Monday, February 29, 2016


Early in the life of this blog, I acknowledged that its title was inspired by the now defunct Catholic Legion of Decency, created in 1933 by the American Roman Catholic Church, with the stated goal of "purifying cinema".

In supporting this initiative, Pope Pius XI uttered one of my favorite quotes, "Everyone knows bad movies are bad for the soul". Although his Holiness and I would likely disagree on exactly  what kind of movie might damage your eternal soul.

The goals of that original Legion were not far removed from those of the zeolots who knocked the penises from statuary in Ancient Rome or the village priest in "Cinema Paradiso", pre-screening all the movies coming to town and ringing his little bell to signal which moments must be edited out before they were shown.

The Legion saw and rated all films distributed in the United States from 1933 to 1980, either giving them an "A" for being "morally unobjectionable", rating them a "B" as "morally objectionable" or in many cases "C" for "Condemned".

From their pulpits, Catholic Priests would admonish their flocks of the hellfire and damnation which might come their way if they dared to watch a condemned film.

Explaining the intellectual process by which films became condemned would take a doctoral thesis -- of which there are several if you choose to look them up. Suffice it to say, the quality or intent of any given film took a backseat to ideology and a suspicion of its true motives. 

Much like a lot of the reaction to stuff you innocently post in your Facebook feed.

Among the films condemned in 1933 were such innocuous entertainments as "Flying Down To Rio" and classics like "Queen Christina". Other cinematic touchstones would follow, from "Black Narcissus" to "M", "Rififi" and "Some Like it Hot".

Studio executives and theatre owners being who they were (and often still are) bent over backwards to appease the Legion and the Church, often making edits or relegating films that had been rated poorly to less patronized theatres. Sometimes their distribution was cancelled altogether. 

With few speaking out against them, the Legion further flexed its muscle. In 1960 alone, they condemned "Breathless", "Never on Sunday", "Psycho" and "Spartacus".

And these modern day penis whackers would go on to condemn "From Russia With Love", "The Odd Couple", "The Producers" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show".

By the late 1970's, with artists wresting greater control of their product from the studios, the Legion's power began to fade, but they still insisted Catholics might burn in Hell simply for viewing "Taxi Driver", "Grease", "All That Jazz" and "Used Cars".

Eventually the Legion's name changed, likely to avoid the embarrassment of some of their past condemnations. They became the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures and were later subsumed into the Catholic Conference, their rating system quietly phased out.

During the month of March, Turner Classic Movies will spend Thursdays exhibiting the Legion's impact on film history. The full schedule can be found here.

Like the Pope and I are wont to say, "Bad movies are bad for the soul". But nothing that fits that description can be found on TCM's schedule.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Lazy Sunday #407: Vinyl

I'm a sucker for movies about music. For all their flaws, or maybe because of them, I'll stop to watch "Jersey Boys" or "The Buddy Holly Story" every time they come around. 

"The Doors", "Almost Famous", "The Harder They Come", "A Hard Day's Night". Saw them all multiple times in theatres and pretty much in every format since. 

These were my heroes growing up, the musicians who not only created the soundtrack of my life but informed it in so many ways.

Among these favorites are also films about how the music got on the radio in the first place. Films viewed in almost empty theatres that most people still haven't seen. "American Hot Wax", "The Idolmaker" and "Stardust" (the David Essex version of that title).

Thus, I've been immediately hooked by HBO's "Vinyl", a brilliant recreation of the New York music scene of the 1970's created by some of the people who lived through it. 

Executive producer Mick Jagger's anecdotes of the time alone would've been worth the price of admission. But they are appended by those of Martin Scorsese, an inveterate New Yorker who, despite his film cred, was immersed in that city's music scene from the moment he edited hundreds of hours of concert footage into "Woodstock".

Added to these creative elements are Terrence Winter, writer of "The Wolf of Wall Street", "Boardwalk Empire" and the 50 Cent bio "Get Rich or Die Tryin'"; not to mention such always reliable directors as Allen Coulter.

"Vinyl" is about the eternal clash between Art and Commerce, told in this case from the point of view of a bunch of sleazy record executives. And it is riveting.

While society and the media focus on those who rise to the top, the successful artists and the celebrities, the story of what goes on in the trenches, where and how the music is made, is much more complex and revealing.

The mob run record companies, payola, artists pistol-whipped or drugged into destitution for trying to collect their royalties. Songs stolen from gullible writers. Hits created by studio accidents. Iconic bands whose diverse sounds were really the work of small packs of studio musicians with names nobody has ever heard.

This week I heard another of these lost stories from a guy who was also part of the New York scene -- Tommy James of "Tommy James and the Shondells". 

Following a string of gold and platinum records, James and his co-writer Richard Cordell went into the studio to record what would become another hit for the group entitled "I Think We're Alone Now". 

Pleased with what they'd accomplished, they sat down to play the master tape for a fellow record producer, who put the reel-to-reel tape on his tape deck backwards and pressed play.

Of course they immediately knew there was a problem. But Cordell, ever alert to a catchy Rock riff, insisted the tape keep playing so he could copy down the inverted chord progression. 

He added lyrics and The Shondells had their next hit, "Mirage". 

As an acknowledgement of where the record came from, the embedded heartbeats inserted in "I Think We're Alone Now" were added to the final track of "Mirage" -- but reversed.

If you haven't yet done so, please watch "Vinyl". Yes, it's flawed. But its imperfections are also part of its beauty. Interwoven in the myriad plots are revelations on where inspiration is found and how creativity blossoms. 

Creativity like that found in two hits by "Tommy James and The Shondells".

Enjoy your Sunday.

Thursday, February 25, 2016


Back in 1964, Don Owen did something nobody thought was actually possible. He made a Canadian feature film. Perhaps the first of what could be considered the country's modern era.

Don had been an anthropology student at the University of Toronto and worked part-time as a stagehand at the CBC. At some point, he talked himself into a job at the National Film Board of Canada and was assigned to their documentary unit.

Somebody there decided the NFB should do a short documentary about a juvenile delinquent and a parole officer. Maybe something that could be shown in schools to show that youth being rebellious wasn't really all that cool.

Don took the assignment. But instead of finding real people, he hired a handful of actors, took to the streets of Toronto and shot a raw and largely improvised feature called "Nobody Waved Good-bye".

It included scenes where lead actor, Peter Kastner interacted with real Torontonians, who had no idea they were in a movie. Including one sequence in which he almost got punched out for short-changing customers in a parking lot.

The NFB didn't know what to do with Owen's combination of improv and cinema verite, so they sent it off to the New York Film Festival where it garnered rave reviews, a US distributor and the first of many festival prizes. 

One New York film-maker by the name of Francis Ford Coppola was so inspired by the film, he snagged Kastner to play the lead in his own breakthrough feature, "You're a Big Boy Now".

Suddenly, Don was the hottest thing in Canadian film-making.

But sometimes being the hot new thing is both a blessing and a curse. Yes, he had a hit movie. But no one around him quite knew how to support the new guy or what should come next. 

So, while developing a more structured and traditional feature, he shot some documentaries with such varied subjects as Mohawk steel workers in Manhattan ("High Steel") and new Montreal Poets ("Ladies and Gentlemen -- Mr. Leonard Cohen") while continuing to win awards at film festivals around the world.

In 1966, he released his 2nd feature, the flawed "Notes on a Film About Donna and Gail". And followed it up a year later with another, "The Ernie Game". 

"The Ernie Game" had been developed as one of three features the CBC intended to run as part of their Canadian Centennial celebrations. But it was determined to be "too extreme for broadcast". Instead it won "Best Feature" at that year's Canadian Film Awards and went on to further recognition at Festivals in Berlin and Chicago.

I first met Don in the mid-70's when he was prepping another feature, "Partners". He was an eccentric, energetic, thousand ideas a minute kind of guy, who could appear unfocused and erratic, but still had the power to zero in on plots and characters that were utterly unique.

By this time, the Canadian film industry had caught up to and begun to surpass him -- only going in a direction that ultimately wasn't great for either one of them.

Referred to now as "the good old, bad old tax shelter years", it was a time when dozens, maybe hundreds of films got made using money from dentists and real estate agents. Movies which starred B-Movie or TV series Americans and copied whatever genre trend or high concept that was the flavor of the month.

Movies that tried to be about something important they were not. And woe to the writer/director who didn't want to work that part of the turnip patch -- namely Don Owen.

Don went into a period where he wrote or developed a lot of projects that didn't really go anywhere. In 1984, his sequel to "Nobody Waved Good-bye" -- "Unfinished Business" would win Genie nominations for writing and directing, but not success at the box office.

He would make one final feature, "Turnabout" in 1988.

Don Owen died last Sunday, a decade after the Toronto International Film Festival had hosted a retrospective of his work. The city he had first brought to the screen now home to dozens of crews shooting dozens of films every day.

One wonders what might have happened had he followed orders and just shot a little documentary about a parole officer and a juvenile delinquent.

But he didn't. 

For a taste of what the world was like back then, you can see "Nobody Waved Good-Bye" here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Bring On The Schutzenmeister!!!!

If you understand the above title, you're clearly as twisted as me and every other dedicated fan of the funniest series on television, FX Network's "Archer".

For the uninitiated, "Archer" is a raunchy animated spoof of an intelligence agency sadly lacking in intelligence that recently had to get rid of its initial moniker -- ISIS. 

Season Seven of "Archer" arrives on March 31, its ad campaign kicked off by inserting "The Girls of Archer" into this year's Sports Illustrated Swim Suit Edition.

It may seem odd advertising an animated series about spies in a magazine dedicated to pretending an interest in swimwear while mostly parading cleavage. But within the alternate reality of "Archer" it makes perfect sense.

Past marketing efforts have featured hacked nude photographs from Pam Poovey's cell phone and having the cast members join Reddit's r/GoneWild forum.

My own reason for this early warning is to give you enough time to binge watch seasons one thru six on Netflix. Or in my case re-watch the particularly bizarre Season Five, better known as "Archer:Vice"; wherein the agency goes rogue by selling off its cocaine stash and getting into direct competition with the Colombian cartels.

This year, creator/writer/producer Adam Reed takes the team to Los Angeles, promising to make Archer "the biggest Dick in Hollywood". You can savor a teaser of some of the action here.

Or just check out this inspired title sequence.

Schutzenmeister!!! Let's do shots!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Nobody Wants To Read Your Stupid Script

I made my first visit to Hollywood a few weeks before production began on the first feature film I'd written. And one of the first people I met there was a high-powered agent.

He was the acquaintance of a mutual friend who, on hearing I was also starring in the movie but not understanding that the business in Canada wasn't the same as it was in LA, figured he'd better meet this unknown hyphenate -- at a time when that word was also pretty much unknown.

I dropped into his office on a Friday afternoon, immediately struck by two floor to ceiling walls of shelved screenplays, each with the title scraped on its spine in a thick Sharpie font.

I didn't recognize any of the titles, nor did I gain some early insight into the lopsided ratio between written and eventually produced screenplays.

I just marveled at the sight. It was more scripts than I'd ever seen in one place. The work of hundreds, maybe thousands of screenwriters. Proof that such a profession actually existed outside my homeland.

I asked the pert receptionist if she read them. She shuddered slightly and said, "Not since I got promoted to answering the phone".

That struck me as odd. Why would anyone not want to be among the first to experience a story that might one day thrill and inspire millions, maybe even generations of millions?

The agent was welcoming and enthusiastic, wanting to know all about me, a no-nonsense ex-pat from New York who'd been to Canada "For EXPO" and wondered why more of those "hot French-Canadian ladies" weren't movie stars.

During our chat, he sorted through a pile of scripts, selecting about a dozen that he stuffed into one of those briefcases airline pilots used to carry. His reading for the weekend. 

I asked if any of them looked promising. He allowed that he'd much rather spend the next two days in Santa Barbara. 

It confused me that such a supposed show-biz go-getter was less than thrilled at prospecting for what could be another gold mine.

It was my first insight into the reality that nobody either likes or wants to read a script.

No matter that no movie or TV show gets made without them. Despite all that rides on finding the next big thing, a fresh voice or a unique take on an old genre, the higher people rise in the business, the less time they spend searching for any of that. And what searching is done is treated as an agonizing chore.

The pain is somewhat relieved by resorting to "coverage", a three page, double-spaced precis of a script's plot, usually written by an eager and mostly untrained intern working at minimum wage -- with one of those pages dedicated to casting possibilities and/or market potential. 

Sometimes, they'll pop an audio version onto an iPod to be consumed during a commute or at the gym. Anything to avoid full attention and concentrated appraisal. 


Because maybe reading a script is hard work and they never really learned the discipline. Perhaps because that ratio of scripts put into play versus those green-lit is daunting. Per chance because writers have become just as jaded and don't try as hard to set their work apart.

Whatever the reasons, we may finally be at the point of peak-read. 

From here on nobody ever needs to crack the cover of a script again. For veteran agent Scott Foster and software guru Brian Austin have teamed to create Scripthop.

Currently free, but soon to be provided to corporate subscribers for less than $30/month to manage their libraries, the software will read a script and do a complete character breakdown in under four seconds. 

That's less time than it takes most of us to type FADE IN:

Scripthop also spits out a detailed character breakdown along with mapping each character's "cathartic journey" as well as their screen time and shoot days.

Never again wonder if Leonardo thinks your script is Oscar bait or can fit between the climate conferences and super model yacht vacations on his schedule.

You can test drive Scripthop here

And the next time you submit something, you can let them know you've already done their reading for them.

You have no idea how much that will be appreciated.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Lazy Sunday #406: The Toast Master

There's a lot of talk about robots and artificial intelligence these days. And many of us are starting to wonder not just what people will do for a career in the future, but how they'll spend the extra time they have once smart devices take over their everyday chores and errands.

There have always been people who paid their way by finding a little niche that fit perfectly with their talents, abilities or personality. 

But there have been just as many who squandered their resources by buying into that old showbiz creative conference adage -- "Find Your Passion". 

In my experience, that used to be actors from successful TV series who suddenly decided their artistic sensibilities were better reflected by sculpting or painting and whose output now fills their garage and basement while they snag the occasional dinner theatre gig.

But now there seem to be more of us with the same desperate need to reflect our individual creativity and unique personality. 

When I first moved to the West coast I met a woman who claimed she legitimately paid the rent as a "Barista Inspector" -- meaning she went around to coffee places making sure the people running the Latte maker correctly crafted that little leaf at the top of your pour.

I also ran across a guy who billed himself as captain of the city's ONLY "zero carbon footprint whale watching vessel" which looked a lot like a big rowboat.

My favorite was the aging hippie at a farmer's market selling moldy bark at $60 a pop that he claimed had been infused with mushroom spores on his strictly organic non-GMO farm. Apparently I just had to set it outside and harvest a pound of mushrooms every few months. 

I didn't bother calculating how long the return on that investment on his ingenuity might be.

I think most of those people had been influenced by the ethos of the "Maker" culture. One that insists we all have a special marketable skill nobody else has and our inherent resourcefulness can match whatever corporate industry does to earn its billions.

This weekend I visited a tech show where one group of confidently independent Makers was using a prohibitively expensive 3D printer to craft flip-flops. One at a time, two hours to a pair. 

I realized this has now gone far too far.

A realization also reached by a couple of advertising guys named Andy Corbett and Patrick Kehoe.

Yes, making a living in the future may be a problem. But I'm not so sure your inner child or some personal passion has the solution.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Lazy Sunday #405: The Dogist

Yesterday was my dog's birthday. And of course we took the requisite Birthday picture. Not an easy task given a dog who spots a camera, iPhone, iPad or any other recording device and immediately turns away.

The above is the best I got after half an hour of cookies and cajoling and finally hog-tying her back legs so she was kinda stuck.

Most dogs don't like having their pictures taken and there are many theories on why that is.

Some say they see a camera as an object that isn't edible or shaped like a ball so they have no interest in what you might be doing with it.

Some believe the lens reminds them of an eye and dogs don't make eye contact with somebody they don't know.

I think I'm in the group who believes they know you haven't made a deal with their agent.

But some people have mastered the art of the dog photo. William Wegman became a master of it and others like Seth Casteel continue to raise the bar with series like his underwater dogs...

In my world either me or the dog would drown before we got within a mile of a picture like that.

A while ago, New York Photographer Elias Weiss Friedman embarked on a project to capture the nature of dogs on the streets of New York. And over time he discovered a lot of tricks to make dogs pose for him.

This earned him the nickname "The Dogist", a lucrative book deal and the interest of filmmaker E.J. McLeavey-Fisher.

If you've got a dog, Friedman's work will inspire you. And if you don't have a pooch in your life, it might make you want to get one.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

The Dogist from E.J. McLeavey-Fisher on Vimeo.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Lazy Sunday #404: When It Comes To The Crunch

It's Super Bowl Sunday. And along with the excitement about the big game we're being bombarded with warnings about concussions on the field as well as the damage we'll do to our livers and cholesterol levels while watching said violence.

But maybe there's something else we need to discuss of equal importance...

I once got hurt on a football field.

But it wasn't playing football. I was starring in a movie as a character who at one point gets into a fight with a football player during a game.

It was a low budget affair so we couldn't buy the co-operation of any professional gridiron outfits. So we did the next best thing and promised a semi-pro team they'd get famous if they helped us out.

We spent the afternoon approximating a real game by shooting an inter-squad practice with some spectacular plays. Then we did the fight scene which included a shot of me getting leveled by some behemoth Guard or Tackle.

First take, the player, who wasn't a trained stunt guy because we couldn't afford those either, made sure he didn't hurt me and the hit looked totally fake.

Now, I'd had stunt training in theatre school and mostly did my own fights and tumbles. A lot of the time, it probably got me jobs since Producers were looking for ways to cut costs and I was too dumb to charge them extra for such additional services.

So, I told the player it was okay to hit me the same way he'd hit anybody else, because I knew how to lessen the impact and break my fall so I wouldn't get hurt.

And he did exactly what he was asked to do.

And I broke two ribs. On the first day of a grueling four week shoot.

Dumb move? Yes.

Reckless? You could say that.

Worth it? Absolutely. Even considering how much some of those decades old stunts gimp me out on cold mornings these days.

Why? Because the shot looked great. The pain looked real. And the audience was pulled a little more into the story.

We all do things common sense and people who take the long and cautious view tell us that we shouldn't.

But think of all the "bad" decisions you've made that either turned out great or resulted in an story that you can still dine out on. Life just isn't about following the instructions in the manual.

Where's the fun in living longer as opposed to well? How much has your world been expanded by talking to people your mom, your teachers, the cops or your Ex suggested you avoid? What part of the experience of living would you have lost by considering all the negative consequences that might arise?

And while it's alright for others to remind us there are consequences for our actions and we're doing something potentially harmful, when did we become a society insisting we know better than someone else how their life should be lived?

Those guys playing in the Super Bowl today made their own decision to be there. The guy adding another bottle of hot sauce to his chili recipe and going with the LARGE margaritas did too.

Time to back off the finger wagging and...

Enjoy Your Sunday.