Tuesday, December 18, 2012

New Column: Rich

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

Buy it at amazon.com

Monday, December 17, 2012


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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 15, 2012


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

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

Thursday, December 13, 2012


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

You know what I think about posthumous lifetime achievement awards?

These guys.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


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

(h/t: End Of Your Arm)


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

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

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

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 7, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it on amazon.com

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

New Column: Sanctuary

My latest column is up at The Interim, and instead of talking about books, movies and TV shows, I let myself wonder about the sort of people who want to live in condos carved out of former churches - and why there are so many churches to be carved up accordingly, especially in my hometown. This demographic - a small one, to be sure - seems to be a small group within the larger tribe of the "spiritual but not religious," which is to say those folks who find Richard Dawkins as annoying as everyone else, but who find the thought of church-going and faith-confessing to be not only a whole lot of work, but a likely way of spending altogether too much time with people who would have loved to see those former churches used as, well, churches.
In other words, these are people who are happy to discard organized religions but not their intuition that a higher power exists, that life isn’t finite and corporeal, and that the sacred can have a physical presence, even after you put marble countertops and a rainfall shower in it. The rise of this group has increased among the demographically trending Millennials or Gen Y, known more specifically as the children of the Baby Boomers, and the Post’s Silcoff notes that “once unchurched, people tend not to rechurch. And so what will the spiritual life of the children of these Millenials look like?”
The Interim is a pro-life paper, so I was obliged to wonder aloud for the readers just what this trend might mean to the pro-life movement. Nothing good, really, as it's just another example of the spiritual being chased not only out of public and political life, but from moral discretion in general, as a potential source of friction if you should insist too loudly that something just isn't right.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


In a chapter on the middle class in his new book, The Tyranny of Cliches, Jonah Goldberg made an assertion that I had to stop and re-read a couple of times to make sure I understood what he was saying. Not because I didn't think it was true, but because it rang so true, and has (I think) escaped serious analysis.

He begins with a quote from Nancy Pelosi, defending Obamacare as a boon to the creative classes:
"We see it as an entrepreneurial bill, a bill that says to someone: 'If you want to be creative and be a musician or whatever, you can leave your work, focus on your talent, your skill, your passion, your aspirations because you will have health care. You don't have to be job locked.'"
As an appeal to voters, it's curious - the number of people whose creative urges would compel them to throw over their job to pursue their muse is surely tiny, but I suppose Pelosi is casting a wider net, at the sort of people who, Walter Mitty-like, daydream about doing such a thing, and the larger number of liberals who, although they have no intention themselves, think it would be an altogether wonderful world if this were possible. And these are the people who call their politics "reality-based."

Goldberg isn't convinced that there's any plausible link between socialized medicine and enterpreneurialism  - it's beside the point, of course, when you're trying to sell a fantasy - but goes on to take the Democratic notion behind this to its logical end:
"The larger point is that the liberal vision of an advanced society is one where it is finally rich enough to liberate the middle class from their comfortable bourgeois lifestyles and to subsidize their conversion to bohemian ones. If you want to be a 'musician or whatever' it's okay, because we'll tax the rich enough so that you don't have to worry about life's essentials (like health care or housing or food or your kids' education) anymore. In other words they are going to win their centuries'-old war on the middle class by subsidizing the bohemian lifestyle to the point where it no longer pays to be bourgeois. It probably won't work in the long run. But in the short run, it will bankrupt us all, not only financially, but morally as well."
What resonates for me is how much of this I've already seen transpire up here in Canada, where the arts-supporting government bureaucracy is probably a few years more advanced than in the U.S. I've known plenty of creative people who, before they even finished their degrees, figured out that there were institutions in place to subsidize their creative ambitions, and did their best to tailor their life - and work - to maximize their potential as clients of this bureaucracy.

There were classes of grants, from the municipal to provincial to federal level, that they could apply for, in addition to grants for travel and housing. There are government-subsidized co-op apartments in many major Canadian cities built for the express purpose of housing the creative. (And not-so-creative: The late leader of our socialist federal opposition party lived in one for many years when he and his wife were municipal politicians.) Every now and then I would hear someone I knew express fatigue with their workaday life and a longing to express their creative ambitions, which would inevitably lead to them musing aloud about working on a grant application.

Arts grants exist in the U.S., of course, but many of them - including the most generous - are maintained by private foundations. In Canada, however, private arts funding is far more minimal, as the government has had a virtual monopoly on arts funding for decades. But what Pelosi is talking about here isn't a subsidy structure based on applications and deadlines and juries, but an expansion of current social welfare to include not just those who can't work (for a variety of reasons, some valid, some not,) but those who won't work because of the demands of their muse, or the shortage of truly suitable work for those of creative temperament.

I assumed that this sort of thing making headway in the U.S. would be at least a few years in the future, but a Salon article from over two years ago (h/t SDA) suggests that it's already happening:
Mak, 31, grew up in Westchester, graduated from the University of Chicago and toiled in publishing in New York during his 20s before moving to Baltimore last year with a meager part-time blogging job and prospects for little else. About half of his friends in Baltimore have been getting food stamps since the economy toppled, so he decided to give it a try; to his delight, he qualified for $200 a month. 
I’m sort of a foodie, and I’m not going to do the ‘living off ramen’ thing,” he said, fondly remembering a recent meal he’d prepared of roasted rabbit with butter, tarragon and sweet potatoes. “I used to think that you could only get processed food and government cheese on food stamps, but it’s great that you can get anything.”
I might be reading too much into Goldberg, but I think his point about the current motivation for the "centuries'-old war on the middle class" is an abiding distaste of progressives for the sumptuary comforts that the bourgeoisie have gained with the success of capitalism, and their pride in being able to afford them. (Not to mention the ill-concealed elite horror at their persistent bad taste.) Diminishing that - or "liberating" the creatively stifled bourgeois - and they'll see the straitened circumstances and love of small creature comforts that come with the bohemian lifestyle as a feature, not a bug. At least for a while, anyway.

So - government-subsidized roast rabbit with sweet potatoes but no savings, delayed plans for a family and little choice in education for kids when you have children, reliance on public transit and renting but not owning: A twentysomething student or recent arts graduate might not regard these as real hardships, but if they can be sold to at least a measurable minority of the citizenry, they'll certainly ease the burdens on a government committed to programs that necessarily hobble a healthy economy. I know that sounds like a conspiracy, but when you've already produced a generation notable for its sense of entitlement, it's never too early to transform them into a voting demographic reliant on its entitlements.

Buy it at amazon.com

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Here's a fact: Obama won in eight of the ten wealthiest counties in the U.S.

Anyone who can figure out just why that happened might unlock the key to this whole period in history. All I know is that the world became much easier to understand as soon as I gave up on the idea that rich people are essentially social or cultural conservatives.

Echo Chamber

Holy shit. It wasn't a landslide. It wasn't even close. And we can keep calling it "a victory without a mandate," but that's just something we say to comfort our side. I'm sure Barack Obama won't see it that way, and neither will the people who voted for him. As we'll see.

I'm a Canadian, so the results of the U.S. elections are, as I keep saying, just fantasy football for me. Except that it affects the world and its future, so there's that. You'll forgive me if I take my conservative prerogative and use the royal "we" for the rest of this post since the defeat of the Romney/Ryan ticket is a kneecapping for more than just the people who could exercise their franchise yesterday.

It was a serious ass-kicking, and not just because we were so woefully off in our predictions. Allan West lost, as did Mia Love. Scott Brown lost handily to Elizabeth Warren, which kind of sours all the chuckling we did over the Fauxcahontas jokes, doesn't it? Fifty per cent of the popular votes, and 303 electoral college seats. It wasn't as broad a victory as Obama's win in 2008, but it didn't have to be. We were imagining the exact opposite, and I can't imagine that the other side is going to let us forget it.

Obummer. Obozo. Teleprompter-in-chief. The One. Urkel. Barry Hussein. The Kenyan. The Choom Prince. The Fresh Prince of Bill Ayers. Bam-Bam. Obamadinejad. The Light Bringer. The Empty Chair. O-socialist. Obama bin Laden. We've called Barack Obama a lot of names in the last four years, some of them pretty damned clever. (I'm partial to Fresh Prince of Bill Ayers, myself.) But the fact remains that he is, and remains for the next four years, President Barack Obama, and every name we've called him has diminished our ability to take him seriously enough to imagine him actually winning a second term.

If you thought his performance in the first debate would sink him, you were wrong. If you thought young voters were disappointed by the first four years and were going to sleep in, you were wrong. If you thought that the dismal economy had swung the undecided to Romney, you were wrong. If you thought that every stirring YouTube video and damning blog post detailing the disasters of the last four years were one more nail in his coffin, you were so very, very fucking wrong.

If you thought that Benghazi and the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his staff was a fatal, Watergate-sized blow, you were so wrong that you should get up and try and find a mirror right now, because there's a 50-50 chance you put you underwear on over your clothes this morning.

Yes, we've all seen the video of the young Obama supporters at a campaign rally at Ohio University, admitting that they'd never heard of Stevens or Benghazi. It made you laugh and shake your head, but the truth is that they probably voted, and Ohio was the tipping point that won Obama the electoral college. Sure, they sounded stupid, but that doesn't stop them from voting, does it? Shit, not even death can do that anymore.

We've been complaining that the media carried water for Obama, but if these kids hadn't even heard of what happened in Libya, the fact is that they probably don't pay any attention to TV or newspapers in the first place. Which might be good news, depending on how you look at it.

And sure, we can shake our heads at "stupid Democrats" or "stupid kids" or "stupid Americans" (if you're not one.) But it's a numerical certainty that there are probably just as many idiots on the Republican side of the political dodgeball game. They just don't have blogs.

I can say "you were wrong," but the truth is that we were wrong - I was wrong - because I let myself believe that Obama didn't stand a chance. A few weeks ago I had lunch with a friend from New York. He's also a Canadian, and a conservative, but when we talked about the election, he was sure that Obama would win. I did the usual exasperated stammering - "...comeonman economyBenghazi jobsChina WisconsinIranSolyndra..." - but he was right and I was wrong. We were wrong. We were so fucking wrong.

We accuse the media and liberals and academics and practically everyone else not on our side of living in an echo chamber, but the fact is that we've built our own echo chamber, and it was just sturdy enough to last until around midnight last night. And it would be a big mistake if we went about trying to build it again.

So I don't have a lot of advice for my American friends, except that if you know about any voter fraud committed yesterday, you should pursue it even if it makes you look like sore losers. Because after all, that's not the worst thing you're going to be called. And let's be honest - your electoral system is an absolute fucking mess. It would be more accurate if you all stood in a field and yelled "yea" or "nay."

In any case, you can give up on stopping Obamacare. You'll probably end up going broke in about a year or so, and there's a pretty healthy chance you might have to deal with a few more terrorist attacks, perhaps on your own soil. And forget about jobs; the people who make those will be going to earth for the next four years, since they're going to be asked to pay for a lot of free stuff - about a business week's worth, actually. Everyone else will be on the hook for the rest of the year. Good luck with that.

Me, I'm a Canadian. We'll muddle through somehow, probably by doing more business with China, while that lasts. As for jobs, it's irrelevant to me - I made the mistake of working in the only business that's going to keep declining no matter who's in power. Another year of this and my best hope is finding a gig as one of those middle-aged guys in the orange aprons at Home Depot who tells you where to find the galvanized washers. I love you guys and I'd love to worry more about you, but I have my own shit to deal with just at the moment.

Friday, November 2, 2012


If the scandal brewing in Britain over the late TV host Jimmy Savile teaches us anything - and I'd like to hope that some lessons will be learned from it, but let's wait and see - it's that a common language and shared history are no guarantee that it's possible to understand another country's taste or discernment. Try to picture what a creepy, abusive, shameless pederast would look like, and tell me that your mental image doesn't match this one:

I didn't grow up with Jimmy Savile on TV every week - every day, if you include his very high profile as a celebrity and "philanthropist," not to mention his frequent appearance in public service ad campaigns - so I wasn't prepared for the first glimpses I would later get of him, in British music documentaries and on YouTube videos, introducing some band or another while leering at the young dancers uncomfortably bookending him in the shot. There he'd be with his too-tight t-shirts, lank white fringe and cigar, mugging ferociously and looking like someone's unmarried uncle, the one who always made a blaring entrance that even young kids would notice prompted barely disguised winces and eye-rolling glances among the adults.

The details of Savile's crimes are still emerging, with what might turn out to be hundreds of victims over at least four decades, but the real scandal - since nobody, really, is all that surprised by the truth about Savile - is that he was protected by his employers at the BBC, and a corporate culture that regarded his predilections  and those of other men there, as something that reflected badly not on Savile, but on anyone who might have the audacity to complain.

The general attitude that "that's just Jimmy" wasn't just the rule at the BBC, but seems to have become a public truism. Back at the height of their fame, the Nolan Sisters did Top of the Pops, where Savile plied his usual charm on 14-year-old Coleen Nolan. It was worth mentioning in an ITV documentary about the group made a few years ago, as part of a segment where they recall their occasionally shabby treatment at the BBC, and Coleen revisited it recently while appearing on Alan Titchmarsh's chat show:

Nolan recalls Savile's on-camera groping, saying that "in the '70s and certainly the early '80s you didn't talk about it. Everything is so much more in the open now." This sentiment has evolved to the point where writers like the Telegraph's Iain Martin are wondering whether we might as well put the whole of the '70s on trial, since the exploitation of young people seems, in the light of scandals like the Savile affair, to have been part of the zeitgeist of the era.

Martin's thesis is that in the wholesale pursuit of more freedom - political, artistic, cultural, emotional and sexual - we made it possible for anyone, regardless of their proclivities, to pursue the object of their desire, regardless of the object or the outcome:
The great liberal myth of that period is that ever greater freedom naturally has positive effects and produces progress. Bring down all the barriers – on sex, drugs and, yes, rock 'n' roll – and you increase the scope for human happiness. Yet this assumes that all those who stand to benefit have good motives. To Jimmy Savile, and some other bad people, the BBC's rampant liberalism turned out to be just one giant opportunity to do harm to others who should have been protected.
It's a tidy thesis, containing the mistakes and excesses of the period within a finite time frame that happens to encompass the long zenith of Savile's career and celebrity. Martin even goes so far as to let us consider reconsidering the career of someone who was famous in England for almost exactly the same span of Savile's heyday - public morality crusader Mary Whitehouse:

Didn't she warn that the liberal revolution would blur the lines between childhood and adulthood, and that the obsessive sexualisation of our culture was problematic? Was she too voracious in her campaign, making her easy for smart arses to caricature? Of course, but more than forty years on – surveying the fetid swamp in which Jimmy Savile was permitted to operate – it is surely worth recognising that she had a point.
Whitehouse was, of course, to the permissive society what Enoch Powell was to immigration - a disapproving and scolding figure both reviled and ridiculed by forward-thinking people. Whitehouse even had the dubious honour of being attacked in a Pink Floyd song. Like Powell, she might have been proved right in the long run - even the BBC has been willing to admit that Powell's warnings about immigration have borne fruit - but that doesn't mean that someone like Whitehouse or Powell wouldn't be even more reviled today than forty years ago, so completely have their adversaries captured the high ground.

We might even get some comfort in thinking that, with our children more carefully coddled and overseen now than at any time in generations, the likelihood of another Jimmy Savile getting their clammy hands on them has been considerably diminished. We might also, I think, be fooling ourselves.

Just after the Telegraph printed Martin's piece, the London Review of Books published "Light Entertainment," a long essay by Andrew O'Hagan on the post-war, pre-Savile BBC that explained how Savile, so patently unsavoury and unabashed about his tastes, was able to flourish in a corporate culture that, at least in the '50s and early '60s, was considered essentially and even aggressively stodgy and conservative. He writes about men like Lionel Gamlin, a BBC Radio presenter who was, in O'Hagan's words, "a stalwart of light entertainment broadcasting in the 1950s."

He was also a sexual predator, of the rumpled, eccentric type that finds a place where there are lots of young people looking for a chance to get ahead in the world, some of whom might be persuaded to trade something that they seem to have in excess - youth, looks, an awkward but urgent sexual drive - to an older person with access to, well, access. In one paragraph, O'Hagan paints a picture of the sort of world glimpsed in movies like The Killing of Sister George and books by people like Joe Orton:
A friend of Gamlin’s remembers going to see him in a flat in All Souls Place in the 1950s, just round the corner from Broadcasting House. A man from Light Entertainment used the flat during the working week and Gamlin often stayed there with young boys. It was clear to the friend that both men were renting the boys, and that the boys were young: ‘They were boys with the kind of good looks that would seem very lewd in a woman.’ He also remembers going for a coffee with one of the boys from the flat. ‘The boy was nice,’ he said, ‘very young. He thought he might get a job or something of that sort. And it was clear the men were using him for sex. Broadcasting House was well stocked with men interested in sleeping with young boys. It was a milieu back then. And people who sought to be sexual predators knew that. It wasn’t spoken about.’
This brief, vivid scene just precedes probably the most devastating summary of the BBC's corporate culture I've read during these long weeks of hand-wringing in the British press over the Savile affair:
The BBC isn’t the Catholic Church, but it has its own ideals and traditions, which cause people to pause before naming the unwise acts that have been performed on its premises. Perhaps more than any church, the BBC continues to be a powerhouse of virtue, of intelligence and tolerance, but it is now suffering a kind of ecclesiastical terror at its own fallibility.
Everything about the Savile scandal is appalling to contemplate, but as a Catholic, there is some kind of grainy, grisly pleasure in seeing a liberal bastion like the BBC forced to contemplate the same sort of moral and existential crisis that it was so eager to chronicle as it convulsed the Church.

Beyond this, however, O'Hagan's piece shows how a clammy libertinism and an informal network of pederasts found a place at the BBC years before the long shadow of Lord Reith was banished by modish, progressive-minded managers like Hugh Carlton Greene. If it could find a way to thrive in the days of rationing and the Suez Crisis, then flourish when the governors came off in the frenzied lunge for "personal freedom" apparently ushered in by Beatlemania (or so it's understood,) then there's no reason to imagine that men like Savile, prudently chastened and cautious, aren't still occupying offices and drawing salaries there now.

Every parent does damage control in their own mind when they start to loosen their grip on their kids and send them out into the world, imagining, even if just briefly, how the ambition they hope to have instilled in their child might combine with the youth that's briefly their gift to make them a target for an adult skilled in exploiting the former to grab a piece of the latter. The boiling outrage about Jimmy Savile is fueled by an unsteady ratio of righteous outrage and a prurience that comes off as hyperbolic in its call for punishment, mostly because it's a shameful reaction to the dulled sensibilities that let Savile hide in plain sight for so very long.


James Bowman has a devastating review of the film The Oranges, which I knew was going to be a moral train wreck as soon as I saw the trailer. The whole review is good, but one paragraph in particular says it all:
It all comes down, as I say, to the Hollywood culture, which really is wedded to the therapeutic one, particularly in the absolute value it places on the quest for individual happiness and fulfilment and its Nina-like contempt for the rules by which people used to think themselves and their happiness were bound and limited. This merely hedonistic philosophy is occasionally dignified by reference to such fake Chinese proverbs as this: "Sometimes you have to burn your house down to see the moon." Uh, no. I don’t think so. At no times do you have to burn your house down to see the moon. Doesn’t happen. Ever.
There are probably a lot of reasons why I'm finding movie reviewing such an onerous task lately, but Bowman nails at least one reason - the work required to parse out what's wrong with Hollywood films requires you to translate the disordered moral universe that informs so many of these pictures to the more generally centred one in which real people actually live. It's a lot of work, and sometimes, when it's all done, you feel like you've spent far too much time in a place that's the moral equivalent of science fiction - a universe where the laws of physics have been upended to help shepherd a wholly improbable story to a completely unlikely place.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Red Herring

The absurdity of the idea that a few scenes from an unseen movie polemic were the spark that ignited a global incident was summed up in a headline by Australian columnist Tim Blair: “Four dead in film review.” Some Christians, recalling the indifference and even derision that met their protests against films like Hail Mary, The Last Temptation of Christ, Dogma and Life of Brian, could be excused for wondering if they might have been taken a bit more seriously if they’d thrown a rock or two.
I wrote this column for the Interim over a month ago, and it already feels like ancient history, even if the current U.S. administration is still wholly unwilling to acknowledge that a really bad, obscure film had nothing to do with what amounts to an act of war - the murder of one of their ambassadors and three of his American support staff in Libya, a country they were nominally supporting.

Come on - you've got to remember this. No?
Certainly no one is talking about The Innocence of Muslims any more, even if the filmmaker remains in legal custody, out of sight and mind until his hearing three days after the upcoming U.S. election. Basically, though, I started this column as a way of expressing my almost complete lack of interest in any of the movies that have been released in the last year or two, and what amounts to an existential crisis for someone, like myself, whose job description is "TV and movie critic."
For myself, I have to admit that my enthusiasm for moviegoing is at an all-time low in the nearly three decades I’ve been writing about films. At the beginning of the year, anticipation for Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s prequel to his 1979 breakthrough film Alien, was making me frantic for the summer to arrive, but by the time the film actually premiered to lukewarm reviews in early June, I found myself willing to wait till it came out on disc. Nothing tempted me out to the theatres all summer, and apparently my apathy wasn’t unique. 
The point is that the 2012 time capsule, if it's at all honest, will have to include a copy of this execrable movie, for the simple reason that nothing else that hit the theatres (and I use that phrase very loosely) was as important. And that if I were in any meaningful way involved in the movie industry, that would make me very worried.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Pope = Badass

Sometimes I think the Holy Father really wants to fuck with our heads.

It's like Ken Adam meets Guillermo Del Toro.

(h/t: Ghostofaflea)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why I Don't Take Libertarians (or Young People) Seriously

In the interest of openness, Reason magazine has polled its staff to see who they were voting for in the upcoming U.S. elections. The results remind me of why hanging around libertarians reminds me of college.

Also, pot makes you stupid, and "smart" people generally aren't as smart as they think they are.

I was a big fan of Peter Bagge back in the heyday of Buddy Bradley and Hate! comics, but it's sad to see it re-confirmed that he votes like he's throwing a tantrum.

Who did you vote for in 2000, 2004, and 2008? 
Matt Welch: Ralph Nader, largely because of my support for campaign finance restrictions, a subject on which I have since totally changed my mind, but also as a protest against bipartisan civil liberties abuse; John Kerry (to fire George W. Bush); and no one (would have been Bob Barr if I had completed the paperwork in time). 
Jesse Walker: Harry Browne, Michael Badnarik, Bob Barr. 
J.D. Tuccille: If I remember correctly, I voted Harry Browne in 2000, to sleep in and skip the process in 2004, and Bob Barr in 2008. I consider voting non-essential, but excusable as a defensive act and form of expression. Honestly, I sometimes half-complete a mail-in ballot, then toss it. 
Jacob Sullum: Harry Browne, Michael Badnarik, Bob Barr. I admit I had to look up the first two, although giving Jacob Sullum someone to vote for may be the Libertarian Party's most important function. 
Peter Suderman: In 2000 I tried to vote for Bush, but mostly out of sheer laziness never got around to returning my Florida absentee ballot. In 2004, I voted for Bush, which in retrospect was pretty stupid—perhaps even as stupid as voting for Kerry would have been. In 2008, I held my nose and took the trash out of my apartment on election day. But I didn’t vote. Taking out the trash was more satisfying, and more productive. 
Scott Shackford: Ralph Nader (sorry), John Kerry (sorry), Bob Barr (sorry). 
Damon W. Root: I voted for Michael Badnarik in 2004. I didn’t vote in 2000 and 2008. 
Mike Riggs: Nobody, nobody, and nobody. 
Anthony Randazzo: The first time I voted for president was in 2004. I voted for George Bush as a protest vote against John Kerry. I voted for Bob Barr in 2008 (see above reasoning for Gary Johnson). 
Garrett Quinn: I was too young. 2004: Kerry because he was from Mass. 2008: Bob Barr. 
Charles Oliver: No one. 
Terry Michael: Gore, Michael Badnarik, Obama. The 2000 vote was purely pragmatic, as I held my nose voting for the anti-Bush. In 2004, I couldn't be "pragmatic" when the empty suit Kerry said he would have voted for the war resolution even if he had known there were no weapons of mass destruction. And the 2008 vote was an enthusiastic vote for Obama, because I thought he was telling the truth about being anti-war and because I thought he would end identity politics and because I believed he was telling the truth about no health care mandates. I was fooled. But not this time. 
Dierdre McCloskey: The Libertarian candidates, whoever they were. Hmm. Can't bring them to mind. 
Katherine Mangu-Ward: Didn't. 
Tibor Machan: Libertarian candidate (again, to keep libertarianism in the news). 
Ed Krayweski: I was too young to vote in 2000 but I was actually a campus field coordinate for the Gore campaign in northern New Jersey. In 2004 I ended up voting for Michael Badnarik and in 2008 for Obama
Rob Kampia: Harry Browne, Michael Badnarik, and Bob Barr. 
A. Barton Hinkle: This space intentionally left blank. 
Steven Greenhut: To my shame: Bush, Bush and Obama. I voted for Dubya in 2000 because he promised a humbler foreign policy. We see how that turned out. I voted for him again in 2004 for reasons that I forget, but temporary insanity is the only excuse I can muster now. As I wrote in my newspaper column at the time, I voted for Obama because of my belief that John McCain should not be anywhere near a nuclear trigger given his hot temper, which he displayed during a newspaper editorial board meeting. I argued that a McCain/Palin administration would pursue policies not that much different from Obama, except that the GOP would be behind him as he pursued bigger government. I argued that an Obama administration would at least spark a backlash, and the Tea Party movement suggests I was correct on that point at least. 
Nick Gillespie: The Libertarian Party candidate in each, though often without much enthusiasm. 
Matthew Feeney: In November 2000 I was in the seventh grade and had only been living in New Jersey for three months. I had no idea who these Bush and Gore people were. In 2004 I was slightly more politically aware. Had I been of age and an American citizen I would have voted for John Kerry. In 2008 I would have voted for Obama, but I was not an American citizen so could not vote. I was a liberal in 2008 and I liked Barack Obama. An added incentive for my support for Obama was the Republican 2008 vice-presidential nominee.   
Brian Doherty: I have never voted, and don't expect to. 
Shikha Dalmia: I wasn’t a citizen in 2000. I voted for Bush against Kerry in 2004 and didn’t vote for either Obama or McCain (or the Libertarian Party nominee Bob Barr) in 2008. 
David Boaz: I tend to think that think-tank officers should keep their ballots secret. But I am generally guided by the fact that in 40 years of voting I've never encountered an election in which my vote would have made the difference, and by the principle that it's better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don't want and get it. 
Ronald Bailey: Bush, Bush, Obama
Peter Bagge: Harry Browne, John Kerry (whom I despised, but I really wanted to see Bush get fired), and Bob Barr (the worst Lib candidate ever, but still much preferable to McCain or Obama).

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


The other night, through the usual circuitous channels, I managed to watch Take Me I'm Yours, a very recent BBC documentary on the band Squeeze. Like almost every other band that's ever existed, they've apparently reconstituted themselves for what I can't help but call the nostalgia market, many years after their last hit, and almost as many years since the record industry that sold those hits began its utter collapse.

Up front, I loved Squeeze. I'm not sure how well they did in the U.S., but the band was never off the airwaves here for at least three or four years at the turn of the '80s, when they were among the cleverest of bands haphazardly marketed under the banner "New Wave." The first I ever heard of them was "Cool for Cats," a cute, catchy tune, but one that had "novelty" written all over it, and I was happy to assign the band to the same bin as Splodgenessabounds and The Rezillos.

Until I heard this:

This was Squeeze at their most British - a story song straight out of Sillitoe, set in the east and south London (or Birmingham or Liverpool or Manchester) we'd learned to imagine thanks to those English films of the '50s and early '60s that captured a country where anyone who wasn't in the House of Lords lived in a moldy bedsit or shabby terrace house next to a bomb site under a sunless sky. The story was simple enough; a working class life whose trajectory spanned a handful of years between leaving school and realizing you'd run out of options. (The sort of story that would be told later, by Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, with considerably more venom.)

If you were raised working class, it was an old story, played out by family and neighbours, and especially by the older brothers and sisters of my friends. "I never thought it would happen, with me and the girl from Clapham," Glenn Tillbrook sings, the first line of the song plunging you behind the eyes of a young man bewildered by the possibilities his life has offered him, but by the second verse he's moved in with her, by the third they're pregnant, and by the fourth his meagre wages are barely enough to sustain his tiny family.

This was, for working class boys, Alternate Life Scenario A, and as the song comes to its sad conclusion, you can feel your heart tighten with a kind of preemptive dread - or at least mine did, a year from my sixteenth birthday, with this path waiting, perhaps, in my unrealized future. It didn't feel maudlin, though, and the pathos of Chris Difford's lyrics as sung by Tillbrook felt earned, even if they were, as Difford admitted, inspired mostly by one of those sunless movies, and by the BBC's topical Play for Today.

In a few deft lines Difford and Tillbrook painted a very vivid picture of the young man's giddy emotions giving way to weariness, and the love he had for his wife and daughter abiding despite the sorry outcome. It was hard to deny the poetry of a line like "The devil came and took me, from bar to street to bookie," especially since you'd seen some variation of them before at least once in your scant sixteen years, right down to the heartfelt rationalization and inability to take responsibility.

It was a great song, but almost radioactive with pathos, which is why I was grateful when they followed it up with the album Argybargy and a string of fantastically catchy singles like "Another Nail In My Heart," "If I Didn't Love You" and "Pulling Mussels (From The Shell.)" They were cleverly written and beautifully played, and suggested, at least for awhile, that pop music in the new decade dawning would potentially be playful and smart.

The BBC documentary is full of interviews with peers and fans of the band - people like Elvis Costello, Mark Knopfler, Nick Lowe and Aimee Mann, who marvel at the band's cleverness, their talent and musicanship, and especially Difford's lyrics and Tillbrook's voice. At one point Tillbrook, who did most of the music, plays from memory the first song he ever wrote, at 11, after dreaming the tune. It's audacious and sophisticated and recognizeably a Squeeze song, and for a moment you hate him.

The band's heyday takes up perhaps half of the hourlong documentary, after which I was reminded that they made albums after East Side Story and singles after "Tempted," "Black Coffee In Bed" and "Annie Get Your Gun." A lot of albums, in fact, but none of them had a single near as memorable as the dozen collected on Singles 45 And Under, the 1982 greatest hits album that anthologized the band before their break-up and reformation in the mid-'80s.

You can see that Difford and Tillbrook are bewildered at how the band's later incarnations, with eight albums between 1985 and 2010, never really made the same impression as their first four, recorded in as many years. Their friends and fans wonder why later records like Some Fantastic Place were completely ignored, but as you hear snatches of songs and watch clips from videos, the answer seems obvious.

Reflecting on highlights of their latter career, Difford recalls a song he wrote as a plea for help at the bitter end of his drug and drink addiction, and a reminiscence of his late brother, written during a period away from Tillbrook, while Tillbrook tears up as he remembers lyrics Difford delivered to him after the death of his first serious girlfriend, the one who encouraged him to answer the ad Difford put up looking for bandmates years ago.

When we hear the songs, however, they sound competent and tuneful, but decidedly drab. They are, to be sure, Diffordesque and Tillbrookian, but they have none of the punch or charm or vividness of their first dozen or so hits, and all while the quality of pop songwriting in general has gone into a screeching nosedive. Difford and Tillbrook seem certain that they're the best work they've done in years, mostly because they're deeply personal, and inspired by events in their own lives. And that, I think, is the problem.

I keep thinking of how easily you were drawn into a classic Squeeze song like "Another Nail In My Heart." After the pumping, descending riff caught your attention, the first words you heard were "The case is pulled from under the bed/She made a call to a sympathetic friend who made arrangements." The story had begun, and you were drawn into a domestic, as they say in Britain, its narrative unspooling on an exquisite melody. "Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)" was much less obvious - more a descriptive essay on summer vacations and the aspirant working class at play, painted with humour and achingly clever lyrics, with yet another quietly virtuosic guitar solo to provide brief intermission.

I have no idea that any of these songs were inspired by real events in the life of either Difford or Tillbrook; don't forget that "Up The Junction" was really just Difford's idea of kitchen sink drama put through a filter of memory and imagination. In the BBC documentary, he's quick to insist that "Tempted," an achingly soulful song about infidelity, was written when he was happily married, and untempted by the fruit of any other. He had simply made it all up.

Not surprisingly - to me at least - when we see the current version of the band performing their hits, they sound like cover versions. Time is not kind to performers, and while it's probably inevitable that the years will separate an artist from the person they were when luck, inspiration and skill conspired to produce their hits, it's a tragic truth that those years will separate them from being able to fully inhabit those songs again.

It's obvious in the film that Tillbrook has miraculously maintained his voice, and I doubt that the years have dulled Difford's powers of observation or skill with words, but it's also plain that, together or apart, they've been unable to repeat the feats of pop song genius they managed to pull off at least a dozen times when they were in their twenties.

It's not unfair to say that artists can be poor judges of their own work, and personal significance can be precisely that - personal, and impossible to communicate to an audience. With a bit of distance and intelligence, a critic might occasionally be a better judge of an artist's output, but when you're talking about popular art, the only barometer that matters is the public that makes it popular, and whose taste, averaged out over years and generations, is the only verdict that matters.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


No, I'm not watching it tonight. Even if I had cable, there's no way I could bear the possibility that Romney won't be able to hit a single one of the barn-sized targets his opponent has presented him. Dear Americans: Seriously, I love you guys, but how did you ever let it come to this?

I have a documentary on Carroll Shelby and Ferrari that I couldn't finish watching last night. At least I know that has a happy ending.

UPDATE: No, I didn't watch it, but did he really say he'd defund PBS? Whoa.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Context for Kathy: Lightbulb

My friend Kathy has a post up at Taki's on Sandra Tsing Loh's heartfelt cry from the hot tub, a piece in The Atlantic that paints a picture of women - strong, empowered women, my friend - spelling out just how close men are to getting pink slipped out of history. On her way to tearing Loh and her editors a convenient new one, she drops some cultural references that, for the sake of anyone born after 1980 or raised outside the Greater Toronto Area (that would be billions of people, right?) might need a bit of explaining.

After recapping the scene Loh set in her piece, with a group of mostly divorced middle-aged women sitting around getting snapped while complaining about their husbands, ex- and current, Kathy has a little moment of generational pop culture recall, writing that she "was reminded of SCTV’s 'Bill Needle' and his description of the feminist play 'I’m Taking My Own Head, Screwing It On Right, And No Guy’s Gonna Tell Me It Ain’t.' To wit: It’s about how 'women who don’t have any problems sit around talking about their problems.'”

Helpfully, the link to the piece on her blog embeds the original skit:

If you were, say, 17 years old at the time this episode of SCTV aired, you might have found it a bit excruciating to watch. The satire might not have been so obvious, since as far as you can tell a lot of what adults called "theatre" in those days looked about this bad. What you did know was that there had recently been a musical called I'm Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road, and that a local production had a respectable run recently in your hometown of Toronto, playing at the dinner theatre in the same restaurant and banqueting complex where your sister had her wedding reception.

The musical's writer and original star was Gretchen Cryer, who opened the show in the summer of 1978. According to the Wikipedia entry on the show, the plot wasn't wildly different from the satire performed by SCTV's Andrea Martin, Catherine O'Hara and Joe Flaherty:
Manager Joe Epstein returns from a trip and finds his star Heather Jones on stage at a nightclub, singing her own songs about the emancipation of women, together with the two singers Alice and Cheryl and the band. She told Joe Epstein that this would be her new show. Joe, who had been Heather's friend for a long time, reacted angrily to Heather's change, but he was not able to persuade Heather to go back to her usual role. Almost 40 years old, she feels that the time has come for a change. The songs she is singing now are touching Joe in an unpleasant way, because they remind him of the way he treats his own wife. Heather is determined to support women's liberation; she splits up with her manager and goes on to perform her own show.
I'm Getting My Act Together... was produced by Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival, and went on to play Chicago, Los Angeles and London's Drury Lane Theatre. The Toronto production I remember being advertised so relentlessly ran in a swanky licensed venue midway between Rosedale and Forest Hill, the city's most expensive neighbourhoods, so it's not like it was some sort of Living Theatre, avant-garde bourgeouis provocation. Numbers in the show have titles like "Natural High," "Miss America," "Strong Woman Number" and "Lonely Lady." Here's "Natural High," from the cast album:

It's worth remembering that mainstream feminism in the '70s was set to a soundtrack of treacly, earnest, middle-of-the-road hotel lounge act showstoppers, which the SCTV folks pretty much nailed with their parody. For anyone who lived through it, two words should suffice: Helen Reddy.

(If you young folks think I'm being a bit pedantic about all this stuff, you have to understand that you can be a bit stupid sometimes, and we old folks feel we need to talk slow and draw a picture of life as it was lived so very, very long ago.)

The SCTV episode with I'm Taking My Own Head... aired in October of 1981, so Martin and O'Hara had plenty of time to study their subject, and perhaps even take in a performance of Cryer's show at the Ports Dinner Theatre, or perhaps even in Chicago or New York. What anyone growing up in Southern Ontario at the time would know was the inspiration for I'm Taking My Own Head author Libby Wolfson - local daytime TV "women's shows" starring people like Joyce Davidson and Dini Petty, and especially Micki Moore's You're Beautiful, which aired on CityTV, the local channel that SCTV mined relentlessly for material.

Moore's show took its title from the Carole King song that it used as a theme, and oozed an estrogen-thick fog of self-affirmation that could repel men for a block-wide radius. It aired from 1977 to 1989, and mere glimpses of it convinced young boys off sick from school that the girls they knew stood a pretty good chance of turning into the neurotic, needy, resentful creatures who filled Moore's overstuffed couches. There's no helpful archived video of You're Beautiful on YouTube, but here's one of SCTV's Libby Wolfson satires:

The lesson is that you can make fun of things all you want, but it doesn't mean that the object of your humourous scorn will go away, or that it won't actually get stronger, and even thrive under the apparently fertile glare of your derision. Also, a single generation can turn anything from parody to reality.


British historian Eric Hobsbawm died this Sunday, apparently certain to the end that a vast loss of human life was somehow worth the cost of the failed Soviet project. As with Christopher Hitchens - who wrote about Hobsbawm with an easy familiarity - there was no eleventh hour realization, no deathbed conversion. It's about time we stopped fantasizing about these things; leftism, after all, is more a statement of faith than conviction, and faith will endure almost any torment or misgiving.

I feel moved to write about Hobsbawm's passing as a mentor of sorts - not that I subscribe to any facet of his ideologies or consider anything he wrote as definitive, but the truth is that Hobsbawm's work played an important, if conditional, part in taking me to where I am today.

Back at the dawn of the '90s I found myself in a unique and - in retrospect - valuable set of circumstances. I was single and living in a large but incredibly cheap loft apartment on the downtown west side, and thanks to what I realize now was the last brief boom time of journalism and magazine publishing in Canada, I was able to earn a comfortable living while enjoying outrageous amounts of free time. It was also at that point that I realized that my education - five years at a reputable but shabby Catholic boys' school, followed by three incomplete years of an arts BA - had been, to put it mildly, lacking, and that now would be a good time to catch up on some reading.

I decided that my lifelong interest in history was sorely lacking any real foundation in facts or context, and that I was at a loss whenever it strayed into the minefields of politics or economy. I began plowing much of my disposable income into books - the internet was still a few years off, remember - and ended up purchasing Hobsbawm's trilogy of books on "the Long 19th Century."

I read them, and his companion book on the 20th century just ending, with real interest, but found it hard to ignore the feeling that the author's viewpoint was substantially skewed, and that many of his observations didn't really harmonize with my understanding of the same events. In the interest of "equal time," I began reading Hobsbawm alongside books by Paul Johnson, the conservative historian who I like to imagine as his polar counterpart, fated to author books destined to end up on the same sale tables as Hobsbawm's an ocean away from where the two men lived  and worked, if only to provide me with the context I craved.

What rankled me about Hobsbawm was a persistent bloodlessness in his tone, which worked in service to - I would only understand this later - his tacitly Marxist view of the inevitability of history. When people (well, atheists, mostly) hit me with that slyest of questions - "You're a smart person. Think of everything the Catholic Church has done in its history - the Inquisition, Galileo, the witch burnings, the abuse of children; how can you be okay with that?" - I'm reminded of Hobsbawm, repeatedly saying that he was fine with the 20 million (minimum) who died in the hope that the realization of global Communism could be realized, and whose lives were essentially wasted because there's no way that it could, or should.

Never mind the myths and cliches people are willing to spout when trying to damn the Catholic Church. I'm still willing to answer that I'm happy, as a Catholic, to own the errors and mistakes of the Church's history. They happened - albeit not quite the way that most people imagine - as did so much of the rest of the horror and folly we find in history. The fact is that most of it didn't happen in my lifetime, and that which did (clerical abuse) is something that Catholics do protest constantly, to the point where I trust my fellow parishioners more than the bureaucracy of my archdiocese, and I find it hard to fault people whose faith has been shaken by the revelations of abuse and cover-up.

That said, the Church is a greater thing than the people in it, and God's grace a greater ideal than a pervert's betrayal of trust or the selfish ass-covering of a clerical bureaucrat. The ideology of Communism  - dialectic materialsim - explicitly rejects transcendence, so the greater good imagined by someone like Hobsbawm is ultimately destined to be a human achievement. And humans are assholes. That God not only failed, but was built to fail.

But it has to be remembered that much of that tainted history happened (if it happened the way it's imagined) long before I was born; the famines and purges and pogroms of the Soviet era all happened in Hobsbawm's lifetime, and he never found it in himself to protest them, or even tear up his party card.

"He is determined to show that he was not a dupe, but went into it all with eyes open, while he is no less concerned to argue that he did not want to become one of those 'God That Failed' ex-Communists," Christopher Hitchens wrote of Hobsbawm in a New York Times review of his rather blandly titled book Interesting Times. "Is this idealism or cynicism?"

I found most of the ideological leftists I knew to be cynics, from the college classmate who espoused the revolution of the working class but could be found in summer floating in the pool at his girlfriend's house in Rosedale, to the Chilean Marxist who sponged constantly off his wife's parents while fucking around on her at every opportunity. Reading Hobsbawm made it easy for me to imagine how they could do it with a smile on their face.