Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lazy Sunday # 82: It Was The Best Of Times. It Was The End Of Times.

Everybody has heard that ancient Chinese saying: “May You Live In Interesting Times”. It gets trotted out to describe virtually every difficult news day or life crisis. For me, it’s always been one of those phrases of inscrutable wisdom reminding us that while things may feel chaotic and overwhelming, nobody really wants to live in “uninteresting” times.

In my own lifetime, I’ve seen men walk on another heavenly body, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Toronto Maple Leafs win a Stanley Cup. Since there’s a good chance none of those things will ever recur in what remains of my life, I’m fairly pleased to have experienced those “interesting times”.

But a lot of people insist that when things get too interesting , using all sorts of snippets of news and hard to understand human activities as proof, it’s a sign that the end is near. Apparently, there’s a part of some of us that just short circuits when Life gets overly complicated and, well, there’s no longer any point. So it’s just gonna be OVER for everybody.


A few weeks ago, I shared a cup of tea with an elderly guy from a trailer park, who went to great lengths pointing out the locations where I would be safe when the end of the world comes in 2012. None of the spots on his map are very populated, or at least they aren’t --- at the moment.

His theory is based on some stone carved Mayan calendar created by a civilization that didn’t count too far past three.

My own theory is that we’re dealing with a stone carver who just ran out of rock or got hauled off before he was finished to be one of those human sacrifices the Mayans used to ensure a good harvest.

You’ll note the clear intelligence of that belief, so of course their calendar must be more accurate than an Atomic clock.

About 30 years ago, some cult or other publicized that the world would end on an absolutely precise time and date. In Toronto, it was around three on a Summer Sunday afternoon.

A few friends and I happened to be drinking beer on my front porch as the time approached and the Rock DJ we were listening to was doing a countdown in case any of his listeners had a Bucket List to get through.

About ten minutes before the allotted time, however, there was a big roll of thunder and we looked up to see this massive storm rolling in over the city. It was a definite “Holy Shit!” moment. But a few minutes later the rain was gone and the sun was shining again. The best part of that afternoon was that the cult issued a press release a couple of hours later insisting that indeed “The world we once knew has ended”.

Nothing I like better than a cult that remains committed to its ideals no matter the reality.

Which brings me to Hollywood and its endless commitment to the cash to be made from the Apocalypse. From Cecil B. DeMille to Michael Bay, there’s always been somebody in Tinsel town ready to destroy whole civilizations for our enjoyment.

There’s already a movie version of “2012” on the way from Roland Emmerich, a guy who has wiped most of us out a few times now with “Independence Day”, “The Day After Tomorrow”, “Godzilla” and “Eight Legged Freaks”. Surprisingly, the last two didn’t also wipe out his career.

Most of these movies are Special Effects showcases designed to do little more than quicken pulses and sell popcorn. But every now and then one comes along that wants to be something more.


“Legion” won’t be out until the end of January next year. Just about the worst time to release a movie and suggesting it isn’t good enough to be a Christmas blockbuster. But I have a feeling, it’s got “something”.

I liked this concept when it first came around in 1995 as “The Prophecy” starring Elias Koteas as a disillusioned priest turned homicide detective and featured Christopher Walken as the avenging angel Gabriel and Vigo Mortensen as Lucifer. Basically, God decides he’s had enough of our crap and it’s up to somebody to change his mind before it’s too late.

Based on the video below alone, I’m looking forward to “Legion”. And if this trailer is any indication, the end of the world actually is getting closer for TV shows that don’t want to spend money to compete with these kind of visual thrills and networks who won’t really push the content envelope.

I guess when all’s said and done, the best of times for some will be the end of times for others.

Enjoy your Sunday.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Tweeting the Twister


Last night a massive storm front slammed through Southern Ontario dropping a half dozen tornadoes all around, as well as in, the town where I live. This morning, the city of Vaughn and the town of Durham are still under declared states of emergency as they cope with considerable damage. Fortunately, there is only one confirmed death so far, an eleven year old boy who was camping with his mom, but many people are still missing.

The storms came in a wishbone shaped double wave with the first front hitting just before 6:00 pm. I was working at the computer, suddenly aware that the outside light had virtually disappeared. I looked up to see a black sky turn green with two funnel clouds forming to the North and West. This is far from Tornado alley, but any idiot could have realized what was happening.

Unfortunately, a special breed of idiots remains in charge of local Canadian television, for the station I had on in the office hadn’t even issued a storm warning.

I sprinted out to herd in the livestock, realizing we might be in serious trouble when I found my sheepdog already sitting completely still dead center of the house. The cat shot in from the deck and despite hating the dog even more than she hates me, took up a position right under the pooch.

The local radio station that was on in the kitchen was spitting out storm warnings as fast as it could, also letting me know that Durham had been hit hard. I sealed the windows against the monsoon as massive lightning strikes that looked like a map of the circulatory system began hitting about every five seconds.

Since the lightning was now crackling the radio so much it was unlistenable and local television was in news hour mode, I went back to the TV to find out what was happening.

I learned that the Lockerbie bomber had been released, the Prime Minister was enjoying his trip through the Arctic and Hurricane Bill was threatening Bermuda. Nothing about what was happening right outside my window and less than 30 clicks from where these broadcasts were originating.

To be sure, there had been a mention of Durham, where the first Tornado had hit an hour earlier and that there were “suspected” touch downs of funnel clouds in Vaughn and my hometown of Newmarket. But no details. No raw video from a courageous videographer. No field reporters ducking flying cows.

In the centralized model of Canadian local TV I’d predicted months ago but never thought might ever personally affect me, the two million people who live just beyond the Greater Toronto Area had no television service addressing the imminent threat they all faced.

Instead, I was treated to the same pre-packaged news segments, the same smiling meat puppets and the same banal “Sparky, what the heck’s happened to my Blue Jays?” banter.

By now, the weather site on my computer was giving me moving satellite maps and Doppler radar showing the second, much larger wall of storms approaching fast and a couple of my friends were Tweeting blocked roads and that the Twister in Newmarket had hit a children’s riding competition at the Canadian Equestrian Centre.

I started longing for the platoons of bubblehead blondes who appear on every LA street corner after an earthquake tremor, clutching their microphones and bug-eyed with intensity.

Can you imagine that many hot buttons (Tornado, kids in jeopardy, terrified ponies) being pushed in a market that actually tries to cover local news?

I kid – but consider for a moment that you are monitoring police bands in a Canadian TV newsroom and hear that a Tornado has hit a horse farm where hundreds of kids are participating in a riding competition. Wouldn’t that strike you as somewhat important, that maybe those hundreds of kids had parents who might want to know their children were in need of assistance?

But nobody reported any of that information even as the hyper-animated ass clown who does local weather on CTV finally started to show the Doppler I’d been getting online for an hour. You almost felt sorry for the poor schmuck. It was obvious that he was starting to grasp the enormity of what was happening and that hundreds of thousands of people within the sound of his voice were quite possibly in grave danger. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t shake his “Hippy-Dippy” on-air persona and be real for a change.

By the time the newscast ended, the streets around my home were fast-flowing, axle-deep rivers. A three foot thick tree down the block had been snapped in half and roofing material was skittering past everywhere.

I got Tweets saying every ambulance and fire truck in town was headed to the Equestrian Centre, that trees were blocking streets and barns had imploded. But my local news stations had all gone back to regular programming.

Try to get your heads around that…


If it had been up to them, these guys would have held off coverage of 9/11 until “Regis and Kelly” was over.

So I started Tweeting, in the hope that somebody following might get information they could use:





Sorry, lost it a little there and went for the Fox News version of news coverage.




Once the rain let up a little, I piled in the car to see if I could help at the Equestrian Centre as well as check on a friend who lives right next door to it. Power was out everywhere, trees snapped in half, debris all over the place. It looked like the twister had scored a direct hit on the show ring. It was gone. Horse trailers were shattered, over-turned and tossed into ditches. Barn roofs and doors had been torn away.

Cars lined both sides of the road, locals like me who’d come to lend a hand. OPP and York Region Cops were comforting terrified pre-teen girls in Jodphurs and riding boots as nearby farmers filled arriving horse trailers with dozens of skittish horses. A paramedic nearby was assuring a distraught woman that nobody had been seriously hurt as a cop let people know they could go back home.

“Nothing more you can do here.”

But there is something more I can do.

I can ask where the hell that $150 Million went.

I can demand to know why the people who are supposed to bring me local news are completely incapable of doing that.

I can try to discover why a part of the country with the largest concentration of media we’ve ever known didn’t get the journalism they pay for or even received the most basic level of service.

I’m sure CTV and Global will plead poverty and whine that they no longer have the staff to support their mandate and also need to rely on the Ad revenue from celebrity gossip to stay afloat in these “tough economic times”. Hell, they’ll probably use this tragedy to ask for EVEN MORE money from tax payers.

So, let’s be honest with ourselves. The people who run broadcasting in this country care more about Ricky Martin’s babies than yours and have more time for cell phone footage of Brad Pitt asleep than any programming Canadians might create.

We could write our MPs or complain to the CRTC. But it’s clear they’re not going to do anything.

At the most the CRTC will hold more secret meetings while denying that they even knew there were meetings.

The Greed and incompetence in our industry and the unwillingness of our elected representatives to act has reached a point where our television industry is no longer relevant to anyone.

Local TV is officially dead in Canada and it went not with a bang but a Twitter.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Lazy Sunday # 81: WOODSTOCK

I never made it to Woodstock. 

I wanted to go. Everybody I knew did. I think my first awareness of it was a full page ad in an issue of Rolling Stone early in the summer of 1969. The line up of talent was awesome, unbelievable for somebody who lived in Regina and only got to see the odd top 40 artist like “Tommy James and the Shondells” or “The Turtles”.  The thought of ever seeing Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin or The Who in concert was a distant dream, let alone the possibility of seeing them all, and many more, on the same weekend.


But a year later, I got to attend Woodstock and I’ve been back many times since, courtesy of Michael Wadleigh’s magnificent documentary.

The story of how “Woodstock” (the movie) came about is just about as fascinating as how the festival itself came into being.

In 1969, “Mike Wadley”, as he was often billed by the low budget producers who hired him as a cinematographer, was an Ohio filmmaker trying to crack the counterculture film scene in New York. But that crowd was hanging with Andy Warhol and none of Wadleigh’s “underground” films ever made a dime. But at some point he made the acquaintance of Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, the primary visionaries behind the Woodstock Festival, and they agreed to let him film the concert.

woodstock 5

Kornfeld approached Martin Weintraub, an executive at Warner Brothers, for a donation to the festival and came away with $100,000 in return for the distribution rights of any film that might result. Since Warners was nearly bankrupt at the time, Weintraub had to battle the other Warner execs finally putting his own job on the line before the company would cut the check.

But $100,000 wasn’t anywhere near what Wadleigh soon realized the massive event would cost to cover. So he went around the New York film community, finding 100 underground filmmakers, film students and out of work crew people, who would give him the weekend for free. In return, if the film succeeded, he promised to pay them double their normal rate.

Among those who signed on to edit the film were a couple of complete unknowns named Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorcese.

woodstock 4

Wadleigh arrived at Woodstock (actually Bethel, NY) with his crew and 1000 cans of film. But instead of just shooting the acts on stage, he set several of his cameramen loose in the crowd and on the town of Bethel, documenting not only the “Hippies” attending the festival but the reactions of small town America.

Like those attending Woodstock, Wadleigh’s crew dealt with the torrential rains, the mud, the congestion and lack of food, water or even a place to relieve themselves, constantly recording everything that happened around them. The following week, he dumped 120 miles of exposed footage in the laps of Schoonmaker and Scorcese.


What resulted was not only the best concert film ever made, but an intelligent and artistic examination of a world in transition.

In backroom battles with Warners, Wadleigh managed to keep the performances they felt the audiences only wanted to see off screen for the first 23 minutes of his original 3 hour release cut. He knew that for the film to succeed, the scene had to be completely set for not only the music lovers Warners needed to immediately recoup their investment, but the millions more who needed to understand what Woodstock really meant and whose return visits could make the film a real success.

And those first 23 minutes before Richie Havens, a relative unknown at the time, takes the stage, remain as powerful today as they did back in 1970.

Although “Woodstock” went on to earn more than $50 million in its initial release (back when movies cost $2) and won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Michael Wadleigh, once again, never made a dime. And while the later re-cuts and re-releases and the use of the footage he shot in his docs “Janis” and “Hendrix: Live at Woodstock” would finally earn him his financial due, he has only made one more feature film, 1981’s “Wolfen”, an inspired horror film years ahead of its time.


Twenty years after Woodstock, I met Richie Havens on a beach in the Caribbean. He was still touring (still is today) and still closing his concerts with “Freedom” the song made famous by the film. Havens didn’t really remember how Wadleigh and his crew went about covering his appearance that day, overwhelmed as he was by the moment and what it meant to someone of the Peace, Love and Groovy generation.

“You need to understand what it meant,” Havens said, “I looked down at that crowd from the helicopter bringing us in. All those people standing against the War and the darkness and the rigidness of the society. For the first time, you could see that we were winning.”

Here then are those opening moments of “Woodstock” followed by my favorite sequence of the film. Everything here has been copied a thousand times by now and evolved in a million different directions by ten million different artists. But this was the first time -- in one film – made by a handful of gifted people.

Peace. Love and Far-out, man.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Unnecessary Roughness


There are days when I feel like LIFE has decided it’s exam time.

I look around hopefully for a referee who’ll toss a flag and blow his whistle after I’ve been hit and call an “Unnecessary Roughness” penalty.

But referees only manage the violence in organized sports. LIFE gets to say, “Gee, Jim seems relatively content lately. Let’s see what we can do to shake things up. How about some of those friends he’s stuck with through tough times.  Let’s try him on that!”

And like all LIFE tests (and well written jokes – even when they’re on us) these pop quizzes come in threes.

Test #1.

I’m lining up a film cast and have breakfast with an actor who’s great, difficult, but a long time friend. She needs the work and “loves” the part. I need her talents and am willing to pay some of the Karmic debt I know it will cost to shepherd her through the shoot. But instead of a “Yes” or “Thanks for thinking of me”, I get a list of actors and directors who are the only people she’ll work with.

As the cherry on that Sundae, I learn she has already forwarded the script to most of them for comments or consideration and “They’ll be calling you".

Now being a Producer, I know I can find ways to blow off most of those people without upsetting anybody. But it’s work I don’t need and my first thought is to avoid all this and contact my second choice for the role, knowing I’m already settling for less at the wrong point in the process and maybe jeopardizing a decades long friendship to boot.

Test #2.

I have a producer pal who is trying to sell a show to a Canadian network and getting far more than a nibble. But they (being a Canadian network) won’t or don’t have any money to pay for development – and specifically for the budgets and breakdowns and other financial ephemera that gives networks confidence – or at least something thick enough to cover their tender behinds.

I agree to help, on the understanding that I’ve got my own “paying” priorities and I’ll get his documents to him by the end of the month. He calls the network to let them know the stuff is on the way.

And then -- hanging up the phone from fending off one of the actress’s friends last night, I get an email from the network exec who really needs the material before he goes on vacation --- this weekend. 

I wrote back with a list of books he might want to pick up for the beach and copied the Producer buddy a much shorter list of people who can accomplish the task by that deadline, although probably not as a favor.

And those emails went out as my sports ticker BEEPED with…

Test #3.

The Philadelphia Eagles have signed Michael Vick to a two year $7 Million contract.

Now, I can’t remember how long I’ve been an Eagle fan. But it’s certainly been as long as I’ve been a dog lover.

And for those who don’t know that connection, Michael Vick was the eminently talented and highlight reel quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons until he was convicted of running a dog fighting ring and personally dispatching those animals who “wouldn’t compete”.

And Michael didn’t just take his passivist pooches down to the Vet for a “humane” departure. He personally drowned them, or electrocuted them or hung them from trees and in one case flailed the poor animal against the ground until he beat its brains in.

Even the dogs who managed to please his blood lust ended up being chained up and raped or left to languish in cages looking like this…


Yeah, that’s the kind of guy I want to cheer on a football field. That’s a guy who epitomizes the “Character” football is supposed to build.

Apparently, the news leaked out during last night’s Philadelphia/New England pre-season game. Veteran sportscasters and reporters covering the event were stunned to see spectators deserting the stands en masse as their iPhones and Blackberries instant messaged or tweeted them the news. One reported fans roaming the concourses in shock, trying to make sure this wasn’t some sick joke and gathering in small groups to consider what this meant to their team, their city and perhaps what they themselves might have to deal with on future Sunday afternoons.

The sports world is one that thrives on redemption stories, on Cinderella stories and on tales of the benighted loser who finally puts it all together and wins the big game. The Philadelphia Eagles recently even had one of their own, “Invincible” the story of Vince Papale, that just might be one of the finest Sports movies ever made.

And let’s not forget that Philadelphia is synonymous with “Rocky”, the greatest underdog (sorry) movie ever made.

To the people handling Michael Vick’s career and PR, Philadelphia probably looked like the perfect place for his ”comeback tale” to begin.

The Sports nets, notably ESPN, appeared less stunned than Eagle’s fans at the Vick signing. The Jock meat puppets immediately directed the discussion off what Michael had done and onto the Eagles need for a dependable back-up to Donovan McNabb and how Vick might enliven the Wildcat formation and Blahdy-Blahdy-Blah.

They also played right into the “He’s paid his debt to society”, “deserves a second chance” etc. And they were quick to point out that Coach Andy Reid might have a redemptive need to help Vick since he couldn’t keep his own kids from being arrested for drug crimes and armed robbery and also backed the hiring on the recommendation of former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, who may be dealing with his own redemption issues following the suicide of his son.

Mostly you could see them gleefully spinning all the potential storylines that could pop up in future sportscasts. Michael Vick had become their very own Michael Jackson deathwatch in the making.

I wonder how far most of these guys and the Philly fans willing to look beyond Vick’s past if it means a Super Bowl win are really ready to take that “deserves a second chance” thing to its ultimate conclusion.

I mean, if Michael Vick deserves a second chance to play NFL football, do we need to make sure that Priests who molest kids get their pulpits back, that crooked cops are returned to the police force and anybody else who breaks the law gets to go right back to what they were doing before they got caught?

Does Conrad Black deserve another newspaper empire? Does Garth Drabinsky deserve Public funding for another Broadway play?

If you’re a member of the Canadian establishment, I know your answer to that, I read it every day in the columns of your main stream media.

But how do you think sensible people living in the real world feel?

In an interesting insight into the public forgiveness the Philadelphia Eagles are offering Michael Vick, a commenter on one of their forums was left wondering why they have not shown the same mercy to a disabled ticket taker they are refusing to rehire because of some past indiscretion.

I’m a big believer in second chances (and have been more than thankful for the couple I’ve received). But “Second Chance” doesn’t necessary mean getting to enjoy exactly the same set of conditions that existed when you first screwed up.

If you’re a Teacher who likes sleeping with teenage girls, you don’t have an automatic right to go back into that kind of classroom. If you’re a financial advisor who absconded with funds, you don’t get to pitch your services in an old folks’ home.

Michael Vick brutalized creatures in no position to defend themselves, get out of his way or cry out for help. He violently dispatched those who couldn’t play by his rules. So he doesn’t get to earn a multi-million dollar salary playing in a league that protects him from enduring “unnecessary roughness” and mostly – he doesn’t get to have me for a fan.

For me, one of the best, and most balanced takes on this whole sad affair came last week from Dennis Miller, SNL’s best news anchor before Tina Fey came along, former Monday Night Football Commentator and current Conservative Talk Radio Host. You’ll find it at 4:05 on the clip below for those of you who are uncomfortable with Bill O’Reilly, Fox News and that whole “Fair and Balanced” thing.

Although, I gotta say, tasting a different opinion now and then might benefit a few of you. 



Anyway, that was all yesterday. Pencils went down and Jim shambled off to bed still hurting from the contest.

By this morning, Philly sports columnists were weighing in on the team’s decision. Thousands had already joined Facebook groups to Boycott the Eagles and their corporate sponsors, PETA was on the march and a couple of people had commented on my own past musings on the subject.

Therefore, in the cold light of a too soon Dawn, Jim made some decisions. Decisions which will cost me two friends and a beloved football team.

But there you have it. Good-bye actress. So long producer buddy. Adios Philadelphia Eagles. It’s been fun. But I'm flagging you all for illegal hits.

Maybe some day I’ll give you a second chance.

But not today.

And as for you, LIFE…

I just passed your test.

Sunday, August 02, 2009


Once in a while, in  a strange town, not knowing the local customs or being able to read the language of the menu, I’ll walk into a restaurant and order a steak.

And then some people look at you like you just took a dump in front of them and allow that they would prefer that you don’t eat other “sentient beings”.

Okay, I get it. I do. I love animals as much as the next guy – probably more. Not so much that I’d dress up the dog in a garter belt and fishnets. But I do appreciate them for what they are.

Animals have their place – and I’m sorry, but sometimes that’s right next to the carrots and potatoes.

If you want to live on beans and cauliflower, good for you, and thanks anyway, but I’ll wait for the next elevator.

There are more ways than one of looking at the world.

Excuse me while I fire up the BBQ. And enjoy your Sunday.