I hate theatre so often, because I love good theatre so much.

I was raised on theatre. Our family went to every single production of every season by the Prince George Theatre Workshop (which is also barely holding on these days) as well as any touring shows that passed through town and the shows by the smaller am-dram-cos in PG that did one show every year or two. My first paid job ever was in a theatre. I took theatre in college. I started my own company at age 20 and toured Canada, the US and Australia for six years steadily. I owe so much of who I am to theatre. But the greater majority of what I see falls on the spectrum between disappointing to loathsome and/or boring. I am what is wrong with theatre.

It began during the 1995 Fringe festival. I hadn’t noticed it yet, but I was already becoming weary of watching mediocre theatre. And then… I saw Theatre Simple perform The Master and Margarita. It was awesome.... and it made me so fucking mad.  It occurred to me that this was totally wrong. The quality level of theatre should not be pitched at a level where the best thing I have seen in eons is based on a piece of (formerly) banned Russian literature that I would otherwise have precisely zero interest in. For christsake the baseline ought to be such that I see The Master and Margarita and I think “it was good, but I wasn’t so keen on the source material.” Anything else is theatrical laziness. Sure, there would always be shows that miss the mark, but those ought to be the exception, not the rule. But no. The Master and Margarita was far and away the best thing I had seen in ages. Yes, that event turned be into a creative snob – an elitist intellectual knob.

Gradually since then I’ve become FAR more selective about the theatre I go and see, and as a result I see much more on average that is genuinely good. But still far too often what I do see isn’t that good. The only thing that makes me angrier than feeling like I should walk out at intermission is when I don’t and I should have. Thankfully the last thing I saw at the Playhouse was one of the best pieces of theatre I have ever seen. Studies in Motion. That was the 2008-2009 season. 2008-2009. Oh yes, I am what is wrong with theatre.

The Playhouse’s subscription based dropped by half we are told, and that isn’t enough income to maintain a company. No secrets there. Theatre is expensive to make – just look at the prices it costs to get in. At those prices is it any wonder I get grumpy when I feel let down? Is it any wonder that half the Playhouse’s base apparently feels the same way? Now, I don’t want to point fingers at the Playhouse and declare that their quality is the cause of their downfall. I don’t think that’s the case. I think that the Playhouse consistently has put the most intriguing seasons together of all the local companies – often by a long shot. But that is an issue too. I’m not proclaiming anything new when I point out that the majority of the audience wants to see something familiar – probably because then it something they feel they can trust. I mean Jesus Christ, even the once original and edgy Mom’s the Word has been sequelled and re-hashed in so many ways over so many years that if I were to make a crack about the next iteration being titled Grandmom’s the Word and if the original cast read this, I honestly think there would be an even chance they’d look at one another and say “how the hell did he find out?” Sorry ladies, no disrespect intended. I wish I had a credit like that on my writing CV, but that’s probably pretty empty coming from someone who is what is wrong with theatre.

But back to my point… I am not alone. Too many people feel as though they can’t trust theatre. That is not our, the audiences', fault. Don’t for a second look at the unwashed masses and mutter to yourself how they just don’t care for culture. The question is “what about culture has made them want to care?” I have all but walked away from theatre and theatre was who I was for most of the first four decades of my life. I am not for a moment suggesting that the level of theatre has to be dumbed down. The Master and Margarita was an excellent example of that. Theatre just needs a serious overhaul. It needs to get its head out of its ass and look around at the wasteland surrounding itself. Theatre is broken. It is dying. I don’t pretend I can fix it, but I think it is fixable. Theatre must change. The Playhouse may be saved if the passionate voices who gathered in front of the theatre last night have anything to do with it, but that may not be what theatre actually needs.

Theatre must appeal. That is non-negotiable and self-evident, yet theatre too often abjectly fails to do so. Demanding that the audience must raise its game and figure out theatre is the wrong approach. Theatre must work harder to reach a wider public in an accessible way. Crying for more funding from the government is a backdoor demand upon that same uncaring public - that's a good way to not win them over. Theatre must lower the barrier for entry and invite the world back in. No one company can do this alone. Indeed individual companies are accomplishing this, but the disinterested public thinks of theatre as a whole entity. I find myself thinking of theatre as a whole entity, and I've been on the practitioners' side.

That entity – theatre – has to: Simplify (I do not think it was a coincidence that the company that did The Master and Margarita called itself “Theatre Simple.”) and innovate. Spend more time crafting with the intention of fascination, and make it more affordable to get in the door. Yes, that is a tough balance, but theatre was a beggars’ art in the past, its biggest folly may be that it is trying to pretend it isn’t best served by being be so today. Theatrical artists will scoff at the notion that they are being greedy, but fairly consistently, with only few exceptions, the best theatre I have seen has been made by those who could barely afford to get their shows on stage initially.  The well funded theatre is counter intuitively too often the most likely theatre to stink, and it bears the ticket price that is most guaranteed to disenfranchise. Many of those shoe-string efforts that have excelled, in the end, due to demand, make good money in the long run.  Shows become sensations and the creators have won the lottery artistically speaking.  As I write these words, it seems to me that this is practically speaking, a libertarian model – let the free-market decide what is good. (Okay, that was not where I imagined this was going, but it fits.) That may not sound like a healthy place for theatre, but it is a destiny that the theatre entity can choose to control. But what do I know. I am, after all, what is wrong with theatre.

And if the theatre entity doesn’t choose to control its destiny? Then it is going to continue dying. I doubt it will ever die. But it will continue to keep dying. It will whither. The pockets that remain will probably be rag tag and range from appallingly hackneyed to brilliant and subversive, but it will quit being culture. It will be relegated to sub-culture. That may seem like a romantic notion to some, but if you ask me, it would be a shame. ‘Cause as much as I dislike far too much theatre, when it is good, many many many people ought to see it, ‘cause it is fucking glorious!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Revisiting the Mighty Mr. P and his Aerial Extravaganza

I recently found myself reading the best book on, about or by the Monty Python group that I've ever found.  The highly informative and entertaining Monty Python Speaks.

In the course of reading I found myself reflecting on my own experience of Monty Python.  Having spent years performing and writing sketch comedy professionally  I found it nearly impossible not to bump up against the ground broken by Monty Python.  This of course was exacerbated by the age I grew up in.

The first episodes of Python aired on BBC the same month I was born and took just enough time to make it to the West coast of Canada that I do recall my Mom discovering the show as it first premiered here.  I recall Mom sitting me down to watch this ridiculously funny show she'd been enjoying.  My first experiences I only barely recall.  I vaguely recall the Scotsman playing tennis against a blancmange.  I had no idea what a blancmange was at the time.  Actually, I still don't.  (Thank you Wikipedia.

A year or two passed and the North American popularity of Python took off.  PBS started doing day-long fund raisers, showing all the episodes of Python in a row.  This was where I really began watching it.  Over the years I have found that this was the case for many people my age.  I recall sitting down in front of the TV on a weekend morning and happening upon whatever episode was playing at the time.  I recognized it for what it was and began watching.  Sometime later the phone rang.  It was for me and I grudgingly pulled myself away from the TV.  It was one of my best childhood friends at the time, Jason.  He was calling me to tell me that I had to turn on Channel 9 right now because the craziest most amazing TV show was on.  He was of course talking about Monty Python.

Over the years I watched a LOT of Python.  Listened to most if not all of the albums and definitely watched ALL of the movies.  One of the books I had was the transcribed script of The Life of Brian.  It was a gorgeous book - illustrated with a panoply of stills from the film and the trademark Terry Gilliam illustrations.  At some point, Demetri and I got it in our heads that we should use a scene from the book to enter in the regional speech arts and drama festival.  Yup.  We entered a serious performance festival doing a Monty Python sketch - the beard haggling scene in particular

We won.

But from that point my relationship with Python actually kind of degrades.

Sure, I continued to love the work of the members.  Gilliam's films are always worth checking out (with the exception of Tideland) even when they aren't firing on all cylinders.  A Fish Called Wanda, though it hasn't aged terribly well, was one of the funniest films I've ever seen.  Palin's travelogues are fantastic.  And on...

But when it comes to Python itself, I found that I could not have been more annoyed with the constant quoting and abusing of the material by people who were obsessed by Pythonsanity.  This was particularly acute in theatre school, but at least there I could rely on the recitations to be well performed.

Fast forward to roughly now....

As I was reading Monty Python Speaks it began to occur to me that I am not certain I've actually seen all of the TV episodes.  I have of course heard all the classic scketches on records, in compilations, and hacked by too fanatic fans, but I'm not sure that I've actually seen every second of the original material.  I certainly haven't seen great portions of it since I was a teenager.

So I've decided to go back and take care of it once and for all.

I figure that there will be material that went over my head (or at least that I couldn't fully appreciate), stuff that I've totally forgotten, pieces I may have never seen (what a treat that might be!), sketches that don't work now - if they ever did, and of course, all the classics rendered in their original ground-breaking form.  In any case, it ought to be insightful.

Jodie and I began watching last night and got through the first three episodes of the first series.

Episode 1 - Whither Canada?

The first episode, apart from the iconic "It's..." did not get off to a great start.  Cleese as Mozart introducing famous deaths had me thinking right off that if this was what I could expect from the rest that I likely would never finish all the episodes.
The second major sketch - Italian Lesson - amused me at first, but it was becoming clear that the influence Python had on everything that followed was making their initial steps look kind of pedestrian.  That said, we both got one good laugh out of the Italian Lesson towards the end.
Similarly, Whizzo Butter, It's the Arts, Arthur 'Two Sheds' Jackson and the Picasso Cycling Race were all amusing, but rarely made me laugh.
Then came The Funniest Joke in the World.  A classic.  I definitely recall seeing a version of this before - but I may have only ever seen the version in And Now for Something Completely Different.  In any case, at last I was truly reminded of the true genius of Python.  I laughed numerous times, even though it was a sketch that I clearly recalled the overall outline of.

Episode 2 - Sex and Violence

As we sat down to watch the first episode, Jodie and I had a brief conversation about how Pythin had influenced The MuppetsThe Muppet Show is on high rotation in our house right now.  The basic consensus was that it had to be somewhat inevitable at the time.  Well the evidence presented itself in bold relief in this episode.  Perhaps coincidentally the episode title is the same as the original pilot for The Muppet Show.  But read on...

Again I found the overall level of hilarity to be muted by familiarity and the years.  A Man with Three Buttocks?  Definitely funny.  But not for the reasons I found it funny when I was ten.  The status interplay between Cleese and Jones in this sketch is fantastic.

In the middle of the episode came a sketch that really brought the Muppets connection into focus.  Terry Jones playing a mouse organ with hammers, pretty much exactly the same mechanic as the Muppaphone.

I probably laughed the hardest and most often at the Marriage Counsellor sketch - a sketch I was certainly familiar with, but I don't think I could have appreciated it fully when I was a child.

I began to find that Gilliam's animations - which with exceptions I found as a child were my least favourite - were often my favourite pieces of stream of conscious.  I loved watching and deconstructing them in real-time.  Trying to glean what inspired the connection of one image to the next.  Fascinating stuff.

I am quite certain I have actually seen this episode, but I have no recollection of the Alfred Lord Tennyson narrated, kinetoscope films of Queen Victoria behaving like a silent-film physical comedian.  Not terribly funny, but amusing. And definitely delightful in being a piece I have zero recollection of.

The true revelation of the night was the Working-class Playwright sketch.  I absolutely remember this sketch and even "got" the basic premise when I was younger.  Hell, I even quoted it on a Facebook thread last week - though I had actually forgotten that it was  Python reference at the time.  This was a sketch that I really had missed the details and subtleties (yes, Monty Python is in fact very subtle at times) of and really required seeing it to bring that out for me, despite my recollection.

The Mouse Problem.  When I mentioned to my mother that I planned to rewatch all the Monty Python episodes, this was the first sketch she mentioned.  I had forgotten about it until she mentioned it, but then it all came back to me - including the homosexual subtext, which I'm not sure I had understood when I last saw it.  I'm guessing this was a really subversive sketch at the time.  It's still pretty good, but not terribly edgy in a rainbow-tinted world.  I had also completely forgotten where the habit of repeating the word "hostile" in a high-pitched voice after another person had come from.  I don't really do that much anymore, but now I'll remember where it came from.

Episode 3 - How to Recognise Different Types of Trees From Quite a Long Way Away

I am almost certain that I have never seen this episode in full.  The best parts (Restaurant Sketch, Seduced Milkmen and Nudge Nudge) all appear elsewhere and I have seen them all before.

Bicycle Repair Man though not laugh a minute funny was great fun.  I don't know how many times I've heard people say "Help me Bicycle Repair Man!" and even knew it was Python, but I don't think I ever knew the full context - and it is the context of this sketch that is really where the humour is, so if you haven't seen it, I won't spoil it.

The Restaurant Sketch... though I said it was one of the best parts... well it hasn't aged well.  The over-wrought reactions in it just aren't funny anymore as we've seen the rest so many times before.  However, the sketch really pinpoints one of the cornerstones of form that Python was reacting to at the time they began.  They were tired of the presumed requirement for sketches to reach an end point - a punchline.  They felt that if the humour of a sketch had been effectively mined without reaching a punchline, there was little or no point in ending it on an inferior punchline, just to end it.  In the restuarant sketch they skewer that practice by forcing the action back to the sketch after having left it for the express purpose of delievering a punchline that is appallingly lame.  Humour as a commentary on the form of humour itself... nice.  (Even if by definition not very funny.)

The Seduced Milkmen is kind of a "happy place."  I must have found it funny once upon a time.  I don't think it isn't funny, but from frame one I know exactly where it is going and with really only one joke in it, there isn't much to re-discover.  That said, it is a gag that still makes me smile like I've got the warm-fuzzies.

Nudge nudge...  ....Well...  here we have, after three full episodes, one of the top ten (maybe even top-five) most over-quoted Monty Python sketches ever.  I actually winced when I realised what I was about to see.  But ya know, despite being the epitome of what made me begin to bristle at Python in University, I found it funny.  Eric Idle, despite what many a quoter seems to assume, is not the funny part of this sketch.  Yeah, he is inherent, and he drives the sketch, and he is kind of amusing.  But what actually makes this a funny sketch is (Comedy 101) Terry Jones.  It is Terry Jones reactions to Idle's forceful inappropriateness that is the magic ingredient that makes Nudge Nudge work.  And that is why baristas, bus-drivers and book-sellers affecting weak-sauce British accents and shouting "Say no more, say no more!" is tiresome and completely devoid of actual humour.

We shall see if I have the time to continue reviewing my re-viewing of subsequent episodes.  I intend to as I have more thoughts about how Python has influenced who I am that I didn't have time to get into here.  And hey, I'm a completist.

Now if you'll excuse me, a passing protest (in the DTES?  Say it isn't so!) has prematurely woke my daughter from her nap.  That's a sure fire way to not improve your chances of earning my sympathy for your cause.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Toddler Trauma

I inadvertently traumatized my daughter the other day.

She has taken to the Muppets with a vengeance.  I could not be much less pleased by this.  I recall fondly being put in front of the television to watch the first episode when it first aired (what the first episode was is a complex question that I am not going to get into here, but where I lived it was the Rita Moreno episode).

The last episode of that first, most ecclectic, season stands out as one of the biggest oddball episodes of the show (a list which includes episodes featuring the cast of Star Wars, Wally Boag. Chris Langham, Johnny Cash and Steve Martin - each unusual in their own way) due to the guest stars being the mime group Mummenshanz.

December watched the episode as faithfully as any episode and when the final act came on she did something she only did sporadically... she laughed.  Numerous times.

She delighted in the malleable faces, laughing whenever the plasticine was re-manipulated into something new.

But then at the end when the two performers head-butt each other she quit laughing in mid-chuckle... and then when they pulled their faces apart, stretching the plasticine into an amorphous blob between them she burst into tears - of horror.

She spent the next half hour gingerly touching her own face with a look of worry.  Gradually I calmed her down and confinced her that we could touch cheeks and all would be well, but - whew my goodness - I haven't seen her upset in that manner ever.  She has cried harder (indeed she is doing so right now as I write this - her Mom is putting her to bed and she's been a little sick so she's grumpy) but never of the quality that Mummenshanz evoked.

I don't know that if I had recalled where that act was headed that I would have even thought that she might be frightened by it.  I suppose we all need to inch toward an understanding of the grotesque and of fantasy, and inevitably along the way our sensibilities are going to be challenged.  But that doesn't change the fact that I feel a tad guilty about negligently subjecting her to it - even in such a relatively innocent form.

I guess these are just the yolks of parenthood that don't normally get mentioned.