Friday, December 22, 2017

Give in to the Down Side: thoughts on Last Jedi

For a film that pays so much lip service to “hope”, Star Wars: The Last Jedi sure as hell does its best to extinguish it in its audience. For two and a half exhausting, despairing hours, evil triumphs and good is thwarted so consistently, one is left longing for a river to throw oneself into. That it comes from the franchise that used to be the very apotheosis of feel-good filmmaking is just one more steel-toed kick in the balls to take home.
            So let me get this straight: The New Republic has been completely destroyed, the entire rebel fleet wiped out, the entirety of the Rebellion – sorry, Resistance – can now fit comfortably in the Millenian Falcon, Admiral Akbar, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are all dead, and Kylo Ren is the undisputed master of the universe. Cue the trumpets!      

            No wait – I mustn’t despair: some eight-year old stableboy found a ring. Hurrah![i]

            You will pardon me if I am somewhat muted in my optimism.

            Now, I know you’re all going to throw Empire Strikes Back at me, so yes, let’s indeed compare the two. Early on in Empire, the Rebels escape destruction on Hoth. At the end, the Reel fleet has regrouped, and is ready to strike back (ha ha ha! Sorry.). Luke Skywalker is recovering in hospital. Lando Calrissian[ii] has joined the fight. They’re going to rescue Han Solo. Things are looking up!

            By the end of Last Jedi¸ practically everyone is dead. Luke, Han, the entire Rebel Alliance. Kaput! Vamouse! The Empire – sorry First Order – control a vast fleet of planet-busting star destroyers; the resistance have at their disposal a single rust bucket spice smuggler. I think I’m with Ren on this one: the war’s over!   The good guys are done for! Empire isn’t nearly such a bummer.

            Perhaps that was the point: break ‘em down to build ‘em back up again. Send the audience to the pit of despair so the triumph will feel that much sweeter. It’s a standard narrative tactic. The trouble is, we don’t get the build-up, and I’ve lost faith in the triumph. The filmmakers so completely – almost sadistically – dash every hope they bother to suggest, to the point I no longer have any hope they will allow my heroes – those left – to triumph. I would not put it past them to make the Star Wars saga “dark” and “gritty”, critical code words for “violent” and “cynical”.

            Let me see: in “Episode VIII” we can shave the wookie and mount his head on the wall. In “Episdode IX let’s have C3PO melted into down into dental caps. For “Episode X” we’ll open up R2D2 with a can-opener and use him as a carburetor. Who’s left? I know, let’s resurrect Jabba the Hut, and that would explain where Princess Lea went. . .

            No? Well why not, if Han and Luke were fair game. . .

            Okay, maybe I’m getting carried away, but do you see what I’m getting at? If Disney really felt that the only way to prolong this infinitely profitable franchise was to utterly erase what made it appealing in the first place, why should I be happy about it? Even if it is just contaminated nostalgia, what of it? Why should I be happy about it?

            Furthermore, I don’t buy this stuff about the “first Star Wars film made by an artist”. Stuff and nonsense. No one who feeds me lines like “we are the spark that lights the flame!” or some fucking nonsense about “hope being like the sun” because you can’t see it or whatever, with a straight face will get artistic bon mots from me. Don’t get me started on the friggin’ plot holes. And no, Rian Johnson is not a “brave writer” (criticspeak for “fuck the fans”). Salman Rushdie is a brave writer. Daphne Galizia was a brave writer.  Nazimuddin Samad was a brave writer. Rian Johnson is screen hack who found a way to prolong the life of a cash cow.

            That’s uncharitable: there are good things in the film, some really good scenes (mostly involving Mark Hamill, bless ‘im). Many will forgive or forget that this is really just another Boom-Boom Blockbuster, stretched agonizingly past its natural running time. I might have done so myself, but found every great moment undermined by yet another disappointment, another let-down, another frustrated desire. It felt like a never-ending wrestling match where the guy’s constantly kicking out of pinfall; after a while, you just get tired of it. (Add to that, the guy’s your favourite, he’s getting the snot kicked out of him, and while he keeps kicking out, he never recovers, never rallies, and still loses the match). 

Two years ago, I gave The Force Awakens a higher rating than it deserved because it erased the legacy of the prequels. Now, Last Jedi has erased the legacy of the main trilogy. Say what you will about George Lucas (and I have), he had an endgame in sight: he intended the story to end. Disney wants to milk the thing forever. Now they can: returning the Rebellion – sorry, Resistance – to a state of perpetual underdog in an eternal struggle against a permanently overbearing evil, the well need never run dry. Many will argue that the artistry of the means justifies the commercialism of the ends. Maybe it does. But forgive me if I ain’t on board. 

[i] Though I know better to expect any good to come of rings. . .
[ii] Wonder what gruesome end they’ve got in store for him. . .

Saturday, November 18, 2017

What do music videos have to do with the poppy? (Relax, I did wear one)

This: the vacuousness of the former is indirectly fetishizing the latter. This is a recent development, and it is a Bad Thing.  

This is not going to be a pacifistic rant. I don’t swing that way; my understanding of history does not allow for it (that’s a Rant for another day). I have long freely participated in the rituals and displayed the symbols of Remembrance Day, because I think memory of the past and respect for the dead are important (and not because I’ve been shamed into it by some self-righteous internet meme, or blustery bumper sticker). But lately this participation has been taken for acquiescence in a narrative I don’t buy into, and this past weekend, I was sort of tricked into performing a message which I was not made aware of, and did not consent to.

It’s one thing to be a spectator, and have mild reservations about the proceedings. You can keep those to yourself for the sake of general harmony. But to be made an active part of it, under a set of false pretences is quite another thing.

Remembrance Day is an emotional topic, so I’ve got to be careful. I’ve got friends from both sides of the Atlantic who’ve served in Afghanistan. I know one mustn’t allow emotions to cloud one’s judgement, but at the same time I don’t think it hurts to pay attention to people with direct experience of things. I’m not here to talk about Afghanistan. I don’t know how I feel about Afghanistan, or if I have the right to feel anything about Afghanistan. I don’t entirely know how my friends feel about it. They’re good guys, they did what they felt they had to, and if they feel a smidgeon of pride for playing some small part in overthrowing one of the world’s most repressive regimes, I won’t fault them for that. Likewise, if I balk at the indiscriminate drone strikes which wipe out wedding parties, surely, they won’t fault me. War is complicated, messy business, and it’s never about just one thing. I can’t help thinking though, we’re only meant to remember one thing.

While I have tremendous respect for people in uniform, I have far less respect for the politicians who send them into harms way. I do not believe that honour for the former should shield the latter from criticism. I do not think that honest, open debate about the extent of our commitments constitutes disloyalty, nor should a dispassionate examination of our history[i]. Yet the increasingly affected tone of these ceremonies seems to be drowning out but the most jingoistic voices. In this environment, the politician can get away with more and demand more. So the recent tendency to lump all wars into the same ongoing crusade for Freedom strikes me more as political opportunism than respect.

I have been asked during this time to remember the “brave boys and girls away on deployment”, rather than the “reasons they were there”, which I can respect: I am content to remember in silence. But it would be easier if the various Masters of Ceremonies would stick to the deal as well, and not insist on telling me why they were there. Perhaps it does serve the emotional needs of the moment, but there is something about these sermons that strikes me as over-simplified and under-contextualized.   To allude to the slaughters of Ypres or Passchendaele without any hint of indignation seem to me incomplete at best. If it’s not the right time for such indignation, when is?

Remembrance Day may only be once a year (and arguably only one minute out of each year), but it does set the tone for to all our subsequent discussions. Perhaps unconsciously, it determines what we decide to remember, and how. So setting the scope of mourning is important.  If I choose not to forget the callousness of the First World War generals, or the colossal fuckup at Dieppe, who am I dishonouring?

I take my cues from guys like Joseph Heller, who never regretted serving as an airman in WWII[ii], but still felt obliged to satirize its idiocies in Catch 22. Or the historian/veteran Paul Fussel, who fought in France, insisted on that war’s necessity[iii], but had no patience for its sanitization or romanticization (or for John McCrae)[iv] and certainly would have cringed at the jaunty “Last Post/Old Lang Syne” mashup I had to recently sit through.

I was six years old when I first heard “the Last Post”, and thought it was the saddest song in the world. Quiet, mournful, meditative. Conducive to sober reflection. You could remember your way, and I could remember mine, and at least we could agree it was sad. But now we’ve got a happy version, pomped up by a military band, and with the strains of a drinking tune thrown in for good measure.

I have to ask: who thought this was a good idea?  

Someone probably thought the words “should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?  gelled nicely with the Lest we forget motto. It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. Context matters and cultural usage matters, and a New Years Eve celebration ditty does not fit with an Armistice dirge. I’m all for drinking songs, especially those of a wistful character, but would never indulge in one at a military funeral, and humbly submit that this would never be tolerated in a civilian outfit.

The tone for the evening was set: Remembrance Day is a party now. Spread the word.

On this occasion, my choir was scheduled to sing Mozart’s Requiem as part of the proceedings. It was the second time this piece was selected as a Remembrance Day commemoration: even though Requiem was intended as a component of religious worship, and has no martial overtones. It is about death however and this was connection enough.

It is one of the most magnificent pieces ever written, and probably the best venue we’ve ever had the privilege of performing in. The choir was at the top of its game, the orchestra was splendid, the audience rapt. Our voices filled the auditorium and drifted heavenward. . . It was a great experience, dare I say Godly. Yet I did nearly drop my music when I craned my neck and saw what they were displaying behind us.

The lyrics and their translation, superimposed over images borrowed from the warplane Heritage Museum.

Who thought this would be a good idea?

So behind all these “Blessed is he who cometh”, and “Lamb of God who taketh away”s  are pictures of smiling soldiers and cheering crowds and, of course, warplanes. And for “Sanctus”, which translates “Holy”, we got a Lancaster bomber. A Lancaster bomber.

What, may I ask, is so Holy about a Lancaster bomber?

Holy! Holy! Holy!

So here we get to the nub of things. I am more than happy to wear the poppy and have a moment of silence and offer my humble baritone to the ceremonies, but the one condition I insist on is we commemorate people. People! Breathing, thinking, feeling, dearly departed PEOPLE! I WILL NOT COMEMORATE MACHINES! Especially not death machines. The Lancaster bomber was designed explicitly (exclusively in Marshal Harris’ view) to incinerate non-combatants.  Whatever debates there are to be had about the efficacy, necessity or morality of the strategic bombing campaign, for God’s sake you can respect my reservations here! Remembrance Day ceremonies ought to be about people!

It did not get better from there. The lines “May eternal light shine on them, O Lord with Thy saints for ever, because Though art merciful” was superimposed over the smiling faces of some Women’s Auxiliary Brigade, with not a cemetery in sight. The words which may have justified the singing of the piece stripped entirely of their context and even their literal meaning. The one thing we could once agree on – Remembrance Day was a sad occasion to mourn the dead – finally thrown out the window without even the pretext remaining. We’re now literally singing glory and praise to military hardware. Hallelujah!

It was not an accident either. The words were painstakingly translated and typed over topped the images, which were carefully labelled and named in the program. Somebody specifically chose these images. Someone who didn’t care a fig what the words said or meant. The occasion was about war, so one image was as good as any other. This is the mentality of the music video generation: stripping music of its context and relegating it to background muzak for random imagery. Not even a shadow of deference to intention.

In cheesy pop songs this can be forgiven. In a Remembrance Day ceremony, it’s dangerous. I’m not being hyperbolic: a large crowd of people just worshipped a bombing plane. I just told an engine of death that Heaven and Earth were Filled with its Glory. If our society’s supposedly most poignant moments and our supposedly most deeply held spiritual inclinations and the talents of our civilization’s most gifted artists can only advertise engines of death, we are in trouble.

[i] Gwynne Dyer’s Canada in the Great Power Game would be a great place to start.
[iii] The Boys Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe
[iv] The Great War and Modern Memory

Monday, November 13, 2017

In which Rockers break down barriers... Danica Roem's Cab Ride to Victory

Sometimes, there is a light in the black. . .

So, the state of Virgnia has just elected its firsttransgendered person to its House of Delegates.  Naturally, this is a major victory for the LGTB community, and for the forces of civilization in general, in the very teeth of the most reactionary, knuckle-dragging administration in living memory. Granted, the House of Representatives is a much smaller office than the Presidency, but hey! Let’s take what we can get.

But the really fun part? Danica Roem is a Metalhead. Not just a “I owned Metallica’s Black album in high school” Metalhead, but an, actual, genuine, authentic, honest-to-Magog headbangin’ thashin-mad Metalhead. She fronts a Swedish-style Death Metal band. Here it is:

Admittedly a dumb name, but hey, who’s complaining? They’re good, they rock. 

Of course I was tickled pink. But throughout the course of the day, as I continued to dwell on it, it got even better. It felt good. See, this little subculture which fate has thrown me into, is not exactly synonymous with progressive values. On the contrary, in most minds it’s the epitome of backwardness – a bulwark of misogyny, homophobia and racism. But every once in a while, we too can be on the side of righteousness. Moments like this, I get a little tingly feeling welling up inside. I felt it when Barney Greenway dukedit out with Karozia Metalla. I felt it when Bruce Dickenson stood up for multiculturalism in last summer in Toronto. And I’m feeling it now. But it’s even better this time, on a great many levels. Donica Roem is part of the government now, she’ll actually get to do things. At the very least she’s displaced a grouchy old homophobe (oh, how his supporters will wail and whine tonight!).

But that’s just the political, and the political is of course ephemeral. Any good she can do is limited
by the convoluted, messy business of governance, and she could be tossed out unceremoniously at the end of her term. But the impact isn’t going to be in office. It’s going to be in the hearts and minds of people, who as recently as ten years ago wouldn’t have dreamed of electing such a person. Even if prejudice is on the march in some places, it’s crumbling in others. Maybe, just maybe, in the minds of young headbaning Virginians, one more wall of bigotry has just fallen to dust, a lot like when Halford came out of the closet and a million macho Judas Priest fans realized it wasn’t the end of the world. Maybe. Maybe LGBT Metalheads will have one more person to look up to, and maybe, one day sooner than we think, trans Metalheads won’t need to be afraid anymore.

And if the rest of us Metalheads are just as thrilled because she’s one of us – yes, one of us! – why not? Why shouldn’t I be pleased as punch that a proud cookie-monster singer got into office? And if she happens to be  a trans trailblazer, so much the better.

In the end, it’s a human victory. We all win.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

On saving face, losing face, two-faced. . .Quebec's niqab ban.

So they've gone done and done it - banned niqabs in Quebec that is.

"We are in a free and democratic society," said Quebec Premier Phillipe Couillard upon announcement. "You speak to me, I should see your face, and you should see mine. It's as simple as that." Couillard is clearly a proponent of video phones.

Do I have to look at his face? 

In all seriousness though, I would be far more impressed if this law, often cited as necessary to protect women, was something called for by any prominent women's group. Or if niqab-wearing women actually represented a large and powerful lobby. (Interesting how the government isn't going after the billionaire tax dodgers in Panama, or the mobsters running Quebec's construction business). As is, according to Statistics Canada, Muslims of any kind (niqab or none) make up an overwhelming 2.3 % of the Canadian population and 1.52% of Quebec, prompting me to wonder just how pressing a problem this was.

Make no mistake, I have no time for the niqab. I find them the very emblem of dehumanizing misogyny. But I would never try and remove one by force: only the person wearing the thing can make that decision. Surely a cornerstone of the "free and democratic" societies Couillard evokes is the ability of individuals to worship as they see fit, without nudging from the state. Religious dress-codes exist because people honestly believe that's what God wants them to do, and if they think their very soul is at stake, well, who are we to interfere? Indeed, I see it as an issue of fashion as much as anything: the state has no place in the wardrobes of the nation.

(Or do I expect too much of Quebec, the province that measures the size of letters in bus advertising?)

Now suppose for a minute that the women in question aren't making the decision of their own volition - well, they certainly won't be now, but supposing they weren't to begin with? Supposing their men were forcing them to? If their homelives are really so repressive, do you really suppose they'll be allowed out now? Do you suppose any man who could or would force his wife to wear a niqab would allow her to go around without it? So now we've got tiny enclaves of embattled women who can't leave their homes. 

Did anyone think about that?

I am reminded of the ridiculous berkini ban in France, in which government regulators decided
Muslim women should be showing more skin on the beach. Nevermind the farcical spectacle of middle aged white men wandering French beaches telling women to take their clothes off, the offensive garb in question looked like wetsuits, which until didn't seem to bother them until Muslim women put them on. What we had was an innocuous compromise by which a marginalized group thought they could participate in the larger society while staying true to their own values. But even this miniscule accommodation was too much for some, who clearly interpret the égalité part of le Tricolore to mean uniformité. 

However they may veil it (ha!), Bill-64 amounts to a government cracking down on a tiny segment of the population who lack the clout to strike back. (Sure, the bill apparently bans hockey masks from public services as well, but were hockey masks in public really a concern?) This is never a good thing. It won't help the women involved: instead of reaching out to help, we've just shoved them further into darkness. Somehow I doubt that helping them was ever the idea. Rather, there are enough voters who don't like them to make targeting them expedient. Attacking minorities for votes: we can be better.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Confederate park: In which the author proposes a solution to please all (or possibly none)

So they’re tearing down Confederate statues all over the US south. I am not conflicted about this issue: “good riddance!” I say.  “The sooner the better. What took them so long?” What were they doing there in the first place? Why use public funds and spaces to celebrate vanquished scoundrels? Who dedicated their lives to discredited causes?

                Robert E. Lee’s chief contribution to history was as the principal defender of the slave-holding state. Whatever his qualities as a man he lent his skills and considerable military talents to upholding an evil institution, which, but for his efforts, might have ended sooner. He might have served the other side, might have fought to free men and women from bondage, but instead actively tried to prevent it. Why is there a statue to him?

                We needn’t melt them all down into ball bearings or whatever (which I’m rarely in favour of). If it means so much to the white sons and daughters of Dixie, they could always borrow a page from the good citizens of Budapest, who took down all their communist-era statues and stuck them in a designated tourist trap. I do believe there is value in such places. I have wandered Budapest’s statue park and wallowed in the bad taste of another era. It is a strangely moving experience. To stand amongst these overwhelmingly boorish monuments is to taste another time, when human hopes and dreams were smothered under such concrete mounds. There’s no mistaking it for glorification: the sheer tackiness of it (the lady in the booth, when she sees you coming, puts on a tape of Soviet anthems) seems to emblemize the tragic pathos of the era.

                Why though do I have the strange feeling that a Confederate statue park would treat its inmates rather more romantically?

                “Those who are concerned about the erasure of history will be thrilled to learn of the existence of books.” [1] Statues, you see, aren’t used to teach history. They are used to glorify, romanticize, idealize, and fetishize it. Some folks really seem to think Robert E. Lee will be erased from memory if we take his statue down. Maybe they don’t have library cards. Or internet. But Robert E. Lee is not going to be forgotten. He just won’t be immortalized in marble (or iron or whatever they use).  Why should he be, if his cause was unjust?

                There are not many things in history that we can agree upon, but surely the abolition of slavery should be one of them. How can you claim the abolition of slavery was a good thing if you pray to the statue of a man who tried his damndest to prevent it?

[1] Letter to the editor, The Hamilton Spectator. Not me. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Cure for the Unknown: Why I Watch Scary Films

            We’re well into that time of year again which Bradbury christened “the October Country”, which means of course things get a little spooky.

Everyone’s got their go-to literary and cinematic go-to chills; my own preference is overwhelmingly for the quant, archaic, and nostalgic. Think Edgar Allen Poe, and the films of Hammer studios. Generally, I prefer to tickle the fear centres rather than jab them with a spear. 

But every once in a while, I gaze just a little deeper into the well, reach just a little farther into the pit, until. . .woe! That’s enough! I stumble as far as I wish to go, then retreat back to Disney cartoons. And I always wonder what it was that drew me to that place,   and what it was I actually got out of the not-always-pleasant experience. Or, to get to the point:

  Why Do We Watch Horror Films?

             I hadn’t intended to be so overreaching, but I can’t help asking such things while watching a film like Sinister, a Scott Derrickson extravaganza from 2012. Every year I test my limits; this year, I met them with Sinister. By which I mean, it is about as horrific as a film can be before certain lines or decency are crossed, which I maintain are still vital. The question is, why bother pushing the limits at all? That’s what we’re discussing here.

            Sinister  was not received universally well. It got only about 63% fresh on the Tomatometer. Peter Howell of The Toronto Star called it “more stupid than scary”. He has a point: Sinister has no shortage of idiocies which multiply and compound each other when you have time to reflect on them (especially in the daylight). It faithfully carries the curse of a plot largely dependent on the stupidity of its characters: why won’t the Ethan Hawk character (Oswald Ellison) turn all this evidence over to police? Why won’t he tell his wife, or the sheriff, or the Professor, or someone what’s going on? Why won’t he turn on the friggin’ lights?
Director Scott Derrikson

           It also carries one of my least favourite tropes, a certain star-struck overestimation of the competence of serial killers: a near omniscient ability to track victims and elude police, and a preference for ridiculously elaborate and utterly impractical methods of murder. (Just how heavy is that branch?)

            Howell, however, is only half right; for all this, Sinister is a deeply frightening film. I’m with Roger Ebert on this one, who called it “undeniably scary”.

Rober Cargill: screenwriter
            Truly scary films are incredibly rare. If fear is a survival mechanism, how can a mere movie inspire it? Sinister manages it, not via the silly jump scares of the Paranormal Activities, or Insideous, (though there are no shortage of these), but by establishing dread of what may come next. We are aware early on that we are going to confront something very dark and very evil, and have a sinking feeling that our protagonist will be utterly unequipped to fight this evil. True, the supernatural element (I give nothing away by revealing this) means it might not have made a difference, but a character with a stronger moral core could hardly have done worse. . .

            The device of the “found footage” is essential here: what contains more potential horrors than a mysterious can of film discovered in the attic of a murder site? A film, a tape, a cd or USB drive are almost Schrödinger boxes of endless possibility. This being a murder site, and this being a horror film, none of the possibilities are good. Already the anticipation is ominous. Found footage also forces us to adapt two points of view. One is with Oswalt, sitting with him in the dark, knowing he is going to see something dreadful. The other, is with the killer: we are forced into the head of an unspeakably malignant entity and made unwitting accomplice to its sins – voyeur, invader, murderer, betrayer. It’s not a nice place to be.
What is on the film? Infinite unknowns. . .
            The footage itself sets up innocent, idyllic scenes for the express purpose of violating them, then shows us just enough to confirm our worst suspicions, yet still lets our imaginations do the dirty work. It also implies there is more to come. The sense of ominous anticipation that creates is a feeling I would equate with fear.     

            I didn’t really like the ending; I found it over indulgent and over obvious, where a more Hitchockian minimalist approach would have made the same implications. But it also leaves no doubt as to what we must have suspected from the beginning. I’m not sure I enjoyed Sinister, but have to admire its craftsmanship. Credit where it’s due, Sinister created fear.
            But why bother?
Feeding the dark side
            Stephen King once suggested that scary stories and horror films are our way of satiating our repressed dark sides. The analogy he used was tossing the occasional raw meet to the caged alligators of our subconscious. Keep them fed, and they won’t try to escape. I suppose there is a kind of tempting logic to it, but the explanation doesn’t satisfy me. Possibly we really are just serial killers at heart, who can keep the violence at bay by tossing it the occasional bone, but that strikes me as an easy answer. It’s not good enough.

            Let’s get back to the found footage. Find an unlabelled film/tape/cd/USB. The possibilities? Endless.  Now, narrow it down a little bit: the footage will be something disturbing, something awful, something bad. How many dreadful scenarios will run through your head before reality settles on one?

            Let’s narrow it down even further still: the footage is just a movie. It has been found on a store shelf. The cover and jacket design give an idea of what is contained therein. Let’s switch pronouns as well (because from this point on I can only speak for myself – I am now holding this DVD in my hand, knowing I will probably not enjoy what it contains. Why do I still put it on?

            I don’t think it is about feeding the dark side. I think it’s something even more primal than that. The one drive we have that’s even stronger than fear, that brought us out of the cave and out to the stars:


"Curiosity is the lifeblood of imagination
             Guellemo Del Toro once called curiosity “the lifeblood of imagination”. Curiosity, I think, is not just a desire to know. It is our way of defeating the unknown. What did Lovecraft say was the oldest and deepest kind of fear? Think about it: a creak in the dark or a bump in the night can be terrifying if you don’t know what’s behind it. A dripping tap or a jittery squirrel can cause terror if they are hidden. We fear the night because of all the unknown threats it contains. Fear is a survival mechanism: we are hardwired to recognize threats, and even potential threats. A rumbling in the bush may or may not be a predator, but we lose nothing from erring on the side of caution and running. We are designed by nature to be on our guard at all times.

            Curiosity is our weapon against fear. An explanation for a phenomena removes its threat. Even a real threat can be less menacing if we know what it is. An identified threat is one we can actually deal with. An unknown threat allows for no solutions and represents a million possible deaths.

The oldest and deepest kind of fear
            My stupid DVD is not a real, or even potential threat. But the same instincts are at work. Its lurid promises of a ghastly experience trigger in the imagination a thousand possibilities far in excess of what it can actually provide. To throw on the movie and find it’s tacky or amateurish or silly, or maybe surprisingly good but still Just a Movie, dispels all those nightmares. And if it inspires new ones? It won’t: the nightmare’s over once the credits roll. It’s over. It’s been purged from my system. I’m awake again, and feeling better having gotten rid of all that mucky stuff.

            Fear is very much caused by the unknown, and curiosity is the cure for the unknown. That, I think, is the key.    

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

On Steviverous insect life. . .

If ever a cure were worse than the disease, the prescribed solution to a  bed bug infestation would surely be it. I'm tempted to just let the buggers have the place if they want it that badly. I'm not joking: I swear, waking up to find swarms of tiny parasites feasting on my flesh and blood traumatized me less than clearing out my apartment in time for the exterminator.

An altogether misleading introduction to the phenomenon

I can deal with a bug bite. I'll live, I've got rubbing alcohol. Hauling out ten crates full of crap at two in the morning on a week night? That'll kill me. Doing again in two weeks  - or living out of a suitcase for two weeks - stresses me way more than possibly finding a pinhead sized critter on my pillow. Not to mention, the thought of sleeping on a bed full of creepy crawlies freaks me less than sleeping on one filled with noxious chemicals.

Seriously, nothing the bugs did were as bad as what I had to do  to get rid of them.

And it's not even over yet! The guy's got to come back in two weeks to get the eggs. Hurrah!

Hamilton Health Services say reports of bed bug infestations in Hamilton have gone up 600% in recent years, for no particular reason. They're everywhere, they're relentless, they're indestructible - or may as well be. They strike at night and disappear with the morning light.  They lurk just out of sight. They bite your flesh and drink your blood, and leave a distinctive mark. Sound familiar?

Actually, the zombie hordes would be a better analogy. The endless wave of sharp toothed drones coming, coming, coming for you. . .

 Poetry aside, what it's like to live through a bed bug infestation? I'm glad you asked! (and aren't you glad you did?)

It is not called an "infestation" for nothing. They infest the most private, intimate part of your living space, where you tend to be at your most vulnerable.  It's an invasion, a violation. A pollution, a desecration.

Bed bugs are carnivorous. They survive on blood. Your blood. I am not at all squeamish around bugs, really I'm not. But waking up to find yourself being eaten is really not nice.

It's gross. You feel nasty. Like someone just spat in your face or peed in your shoe. You want to scrape a layer of skin off, or maybe bathe in bleach. And the thing is, you don't just feel dirty - you feel defeated. You try to keep a clean house, you seemingly spend every waking hour washing dishes, doing laundry or scrubbing surfaces. Maybe it wasn't a palace of polished marble from a Listerine commercial, but for God's sake it was a hygienic little hole. And the little buggers still got in. The Husky Pest Control service take pains to assure victims:  “A bedbug infestation does not mean you keep n untidy home or that you live in unfit conditions” which is nice of them to say, but it doesn't feel any better.

 The stigma doesn't help. Real or imagined, there's disdain on every face, leery you may carry a contaminating egg in your pant cuff or collar, and who's to say you aren't? To the leper colony with you!

Then there's the unsolicited advice. You ought to do this, you really ought to do that. You have to do B, you mustn't do D. Such tidbits are almost never helpful, and larger just offer more complications to stress over. The fact is, you're doing the best you can in an unwinnable situation, and really wish they'd just shut the fuck up.

So what of the process itself? First off, your sleep is ruined. You are quite awake at that point.  You'll probably want to destroy your sheets. Not that it's required or even recommended, but will you really still want them after that? Stick your clothes into the freezer. Apparently the buggers don't like the cold. Clear out your ice cream and stick in everything your want to wear the next day. At times like these winter can be an unexpected blessing, as you can stick everything into a garbage bag and leave it on your balcony over night - but it was an uncommonly warm September for me, so that little bonus was unavailable.

But even with these precautions, you will need to call the pros. And you will need to clear everything out for them. This is not something you can do yourself - ever wonder how many nooks and crannies are in a one-bedroom apartment? Try counting them. Including the electrical outlets. You can't get them all yourself. But even if you could, if you and the equipment and the time and the patience and the knowledge, you'd still have to clear everything out. You need a practically empty apartment. Not your furniture - that's what needs to get sprayed - but your clothes, your books, your embroidery, your papers, your toys, your laptop - your stuff. Anything that makes the place feel lived in.   

Preparing for a bug spray is like getting evicted. You've got three days to throw everything into a box and git! 

Where’s it all go? You can’t just pile it up in the middle of the room, so where do all those boxes go? The balcony? The bathtub? The trunk of the car? Yes, yes and yes. Of course, your only real solution is to have family or friends with a largely empty garage. Otherwise you are quite SOL.
Packing up your entire worldly existence in a hurry, certain things are bound to happen. You are guaranteed to knock a large box of screws, thumbtacks, paperclips, or something equally small and inconvenient onto the floor. You are guaranteed to need something at the bottom of your very first box. You will definitely forget where you put something incredibly important, and will be unable to relocate something you need immediately.

You will finish late at night. You will make many trips up and down the elevator.

You will wonder if it’s all worth it.  I mean, clearing out your entire existence for a couple of ruined sheets? I’m willing to bet most will have their doubts.

Taking down the curtains was the worst part. Not just because they’re a pain in the arse to take down, but because I live across the street from another large apartment complex, and without my curtains, everybody can see everything, from the balcony to the kitchen. “Hello world, step inside, here’s my life, on full public display!” Even the most spotlight hogging actor needs to occasionally hide behind the curtain. When they come down, your privacy completely dissolves; your sense of this little hole in the wall as your private sanctuary, retreat, refuge, nest, lair, your place – is blown wide open. It is no longer possible to shut out the world, or shield yourself from it. All you’ve got is an empty room with a great big window. 

And the really fun part? You can’t put anything back once the spraying’s done: you gotta wait for them to come back and do it all again! At some unspecified future date.

I believe the company’s name is GODOT. . .

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Nice Nazis and Kindly Klansmen: Thoughts on Charlotesville

So. . .

I really wanted to write a follow up on the thirteenth Doctor, Jodi Whitaker (got lots left to say about that!), but of late, I’ve been distracted by the three ring circus unfolding down south. And I don’t just mean Charlotesville. . .

The news has been unfolding so quickly, everything one can say is redundant or out of date by the time it’s written down.
I knew the election of the clown prince would be a disaster. What I didn’t anticipate, was just how hilarious it would be. If Curly, Larry and Mo were made joint Presidents, they couldn’t have been more bumblingly farcical than the Trump White House. I mean, what a display of lumbering nincompoopery! What a gong-show, train wreck, dumpster fire. I feel like a rubber necker, transfixed by the chaos and holding up traffic. Sorry folks, I just can’t look away!

Nevermind he can’t seem to get laws passed or walls built (which suits me fine), or that he can’t retain press-secretaries (Scaramucci, aptly named after an operatic clown, gone in ten days!), the corporate bigwigs on his advisory committees fleeing like rats from a sinking ship (hey Mr. President, if Frazier’s ripoff drugs were so overpriced, WTF was he doing on your committee???). And now, we get a President of the USofA takes his sweet jolly time to condemn neo-nazis.  I mean. . .neo-nazis! The folks who think gas-chambers are a great thing. The President of the United States of America, Land of the Free, needed to be reminded that these were very people.  

Oh sure, he got ‘round to it eventually. But it took a shit ton of prodding. But even then, he equivocated. “there is another side, you can call them the left, that came violently attacking the other group.”  By whom he means the guys who showed up at the rally to tell the nazis what assholes they are.

You had one job Mr. President. Just tell the world “neo-nazis are bad.” Scratch that, just say “nazis are bad”. Save yourself a syllable. “nazis are bad”. That’s all folks wanted to hear. In times of crisis, people just want to hear their leader say something nice. One nice thing we can all agree on. Nazis are bad. Even your craziest critics would have left you alone on that one. I would have given you kudos for that one.

But no: apparently nazis are no worse than the folks who stand up to them (somebody send the memo to any surviving WWII vets). There’s violence on both sides, the left are attacking the right.

Indeed. Those poor, poor peace-loving, kumbaya-singing Klansmen, just wanting to denounce Jews and blacks in peace! Why can’t we just leave them alone?

(I suppose James Alex Fields Jr. was just acting in self defence when he ran his car over Heather Heyer).

A couple things: we have to admit, the far left can get rambunctious. They can break things. They sometimes tip over garbage cans. They’ll write naughty words on the side-walk in chalk. It happens. Acts of sheerest evil to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.  But here’s the thing: the far-left tend to target property. The far-right tend to target people. There is a difference. There is no equivalence. I have written of and criticized the tendencies of the “regressive left”, having seen it and felt it up close. But there is no equivalence. Nazis are worse. When swastikas start flying, there are no “two sides”; there is the side that wants to put Jews into ovens, and the side that wants to stop them.

Nazism is a lot like child-rape: there’s no neutrality. Fearless Leader chose a fine to show nuance for the first time in his life.
And as for that codswallop about “not having all the facts”, what more facts did he need exactly? What else did he need to know about marching Klanners? And since when did Mr. “Biggest Crowds ever” give a damn about facts?

Ye Gods Mr. President.

Throughout it all, there is hope.  The whole grotesquery has sunk so low, it just might awaken a shred of decency within the Republican party.

John McCain has spoken out.  He tweeted: “There’s no moral equivalency between racists and Americans standing up to defy hate & bigotry.” 

Mitt Romney has spoken out. He tweeted: “Not the same. One side is racist, bigoted, Nazi. The other opposes racism and bigotry. Morally different universes”

Jeb Bush has spoken out. He tweeted: “For the sake of our country, he (Trump) must leave no room for doubt that racism and hatred will not be tolerated or ignored by his White House.

Mark Rubio has spoken out. He tweeted: “The organizers of events which inspired & led to #charlottesvilleterroristattack are 100% to blame”
and “Mr. President, you can’t allow #White Supremacists to share only part of the blame.”

Ted Cruz spoke out. “The Nazis, KKK, and white supremacists are repulsive and evil, and all of us have a moral obligation to speak out against the lies bigotry, anti-semitism and hatred that they propagate”

Mitch McConnell spoke out: “There are no good neo-nazis, and those who espouse their views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms. We have a responsibility to stand against hate and violence.”

Ronna McDaniel spoke out: “the KKK and the white supremacists were wrong. . .there is no good KKK member, there’s no nice neo-nazi.
“The president was saying that people brought violence from both sides. And violence isn’t OK, but the blame lies squarely at the KKK, the white supremacists, the neo-nazis who organized this rally, caused violence and are pushing hate”.

Carlos Curbelo spoke out. He tweeted: “@potus just doesn’t get it. No moral equivalence between manifestations for and against white supremacy.”

Who’d have thunk I’d one day be applauding so many Republican tweets? It’s a miracle!

Ken Fraizier and the corporate bigwigs on Trump’s manufacturing councils have resigned en-mass, and Ill Presidente, in typically juvenile fashion, is wailing that he never liked them anyway.

Here in the Great White North, Ezra Levant and his Rebels have denounced the whole thing, to my boundless relief. There is a line they won’t cross, a place they won’t go. There is a value Canadians still share. Thank God. Hallelujah!    

Maybe it’s all a trick. Maybe the Troglodyte in Chief was trying to shake some sense back into the parties, slap a complacent public awake, and lure the fascist slugs out of their slimy holes so they can be salted once and for all. Maybe. If I were of a conspiracist mind-set. . .

A fella can dream.  

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Lucky Thirteen: thoughts on Jodie Whittiker

Right – o. . .

So they’ve done gone and done it. They’ve made Doctor Who a woman. They’ve been talking about it for a very long time, and now they’ve finally done it. Jodie Whittaker (whom I've had a devil of a time trying to spell) will be taking over from Peter Capaldi. Faithful readers - of whom you are legion - are just dying to know:


What do I think? 

Well, the first thing you’ve got to remember, dear readers, is that I really liked Capaldi, and am genuinely sorry to see him go. He’d really found his feet, had a wonderful new companion in Pearl Mackie’s Bill, and now it’s all being thrown out. I’d be grumpy and gloomy even if Tom Baker himself were to reprise the role. So I was bound to be a little frumpy no matter Who took over.

The next thing you’ve got to remember, is that one of things I liked so much about Peter Capaldi’s Doctor was his maturity. I was sick to bloody death of the cute young Tennant/Smith axis, and so was dismayed to see yet another youngster cast in the role. I suppose youthful facades don’t naturally exude infinite wisdom. So it was Whittaker’s relative youth that struck me more than her sex. . .

Capaldi was awesome
You don’t believe me do you?

I know what you’re thinking. Come off it Steve, Doctor Who is a woman! Tell us what you REALLY think! Right. Well here it goes. . .

The fact is, this was a long time coming. Tom Baker himself floated the idea when he left  the role in 1981 – before Jodi Whittaker was even born. People have been calling for it. The stage has been set for it. Hints have been dropped right left and centre. There has been a lot of time to psychologically prep for it, and so really nothing terribly shocking about it. And, confronted with this reality, is there really anything so terrible about it?

 To clear the way, the best thing they did – they best thing they could possibly have done – was cast the marvelous Michelle Gomez as the Master. Her Marry Poppins-gone bad portrayal was far closer to the traditional Master than that idiotic characterization by John Simm (who apparently was a good Hamlet – again, I blame R.T Davies rather than Simm). In fact, if I were of a conspiratorial mind-set, I’d say they gave us Simm just so we’d welcome Gomez (and in turn welcome Whittaker)
Michelle Gomez: the best Missy since Anthony Ainley

(The very worst thing was to have the Doctor shoot a man just so we could watch a guy into-girl regeneration. The scene had no other purpose; it was off-screen politics intruding on story-telling, out of line with story logic and characterization, and remains unforgivable)

(Hinting that Clara Oswald was actually the Doctor all the time could be either the worst OR the best thing, depending on how you look at it – waking Scrooge-like from that nightmare, I was prepared to accept just about anyone else at all, male or female).
So the groundwork’s been laid out and it really isn’t such a shock. That, and the last couple years have restored my faith in the series. I’ve started enjoying it again, and thinking it’s not quite done with me yet. Under those circumstances, it’s easier to say “let’s give her a chance, and see what she does”.

Glad to see him gone. . .
Now, I’ll tell you what I don’t like: the smug, mocking tones of the commentariate, most of whom don’t give a rat’s ass one way or the other about Doctor Who.  They seem to take such glee in ridiculing the lonely fanboy who’s only trying to hold onto something near and dear to him (and who really isn’t as hostile to the idea as he’s been portrayed). I’ve actually got a lot of sympathy for that fanboy, and can assure you he will be won over if he sees that his show isn’t going away.

On the other hand, laughing and jeering at him will send him to the alt-right forums faster than a Weeping Angel. . .

As for myself, I am not going to be lectured by anybody on how I ought to feel. Not having it. Don’t even try.

The argument that this is just a fictional character in a fairly ridiculous scenario doesn’t impress me.

“It’s fiction! Why do you care?” they say.

I shrug. “If it’s fiction, what’s it to you?”

No no, for someone who’s been watching and internalizing this mythology since he was five, this sort of exchange just won’t do. 

There is of course a deeply rooted sexism infecting the culture in general and certain realms of fandom in particular, but there's a different (hopefully more fragile) sort of sexism going on here. It's more to do with anxieties over the direction of the program than the casting of the lead - which themselves stem from sexist notions of what a female lead necessarily implies.

Does that make any sense?

Let me tell you a story: 

As long as its not her!
Not long ago, I read column taking Sylvester McCoy to task for speaking out against a female Doctor. The author – I’m afraid I’ve forgotten who she was or what outlet she was writing for, so you’ll just have to take my word for it – outlined her vision for Doctor Who, which was poisonously incompatible with mine. Basically she wanted greater emphasis on relationships, and more romantic subplots. Exactly what I didn’t want.

See, human relationships are central to any good piece of fiction. But the Soaperatic treatment favoured by Russell T. Davies and others has always been toxic to me. Who’s sleeping with whom, who’s got a crush on whom, who’s angry with whom, who’s got together with whom – who gives a fuck? It strikes me as insufferably shallow and petty. (For the record, Moffat handles it a hundred times better). I mean, if the Daleks and Cybermen are killing millions of people outside, why should we care if Jackie and Pete Tyler get back together? Why does every companion need to develop the hots for the Doctor? As if the writers can’t imagine relationships and interactions taking any other form? It’s an approach that only values the gratification of the immediate base instinct – the gut reaction. Everyone’s emotional bordering on hysterical, and no one (except Donna’s Grandfather) has any imagination. 

I was always more interested in concepts, scenarios, and, yes, I admit it, action. I preferred stories that glorified critical thinking, with high-falutin’ philosophical pontificating and detailed story worlds. I liked suspense, mystery, internal logic and “whatthehellisthat?” curiosity. I couldn’t care less about the companion’s homelife.  If this approach occasionally neglected characterization, the injection of maudlin melodrama was surely no improvement.

So we’re confronted with two fundamentally incompatible visions, and the question becomes not who the Doctor is but what kind of fiction this is going to be. If, like me, you prefer the way it was, (and how it’s recently become again), you might get defensive and wonder why this writer can’t pick on other fictions more to her liking.

Ah, but here’s the thing, here’s the rub: why should a female Doctor symbolize that vision, but not this one?  That author outlined her own preferences – but she’s just one person. There's no reason a female Doctor should signify that sort of change and no recent evidence to suggest the producers intend to go there.

Is this to say I expect - nay, demand, the show retain male priorities? I'll turn that one around and ask what makes my preferences necessarily, inherently masculine?

Possibly it’s the studio’s sexism that’s more dangerous than the fans’. What’s the BBC going to do with a female Doctor? Will she be permitted everything granted to the men? Will the BBC break down barriers, or just give in to sexist notions? Such as. . ? I’m not the one to ask. That’s a way deeper discussion than what we’ve got going here.

Possible it's the nature of the archetype: in pop culture and genre fiction, all the loners, outcasts, outlaws, and aimless wanderers tend to be men. Historically, women just aren't allowed to be that sort of thing. Is this the adjustment some folks just can't seem to make?

Let’s stop beating around the bush, let’s look this in the face: if the Doctor is indeed the personification of higher principal, the final word, the ultimate authority, the very pinnacle of wisdom. . . can we. . .can I. . .accept a woman in this role?

. . .

This isn’t about Doctor Who anymore, is it?
. . .

In which case, this an idea whose time has come, and there’s really no logical reason to get in its way.

I’m going to go at it from another angle. From the other end as it were. I think of the online Q&A with Matt Smith published in the Guardian not long ago. A parent asked if he had any advice for their young daughter, who wanted to be Doctor Who when she grew up. (“Talk fast” was his advice).  So here’s the question: am I going to be the one to look that little girl in they eye and tell her she can’t be the Doctor? Because she’s a girl?

How about that Year 5 kid I once had, who kept bringing me Doctor Who Lego figurines? Might she want to be the Doctor? Might she deserve the same role model I had when I was her age?

Would the Doctor hold her back?

(What would Sharina say?)[1]

If the Doctor’s taught me anything, it’s that we all matter. Each and every one of us. We are entitled to the same opportunities, the same paths to happiness and the same keys to wisdom. You will recall the “Rings of Akenaten”: The stars died so we could live. There’s not one of us who doesn’t contain the stuff of the universe. It’s time to let our petty differences go.

Here’s to Jodie Whittaker, and Doctor 13. I've got a feeling she’ll be alright.  

[1] There’s probably not more, and most likely less than, five people on earth who will get this reference. One day, there may be more.