Monday, May 30, 2016

Lazy Sunday # 420: Willy Chirino

Every year, I mark the beginning of Summer by selecting my album of the Summer, the record that I'm probably going to listen to the most while enjoying the Sun, the sand, the cold beers on the patio.

This has nothing to do with my having great taste in music or anybody's idea of what's going to be hip and cool in the coming months. It's just the way I keep track of the Summers in my life.

This year's selection is an album which was released in 2011. I don't know why I've never heard it before. Maybe it got lost of the seat cushions of the car or something. But if you're as equally unfamiliar with Willy Chirino's "My Beatles Heart" as I was, you're in for a treat.

Chirino was born in Cuba around the time Fidel Castro turned it into his own little prison fiefdom. In 1960, he was spirited to the United States as part of  "Operation Peter Pan" a mass migration of children from the island by those who feared the revolutionary government was going to take them from their families.

Years later, having risen to the top of the Latin music scene in Miami, he would write a song about the experience that has become an anthem for Cuban exiles, entitled "Our Day Is Coming".

A perennial nominee and winner of Latin Grammy's, Chirino has released 20 Platinum albums. If you're into Salsa, you've heard him. If you're not, you need to.

Some of my first "Summer Albums" were those of "The Beatles". So it's a particular pleasure to combine that music with what Chirino brings to it.

Enjoy Your Sunday...

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Lazy Sunday # 419: The Aristocrats

Non-Canadian readers bear with me as I explain the Canadian Senate. 

It's not like the US where you need to be elected. Nor is it like Britain's House of Lords, where you must be either inbred, a Bishop of the Church of England or an MP who suddenly finds himself without a seat.

Here in Canada, you used to get picked because you were either a political bag-man or you had Polaroids of a cabinet minister who didn't want them getting around. 

Nowadays, you need to meet a rigorous set of prerequisites:

1. Age 30-75
2. Own $4,000 worth of property in the province you wish to represent.
3. Have a net worth of $4,000.
4.Since the Senate is working toward gender parity and diversity, you'll get extra points for being a woman, aboriginal or member of a minority.


5. You need to demonstrate either:

a) experience with the legislative process (ie: politician)
b) lengthy and recognized public service  (ie: bureaucrat)
c) outstanding achievement in your profession (ie: rich)

So, given that we've just lived through lengthy RCMP investigations of Senators scamming from the Public purse for which nobody's been convicted or had to do much more than pay back the cash they almost got away with -- we'll have the same kind of scumbags we've always had.

Being a Senator in Canada basically means everybody knows that underneath that slick exterior, you're not somebody anybody actually respects.

The world has always skewed toward being governed by aristocrats. Now and then, there's a French Revolution or Civil war that culls the herd. But eventually they come back and go right on doing what they do best -- living off the rest of us.

That's never been clearer in Canada then it is now, a condition summed up beautifully this weekend by Michael Campbell the nationally syndicated host of radio's "Money Talks".

No matter where your political sentiments lie, I don't think you'll find fault with anything he has to say.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

And for those of you who were expecting something else...

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Water Bomber, The Frogman and The Great Canadian Novelist

(Guest Column from Canadian Writer, Director and Producer Allan Eastman)

This tremendous photograph of a Canadair Water Bomber fighting the horrendous Ft. McMurray conflagration of 2016 invoked a sudden wash of memories having to do with 2 of the great Canadian cultural institutions that I had the good fortune to be involved with and a bizarre set of circumstances that led from a burned out forest to a literary heritage.

The first great cultural institution was The Littlest Hobo TV series. I directed 44 of those over 5 seasons in the early 1980s as a young filmmaker learning his chops and building up his bag of cinematic tricks. All the crew was pretty young as well so we had a tremendous time together shooting the show out in small town rural Ontario over the warm summer months. 

Rarely has wholesome family entertainment been made by such a collection of sex and drug crazed reprobates. At one of our wrap parties at an isolated hotel, I woke up the next morning in bed with 5 people, all of whom I’d had some kind of sex with.

Hobo was great fun to make – a new story and a new cast every week in a new situation set in a new environment. Lots of action. Many tremendous actors to work with – classic old Hollywood pros like Keenan Wynn, John Carradine, Henry Gibson, Patrick MacNee, James MacArthur and the cream of Canadian talent from Lynne Griffin to Jim Henshaw to Sean McCann and Karen Kain. Out in the woods on a sunny day, telling a tale. The crew called it the story of “A dog who traveled around from town to town paying off crew mortgages.” We didn’t know how good we had it.

We were doing a 2-part episode with the SARTECHS at Trenton Air Force Base. These Search and Rescue Technicians were the guys that flew missions looking for the wreckage of missing aircraft out in the wilds or ships in trouble at sea, then parachuted in to rescue the survivors or collect the remains. Our story was about a small plane crash in some remote hinterland and was both a drama with the survivors and a procedural about the SARTECHs search and rescue operation.

The Air Force gave us tremendous support – the free use of big Buffalo search aircraft and Huey and Chinook rescue helicopters, numerous parachute jumps and the run of the Trenton base. For me, it was like Orson Welles’ description of a film set being the best electric train a boy could have. 

We did lots of aerial shooting and excellent action with the SARTECHs rappelling out of helicopters or hitting a precise mark in their glider parachutes. It turned out to be one of our best shows ever.
I was much taken with the 8 or 10 SARTECHs we were working with. They were all long term enlistments and pretty well all Sargeants, you know, the guys the Officers go to to find out what is going on or what they should do. They seemed to me like a group of John Ford cavalry picture heroes - deadly serious about their work but tremendous fun after hours, boisterous and full of jokes. I was so impressed that I wanted to develop a movie script about them. Their lives and their work certainly deserved the big screen treatment so after Hobo, I went back to Trenton and spent many enjoyable, well lubricated evenings interviewing them on tape, pumping them for their best stories.

They had many epic adventures to relate and many amazing tales to tell. How they generally chuted into plane crash sites up North with shotguns because they often had to fight off huge Grizzly bears who were trying to make off with the human remains. How a climber who fell down a mountain was usually stripped naked by his clothes being ripped off by obstructions. How to airlift survivors off a blazing, sinking ship in an Atlantic gale. The strange things that cause plane crashes, like the pilot getting a raisin stuck in his throat and choking to death at 8000 feet.

But the most incredible story was about being called to the site of a major forest fire in BC by the firefighters, after the flames had been largely extinguished. They were led into the heart of the burned out woods, the ash still smoking and small brush fires still being put out. The lead firefighter came to a stop and pointed up at the top of a blackened cedar tree and there, 40 feet up, impaled in the branches was a fully accoutered frogman – wet suit, dive mask, scuba tank and one flipper – dead of course, and all scorched and roasted by the fire and the steam. Sgt. Kelly said it was probably the most surreal thing he’d ever seen, and that’s saying a great deal, based on some of the other experiences he told me.

Well, the story was reasonably easy to figure out, finally. This poor bastard had been scuba diving in one of the local lakes, had been scooped up by a Water Bomber skimming across the surface, taking on a fresh load and had then been dropped into the fire itself on their fire-fighting bomb run.

I’ve thought many times over the years about this unlucky guy’s experience. There he was, placidly scubaing along. There would have been a strange noise, suddenly building up to a gigantic roar and then, he would have been tumbled around in extreme turbulence. What the fuck!? Then, he would have found himself in complete darkness, encased in a great pool of water but on investigation, he would discover that he was entombed by steel walls above, below and all around. Did he figure out what was happening to him? There would be the muted rumble of the plane’s props but the water in the hold would be calm.

But then, Suddenly - Light would begin to appear below him, the water would abruptly start to drain away and he would be swept out in a rush with it. He would find himself falling through the air from great height into a massive raging wild fire directly below.

One can only hope that it was all over for him quickly.

I’ve told this story many times over the years, usually as an example of the kind of freaky things that can happen to Human beings. The sly Greek Philosopher, Heraclitus always said that it was the things that we could never think of that would do us in.

In the long run, the movie never happened. We wrote a decent script but had trouble getting the money together before another big project took us elsewhere. Every filmmaker’s epitaph should read “Films I Never Made.” Later, we did do another SARTECH script for the Danger Bay series and that turned into one of their most celebrated, most popular episodes, nominated for many awards.

Now, the 2nd great Canadian cultural institution. About the time we were working on the SARTECH movie script, I was having dinner at the Windsor Arms one night with the powerful Producer, Bill Marshall. Bill and I worked together over the years and he was always the best of company, funny and entertaining to pass an evening or a plane ride with. His signature line was “I give you my word as a Film Producer!”

At some point, a familiar looking, rumpled little guy passed by and stopped to talk with Bill. Bill invited him to join us. It was Mordecai Richler, considered by many – myself included – to be the greatest Canadian Novelist ever, despite claims by backers of Margaret Atwood or Robertson Davies. I’d never met him before so it was a big thrill for me. I had all his books on the shelf at home. And loved them.

We three talked about all kinds of different subjects for hours, as we worked our way through a bottle or two of Chivas Regal. Mordecai was killer smart and the ironic black humor so on display in his writings was delivered in a quiet sardonic voice for private consumption at the table. At some point, I told them the SARTECH/Frogman story. I don’t remember their reaction but no doubt it was the general head shaking amazement that its telling usually provokes.

Jump Cut a decade or so later. I am shooting something in Vancouver and have just done my Saturday morning book store run, the prize acquisition being the hot off the presses hardcover copy of Mordecai Richler’s latest (and sadly, last) novel, Barney’s Version. I dive right into it and spend most of the rainy weekend devouring it.

A key storyline in the novel is Barney being suspected of murder over the mysterious disappearance of his best friend, during a weekend up in the woods at the cottage. Barney always proclaims his innocence and eventually gets away with it because no corpse is ever found. Until of course, years later when a hiker in a new growth forest comes across charred human remains.

Yes, the strange sound that disturbed Barney’s post lunch nap was a Water Bomber vacuuming up his friend who had gone for a dip, to eventually deposit him from height into a raging forest fire.

At first, I was shocked when I read this denouement but then, I had to laugh. Yeah, Mordecai knew a good story when he heard it, made a note probably and when it didn’t show up elsewhere, he used it as a major plot device for his new book. I resolved to give him some good natured ribbing about stealing my material the next time I ran into him but alas, I never got the chance. Mordecai died a few years later.

But retrospectively, I am proud of my part in passing along this extraordinary tale from the SARTECHs to our greatest Author to be recorded for posterity in his final novel. All Human art begins with our ancestors sitting around telling stories, which then get passed on to the generations. So let it be with this.

And anyhow, it makes for a good story too.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Lazy Sunday # 418: Help!

I was catching the boat to Vancouver a couple of weeks ago and I always love sailing through the Gulf Islands. There are eagles and seals, whales quite often and just the natural beauty of the place to make the trip worth every minute.

But as I was crossing the deck, I noticed a young woman sitting at a sunny window -- wearing a Virtual Reality headset, her senses locked into a computer feeding her something other than the time and place in which she resided.

I couldn't help wondering if the VR experience is really that good or her boredom with Life was really that bad.

Now, movies have always been designed to "transport us" as they say. To take us "out of ourselves" and the humdrum existences we're apparently saddled with, to times, places and experiences that inform us and enrich our perspectives.

But despite all the suspension of disbelief you bring to a movie, you're kinda always aware it's just a movie. VR intends to make you believe you're actually there.

And while I can see the point with news or documentaries, I'm not sure how story tellers focus the audience on the ideas, emotions and conflicts they're using to tell their stories. Will they be wrapt by the tale you're spinning or constantly looking over their shoulders to check out what might be going on behind them?

And how do you as a story teller determine what is going on behind them so the experience remains real but it doesn't distract from what you're trying to say?

It's clearly going to take time for all of us to learn this new story telling tool. But the story telling has already begun.

This week, director Justin Lin, best known for most of the "Fast and Furious" franchise, released what may be the first attempt at VR fiction for Google spotlight.

Now I can provide you with a link to the film, entitled "Help" which comes with a directional control in the upper Left corner so you can get the gist of the VR experience.

But you can also use a YouTube App on a compatible Android device here. Or its iOS version here in order to get the complete experience.

If you want to build your own VR headset, you can find instructions for a cardboard version here

I don't know whether VR movies will be our movie going future or the next failed fad.

Decide for yourself and...

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Lazy Sunday # 417: Have You Ever Been To Sea Billy?

I grew up in a part of the world where we didn't have a lot of water. I might've been 11 or 12 before I saw a body of water where you couldn't see the opposite shore. So, I've always had a fascination for oceans.

And then somewhere around the age of 40, I learned to scuba dive, opening up the entirely different planet that lurks below the surface of those waters.

Since then, I've had the chance to swim with giant turtles, stingrays, sharks and whales. And as breathtaking as those encounters have been, the biggest thrill I've had underwater was visiting shipwrecks.

There's something about swimming over a vessel whose like you've seen on the surface. You fell like you're flying, able to see it from an angle most earthbound humans never get the chance.

And then you go inside, finding a world that few (if any) have seen for decades, even centuries; eerily preserved, giving you the sense of what it was like to be there -- of what life in that time was like.

It's one thing to experience life aboard an centuries old ship. But now the world is about to experience what things were like in an ancient city that hasn't been seen in more than a millennium.

In 2000, French divers mapping the floor of the Mediterranean found the remains of 64 ships off the coast of Egypt in less than 30 feet of water. Gold coins and Athenian weights used by merchants helped them pinpoint the site as the ancient Greek cities of Heracleion (Thonis in Egyptian) and Canopus which sank beneath the waves 1200 years ago.

Until then, most archaeologists considered Heracleion the stuff of legend. It had first been mentioned in Homer's "Iliad".

But not only is Heraclion real and remarkably preserved. It has been pain-stakingly brought back to the surface over the last 15 years and on May 19th, becomes available to the public at the British Museum in London.

Take a trip to the unseen part of our world and far back in time and...

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Lazy Sunday # 416: Proof of Concept

Used to be, if you wrote a good script and the studio liked the idea, it got produced.

Then we evolved to "packaging" scripts so the studios could feel more comfortable with what they were buying, where-in a director of some status and actors with familiar names were "attached" to the script.

Over time, these "packages" needed a further level of comfort, so they were "pre-sold", meaning money was committed from Azerbaijan or Zaire, so the studio or network didn't have to risk so much of its own cash.

But now a lot of the people who make movies are being asked by those who fund movies to provide further proof that they actually have the talent to make the movie in the first place.

It's kind of the writer/director version of actors being asked to appear at auditions in costume -- because the people doing the casting don't have the ability to believe an actor could play Spiderman unless they see him hidden under spandex.

Only in this case it involves a lot more than sewing a Hallow e'en costume in July. 

Along with putting up the money to rent or make costumes, a writer has to find a director and a cast, hire a crew, scout locations and secure the services of a company that does post production and/or CGI.

These people spend a few days realizing a scene or sequence from the script, not just bringing it off the page, but making it as close to what the final version might look like as possible.

It's the kind of process that demands an enormous outlay of creative energy and sweat equity while insuring that people in suits with no clue about how to do their job can keep drawing a salary

And if those execs viewing your final product don't consider your leading lady "fuckable" enough or believe your grandma's house is really located in an idyllic small town in the 1950's -- you're still out of luck. 

The smart screenwriter considers forgetting the middle man, mortgaging his house and continuing to shoot the film. At the very least it supports the "single vision" concept Writers Guilds like to champion -- and who needs to own a house anyway?

How good does a "proof of concept" need to be these days?

As good as what follows, the product of "Fight Club" scribe, Jim Uhls and Academy Award nominee director Ruairi Robinson.

Enjoy your Sunday.